How to deal with rejection in academia [as a Ph.D. Student]

Rejection in academia.

Hooo boy.

As we head into the academic job market season (in America), things are ramping up, people are getting confident, some are getting nervous, and others are just plain terrified.  Given the competitiveness of academia, it is almost certain that most people will get rejected.  That is, most people will come out of the season with no job, no funding, and more uncertainty than they can deal with. Sorry for this harsh truth. But hey, that is why such a post like this is relevant. 

First, a little back story for those who don't know about the academic job system or the job market, as it is so often called. So let's say you have been toiling away in a Ph.D. program for years. You have taken course works; presented at conferences; taken the qualifier; written comps after comps (I did a total of three including two written and one HARROWING, HORRIFIC oral); done the dissertation defense; started doing the research (for some this involves experiments, for others field research, and for a few unlucky ones like me, both); and then if you're lucky (with great mentors and an extreme amount of sheer luck), you get published; then things are on the right track to some extent. At some point in this process—specifically somewhere after you make substantial progress in your dissertation or— perhaps when your advisor realizes they have used you enough* and they are tired of your old ass and need fresh blood, he or she will decide it is time for you to get out; to graduate. He/She will tell you this, you will feel your stomach flutter, eager and excited to join the ranks of professors. Only, no matter how much you have been told about what is coming, you will still have no idea of the world that awaits you in the job market. It will almost always be brutal and inhumane.

Normally, this (your advisor's decision to get you out) is one year out from when you actually graduate. The beginning of the academic year is August, so that summer before, in July or August, universities start advertising positions that don't start till August the following year. Are you following? So, say you (your advisor, really. Because you have NO power in academia as a Ph.D. student) want to graduate in May 2022. July 2021 is when you actually start looking for jobs. Now, this does not necessarily mean you're done with your dissertation. Though it could also mean you are in fact done because as you will come to realize, people spend years on the market (I know someone who tried out for five years, literally, so almost a decade as a Ph.D. student). Anyway, starting in July, you start applying for tenure-track jobs, for adjunct positions, for visiting positions, for postdoc positions. Explaining the difference between each of these will take an entire post on its own but I'm willing to do it if you are curious. 

So you start to apply and apply and apply...and apply. Mind you, because it's academia you must be willing to move anywhere for this job, so you are told to apply broadly: Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, Arkansas. No shade to these places but what is my black behind looking for in Boise or Iowa?????


I digress.

Yeah, so you start applying. You have put in so much work for the past few years and you're expecting to get some good response. Except silence. You are not invited for a Skype interview (Skype is used loosely here but after hundreds or thousands of applications, search committees pick about 10 or 15 students for a video interview and then from that bunch, pick about 3 or 5 for a "campus visit" which is the most exhausting job process that consists of job talks, meeting with deans, other faculty, and every other tom, dick, and harry).

Where did I stop?

Yes, silence. No Skype interview, no visit days, nothing. Or maybe throughout the entire cycle, only one school calls back but instead of you, they decide to yet again hire the white dude from Harvard or MIT because he knows how to do some jiu jitsu on R and/or Python. 

If all this sounds specific, it's because it's the truth. I will stand by it anytime, any freaking day. 

Now, of all the problems academia bestowed upon me, the rejections were not the worst of it. I guess I have just been rejected so so many times that I know the playbook now; I could literally write a book on rejection.  My problems were of a different beast, as you very well know now.

But what is this post about? This post is not to teach you how to finesse the system to get a job—though I want to write on that too since *shhhhh* I was somewhat successful with that lol.

This post is for that inevitable rejection you will get as a Ph.D. student. It's for when you apply for tenure track jobs for the umpteenth time. It's for when you apply for Fellowships after Fellowships, year after year, and nothing. It's for when you have been submitting the same paper for years (literally) and it keeps getting rejected. Or—and by GOD, this is the worst of all—when after slaving away and toiling for six years as an Assistant Professor, your tenure application is denied. WHEW. 

Because it will happen. It does happen. 


