A Reflection on Rejection

S. Michael Gaddis
5 min readDec 30, 2021
Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Don’t be like me. Well, don’t be like pre-pandemic me, that is.

The picture above epitomizes pre-pandemic me. I used to get mad and trash my papers when they got rejected after a few tries (or even once, in a few cases). That’s right, I would take the time to write an entire academic article — 6,000 to 10,000 words, often with original data collection and half a dozen or more tables and figures — and then leave the files sitting on Dropbox forever. All because three reviewers and an editor said, “no thanks.”

I’ve learned to accept rejection. And if you want to be a successful writer and/or academic, you also need to learn to accept it.

Rejection is Hard

Every time I open one of these emails, it’s painful. I feel like a failure. I feel like I have no idea what I am doing.

“We regret to inform you…”

“Unfortunately, we cannot…”

“…we have decided not to…”

Ugg. Why did I bother to open these emails? Hell, why did I even bother to write this paper in the first place?

I felt so great about these papers when I first submitted them.

Then: Hopeful. Excited. Pumped.

Now: Frustrated. Dejected. Ready to change careers.

If you don’t feel this way when you get rejected, congrats? …or maybe get that checked out.

Nonetheless, I can tell you that I still feel this way after too many rejections to count. In fact, I probably feel worse about getting a new rejection now than I did ten years ago. After putting in dozens or even hundreds of hours on an article or grant proposal, getting rejected is the worst. Rejection is hard, and it’s probably always going to be hard.

Rejection is Normal

The good news, however, is that rejection is normal.

You’ve probably heard this before, but you’re not alone. Grad students get rejected. Postdocs get rejected. Assistant professors get rejected (hi!). Tenured professors get rejected. MacArthur genius grant winners get rejected. Nobel Prize winners get rejected. The superstars of your field that write in the New York Times and appear on national TV get rejected.

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S. Michael Gaddis

UCLA professor. Peeking into the interesting parts of the social world through data.