Academic setbacks and rejections Some brief reflections


In the past couple of months I’ve had two opportunities to reflect on the process of building an academic career, and to think about some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way. In November 2018, I delivered my inaugural lecture: a public-facing talk typically delivered by new professors in order to celebrate and showcase their research. Writing this lecture was far more difficult than I’d anticipated. First was the challenge of speaking to multiple audiences. Present in the lecture theatre that evening were my family, my students, colleagues from my discipline, colleagues from other disciplines, friends, members of the public, and others too. These audiences were likely – I reasoned – to have quite different expectations of an academic lecture, to have varying familiarities with the specific academic problems on which my research focuses, and probably quite different investments in my career, so that managing all of this was, bluntly, really tough.

I therefore went through multiple drafts of the lecture in the weeks leading up to the event, and I now find myself with an inbox full of emails sent to myself with titles like: ‘Inaugural lecture: final draft’; ‘Inaugural lecture: use this version’; ‘Inaugural lecture: final, final draft’! Writing the opening to the lecture was especially tricky, although I’m grateful I eventually discarded early ideas of starting with speculation on whether a sudden Legionnaire’s Disease outbreak might spare me from having to deliver the lecture (a reference to David Lodge’s Changing Places: near-essential reading for PhD students at the University of Birmingham), and, indeed, of beginning the talk wearing a pair of slippers (a family joke: it wouldn’t have been very funny).

A second – no less difficult – challenge, though, concerned the presentation of my research itself. Although my work coalesces around an interest in unpacking (and critiquing) the politics of security, I’ve worked on a number of different projects in my career so far – many of which have involved collaboration with others. Presenting this work as my own (or – perhaps – as only mine) would have been simply disingenuous, which left me with the task of trying to credit others satisfactorily without simply, and regularly, reading a list of names. In the end, I attempted to solve both of these problems together – beginning the talk with a list of my collaborators’ names and a joke about our shared responsibility should the lecture go badly.

Highlighting the work of my co-authors was important, for me, in moving away from the stereotypical presentation of an academic career as an individualistic tale of linear progress. As I attempted to argue:

When academics are asked to reflect back on their work, there are temptations, I think, to write triumphant tales of progress that smooth away all those moments of serendipity or good fortune. Temptations to forget the role played by external events beyond our control. Temptations to remember our successes and to forget the very many mistakes we made along the way. And, of course, temptations to individualise our careers, and perhaps downplay the importance of others.

What I didn’t know, at the time, was that I’d shortly have another chance to develop these thoughts in a session on academic setbacks and rejections that I helped organise for colleagues in the Faculty. The session – which was run by life coach Sam James – focused on strategies for developing ‘resilience’ in the light of rejections and ‘failures’ (a horrible word, I try to avoid). In case this is of use to others, the following offers a lightly edited version of some opening remarks I’d prepared for that session. Before I begin, let me be clear, though, that: (i) these remarks are based on my own personal experience – I have no expertise or training in this area, although I do have a lot of experience of receiving rejections and setbacks! And, (ii) I write from a position of relative structural privilege here (both professional and social): other colleagues’ experiences will, of course, be different from mine, and I’ve no doubt I’ve escaped barriers and bars sometimes encountered by others.

Speaking of rejection

There are, I think several reasons that we – as a research community – might want to spend more time thinking and talking about rejection and set-backs than we typically do. Most obvious amongst these, is that rejection constitutes an absolute staple of most people’s research careers. It is, perhaps, one of the few things that almost all academics have in common, irrespective of their professional disciplines, their career stage, their reputation, or anything else. We all get rejected. Now, it’s possible, of course, to go further here and argue that rejection is a vital part of the academic system – one that improves the quality of research that is produced, by helping us sift between strong and less strong papers, between grant applications that merit funding and others that merit it less, and the like. Whether or not that’s true (and assessments of academic rigour or significance are seldom objective) very few people will get through an academic career unscathed by rejection letters or (these days) emails. I’m tempted, indeed, to argue that a career spent avoiding rejection altogether could only have followed a risk-averse approach to scholarship of little benefit (or interest?) to anyone. Or, perhaps, it follows some level of genius or luck that has, unfortunately, evaded me!

A second reason for having this discussion is that rejection can be deeply frustrating. At times, it is accompanied by no feedback at all – as with some funding bids, or perhaps speculative media submissions that go ignored by editors. This makes it extremely difficult, of course, to know what to do next, or to learn from the experience. At other times, the feedback we receive can seem outright unfair – or, worse, simply rude. I won’t share, here, a personal example I gave in the session (you can ask me about it if we bump into each-other!) but that experience has made me far more cautious in accepting unsolicited invitations to contribute to joint ventures!

