GUEST POST: The Five Stages of Conference Rejection

by Shima Jalal Kamali

If not every, at least half the student population has faced some form of rejection during their studies. As a PhD student that level is tripled the normal amount. In addition to dealing with constant criticism about your work, dealing with student markings and feedback, and just life, there is also the added bonus of conference abstracts and yep you guessed it rejections.

I doubt there is one PhD student who can assert that they have never received this dreaded email, which goes something like this: “Dear Researcher, thank you for submitting your abstract to this conference blah blah blah. Unfortunately, we are unable to include your paper in the program this year…blah blah blah…” And if you haven’t then just stop reading because…well…you cannot relate!!! No I’m kidding, keep reading because no way life as a researcher is going to be perfect and you will (sorry to be so honest), one day get a similar painful email in your overcrowded inbox.

Anyways, where were we…oh yes. One sunny/cloudy/rainy (any weather) day, you, a hopeful PhD researcher working on your thesis, get an email notification about a future conference call. The topic, the date, the location is perfect. So what do you do, you leave it until the last second before the deadline (which you have known for two months) is finished to send your abstract. Then you wait…continue with your life and various academic engagements. Until the day you get that you’ve got mail ding. It’s the conference administrators…your heart begins to beat… (you have told everyone you have submitted an abstract and everyone has told you, not to worry because you are a definitely going to be accepted). Click, you open the email and your eyes begin to go over the text faster than your brain can make sense of anything.

“Dear Researcher, thank you for submitting your abstract to this conference blah blah blah. Unfortunately, we are unable to include your paper in the program this year…blah blah blah…”

The adrenalin grows less and your heart begins to beat slower and slower till it hits normal heartbroken pace and you gradually step into the what I like to call, five stages of conference rejection. Now the time frame for how long any PhD individual goes through the stages varies, some experience all five stages over an hour and some deal in a slower pace, maybe going through the stages over a few days, some even months, years (yes it hits some harder than others). Like most grievances (although this is not personally as devastating as losing a loved one) everyone deals with pain in their own special way. However, the common denominator is the stages that we go through.

The first stage is SHOCK: in this early stage your expectations receive a reality check (like a shock to the nerve system), which occurs after the words of the rejection email are completely comprehended by your mind. However, even understanding the words does not mean you fully grasp the facts which are that you have been rejected. The time frame of staying in this state depends on each person. Some quickly overcome this initial stage and move fast into the next, which is denial. However, for some the shock does not wear off until one night’s sleep or hearing it out loud from someone else’s mouth.

The second stage is DENIAL (which could also be referred to as regret): similar to the first stage, this stage is once again a form of not accepting the consequences of the answer you have received. You act as though you have read the email incorrectly, going over it more than a few times, in some cases, printing it out and highlighting and analyzing the language and terms used just to be sure, you know! (if no one else does this, please do not judge those who do). This stage is all about facts and how much of it is true or could be evaluated or approached differently for better results.

The third stage is ANGER and a dash of JEALOUSY: After not being able to undo the email and its reply, your denial transitions into a state of anger at the conference administrators for primarily not valuing a remarkable paper as yours and for being conceited in their selection process. You take the opportunity to tell anyone who asks you about the result how incredibly unfair the conference organizers are and that you think they were biased. People nod or look at you with concern but when you are burning with rage such encounters are just not obvious. During this stage you might encounter the research buddy whose paper was accepted to the conference and before you know it, you face the awful feeling of jealousy which no one likes but when it surfaces it destroys the human ability to function. This stage is by far one of the most tiresome stages as you are fighting various demons within you. The words, hey, I got accepted, did you get accepted? Coming out of their mouth not only awakens the green monster but it also sends a painful shot through to your heart and you enter the next stage…

The fourth stage is SADNESS (or DEPRESSION): as the red and green in your veins begin to grow less, you suddenly find drops of tears welling up in your eyes and dropping slowly down your cheeks (for those who do not cry openly but internally it is the same thing). Sadness hits the hardest, as it leads to the unfortunate act of doubting your abilities. Up to know, you were fighting the consequences of your rejection and not letting yourself feel the one feeling that you probably initially experienced upon reading the word “unfortunately”, which was sadness. Nothing is worse than realizing that not everything is within your powers, that your research topic or argument/discussion probably did not have a place within the conference program, that you cannot fix the situation, yet it is a necessary part of life and after dealing with your emotions you enter the final stage…

The final stage ACCEPTANCE and MOVING ON: after crying a few more times (remember it is not a sign of weakness) you face the rejection and tell yourself there will be other conferences and opportunities to participate as a researcher. That this rejection is not a sign that you are not good enough or that your work is not valuable. Instead that the future holds other chances for you to expose your fantastic abilities as a researcher and your unique ideas to the academic world. And when that chance comes up, you will blow everyone’s mind away with your excellency. You begin to plan, stick a few motivational stick notes across your notice board and archive the email (or some even delete, which is an actual way of getting instant satisfaction). Open the blinds, if for the past few hours and days (weeks, it is ok, again no one is judging) you have not engaged with your surroundings. You might go for a walk, or to a movie or listen to TedTalks, anything that provides the inspiration to keep going.

In my few years of PhD research, conference rejections have come and gone. However, what has provided me solace during my hurt is the fact that we should never let our rejections define us but instead they should be a reminder (fuel) to keep going. Never stop because you did not make one cut, keep hustling. Overall, you come out a stronger person after completing the stages, nothing can beat you now (except maybe the next rejection mail) I know it’s a vicious cycle this academic life but hey Rome was never built in day, am I right?

P.S. If none of this has been helpful, just remember you are NOT (and I emphasis this) alone. We PhD students stand together, “one for all, and all for one”


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