What I learned from academic rejection

Dear fellow academics, how many of you felt that you wanted so much to be accepted when you submitted your manuscripts, abstracts to conferences, book chapters, PhD dissertations, grant proposals and so on, that you could even beg? I think most of us have, and this is what I have been feeling lately. So, I want to talk about my experience with acceptance and rejection of academic related issues, also trying to do this in a way that people outside academia will understand, and my plea to the journal that has my manuscript under review as of a few weeks ago.

So, what is one of the main fears of humans? Rejection. I haven’t found any statistics but I can assume that most of the world population suffers from this in any form. At least I do sometimes and I try to fight it the best I can. Do you ever think of that person in your life (it can even be yourself) that has amazing potential but never fulfills it because this person is afraid to go after one’s dreams? This can go from never asking for the promotion you know you deserve at work because you’re afraid your boss will find it so ridiculous you will be fired, or from never asking out your crush because you’re afraid you will be mocked by the given crush and its group of peers. It can even lead you to forget who you are just to pretend to be someone you think will fit the group you want to be in. I don’t want to dwelve much into what to do to overcome this in your life because just a quick search returns a lot of tips, but my personal tip is to go for it (like I did with the blog, I was so afraid to release it and I think a lot if my readers like my content or not), stay true to your vision and principles, and if rejected, to learn from it. This applies of course to academics.

In my short academic career of almost 5 years now (where did time go? 5 years ago I was preparing to write my MSc thesis!), I did not have to deal yet with grant proposals, which I assume are the ultimate task that raises a lot of fear, because you have more people and more prestige than when you are a PhD student and you want to keep your research funded. However, I had already some successes, with already 3 articles in international peer reviewed journals (and one pending that will be accepted hopefully) and more than a dozen presentations in conferences and workshops, but I also suffered from rejection, with having a PhD grant in my first year of academic career denied, and also having had articles rejected 3 times before being accepted. I used to think this was a bit shameful, but I’m sure a lot of you can relate. So, here I want to share what I have learned from rejection in this context:

You heart might not really be into what you put out there and you should change your path

I remember vividly my individual PhD scholarship rejection. I was working at this wonderful institute, got along very well with colleagues and was learning a lot, and I got suggested to submit a PhD proposal on my topic back then. I was liking my research, but it was not exactly what I saw myself making career at. Despite this, I wrote the proposal in two weeks only instead of having prepared for it a bit better and was like, let’s see what goes from here. Soon before I knew the results, I was thinking I didn’t want it, but when I knew I didn’t get selected (and didn’t even get close to be selected) I was so sad because I had had a presentation at a conference a few hours before and received a lot of positive feedback and was thinking “maybe I should go on with this”. We tried to make it work, but after a while I got a chance to move closer to my current field and I took it.

So, the take-home message is: if there was some cosmic power trying to tell me I should follow my true dreams, it decided to act upon it. Because when you feel that you really want something, you’ll go for it no matter what. At least that’s how I am. This led me to be more cautious before making further PhD proposals, even having not wanted to submit one in my former workplace, and when I really wanted to enroll in a PhD that I thought would give me the skills I need, guess what? I got selected =) So really ask yourself if what you are working towards is really what you want to do to be sure you don’t shut down better opportunities.

You are into your work too much to be able to see the flaws

Sometimes you and your supervisor, from your knowledge and after reading a lot of stuff, think that your innovative approach is very clear and is ready to be published. You also want to commit to a goal of one article per year so you are so eager in generating results that you don’t stop to look at your approach from outside and ask yourself a few more questions. From my experience, this doesn’t end well. When the reviewers give some feedback that you were not expecting but then you see it was quite obvious, it hurts because you even lost months of work waiting for that feedback. But being so into the work may often lead to this. So, if your group hosts regular group meetings and you have the chance to talk about your work with no risks (this is another tip, be very mindful of who you disclose details of your work to), even someone from a completely different field might help a lot. If you can explain how you did it in general terms and the usefulness of the results to someone from a different field, likely you’re on the right path.

You might have to take better care of the outside to make the inside shine

I look like a fashion advisor now =D If the general aspect of your article is not good, even though the content might be good, there’s a chance the reviewer is not going to be impressed. Flawed figures, bad English writing skills, tables that are not easy to understand, typos, among others. I was once asked to review a manuscript and I spent two days doing it. I tried to focus on the content, which had some flaws, but I was immediately put off by several typos, figures with wrong axis and legends and low resolution figures. I gave the most constructive advice I could and I told myself I would be more careful about the overall look of my manuscripts. However, I did not always keep my promise. I am always very careful about the writing part and read it several times before submitting, but with figures I slacked a bit.

On the previous version of the article I am trying to submit now, I had plots that were too basic, all in black and I admit they were not the best way to present the information. Even though that was not the main reason the article was rejected in that form, this time I took an extra care with figures and overall look.

I took a few days to make the plots in R, because I like programming and the tools for automating the figures are quite good. After you spend some time working with the parameters, you get very nice looking plots. If it’s not your cup of tea, you have other softwares, like GraphPad Prism and OriginPro for scientific plotting. In order to put everything together without losing resolution, I used Inkscape to do some drawings. It’s not as powerful as Photoshop but it’s a good freeware alternative, better than GIMP which I really don’t like. In terms of writing, Word works well but if you want an extra look on your article and automate all the formatting, LaTeX templates are great. The journal I submitted to had a template and there was an automatic submission platform through Overleaf. If writing in English is hard for you, ask for proofreading services at your institution, or use an online service like this, but I believe most times asking to a colleague or a friend with good English to take a look is enough and cheaper 😉

You are not knocking at the right door

That is, you’re not submitting to the right journal. Sometimes all we want is to get our paper in the highest impact journal, but sometimes the scope of the journal is too broad and your work is too specific. This happenened to me once when I tried to submit a paper to a more general journal in Biomedical Engineering that features a lot of experimental work, but I got better results after being rejected there in a more specific computational journal of my field. The best way to know where to submit your manuscript is to check the journal where you have the highest number of references from. Of course if combined with a good impact factor for your area, this is ideal.


These are the 4 main lessons I learned so far! I know it hurt me the times I opened my e-mail just to see “Manuscript rejected at journal XYZ”. But since I’m stubborn, and if you really believe your work (and often you really need the papers to advance in the career), judge for yourself the advice of reviewers, make the corrections that seem plausible and feasible, and go for another journal.

In past July I FINALLY submitted again a paper from my work before the PhD. I had it rejected three times in the previous format and after a lot of careful reading of all the reviewers advice, I decided to fully change the approach I was taking. I changed the model in a major part, got nicer figures and so on. Since it was computational work, I could do it, if it was laboratorial work it would be so much harder. However, this took me a massive effort this year. I wasn’t forced to do this and I could have given up, but more than having another paper to advance me into an academic career that I don’t know yet if I will pursue, I did this for myself. Because we had this goal and I felt that so much work should be made more visible, even though I already have an article from that fellowship. I worked on weekends and late in the afternoon in a library after leaving my PhD office because my current work always comes first as it should. I was always finding errors in code and having to repeat a lot of simulations. But in the end, after so much work, I was really proud of what I showed my former supervisor and he liked it too. I used this opportunity to go to Aveiro and it felt quite good. Hopefully this feeling of clear conscience will translate to the reviewers when they read my manuscript. As of August 2nd, it is under review. Well, wish me luck in my plea!


What were the main lessons that rejection taught you?


Liked this post? Pin it!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *