Embracing Failure: Here’s My CV of Academic Rejections

Note: Last Updated March 23 (link to PDF at bottom)

A few days ago on CNBC, I saw this article on a problem especially rampant in academia, and one that I’ve talked about on numerous occasions: the perception that successful academics never fail in their work. Every manuscript is accepted! Every grant proposal funded! Jobs are thrown at them. This (mis)perception is very much in line with one of my primary streams of research on how people engage in impression management/identity curation in digital spaces. On social media, this is often framed as FOMO (fear of missing out)—we see everyone around us living glamorous social, work, and family lives while we sit at home on a Friday night.

In academia, this framing of success can be problematic at multiple levels. First, for students just starting out, they may not be properly prepared for dealing with failure—which is more common than success on several metrics. If they assume success, the failures will be that much harder to process. I know of at least one graduate student (not from UMD) who did not finish her degree because she could not/did not want to deal with rejections of research she had put so much effort into. Did the program do her a disservice by not preparing her for the reality of academic publishing?

Don’t get me wrong—academia and the work atmosphere within academia are NOT for everyone. You develop a thick skin pretty fast or you get out. But something as simple as professors sharing their stories of failure or even preparing students when submitting research papers that the acceptance rates are very low (some under 10%) helping students find the journal that best fits topic AND quality rather than telling them to shoot for the moon and submit to the “best” journal in the field.

Melanie Stefan posted a blog in Nature in 2010 highlighting the benefits of sharing your failures with others. Transparency is so important to avoid false expectations and to prepare young academics for rejection. Beyond that, it’s important to highlight that EVERYONE fails. EVERYONE in academia gets rejections. Mark Granovetter’s canonical paper, The Strength of Weak Ties, was rejected at first. Joe Walther’s work on the hyperpersonal model—which has influenced hundreds of research papers in my field—was rejected from at least the first journal it was submitted to. In class, Joe shared share that his graduate advisor expressed serious concerns about his ability to become a successful academic; today, Walther is one of the most respected Communication scholars in the discipline.

While I am not nearly as well-known or established, I have experienced my fair share of academic rejections over the last decade, and I want to be as transparent as possible about these failures to show that for all my successes, they are complemented by a lot of rejections. Therefore, I’ve put together as comprehensive a list as possible of work-related rejections. My hope is that young academics will read this post and see that it is possible to be successful and fail regularly—and that failure is OKAY! I also hope to encourage other academics to be more open about their struggles to provide a more realistic portrayal of academic life.

PDF: Vitak CV of Failures March 23


Dr. Vitak!

I am very bad with updates, as you can see, but here’s a big one. On December 14, 2012, I successfully defended my dissertation! Woo! I’m finishing final edits this week and will submit to the grad school shortly.

I also just wrapped up my first semester as an assistant professor at the iSchool at Maryland; recently published my first solo-authored article in JOBEM; and have three articles coming in CSCW this February. Busy times I tell you!

Here’s the abstract for my dissertation:

Arguably, the technical features of social network sites simplify the process of maintaining and interacting with hundreds of social connections. At the same time, however, these sites’ affordances—namely the visibility and persistence of content and the articulation of those connections (e.g., through a “Friend List”)—raise new questions about how individuals engage in relationship maintenance with various types of ties. This dissertation seeks to expand our understanding of relationship maintenance processes to account for the unique affordances of these communication technologies through a survey of adult Facebook users (N=407). First, through exploratory factor analysis, it establishes a set of Facebook relationship maintenance strategies that reflect existing theory and measures while accounting for the affordances of social media. Next, through nested OLS regressions, it tests whether engagement in these strategies with a randomly selected Facebook Friend predicts three relational outcomes: relational closeness, relational satisfaction, and access to social provisions. Third, it tests whether engagement in these strategies is associated with perceptions that using Facebook positively impacts their perceived relational closeness and relational stability with that Friend, while controlling for existing levels of relational closeness. Findings indicate main effects for all four relationship maintenance strategies on perceptions of Facebook’s impact on relational closeness and relational stability, as well as interaction effects between existing relational closeness and multiple strategies in predicting these two outcomes, such that weaker ties who engage in these strategies view the site as having a more positive impact on their relationship than stronger ties. Subsequent analyses identify additional differences between those who primarily rely on Facebook to communicate with that Friend and those who do not, as well as those who are geographically distant from each other versus those who live nearby, while controlling for existing relational closeness. This study contributes to the extant literature on computer-mediated communication and relationship maintenance by extending our understanding of how individuals interact through mediated channels and the role that newer technologies like social network sites play in managing a wide range of relationships, especially weaker ties who are more likely to rely on social media to keep their relationship in existence.

Presentation at iConference

This week I’m in Toronto, ON at the iConference. I’m presenting a small study done with Cliff Lampe, Rebecca Gray, and Nicole Ellison on how MSU employees balance their professional and personal lives on Facebook.

Link to the paper [pdf]

Full citation: Vitak, J., Lampe, C., Ellison, N., & Gray, R. (2012). “Why won’t you be my Facebook Friend?”: Strategies for dealing with context collapse in the workplace. In Proceedings of the 7th Annual iConference (pp. 555-557). New York: ACM. doi: 10.1145/2132176.2132286