How many rejections should scientists aim for?

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Earlier this year an article on aiming for 100 rejections a year in literature was being passed around. The main idea is that by aiming for rejections, rather than accepted things we’re more likely to take risks and apply broadly.

Since reading that article, I’ve been pondering how many rejections I should aim for. What is a good number for a scientist? 100 seems a bit much, although if you’re on the hunt for a tenure track job you could easily rack up those rejections. Many  job applications are silent ones because you never get the cold hard truth in you hands (or in-box) but rather just assume that you’ve been rejected with the passage of time. So perhaps they will feel empty in your rejection count, I know they do for me.

Over the last year, my monthly reports to the Swedish unemployment office also made me more aware of the things I apply for each month in an attempt to achieve employment. Having to write something in the report has possibly lead me to apply for more things, even when I thought I would be rejected. It isn’t a bad habit to be in. And I’ve certainly gotten a lot of job rejections in the last year, including three after interviews which feel especially poignant. Added to that is two grant rejections (but one funded, so yay!). I haven’t submitted anything as a first author this year but have at least half a dozen manuscript rejections as a co-author.

Is it enough?

As my career has progressed I continually get more and more rejections. It might seem counter intuitive but it isn’t that I’m getting worse at doing my job (I hope!) but rather that I am more confident about taking risks. It sucks to get rejections, no matter what form they come in but it does get easier as you become more accustomed to it. It also matters at what scale the reject is. Last year when my Swedish Research Council was rejected, it meant that I was out of a job. This year’s funding means I have one. So I won’t suggest that I was emotionally neutral to either of these but things like journal rejections are much easier now. I’m still uncertain of whether I should aim for a particular number of rejections though.

An important caveat to aiming for rejections is that for me I think it is important to limit applications only to those things that I actually want to do. I don’t see the point in applying to jobs I wouldn’t consider taking if they offered, just to do it. The grants I write are always a combination of the kind of research I want to do and the funding agency’s goals. But it can be good to apply for things that you think you’re unlikely to get but would like to do if you did. This could mean submitted your paper to a journal with high rejection rates or that prestigious scholarship/job/etc. The thing to keep in mind is to make sure that these are at least in remotely possible because there is a time cost to aiming for rejections. Applying takes time and that cost should be weighed against other activities. Of course an important part of academia is publishing and getting grants, both of which often come with rejection, so we can’t avoid rejection in this career. There is a balance.

In general I like the idea of taking away the stigma of rejections and being proud of aiming for them. It means you are getting yourself out there. I’m still not sure what a good number of rejections is but I think for me I like to break it down into three categories: jobs, grants and manuscripts. When I have that holy grail of academia, otherwise known as a permanent position, I’ll likely stop aiming for rejections in that category. For now I think I will be pleased if I can say that I have rejections in all three categories each year. If I aim for that, I may just eventually get acceptances in all three too.

3 thoughts on “How many rejections should scientists aim for?

  1. This struck me as a refreshingly novel way at looking at things, but come to think of it the rate at which I have to recommend rejection or major revision when I am refereeing suggests that a substantial chunk of the scientific world has already adopted your philosophy.

    Unless each application or submission is pretty much a copy and paste of the others then there is no way I have enough time to rack up 100 rejections in a year. Maybe I should just be throwing grant applications together instead of working out proper budgets, sticking to the specified formats and tuning them to each funder’s mission and vision.

  2. So many ways of looking at this. Only ten years ago we were teaching people to identify a conversation that they wanted to contribute/inform/lead. But now it’s all about counting.
    I recently heard senior folk in my university encourage new academics to submit to top journals and use the feedback to write a better paper. So in this case you would not count the rejection but the reviews. 🙂

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