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Career Advice

Quick tips for dealing with academic rejection

When all applicants are equally talented, the final decision often comes down to factors that are completely beyond our control.


This was inspired by a recent Twitter thread by Andrea Eidinger. It has been reproduced with her permission.

For many academics, spring brings with it a round of rejection letters. As a hardened reject-ee, here is some of my advice for coping with academic rejection.

  1. The success or failure of other people has no relationship whatsoever to your value and worth as a person and as a scholar.
  2. Ninety percent (or more) of academic success is based on factors that are completely unknowable and unpredictable. It could be the weather, what someone had for lunch, the type of font you used in your cover letter, and so on. In other words, it has nothing to do with you, your abilities, or who else is applying.
  3. Academia is roughly comparable to the Olympics. To put it another way, we are all extraordinary talented specialists at the top of our game, competing for an extremely small number of medals (jobs). When all of us are equally talented, the final decision often comes down to factors that are completely beyond our control.
  4. SSHRC/NSERC is particularly a problem, since we are often being judged by individuals outside of our fields who might have to get through hundreds of applications in a week. So, not getting a SSHRC/NSERC is not a reflection of anything but chance. To give you an example, the first year I applied for a SSHRC postdoc, my result was: “recommended but not funded.” The second time, I got “not qualified to do this research.” Same exact project.  I still don’t get it.
  5. Academic rejections are really hard and can make us feel like our work is never good enough, that we are worthless, and that we are failures. Part of this is because we’ve been conditioned from a young age to think that our academic achievements are a reflection of our self worth. This is especially true of those of us who excelled academically, since being recognized as academically brilliant has become part of our identity. But the truth is: you are brilliant. Postsecondary education is really difficult, and getting an Master’s degree or a PhD is even harder. We tend to lose sight of this, since we are surrounded by people with letters after their names. But no one and nothing can take these achievements away from you. Because holy crap, you are awesome, just as you are. Like, seriously. And I think we need to tell each other this more often.
  6. Academia is not life. Let me repeat that. Academia is not life. And academic rejection is not the be all and end all. This is just one particularly crappy moment in an otherwise amazing and full life.
  7. I hate to quote Baz Luhrmann, but I think this is a really important point:

    “Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long, And in the end, it’s only with yourself.”

    (And yes, I know this was written by Mary Schmich.)

  8. Any and all feelings that you are having right now are 100 percent legitimate. Don’t let anyone tell you different, or tell you to cheer up, try again next time, or any of those other stupid platitudes. This sucks. Be sad. Be mad. Punch a pillow. Spend a week in bed. Do whatever your heart is telling you to do. I like rage-running myself. That’s when I go running, and complain on the phone to a friend about how I hate the universe. Sometimes I even yell at the trees.
  9. Take as much time as you need to process these feelings.
  10. Remember that it does get better. Human beings are remarkably resilient. As painful as this is now, these feelings will eventually fade. Remember that years from now, when you are a super successful awesome person (inside or outside of academia), you’ll look back and wish that you could tell yourself that it does get better. Because seriously, it does.
  11. Be kind and gentle with yourself.
  12. Lean on your friends and loved ones. That’s what they are there for. My personal fan club has gotten me through really tough times. Your personal fan club will help you. Because as much as academia can be a toxic environment, there are some awesome and supportive people here too. Just to give you an example, right after I received an exceptionally bad peer teaching evaluation, a colleague took me out for French fries. In my experience, French fries will solve most problems.
  13. Since I seem to be on a Baz Luhrmann kick, it seems fitting to end with another quote:

    “Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”

But trust me on the French fries.

Andrea Eidinger has worked as a sessional instructor at a number of universities in British Columbia, and is the creator and author of Unwritten Histories, a Canadian history blog.

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  1. Russell Campbell / April 10, 2019 at 13:35

    Not worried about not getting the green light! It just means I can off-road and have more fun.

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