It will be especially worse because on Academic twitter: everyone and their mothers will be "happy to share that...'' or will broadcast their "some personal update..." very loudly because there is nothing academics love more than bragging while couching everything under "I know I'm so privileged", "I am so lucky" or promising to "dismantle the system" yidi yada, òjé màrínà. Announcement upon announcement, everyday, about people getting their dream positions and negotiating the dream package.  It will be lovely to see for those of us who have no stake in the game. But it will sting you if you're getting the rejections or the deafening silence. If you are in this latter category of rejections (and you probably will be given the beast that is the competitive nature of academia), please know that it does not and will never define you. The first step to dealing with rejection in academia is  to know that it does NOT and will never define you. Academia is your job. It is not some regal calling for a select few. It is just a part of who you are. You have an identity outside of academia and whatever anguish you may be feeling will also pass. You WILL be okay. 

That is a promise. 

I want to acknowledge what you feel seeing people (even outside of academia) get matched (hey medical doctors!), or get prestigious Fellowships, or postdocs, or TT appointments, or in one of the WORST  features (bug, to be honest) of academia, when one person accepts both a postdoc and a TT when so many others are left hanging. What is that about? There will never be a rational explanation for that, in my opinion. In any case, it is nerve racking to be the one getting the rejections. Yet, you must realize that it does not mean you're not good enough. It doesn't even mean your application is not great. Yes, it could mean you need to work on something in your application package, but true talk? It most likely is all due to chance. 

Yet, there is an "other" side to the anguish, and you will get there.


Other people's success or even their failures is not a reflection of your value and will never be. You have to remember this idea before proceeding to any other step or suggestion mentioned in this post. So let it sink very well. Selah. 

Rejection, interestingly enough, is not just a part of academia. It is everywhere. I say this because it can be easy to have a tunnel vision perspective, and not realize that whether you are a carpenter, a politician, a chef, a salesman, you will get rejected. This is another important thing to help deal with rejection: remembering that it is happening to everyone around you. Yes, even the hotshot, rockstar your department brought in with millions of dollars after telling you summer after summer, that they have no money for grad students. Yes, shade. 

The next important step for dealing with rejection is to take a step back. For the job situation, I get that you probably need to make a decision immediately because once the cycle is coming to an end and you still have no job prospects, you have to decide what to do if it means graduation is not happening. Again. Yes, I understand the urgency. But still, take a minute to breathe. To forget. This applies to all forms of rejections; whether Fellowships, or journal publications. Take a minute, whatever that is for you.

Along these lines, give yourself a specific amount of time to be upset about the rejection. Before, when a journal rejected my paper, I could be in the dumps for weeks. Now? One hour max lmao. Frankly, I'm too busy to actually give a crap about whether some ridiculous journal publishes my work. I will confess that *very* recently, when a reviewer was extremely vile in their comments to me, it got to me a little more than I expected. Even with that, I talked about it a little and then moved on. I will never give them that much power over me. This is not and will never be a life and death situation for me. I do understand this is easy for me to say since I'm not the one who needs to publish 3 (4? 6? 8?) papers per year for six years to get tenure. 

Next, ask for help. A closed mouth will not get fed. Think broad and wide as you ask people for help. I will never advise being one-hundred percent stuck on academia. Whatever it is you want to do as a professor, there are a million and one ways to do it. It does not have to be in the four walls of a university, and this is where help comes in. Talk to people about opportunities that exist. Tell people your predicament.  Let them help you however they can, even if it's just by encouraging you. Ask for help reviewing your resume, or your grant applications that got rejected, or your paper that got turned down again. Always ask for help, and yes, even from strangers. There is only so much your advisor knows and only so much he or she can do. Leverage your connections or send cold emails (here is where LinkedIn is a tool to wield). You would be so surprised how kind strangers are; unbelievably kind and typically willing to help. I KNOW this for a fact. Just persist (don't badger them or be a stalker) but follow up. Even if academia is the hill you have decided to die on, you can still ask for help. Reach out to professors; they love the public show of kindness anyway so they might more likely help you, the stranger, than their own Ph.D. student in their department. So ask them for help on how to improve your chances or again, for encouragement, for opportunities that exist which you don't know about. They are everywhere on Twitter these days and if they are not there, no one is quicker to pop open a personal website than an academic so they are easier to stalk.

Please know that I will never make light of your dreams, or your rejections, or just your plight. Know that I acknowledge that feeling having been there myself. It is why I feel the most qualified to tell you it will all be okay in the end. If it's not okay, it is not the end :)



*because as you complete all of what I wrote above, you are also working for your university/advisor/department either as a research assistant or an adjunct

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