Besides getting a job after graduate school, I think it’s safe to say that we all want to have our research published. At least in some capacity whether it’s a series of journal papers or a book. It’s how we can make a name for ourselves and justify to the community that all that effort we made is worth talking about with others — and that the community thinks it’s significant enough to talk about.
According to my advisor, I should have started publishing year 3 and 4, okay great. (I’m now in year 5, but let us reflect on writing’s past). In 2017 I started writing my first manuscript, but like most things in graduate school, it is easier said than done. Not only is writing a technical paper challenging, but I never predicted how much anxiety I would experience just thinking about writing a manuscript. It took me an entire year to finish my first draft before I submitted to my advisor. Other research tasks always seemed more appealing and less intimidating like writing a conference paper (four pages? easy!). More often I convinced myself that I needed to expand my literature review to either make myself more-informed or find another “example of good technical writing” I could follow as a template for my draft.
After incredible amounts of internally arguing with myself coupled with the support of many friends and lots of coffee, I finally felt confident enough to send my paper to my advisor and other coauthors in 2018. Taking edits and criticism back from them was easy, probably the easiest part. I became pretty confident in the work that I did and how I presented it with their words of encouragement and few questions concerning the technical side of my draft. Things were looking good, then came time to submit my paper to the journal. I think every journal is a little different, especially from field to field, but okay, after some finagling I arranged it into the format they requested and off it went. Into the reviewer oblivion.
I submitted the paper mid-April 2018 and it surprisingly came back to me in August, a mere four months later. I asked a colleague if four months seemed too quick and he said yes (oh no), and that frankly it means my paper was one of two things: (1) was well-received and is being fast-tracked for publication with little to no review or (2) was flat out rejected. (True words of encouragement).
How lucky was I?
My paper was rejected by all three reviewers because, in short, they thought more work needed to be done before they could believe my argument. Now I’m paraphrasing because I barely made it reading through all the comments without crying. I was embarassed and felt as if the 2+ years I spent collecting, processing, analyzing, and writing were for nothing. I spiralized and had to step out of my office to calm down. Even though my colleagues again and again told me to prepare for the worst, I do not think you can actually prepare for rejection and receiving reviewer comments because you never know what will happen. In my case, the editor sent me a letter essentially apologizing for how harsh the comments and criticisms were that I received. Surprising, for sure, but at the time I was humiliated.
I could go on about how unfairly I think I was treated, but I did enough of that back in August. The one “good thing” about rejection is that you are not required to reply to the reviewers, which means there was no timeline for me to respond and correct. So I stopped reading their comments and put that paper in the back of my mind for several months. This manuscript is not part of my dissertation and thankfully I had other things I could spend my time on and that really helped.
Those months gave me time to actually reflect on what the reviewers said and over time I understood their concerns. It is so difficult to convey feelings and emotion through written word, especially a review, and it took me a long time to convince myself to not take what they said personally. I realized that in writing this draft, I became too familiar with my work and details were left out that made it difficult for others (like the reviewers) to understand. And that is one reason why we have reviewers, right? I started to give my reviewers the benefit of the doubt and believed that their intent wasn’t malicious, but instead it was to help.
Because that is what we need to do for each other. We need to help each other do the best work that we can, not break each other down.
So yeah, my first attempt to submit to a journal was rejected, but since then I’ve written another draft that’s (about) ready for submission and I’m preparing to resubmit that first paper. Here goes, onward and upward!
Your lady in geoscience,
2 thoughts on “On Rejection”
Thanks for writing this- I’m not in graduate school, but I hope to be one day, and it’s good to see more about research from a personal view. Good luck with your next submissions!
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I connect with this on a molecular level — something about spending years of your life focused on one thing to then have it critiqued by strangers is particularly brutal. All the best with re-submission — I hope we can get an update on the status of this process (I love following growth and development journeys).
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