Rejection season coincides with spring—a small cruelty of cyclical rhythms. Winter lifts and I assess what is revealed from under patches of dirty snow. The salt-stained sidewalk and remnants of grey ice are bleak. My inbox is bleaker.
As another day runs out of business hours, I manually refresh my email. “Checking for mail…” appears under my various inboxes, each acquired from a temporary gig and kept active on the off chance that someone may want to reach me.
No new messages, just the same old news that has piled up over the past few weeks. A form letter announces a search committee’s inundation with exquisite applications, offering regrets and warmest regards. That note dredged up drafts and dossiers long buried in the back of my mind during the suspended state of winter. Like the detritus that resurfaces as snowbanks recede, my cover letters look weathered in the cold light of mid-March. I mentally cross off another entry on the list of jobs I’ve applied for.
At 5:03 pm, a rejection letter from an editor sneaks in. A text from my co-author lights up my phone: “Fuck that.” I read the email a second time and a third, turning over the “no” in search of a why.
I tap out a reply: “Now what?”
There is vulnerability in the pause. The grey spaces of half-written text messages are reserved for unformed, insecure thoughts. We should make a plan. Or maybe we won’t. In the bubbles of animated ellipses on each of our phones, I know we are both wondering if we can just stop. I consider asking her if we should rest for a moment against the wall we’ve been hitting over these past few months and years. If we quietly back away, no one will know.
This latest rejection was direct, and it was shared. It had the solidity of something addressed to us by name, that we could re-read together and summon mutual indignation over. The editor’s abrupt note informed us that our manuscript did not fulfill the press’s editorial priorities but—of course—this was no reflection on the quality of our work. It’s not you, it’s me. Definitive words meant to soften the blow, but never quite do. But we have each other’s company in weathering the failure.
For precariously employed researchers and would-be professors, rejection season comes as the darkness of winter melts into wet concrete and enterprising crocuses start to emerge. Small blossoms pushing through snow-matted leaves hardly seem like enough to counterbalance my dismal pile of failed applications. Spring coincides with a particularly dismal time for academic job seekers. Rather than a symbol of new hopes and rebirth, the first flashes of growth are signs that the job offer just isn't coming this year.
By then, offers have certainly been made for jobs applied for last fall. My hopes that hiring committees work slowly have dissolved, their remains soon washed away in a storm of summer contract teaching. On rare occasions, rejection letters arrive addressed “Dear Applicant,” to remind me that I am one of very many who also have the prerequisite degrees, promising research programs, and well-crafted publications. More frequently, there is no letter at all. If I haven’t heard by now, it’s not going to happen.
It’s not you, it’s us. But it’s also not you.
The detritus of an application season, re-evaluated in the cold light of late March, is a collection of possible lives I imagined for myself months before, but will not live. Some of these were lives that I was trying too hard to embody, lives which might not have been comfortable if they came to pass. I was relieved when, in February, a department administrator confirmed that I was not the right applicant to teach public policy. Sitting with a lost opportunity re-opens the question of why I wanted it in the first place. Would the stability of a not-quite-right faculty job have outweighed the discomfort of developing expertise in a field I’m not particularly invested in? Possibly. But perhaps that is a recipe for a career of professional frustration. Does a rejection from something that wouldn’t have been a perfect fit make it less disappointing? I can’t decide.
Accounting for what the season has done to me involves extending the affective duration of failure, imagining what might have been, and inhabiting the space between ambitions and how they have unravelled. It is exhausting to repeatedly project myself onto a new job, a new city, and sometimes a new discipline, while trying to make a compelling case for why, of all those applicants, the bright new hire should be me. There aren’t precise tools for measuring the energy lost to false starts against the desires to see a book project and research program through to the end. Bank balances are a more exact instrument, as are the number of months left in a contract.
