practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

Putting your research out into the world is an emotional act.  Pretend all you like that science is devoid of feeling, but the only way this is true is if your research is just a job.  Most of us care about our work to the point that a manuscript submission can feel like sending your baby to college full of your hopes and dreams.  The problem is that publishing isn’t easy, which makes for an emotional rollercoaster along the way.  

The Ride

The publishing process is full of highs and lows.  They will vary in when and why they occur, but you’ll experience them.  They might start as early as during research design, but certainly by the time you’ve committed words to a page, you’ll have enough emotional attachment to the work to experience the rollercoaster.  

One early flood of emotions in the writing process may come in that moment of realizing you’re onto something exciting and interesting.  It’s a real high with a burst of energy. You can’t wait to write this down and get it out there in the world. You have findings!! You have a contribution!!!  But sometimes this euphoria is followed by the realization that your manuscript isn’t as exciting as you first thought it was for some reason. Maybe you got an alert of a recently published article that has similar findings.  Maybe someone who knows more than you wasn’t as excited as you are about the paper. Maybe you’ve struggled to get the words on the page in the brilliant way you envisioned them in your head. Maybe you get a rejection from the journal you thought would be the best place to publish it.  Whatever the reason, your stomach drops and you feel disappointment and sadness. But the highs return. Maybe as you revise and edit, getting reinvigorated by the work and the contributions. Maybe when you are ultimately successful in getting that prized revise and resubmit. Maybe reading kind words from Reviewer #1.  While you hope to end on that high note, they can be followed by the lows of rejection (after rejection, after rejection, after rejection) and struggling to please Reviewer #2 to maybe get a positive decision.  

My Lowest Low

Some of the lows will be lower than others.  Early in my career, the lowest feeling came from rejection.  They’re still disappointing, but I’ve now had so many I can quickly pick myself up and continue on the ride.  The hardest part for me now comes at the point when I think I’m done and have that feeling of completion, but get asked for additional revisions.  

I’ve had this happen at two points in the process.  First, submitting a revise and resubmit only to then get another revise and resubmit instead of a decision.  (Picture me banging my head on my desk.) Second, getting a conditional acceptance in response to a revise and resubmit.  The conditional is basically a “the paper is accepted, but we want you to do a few more things before we publish.”  There will always be reviewing the proofs and responding to queries, but these responses often mean things like engaging in the new literature that (new) Reviewer #3 thinks would be a better framing for the paper, adding 5 more footnotes about the constraints of your data source, and expanding the future research paragraph of the conclusion.  Aspects of the paper that you might have already addressed during revise and resubmit number 1.  

For me, this is the point at which my emotions reach their lowest.  “What more do they want from me?! I did everything they asked me for already!!”  This feeling makes it challenging to get the actual work done so I can move on with my research.  I get stuck in patterns of productive procrastination and literally do anything else on my to do list instead of the revisions I need to make.  It’s the least productive period even though it can also be the home stretch. (Although for that paper that went through two R&Rs, it wasn’t.) Thank goodness for promises to co-authors to at least keep those papers moving forward!  

Riding the Emotions

Your research is your baby so you’re always going to feel a way about it whether it is pride and elation, or disappointment and despondence.  The key is to preserve some of the highs to try to evoke them during the low times. I keep a “feel good” folder in my email for such a moment, so I can look back at positive feedback I’ve gotten.  It can also help to look at how far the project as come. Remind yourself why you’re doing the work you’re doing. Read an earlier draft to see how far your ideas have come. Revisit positive and encouraging feedback you’ve received about it.  Talk to that friend or mentor who has been a constant cheerleader for the project.  

Whatever you do, come back to the manuscript!  It might take you two days to recover or it make take you a year, but come back with fresh eyes and renewed spirit to help your baby grow.  Someone out there is waiting to read your work.  

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