Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jul 09, 2019

Researchers Get Rejected Too

by Shira Gabriel
A closeup of manila file folders. The most prominent one says "rejection"

The website Character & Context exists so that researchers in social and personality psychology can share their interesting findings with the public.  Our blog authors summarize the results of research articles that have gone through peer review and subsequently been published in prestigious journals.

By publishing only the end result of our work, we may be minimizing how much goes into the process.  For every blog on Character & Context, researchers came up with an idea, conducted a study, analyzed the data, refined their idea, probably ran more studies, wrote up their findings, sent the manuscript to a journal, got feedback from the journal, and rewrote the article.  This process usually takes years.

And that is the best case scenario.  Frequently, we put enormous effort and time into studies that don’t work, leaving us with nothing to publish.  And even when our studies do work, journals often reject our papers, and we need to submit our research to a different journal and start over with the review process or, worse, go back and conduct more studies.   Quite often, we are told to go away and given long lists of reasons why our work isn’t good enough to publish.  That sort of negative feedback is a constant part of researchers’ jobs; academia is full of criticism and rejection. 

Recently, I had a week that was a triple whammy of rejection. I had two research manuscripts rejected by journals, and a grant application that wasn’t even discussed by the grant panel -- even though it was a revision that addressed the concerns the panel had the year before.  I was feeling really down, and so I posted on social media about my disappointment and insecurities. What I got was amazing observations, reactions, and advice from some of the smartest and most productive social and personality psychologists out there on how to deal with professional rejection.  What could be more useful?!  So, with their permission, I am going to share some of their comments with you.

Michael Poulin: I feel all of this. I think part of the struggle (for me at least) is that being an academic provides a person with so many ways to fail: we can fail at getting funding, having good ideas, getting data, publishing, recruiting, mentoring, teaching, collaborating, etc... and chances are, at any given time we're all failing in at least one of those domains. In my saner moments, I remember that there are other domains where I'm doing better. And that things might turn around (eventually) in the domain that's causing my current anxiety. I’m working on making those moments more plentiful!

Mark Leary: As I was going through 43 years of research files in preparation for retirement, I was struck again and again by the low proportion of my studies that made it into print.  Many of them were studies that simply didn’t work -- pure failures that I made no effort to publish.  But there were plenty of rejections as well, including ones that went to 3 or 4 journals before I gave up.  And, some of those rejections were quite harsh, like the review that started “This is a perfect example of the worst kind of research in social psychology.”

In a little talk that I gave to our local social psychologists about these failures and rejections, I estimated that perhaps only 30% of the studies I had conducted over the past four decades ever saw the light of day.  And, the researchers in attendance, all of them seasoned and well-known researcherse, agreed that that 30% was probably in the ballpark for them too.

Knowing that other people also have their share of failures and rejections doesn’t take away the frustration of failed goals and wasted time.  But it does show that failure and rejection are part of the research process and not unique to you.  In fact, one seasoned researcher at my talk suggested that, if your work doesn’t fail regularly, you’re probably not tackling sufficiently new and interesting topics.  But still -- it's very frustrating and deflating, and we've all been there.

Brian Nosek: For rejection, I don't think there is any way to remove the sting of receiving it. But, my recovery from it is much improved with practice and recognition that it is par for the course, even for the best of us.  Example on the grant funding front. In 2007/2008, I applied to NIH/NSF maybe 4-5 times with variations of a proposal to create an Open-Source Science Framework and other name iterations. Never funded, defeating rejections. Ultimately dropped it. Picked it back up in 2011 out of frustration and finding a collaborator to give it another go. Worked out better.

Elizabeth Dunn: In my experience, the work that's been the hardest to publish in psych journals has ended up having the biggest impact. But it's always hard to remember that when reading rejection letters!

Jay Van Bavel: I felt this same way as new professor--my first 10 paper submissions were rejected along with all my grant proposals. Then I realized there is a ton of noise in the system (along with huge variation in access to resources). This means rejection is often arbitrary but also that it isn’t about you. For instance, with grants they completely rotate the panel and reviewers for the same proposal. Unfortunately, the only way to deal with so much random noise is just submit a lot over a long period of time.

Roger Giner-Sorolla: No you are not alone! I have a great student who did great work and we keep rolling snake eyes on each of our 3-4 papers. There is feast or famine it seems. And some areas of research are tougher to crack than others.

