Coping with rejection, criticism and self-doubt: making academia kinder

I have read a few threads recently on Twitter and in academic Facebook groups I am part of about rejection and criticism, especially how to cope with both and not become beaten down, sad and hopeless. I was directed to a lovely article by Evelyn Deplazes on LinkedIn about this, which started me thinking about this issue. Also, I have a book coming out next month and I can already feel myself tensing for the critique and criticism, for the people who don’t like what I have to say. I am half terrified and half excited to share this book.

Generally, I don’t deal with criticism of my writing well. I am much better, now, at actually opening emails from editors are reading feedback at least a few days after they arrive (rather than avoiding these emails for a week or more), and after the initial shock of the more negative issues or big changes, I can make myself step back, look afresh at the paper, and see how and how much the feedback can improve my thinking and often my actual writing, too (all those commas and long sentences!). But, I have a tendency to obsess about the meaner things that are said about my writing, especially when they are not said with care or concern for helping me be better. One reviewer, several years ago now, commented that my long sentences felt “hectoring” and even counted the words in one. (There were a lot, let’s not go into that now). But, even though we revised that paper and the revisions were not huge or very hard to do in the end, that comment, and others like it over the years, stayed with me. They are part of the story I tell myself about who I am as a writer and a thinker.

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In Evelyn’s article, she argues that taking this step back and seeing that you are not your ideas is a crucial part of managing criticism and rejection in academia and supporting your own mental wellness and resilience. This is a hard one, though, for many researchers. My ideas, my arguments are what I believe and what I think. I am, like so many researchers, deeply invested in and passionate about what I write. Why else would I spend so much time on it? So, when my ideas are critiqued and even rejected, I feel personally criticised and also rejected. I feel, in that initial read of the reviewer reports, like they are saying: ‘You are not (yet) good enough’, rather than ‘Your ideas and arguments are not (yet) good enough’. Managing this and not getting swept up in spirals of negative self-talk means that learning to separate your self from your ideas is important. You are not your ideas. They are part of you, but not the whole, and there are always ways to make your writing and thinking sharper, clearer, deeper, better expressed. Hearing that your ideas need some work is not the same as hearing that you are not good enough.

Another thing Evelyn mentions is that old adage in academia about the fact that rejection and criticism is part of the ‘game’ so you’d better grow a thicker skin. She comments – and I am with her on this one – that being vulnerable and kind is part of how she is an academic, so the idea of ‘growing a thicker skin’ doesn’t feel like her or something she would want to do. I, too, prefer (as you can probably tell if you are a regular reader of this blog) to choose kindness over indifference and vulnerability over a stiff upper lip. I don’t have a very thick skin, which is something I regard as a strength in my work, rather than a weakness. It enables me to connect with a greater diversity of students and peers with empathy, rather than moving through my career impervious to the needs and struggles of others. I don’t want to be impervious. Even though the hurt of rejection and criticism is hard to feel and work through, I would rather feel that than not. I think academia as a whole is far too indifferent and impervious, and has forgotten how to be kind, empathetic and vulnerable. I think this is a problem, seen in large part in the significant increases in stress, burnout, mental health crises, and the general unhappiness of many students, lecturers and university leaders across the global North and South. We don’t need thicker skins to cope with academia; academia needs to become more mindful, kinder, more just and fair.

My part in this, as a teacher/reviewer/assessor/supervisor of diverse groups of postgraduate, postdoctoral and early career writers, is to be mindful and kind. Kindness, as I have reflected on here, is not the same as niceness. My feedback may be tough at times, but it is not mean. In my mind, mean feedback does not try to help the writer see a way to a better idea, a sharper focus, a clearer way of expressing their arguments. Mean feedback is cutting, unconstructive, brusque. It may be easier to write and take less time and emotional or mental energy, but its effect on writers is usually negative, hurtful and demotivating. What’s the point of that? To weed out the ‘weak’ who probably should not be part of academia? When did this become a version of Survivor? I have no interest in being part of that mindset. I try, even as I sometimes get it wrong, to be kind and honest, to offer advice, choices and opportunities for improvement. Even when a paper is not ready for publication or a chapter needs a lot more work, the aim has to be to offer the kinds of advice and feedback that a writer can use to get to that goal – a published paper, a completed thesis chapter (and thesis, eventually) – in the process learning to become a better writer and thinker. This has been my model, from my own supervisor, from colleagues I teach and supervise with, from many of the peer reviewers who are part of journals I have worked on. These inputs have made – are making – me a better teacher, researcher, person and I am so grateful for it.

Photo by Anna Tarazevich on Pexels.com

So, my job, as I see it, is to pay it forward; I think this is a job for all of us. If you struggled, why not use what you have learned to make someone else’s struggle less awful? If you had it really tough, does that mean your students have to walk that same road? Wouldn’t you have liked someone to come along and make the tough road smoother or at least be a supportive companion? We may feel like academia is too big to make any meaningful changes. The system, structures and cultures need to change, for sure, and this requires much more than just individual efforts. But, I believe that in the lives of students, grant applicants, article or book/chapter writers, offering a kinder, more constructive, considerate approach to giving feedback and issuing rejection letters, which are not unavoidable, can go a long way, over time, to creating a more just, fair, kinder version of academia that we can all be a meaningful part of.

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