Rejections may be hard to take, but they’re not hard to come by. Associate Professor in the School of Education Nick Hopwood explains why he’s plastering his own academic rejection letters across his office door and turning his ‘failures’ into inspiration.
Little did I know, back in June, that the picture I had just tweeted would have such an impact. After years of hard academic slog, topped up by efforts to develop a social media profile, the thing I’m most widely known for now is being useless.
The tweet showed my rejection wall: a collection of quotations or summaries of rejections I have accumulated over my academic career, plastered over the door to my office. Juicy quotes from research proposal reviewers (“It is difficult to see the contribution this study would make to existing knowledge”) and journal referees (“The impression is of an article that is quite incomplete and lacks polish”) are there for all to see. Last time I checked, the picture had been seen by over 230,000 people.
Do others simply enjoy revelling in my misfortune, or is the engagement symptomatic of something more profound? To answer these questions, it’s helpful to take a journey through the public and less public history of how I got here.
My CV shows a smooth run from Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded postgrad to contract research postdoc to UTS Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellowship to a permanent position, with a recent bump up to Associate Professor. Lovely. But utterly misleading.
The run was more of a stumble, less in my planned direction and more in response to where opportunities lay. Strategic? Partly. Full of compromise? Definitely.
My plans to extend my PhD work were thwarted by the ESRC rejecting my postdoc application, so I had a pop at a research officer job on a completely different topic. I really got lucky, ending up with a supervisor who challenged me and helped to create opportunities to develop as a researcher.
“Rejection happens to all of us; stellar professors, mid-career academics with nicely fattening CVs, early career researchers”
I learned from the next ESRC rejection (yes, another one), to find other ways to make the project work. We got the data we needed, and promptly found ourselves getting rejected and accepted in journals. Thinking my CV looked reasonable, I applied for a couple of lecture posts. But I wasn’t even interviewed. The permanent job seemed an impossibly high hurdle.
Then I got lucky again, meeting Alison Lee (former UTS academic, now sadly passed away), who concocted a plan to put in for a UTS Chancellor’s Postdoc. Move to Sydney? Sure! Change fields again, to an area more appealing and strategic to UTS? Okay, if I have to.
I got the fellowship, though I heard it was thin ice based on the written proposal, and I rescued it in the interview. It could so easily have been a reject.
The postdoc was a privileged space in which to do and publish research. My pile of rejected papers kept healthy pace with the acceptances. I especially remember the editor who rejected me 18 months after submission, having advised me to follow reviewer suggestions through three painful rounds of review, only to reject me for missing content the first reviews had said to take out.
The arena of my most painful rejections was in external research funding. Many of my colleagues know I’m finishing up an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (ARC DECRA). Fewer know the five ARC knock-backs I experienced along the way. I sprinkled these with rejections from the Spencer Foundation, the Australian Office for Learning and Teaching (OLT), three other funding bodies, and most recently the ESRC again. These were all horrible, infuriating experiences.
Driven by insecurity (would my postdoc convert to a permanent position?), and later by guilt (weren’t postdoc fellows supposed to pay for themselves in grants?), I kept going with proposal after proposal. I admit there was also a real desire to prove myself (to whom? Good question), and also a genuine wish to do the research, to find things out.
Back in June, I sat with colleagues, talking about rejections. I made a commitment then to take down the articles that I’d proudly festooned on my office door. They made me feel good, but what other good did they do? I realised more good might be done by putting all my rejections up there instead.
So that’s the story of my rejection wall and the tweet, which has snowballed somewhat. I updated my shadow CV and wrote a blog post about the rejection wall, and a follow up. I was interviewed by Evan Gomes who wrote a piece for his It’s all pretty funny site (a website where Evan collects and shares random things he finds humorous).
Yes, it’s funny to be candid about rejections. But there’s something deadly serious too. Many responders to the tweet echoed my point, some saying their office doors weren’t big enough, or that printing their rejections would cause significant deforestation. But more found the rejection wall reassuring.
Rejection happen to all of us – stellar professors, mid-career academics with nicely fattening CVs, early-career researchers. The knock-back isn’t sensitive to esteem, title or job security. Rejections are hard on us all, but hit hardest when the ‘no’ puts income in doubt or means you fall off the shortlist for that crucial next job.
What good might come of rejection walls? They make us more honest about ourselves and our work. Mine helps me shrug off the despondence and try again. They might dilute the shame so we feel comfortable asking for help when rejections come our way. They might reassure others that rejections don’t mean they are useless or doomed.
They might also point to issues around systemic insecurity in academic work, or lead us to question whether funding and publishing systems that involve so much ‘no’ are really the best we can do.
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences