The Other End of the Stick
Throughout this mini-series on rejection, I have shared my thoughts and experiences on receiving rejection, developing resiliency in receiving rejection, and harnessing rejection for self-improvement.Today I want to close this series by talking about being on the other end of the stick – being the rejector.
Does My Rejector Hate Me?
This is certainly a question that I have asked myself after receiving harsh feedback or rejection letters from journals. But is this really the case? Not that long ago I was reviewing a manuscript for a journal and, for the first time ever, felt the need to recommend a rejection rather than a revise and resubmit. The idea of recommending a rejection plagued me and I waited until quite close to the review deadline to submit it. I read through that paper multiple times questioning my own understanding of the science as I attributed my lack of enthusiasm for the paper to some flavour of Imposter Syndrome. In the end, after really getting my head around the paper, I decided that my initial instinct was right. The study was flawed beyond redemption. It turned out the other reviewers had the same views and the paper was rejected.
But this showed me that deciding to reject something or provide less than desirable feedback does not necessarily mean the rejector was raging over the poor quality of your work or trying to marginalise you. But that their own feelings about being the rejector are just as intense and anxiety provoking as receiving the rejection. Now, of course there are exceptions to the rules and I suspect there is an art to this. But at least that was my first experience.
Is It Personal?
I guess this is the other thing, right? The rejector has seen your work. Depending on the type of work it might be anonymous or it might not be. But that is rarely enough to prevent that little thought asking if the rejection is a stab at you as a researcher and your abilities or simply an acknowledgement that things didn’t quite work out this time and to try again. Personally, when I have been the rejector, it was the latter. A case of “I can see what you were trying to do, and I value and appreciate that, but maybe there is a need to try again while considering a few extra things”. I certainly was not thinking “oh my god, how did these people even get their degrees?” or anything malicious. Again, there’s always exceptions, and I am basing my experience on an N of 1. But, I think it shows, at least to some extent, that the rejector doesn’t necessarily want to make you go down in flames, and it also ties in nicely with the idea of trying to view harsh criticism as a way of building upon yourself.
Rejection and harsh criticism, on the face of it, seems brutal. But once you scrape beneath the surface I think it is more complicated than that. Neither party is trying to be hurtful, and neither party wants to get hurt. However, written communication often lacks all those extra things that we use to determine the intent of a message, so we project our own expectations onto it. This gives us an opening to build upon and minimise the impact of this stuff.