Dealing with a professional slump

"Fail" stampIf academic years had themes, then the theme for this academic year would be The Year of Failure.

Coming off of sabbatical, my plan for the year was get things out of the pipeline and into submission. I am working on three different projects currently: two research, and one curricular. The research projects I described last year in this post. The curricular project is a major undertaking related to continuing civic engagement projects beyond the lifetime of courses that I’m hoping to pilot next academic year. One of the research projects and the curricular project reached the point where it made sense to send them out into the world for review. So that’s what I did. The curricular project went out for review first for a fellowship, and then for a regional grant. I submitted the research project to a workshop where I thought it had decent odds for acceptance.

Everything has been summarily rejected. And in the case of the workshop paper, unnecessarily meanly rejected.

Rejection is hard. I have a fairly thick skin when it comes to criticism about my work. But the timing of these rejections, one after the other, and the spirit of the rejections (the mean reviews, not even making the waitlist for the fellowship), has hit me hard. Additionally, the curricular project is something that I feel very strongly about and invested in personally, that fills a definite need and hole, so the fact that I can’t convince funders of this fact is extra frustrating to me.

I half-jokingly asked my friends, “are ALL of my ideas REALLY that bad?” But that pretty much described my mental state late last week, when the workshop paper rejection came in. Usually, if something in one area of my professional life is not going well, I can fall back on a different project that is going better. It’s difficult to deal with the situation where everything is failing, all at once.

I’ve been through professional slumps many times before, so I know that these things are cyclical. I know this means I have not yet found the right way to tell the story of my work to outside critics, that I have not made them care about the importance of solving these problems, or the validity of my proposed solutions. I know that eventually, I will figure out a way to frame these stories in more compelling ways. And I know that negative feedback makes my work stronger. Usually. (But still, there is no reason to make hurtful comments in a review. You can disagree with someone’s premise or approach or results and do so politely and kindly, without name-calling and insults.)

I also have the privilege of tenure, and of being a full professor. If I go through a publishing slump that lasts a few years, nothing bad is going to happen to me. If this curricular project doesn’t get funded, I likely have the professional capital to identify resources at my institution to help me launch the project anyway.

And yet. Part of me still feels, maybe not panicked, but something close. Because there is a schedule that I think I should be publishing on, and I’ve fallen behind that pace. And part of me feels impatient, because I am so excited about these projects that I want to shout my results and plans from the rooftops. I want to share these things with others, now now now! (Patience is not my strong suit. Can you tell?)

So, after a weekend of wallowing in self-pity, I’m returning to action. I’m going to sit on the workshop paper for a few weeks until I figure out what my next move is. In the meantime, after submitting the workshop paper I went back to research project #2 and am making steady progress there, so I will try to move that closer to publication. And today, a day completely free of meetings and classes where I get to work at home, I will spend strategically planning out the steps for the curricular project, to move it forward sans funding.

(And maybe I’ll update my CV of Failures, too.)