Academic Rejection and the Confidence Gap

Apparently it’s a write-about-writing week so far on the blog.

I really like Rebecca Schuman. This week, she has a call out for why academic rejection hurts more than other kinds of rejection. If it does for you, you should go give her your story, as she curates data well and writes beautiful polemics on higher ed and the false meritocracy. Her emergence in the last year as a major higher-ed media voice has been a great thing and I look forward to reading her piece on this.

I started to send her some thoughts, but they got long, and, well, this is what I have a blog for, right?

I’ll be especially interested to see how her responses norm to race, class, gender, orientation, ability, and so forth, as I’ve been thinking about this in the context of the many discussions on male and female (over/under)confidence of late.

For me, academic rejection is not worse than other kinds of rejection. I think it’s because I don’t believe in the meritocracy of academia and because of irrational white male overconfidence that next time it’ll be better. Next time, Lucy will let me kick the ball.

All academics know, or are told anyway, that the capacity to be rejected and to move on with life is a seriously necessary skill to succeed as an academic. Sure, there are some people who just soar through undergrad, get accepted to all their grad programs with big scholarships, and I can imagine that the first rejection hits them hard. But most academics have been rejected for countless jobs, publications, conferences, grad schools, grants, and especially, jobs. Did I mention jobs? We know this is a part of our profession. In fact, our prestige economy depends on journals, for example, advertising their selectivity as a symbol of quality. Prestige emerges when one person gets something that most people don’t get to have. Rejection is built into academia.

But prestige culture says to people that if you get the gig, grant, pub, whatever, you are in fact better than everyone else. Rejection, therefore, says you’re not. It hurts.

I’ve been rejected a lot. As a journalist, my rate of rejection has gone up even more. I like to tell academics that by moving into the world of public writing I have entered new cycles of rejection the likes of which they have never seen. Before the Chronicle agreed to publish me regularly, I had no writing home other than this blog, and every piece I wrote required me to hustle if I wanted it read. I felt, in fact I still feel, that sometimes I do more hustling than writing, and I certainly get rejected repeatedly.  I’ve succeeded in part thanks to my  irrational overconfidence that my words matter. I just keep shoving them out there.

I’ve been rejected plenty in my academic work. I have been rejected for hundreds of jobs. There was one job I desperately wanted at a place I once taught for which I didn’t even receive a first-round interview. It would have fixed so many issues in our life. Not a sniff. There was another job, the year before I got my position at Dominican, which I really wanted. I got an on-campus interview. I remember driving to Broder’s Pizza in Minneapolis with my wife when the call came in that they were hiring someone else (an internal candidate; she’s great, as it happens). I pulled over to the side of the road and took the call, thanked the chair, told my wife, and we went to dinner. These things hurt, for sure. And yes, I’m writing this from a tenured perspective now, and I’m very lucky, but I can remember those days clearly.

Right now, I have a big scholarly project ahead of me and was rejected for each and every grant for which I applied. Journals have rejected me. Presses have rejected me. Professors have rejected me. Once, a professor refused to grade an essay of mine because he didn’t want to depress me – a fact that did not, in fact, fail to depress me.

And yet, these rejections never felt so much worse than other rejections. Rejections aren’t fun. I think, in the end, it’s not just that I’m an irrationally overconfident guy, but that I don’t believe in the myth of the meritocracy. I believe academia functions as a pseudo-random or weighted number generator. There are factors that can skew the odds ever in your favor: race, class, gender, prestige markers like the Ivies or mega-grants. I believe that academia is basically packed with really smart and really hard-working people, some of whom get lucky enough to fulfill their potential as teachers, scholars, administrators, researchers, etc. and most of whom do not.

There’s a flip-side to the belief that randomness is at work – despair. If it’s just random, then no amount of dedication and hard work can drive you to the top of the meritocracy. Frankly, I think that’s freeing. The people I see drive themselves literally to mental health breakdown because they think just working a little harder might get to through the job market wringer, or get them that prestige marker to move to the next tier of university. Yes, it’s possible, but to what extent is trying to shift the weights of a random system worth it? I can’t answer that question, but I do know that if things aren’t working out, it doesn’t have to shake your sense of self. And if it does, well, I understand that too. The job markets are all brutal. In Academia, we are told that rejection of a project is rejection of the self. It’s hard to shake off years of that kind of discourse.

I’ve been rejected  repeatedly. It hurts, but it doesn’t have to batter the foundations of my identity. I do, however, try to think hard about where I’m likely to do well and where I just lack the prestige markers to weight the roll of the dice in my favor.

Here’s a rejection that was much worse than anything I’ve experienced as an academic. One Friday in 2002, in the late Autumn, a woman who I loved told me that she wasn’t in love with me anymore and that she was going to her mother’s and that our marriage was over. The next Friday, we met with a therapist, and she confirmed that she didn’t want to work on the marriage.

Now that was a bad week.

On the bright side, it was also better fodder for country music song-writing than my job hunt, though now that I think of it, the “Academic-Job-Search Talking Blues” does have a certain ring to it.

Maybe in the people’s key of B-flat major.

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