Rejection, Rejection Everywhere – Part 4 of 4: Being the Rejector

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.

Closing Thoughts

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.

Academic Writing Hacks Part 1: Setting up Good Writing Habits

N.B., all the posts in this series were planned prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Your priority at this time should be staying safe. If you happen to have time for writing, then these tips may help. If not, bookmark this and come back to it later when the world has calmed down and we have conquered this virus.

I’m aiming to write four posts in a little series titled “Academic Writing Hacks”. Hopefully it will help you to knuckle down and write that PhD/grant/paper.

When I started my PhD journey my supervisor recommended that I buy a specific book. He told me to buy my own copy because if I borrowed someone else’s that I wouldn’t ever give it back. The book was Paul J. Silvia’s “How to write a lot”. As the subtitle suggests, it is indeed a practical guide to productive academic writing.

It was a short, easy to read book that not only gave me really practical advice but was funny in places. I found myself saying “of course” and “that makes total sense” and “why did I spend money on a book with advice that was so obvious?” However, it’s nice having all that obvious and comforting advice in a single place. And also, sometimes we can get so lost in PhD writing stress, it’s nice to have someone practical and funny sit us down and gently explain things to us (in book form).

I’ve linked a few reviews here (but I thoroughly recommend you get a copy of your own):

But, in short, he tackles common barriers to writing such as

  • I don’t have the time to write!
  • I need to do more analysis/read more articles first!
  • I need a new desk/computer/nice chair before I can write
  • I need inspiration to write

He also provides motivational tools such as tracking writing (using a spreadsheet) or having small achievable goals (such as writing 200 words a day) as well as how to start a writing group (or Agraphia Group as he calls it). There are also some great tips on how to set up a writing schedule (whether it be a daily writing time or just three times a week).

Reading this at the beginning of my PhD journey really helped me to set up some good habits. Towards the end of my PhD journey I fell off the wagon and writing this blog post made me realise that I need to read this book again.

One way I love to procrastinate from writing is to look up productivity tips. It is so easy to keep reading blog post after blog post touting practical habits and excellent apps/tools to start writing. But ultimately, all you need is a small window of time and something to write on. The rest seems to be a frame of mind. Hopefully this book (and the other posts to come) will help.

Have you read this book? What other books helped you with writing?

— Alessa Teunisse

Rejection, Rejection Everywhere – Part 3 of 4: Using Rejection to Improve Yourself

The Story So Far

Rejection hurts, and we all experience it. But it is possible to minimise the hurt with a few clever Jedi mind tricks. But today I want to talk about leveraging rejection as a source of self-improvement. We touched on some of these ideas in resiliency in rejection, but let’s talk more specifically now.

The Big Picture

Rejection could be re-conceived as “constructive feedback”. Yes, rejection means that you were unsuccessful at whatever you were applying for, but most rejections come with an explanation about why you were unsuccessful. If not, most organisations will be willing to spend 5-10 minutes talking about what your application/paper/whatever was lacking. This information is absolutely vital because that is how you get your unique insight into how to play the game.

Journal Article Feedback

Despite how much journal article feedback triggers that imposter syndrome, this is highly specialised feedback that is almost impossible to solicit elsewhere, and it comes for free! Take note of the feedback and think about what it means moving forward. How could you preemptively address such feedback in future work? Personally, for me, it meant changing how I write to be more appreciative of competing perspectives. This has actually made the review process much much smoother for me.

Job Applications

If you are just breaking into academia, then this is a huge source of rejection. But talking to the hiring committee after the rejection and always maintaining communication channels and not burning bridges are both very very important. I actually used the feedback from one job interview, addressed that feedback, and reapproached the employer saying that this was no longer a limitation and I would like to be considered for all future roles. A few weeks later they contacted me with a 6-month temporary position. Job applications, even failed ones, are a networking opportunity and a way to secure those silver platter job offers.

