Academic Grit: Surviving and Thriving Beyond the Metrics of Success

In academia, rejection is the game. The top journals reject 95% of submissions. This staggering figure paints a picture of an environment where rejection is not the exception, but the rule.

When you first enter the field, one might believe the misconception that those facing rejection simply didn’t measure up. It is very easy to internalize these moments of rejection. Right from the get-go, you are ‘taught,’ ‘schooled,’ and your problems openly discussed.

However, the truth is far more nuanced. This is part of the normal scientific process, but almost all don’t know that. (Want to learn how to deal with failure: read this post.)

The individuals behind these submissions are often as dedicated and intelligent as anyone else in the field, having invested months, or even years, into their work. The pain of rejection is not just emotional but can manifest physically, underlining the intense personal investment in academic pursuits. (You can read about a realistic year that I had, and I am fully open about my failure CV.)

The real challenge in academia isn’t achieving success in the conventional sense but learning to manage the inevitable rejections. The journey is much more akin to a door-to-door salesperson that is working within a neighborhood where soliciting is prohibited. You simply have to get used to rejection. You have to know that the closed doors has little to do with you, and more to do with the overall structure of science.

This journey is less about celebrating victories and more about maintaining one’s well-being through the setbacks. It’s crucial to find ways to stay healthy, whether that means seeking therapy, exercising, or simply allowing oneself to ignore the naysayers. I find ‘disregarding,’ especially helpful.

The goal is to keep well, embracing resilience in the face of adversity.

Watch this video on dealing with rejection.

Embracing Imperfection in Academia

The path to self-acceptance in academia involves confronting a hard truth: nobody excels at everything. You are simply not that good. Someone might be that good, but it is not you.

Acknowledging one’s traits (that the market percieves as limitations) can be the second most significant lesson after dealing with rejection. The realization that everyone is, in some way, pretending their competence is liberating. It invites us to be authentic and to recognize that our unique voice matters, even if it’s not perfect.

You will never be perfect or ideal. That is okay.

Perfection is an illusion, or at the very least, transitory.

Watch this video about your own perfection.

In academia, as in life, we are perpetually behind, frequently mistaken, and not universally liked. Yet, embracing our imperfections and vulnerabilities is not only liberating but also lovely. It’s about finding joy and authenticity in our endeavors, smiling through the challenges, and accepting that we are perfectly imperfect.

It is a matter of turning those rejections into silly stories that you tell everyone. Learning how to not internalize them, and realizing that you are perfectly normal is everything.

Humor, laughter, and smiling are often very powerful tools to bumping up against the world.

Want to change science? Here are some easy ways that you can change your scientific world today.

Redefining Success Beyond the Market

The narrative of “success” and “failure” is pervasive in academia, often measured by the harsh standards of publication and job market success.

I got this pub in “this journal.”

I have this many citations. not in the rejection letters or the sparse CV

I got this job.

I got this number of job interviews.

I got tenure.

And, you didn’t.

But, let me tell you from someone who defines themselves by their failures, and studies failure:

True failure is allowing the market to dictate our worth.

Our true value lies in perseverance and the intrinsic satisfaction derived from the work.

The external market is a poor judge of individual worth. It really is. (Here is a post about how we can change the scientific system to better match what we do.)

Those who evaluate us do not walk in our shoes nor understand our journeys.

True achievement comes from consistent effort, pushing against the prevailing currents, and, most importantly, from the courage to define success on our own terms. The realization that you are not a failure, regardless of external validation, is empowering.

Realizing that you can walk away at any time is empowering. It helps you to keep coming back.

It allows you to view the world critically and embrace your identity beyond market definitions.

So what if everyone else thinks I am a failure?

I will be that person who will be running up the hill dead last, as I remember doing when I was a kid in foot races. I still finished.

Watch about dealing with failure as an academic.

The Journey of Being You

Academia is a realm of high rejection rates, relentless pursuit of perfection, and high market standards. Yet, within this challenging landscape lies the opportunity for profound personal growth.

I imagine myself as a sprout in a barren landscape. That sprout can grow into an Oak tree one day.

By managing rejection healthily, embracing our imperfections, and defining success on our terms, we find the true essence of resilience. Remember, you are remarkable, not for what you achieve in the eyes of the market but for the authenticity and perseverance you bring to your journey.

Don’t let the market define you.

The freedom to be yourself–warts and all–is the greatest success of all.

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