Why Is Academic Rejection So Very Crushing?

Losing out on a job, tenure, or publication can be a unique agony. The cure is not success, it’s compassion

Tim Foley for The Chronicle

June 02, 2014

It’s been over a year since my final rejection for an academic job came in, and the sense of total life failure that accompanied my inability to get a tenure-track position has diminished almost entirely. It’s now but the most occasional blip of annoying background noise, sort of like when Neil Diamond is on at the gym.

I wish I’d known this a year ago. Back then, I didn’t want to actively end my life over that rejection, because that would have been too cruel to my family. But I kept thinking: If only I could just, you know, find myself in a quick but violent accident. Academic failure felt like the death of a substantial part of my identity—and I sincerely believed the best possible outcome was for the rest of me to die along with it.

Of course I’m ecstatic that that didn’t happen, and mortified that I thought it should. But now I wonder: Was my all-encompassing sense of failure commonplace? And, if so, why? What makes academe so "special" as to traumatize its rejects into believing they are worthless to humanity? One of the perks of being an education journalist now is that academics tell me things. In recent months, without even my prompting, dozens of my readers began to write to me about why, exactly, academic rejection was such a blow to them. I put out a wider call, and the stories came pouring in.

What I learned from listening to their frank, heartfelt tales is that for many Ph.D.’s, academic rejection—not just on the market, but for tenure or promotion, or from a journal or publisher—was the worst kind they’d ever received. And these were people who, like me, had held various nonacademic jobs, and thus had been dumped, divorced, and cheated on elsewhere.

So why was academic rejection so much harder for them to take? Some pointed to the logistics of the academic job search: The unusually large time commitment involved in sending out dossiers and customized letters made rejection that much harder to take. Especially insulting was what one reader described as "the ABSOLUTE DEAFENING SILENCE" that greets many journal submissions and job applications. Another reader, who had been a campus finalist, lamented: "The only reason I know I didn’t get the job was via the department’s Facebook page that touted the hire." Ouch.

What struck me as even more interesting in the responses I got, though—and what may serve to bring healing and redemption to those readers currently in the throes—were the remarkably introspective examinations of academic self-conception, which I believe is the true issue here.

One reader, "David," explained that those who "yearn to teach, write, and research find this work to be the highest expression of who they are—so rejection is a rejection of who they are, at the deepest, most fundamental level." Liana Silva-Ford, a recent Ph.D. who is now the editor in chief of Women in Higher Education, concurred: In academe, "the job rejections felt personal; I had heard again and again that I was good at what I did and I believed my work was worthy of funding. Every rejection felt like a big fat ‘no’ to each of those questions." Another reader, "Elise," described the academic search as a "a referendum on my intelligence." And, she said, as intellect was "the thing that has held me afloat all these years," that referendum couldn’t help but feel overwhelming.

A blogger nicknamed "Adjunct Nate Silver" (after his meticulous compilations of decades of unvarnished job-market statistics) agreed: "Academic job rejection hurts because, as they tell us, there are so many qualified candidates and it’s all about fit." Rejection, he told me, "means being told that you don’t fit in anywhere." This is especially painful when considered up against the popular conception of the academy as, in the words of reader "PT," a "pure" meritocracy "wholly dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge." Being rejected by a pure meritocracy simply translates into believing that you truly have no merit whatsoever.

A substantial number of my respondents also pointed to the adverse existential effects of the rigid and drawn-out hiring, publication, and tenure cycles. The former-academic blogger who goes by "Werner Herzog’s Bear" revealed, "Every August and September, as I started getting ready and looking for the tenure-track job ads, I would get anxiety attacks and couldn’t sleep. Rejection exists in other fields," he says, "but not to the point that it becomes a yearly ritual of self-hatred and emotional pain." Another ex-academic blogger, "Professor Never," echoed: "In the rest of the world, there is always the possibility something could come along tomorrow. In academe, when you get rejected, it means (for the most part) you must wait another year to try again. It’s consignment to one more year in the trench—just at the moment when you thought you’d get out."

As much as I appreciate and admire my colleagues who offer advice in these pages on how to succeed in academe—how, in effect, not to be rejected—when my readers tell me their stories, I can’t help but think that focusing on getting the job, or getting tenure, is treating the symptom without addressing the disease. The goal should not be to avoid rejection in a profession where rejection is unavoidable. The goal should be to address the core existential issues that make said rejection so painful.

If one of the reasons academic rejection is so painful is that the hiring, promotion, and publication processes are both deeply judgmental of the most "important" parts of us and simultaneously out of our control, the solution is not simply to make our dossiers even more labor-intensive, and thus self-flagellate even more when we "fail." The real solution is to be mindful of the differences between the symptoms and the disease. The rejections themselves—the form emails; the eye-contact avoidance from colleagues who just voted against your tenure case; the deafening silence from a journal or press—are the symptoms. The totalizing academic self-conception is the disease.

There is no cure for the symptoms. In fact, when you are on the academic job market, they will simply become more acute. There is, however, a cure for the disease: compassion. Compassion for the rejected self, and compassion for those we feel have rejected us—people who are, of course, rarely acting out of personal malice, but instead simply doing their own jobs to the best of their ability. We must evoke compassion, that is, for a system full of people who are, in one way or another, hurting, in both failure and success.

Even the most self-satisfied academic meritocrat would admit that an extra dose of compassion in the academy wouldn’t hurt anyone. Thus, it is my sincere hope that academics will continue both to share their stories of rejection and self-conception openly, and to receive others’ stories with empathy and heart—and as a result, those stories will not be pitying, but redemptive. Redemption may not do anything for the symptoms, but it can sure cure the disease.

Rebecca Schuman has a Ph.D. in German and is the author of Kafka and Wittegenstein: The Case for an Analytic Modernism, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press in 2015. She works for the Dissertation Coach and writes regularly for Vitae and Slate.