Or, dealing with rejection in your scientific career, Part I

This is part one of a two-part blog post.


There’s no doubt about it, rejection is hard to accept.

But when you choose a career in research, you will frequently encounter rejection.

It happened to me just the other day.

We submitted a paper describing a computational model of phenotype switching in the soil bacterium B. Subtilis to PLoS Computational Biology. The paper produced several new results that other models had not reported. It also revealed new biological insights into the mechanisms of phenotype switching. This journal requires that a submitted paper represent both computational and biological advances. Our paper seemed to meet that requirement.

The rejection letter included the following quote:

As with all papers submitted to the journal, yours was fully evaluated by myself in consultation with other members of the PLoS Computational Biology Editorial Team. While we appreciate the attention to an important topic, I regret that we do not feel that the manuscript provides the strength of the advance that we must require for PLoS Computational Biology.

I am sorry that we cannot be more positive on this occasion, but hope that you appreciate the reasons for this decision and that you will consider PLoS Computational Biology for other submissions in the future.

It was not even sent out for review.

This is the second paper of mine that has been submitted to this journal recently, and been rejected without review.

In fact, I didn’t want to send the paper to the journal, but my co-author, a graduate student in my lab, really wanted to try this journal. I went along with her wishes.

This rejection letter is the least useful kind of rejection you can receive – because it contains no information about what was “wrong” with your paper.

I can only speculate what was wrong with mine.

But speculation does not help make it better.

Turning rejection into strength

As time has gone on, I’ve gotten better at dealing with the rejections.

One of the things that has made it easier is realizing that I can almost always use a rejection as a learning mechanism, that will improve my subsequent work.

The paper rejection I mentioned above is the worst type of rejection – one that comes with no useful information. Having had two such uninformative rejections from that journal in a short space of time means that I am unlikely to submit another paper to that journal.

I was able to turn this rejection into a strength in one way: learning that this journal is not a good place to submit my work.

Every time a rejection occurs, you should parlay it into a learning opportunity (I do). Some are more informative opportunities than others – but every one is an opportunity.

That’s the one “nice” thing about grant rejections from NIH or NSF: they almost always contain at least two reviews. From those, you may get at least some idea of where the reviewers were coming from, in order to figure out how to fix the problems (or whether to start over).

Grant or paper reviews don’t always tell you exactly what the deeper problems are with your work. So often you have to try to read between the lines. But the information is usually there if you look carefully.

I’ll expound on that thought on my email list (if you want to join, you can use the subscribe box in the upper left of my blog page).

And in part II of the article, I will discuss actionable items for dealing with rejection.

5 thoughts

  1. Unfortunately rejections for faculty positions are always of this kind: they come with NO useful information, just patronizing platitudes. One is left to conclude that universities do not care to take a chance on someone who does not fit their predetermined profile.

    1. Sukumar,
      This is a really good point. When I applied for faculty jobs, I was fortunate to get some good letters mixed in with the rejections.

      But the rejections gave no useful information. This can be very frustrating.

      I’ve also been on the other side of the equation, on hiring committees. The challenge is that one of these positions often draws 100’s of applicants. It is very hard to personalize every single rejection letter. There just isn’t time.

      My best advice in this case is to find a faculty mentor who can help you figure out how to improve your application. This should preferably be someone who has been on a hiring committee at a reputable university.

      Also, you can join my subscriber’s list. I am adding resources that are available to subscribers only, including future opportunities for mentoring that may help with issues like this.

  2. I’m a (relatively new) journal editor and came across this page whilst searching for information about rejection letters. I was concerned that I was writing them without knowing what people’s expectations were and what it’s useful for them to contain. This post has proved very useful from that point of view, even though I’m not necessarily amongst your intended audience. Thanks for that – it’s much appreciated.

  3. After 11 straight rejections I think I am done. I have been submitting papers to peer-reviewed journals since May 2009 and until today nothing has worked out. My tenure is now in serious danger. The point is that I do not want to fool myself any further,the brutal truth is that I am just not good enough. It is normal to find excuses, to complain about the peer-review system, but probably it is just me.

