Managing academic rejection

An academic career increasingly involves submitting research ideas which stand little chance of ‘success’, if success is taken to be securing funding or an accepted manuscript. For those on research focussed academic career tracks, the high rates of ‘rejection’ can feel demoralising. In this blog post we share our experiences of publishing in journals, and how ‘rejection’ is key to the process of publication.

Submitting my paper for rejection

In some areas, rejection rates for journal papers can be nearly 90% (if not higher), although data can be hard to locate. The American Psychological Society tracks this information for leading psychology journals. Rejection rates also vary across disciplines. In management, it is not uncommon for the top tier journals to have an acceptance rate of less than 10%. Put this way, ‘rejection’ is the norm – an accepted manuscript is the aberration. This is why I always (half jokingly) say I have submitted a paper for rejection, as this is likely to be the outcome. Some academics will never share their experiences of rejected manuscripts – perhaps they have been lucky and never experienced that dreaded email, but I doubt it.

There are of course a number of steps we can take to minimise the chance of rejection:

  • Make sure the paper fits the journal – if you aren’t able to cite material from that publication, then it’s not the right journal. Citing from the journal helps to locate your work in the current debates within the journal. It also helps the journal’s citations!
  • Format the paper according to the journal requirements – reading the journal carefully can help to ensure your paper is structured in a way the journal likes.
  • For management journals (and this applies across other disciplines), a theoretical framework is essential for the top tier journals.
  • Ask a trusted colleague to do a critical friend peer review before submission.

Submitting a paper is a sign of success in its own right. The next stage is to cross fingers and hope it goes out to peer-review (and have a little celebration).

Stages of rejection

The desk reject

Perhaps one of the most disheartening types of ‘rejection’ is the desk-reject (or perhaps *the* most disheartening) . Here the editor bounces the paper right back to you. Hopefully, this happens quickly, but I have also experienced this taking 6 months or more. This is miserable. There’s no other way to think of it at the time. A good editor will provide a narrative as to why there has been a desk reject. If this is all done within a few days or weeks, I take some comfort. My advice is to rework the paper quickly and send it on somewhere else. Have a look at the other journals you are citing and see where it might fit. Don’t rush this though – as an editor and reviewer it is always clear when a paper has been rejected by another journal and not reworked prior to submission elsewhere. A number of academics have suggested to me that desk rejection is becoming more common. I don’t know if this is true, but finding reviewers is hard work, so if an editor doesn’t feel it will make it through peer review, I can see why it happens.

Post-review reject

Whenever I get an email back from a journal I read it looking closely for the rejection. Rarely will an editor say the paper is ‘rejected’; sometimes, it’s much softer: ‘I will not be inviting a resubmission of this manuscript’. This can be a demoralising experience, and it can be hard not to take it personally. When I was on a temporary contract the experience was worse – will I lose my job if I don’t get these 3* and 4* publications soon? (These feelings also affect those on open-ended contracts.) It is hard not to take the rejection to heart, especially if the work is something we have invested considerable time in and the research is a subject we care about. I’ve learned not to read the comments too closely to begin with. I let the bad news sink in for a day or two and then take a look. Increasingly, I agree with reviewers’ comments, but I suspect that is in part experience and the relative privilege of an open-ended contract. At this stage, I would suggest reading the comments in detail to consider how the paper can be revised to increase an acceptance for another journal.

[Edit: a number of people have said that the time for reviewers’ comments can be so long that a) the data is out of date or b) that they have moved on from the paper and find it difficult to return back to the work. The latter would apply with R&R although both indicate a problem with the peer review process. As an editor of a journal I know how hard it is to find reviewers. Reviewing is hard work, but important (unpaid labour) service work which keeps the whole system going.]

The post-review reject can happen at the 2nd or 3rd round of reviews . This can be upsetting! It’s likely the paper is significantly different to the original paper and you have put a lot of time and effort into trying to address the reviewers’ comments. There’s no other thing to say apart from ‘it sucks’ and, for most of us, there’s not much more to be done. The good news is that this is rare, but it’s worth remembering. There is no guarantee of publication until the paper is actually published.

