I’ve always recognized that rejection plays a role in the “Academic Game.” I’ve seen this discussed on academic and social media platforms and occasionally overheard scholars discussing similar ideas in hallways. In an academic and scientific setting, it is believed to be common, if not necessarily, to routinely receive critical feedback and hear the word “no.”

Despite knowing all of this, I was nonetheless shocked to receive my first dreaded letter after working on revisions on an article for months:

Dear Author

Thank you for submitting your manuscript to XXXX. It was sent to two reviewers, whose comments are copied below. I have also read your manuscript and am in agreement with the reviewers. On the basis of the reviewers’ feedback and my own reading of your manuscript, I have decided to reject it.

(Continue to provide context)

Thank you for considering XXXX for the publication of your work. As the journal currently receives many more manuscripts than we are able to publish, unfortunately not all papers are able to be accepted. We hope you find the reviewers’ feedback useful and that the outcome of this specific submission will not discourage you from the submission of future manuscripts.

Sincerely,
XXXX
Editor

Similar to the experiences captured by Nthabeleng Hlapisi in an earlier blog this month, I immediately panicked. I felt like I have failed. My confidence was crushed. I was not even sure that I could write my own name.

A considerable rejection is frequently compared to a serious disease, death, or even the loss of a loved one, leading the author into the five stages of grief as outlined by a psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross:

Academic rejection cycle

Although I concur with this cycle description, I undoubtedly began my cycle at Stage 4, as I firmly believed that my career was ruined and that there were no alternatives. I identified with a well-known phrase:we send our papers, carefully crafted to consider every angle and interpretation of our hard-won data, and ‘Slap!’ we’re squashed like vermin“, and was now wandering through the cycle’s many stages, trying to regain the squashed parts of myself: getting angry, bargaining, denying, getting depressed, getting angry once again. This incredibly fruitless loop persisted for a while.

Feelings of loneliness and detachment were some of the challenges I faced. Although I was aware that manuscripts are frequently rejected, the problem was that rejections from other researchers were practically never evident. If you look at published papers in scientific journals, there is nothing to suggest that it was ever rejected, regardless of whether it was initially a desk rejection by editors, a rejection after review, a rejected appeal, or significant adjustments before it was finally approved. Few researchers publicly announce all of their rejections (which makes sense). However, being an early career researcher, it would certainly be helpful to know that there are others with the same experiences. Therefore, in my journey to regain the squashed parts of myself, I’ve found some discussions on Researchgate on Dealing with frustrations on Rejections and the Know-how of emotionally coping with rejection and found that there could be a community of support once academics start discussing these experiences.

The CACHE- approach, recommended by Tress Academic, was my preferred way forward:

  • Cool down: Do nothing, let it be, step away. Whatever you are feeling is normal. Spend time on something outside of work and sleep on it (for however long it takes).
  • Analyse the letter: Carefully reread the feedback letter and summarise what the reason for rejection is. Each word has a specific meaning.
  • Consider your options: Let go of the emotions and decide the way forward. Do you understand the decision, is it justifiable, can you address the suggested changes?
  • Head on: Make a decision and submit the revised manuscript to the same journal or a different journal, submit the original manuscript to another journal, choose a different outlet, appeal, or discard the paper (least recommended).

Since receiving my first dreaded letter, I’ve come to understand that it does not imply the end of my career. Yes, it hurts and is frustrating, but it’s not the end of the world. It’s merely one of those all-to-familiar “try, try again (and again, and sometimes again) scenarios in academia. Looking back, I can even somewhat agree with the reviewers’ remarks and understand how they can enhance the output’s quality. A bittersweet scenario indeed.

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