Heather Mercer Claypool: I have felt like this before, many times. As I've gotten older, my perspective has changed a great deal in ways that I think are much healthier for my well-being regarding these sorts of insecurities. For me, it comes down to three things. First, I'm better at dealing with self-comparison pressures. Are there people who publish way more than me, give more talks, get more grants, have a "bigger" name? Yes, of course. I've not set the research world on fire. But, that's fine. If being the most successful at something is my only route to happiness, I'll never have it.

Second, it's easy to look forward at the next paper, the next application, the next class. These are things yet to do or yet to accomplish. That instills anxiety about incompleteness. But, why not also look back? Hamilton reference here: "Look at where you are; look at where you started." I sometimes think about "grad school Heather." The one practicing my MPA [Midwestern Psychological Association] talk in the Palmer House hotel room, nervous to talk to "big important people," wondering if I'd ever graduate, much less get a job. If I told “grad school Heather” that one day you'll be on the MPA program committee, you'll get into SESP, you'll get a tenure-track job (and tenure), you'll publish regularly, etc., I think “grad school Heather” would be super stoked about that. We move the goalposts on what we consider “successful.” We are all too hard on ourselves. We've accomplished a lot. It's easy to forget when we don't look backwards and only look at the to-do list.

Third, I'm not my job. Many aspects of my job bring me great joy. But, my identity is in being a friend, a spouse, an activist, a family member, etc. It's much easier for me to sweep away the "academic loser" feelings when I remind myself that many other things in life bring me meaning.

Chris Crandall: Stocking the file drawer is inevitable. It’s a fairy tale to believe that all research scouting expeditions come up with gold.

For me, I usually follow two or three lines of research. At least one of them is the kind of research that *always* bears fruit. In my case, I have two lines of research that always turn up usable data: (1) friendship pairs found “in the wild” where the only requirements are photocopies, RAs, and people interacting in public and (2) norms about prejudice, a perennial issue.

Just make sure some of your research is sure-fire, in which any result is interesting. (Easier said than done.)

Amanda Diekman: I get rejected all the time but it has gotten easier with practice. I have learned to discriminate between go-away rejections and maybe-with-a-lot-of-work rejections. A couple of years ago our lab read this piece about setting rejection goals and it was so helpful in reframing. Rejection is just part of getting the work out there.

Linda Skitka: I have definitely felt the same way-- grant failures somehow are especially hard. I like Chris Crandall's model of having several different things going at once, which makes the investment in any one of them less and spreads the risk. Back up plans help: These days if a paper doesn't "land" within the first couple of tries, I pretty much am going to PlosOne or Collabra to get it out there (note: they waive the publication fee upon request); makes it easier to shrug off a rejection at the A-level journals.  I don't really care about where I publish anymore: I just want the joy of FINISHING something!!

Tiffany Ito:  I am a big fan of making the failure part (or whatever you want to call it) of our profession more explicit. Many years ago, a fabulous post-doc in my lab showed me an article about having a vita of failures to my attention. I can’t recall the actual citation, but here are some similar posts: CV of Failures and Sharing the Failures.

It was substantively relevant to a project of ours, but also totally resonated with us professionally. Behind every visible success is a string of detours, misfires, and outright rejections, and we should make it more obvious that to get to success, you have to have these setbacks by creating a vita that lists not only the successful outcomes, but also the failures and rejections.

Shortly thereafter, I was cleaning out the file drawer where I store manuscript-relevant stuff. When I submit something, I clean up all the piles on my desk and stick the critical stuff in this drawer. I was amazed at how many outlets so many of the papers had gone to before being accepted somewhere. It is not that I thought all my work was magically accepted immediately, but I had certainly forgotten the long journey of each individual paper. 

More recently, I was teaching a grad seminar on writing and we were inspired by a writing blog by Linda Sarnecka to create a rejection collection. We’ve invited many others to join us, with the thinking that we can't produce good work unless we get it out there, and in our profession, getting it out there almost always involves rejection.

We also within my program celebrate all the small steps that go into the big successes like accepted papers and funded grants. If we only announce those big outcomes, it obscures all the work that goes into them like getting IRB approval, writing a computer program to collect data, finishing data collection, etc.

To your specific situation, failure is lumpy. It happens to all of us, but is can be clumpy and come in chunks. New ideas can also be riskier. Thus, what seems like a lot of failures in close proximity could just be random and/or could reflect pursuing big new ideas that sometimes take longer to refine.

