I hope last week’s Failure CV was helpful to those who perused it. My hope was that it would show that failure is a common and normal part of any academic’s life. I thought this might help other people feel better about their overall records.
I am aware, though, that understanding the role of failure in general doesn’t make any individual rejection feel any better. The number of failures I have experienced has not indoctrinated me to disappointment. Shortly after I posted last week, I recalled two other rejected grant proposals, each of which I poured a lot of work into. In the intervening week, I received two desk rejections of papers. None of that made me feel good, and none of it just rolled off my back. Every paper and proposal represents hours of my time and gallons of my blood, sweat, and tears. It’s got pieces of me in it. It hurts when other people judge it as unworthy of funding or publication.
Still, over the years, I think I have developed some strategies for managing disappointment and frustration. I am sharing three of those strategies today.
First, when reading reviews, I suggest making a conscious effort to separate commentary on the ideas from any implicit value judgements. This is not easy. Most of the time, commentary on the content feels like thinly veiled value judgements, and it’s tempting to draw inferences. For example, I recently got a review on an empirical research paper that suggested it would be more suitable for a practitioner-facing journal. The paper was an analysis of a huge data set from a super high-level perspective and full of talk of statistical significance and effect sizes. The suggestion to publish it for a teacher audience did not make sense to me, and so I immediately went to a value-judgement place, and started thinking that the underlying meaning of the reviewer’s comment was that the paper didn’t present real or useful research.
I don’t know if that was the reviewer’s intended implication or not, but my point is this: Regardless of whether the value judgement was really there, considering it does not help move the paper forward. Considering whether the paper is actually appropriate for a practitioner journal is a tractable step: I can take that advice or leave it. (In this case, my co-author and I left it.) Considering whether or not the paper was real or useful research is not useful or tractable. If I really believed the paper was not worth sharing, I would not have spent so much time analyzing the data and writing it. I also have a coauthor I respect, who felt the same way about the value of the work. Those two opinions matter; the inferred, unstated (and therefore potentially non existent) opinion of this reviewer does not.
It’s hard to stop yourself from translating content commentary into value judgements — or to ignore the value judgements that are explicitly written into reviews sometimes. But it’s a vital skill to develop. Only in focusing on concrete things that reviews say about the ideas in a paper can reviews be used to advance a paper. Read the reviews and feel your feelings, but don’t make any decisions on what to do next until you’re able to separate commentary from value judgements. Early in my career, getting to that place took me a long time. Now, I get there faster. I think you will, too, with practice.
Second, use the interminable time you spend waiting for reviews to come back to advance additional lines of work. I firmly believe that rejections are easier to take when they relate to one particular line of inquiry of which you have several. We’re pressured to specialize, especially in graduate school, but this does not necessarily mean we must pin all of our hopes to a few papers and opportunities. A rejection of a paper — even a paper I particularly liked — has always been easier when I have other papers that I’m excited about in development or under review. Spreading out your interests a bit can help harsh criticisms of your papers feel directed at one piece of your work — not as you as a researcher, student, or professional.
Third, and probably most importantly, keep a list of accomplishments you are proud of that go beyond what’s listed on your CV. For whatever reason, we hold up funding and publications as the accomplishments most worthy of mention on a CV. Even when we have diverse lines of inquiry represented there (as mentioned in my second point above), these are only a very narrow window of things we accomplish in academic work, especially in education. So, even though these things won’t get listed on your official documents, keep a list for yourself and read it over from time to time to remind yourself that you are more than your papers.
I’m sharing my list of accomplishments that you won’t see on any official version of my CV below. I call it my CV+. I hope it helps you think about things you’re proud of, too.
Kathryn Rich CV+
Faithfully writes a blog post every week that classes are in session, and uses that habit to advance thinking and writing skills.
Continuing to improve at developing relationships with partner teachers.
Has lots of wonderful memories and stories about the interactions I’ve had with students during field work.
Successfully navigates advancing work on three distinct research projects and three courses at the same time.
Gaining a steady increase of Twitter followers.
Stands up for equitable treatment of fellow graduate students.
Provides substantive and thoughtful feedback to peers through coursework and formal review processes for conferences and journals.
Recently wrote a paper in which one of my advisors complimented my “economy of expression” (HUGE for a verbose writer like me!).
Remains intellectually curious throughout the trials and tribulations of academic life.
I encourage you to write your own CV+, friends, and more generally to keep your chins up in the face of rejections and failures. I’ll be back next week with some tips on how to get papers out the door to those feisty, fickle reviewers.