On not being able to protect your students from rejection

I suppose there are young academics who do not go through a million rejections to get established, but I wasn’t one of them. I think I had it comparatively easy: I was a good and a prolific writer from my training in consulting, and I alway had something going, but I still went through so many rejections that my stomach hurts just thinking about it. But I always had a lot going, so when one thing came back in flames, I had another thing to do.

Those cvs of failure or rejection have gotten criticized for being the luxury of the privileged, of people who cannot be hurt or economically vulnerable by the admissions of failure and rejection. That’s undoubtedly true. But I think that economic security makes it all the more of a duty to show people the ugly side of getting where you are. As soon as I got tenure, I shared my file and statement with others, with the caveat that their mileage may vary. I had one (idiot) point out that my “record wouldn’t have gotten tenure at HER exalted university.” That hurt. But I knew it was a possibility, and I kept sharing. After all, maybe it was important for that posturing ninny to say what she said, a good reminder that what I was showing here wasn’t a foregone tenure case, but a tenure case. And I still don’t regret sharing it.

Why? Because I had to write my statement of research, teaching, and service on my own, and it was a lonely process and by sharing, I gave people a place to start. If they did like the structure, it gave them a foundation. If they didn’t, it gave them something to react to in forming their own strategy. Anything that makes the process of going up for tenure less lonely and confusing strikes me as the least the rest of us can do for others.

The same is true of sharing your early rejections.

I know all this about rejection and the pain it causes. Anybody who tells you they don’t sweat rejection either has a (big) trust fund or a good strong case of narcissism because rejections hurt. Some hurt more than others. Some you learn to realize, eh, just as well. Some hurt so much you can barely breathe after you read the kiss-off letter.

And there is a whole goddamn lot of it in your early career. Some of it is deserved. You are young, you are a new scholar, you aren’t sending things to the right journal yet, and you haven’t quite mastered how to write for those audiences yet, or developed the built-in sensor that knows what lazyass cheezball reviewers are going to snipe at so you haven’t learned to take that out yet. Some of it is, simply, that journal editors give more breaks to older scholars. I’m a better scholar now than when I was young. And I get more breaks now than I did then. I don’t know which is the dominant effect.

And the only way to avoid the early career rejectionfest is by being one of the elect–the people who are born under a lucky star. Everybody else who stays in the game learns to put up with it, sending out stuff again and again, writing more stuff, doing work more work, generating content, sending it out.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

I hadn’t thought about this problem for years. When I get a rejection now, I have a lot of papers behind me that say I can do it. When you are young and this is your first set of papers, it’s very easy to fall into believing the work is no good. If you have gotten the work past a committee, it’s probably good enough. Getting past editors who would rather publish bigger names than yours is the gauntlet.

But I am now watching a beloved student and friend and go through the early career rejectionfest, and it sucks all over again. When I went through it, Randy (Randy Crane, beloved advisor) had a gentle way of mocking me out of my tantrums and slumps. I am not like that; I’m too grave. When my student gets a rejection, I feel it, too, and while there is a part of me that knows this is all part of it, there is another part of me that feels like doing this, to everybody involved:



A friend yesterday pointed out to me that I can’t. My student is going to experience this, and there is nothing I can do about it, other than support her through it. It’s bigger than me.

I do not like things that are bigger than me.