[Edit: I have been reminded that I forgot to include the post rejection celebratory drink, if that’s your thing]

While all this can sound pretty grim, there is a home for every paper. My first 4* paper went to two top journals. Each time it went out to review and both times the reviewers were split between acceptance and rejection. Both times the editors decided to reject. Finally, I submitted to another journal – one which actually was a better fit for the material. It still went through a few rounds of review, but it was accepted. I think the previous rejections were part of what made the paper a success in the end. I stopped thinking about rejection as rejection, and started to see it as part of the successful publication process. This has allowed me to be increasingly grateful for reviewers and editors who take the time to provide careful and constructive feedback. It’s rare and incredibly helpful. ‘Rejections’ have helped to shape my writing and certainly improve it.

Perhaps if we can take the emotional elements out of the process, ‘rejections’ are actually agents of constructive feedback and potentially learning experiences to improve outputs. I recognise this is much easier to say from my position on an open-ended contract. I imagine it would be even easier to argue if the UK had a tenure track system. This would allow for more time to spend on publications in order to craft them into saying something important. However, while we have a REF system and no tenure, relatively rapid turnaround of an increasing number of papers will make ‘rejection’ more of a norm.

Thoughts welcome in the comments below!

Kate Sang, Rebecca Finkel and Valerie Caven

Aim and Objectives (UG dissertation)

Once you have completed your literature review you will be in a position to write your aim and objectives. These allow your reader (marker!) to understand the purpose of your research and help you to structure the remainder of your thesis. Although the precise marking criteria will differ at each institution, usually the presence of achievable objectives, and evidence of the extent to which they have been met, will be key.

A research aim can be thought of as the overall intellectual endeavour of the dissertation. What is it that your work is aiming to understand or explain? The aim should be brief, and easy for a reader to understand.

Research objectives are the steps you will take to achieve your aim. How many objectives a dissertation should have is debatable. As a general guide I suggest that the final objective should be related to theory (for a Ph.D this is likely to be the theoretical development). Objectives should be ‘doable’, rather than abstract. Each objective needs to be distinct – i.e. not just rewording a previous objective.

Some examples of aim and objectives

Objectives are useful for structuring the remainder of your thesis. In your methods chapter you may want to consider a table which maps the objectives to the research design. This helps the reader to clearly understand how the objectives will be met and the relationship between the literature/theory and the data collection tools.

Consider framing your sub-headings of the findings and discussion chapters around the objectives. This helps to develop a clear thread through the dissertation. Finally, in your conclusions chapter you can clearly state how each objective has been met – this could be in a table also.

Give the aim and objectives some careful thought, show them to your friends and family – can they make sense of what you intend to do and understand in your research? Once these have been finalised (although they may shift slightly as the research progresses), you are in a position to write your research questions. These research questions, along with the aim and objectives will dictate how you go about your study. Imagine one of your objectives was to:

‘Understand what women academics perceive to be the criteria for promotion to professor’

Here, we are not talking about measuring how many women achieve chair, or the selection criteria are for promotion panels. The objective is about understanding perceptions, which requires a research design sensitive to this, likely a qualitative approach.

Remember that the aim and objectives have to be achievable, ‘doable’ (i.e. concrete rather than abstract) and clearly linked to the preceding literature, subsequent research design, findings and analysis.

Hurricane Patricia: ways to help

Hurricane Patricia is likely to cause considerable damage to life (human and nonhuman) and property. Below are some links to ways to help.

To register yourself safe and well or search for others the Red Cross have a helpline

To make donations various news sites are compiling lists of charitable organisations engaged in relief efforts (likely overlap on the lists):

NBC New york list

CNN’s list


Humane Society International 

A local SPCA has been evacuated and may need help

I will try and add anything which emerges over the next day or two.

Doing a literature review (UG dissertation)

For many students, approaching their literature review can be somewhat daunting. There is likely to be a large amount of information available which can inform your dissertation. The key is to think of the literature review as forming a strong foundation on which to build your empirical work.

