Ding, ding, ding! A new email has just appeared in your inbox. The subject, “Fellowship Decision.” You had dedicated the summer to work on the application materials and submitted it in the fall.
Now, it is spring. The palms of your hands start to sweat, your adrenaline kicks in. You gather the courage and click the email open.
You read the words: “This year we were pleased to receive a number of exceptional scholarly works, which made it difficult for us to arrive at a decision. However, we regret to inform you that you have not been chosen as a recipient.”
You have just been rejected.
You shut your laptop and the feeling of inadequacy settles over you like a dark cloud of failure.
Rejection is all too familiar in academia. We get rejected from fellowships, grants, academic journals and tenure-track jobs. At times, we do not even receive a rejection letter or email and are left to our own thoughts in the abyss of silence.
With each rejection, we begin the process of asking, “Am I not good enough?” or “What could I have done better?”
The answer: “Nothing at all!”
My first attempt on the academic job market, I was rejected 22 times from various fellowships, adjunct and tenure-track positions. I was stressed beyond measure, questioned my abilities as a woman of color academic and unsure if I would be able to attain a job. After taking the spring and summer to rebuild and recover and seek reassurance from those who knew my value and what I had to offer, I began to rethink rejection.
We should not approach rejection from an “individual” perspective that we associate with “individual” failure. When we do this, we engage in meritocracy, or the belief that every individual has the same ability to achieve if you work hard.
Peggy McIntosh, American feminist and professor, comments: “It seems to me that obliviousness about White advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly enculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all.”
Meritocracy is a myth and is dangerous in the context of higher education because it creates a competition of individualism. Rejection is grounded in meritocracy, a systemic issue that perpetuates oppression in institutions of higher education. It is something I actively seek to dismantle.
However, rejection in academia is the one thing we all have in common. What would it mean to find commonalities in our rejections? As Chicana feminist and writer Gloria Anzaldua powerfully states: “Though we’re aware of the danger of losing our individuality to the collective fires and the risking of our safe spaces, this undertaking empowers us to become sentinels, bearers of witness, markers of historias [histories].”
My second attempt on the academic job market, I risked my safe spaces for the discomforts of the unknown, to find the collective. This is what I learned.
First, our self-worth should not be defined by what we do, but rather who we are.
I sought out senior academics who were White and people of color to build my network and asked for their support. They often offered to read my material for feedback and write letters of recommendations on my behalf. They checked in with me after interviews to discuss areas of improvement and how I felt about the overall experience. Each one of the senior academics offered their own expertise, which created a collective knowledge that supported my efforts on the market.
Second, we may not be able to dismantle the system, but we can help disrupt it by creating an environment that endorses community learning and care.
I was completely transparent with my colleagues who were also on the market. I shared all my materials from the cover letter to the Powerpoints I used for on-campus visits. I was in several support groups to check in about the market, who was getting interviews, who was not, who needed practice with mock job talks and our overall emotional well-being. When we interviewed at the same institutions, we prepared collectively. Our motto was, “If one of us were to get the job, we all win” because we contributed our shared knowledge.
Lastly, be yourself because who else are you going to be?
As I went on my campus visits, I always spoke to my parents before starting the interview. My parents’ words to me have always been “be yourself.” I secured a tenure-track job, but I did not do it alone.
The next time you receive an email that begins with “We regret to inform you,” think about the collective. As bell hooks, Black feminist and professor, reminds us: “Moving through that fear, finding out what connects us, reveling in our differences; this is the process that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values, of meaningful community.”
Ultimately this may be rejected by individuals but accepted by the collective.
Dr. Nichole Margarita Garcia is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. You can follow her on Twitter @DrNicholeGarcia.