An 'X', signifying rejection, written on a sheet of paper with a red pen.

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My first paper rejection came as a bit of a shock. By the time it came to submission, I was feeling fairly confident because my supervisors and collaborators were happy. We couldn’t all be wrong about our paper — could we? Eight years on, I still remember opening that rejection e-mail alone in my office in Zurich, Switzerland. I felt as if I had failed. But one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn is that a paper rejection is just a setback, not a failure. You can still submit your paper elsewhere, or keep working on it.

The problem I faced in learning to accept rejection is that other people’s rejections are almost always invisible. One of my recent papers — my eighth — received five desk rejections by editors, a rejection after review, a rejected appeal and major revisions before it was finally accepted, in the seventh journal my co-authors and I tried. But if you look at the published paper now, there’s nothing to indicate that it was rejected at all. The same is true of every polished CV and personal web page. Very few researchers share news of all their rejections, but the reality is that, for many journals, you are more likely to be rejected than accepted. Even papers that go on to be accepted are often sent back with a ‘but’: “We liked your paper, but you need to make all of these changes, and we cannot guarantee it will be accepted even if you do.”

Although academic rejections are normal, that does not necessarily make them less painful. There will always be that one rejection, or series of rejections, that hits you hard — no matter how long you have been in academia. So how do you deal with these knock-backs? Here are some tips that have helped me.

Look after yourself

Rejection is demoralizing and it can hurt (literally). Recognize your emotions. Remember that it is just your paper that has been rejected — not you personally. Try boosting your mood and self-esteem by listing your strengths and things you are grateful for, or reviewing your small accomplishments. It can be easy to forget everything you have achieved each month, especially after a rejection. Try to give yourself the space and time you need to heal. For me, sometimes just a walk in the park is enough to make me feel better, but if I need a longer break, I try to take it. Your mental health, and hence your productivity, will be better in the long run if you take the time you need to recover.

Reflect on your goals

Think about what you can learn from the experience. Why I am doing this? What is it about my research that fascinates me? Reminding yourself of your underlying motivations can help you to move forwards. When you feel ready, ask yourself what you can learn from the experience. Can I make my work stronger or clearer, or use it to stimulate new ideas, or can I simply learn how not to be like Reviewer 2? This is not an exercise in self-criticism. Rejection is a sign that you are challenging yourself. If you stay completely in your comfort zone and do not take any risks, you will not receive rejections, but neither will you progress. Look at the big picture and try not to get lost in the specifics. I often wait a day or two to read detailed comments from reviewers, particularly with difficult rejections: it can be counterproductive to immerse yourself in such comments when you are not ready. Peer review is a fantastic process, but it is also inherently subjective, meaning that rejection can just be bad luck.

Share your experience

It is easy to feel isolated and disconnected after receiving a rejection. Not only will sharing your experiences with colleagues or peers help you through the rejection, but it will also help others to deal with their own. Just having a chat over a coffee, or sharing advice or resources that helped you to bounce back, might make a difference to someone else’s working life. It might still be a struggle, but it will get easier. And, if it does not, there is no shame in asking for help. Your friends, family, colleagues and mental-health services are all there to help you. As for me, I wrote a career column on dealing with rejection to help me deal with a series of rejections, and then it was rejected. This is attempt number two (version 25). I hope it helps you.