My wall of rejection and why it matters

If I had a magic wand and could change something about academia, I would make it commonplace for people to share their rejections – on blogs, by emailing colleagues, by running to their office neighbours, print-out in hand, saying “You won’t believe how awful the review I got this morning was! Come and laugh at it with me over coffee!”. I’d love for our workplace walls to be covered with juicy rejections.

#rejectionwall #failurewall #rejectionisnormal #noshame

I recently updated my shadow CV and this got me thinking about rejections. The topic came up last week when I was sat with three very highly respected female professors. The four of us shared our battle scars together, almost competitively one-upping each other: “you think that rejection was bad, mine was worse!”. It turned out three of us had actually been rejected after having papers accepted (as an editor, I didn’t even know ‘unaccept’ was a button you could press in the system!).

The conference that brought us all together had a strong theme relating to materialities, and I started thinking about the materialities of rejection: or, in fact how hidden away academic rejections are from public view, how often they remain in the private digital aether. I made the decision there and then to tear down all the copies of publications that were currently festooned on my office door. After all, while I felt good coming past them each day, it probably didn’t have the same effect on my colleagues. I realised, perhaps  *little* late, that my successes are public enough. People have no problem accessing the ‘Nick is awesome’ version of my career; it is even foisted on them at times without them having to look. What was clearly needed was a visceral, material reminder, an exposé of my many journal rejections, failed research grant applications, and missed job opportunities. Yes, these are in my shadow CV, but that itself is shadowy: only accessed if you know to look for it.

There are some wonderful examples of people sharing rejections (see this fantastic blog by the always awesome Pat Thomson, for example). But I still worry this stuff is too hidden from view.

Ta dah! Here is my new wall of rejection – there for all my colleagues and visiting students to see. I intend to keep it there, and keep adding to it as the rejections flow in.

 

Why am I doing this?

One responder to a tweet in which I shared a similar picture, @drlizziewho asked: Why do you do this? Good question.

I was simply amazed by the response to the tweet. Over 90,000 impressions, and nearly 700 retweets in the first 15 hours (unprecedented in my contributions to the tweetosphere). People commenting seemed to be from two groups:

  1. Students and early career researchers, who took solace in realising rejection affects us all, is normal, and is nothing to be ashamed of; the value here was that rejection doesn’t mean you’re not good enough, but this message isn’t communicated very often
  2. More experienced researchers who wonderfully acknowledged their own rejections. I’d like to quote a few of them here and thank them for joining the fun

@Liam_Wagner: I think I will plagiarise your idea and cover my office wall with my own list.

@StephenBHeard: You might like my job-rejection list (an awesome blog that develops the theme of the shadow cv)

@SimmsMelanie: I love telling people that I got rejected from my own journal – more than once

@RoseGWhite: I’m sure I could cover a whole corridor like this!

@JRobinHighley: I would start my own display, but not sure I have a wall big enough

@TrevorABranch: My wall is not big enough

@naynerz: If that were my office, not enough all space for my rejections LOL

@mathewjowens: I’m tempted to do this for grant rejections. Though I fear for the deforestation effect

@SJC_fishy: I would need a much larger wall

@RobHarcourt: So would I!

 

And so it goes on… I simply love how the tweet has prompted those of us who have enjoyed some successes to relish in sharing our less fortunate moments.

 

@SiouxsieW asked: Does it not depress you seeing that every day? My answer is no! Not at all. It helps to project me from being wounded when the rejections come (and they are definitely coming!) – by keeping me real and helping realise despite all the rejections in the past, I’m still doing okay – indeed I’m doing better every year (though this doesn’t mean the rejection rate goes down). I also admit it gives me a buzz to think the wall, or pictures of it, are perhaps helping others in some small way.

 

Exposing our rejections is not just important, but necessary in my view, for these reasons:

  1. If we don’t do so, we collude in producing a half-truth about academic life and careers: it’s like hiding all the out-takes.
  2. It’s not just about fun and laughing with (not at) others. The point is that research, careers, publications are not smooth; their journeys into the light of success are bumpy, full of dead ends and disasters. We have to come clean that this is part of knowledge production.
  3. Research would suggest that rejections don’t affect everyone the same way. It’s easy enough for me, with a full time, ongoing job, to brush off a rejection and keep going. It’s not the same for people whose positions are less secure, or whose immediate futures relied on that grant or article getting through.
  4. The professors I was talking to commented that there might be a gender dimension in how we respond to and are affected by rejections. Not that all women respond one way and all men another, but that historically, perhaps the publicity around male success and continued disproportionate representation of men in leadership positions generally, might mean that rejections can ‘bite’ women in particular ways.
  5. There is a pedagogy here – not only normalising rejection, but also potentially modelling ways to deal with it. I’m no masochist. I don’t find rejection fun. I fear rejection. Of course I do. Everything I’ve had rejected has mattered to me, reflected hours of work and emotional input. But I don’t let fear of rejection stop me from trying in the first place. And I don’t let the experience of rejection prevent me from keeping going.

So, here is a really serious call for help:

If you’ve had a rejection, or a whole pile of them, please share with us! Maybe publish your shadow CV, or take a picture of your own #rejectionwall – or do something else creative! Maybe write and tell me what you and colleagues are doing to normalise rejection and build pedagogies of how to deal with it.

 

STOP PRESS! I’ve been (joyously) overwhelmed by the response to the tweet and blog. Here are some links to things I’ve received from people 🙂

Peggy Blair’s blog in which she shows off her rejections from the publishing industry

An article about another Shadow CV – this time from a really big prof!

