Hard negatives and soft positives

The last month has been a flood of emails telling me that I’m not wanted, my paper wasn’t great, that my ideas are average and that my intellectual potential is lacking.

It’s been hard. Each paper rejection or passing over for recognition isn’t a bit deal, but together they compound. I applied for a super competitive grant that I didn’t expect to get. I didn’t get it. I submitted a paper to a high impact journal with a high rejection rate. It was rejected. I applied for a prestigious internship that I was somewhat ambivalent about. I wasn’t shortlisted. None are spurring, but together? Ouch!

It’s starting to feel like every time I look at my email, someone is finding me lacking. This pattern of rejection is typical of academic work. At times I find it easy to brush off and think that my genius is under appreciated. At other times, it really hurts and it seems like everyone else is highly successful and never feeling hurt work feelings like me.

I was on a workshop/ collaborative visit in New York at the peak of these setbacks and had an emergency Skype with my girlfriend when the paper I expected to be rejected was rejected. She made the excellent point that negative feedback in academic work is tangible. It’s delivered by email in black and white and is impossible to ignore. Positive academic feedback is so soft it slips through your fingers. When I asked my girlfriend when will I get the positives instead of the rejections, she pointed out that I was right in the middle of a positive.

When I think of soft positive workplace feedback I’d received over this Era of Rejection, I came up with a pretty substantial list:

1. A graduate student sought me out to say he liked my blog. Big win!

2. A postdoc realised I’d written a paper she’d liked and wanted to talk in more detail.

3. I was asked to give a talk at one of the workshops I was attending.

4. I was overseas visiting old collaborators to talk about new work. These are people I like and respect who are willing to work with me because they like and respect me.

5. A mentor spent considerable time looking over my CV as a kindness to me (I assume because he likes helping me).

6. A schoolteacher friend invited me to come back and talk to her kindergarten class because we had such fun together last time.

7. Two PhD students I work alongside were willing to share unpublished figures with me for my workshop talk.

8. A prospective PhD student has undergone an arduous application and testing process because she wants to move overseas to work with me.

Negative feedback is typically memorable – it’s the excitement of opening a long awaited email followed by the sinking feeling that accompanies the “we regret to inform you” or “the standard of applicants was very high”, with the implicit understanding that you aren’t quite that high.

Positive feedback is often a lot subtler and a lot harder to keep hold of when hurt feelings appear. I’m really proud of my throw together list of positives, they were mostly unsolicited kindnesses that reflect on my research and my desire to work with other people.

I still would have liked that high impact paper and prestigious award, but it’s nice to realise that not everyone hates me and everything about me.

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2 thoughts on “Hard negatives and soft positives

  1. My god, your opening paragrah felt like I wrote it !! What a great piece, when you make your list i was smiling as I have similar things on my positive list too ! Well done to you. I struggle with writing BIG TIME, told I need an editor as reading my work is arduous (ouch), which has left its mark . The fear I had before of putting any of my work out there is now only exasperated by that but this piece gives me comfort!

    Thank you and good luck !

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I am a PhD graduate not working in academia, but I could relate in terms of work critique, opportunities and promotions. One practice I started a couple of years ago when I felt down about constant criticism/rejection, was to retain all of the emails that complemented me. On my rejection days, I have a folder to click through that includes notes from colleagues thanking me for my contribution to projects, from clients to say something was just what they wanted, from the hierarchy to congratulate me on a project well completed. I hope this idea may help others too.

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