What is the purpose of your literature review? A good literature review will cover the main literature in a field (it will never be exhaustive) to identify what is already known about your topic. This will help you to identify the gaps in knowledge. The literature review will also help you to develop focused research aim, objectives and research questions.

Importantly, you will need to consider a theoretical underpinning for your work. This enables your research to engage analytically with the problem identified. Simply, it allows you to move from describing a problem, to considering an explanation.

There are different approaches to structuring a literature review. I usually suggest a funnel approach which takes the reader from a general perspective of the topic (including setting out the problem) towards a narrower focus – i.e. the particular focus of your work. Remember that you need to take the reader by the hand and carefully walk them towards your research aim and objectives. A good structure will help to reveal the logic of your chosen topic.


When you approach the literature, the volume of information can be overwhelming. You may find it helpful to think of this stage in terms of a form of analysis – read through the various sources of literature and identify emerging themes. Some researchers even code their literature using a qualitative software package such as NVivo. Once you have your overarching themes you can decide how you want to arrange your literature review. There are no hard or fast rules, but it must work for your topic. Draft a structure and be open to changing it. Often it’s only once we start to write that we realise our predetermined ideas don’t work.

Types of literature (not exhaustive)

Peer-reviewed: these are often journal articles/papers. They have been through a rigorous period of review by experts in the field. This can include rounds of revisions which are designed to strengthen the paper. Some books may be also be peer-reviewed. Conference papers often go through some form of peer-review, but often not to the same degree as journal papers.

Grey literature: literature published outside of traditional academic or commercial publishers – this may be produced by academics, researchers outside of academia, government, industry reports. These are generally not peer-reviewed, but can offer some useful background material for example, statistics, details of policy and legislative interventions

Media: you may wish to consider media reports e.g. newspaper articles, industry magazines. These can provide some useful context material.

Often you will find this material online through various databases (see HWU database guide), although you may still need to locate hard copies of useful material.

Make sure that you keep a record of everything you read/cite – there are software packages to help with this, for example Endnote. You should also take written or typed notes of your reading. It can be frustrating to forget who wrote something important and you don’t want to risk plagiarism. Find out which referencing system is preferred for your department/school.

This is a creative process and there is a degree of trial and error involved. If you’re interested in your topic, this will be a much more enjoyable process. If there are pieces of work which are difficult to understand, don’t assume that the problem rests with you. It’s likely that the research is hard to understand! It can help to find work which has cited the difficult study, see what they have to say about it, and then return to the original work.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask your supervisor questions!

Women not ‘females’

The language we use around gender, race, disability, sexuality (etc) is incredibly important. A message I drill into my students. This week I spent some time discussing the use of ‘females’ to describe women and girls and why I think it’s inappropriate. There have been some useful posts about this including:

6 reasons you should stop calling women females

The problem with calling women females

Woman, female or lady?

Here’s my take on it. Female is an adjective – a biological sex descriptor, woman/women/girl/girls – nouns. I am a woman, I am not ‘a female’. In my classes we are discussing gender not sex – distinct concepts. A person is a not ‘a female’ and people are not ‘females’. A female dentist is fine – a group of dentists who are all female, would not be a group of females (or whatever the collective noun is for dentists?!). So there is the grammatical issue. Also, if we are discussing gender, then the biological sex descriptor of female or male is not appropriate.

More politically though, to refer to women as ‘females’ just feels uncomfortable. We are being ‘reduced’ to our biology. It reinforces an idea that human females (girls or women) are biological, driven by our biology (i.e. so-called sex hormones) while a group of adult human males are ‘men’. Brain creatures – rational, thinking and not driven by biology.  I believe that the body matters. The materiality of our bodily experiences does matter for understanding gender. However, our biology is not deterministic. To refer to women or girls as ‘females’ hints or smacks of misogyny. I know there are women who don’t mind this, but many do.

This post from the Grammar Girl urges female to be used for scientific purposes or to refer to (non-human) animals… I wouldn’t say that science and the social world are that far removed, however, let’s be conscious of our nouns and adjectives!