Most rejection stories are success stories, told from a distance, hovering above past seasons of sitting with and working through failure. Stories refracted through the lens of success are embedded with revisionism where “everything happens for a reason” and all failure is meaningful. Often, calls for resilience come from successful writers who have overcome an array of rejections—and had the resources to continue trying—only to finally have their work published, met with critical acclaim and commercial success. From hundreds of failed applications, a now-famous scholar finally secures a permanent position. In these tales of perseverance, rejection letters are printed out and amassed on nails driven into studio walls. Drawers overflow and campfires smolder with declines to publish.
In each of these narratives of redemption, rejection is refashioned into what Debbie Lisle describes as “instructive failure”: a drumbeat of perpetual striving, pressing on, and failing better that has been adopted by tech entrepreneurs. Narrated retrospectively, this orientation explains every failure as a necessary step to inevitable progress and, crucially, to lucrative success. There is no absurd and unforgiving universe in these stories, just an instructive path to move along endlessly forward and with unshakable resolve.
What those stories miss is the thinking space of rejection. Small failures happen all the time and inertia—in the form of immediate work ahead—can usually propel us past them. But when they pile up, that forward movement dissipates. Here, choices emerge. Doors have been closed, but perhaps I can build new ones. Find another fellowship. Stitch together a patchwork of contracts. Protect scraps of time for writing. Or stop. Maybe there is not enough left in me to press on.
Sitting with rejection means acknowledging that the odds of navigating an idealized path of instructive failure to a redemptive story of professional perseverance are not in my favour. In Canada, less than 20% of PhDs end up in full-time professor positions. The situation in the United States is grimmer. Across academia and cultural institutions, the reverberations of the ongoing pandemic have meant cancelled job searches and hiring freezes. The appeal of submitting oneself to these fierce competitions is the prize of a career supposedly oriented around the life of the mind—a mythic characterization that persists despite the structures that make sustained thinking and research nearly impossible in practice.
Rejection season is a time to pause. It tears open a space for thinking about what is next, for weighing the balances of disappointment, energy, resources, and yearning. There are successes amid the failures. My work has developed after another winter. Amid the detritus, there are signs of slow growth and flashes of violet. There is writing and research I still want to bring into the world. Cyclical seasons of applications, waiting, and reckoning with rejection bring an exhaustion that can dampen the desire to keep pushing. Each spring, I pause for a period of reassessment, to figure out what I have, what I want, and how far I’m willing to go. Unlike the drumbeat of instructive failure, I don’t need to celebrate each rejection as part of a linear push towards further productivity. Rather than looking down from the vantage point of supposedly inevitable success, I am in the midst of trying and failing and need to decide from here whether my resources match the energy needed to continue. Sitting with the tension of practicality and desire can help clarify what I want and what I think I can do. For now. At least until the next season.
My neighbour’s magnolia tree is budding. Thickening green pods covered in soft down project from grey branches, reaching out over the sidewalk, desperate for whatever light filters through the overcast. I step over a pile of dog shit released by the day’s melt to inspect the mossy buds. I know there are luxurious petals packed tightly inside them.
There is a heap of to-do lists stacked on the corner of my desk, born of optimism and desperation. Other editors to proposition. Calls for papers that might like my response. Postings for last-minute contracts in need of emergency letters of interest, scavenged from the pile of soggy spring detritus—smoothed out, cleaned up, and dispatched with instructions to play-act as crisp enthusiasm.
“[A] green skin growing over what winter did to us.” Ada Limón’s poem “Instructions On Not Giving Up” appears in my Instagram scroll. The algorithm seems to know that the crocuses are not enough, that the bleakness of the rejection season is too much for small blossoms to shoulder alone. I read Limón’s lines again, transcribing her instructions into another list, “a return to the strange idea of continuous living despite the mess of us, the hurt, the empty.”
“We’ll find another press,” I finally text back, pushing myself up from the wall where my mind has been resting. I open our proposal and read it aloud in my darkening office, listening for an echo of the energy we had in a past season. My throat is tight, thick with the hurt and the mess of us. I start again.