Building confidence, building resilience, and building CVs

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?

14 thoughts on “Building confidence, building resilience, and building CVs

  1. Great post, Meghan – lots to think about here!

    One thought I had is that each student seems to arrive with their own unique needs in terms of rejection/acceptance. Some need the confidence boost of getting a paper accepted. Others are certain their every word will be published in Nature or Science and need the sting of rejection. Yet others are what I call ‘resilient’ and innately understand that rejection is an opportunity to improve. I try to temper my approach to the student’s needs, recognizing that needs change along this gradient through time, so what they need now may not be what they need next year.

    A second thought is that some aspects of building a CV make me *more* risky with papers early in a student’s career, and *less* risky later on. That is, a student about to apply for jobs or postdocs might need another paper or two accepted or published quickly to beef up their CV, in which case we might aim for a lower visibility journal where they are less likely to be rejected. Earlier on, they have a few years before their CV is going to be on the market, and I might be tempted to try a higher visibility journal even if rejection is more likely because we can afford for it to take a year to get the paper published, and it is worth it to take the risk to get a nice gem on their CV early.

  2. “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?”

    NOT AT ALL. Manuscripts should be submitted to the most appropriate journal for the project. (Different people have different ideas of what makes a journal “appropriate”. And that’s [perfectly okay.)

    “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?”

    NO. The most appropriate journal with the most appropriate audience who wants to read that work doesn’t change depending on how many papers someone has authored.

    “Is this something you did (or are aiming for) as a grad student or that you recommend for students you work with?”

    NO. This is asking students to sit at the “kiddie table”. It signals to a student you are not truly confident in their abilities or their project. It strikes me as demeaning to the student.

    “And, at what point, if any, should someone aim for rejection?”

    NEVER. This seems to be based on some sort of notion that there is a relationship between rejection rate and journal “quality” (the code for Impact Factor), which is a perception that seems to be driven by the glamour mags alone (; but see caveats at

  3. I understand the motivation for easing folks into the publication maelstrom.
    But honestly, I think there are so many free parameters in this calculation—the student’s interest and abilities, the capriciousness of inspiration, the availability of funds, the spleen of Reviewer 2–that this edges toward overthinking it and could backfire. What happens if, GawdForbid, the paper sent to the “sure thing” journal is rejected?

    Also, I never have thought about trying to aim for rejection. That’s such a big target nowadays, I think you kinda just let the arrow fly. 😉

  4. I started graduate school with a lot more confidence than I have now–earned confidence from my undergraduate work, which was published in my first year of PhD!–and I think my experiences in graduate school have really underlined and emphasized for me that students should be given a small project with clearly defined goals and a high probability of success. There’s a lot to like about the approach of giving students time to flounder around and seize in on an idea for themselves, but I think it can really be exhausting if a student doesn’t seize on a good plan right away.

    I’m working now on the very next manuscript after that first one, seven years later, and I occasionally pause and marvel at how much more worried and unsure I am about my work than I was about my undergraduate work. That stuff, well, it got rejected from I think the first two places I submitted it, but that was okay! It was good work and good science, and it felt like a prestige or a readership fit issue, not a judgement on the quality of what I had done–and anyway, I was “only” an undergrad, and my expectations about how cool people would find that work were low. Rejection didn’t feel like a judgement, because submitting work at all that early felt like an achievement in and of itself.

    Now, seven years and a lot of erosive water under the bridge, I’m… well, okay, I’m expecting the manuscript I’m writing now to be rejected first round, because my experience is that this is how manuscripts go. But the drafting of it and work on it has been a lot more intimidating and the analysis has definitely been a lot scarier for me, and I think much of that is that it took a long time–like… three to five years–to work out and understand why I was getting confusing results on my thesis work. A lot of that is just that my system is not well studied and things we genuinely didn’t know going in, but I also really think that early structure and a not-groundbreaking-but-solid project are important things to build in as a foundation when students first join a lab. I don’t think that the eventual publication is as important as the odds of succeeding (or success being defined as “we figured out this thing!”); I think that publication is more of a good place to teach “rejection is expected for many manuscripts, the important thing is putting them together and giving them a shot” than it is a referendum on student success or failure.

  5. Via Twitter:

  6. Via Twitter:

  7. My first publication was my first attempt at an independent project during a field assistantship before grad school. I sent it to what would be considered a smaller taxon-specific journal. There, I was blessed with a encouraging and constructive editor who provided detailed comments during the review process. It was a formative experience and a huge confidence booster.

  8. Good thought to help build confidence. But maybe a different approach is to help student build confidence during the project. To some extent rejects and rewrites are part of the business of science so perhaps discusses that with student before submission to reconfigure their expectations. Maybe too one could be direct – “student, we could submit this MS to (lame pub) as is and it will likely be published but with a little more polish it could go to (super pub), although the competition is greater…”

  9. In many countries PhDs are only 3-4 years. I like Hanna’s strategy because it nearly guarantees that a successful student will have at least one lead-author publication before going on the postdoc market. In order to secure a postdoc, it’s very useful to show that you have succeeded in publishing a paper (probably close to required these days, although there may be exceptions)

    • This is a good point. Related: some commenters seem to assume that the work will get published sooner or later — but let’s acknowledge that as students/postdocs move on, especially for nonacademic jobs where publication records matter less, LOTS of manuscripts fall through the cracks because the trainee no longer has much incentive to slog through the rest of the process (and the PI usually can’t or won’t do the slog alone). There is something to be said for “aiming low” just to increase the chances that more of those not-amazing-but-still-solid theses, etc. get published in some relatively accessible form before the trainee is busy with a totally new phase of their life.

  10. This is an interesting subject, and I can only provide anecdotal evidence as to why it doesn’t work with everyone.
    All my ‘scholar’ life has been pretty easy and I’ve been used to success since…well, since ever I step a foot in school. Yes, I had some failures, but nothing significant enough to remember it vividly when I entered my master degree.
    I thought my MSc manuscript was important and good and submitted way too high. It got rejected from four different journals before finding its home. Yes, it was difficult, but I needed to learn failure, repetitive failure, more than I needed to build confidence. I still often aim too high, but I’m learning to find a better fit for my manuscript. And I’m still hanging here in Academia.
    I guess there is no universal answers to the questions you ask. I think advisors need to know their students and discuss with them to reach a consensus as to where to submit a MS.
    Thanks for bringing up this interesting subject…I will certainly discuss it in my own blog (in French)

  11. Via Twitter (including one from Hanna Kokko herself):

  12. I have a dissertation chapter coming out in a small, regional society journal. Maybe we could have aimed “higher” and submitted the paper to bigger/more prestigious journal, but last night I gave a talk to this society and during my introduction my hosts surprised me with a slide of my proofs. The community around this publication is so lovely, and I already feel like this work has had a real impact among the managers and researchers who will give it legs. On the other hand, I had a rough year on the job market, so maybe these fuzzy feelings are meaningless to TT hiring committees?

  13. Pingback: Poll on manuscript rejections | Dynamic Ecology

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