Chasing Academia: At what point should we just give up? (Spoiler alert – When and If you want to!)

I’m in Islay today, finally taking my lunch after a long but great day in a school supporting young people get into university. It’s decent work, but it looks likely my position will end in just over six months due to funding. In the best tradition of self-preservation, my search for a position related to my skills and qualifications continues. In fact, it never really stopped; and for the most part, I have received rejection after soul-crushing rejection and honestly, I’m coming to the end of my rope.

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I’ve lost count of how many rejections I have received now. Not just jobs, but funding applications, journal submissions (in this I have been fortunate – I got my first only recently), and publishers. Today I received another for a research job that I felt I had a great shot at. But then, why would you apply for something if you think you would not have a chance. As always, the rejection message is immediately accompanied by a cloud of devastation and desperation; quickly followed with self-doubt and loathing for my own failings and inadequacies. I’ve already started chewing my nails down and spent a good ten minutes staring at nothing mentally berating myself for failing to come up to standard. Now I’m just exhausted and embarrassed. I’m supposed to be a careers consultant. I run my own small consultancy and I give specialist advice to professional students, colleagues, friends and family on applications, interviews, and CVs; yet my success rate is rapidly approaching single figures.

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Each role I apply for, I follow all of my own advice, I tailor, I match, I make sure I have the skills required, I write carefully, honestly, and earnestly. I research each role and company and build a research file complete with key skills, applicable terms, and core information essential for the role. A single job application takes me a full day, a research bid takes up to 6 months (if not longer), a journal article over a year. Post submission comes the worrying, the stressing, the continual checking of the email inbox – before either the email turns up with devastating news – or it does not come at all.

So then there is the depression part, usually followed by some cry for help on social media, and those closest reconcile you with words that you did the best, that it isn’t the right opportunity, that there is something else ahead, and to stick in. ‘You are great! Hang in there!’ This is always much appreciated. But eventually, you get tired of asking for the reassurance, or you don’t believe it anymore. You start to tell yourself that everyone is tired of listening to your self-pity. That everyone has problems, and most are worse than your continual career rejections. So you stop, or you limit yourself to only mention landmark rejections. The big ones. The ones you have been dreaming about. Or the ones that have taken you to 60,70, 80 or 100.

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In some circles, rejection within academia has been likened to grief or personal loss. At first, this seems ridiculous. It is a job or a piece of writing, not a parent, child, partner, or pet. However, some excellent opinion articles such as this one by Rebecca Schuman argue that it can feel exactly that simply because of the amount of time, energy and emotion that goes into each application. There is also the element that the rejection is a reflection of you. It is YOU that they do not want. This can get a little arrogant to a point as your rejection is internalised as YOUR failure rather than someone else’s success. Worst comes when you have convinced yourself that you meet the criteria completely and still that rejection lands in your inbox, or your project is singular and unique and absolutely has to be funded – how could they say no? Yet, again, we run the risk of being blinded by our own worth. For some, this is perhaps total arrogance, but I suspect for most this attitude is created through a blend of hope, desperation, and terror that their work, qualifications, and, by proxy, themselves are unworthy and meaningless.

Stephen Heard has an excellent blog article on his own experience in which he notes how many universities have rejected him over the course of his academic career. Heard also discusses the role of the Shadow CV, a concept of recognising, if not celebrating, every metaphoric skinned knee and crushed dream on the path to academic success. This is potentially a useful tool, instead of noting just how many times you have been rejected, view each renewed attempt as a success and mark of defiance or admirable determination.

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Every time I fail, these words cross my mind. In one of the articles I read on failure, someone wrote ‘I didn’t want to kill myself because that would be selfish to my family. But I wished that I would be in a violent accident.’ This wish for a clean escape is horrifying, never mind that it is prompted by an impersonal email that was sent by a computer, spanning from a decision by a person, who considered your entire life’s worth in less than the time it takes to suck a mint. The terrifying thing is that I recognise this feeling. I get it every time another rejection crosses my inbox. I have to sit and check the positive aspects of my life, my reasons for being here, my loves and responsibilities. Essentially I count the reasons I’m not able to commit suicide. Over a job, or a bit of funding, or an article that few people will read. Now I am not saying that this is ever a serious intention (although I would note that all thoughts of self-harm and destruction are always serious), but it is a knee jerk reaction that is almost entirely involuntary. Academically speaking I believe this response is really about control and the frustration of lacking it over my career and professional development. If you can’t control your life, then you can take control over its end at least. There is a logic in this thought process that is remarkedly recurrent in suicides.

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The point to this piece is that it is ok to take a minute to lick your wounds, and it is ok to reach out and ask for some encouragement. It is ok, no matter what others may say, to quit or at least take a break. What it is essentially not to do is place the entire responsibility on your own shoulders. Years in recruitment has taught me that candidates can never know what is in the mind of the recruiter, interviewer, or HR sifter. Yes your application could have been better, absolutely more experience suited to the role may have been useful – but it is worth recognising where you are now right now. Celebrate your achievements rather than lament your limitations. Take feedback and look into the areas where you could have improved, where you need to gain more experience, or look for more opportunities. There is always more you could decide to do, the point is that you have the choice if to continue or to change direction.

Right now I do not feel great. But I feel better than I did a couple of hours ago. Tomorrow, I’ll feel even better. As much as I hate to admit it, but with every rejection I hear in the back of my mind a particular voice that continues to plague me that tells me ‘You are not good enough for academia’. That voice told me it was unlikely that I would get my PhD, that my research was not publishable, that I was a poor academic who would never get a career. Right now that voice is louder. But I suspect we all have that voice, different tones, and inflexions. Different people and perspectives, but most of us have that voice; and as much as I hate to trade one aggravating voice for another, maybe Hemmingway had it right after all.

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Onwards and upwards my friends. Dust yourself off, rethink it, and let’s have another go.

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