Student Feedback

It is the end of the semester, you have poured your heart and soul into your classes and the feedback is bland and horrible. Did you waste your time? Doubtful, but that doesn’t make the feedback any less harsh. Yet, that feedback highlights student needs that you might be missing. For me, this was extremely useful. I used to do exercises and activities that the students loved but student feedback suggested that this was eating up too much time and the students wanted a bit more course content, but still delivered in a similar manner. So that is what I did and students were really receptive to the change.

Conclusion

Rejection can hurt, but it can also make us stronger. Consider the ‘why’ underlying your rejection. It might surprise you and help prevent it in the future! Use the comments box below to share how rejection has strengthened you!

~ Chris

Pandemics: Productivity or Self-Care?

The rapid spread of COVID-19 around the world has suddenly put us in a position of “working from home”. I don’t know about you, but I felt almost immense pressure to pick up my entire work life and squish it into my tiny one bedroom apartment.

During the first few days of working from home I assumed that could keep up the same level of productivity and output, albeit a different location. I mean, I spent most my time just working on my laptop anyway so why should the location matter? 

But then the virus continued. I was becoming addicted to my news sites and Twitter. I was constantly checking the numbers the locations and worrying what was going to happen next. And I was still at home.

Suddenly things became harder. Replying to emails was something I found hard to face. Even the thought of opening my laptop made me feel overwhelmed. I felt like a failure. A failure who was addicted to Twitter. A zombie who couldn’t stop scrolling and despairing.

Apart from all the scary things on Twitter, I was seeing people posting fantastic pictures of working from home. I saw wonderful set ups of laptops balanced on textbooks and beloved pets edging their way into zoom meetings. Everyone else seemed to be adjusting really well. They were still working. But I came to realise I wasn’t coping.

It was about a week after the restrictions in Australia put us in our homes. It was then I could see that other people also weren’t coping well working from home. Yesterday I saw this on Twitter that really put things in perspective.

“You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.“

Just really stuck with me. All my worries, some of which I outlined in my previous post (which have exponentially increased since then), are still valid. However, we are all going through this together. We are all trying to retain a sense of normalcy in abnormal times.

Some people find comfort diving into their work pretending nothing else is happening. I’ve seen people finishing their PhDs via zoom. I’ve seen people celebrating publications of papers or gaining a job/grant. I’ve seen people getting married or having babies. Life still goes on. But it’s okay to not feel okay during this time. It’s important that we acknowledge this and talk about it. Yes, we are all alone in our houses, but we’re in this together.

If productivity is what’s getting you through this, then keep going. Keep making that sourdough bread or banana bread or whatever. Keep writing those papers writing that dissertation.

However it’s okay to just write a sentence or reply to a single email and then check out for a bit. Watch the Simpsons again. Start a puzzle or a crossword. Try and play a game (hopefully online with some friends) or have virtual wine nights. Connect to the people around you (virtually) and don’t berate yourself too much if you’re not being productive.

Well, this is what I keep telling myself. Hopefully this resonates with you too. Stay safe, stay home, and wash your hands.

What’s keeping you sane during this crazy crazy times?

— Alessa Teunisse

Rejection, Rejection Everywhere – Part 2 of 4: Resiliency in Rejection

Recap and Setting the Scene

We all experience rejection in academia. It comes in many forms, be it actual rejection (desk rejection of journal articles) or self-perceived rejection (like that horrible feeling you get when you see all the red comments from someone on a piece of your work). Rejection hurts. But, there are some things we can do to become resilient in this. This is a short reflection on my own journey tackling the rejection beast.

Cognitive Restructuring

Of course, the guy with the psych degree talks psychology. But, this is a good technique. Cognitive restructuring involves changing how you think about a situation and challenging negative views. For example, would that person have gone to all the effort to cover your document in red if they actually hated it? Why not a simple single lined ‘this sucks’? Usually, more comments means that the reader actually really likes the idea and wants the paper to be the best that it could be. Changing that one view on feedback can take you from going “they hate me” to “they actually really care and it was nice of them to put the effort in”.

Smiley Faces

So this is something for ambiguous messages that might make you feel rejected. For example the ever-dreaded “I don’t understand” or “this doesn’t make sense”. Imagining a smiley face after this comment helps to remove the ambiguity and add a slightly more positive spin on it. “I don’t understand this :)” is an invitation to explain the idea further rather than a criticism of your writing skills. At least, that is what I found.

