When I was at the biology19 meetings recently, someone said something to me that I can’t stop thinking about: a student’s first manuscript should get sent to a journal where it will be accepted without much of a struggle; the second submission should be more of a struggle, but should get accepted at the first journal to which it was submitted; the third should go somewhere where it gets rejected. The person who said this, Hanna Kokko, acknowledged this was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and that many factors will end up influencing where someone submits a given manuscript; her real approach is to respect the first author’s own wishes, after a discussion of the pros and cons of different options. But her tongue-in-cheek recommendation is motivated by the recognition that rejections can be a huge hit to one’s confidence, especially when someone is just starting out. I’ve seen (and personally experienced) the enormous confidence hit that can come from serial rejections of a manuscript, again, especially when one is just starting out. So, trying to figure out a strategy to reduce the potential for a big ego blow (while learning to deal with rejection too—but not before one has succeeded twice) makes a lot of sense to me.
At the same time, one of my first thoughts was “but what if the first thing a student writes a manuscript on is super exciting?” In that case, aiming somewhere really safe could end up meaning that a student loses out on a manuscript in a prestigious journal, which can be important for their career development. (No, I’m not saying that people need Nature or Science or PNAS papers to succeed—I am thinking of journals like Ecology, Evolution, and AmNat. And, yes, ideally people would judge people based on their papers and not the journals in which they were published, but the reality is that it’s common for people to make initial cuts based on the journals.)
After thinking about it more, I realized that this strategy could lead to prioritizing developing an early project for students to work on that is small(ish) and relatively safe*, which they could write up early and send to a journal with a pretty high acceptance rate. When thinking about that, I realized that I’ve sort of had that as a goal for students in the past, but not a very explicit one. I think I used to have it as more of a goal, but shifted away from it somewhat, perhaps because I seem not to be good at determining what is a “safe” project.
There’s always going to be a tension between not wanting to put an early career scientist’s confidence through the wringer that can come from aiming high, but also wanting to make sure they don’t aim too low. This is something I discuss with students when we think about where to send manuscripts, but I think, until one goes through the experience, it’s hard to understand just how brutal it can be to one’s confidence to have a manuscript rejected from a few journals in a row.
After drafting this post, I read a section in Influencer that struck me as highly relevant. In this section (in chapter 5, which focuses on personal ability), they note the importance of breaking mastery into mini goals, and write:
To encourage people to attempt something they fear, you must provide rapid positive feedback that builds self-confidence. You achieve this by providing short-term, specific, easy, and low-stakes goals…
Shortly after that, they go on to talk about how to build resilience, noting:
As important as it is to use baby steps to ensure short-term success during the early phases of learning, if subjects experience only successes early on, then failures can quickly discourage them… To deal with this problem, people need to learn that effort, persistence, and resiliency are eventually rewarded with success…As learners overcome more difficult tasks and recover from intermittent defeats, they see that setbacks aren’t permanent roadblocks
That sure seems to back up Hanna’s recommendation, doesn’t it?
A bit later, near the end of the section, they say:
Initially, failure signals the need for greater effort or persistence. Sometimes failure signals the need to change strategies or tactics. But failure should rarely signal that we’ll never be able to succeed.
So, I’m curious:
- For a given project, how much do you think you should modify where you submit it based on whether it’s a first (or second or third) manuscript?
- Do you think it’s a good general policy for new grad students to have their first project be a small, safe one that they submit to a relatively non-selective journal? Is this something you did (or are aiming for) as a grad student or that you recommend for students you work with?
- And, at what point, if any, should someone aim for rejection?