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PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: Failure in academia

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better – and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

Failure is part of life in academia – yet we are terrified to talk about our failures. In today’s post, we’ll explore the topic of failure in academia, we’ll see how some academics are breaking the taboo, and we have a look at what you can do when failure has you bogged down.

The reality of failure in academia
When we see the curriculum vitae of a fellow academic, we only see all their achievements. We don’t see the sweat, heartbreak, and rejection behind all these successes. We see the outcomes of funded projects – the papers that were accepted for publication. We don’t see the positions we applied for but didn’t get, the grants that were rejected, or the papers that were rejected.

And rejection there is plenty. Depending on the journal, the acceptance rate of papers is somewhere between 15% to 35%. Elsevier has a neat feature on their website where you can use your paper title and abstract as input and find the suitable journal* – the journal finder. One of the metrics you can see through this journal finder is the acceptance rate of a journal. I used the title and abstract of a paper I am working on, and found that my target journals have an acceptance rate between 18% – 36% (with one outlier, a journal with a 98% acceptance rate).

Another way to get insight in the acceptance rate, is by exploring profiles of reviewers on Publons and check published review reports. Reading more review reports will make you more accustomed to the sometimes stern language used by reviewers (although the reviewers who chose to make their review reports will typically watch their language a bit more).

Breaking the taboo
Over the past few years, more academics have started to share their shadow CV – a list of “failures”: rejected positions, rejected grants, rejected papers… Since its introduction, more scholars have posted their shadow CV on their website as a contrast to their actual CV. Slowly but surely, the taboo of rejection is being torn down.

Along the same lines we find the series of interviews “How I Fail” by Dr. Cheplygina. I personally find this series very fascinating, and love how junior and senior academics openly share their experience with failure. You can find my own participation in the series here.

Dealing with failure
We all deal with failure in a different way – and I do think it gets easier to move on after a rejection as you get more used to rejection. I also think sharing our frustrations and sadness over rejection with fellow academics can have a healing effect.

With that said, here are a few ideas on how to deal with rejection. First of all, acknowledge yourself and your feelings. Do you feel angry? Do you feel misunderstood, sad, frustrated, upset…? All your emotions are valid. Stop for a moment to acknowledge how you feel – and then ask yourself what you want to do next. Do you want to keep working so that your minds stays busy? Do you want to take the rest of the day off and hole up in your room with a fiction book? Do you want a piece of chocolate? Listen to what would be right for yourself, right now, and honor yourself.

Then, once you’ve dealt with your emotions and given yourself the time and space to feel your feelings and do what feels good, and when you feel ready to face the rejection in a rational way, you can think about your next step.
Did you get rejected for a job? Which other jobs can you apply for? How can you improve your application documents?
Did you get rejected for a grant? Do you want to pursue funding for the research topic from another source? Do you want to instead apply for funding for another research topic?
Did you get a rejection for a paper? Which comments from the reviewers are particularly helpful? How can you improve your manuscript? Can you submit your paper to another journal?
Once you know what’s next, you can take a deep breath, gather your troops, and prepare for the next battle – win or lose!

*Not an endorsement for Elsevier – but just referring to their little neat feature.

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