Failure and criticism in Academia

This might not tell you anything new; I’m sure other people have written much more eloquently about this than I have. But I’ve received a paper rejection today, and I’m grumpy, so bear with me (or not; your choice).

Something nobody tells you about until you’re somehow knee-deep into your PhD is how criticism and failure are a constant companion academic research and culture. In part, it’s the nature of research: we have to poke holes into existing ideas and theories and results in order to drive research forward and improve what we know about the world. And academia, be it journal papers, conference talks and papers, jobs, funding, can be incredibly competitive. But on an individual, personal level, this can sometimes be really, really discouraging, and the culture doesn’t always encourage people to be kind, especially when they’re unknown to the people whose work they are judging.

Failure is very common in academia: the best journals have a very high rejection rate, proposals get funded at a rate of 1 out of 10, and jobs and fellowships can be over-subscribed by a factor of hundred. In the case of jobs, often you just fail: there’s no explanation, no reasoning for why you didn’t get chosen. This type of rejection is awful, because it doesn’t allow you to improve. It feels like you’ve been judged, and you’ve been deemed not good enough.

Then there are the failures that have (usually anonymous) reviews attached to them. Many are constructive and useful, but an equal number is unnecessarily harsh, and sometimes insulting and offensive. I have had reviews that I deliberately had to put away for a week or more until I was calm enough to read and act on them.

And then there are the silent, daily failures big and small: the project that you’ve invested six months in that’s going nowhere. The great idea you’ve had that suddenly someone tells you after your conference talk is based on a flawed assumption. The e-mails from your co-authors on your paper draft that tell you all the things that are not good enough and need to change.

There are days when I can take all those suggestions and criticisms and use them productively to work on myself or my research or my knowledge. But there are also days like today where all those failures and critiques sap all my energy and I just feel tired and dejected.

I’m not arguing that there shouldn’t be criticism; there absolutely should be. We need to be critical of each other’s research in order to do it well. And I’ve certainly been (unreasonably) critical of other people’s work in the past, and will probably occasionally fall into that trap again, although I’m trying to do better and be more conscientious in my phrasing.

But the next time you write a review, or talk to someone about their work, remember that behind each rejection or critique there’s a person who likely poured a lot of thought and effort into the thing you’re criticising or rejecting.

Be kind: tell them something you like about their work along with the things you don’t.

Be constructive: don’t tell them what they’ve done wrong, tell them how they can improve, and be as specific as you can be in your suggestions.

Be respectful of the effort the other person has put into their work.

One positive example I recently saw was the (unblinded) review for the scipy conference. From the scipy reviewer guidelines: “Don’t be rude. Always say at least one good thing.“ and “Be grateful. Point out what you learned and say thanks.”.  This is especially important if you are reviewing or criticising the work of early-career academics, who also live with the constant threat of an uncertain professional future, and who might ask themselves with every rejection: Am I just not good enough for this job?

If you’ve recently received a rejection, remember that you’re not alone. Most of us go through this in many small and big ways, every day. Take the things people praise about your work and believe them. Take the constructive parts of the criticism or review and use them to improve. Try not to take the unconstructive parts to heart, but remember how they made you feel for the next time you have to criticise or reject someone else’s work.

I worked on the paper that got rejected for over a year (with awesome help from my collaborators). Despite the rejection, I’m still proud of it and the work that went into it. The reviews were professional, but felt pretty harsh and short (especially given that the paper had been under re-review for four months), and I’m sad and discouraged that after more than six months since the initial submission, this is the outcome.

I, for my part, am going to put away the paper and the reviews for a few days and work on other things. And then I’m going to pick myself up, read them in detail, and figure out what to do about them. Eventually, I’m going to submit the paper to a different journal, and cross my fingers that the story will have a good outcome after all in a few months.

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