    The reviewers do not know who I am and they are expects; if my papers were truly good some should have been accepted for publication. The reality is that 11 different people, who are professionals, believe that I am not good enough, why should they be wrong? I think it is that more plausible that I am wrong.

    I am starting to think that my past has been a lie. The admission to a very prestigious PhD program, the positive remarks of my PhD examiners.I think that I have been probably very lucky until now. Probably I simply met nice people who wrongly believed that I was good, while in fact I am not.

    My school career proves my point. I have been a very strange student. Some teachers thought I was very good, some that I was very bad. I experienced getting the highest and the lowest grades. My results had nothing to do with my effort, I has always been very studious. In the past I believed that the teachers who did not value me were fool, maybe I was the fool.

    There was a time in which I thought that the system was unfair; I questioned the validity of peer-reviews and of the tenure-track system. Now I am ready to be honest: I was deluding myself. The tenure-track system is just there to make sure that people who seem to be good but cannot deliver, like myself, are kicked out.

    I have no alibi. My institution gave me enough time to work on my research. It is true that in my institution I have no one to share my work with, but it is also true that at this stage of my career I should be able to take care of myself.

    There is something very very sad about all of this. I am a very hard-working and honest person. I work as hard as I can and put all of myself into what I do. Nonetheless, it is not enough. Getting published is not about how hard you work, it is about how clever and original you are.

    I still have 2 years before I am up for tenure and to be honest what scares me the most is my determination and persistence. I know that I am a very strong willed person, but here is the problem: is persistence always a virtue? What if we delude ourselves that we can do something when we just cannot? We can try all our life to walk through a wall, but we will never succeed. I think that may be persistence is sometimes a form of dishonesty. In my case, I feel that I cannot accept being a mediocre scholar and will keep trying to prove others wrong. In the process I will kill myself with work, worries, and anger and then…I may still fail. I am sure you read stories about people who failed countless times but succeeded in the end. But what if it is also true that some people destroy themselves in trying and nothing is achieved. I read many times that failure is the key to success. Is that true? I know very brilliant people in my field who very rarely fail. I know stories of great athletes who knew only victories. Why should struggle be part of success?

    My struggle now is to reach the point is which I am truly totally honest. I am not looking to a strategic way to consider my situation, I only want the truth. A part of me still hopes that may be I am good enough. This part scares me; I feel this part is the voice of my delusion and dishonesty. I feel that this voice is the voice of arrogance, the arrogance of a person who refuses to see his limitation and to say: I am not good.

    1. Hi Anthony,
      Your message evoked some strong emotions for me. It is a horrible situation, and I see your frustration.

      I’ve failed at 5 previous business attempts. (Why is this scientist so into business? Who knows, I just have the bug). For me, it became a bigger and bigger thing with each failure. I started asking: is something wrong with me?

      But, something I’ve done differently in my latest business attempt is to simply model the successes of others. Rather than thinking I’m smart and that “I can figure it out” I decided to go into total learning mode. You’d be shocked if I told you here how much I’ve spent on trainings from other people to succeed (i.e. people who’ve already been a success). And for once, I have a business that isn’t failing – it’s actually doing quite well, and helping people in the process.

      My point is that perhaps it isn’t an inherent failing on your part, but simply lack of the proper tools. I know that the way you “frame” a paper makes a huge difference in its acceptance (or rejection). It could be something as simple as a failure to properly frame your research, or failure to submit it to the right journals at the right times, or … etc.

      There are many reasons that you could receive that many rejections aside from simply being incapable.

      I’d be willing to have a short phone call with you about your situation to see whether there’s anything I can do to help. I normally charge for those things (’cause my time is so limited) – but I’ll do this one “on the house”. Just drop me a line – morgan at morganonscience.com

      Kindest regards,
      Morgan

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