One of the soft skills that people don’t talk about at all, not typically listed on a resume but quite crucial in preventing burnout.
Peek into your own thoughts
My top coping strategy for any emotion and all emotions: journalling. Here’s what I do after every manuscript rejection:
- Set a timer for 26 minutes (my Pomodoro default) and just write down everything that’s on my brain, distractions and all. Begin with just 5 minutes of writing if this seems daunting.
- Take a break! (Drink water, stretch, snack). I’ve just dumped all of my emotions out and that’s … a lot.
- Once I’m ready, I read over what I’ve written and reflect on recurring themes.
For me, my two strongest themes have been nicknamed imposter syndrome and perfectionism.
My imposter syndrome looks like: “Am I a bad researcher?” “I’m never going to make it in this field.” “I just don’t have the talent and now they’ve found out.” Sound familiar?
My perfectionism rears itself as ugly rumination: “I should have changed this analysis.” “I should have chosen the right words explain this part better.” “I should have known, everything, under the sun.” This stuff never ends because this faux problem-solving is my way to cope with the imposter syndrome — I’m trying to find the “right way” to prove that I am not an imposter.
I don’t stop here. Not when my raw emotions are exposed like that.
Speak to yourself as a friend would
This was surprisingly hard for me. I’ve seen this piece of advice thrown around often and have always dismissed it. “It gets easier if you keep trying” didn’t make sense because I didn’t even know what it would be like to try it once, let alone repeatedly.
What made a difference was seeing kind self-talk being modelled by others across platforms — podcasts, blog posts, late-night chats with friends. Slowly, I built up to this:
Automatic me: I’m a bad researcher.
Friend me: Realistically you’re not the top researcher in the world because you’re still learning and that’s what you value the most — the learning process, the being curious. That strength in continuing to ask questions is your strength as a researcher and automatic labels like this often make you too afraid to lean into these strengths. I’m choosing to lean in on the strengths that inspire me to take action rather than use shame to push me into actions I am unsure of.
Automatic me: I should have decided on the exact correct words to communicate my ideas clearly and the exact analysis that reviewers wanted.
Friend me: I’m noticing that this is perfectionism. There’s no way to get parameters 100% correct the first try, especially since there often isn’t a “right” answer. It’s about how you’ve justified analyses and sometimes reviewers have a different kind of training, which is why they lean towards familiar types of analyses. In fact, this difference in training is exactly why we have a peer-review process. These journal articles are open conversations.
Friend me and automatic me are such different people, honestly, but they are both me. When I’m basking in the rejection though, automatic me is prominent and friend me is nowhere to be found. There’s no one in my headspace to stand up for myself when I am my own worst bully.
I still have to do this on paper because it doesn’t work out naturally in my head. Automatic me runs at 19237102937128 words per minute in my brain and no one is interrupting that process; doing so will just amplify the anger. I need to see the words tangibly on a page to experience it like a friend messaging me with these thoughts. This makes it easier for me to switch mindsets, to write kindly to myself as if speaking to a friend.
The process is still a bit clunky for now but I’m hoping that someday I won’t need to sit down in my journal and that I will more easily speak kindly to myself.
Of course, you can always chat with a friend who would provide the same kind of feedback if you aren’t quite ready yet. Being able to give yourself this kindness is quite a powerful mental shift, so I highly recommend revisiting this whenever you are ready to try it out.
Part 1 & 2 deal with the emotions and self-doubt, because I don’t want those factoring into the logical mindset that I want for the next decision: whether to move forward, resubmit to a different journal.
Rejection is not a death sentence. I didn’t know this but it’s quite common for researchers to resubmit to suitable journals until published. One manuscript rejection is not a death sentence. You can decide whether to submit to a different journal, or whether to (metaphorically) neatly fold this up for the file-drawer. The key is that making that choice yourself feels more powerful.
Cost-benefit analysis. The question becomes: are the suggested tweaks worth the extra time and money for the message that this set of experiments is describing? This is also why I do parts 1 and 2 journalling first. While I value my mental health and my energy to complete a project in a set timeframe is important to consider, I do not want to it take the front seat because of how strong and recent the negativity is. It’s the same principle as drafting up an email when angry but making sure to take some space to edit it when in a clearer headspace.
Speaking with collaborators. The best thing in research is that most research doesn’t happen with a single researcher and you have collaborators’ brain juices to collectively tap into for this decision.
- Free-write your first reactions to the rejection. Take time to process it.
- Reframe your thoughts and speak to yourself as a friend would.
- When you’re ready, shift forwards.
This is just my experience scraping together self-care tips through the years so I’m curious to hear about how others have been managing this as well! Chirp @ me here.