A heads up about a paper that will be coming out in the Professional Geographer journal, about failure in academia (Thom Davies et al) – will update with more info when it comes out!

And the first person to share their #rejectionwall – thanks a billion @AlexaDelbosc

AlexaDelbosc rejection wall

 

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17 thoughts on “My wall of rejection and why it matters

  1. Sarina Kilham

    Hi Nick,
    This is an interesting post – but I think you’ve underplayed the privilege that comes with being able to have a Wall of Rejection – the materiality lies not only in your printed ‘rejection’ papers, but in the fact that you have a wall, an office, a space that is permanent where you can display these. The fact that you have wall is material evidence of your success.

    I imagine rejections are easier to both embrace and display from positions of full-time employment. I’m not sure that casual/sessional staff – let those that face other intersectionalities of disadvantages would be so keen to embrace their rejections and the CV of failures has been widely criticised for this.

    UTS has 70% of staff on insecure contracts – most sessional staff couldn’t display a wall of rejections if they wanted, simply because they don’t have a piece of wall.

    This blog covers some of the issues with the idea of ‘keep trying’ https://artknob.wordpress.com/2016/05/01/the-privilege-of-failure-in-the-precarious-economy/

    I get your point – but I personally feel that rejections are less of an issue than the myriad of other barriers that face academics.

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Hi Sarina

      Thank you for your comment. I agree: the privileged position was underplayed, and I’m thankful that you raised this. While my career has not been without its insecurities, I acknowledge these have been less sustained than for many people who merited no less. Interestingly now, privileged positions are no guarantee of offices and walls just like they are no guarantee against rejection (I met a huge prof last year in Manchester who now hot desks). Equally there are people with offices and walls for whom discourses of excellence and neoliberal performance management regimes can be a constant reminder of failure.

      I have no moral crusade, no judgement of people who for whatever reason keep their rejections to themselves. I am encouraged when others engage in similar practices because I do believe they are helpful. Normalising rejection, dismantling illusions of unfettered success, and cultivating (in whatever indirect way) a trigger to think how to deal with rejection (and I have no answers here: it still really hurts every time), are important, in my view.

      There are some interesting issues at stake here: the discourse of ‘keep trying’ has its place, but (rather like the view of resilience which requires the person to dig deeper), expects the person in the hard situation to be responsible for the response. I think that’s a big ask, and risks upholding the ‘victim’ (rejectee) as the ‘villain’ (rubbish academic). You’re rightly pointing to structural issues around academic job security. I also wonder whether our systems are really serving their purpose if we reject so much. Is it really the best we can do to have months of work go into fully developed grant proposals that are budgeted down to the dollar, when most don’t get the money and those that do get a fraction of the $ ask anyway, so the budget goes out of the window? Is it really the best for advancing scholarship that so many authors, editors and reviewers spend so much time engaged in practices triggered by the ‘reject’ button? Yes, we have to have the option to reject, but maybe the fact that so many people don’t have walls big enough to display their rejections is not only an issue about wall space, but about how we go about trying to maintain quality in what we do?

      Reply
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  3. Kate

    Do you have a follow up of those rejections? Did you try to revise and resubmit elsewhere? What did you do to overcome those rejections or did you just accept it?

    My situation is that I’ve gotten essentially desk rejected, and I’m wondering if it’s worth revising and submitting elsewhere. While the feedback was valuable, one part of contention was the assertion that my sample was too small to be considered, although other articles in that journal have similar or smaller sample sizes…

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Hi
      Thank you for your comment and questions.
      Most of the rejections did end up published, but not all (and I was a bit reluctant to put this in the original post as it might undermine the point about rejection always being overshadowed by stories of success). The ones that never went further were because I realised they were half baked, or just bad ideas / no contribution in play.
      In some cases it was a matter of minor revisions and sending to a similar journal (the one rejected twice with two HUGE profs was an example of this). In others it involved using the reviewer comments to improve it.
      Desk rejects can often be not because the paper is bad but because it didn’t fit the journal. In your case this seems to be what is happening: methodological misfit (despite the precedence which you mention). So I would be inclined to insert some small new text justifying and acknowledging the small sample, and sending it somewhere else without much further ado. You could approach an editor with your abstract and raise this point to seek confirmation… Of course it may be that the sample per se isn’t the issue, but the relationship between the sample and the argument you are trying to make is seen as problematic. But still I’d not be ready to throw in the towel just yet.

      Reply
      1. Kate

        Thanks so much for your response, Dr. Hopwood.
        I really did (and do!) enjoy your post. As a new researcher, I think it’s also important to learn from rejection and to say, “Okay, I got this rejection–what now?” Your blog was great at showing how common rejection actually is, but I guess more relevant to my specific situation is–where do we go from here? And how do others confront this issue and when do you just throw in the towel.

        I will certainly expand my methods section to point out the sample sizes of others to ensure I situate myself into literature correctly. Strangely, this paper is based on previous research data used for a published paper, where the journal editor who rejected the latest paper is also a co-editor of the journal the previous paper was published in… This is also why I question the sample size comment. I think I will focus more on the call to push the theory forward more and the content related issues…

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  9. poshprofessional

    Also a bit late, but I currently sit here in tears after my latest rejection notice. “We love your resume, but…”
    There’s always a but. Here I sit with a double Master’s degree with nothing but a few years experience and an expired credential in a career I found that I didn’t enjoy. After nine months of searching in my “new” field of choice, and nothing but rejections even in entry level positions, I am about to give up and go climb under a rock.

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Oh gosh. This sounds gruelling. I am sure the many other people in similar situations value your sharing what has been happening. Do post an update when things improve

      Reply

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