Give Yourself Time

Whenever I receive anything that elicits those negative emotions and feelings of rejection I create space between it and myself. Yes, I have read it, but now I am going to step away for 48 hours and let the emotions settle down. Then I will revisit the issue. Usually, by the 48 hour mark, the emotions have settled and the rational mind takes over and I ultimately end up agreeing with what was said and am in a better place to manage it.

Self-Care and Self-Compassion

Self-care: Celebrate the victories and mourn the losses, but do so in ways that are self-enriching or a little decadent. Self-compassion: Acknowledge that everyone goes through this and that is ok. Whenever I receive feedback on something I celebrate with a nice dinner out (or I get food delivered and cuddle up in front of the TV). If I receive bad feedback I do the same thing. Why? Because I enjoy that. So this little luxury becomes a way for me to acknowledge my emotions and mark a point of moving forward. 

What about you? How do you manage feelings of rejection in academia? What are your strategies?

~ Chris Kilby

Pandemics and the Post-PhD Phase

Or Academic Job-hunting in the time of COVID-19

So you may be aware of the pandemic currently sweeping the globe. I am currently experiencing shortness of breath but I’m not sure if that’s due to my asthma or spending too much time on twitter reading all the COVID-19 stories that are currently dominating the news feeds.

The universities are shutting down (and rightfully so). We need to protect not only our most vulnerable but also our healthcare systems and its workers. There has been a lot of talk about #flatteningthecurve.

I fully support this measure. Right now, within universities, we are focusing on the immediate in order to facilitate social distancing and self isolation.

How can we get our classes online quickly?

How can we change our assessments?

How can we adapt our research?

What do we do about this conference?

There has been some discussion of how this will affect PhD students. However, for those of us in limbo (i.e., post-PhD but not with a position yet) this pandemic will probably have long reaching consequences.

I’m worried that if our collective economies tank due to this disruption, universities will be forced to make even more cuts to their staff – leading to less positions for us to apply for. 

I’m worried that grants and funding will dry up – leading to less research assistant or postdoctoral positions to apply for.

This era of enforced isolation might be fantastic for some. Carbon emissions have dropped significantly. Perhaps this will change how we view employment – people might not need to commute for work anymore and remote working may become more established. However, there are many things to consider if this is to become the new norm.

It might change the education sector permanently. Perhaps this is the death of the traditional lecture. Although I can appreciate the convenience of online learning (and the fact that many more people could access it this way), I still think we need face-to-face learning and I’m worried that this will disappear.

I have no coherent message. Just a lot of worried thoughts. What do you think will be permanently changed due to this pandemic? What concerns, in terms of employment or research, do you have?

~ Alessa Teunisse (anxious, washing hands, and being socially distant)

Rejection, Rejection Everywhere – Part 1 of 4: Rejection hurts everyone

Rejection hurts, but it happens to everyone

The scene: You submit a year’s worth of work as an article to a journal. You wait anxiously for a few weeks or months. Then the decision letter comes in. The adrenaline is high, the anticipation almost unbearable. You open the letter and… “We regret to inform you” is about as far as you get before the sense of dread and lack of self-worth kicks in. This happens with scholarships, grants, and job applications. Rejection hurts, and it hurts everyone.

But it isn’t just the out-right rejection that hurts. Receiving feedback on a piece of work that has almost anything written on it other than “fantastic” or “great” can hurt just as much as being outrightly rejected, or maybe, feedback can hurt even more because you are forced to now deal with the feedback multiple times whereas a rejection letter can be deleted and forgotten about.

The Curriculum Defectum

I was at a conference recently at a mentoring lunch with two major international speakers in my field. The moment they finished talking about their successes I asked “and what about your failures?” to which they started to tell of major emotional hits they had taken from being rejected. It was comforting to know that rejection is something that even major academics experience as well. At the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference in 2019 there was a talk on destigmatising academia and they mentioned the idea of a ‘Curriculum Defectum’ – a list of all the rejections they had received. This wasn’t a document of their failures but a document of their willingness to try new things. Those that had them spoke about them with pride. 

