Dealing with Rejection in an Academic Career

When I was considering applying to the PhD program at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the first professors I spoke with was John Hammett, Professor of Systematic Theology. He asked me what I wanted to do with a PhD (at the time I was interested in studying theology). I told him I wanted to teach.

Mercifully, Dr. Hammett did not start laughing.

When I graduated with my shiny new PhD, I thought my days of experiencing major rejection were behind me. After all, hadn’t I gone through the enormously humbling program of study that is a PhD? Hadn’t my work been scrutinized by all my peers, not to mention my professors? Was it so hard to remember the moments of sheer panic, uncontrolled bawling, and hyperventilating, realizing that my deadlines were coming up quickly despite my being woefully unprepared for their unwelcome arrival? How many times did I feel humiliation equal to that of finding myself standing in a crowded mall wearing nothing but my underwear? Too many.

Since that time, I found that dealing with rejection had not really yet begun. After I graduated, I found out fairly quickly that rejection comes with the territory of an academic career. I learned to say to myself, “Self, get used to rejection.”

How many job applications did I complete, thinking that my qualifications would surely get me at least an interview. How many interviews did I endure (they’re awful, by the way) thinking that surely I presented myself well enough to be hired. How many rejection emails from schools did I receive after going through the tedium of filling out applications, and bugging my professors for one reference letter after another? Too many to count.

How many papers have I submitted for publication that were rejected? For the love of Mike, it takes reviewers forever to get back with you once you’ve submitted a draft for an article. Most of the time, their first response acknowledging your mere existence comes weeks and weeks after you’ve submitted your draft. Then, how many times did the email read something like this–“your submission was obviously carefully researched, well articulated, impeccably argued, but unfortunately…”? Too many times.

How many conferences have I submitted proposals–that again, it takes forever to hear back–and the responses are always the same–“we had so many worthy proposals, and we regret we could not accept them all.”

If mine was so great, then why wasn’t it accepted? They never say.

How many publishers have I set up interviews with, sat for meetings with, made the effort to personally appear before, prepare book proposals for–and the waiting, the endless waiting to hear a response–only to be told, “While your proposal is sure to find a market, at this time it does not fit with our line of titles”?

Again, if it’s so great, then why are you making me cry?

If you want to be an academic, you have to learn how to deal with rejection. You have to find a use for all those rejection emails and letters. You can decorate your bathroom walls with them. But you can also use them to motivate you to press ahead with your ideas.

Sometimes a rejection of a proposed paper, article, or book is well placed. Yours might be a lousy idea. I know that has been true for me. I’m glad that some of my article submissions were rejected, because if they hadn’t been, I would be on record saying some pretty stupid things.

But sometimes, your idea might just need to find the right home. I have found that to be true also–and more so than I ever thought possible.

By the grace of God, and some hard work hitting the pavement and putting myself out there, I got a teaching position. My dissertation was published. Some national conferences have made a place for me behind their podiums. Some journals have found my writing to be persuasive and intelligent enough to include alongside other very good articles. And InterVarsity Press put me under contract for a book on the history and theology of American exceptionalism–my dream topic.

So keep at it. Despite the overwhelming number of articles on the Chronicle of Higher Education website that talk about how depressing the prospects are for ABDs and new PhDs, don’t let that discourage you. Despite the incredible number of rejection emails you’ll necessarily receive–some of them will be unbelievably rude and condescending (this is academia, after all)–keep researching, and keep writing. Despite the number of conferences you’ll have to attend after being rejected by them–maybe by even some of your colleagues–keep proposing paper ideas. Rejection humbles you in a healthy way. Rejection sharpens your thinking. Rejection means that you are doing something rather than nothing, and that’s good!

You’ll find, as I have, that it’s a numbers game. Be like old Abe Lincoln, and learn how to take rejection. Right in the face. Because you really won’t be rejected every single time. For every thirty rejections you get, that one acceptance is all the more sweet. And that sweetness makes it all worthwhile.

Hey, I just got an email. Wonder if my paper was accepted. Gotta go!


2 responses to “Dealing with Rejection in an Academic Career

  1. Although I am not in involved with theology…I can definitely relate to you. I was recently rejected for a poster proposal for an upcoming conference. As sad and disappointed as I am, your article makes really good points. Thank you.

  2. It's good to know that the post helps! As frustrating as it is, we're not the only ones to go through it, and I encourage you to press on and not give up!

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