Take the Hit and Move Forward

Brian Taylor

November 20, 2013

In the sixth and most recent Rocky movie (did we really need more than one?), the prizefighter Rocky Balboa tells his son, "You, me, or nobody ain't going to hit as hard as life. ... But it ain't about how hard you are hit, it's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward." Grammar notwithstanding, Rocky makes a good point that is relevant to academic work.

For those of us trying to put our ideas out into the public, the world is often a place of rejection and dismissal. It starts much earlier than the rejections we routinely receive from journals and publishers. In graduate school, we often stumble (or get tripped) as we jump over the hurdles of coursework, comprehensive exams, and dissertation writing. The process can at times seem like it is more about rejection than success. And it doesn't get any easier if you get a faculty job, whether adjunct or tenure-track. Rejection is the norm.

Most of us earned our positions as graduate students and professors by being good at school. Excelling academically is what we do. So being told you've fallen short is tough for many of us to handle. From the lively discussion fostered by a recent essay in The Chronicle, "Why You Gotta Be So Mean?," we know that the critical knives can seem particularly sharp during the anonymous peer-review process.

As academics who have received our share of punishing punches, we'd like to offer the following advice on how to keep moving forward after you've been hit hard.

First, get over yourself. We don't say that lightly. None of us like to be told that the work we've put serious mental effort into developing is ill-conceived or, worse, baseless. But embarrassment and hurt feelings won't help you pick yourself up. You need to take the emotion out of the equation. It is usually not about you, but about your work. So if you have hurt feelings, deal with it.

But don't try to deal with it alone. Start (if you haven't already) by building a community to support you. Talking about your rejection with colleagues is not the norm in the Hobbesian world of academe. But a surprising thing will happen when you confide in a fellow graduate student or faculty member: You will find that you are not alone. More times than we can count, one of us shared some "bad news" only to hear that our confidant had also experienced a recent setback.

After commiserating with your peers, you might think the easiest action would be to file away the rejected manuscript. But that would be misguided. Those people you've assembled for support can also help hold you accountable for moving forward, both intellectually and emotionally. A study group could guide you through Take 2 of a graduate comprehensive exam. A writing group could discuss specific goals of each member's work. Even a regular coffee or cocktail meeting could help you strategize on how to move forward confidently.

The important thing is that your community both supports and challenges you. Everyone needs friends who listen. But we also need friends who call us to task when we are hiding, procrastinating, or generally floundering.

So, in the spirit of picking yourself off the mat and getting back in the fight, we suggest that you begin by identifying a new goal. Are you going to retake the exam? Revise the dissertation chapter? Are you going to revise and resubmit your manuscript? Submit your rejected article elsewhere? If so, to what journal?

Pointing yourself in a particular direction is just the start. To be successful, we suggest a three-step approach to taking a cold, hard, and much more objective look at your work:

Identify the critics' global and local concerns. That is basic advice for those trained in teaching writing. But most academics don't actually practice it.

The idea is to articulate what the big-picture setback is all about, from the critic's point of view. Whatever the nature of the rejection, we suggest you sit down, reflect, and write about it. Stream of consciousness works well here. That writing may end up being for your eyes only, more like a diary entry. It is a good exercise nonetheless.

What are the major issues? It is possible that your paper just got it wrong: You did not understand the theory you were using, or your model was a train wreck. It is never a good idea to throw out a whole project, or quit entirely, on the basis of one or two damning critiques. Fatal flaws do occasionally exist—but in the same way that you would seek another medical opinion if you received a troubling diagnosis, it is worth getting second and even third opinions from people you respect before letting something go.

And what are the smaller things, like problem paragraphs or poor grammar, that should be fixed? A lot of small stuff can add up to major annoyance for reviewers. Make a matrix that summarizes all the criticisms so you can assess their relative importance. Consider using this matrix as a checklist as you move ahead.

Own the concerns. Sure, it stings to be told that your work missed the mark. But you are in the academy, which means you value lifelong learning? If you don't, let us suggest getting out now, because somewhere along the line you've missed the point.

View the criticism as a learning opportunity. If you don't plan on following the advice of your critics, you'd better have a good reason—one that you can put in writing, if necessary, when you resubmit the article.

Set "smart" goals. Moving forward is always more certain when your goals are, to borrow the late George T. Doran's management formula, "smart"—specific, measurable, attractive, realistic, time-based (we've changed the words of Doran's mnemonic a bit from its original 1981 formulation to fit our purposes here). Without a good plan, you may very well be sitting in the corner, sipping water, instead of getting back into the ring. Here's what we mean:

  • By "specific," we mean your goals should be clearly articulated. One might be: "Read Bourdieu's definition of habitus' and examine how Lareau and McDonough have used and modified this definition in related work."
  • Your goal is "measurable" if there is a clear way to know that you have achieved it. For example, you know you will have achieved the previous goal when you have notes based on your rereading of Bourdieu's, Lareau's, and McDonough's work.
  • By "attractive," we mean you should take each goal and consider, "Do I really want to do this?" You are probably unlikely to accomplish goals that you are not motivated to pursue.
  • Do you have the capacity to realize this goal? That's what we mean by "realistic." For example, if you are unfamiliar with Bourdieu's notion of habitus, it may be more difficult to examine critically its use, modification, and extension by Lareau and McDonough.
  • How much time are you giving yourself to accomplish this goal? It's tempting to draft vague goals that fall into the "woulda, coulda, shoulda" realm. For example, you might set a goal that reads: "I should read Bourdieu and other theorists who have used his work." Not only is this not a specific goal—What of Bourdieu's canon are you going to read? Who are those "other theorists"?—but there is no time commitment attached. Your goal must be "time-based" to hold you accountable.

This approach has worked for us, but we are sure that you have your own thoughts on how to move forward, too. Feel free to share them in the comments below.

You've been hit, and the next move is yours. We hope you will dust yourself off and try again, or, in the words of AC/DC, get "back in the ring to take another swing."

Erik Schneiderhan is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. Tricia Seifert is an assistant professor of higher education at the university's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.