You are worth it, but everyone is worth it

Rejection does not mean that you are a terrible researcher or student or anything like that. The mere fact that you are at this point in your education or career has far ruled that out of the question. However, everyone applying for these applications are also at a similar point in their life. On the one hand, this is comforting. The mere fact that you can submit means that you are already worth receiving the article or scholarship, or grant, or job. But so too are all the other applicants. But this doesn’t take away from the fact that rejection still hurts!

Resiliency might be key

Resiliency, the idea of bouncing back from adversity or maintaining normalcy through adversity, might be a key way of managing those negative feelings of rejection. In my next post I will talk about strategies I have used to manage my own feelings with rejection, along with suggestions I have heard from others.

~ Chris Kilby

Planning Your Academic Year

This is possibly a little late (hello March) but I figure it’s better late than never.

Year 1 as an undergrad I had a paper diary. Studiously, I would put due dates in at the beginning of the semester. During the week I would add important events to the following week (e.g., shifts at work, birthday parties etc) but my field of vision was limited to this week and maybe next week. Occasionally I would turn a page in the diary and to my horror see a due date for a very important assignment that I hadn’t started yet. But this was relatively rare. I was good at keeping all those dates for the semester in my head. The longest I had to plan ahead was a few weeks.

However, as you progress through academia, this system just won’t work. Firstly, because you might not be making the best use of your time and secondly, because I know I just couldn’t keep everything in my head any more. I needed that cognitive space for other things.

So at the beginning of the year, I pull up my Outlook calendar (but some people still love their giant paper wall calendars so I recommend using whatever works) and put in important dates:

  • The weeks of each semester (I typically put each week in as a week-long event from Monday to Friday called “Week 8” or “Week 9” etc.)
  • Due dates for assignments that I will be marking as well as the date the grades will be returned to the students. I will make an event between those two dates called “Marking Assignment X”, so I know it’s an ongoing event at that time
  • The class times and locations that I will be teaching
  • Due dates for ethics applications (at my institution the ethics committee only meet once a month, so it’s handy to know when that is happening)
  • Dates my supervisor is away (to a conference, on leave etc)
  • Conference dates (including submission due dates and actual conference dates)
  • Any regular meeting dates (e.g., I have a regular fortnightly meeting with my supervisor) or once-off meetings I already know that will happen this year (e.g., annual lesson planning meetings)
  • Adding in any public holidays (e.g., Good Friday, Easter Monday etc)
  • The days my timesheets are due (I never want to miss out on being paid because I forgot to submit a timesheet #casuallyemployed)
  • Any important milestones the university my set for me in my program (e.g., Annual Progress Report)
  • Important personal events such as holidays, parties, weddings, birthdays etc. 

For some of the events in my calendar, I don’t want reminders (e.g., telling me what week of semester it is), however for some I may want:

  • a week’s notice (ethics applications due date)
  • 3 days notice (assignment due dates – students will be emailing me a lot then)
  • Just 15 minute’s notice (classes I’m about to teach). 

So I make sure I have all those reminders set up as I’m entering each event into my calendar.

I call this process setting up the skeleton of my life. 

Research can be quite flexible. It can be done at home (e.g., reading papers, writing etc) or in the lab. As a result, it can consume your life or it can be easily ignored when administrative details, marking assignments, and attending meetings take over. 

So, once I have my skeleton set up, I have a better idea of the spaces I can reserve for research. I can start putting flesh on my skeleton. Once I have my year set up, I focus on what my research goals for the year are and start to plan out my semester using a gantt chart… But I’ll save this process for another post.

Have you finished setting up your calendar for the year? Do you have a different approach to planning your year?