Lisa Jaremka:  I have definitely been there myself, and I would venture to say the large majority of academics have been as well. I think a huge piece of the puzzle is talking about this publicly so we can de-stigmatize feeling this way. Academia is structurally set up to create this type of experience - high achieving people with incredibly high standards and tons of productivity all around us - so it’s no wonder we all feel like an imposter at one time or another. But at least if we talk about it we won’t feel alone. Plus talking about these experiences helps highlight how there isn’t necessarily something wrong with us if we feel this way; there are larger and more structural forces that are contributing.

Kimberly Rios: I feel you! I was scored decently on a big grant application last year, adopted all the reviewers’ suggestions, and didn’t even get discussed this year. It was soul-crushing. (Oh, and I recently got yet another grant rejection in which a reviewer called my perspective “naive” and accused me of “cherry-picking” theories to discuss. Ouch.) I’m admittedly still not the best at dealing with these setbacks, but it helps a little bit to remind myself that I don’t have as many funding options as my colleagues who study health, neuroscience, clinical, etc. Also, some of the papers of which I’m proudest have originated from rejected grant applications.

Margo Monteith: In addition to many excellent suggestions already ... I really try not to compare myself to others. I do sometimes think, “Wow, how are they getting so much done and apparently frequently with successful outcomes?” But I try to follow up with, “Great for the field!” and not, “That means I’m less than.” I do my best to do good work and try to keep remembering, “That’s enough, I’m enough.” I am sure that this is much easier to do after moving through the ranks, but I think it’s a good philosophy at any career stage, and that it actually helps me to do stronger research.

Michael Olson: I have never overcome imposter syndrome. I feel like a loose, sloppy thinker most of the time. I’m good at some things (writing) and bad at others (stats, addressing alternatives, grants). The biggest lie is that somehow we’re supposed to be good at all of it, and the biggest sin is to express vulnerability. Both are destructive norms. But in my deepest states of self-doubt, I remind myself that I am a pretty capable teacher, and in the long run, that’s probably where I’ll have had the most positive impact.

Alison Ledgerwood: My own pet strategies for dealing with the lumpy failures we all experience and then airbrush out of our public conversations (which is one reason I love this thread so much -- thank you):

1. Close my laptop, say "SCREW THIS, who wants to do it anyway," and go be someone else for a while (chef, gardener, parent, furniture fixer,* or whatever your go-to bins of self-complexity happen to be).

2. Celebrate the successes, multiple times. Like, each stage: paper submitted, paper gets a reject & resubmit, revision submitted, paper gets an R&R, revision submitted, paper gets an R&R, revision submitted, revision accepted, proofs are here, proofs submitted, paper appears online ... all involve some real celebration (like a nice dinner or bottle of wine or SOMETHING that makes me really pause and appreciate it).

Brian Nosek:  I love Alison Ledgerwood's point about defining celebrations along the way. We have incorporated this as much as possible -- celebrate the achievements of the things that we control. Data collection started - YES! finished - YES! manuscript written - YES! manuscript posted as a preprint - YES! With enough milestones defined and celebrated, the publication becomes a smaller and smaller marker of the success of the whole process.

Laurie O'Brien:  When I feel the sting of rejection and failure (which is often), I use many of the strategies others have mentioned. I also like to focus on trying to be a good teacher and mentor. These things are more easily under my control, and I can make a difference in the everyday lives of my students.

Michele Gelfand:  Feel your pain! It's going to sound a bit cheesy but for each project I have both learning goals and performance goals. You can't predict what will happen with publishing or grants, but I love learning and you can't take away all of the learning that happens on a project, whether it's learning a new statistical skill or method, a new literature, empowering a student, etc. I talk to my students about this distinction too to keep them sane!

Amanda Diekman: We also had a super fun and cathartic rejection party where we printed out our most scathing rejections, read them out loud, and burned them. It was comforting to hear how mean reviewers were to all of these amazing scholars, across disciplines, and of course lovely to see the words go up in flame.

Shira Gabriel: Thanks everyone!  You made me feel much better and gave me great ideas.  You also reminded me that it is almost always the right decision to sacrifice ego for social support.  In other words, when you are feeling insecure, tell the people around you.  You’ll find that everyone struggles, hear kind words, and you might even get great ideas for getting through the tough times.

Shira Gabriel is an Associate Professor at SUNY University at Buffalo who studies the need to belong and the social self, as well as an Associate Editor of Character and Context.  Dr. Gabriel feels like an expert at professional failure and is lucky enough to have many friends who are willing to share their own experiences.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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