At the risk of committing yet another academic faux pas, I want to talk about the running monologue in my head when I received my latest academic rejection yesterday afternoon.
It is 0029hrs and I haven’t slept in a billion years but I need to affectdump all the disappointment I am holding inside my body, so that I can offload it from my brain, make sense of it some other time, let it go now, and go to sleep.
So, this is going to be long.
Last month, I applied for a Thing I really really really want. Two weeks ago, I interviewed for a Thing I really really really want. Yesterday afternoon, I received a rejection letter for a Thing I really really really want.
All day yesterday and today have felt like completely defeatist academic days. This is despite the fact that I have just single-handedly survived a monsterload of exam marking, and am now prancing around Melbourne to attend one of my favourite conferences, see many of my favourite acadpals, and feel closer to home in Perth.
On a more self-flattering note, these bad feelings linger in me despite the fact that I know I am good at what I do, because I work hard to make what I do good, because I know where I want to be, because I know how to get there, because I know what I have to do to get to there, because I love what I do.
I want to give myself some credit for having survived both days in tact thanks to expert compartmentalization skills. It helps that some of my disappointment has also been dissipated in pockets of conversations at the most unexpected times – I have told eight people about my rejection letter and been inheriting encouragement and strength from them – but I have also toggled between “homgh i suck what did i do wrong” and “homgh academia is broken why is everything wrong” about two hundred times. I realize this confession of my inner struggles sounds completely like #firstworldproblems, but the disappointment is still real nonetheless and I want to make sense of this.
Here is how it went:
1) I got the rejection notice via email around 1500hrs yesterday. I took a screenshot and sent it to my person along with several melodramatic emoji. My person tried to comfort me via text across the distance. You know those rehearsed lines: Something better will come along; It’s okay you’ve tried your best; Don’t worry you can apply again; Maybe it’s a sign from God; Don’t blame yourself it’s not your fault; Well your industry is very competitive etc etc.
I don’t want to discount or trivialize the care work my person does for me, and all of these sagely one-liners are true, but I can’t help but feel more crap after receiving bite-sized comfort… simply because such platitudes reiterate that the outcome wasn’t in my control, so all I can do now is speculate and feel helpless instead of activate damage control mode. But I know that my person is willing to bear with me and walk me out of this fog even if they cannot fully comprehend the magnitude of my sad, and this made some of my disappointment go away.
2) Then I sent screenshots of the rejection letter to two scholars whom I greatly admire, who have supported my scholarship, and whom I know would have empathised with me. Their immediate affirmation and sympathies really touched my heart. I don’t know how to express this more eloquently, but the “sorry” in their “sorry to hear about this” held much more weight and significance than my person’s earlier “sorry things didn’t work out [term of endearment x100]”.
This surprised me greatly because my person has been the one consistent carer in my life and has seen me through much more traumatic situations in the last 12 years. Did the empathetic “sorry” from my academic mentors and idols feel more emotional because I knew they had gone through this journey themselves in the early stages of their careers? Or that they offered to partake in my moment of misery and were so human and relatable despite their academic success? Or that they genuinely also felt disappointed? Whatever it was, this made some of my disappointment go away.
3) I couldn’t go to bed from all the sad, and dropped a quick Facebook update for catharsis. So Facebook makes person #4. Many good people came forward to share their condolences and encouragement, and to be honest, all this internet affect did soothe my soul. One particular comment from a senior scholar really struck me: He reminded us that academics are usually socialized to hide our failures, and this made me feel as if airing my “rejection laundry” was part-catharsis and part-intervention against the highly performative stage of academia. He also acknowledged that rejection is painful and my pain is real, and this made me feel like my disappointment is legitimate and validated, even though some folks may see my #firstworldproblem rant as a #humblebrag (you know, because *at least* I am applying for things etc) or just wishcrys melodramatism™. This small moment of internet affect made some of my disappointment go away.
4) So I went to bed and woke up to be kickass in life and to kickbutt at a conference. At drinks in the evening, I sat with three academics. One of them had seen my Facebook post from the night before, and came to tell me that I will “get some thing good eventually”. This act of reaching out was a very tender moment – albeit in the middle of a bar squished with post-conference folks – because the person had transposed digital-platform cues into physical-platform reactions. As an internet ethnographer, I really shouldn’t be surprised at this internet world/fleshy world collapse, but I was genuinely touched that they had signalled their awareness of my plight. On some level, I felt a bit of (bad?) pride bubbling inside me just knowing that a fellow scholar had witnessed me being normal™ all day despite all the disappointment I was harbouring inside. Looking back, I don’t even know why this persona management should bring about a sense of pride, but in that moment that was honestly how I felt.
And then I turned to the two other academics in our circle to contextualise the conversation unfolding before them, and told them about the rejection letter. The second person immediately recalled their own academic rejections in the earlier days of their career and how shit they felt. This collective commiseration was a bit like magic, because sorrow shared is sorrow halved etc etc, and also because this person was voluntarily visibilising their failures and past vulnerabilities to some newbie that they had just met in the morning. It was extra inspiring when I learnt that they were an Early Career Researcher who had recently (literally last week!) landed where they had wanted to be after a two-year sprint to get to there. The third academic also lended care with their own stories of failure, and how some of this might be systemic. All of a sudden, I found myself in a bubble of three other scholars who were sharing their academic failures in a bid to empathise with me and reorientate me to seeing the bigger picture, larger journey, longer sprint etc etc again. It was magic, it felt protective, and it made some of my disappointment go away.
5) The last person I spoke to was an acadpal I hadn’t seen in over a year, and a woman whom I would like to emulate some day for her amazing commitment to both family/parenting life and a fulfilling career. When our eyes met (how romantic – okay I guess I am melodramatic) across the pub, I squealed and ran to give her a hug. We quickly caught up on serial life updates. We mused over condolences and congratulations. And then I told her about the rejection letter. The same narrative devices of levelling empathy, mutual past failures, and eventual success stories emerged.
But this friend also began to share resources and alternative outlets to get to there with me. I was keenly aware that just as we are friends, we would also be competing for the same pot of grant money and jobs and resources and things, and this generosity in sharing what was already scarce moved me. She also told me thrice (yes) throughout the whole evening that “there is more than one way to a place”, wherever that place may be, however long it may take. Some thing inside me clicked and I accepted that this rejection letter wasn’t the end of the world. In fact, it was just one of a string of rejection letters I will have to work hard to accumulate in order to get to where I want to be. And seeing this made some of my disappointment go away.
So this has been my eventful 36hours or so. It has all been a bit melodramatic inside my head, perhaps because 1) I am still in the early stages of my career and learning to manage failure and rejection, 2) I felt I had worked really hard for the Thing and the outcome didn’t feel proportionate to the effort, 3) I really really really wanted this Thing.
But now I feel better. I have let go of the sad and can replace the void with another bout of optimism, hope, and resilience. I will wake up and prepare to try again. There are more tangible things I will pursue soon, like seeking official feedback, but at least now I can go to sleep.
And this time, I will fall asleep recalling this manifesto for academia I penned to myself. Tomorrow we try again, and we fail again, and we try again. On rinse and repeat. I will get to there some day, even if the there changes and some day is far away.