When my research manuscript was rejected from my first choice journal, I felt my heartstrings tug. I swallowed my emotion, and methodically analyzed every comment from the reviewers. I considered the reviewers’ reasons why my experiment was insufficient and (begrudgingly) assessed why my conclusions were inadequate. I finally addressed each suggestion with new time-consuming experiments. After six full months of poring over this manuscript, bright eyed and hopeful, I submitted it to a second journal. When it was rejected again, I cried.
My adviser had a different reaction to the ordeal. The first time my manuscript was rejected, he read over the reviewers comments with a steely glare. He remained stoic, other than a slight frown. He finally exhaled a stern “Okay.” Over the course of those next six months, he calmly pored over all my edits. Our discussions on each reviewer’s comments were always sharp and concise. My adviser’s reaction the second time my manuscript was rejected: steely glare, slight frown, stern exhale, “Okay.”
My initial thought to our differences in reaction was that I am emotional. I took the reviewers’ criticism of my manuscript as an insult to my character. I daydreamed of confronting these anonymous reviewers, and telling them they’d be sorry, they’d made a big mistake: I was going to a bigger, better, glorious journal, and I was taking my awesome data with me. But it was just a manuscript on subsurface microbial communities, a subject that could hardly be described as critical to humanity’s well being. To take offense at the rejection on such a specialized topic could be described as nothing less than dramatic.
But after I considered these reactions more deeply, I realized the real difference was in emotional training. And my emotional response to my manuscript rejection was not unusual, especially for a graduate student. Fellow writers of Science Non-Fiction lamented similar feelings. A colleague once wrote a ballad on the anguish of having a manuscript turned down. I was merely green to the rejection process, and every punch the reviewers threw left a mark. My adviser, on the other hand, showed no sign of an emotional response or a deluded daydream. He was a well-trained soldier of manuscript rejection. Every punch the reviewers threw smacked on a hardened wall of well-built intellectual character. Over the course of his career, my adviser had been beaten into an impenetrable shield of logical reactions. If academia was war, my adviser was a seasoned Green Beret.
Academics often deal with hard facts, data, and numbers. We’re often portrayed as human calculators, logical and practical. But the reality is that we become attached to our data, and criticism of our data’s shortcomings may throw us into a state of scholarly crisis. And, like everyone else, we may eventually become desensitized to the harsh reviews, tireless rival criticism, and constant rejection of intellectual material. At which point we can transform into the hardened, logical, practical being so commonly stereotyped.
My manuscript was finally accepted to a third journal, and the publication was bittersweet; I was not published in my first choice journal, or my second choice journal, but at least this battle was over. I may unreasonably attach myself to my research data, and get bruised when it’s criticized, but for now I’m in an emotional state where I care. And that is an agonizing, humiliating, and exhilarating place to be.