Rejection != bad paper

Before anyone jumps in to immediately say that’s not true, let me clarify. A rejected paper does not automatically mean the paper was ‘bad.’ Sure, sometimes it does. There are other reasons a paper can be rejected, such as:

  • Your paper doesn’t fit in the conference or journal. 
  • There were a ton of great submissions, but they can only accept x number (this happens more frequently then you think).
  • Your research is an interesting start, but doesn’t feel complete enough to be published (at this time).
  • Your research would be better published as a poster and/or demo. Some conferences will automatically assign selected papers as presentations, posters or demos. But journals don’t have that option.

I recently had a paper rejected (which we were kind of expecting). And, if you read through the reviews you’d realize that it wasn’t that the reviewers didn’t like the paper. In fact, most of them really did like the research. It was more a consensus from the reviewers that this might not be quite the right conference. We had a meeting to discuss what we need to do to get the paper ready to submit somewhere else (and where to submit). There was some concern at the start of the meeting that this might require a ton of work. Instead, the conclusion was that we mainly need to switch the paper over to the correct format for the next submission and add to the references section. (Yay!)

It’s easy, the first time you get a rejection, to take it personally. That it’s a comment about you and your research and how you’re “not good enough” or “not cut out for grad school.” And it can be painful to read the reviews (even if they’re really not bad). Because no matter what the reviews say, you’ll feel like it’s an attack on you. But, it’s not. It really really isn’t. You have to remember that the reviewers have no idea who you are – if you’re a grad student, an undergrad, someone in industry or a professor.

The best thing to do, is to take some time before you read the reviews in any depth. In fact, when I got the rejection this time, I skimmed the reviews quickly and then put them aside. I didn’t read them in detail until we had our meeting to discuss the paper and what to do. By putting some time (I’d say at least a week) between receiving the rejection and reading the reviews gives you a chance to get some perspective. To realize that the reviews are not about you. And to find it easier to be critical when reading the reviews (not all comments from the reviews are good – oftentimes they’ll tell you that you need to include something that’s already obviously in the paper, but they missed).

Once you’ve read and digested the reviews, figure out a plan of attack. What sort of tweaks do you need to do before you can resubmit? Do you need to do a little more research? Can you find a different venue that makes more sense? Or should you wait until you can resubmit to the first place? And, of course, follow through.

And most of all, remember, rejection is just part of life. It’s not the be all end all. And it definitely should not be the reason you decide you’re not good enough for grad school.

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