On rejection, confidence, and breaking in pumps

Hi folks,

It’s been a rough few weeks for me here in the precariat. Since I submitted my PhD (well, actually, going back earlier than that) I have been pushing very hard. I have been hustling for casual work, applying for jobs (in academia nationally and internationally, and in government departments and NGOs), writing papers, and applying for grants.

Every time I take one of these tasks on, I have to build up my confidence. I have to tell myself that even if the casual work is in an area new to me, I’ll get across it just fine. This one, at least, is usually a safe bet, as I have multi- and inter-disciplinary training, work hard and I’m a quick study. Writing articles, book chapters, and chapter proposals is tough, time-consuming and it’s always a long time between starting and succeeding, but writing is also a reasonable bet – I’ve had few rejections in this arena, and the rejected work isn’t wasted, it’s always been re-workable and re-submittable elsewhere.

But grants, and job applications? Not so much. Rejections are frequent (thus far, universal) and the work is at best partially salvageable for another long shot application. When I apply for jobs and grants I have to tell myself that even if success is unlikely, it’s possible, despite my complete lack of success so far. I have to believe in the possibility, and believe in my own capacity to succeed, because otherwise it is impossible to put in the hours (days) needed to write a solid application. A degree of confidence is essential to the process, but often hard to muster.

Confidence is essential despite the evidence to the contrary. Despite the fact that every competitive research grant I have ever applied for or been involved with has been unsuccessful. Despite the fact that I have yet to have any success in the competitive job market. The piling up of rejections pretty firmly suggests that I’m not capable, I’m not enough, I’m not what anyone is looking for. The confidence that is essential for each effort gets harder to scrape up.


Here’s the thing: I know, on some level, that the rejections aren’t necessarily a reflection on me personally, or not entirely. They reflect a lot of things: an oversupply of PhDs relative to the increasingly casualised workforce and insecure funding environment in higher education and research. They reflect that for every post there are hundreds of qualified applicants from all over the world, many of whom will have years of experience on me. They reflect the fact that I don’t actually have my PhD yet – it will be conferred any day now, but for every application so far I’ve had to select the ‘Ms’ option when giving my title – and ruling out anyone without a PhD is a pretty straightforward way to thin the pile when you’ve got hundreds of applications. It’s also a reflection of the fact that my publication record isn’t jaw-dropping. I’ve got a pretty decent number of publications for someone in my field who is just out of a PhD, they’re in high quality journals, and they are (slowly) getting cited, but my record isn’t exceptional. I need more. And it also reflects the fact that in many grant processes, success breeds success and failure breeds failure. The first big grant is the hardest to win, because many selection panels consider previous grant success and productivity in their decision making.

I also know that really, I’m not doing so badly. I’ve had one interview so far, and I’m part way through a multi-stage screening process for another job. In fact, I’m typing this at my desk at home, incongruously dressed in daggy work-from-home clothes with thick socks and a pair patent leather pumps, which I’m trying to break in before a group interview and work test later this week. I’ve had two publications accepted already this year, and will be submitting another in a week or so, and have a long list of others in various stages of formulation. 2015 will be a fabulous year for me, publication-wise.

But right now, none of this is enough, I’m not enough, and so the rejections keep coming in, one after another. Honestly, it just hurts. Well, the rejection, and the pumps.


It’s the horrible reality of job hunting and grant hustling: the more you push, the more you apply, the more you will fail, the more you will be rejected. The more you fail, the more you have to push and hustle to try and get that first win, despite waning confidence and pretty desperately low morale, and sore feet.


ETA: Sorry to be a bit grim. Early May is a tough time for me, and there have been a lot of disappointments recently. Next post will be more cheerful, for sure.

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3 Responses to On rejection, confidence, and breaking in pumps

  1. Pingback: CASA news 09/15 | CASA

  2. Ron says:

    It is astonishing. I remember a time when someone – who wasn’t yet a PhD – but was getting published in top journals, would have been snapped up as a super-star. The times they have a changed.

    • natjosborne says:

      Thanks for the comment Ron!

      The expectations have definitely shifted. I’ve heard a number of permanent and senior academics (at senior lecturer, associate professor and professor levels) say that if they were starting out now they don’t think they’d have been able to make it. Of course, the increasing expectations at the entry level of the market is also reflected in increasing workload pressures for contracted/permanent staff.

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