Rejection is both a rite of passage and a way of life for academics

Today I received my first rejection by an academic journal, of a paper that I have written based on my PhD research.

Rejection has weird connotations. All of us have experienced it in some form or another. Relationships, work…it all feels the same.

Somewhat serendipitously, the erudite Brene Brown’s new book Rising Strong (who is also an academic by the way) was also released today. I had pre-ordered it, and may not have mused on the deep connection between my academic rejection and her life’s work on shame had I not received email notification of her book release.

If you have ever experienced rejection, and I know that each of you has, you must must watch this:

Shame is the intensely powerful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging*

This talk spoke to me on so many levels today. I have watched both her Ted Talks, and read all of her previous books…and have pronounced them life-changing before…but there is something powerful in coming back to these ideas today whilst I am in the throes of a potential shame-shitstorm.

Now, as a PhD researcher, I had come to expect rejection. There is nothing unusual about such in academia – research is built on peer-review and journals with high standards and even higher rejection rates. Rejection is both a rite of passage and a way of life for academics. We are reminded of this often through corridor conversations and mentorship.

The strange thing is that rejection is not openly and honestly shared or spoken about in the wider sphere of academia. Sure, we all know that rejection is the name of the game, but it is not really spoken about. I remember this negative CV doing the rounds on social media last year – and how radical it seemed at the time that someone was willing to share all their rejections (gasp!) in an arena where a career – and for many academics self-worth – is tied to wins. Yet wins cannot be achieved without the rejections. Go figure.

I am a big advocate for sharing our life’s work on social media, but have often wondered why we only share our ‘wins’. Do the rejections speak to a lack of competency? No, I don’t believe so. Declaring a rejection for the world to see speaks to shame and vulnerability. Now, I am not suggesting that all academics share all their rejections all of the time – for I am told that you just get to a point where it does not bother you any longer as there are just too many to share – but I do believe that we owe it to emerging academics to, at the very least, open up the conversation a little more. 

Shame grows in secrecy, silence and judgment*

Shame speaks to our deepest fears that we are not good enough. It speaks to our deepest vulnerabilities. This is rife in academia – no matter how high up on the ladder you are.

The best part of my day though, was telling my loved ones about my rejection:

Their first word upon hearing my news: “shame”

I had to laugh.

Out loud.

I had forgotten that in South Africa the word “shame” has none of the shameful connotations that it seems to hold in the rest of the world. It is simply a platitude! As in: “Ag shame you must be tired” or  “Aw shame your baby is cute!” Haha I had to learn very quickly not to use that word, in that way, here in Australia!

So. Where to from here?

Let’s rise strong. Better yet, let’s pursue antifragility:

— poised to benefit or take advantage of stress, errors and change, the way, say, the mythological Hydra generated two new heads, each time one was cut off.

And let’s be vulnerable with each other, as:

Vulnerability is the birthplace of courage, creativity, and innovation*

You are VAST and BRILLIANT: be THAT!


*Brene Brown