– Alessa Teunisse

The First Time I Lectured

The prep was crazy

So, I was asked to cover for a lecturer. I knew the content back to front and was a confident speaker. I could do this. Then it hit me “but the references needed updating”, “but there were a few minor bugs in the slides”, “but I want to have my own sense of identity as the lecturer”, “but this is someone else’s narrative. How will I weave it, what will I say?”. This meant that, even though the lecture was already built, I might as well have started out from scratch. It took me about a week to prepare. However, I have given that lecture a number of times now and things have become much easier since that first ordeal. I guess the takeaway is that the prep was crazy for my first lecture. Whenever I prepare for a lecture, the first time I prepare is always the most intense.

The nervousness was unusually high

As a tutor, I have been guarded by “oh but we have to follow the lecturer”. But this time I was the lecturer. I thought if I said something wrong then the students would know or would pull me up or would ask hard questions. The Imposter Syndrome ran wild as I stood in the room waiting to begin. Now, normally, I am very comfortable talking about research and psychology in front of large audiences. I actually enjoy it. But this first time was a little different. However, my anxiety went away the moment I started. The rush of adrenaline and state of flow that I am so used to in public speaking came flooding back.

Managing questions

What I have not revealed is that this first lecture was a 4th year psychology unit. Moreover, this was a lectorial style lecture with class discussions as a core component of all lectures. All up this meant that I had a class of highly inquisitive kids that really wanted to know the nuts and bolts of the topic. But, in my initial state of anxiety of being questioned, I interpreted the questions as personal hits against my ability to teach. In hindsight it was a strong ability to teach that encouraged the students to begin to tease the lecture content apart and ask the bigger questions. Once I realised this, it changed how I handled class questions. They went from hits of criticisms to signs that I was doing my job right – the students were engaging with and thinking deeply about the lecture content.

All’s well that ends well

The student feedback for that one lecture was fantastic. I was invited back to give the lecture again, and eventually, became a core part of the lecturing team. So, I think this first shot at lecturing was definitely a success story! It had its moments, but I learnt so much from those moments. Use the comments below to share your experiences with your first time lecturing.

~ Chris Kilby

Well-Rounded Academic or Publishing Machine?

“Look at academics. Most of them have a 40/40/20 role. That is, they spend 40% of their time on research, 40% on teaching, and 20% on service. So, if you want an academic position after you graduate, try and develop your skills or get experience in all three areas.”

When I started my PhD, this is the advice I was given. It seemed like very sound advice. So, I did my best to essentially carve out a 40/40/20 role for myself. Each semester I taught one or two units to develop my teaching skills. I volunteered to be the postgraduate student representative on a number of committees. I helped to organise the department’s 3 Minute Thesis competition two years in a row. If someone needed a PhD student to help with something, I was there.

Towards the end of my PhD, as I was drafting up my CV, I was really proud of myself. I had managed to tick the boxes in each category. In terms of publications, I had written one encyclopedia entry and had one publication. The publication had five studies in it (and was the culmination of years of work and most of my PhD) but on paper it was only one publication. But, I assumed that anyone would look at my CV and see that I could successfully manage my time and straddle various responsibilities and still publish research. After all, this is what most academics do.

However, two months away from finishing my PhD I attended a seminar for those of us about to graduate. The “Post-PhD” seminar had various senior academics discussing what they look for when hiring post-doctoral students. The main piece of advice that I gleaned from that particular seminar was:

“When looking at a CV the first thing the hiring committee does is look at your publications. Everything else doesn’t really matter.” 

What have I done? Cue spiral of doom.

Did I waste my time volunteering for committees, organising events, and teaching?

Perhaps I should have been a hermit who only conducted studies and focused on publications.

I have now essentially finished my PhD and I’m applying for jobs. While doing this, I’m trying to publish two pieces of research to increase my employability. The jobs and postdoctoral positions in my field seem scarce. Every day I go backwards and forwards between “I should have more publications, teaching was a waste of time” and “I am a well-rounded academic who has a variety of fundamental and desirable skills”.

I think I learned valuable skills teaching classes (see my earlier post on this). Also, by volunteering, I met so many people in our department that I normally wouldn’t. This increased my network dramatically and having a good network can help with finding employment opportunities (see Chris’ post on this).

But, I still wish I had more publications.

What are your thoughts on this? As a PhD student, should you be a publication machine or developing well-rounded academic skills?

– Alessa Teunisse