From the APA Science Student Council

Feeling Rejected? Graduate Students and the Journal Article Review Process

Our best advice for how to turn the rejections you experience in the publication process into stepping stones that lead to a productive academic career

The Science Student Council is a group of nine graduate students who spend a couple of weekends a year with the Science staff, advising us on programs and activities that would benefit graduate students in psychological science. This month, and every month for the next year or so, the students will present useful information that other graduate students need to know! Visit the Science Student Council to learn more about the activities of the SSC.

 

Feeling Rejected? Graduate Students and the Journal Article Review Process
by Marcella H. Boynton, University of Connecticut 

 

As academics, we have all dealt with rejection, whether it be for a manuscript, grant application, symposium submission, poster submission, or all of the above. Even though we all know what it is like to have our work rejected, in some ways it never becomes easier. Despite reminding ourselves that rejection happens to everyone, this can be of little comfort when feeling the frustration and angst that comes on the heels of a rejection notice. Interestingly, some research indicates that social rejection and physical pain are associated with some of the same regions of the brain (Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003), clear physiological evidence that the pain felt following a rejection is often, to us at least, very real indeed.

The APA Science Student Council (APASSC) is a group of nine psychological science graduate students, each representing a different sub-field of study. The Council reports to the APA Board of Scientific Affairs and is assisted in its efforts by the APA Science Directorate. The members of the Council are keenly interested in representing the needs of research-oriented graduate students within APA and to that end continually develop new resources and programming for graduate students. APASSC has created a number of tools designed to assist new psychological scientists in their endeavors, including a 2007 APA convention symposium that provided advice on how to deal with manuscript rejection. Many of these resources, including a PDF of the rejection symposium slides, can be accessed on the APASSC website.

After this initial reaction to rejection, the next question often is: What should I do now? The good news is that a lot can be done; rejection is simply one of several steps on the path to ultimately getting your work accepted. Below is our best advice for how to turn the rejections you experience in the publication process into stepping stones that lead to a productive academic career.

Give yourself some time. After reading the operative line in an action editor’s letter indicating that your paper has not been accepted for publication, it is often advisable to set the reviewer feedback aside for at least a few days. This “cooling off period” allows you to emotionally adjust to the news. Then, when you finally do read the reviewer feedback, you can process it critically rather than through an emotional lens.

Decide on your next strategy. Now that you’ve read the reviewer feedback, re-read the action letter and think about how to proceed. Discuss the feedback with your co-authors (if there are any) and decide what the next strategy should be for getting your paper published. Consider the action letter’s words carefully; often the language of the letter strongly indicates whether the editor feels that you should revise and resubmit or submit elsewhere. Even if an editor extends an opportunity to resubmit, careful consideration should be made as to whether you wish to make the changes that would be required (e.g., you may not want to add two more studies to your paper before seeing it in print).

Respond to all of the feedback in a professional manner. Whether or not you decide to resubmit to the same journal, make sure to respond to all of the reviewer feedback. Although some feedback might feel like a personal attack, it is rarely meant that way. Reviewers donate their services as a courtesy to their colleagues, and many put significant thought and effort into their feedback. As a consequence, you owe it to yourself, your co-authors, and the reviewers to respond to all of the comments in some way. This may be accomplished by making the suggested changes, clarifying a particular section, or by adding a point that addresses a reviewer’s question or criticism.

If you are resubmitting to the same journal, make sure to describe in your cover letter to the editor how you have responded to each of the concerns. Although a passage may seem perfectly clear or a point self-evident to you, as the first author you are burdened with knowing too much about the research being described. As a consequence, you need to rely on the eyes of others to see the occasional errors, inconsistencies, and disorder of your writing. Also, remember that your reviewers are likely to be members of your manuscript’s potential audience. If a reviewer reports trouble understanding your article, it is probable that your intended audience will too. In addition, incorporation of the reviewers’ suggestions into your revised manuscript often helps to make your article more accessible to a wider audience, thereby increasing its impact and appeal. When you finally do resubmit your manuscript, make sure to submit a professional draft without comments still in the margin or changes still “tracked” in the word processing program. Taken individually, small errors such as these may seem trivial. Taken together, however, they imply significant carelessness on the part of the author, which is not the message you want to send. Fix your mistakes, large and small alike!

Be persistent. Rather than repeatedly putting yourself and your work into a critical spotlight, it is tempting to let a rejection convince you not to resubmit. However, if you truly wish to have your work published, you should resist the impulse to give up. Initial rejection does not seem so bad when you realize that it is an expected part of the publication process and that it typically occurs a couple of times before a manuscript becomes a publication. Be persistent in revising and resubmitting, either to the same journal or a new one. With each round of revisions know that your paper is becoming a better product with increasing odds of success.

Know that you are not alone. Although your rejection experiences seem unique, many of the most successful academics have encountered a great deal of rejection in their careers. There is useful advice on this topic in The Compleat Academic (Darley, Zanna, & Roediger, 2006). Also, take the time to ask colleagues whom you trust and admire about their experiences with rejection. Hearing tales of rejection from those you view as “successful” academics can serve as a great reality check in terms of realizing that rejection is a natural part of being an academic. These anecdotes can serve as a comforting reminder that the majority of even the most well-cited papers in your field initially experienced rejection.

References

Darley, J.M., Zanna, M.P., & Roediger, H.L. (2006). The Compleat Academic: A Career Guide. Second Edition. American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C.

Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292.