Third, rejections for researcher can also cut very deep – and be experienced as far more than simply professional assessments. Many of us – perhaps especially in disciplines like Politics and International Relations? – work on issues that matter deeply to us as people. Our research topics might come out of our personal lives, or out of our social and moral concerns with the world. We also often place a great deal of our self-worth – indeed, often a troubling amount of our self worth – upon our research reputations and careers: seeing a rejection of our scholarship as a rejection of our selves. On top of this, I wonder whether setbacks and failures might prove a relatively new experience for many researchers – especially those at an early stage in their research careers – who may not have been well-acquainted with anything less than academic successes, prizes and plaudits in getting to that stage.

Fourth is a sense that expectations upon researchers tend to increase over time: with higher and higher standards expected of the quality and quantity of our work. Although the consequences of any single rejection are very rarely terminal – at least in my experience. And, although we perhaps, oddly, have more opportunities to fail than people in other professions (who doesn’t expect their colleagues to encounter rejection?); it can sometimes feel as though the bar to success, now, is so high that we are almost setting ourselves and others up to fail. There’s a great interview with guitarist Greg Howe on the No Guitar Is Safe podcast, in which he discusses receiving, as a young man, a phone call inviting him to play a stadium show with Michael Jackson the next day. Having learnt the material for the show at very short notice he recounts his amazement at managing to pull off a successful audition/sound-check against the odds. With his anxiety draining as the rehearsal continues – and his conviction growing that he’s capable of pulling off a successful performance in five hours time – he’s then approached by the production manager who says, effectively: “great: now let’s sort out the choreography”! It can, I think, sometimes feel a bit like this as an academic today – especially for early career colleagues: ‘great: you’ve got the article, now let’s talk about out the funding bid, or the book, or the impact case study’, and so on. Notwithstanding genuinely important structural constraints, I do quite like Greg Howe’s concluding note that that the thing that typically prevents us from meeting these challenges is often our belief that we can’t meet them. (Which is a great opportunity to mention former Arsenal striker, Nicklas Bendtner).

Fifth, is a concern I have that we simply don’t talk about these things often enough. We tend – as mentioned above – to imagine academic careers in a very linear sense: as a continuous climbing up a mountain of accomplishments. We discuss the work – and perhaps the academic worth – of others in terms of their achievements: what have they published?; what bids have they won?; what promotions have they got; where do they work? And, too often, we skirt over or ignore the false starts, dead ends, and knock-backs along the way. I, for instance, had a list of unsuccessful grant applications on my CV – thinking it might suggest ‘academic entrepreneurialism’ on my part – until I was told, in a job interview once, how brave it was to make that material available! Importantly, not talking about such issues might also have broader implications too. Not only does it represent a loss for us as a research community: meaning we miss opportunities to share experiences and to help others (if only by demystifying the making of research careers). We also, perhaps, fail to see broader social dynamics – to see how setbacks and rejections might be gendered, classed, racialised, and so on, and to work toward addressing this.

Speaking of my rejections

In preparing for the session with colleagues that I mentioned above, I started thinking about some of the set-backs I’ve received in my academic career to this point. These include – and I’m sure there are many others, too:

  • Book contracts I’ve not been offered by publishers I’ve approached
    • Journal articles not accepted – either before or after peer review
    • Jobs for which I have applied, but not been awarded – either before or after interview
    • Research grants I haven’t received
    • Articles I have sent to media outlets of various sorts that haven’t been published
    • Offers of research collaboration with non-academic partners that haven’t been accepted.

I’ve made my peace with most of these – and been fortunate enough to be able to make my peace with them for all of the privileges I’ve enjoyed. Some of these rejections ended up as dead ends. Others improved in the process: one article I published relatively recently, for instance, was rejected by at least three other journals beforehand, and is better for having gone through that (although it didn’t feel this way at the time).

It’s also important, though, to remember that we don’t only experience rejection as its subject. To remember that anyone with an academic research career is likely to be called upon – at some point – to be its author too: to sit on interview panels, to peer review articles or funding bids, and to provide professional opinions in many other contexts. I’m sure I don’t always succeed in this, but my own approach is – at the least – to try to be three things when this responsibility befalls me: (i) polite; (ii) helpful; and, (iii) circumspect – or explicit about the limits of my knowledge, and the subjectivity of my views. I wonder whether this third aspiration might be the most important of all, and I hope it is helpful to journal editors or funding bodies who might receive conflicting views, or who may not agree with my opinion. It also, I hope, gives the recipient of my feedback an ‘out’ for dealing with any bad news I’m involved in producing for them (an opportunity, bluntly, to blame my limitations as a reviewer or ‘expert’!).

As mentioned above, these reflections are all very amateur, and grounded in little more than a long list of rejections, set-backs and failures. It is, though, a list I expect to keep growing (although, hopefully, not too quickly)!

Lee Jarvis is a Professor of International Politics at the University of East Anglia

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