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“Thank you for submitting your work to our Journal. It has been carefully reviewed by experts in the field and we regret to inform you that we must REJECT your manuscript.”

We’ve all been there, many times. Sometimes it can feel like the life of a scientist is one rejection after another. It can be defeating, demoralizing, and demotivating. I’ve been at this for a while now, and over time I have come to view “rejection” in a completely different way. It was really my roles as an Associate (and now Deputy) Editor at The American Journal of Physiology – Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology and as a standing study section member for the NHLBI K08/K01 Awards (plus a little wisdom of old age) that fundamentally changed my view of “rejection”. Here are a few things I’ve learned:

  1. Peer reviewers are just like you and me. It’s true. I know it often feels like reviewers are ogres salivating at the chance to destroy your hard work (read: the dreaded Reviewer #2). This is just not true. You know who the reviewers are? You and me. Maybe you’re just starting out in your career and you haven’t had a lot of experience as a manuscript or grant reviewer. Trust me, you will. When I receive a paper at AJP-Lung or a grant for study section, I’m excited to see what it’s all about. After all, we got into science because it is exciting, cool and fun. I feel a sense of ownership of the grant/paper and I want to do right by it. I know that I am not unique in these sentiments and that (many?) other reviewers feel exactly the same way. You will too when you get there.
  2. Peer review makes the science better. Also true. Don’t believe me? Take a moment to pull out that first version of your grant, the one that was “Not Discussed,” and read it. It might be good, or not, but it is almost certainly not as good as the second (or third…or fourth…) version. Like me, you might actually be grateful that it did not get funded on that first go around. Each version of a grant or paper is better than the previous because peer reviewers (see #1) have read it and given you great suggestions. Peer reviewers often bring up new ideas, make you think of an experiment that you hadn’t considered, uncover unexpected conclusions. All in all, your work is better because of peer review.
  3. Our job is not as unique as we think. A few years ago, I was as an elementary school party talking to a parent of my son’s friend. This dad is a hotel developer. He buys old historic buildings and turns them into chic boutique hotels. I thought this sounded interesting, so I asked him to tell me a bit more about it. He relayed that his team of a few people find a building they are interested in and work for a few weeks or months to put together a proposal for the project. They then submit the proposal for review by the developers. Guess what? He said about one in five of his proposals actually gets selected. Put another way, 4/5 are REJECTED! Sound familiar? This encounter put my job (which I always thought was totally unique) in perspective. To me, being a scientist is like being an entrepreneur. We have lots of ideas. Some are good, others are not so great, and we look to our colleagues to help us move forward with the best.

With these ideas in mind, I’ve developed some tricks to help reframe “rejection” in my mind. Here they are:

  1. Read the reviews as if they are coming from your mentor. We are extremely grateful when our mentor takes the time to critically review our work and offer criticisms and suggestions. Read grant and manuscript reviews to yourself in your mentor’s voice and it will take away some of the sting.
  2. Put yourself in the reviewer’s place. Think of a time when you noted a major hole or weakness in something you were reviewing. You had to make pointed comments, but think of your mindset. I’m guessing you were truly trying to make the work better. The people reviewing your work are doing the same thing.
  3. View peer review as an integral part of the scientific process. This is key. Peer review, and its inevitable rejection, is not a barrier put in your way just to make you struggle miserably. Rather, it is an integral part of the scientific process that we scientists have established. In our lab meetings, we pore over data, picking it apart, looking for holes, making it better. Peer review serves this function on a larger scale.
  4. Get to know some people outside of science. Talk to people outside of science and I guarantee you will start to see parallels. Ask a songwriter if every song was a hit (I live in Music City after all!), have an investment banker tell you about their successes and failures, invite a teacher to tell you about a lesson plan gone horribly wrong. As scientists, we are privileged to have an uncommon and interesting job, but our struggles are not unique; they are just a little different.

So next time you receive a disappointing “reject” decision, take a moment to reflect, reframe, and resubmit.

Additional Resources

Not that Kind of Letter: Tales of Rejection
Honing Resiliency: Reminders from a Recent Disappointment
Growing Stronger in the Face of Rejection: Roundup

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