Having a paper rejected is one of the certainties of academic life. While there are some strategies to decrease the probability of facing a rejection, today I want to focus on my tips to deal with them—particularly for the benefit of younger scientists.
There are two broad kinds of rejections: Desk Rejections and Rejections from reviewers. In any case, the best advice is never to take action after receiving the dreaded rejection letter. Take a day or two, then react accordingly with a cooler head. Remember, this isn’t about you it’s hard not to make it personal but trust me it isn’t.
The first kind, desk rejections, are provided directly from the chief or associated editors of the journal to which you submitted your work. They tend to be quick and rather uninformative except for maybe the incompatibility—to put it nicely—of your work with the scope of the journal. These are also sometimes the hardest to face since they make you feel your work is simply not good enough to be published; but they’re also the quickest and in the publish-or-perish scheme of things, time is key. After getting a desk rejection, if no other input is given, just try again; one tip—though not infallible—to chose a proper journal is to look at which journals are you citing in your own work and chose one with the highest frequency. Sometimes, editors might offer a transfer to another journal from the same publishing house; my advice is always say yes to transfers: the submission is made for you by the editorial staff, it sort of becomes recommended between the involved editors, and expedites the start-again process. Of course, a transfer does not mean you’re manuscript will get accepted but whenever offered there is a good chance the first editor thinks your work should be kept inside their editorial instead of risking you going to another publishing house. Appealing to a desk rejection is highly discouraged since it practically never works. Sure, you may think the editor will kick himself in the rear once you get the Nobel prize but telling them so, particularly in a colorful language, will not make them change their minds.
Rejections after peer review are trickier. If your manuscript went up to peer review, it means the editors in charge of it thought your work is publishable but of course it needs to be looked at by experts to make sure it was done in the right way with all or most things covered (you know what they say, two heads are better than one, try three!). Now, this kind of rejection takes longer, usually two or three weeks—sometimes even longer—but all things being fair, polite, and objective, they are also the most informative. Reviewers will try to find holes in your logic, flaws in your research, and when they find them they will not hold back their thoughts; you’re in for the hard truth. So of course this kind of rejection is also hard to take, makes you feel again like your work is not worthy, that you’re not worthy as a scientist. But the big advantage here is you now have a blueprint of things to fix in your manuscript: a set of experiments are missing? run them, key literature wasn’t cited? read it and cite it appropriately. Take peer review objectively but never dismiss it by trying to just go and submit it again to a different journal as is, for chances are you’ll get some of the same reviewers, and even if you don’t, it’s unethical to dismiss the advice of peers, they are your peers in the end, not your bosses but your peers, don’t loose sight of it. Also, it’s very frustrating for reviewers to find that authors managed to get published without paying the slightest attention to their suggestions. Appealing a peer review rejection is hard but doable and then you have to put on a scale what is it that you value the most: your paper in its original condition being published in that specific journal or fixing it and start again. An appeal upon a flat rejection is hardly ever won but it may well establish a conversation with other scientists (the referees) about their point of view on your work, just don’t think you’ve made instant buddies who will now coach you through academic life.
The peer review system is far from perfect, but if done properly it is still the best thing we’ve got. Some other alternatives are being tested nowadays to reduce biases like open reviews signed and published by reviewers themselves; double and even triple blind peer review (in the latter not even the editor knows the identities of authors or reviewers) but until proven useful we have to largely cope and adapt to single blind peer review (just play nice, people). In some instances the dreaded third reviewer appears, and even a fourth and a fifth. Since there are no written laws and I’m not aware of any journal specifying the number of referees to be involved in the handling of a manuscript there may be varied opinions among reviewers, so different as from ranging from accept to reject. This may be due to the editor thinking one or more of the reviewers didn’t do their job properly (in either direction) and then brings another one to sort of break the tie or outweigh the opinion of a clearly biased reviewer. If you think there are bias, consult with the editor if a new set of reviewers may be included to complete the process, more often than not they will say no but if you raise a good point they might feel compelled to do so.
Science is a process that starts at the library and ends at the libraryDr. Jesús Gracia-Mora, School of Chemistry UNAM ca. the nineteen nineties
These are truths we must learn from a young age. Any science project does not end at the lab but at the library, therefore I let my students—even the undergrads—do the submission process of their manuscripts along with me, and involve them in the peer review process (sometimes and to some limited extent even when I’m the reviewer) just so they now that getting a rejection letter is part of the process and should never be equated with the relative quality or self-worth of a scientist since that is hardly what the publication process looks at.
So, in a nutshell, if you got a rejection letter, get back on the proverbial saddle and try again. And again. And once again.
Mental health problems in graduate students have existed for ages. The constant and ever-increasing competition both in and out of the academic realm puts an extra toll on young students who already must deal with harsh economic conditions, an uncertain future, and the general unrecognition from society, not to mention sometimes a bullying environment from advisors. Back in the old days, struggling students were said to be ‘cracking under pressure‘, only for the heightening of thriving students who, in comparison, were deemed superior.
The story of Jason Altom is an extreme example of how a highly competitive environment may transform into an abusive one. Jason took his life in 1998 by ingesting potassium cyanide during his final years at Harvard. He was 26. The molecule he was trying to synthesize was completed the following year, and the corresponding report in JACS listed him as a co-author. It was also dedicated to his memory in the acknowledgements section. He was also not the first in the lab to take his life but his suicide note, as reported by The Crimson, suggested some policy changes like having not one but three supervisors per student.
Research institutions outside the top highest in the world, have also a lot of pressure put on students and young researchers even if the stakes are not Nobel-Prize-high. At the same time there are more graduate students now than ever before; the high demand for higher qualifications without the proper emotional development led to a critical mass of frustrated students who become bitter against the same activity they were first drawn to.
Getting a PhD, a real one, is tremendously hard, no question about it, but it shouldn’t be something you lose your mind for. Nothing should. One of my dearest mentors, Prof. Raymundo Cea-Olivares whom I’ve quoted many times before in this blog, often said that any human activity is hard, especially if you try to push its limits, yet PhD students are six-times more prone to suffer some kind of mental issue than a person the same age in the general population. To me, getting a PhD -or doing research for that matter- means you are trying to solve a question nobody else has been able to answer with methods you first need to master before even knowing whether they’re entirely suitable or not. A recurring theme in troubled students is not fully understanding what they are doing or why things are not going out the way they’re supposed to, which only increases the ‘impostor syndrome’ we all feel at some point or another. By definition, you are only an impostor if you’re working unethically, faking or stealing data, otherwise you’re welcome to my lab always; in fact, I prefer to deal with colleagues suffering from impostor syndrome than Dunning-Kruger‘s any day of the week. Here is the bottom line: superior or inferior its a relative term that only exists when you compare yourself to others. Don’t. Ever. The amount of time you devote to comparing yourself to others or indulging in self pity is wasted time you could well be using in doing something for yourself, whether it is studying, working or living.
If I should say something to struggling students is this: You are better than you think. That’s it. Seriously. You got into grad school and more importantly you will come out of it.
Nature has recently curated a collection of articles and essays addressing the mental-health problem in academia. Also, Prof. Christopher J. Cramer has a popular video on the matter, and somewhat tangentially so does Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. There are many other resources at your local university to help you cope with your PhD-derived anxiety, because remember: You are not alone.