I Got My First Academic Paper Rejected Today

Technically the title’s a lie. It wasn’t rejected today. It was rejected Saturday.

I received an e-mail from my co-author on a paper that we’re writing on the voting proclivities of Immigrants. The subject of the e-mail read “Editorial Decision on AJPS.” The preview line read, in part, “we were rejected at AJPS.” I could tell that this was going to go swimmingly.

I didn’t touch the e-mail. When I free-lanced in undergrad, I didn’t take rejection for my fiction too well. So I picked up a common-enough trick: Take 48 hours from learning about the rejection before reading why. Allow yourself to be less invested and protective so that you’re open for constructive criticism. So I waited. And while much of the criticism was constructive, boy was it criticism.

There’s a trope in academic writing that Reviewer 2 is the big jerk. But the most impactful words actually came from Reviewer 1:

“Does the empirical work produce some notable new findings, on whatever the puzzle is?”

“Does the author really know what his or her empirical findings are?”

Ouch.

I don’t mean to sound melancholy, but I’m not a stranger to failure. Let me just give a quick hit parade of my favorites:

  • I’m a distance runner and was NCAA DII Academic All American. I’ve ran probably over 100 races in my life. I’ve won maybe 10% of them and the last one was months ago. Even that fancy title to introduce my running prowess is really just something that they give to the fastest 50 student athletes in the region who held above a 3.5 GPA. I use it to ameliorate the knowing that I should have placed much higher, should have ran much faster — but I let the pressure get to my head.

Yep. No question, I have failed a lot. I have written numerous short stories that have never seen the light of day. I have received papers back from teachers starting with the invariably gut-wrenching “I understand the point you’re trying to make, but…[insert kind way of phrasing that the essay is effectively garbage].” I have literally come in dead. Last. At national-level races. I have thoroughly embarrassed and humiliated myself through acts both concerted and accidental. And here was another thing to tack on to the list.

I guess my point in writing this is to remind the people who fail (i.e., everyone) that you are not alone. To the person who gets rejected after pouring their heart into their first academic paper: It happened to me too. You’re in good company (or at least I like to think so). Hang in tight. Regroup, rewrite, resubmit. We can do this.

So when I read this failure, when I finally opened the e-mail and read the comments, I expected to feel shredded. I expected to feel awful. But I didn’t. In point of fact, I didn’t feel that negative at all. A lot of the comments were either expected or entirely understandable. I found myself literally nodding along saying “nope. You’re right. Totally should have considered that. I think we can easily address this in the next draft.” Even on the points that I feel weren’t totally earned, I recognized that there was still some component where I could have done better. Maybe we could have used different words, come up with a more deft explanation, conveyed our point better. We didn’t. But their comments give us the opportunity to do so now.

I found that the failures I have experienced before, in all their many shapes and sizes, have inoculated me from the visceral pain of rejection today. I know, I’m just as surprised as you are.

If I had to take stock and figure out why, my guess would be that I’ve learned a lot from these failures. Repeated failure has taught me how to appropriately orient my expectations. It’s taught me to value the things I achieved on my way to failing that I get to apply next time. It’s taught me to enjoy, value, and cherish the things that has gone very right as a result of past things going very wrong. (Hi, Steph! I love you!). In fact, here’s that hit parade reexamined:

  • I don’t win races often. It’s true. But I’ve ran my fastest times in the races that I’ve lost in the presence of incredible competition. Before every race, I pray in gratitude for my competition. I thank God for the fact that we all get to push each other to our best. I’ve ran enough to know that your goals really need to be set by the things you can control. Namely, yourself and your own expectations. I didn’t win the last race that I ran. But I did run the fastest time I ever did on that course. And that counts for something.

Look, let’s cut the crap: This is not a redemption story. There’s no fairy tale ending where I’ll someday announce “and that was the last time I ever failed.” That sort of stuff isn’t even phony. It’s bullshit. Life isn’t about surmounting a few obstacles early on and then coming across the clear and easy path. It’s about tripping up over the early obstacles, learning how to overcome them, doing just that again and again as they crop up down the road, and applying that knowledge to help overcome the next unique obstacle. I’m going to keep failing. I get to keep failing. I’m fortunate enough that I’m failing in ways that allow me to get back up and continue failing in new and constructive ways.

Shoot, this isn’t even a fairy tale where I say “and I never felt bad about failure again.” Of course I’m going to feel bad about failure. Everyone does! That wrenching singularity of a pit in your stomach is a totally appropriate response to watching something you endeavored to make, something that you invested some of the precious finite time you have in this world, flop like a dead fish fused with a video game movie.

But!

The more we fail in the long run, the less that pit pains us. And the pain is less for the dual reasons that we improve and that we learn to adjust to it. It’s a general trend, not a perfect 1:1 relationship; some things are going to hurt more than others. And sometimes it’s not going to be for an obvious reason. The brain is weird. Science hasn’t quite figured out how to resolve that quirk. But, the general trend is down. The pain of rejection tends to diminish with each one.

I guess my point in writing this is to remind the people who fail (i.e., everyone) that you are not alone. To the person who gets rejected after pouring their heart into their first academic paper: It’s just happened to me too. You’re in good company (or at least I like to think so). Hang in tight. Regroup, rewrite, resubmit. We can do this.

Maybe the next rejection will hurt more profoundly. Maybe it won’t. Who knows. All I know is that this time didn’t. I’ll try to keep that with me and keep the positivity going.

And I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

Peter R. Licari is a Graduate Student in Political Science at the University of Florida specializing in American Politics, Political Behavior, and Political Methodology. The opinions expressed are his own. He can also be found on YouTube and on Twitter. What little spare time remains is dedicated to long-distance running, video games with his ever-patient fiancee, and to oddly productive one-sided conversations with his cat, Asia.

I’m a data scientist and social scientist specializing in political behavior. I’m also a runner, writer, gamer, YouTuber, and dinosaur enthusiast.