The positive side of rejection, and how it can help you achieve better things in your career

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Getting a rejection letter, whether it is your first, or 100th, never gets any easier.  There is a common human tendency to take it personally.  I know that when I get a rejection, it often eclipses a great success that I may have had literally a few days earlier.  It is often taken as a personal judgment on your work.  However, the reality is that there are many reasons, many of which are probably beyond your control, as to why your article, book, job application or funding application has been rejected.  Feedback can help you to turn your rejection into a stronger application in the future.  If there is literally nothing in the feedback that can help you, then it is more likely that the reviewer is not attempting to engage with your work.  In that case, it is best to put it down to a bad experience.  However, the worst thing to do would be to give up.  This article will look at how you can turn a rejection into something positive.

Find something meaningful in the reviews/feedback

If a review is written in a constructive and professional way, then there will be something positive in them.  Try to focus on these elements while putting the other, more difficult aspects into the background.  For most reviewers, they are engaging with your work in a deep way with the aim of helping you to improve it.  They may be harsher than your close friends or colleagues, but their intention is probably still the same.   In my experience, a review that has been critical of my work in a constructive way has, in the long term, helped me to pursue it further, and led to a much better publication in the long-term.  The prospect of greatly revising your work after investing your heart and soul into it is often not something that is particularly exciting, but if you remain focused on the goal of publication, and then you can get the job done.

Find something ridiculous in the reviews/feedback

If a review is particularly crushing, it is sometimes worth taking a step back and leaving it aside for a few days until you get the chance to calm down.  After this, you can revisit the review, hopefully in a less emotional state, and see what is in there.  Most reviews will have positive things that will help you, but there are examples of reviews that sadly, are ridiculous.  My research is on the Second World War, and I have had some very odd reviews of my work in the past.  For example, I have had reviewers lambast my work for not including what they termed as “a key publication on the war”  - a publication that turned out to be on the First World War, which is not the subject of my research!  Additionally, one reviewer even noted that if he/she was writing the article, it would be about something else.  This was particularly bizarre since it was me, and not them, who was authoring the piece!  When navigating through the reviews, it is worth remembering that reviewers give their time freely to do this, and most are well-intentioned.  However, being able to distinguish the ridiculous from the helpful can help you to cope with the rejection, and develop your strategy going forward.

Be persistent

Giving up at the first failure would not be good for your self-belief or your work.  Just because you have experienced this particular rejection does not mean that this will happen on the next attempt.  In many ways, success in the academic profession depends a lot on your persistence as well as your intelligence.  If the rejections seem t follow a specific pattern, it might be worth exploring this further with a view to see how you can change your strategy to maximise your chances of success.  Very few people experience success in everything that they try.  The key is to keep faith with what you do, not give up and explore several avenues with the aim of achieving your ultimate goal.  After all, JK Rowling has said that her first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 different publishers before it was ultimately accepted.  Had she not been so persistent, she would not have experienced the huge success that she has done.  While this is not to say that academics could ever hope to aspire to the multi-million sales of Rowling, and the translations into several languages, the principle remains the same – persistence, and in the end, it should pay off.

The biggest difficulty is psychological

This is often the case, when you may think that you should not apply for a certain job “because you have no chance” or not submit an article for a journal because “my work is not good enough”.  We often find that we are our harshest critics.  We need to explore what has possibly made us feel this way.  Was it something that someone said to you?  Is it a bad review that you have had in the past?  Whatever the reason, the decision not to try could be the biggest barrier to your success.  While realising your weaknesses is important, realising your strengths is even more crucial in pursuing what you want to achieve.  Previous rejections do not define who you are – they form part of your story on a long road in academia.  Do not let it drag you down, use it as a motivation to improve and continue to strive for the best you can achieve with your life.


Rejection is painful, but it is a process.  It never gets any easier, but the way you respond to it will help to shape your future going forward.  Remember that sometimes rejections are due to factors beyond your control.  But by pursuing your goals, taking on board the useful feedback you receive and setting yourself realistic goals will help you to have a clearer vision of your strategy going forward.

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