Towards the end of her book Bolker briefly talks about the publication process. In this section she writes what I consider to be the most depressing sentence in her book: "no matter how good a piece of work you send off, the odds are that it will be rejected." It makes sense that bad or mediocre work is rejected, but knowing that even when you submit good or great work it will still probably be rejected: why would you ever write again? Why would you even bother to get a PhD?
The rejection itself is not necessarily the hardest pill to swallow, the knowledge that one or more people thought that even your very good work was not good enough. Reviewers typically give detailed motivations of their judgment, meaning that you can read in excruciating detail why your paper is so bad. Considering that writing means making yourself completely vulnerable, it is a surprise so few people still continue their career in academia (and that suicide rates for scientists are not a lot higher).
But the fact of the matter is, rejection is not a bad thing. Having your arguments and ideas torn down is not a bad thing. In the past year and a half, I have received two rejection letters. Both were from different journals for different papers. The first was very extensive. One reviewer wanted to accept, a second wanted to reject, and an arbiter had to be brought in to make a decision. While the judgment was harsh, and in our opinion not necessarily fair, the rejections were well argued and highly detailed. A year later, the paper was resubmitted (currently pending) and one of my co-authors – who was initially furious – mentioned how much better the paper had become.
The second rejection came soon after. It was from a small journal, which had employed only one reviewer. This reviewer wrote three sentences, in which s/he said that the theory and aims were unclear, and that without clear research questions it was impossible to judge the paper's worth. The total length of the review was 62 words! Just to make a simple comparison: even the positive review of the other paper was 371 words. (The negative reviews were a lot longer). It should come as no surprise that this second rejection was by far the more infuriating of the two. You do not learn anything from it, and so you have no way to move forward.
And this is the duality in which any academic lives. On the one hand dealing with reviews, be they (provisional) acceptances or rejections, can be very hard. You put your heart and soul into a piece of work and then some anonymous reviewer clinically dissects it. But it is the only way we grow and move forward. Dealing with criticism is hard, especially when you think reviewers are unfair or unnecessarily harsh, but we learn from it, and our work gets better through it. One of my biggest frustrations over the last two years was that I rarely get any comments at a conference.
A few months ago I finished my revisions of the paper that was so minimally rejected. I did not make these revisions based on the review, but simply because I have gained new insights over the past year and a half. And this time, instead of starting at the bottom, I submitted it to a prestigious journal. The result was not a rejection – oh joy of joys – but neither were the reviewers particularly enthusiastic. The criticisms were very extensive and the editor and reviewers recommended that I rethink large parts of my analysis. (I was actually warned about this when complaining about the lack of feedback at conferences: this journal will give you more than you can handle.) Aand of course initially this is very frustrating. But as the editor put it in his cover letter: "I have every confidence that the Reviewers' comments will be a challenge that you will relish meeting."
While the world of peer reviews is harsh, it provides us with challenges we can overcome. So sure, reading the comments was initially not particularly motivating. But not long after the initial disappointment – and even some frustration at a few of the comments – I did get to see it as a challenge, as a way to improve my work and thereby myself. And in that sense, there is nothing better than having your work turned to shreds. Because that way you can build it up again, better than before, and more resilient to the storm of criticisms that will no doubt follow. I have no doubt that I will all the more proud should the paper be eventually published, and maybe that's why we stay in Academia.