When I think about my career so far, I’m humbled by the generosity of friends and colleagues. I’m also acutely aware of the odds stacked against anyone who tries to enter this profession. My own success, such as it is, was the direct result of a lot of failure. Maybe there is someone out there who succeeds in academia without failing. I am not that person. I want to talk about my experience in the hope that it smashes a few unhelpful myths about academia, publishing, and job-seeking. This is my version of a CV of failures.
Failing to get into grad school
As a senior in college, I applied to MPhil and PhD programs. Most of them rejected me. Programs that rejected me were Brown University, Harvard University, the Marshall Scholarship, Stanford University, University of Connecticut, University of Michigan, and University of Oxford. New York University and the University of Virginia waitlisted me. The University of Cambridge accepted me but offered no funding. The University of California–Berkeley accepted me but offered only partial funding.
When I applied to graduate school, I knew almost no one in my field personally. I was in no position to judge whose interest my application might pique. In hindsight, I can rationalize my two fully funded acceptances in terms of shared interests with particular scholars. But even now, I can discern no pattern in the programs that rejected me. I share interests with faculty at those programs, too. There are too many qualified applicants for PhD programs. They have to reject almost everyone, every year.
Failing to publish
I’ve submitted many essays to many academic journals and general-audience venues. About half of them got rejected. Journals and magazines that have rejected my work are the Atlantic, Boston Globe, Chronicle of Higher Education, Exemplaria, Guardian, Journal of English and Germanic Philology (twice), Mediaevalia (after I revised and resubmitted), Mediaeval Studies (after I revised and resubmitted), Medium Ævum, Milton Quarterly (after I revised and resubmitted), Modern Philology (three times), Notes and Queries, Nottingham Medieval Studies, Partial Answers, PMLA, Philological Quarterly, Speculum, Slate, Studia Neophilologica, and Washington Post. I am probably forgetting some. This is just what I could pull together with e-mails and letters I saved.
Poetry publishing is a whole other story. Around 99% of my submissions have been rejected. Magazines, presses, and prize contests that have rejected my poetry include the 1913 Prize for First Books, AAAP Walt Whitman Award, Agni, Akron Poetry Prize, American Poetry Review, Anabiosis Press, Barrow St. Book Contest, Bat City Review (invited to submit; still rejected), Best American eXperimental Writing, Black Lawrence Press, Black Ocean, Bombay Gin, Boston Review, Burning Deck, Canarium Books, Carolina Wren Press, Chicago Review, Cider Press, Columbia Poetry Review, Cooper Dillon Press, Copper Canyon Press, Cricket Online Review, Elixir Press, Fence, Four Way Books, Front Porch, Futurepoem, Kenyon Review, Krupskaya Press, Letter Machine Editions, Mantis, National Poetry Series, New England Review, New Issues Poetry Prize, New Rivers Many Voices Project, The New Yorker (twice), Paper Nautilus, Paper Nautilus Vella Chapbook Contest, Octopus Books, Ploughshares, Poetry (twice), Rattle, Redivider (at least four times: I’ve lost count), Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowships (twice), Sparkwheel Press, Tupelo Press, Ugly Duckling Presse, University of Wisconsin Press, Washington Square Review, Wesleyan University Press (I am a former intern of WUP; I was invited to submit; still rejected), and the Yale Series of Younger Poets.
I don’t think I’m fifty times better at academic writing than poetry. Rather, I’m competing against fifty times as many qualified people when I submit a poem as opposed to an essay on the meter of Piers Plowman. Also, the social world of poetry publishing (to the extent that it exists) has always puzzled me, even though I interned at a prestigious poetry press in college. I probably lack the right network. I’ve never earned an MFA or lived in New York, the two typical routes to fame and fortune in creative writing. Academia is very insular, but in a way that I’ve become accustomed to navigating.
The real story, though, is how much failure is built into the successes themselves. Almost all my ultimately successful academic and public writing submissions received a revise-and-resubmit. They needed major revisions before acceptance, and usually minor revisions after that. In my experience, success in publishing is about perseverance and developing a thick skin. Very often, I needed to pick my essay up off the floor and submit it somewhere else. Usually, doing so paid off.
Here’s a sampling of negative readers’ comments on my submissions: “An anachronistic supposition like [an important stepping-stone in my argument] does not in my opinion add to the credibility of the argumentation”; “[The essay is] evasively written at all the crucial points/building blocks of its argument, with some special pleading”; “The essay begins with an incoherent and ungrounded discussion of a vaguely defined topic”; “I very much anticipated that I would recommend this essay for publication when I sat down to write this review. But a closer look. . .”; “What the author asks us to consider is that [my main thesis]. It is this point that the author does not demonstrate”; and my favorite, “Comments on [the primary subject of the essay] are nonsense.” One reviewer dismissed an essay in four sentences, two of which consisted of quotations from the essay! All of these comments refer to essays that subsequently appeared in print.
Failing to get a job
As many can attest, job-seeking involves the most failure of all. In 2013/2014, I applied to 12 tenure-track jobs and 24 post-doctoral fellowships or Visiting Assistant Professor positions. Two of the tenure-track job searches were suspended over winter break. All but one of the remaining 34 opportunities were offered to someone else.
I received 3 MLA interviews, 1 on-campus interview for a post-doc, and 2 campus visits. The result was 1 offer of employment. I was rejected without an interview for jobs at Duquesne University, Kenyon College, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Pace University, Stony Brook University, University of Rochester, and Wellesley College. I was rejected without an interview for post-docs or VAPs at Brown University, Boston University, Columbia University, Dartmouth College (two), Davidson College, Duke University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Harvard University (two), Johns Hopkins University (two), MIT, Northwestern University, Princeton University, Rutgers University (two), Williams College, University of Chicago, University of Michigan, University of Toronto, Washington University in St. Louis, and Wesleyan University (my alma mater).
Ultimately, the most important statistic is 1 job offer, not 33 rejections. At the time, of course, each ‘no’ landed like a ton of bricks. (Even this is an idealization: many departments don’t take the time to send rejection letters.) When I applied to these opportunities, I did not have extensive knowledge of each department. Only by failing 33 times was I able to get into the one room that changed everything. Looking back, I can explain the outcome in terms of fit. But I lacked the necessary familiarity to judge fit in 2013/2014. In fact, I experienced a perceptual failure that is only funny in hindsight: of my three MLA interviews, I thought the one with my current department went the worst.
Now that I’m a graduate faculty member, an editor of an academic journal, and a voting member in faculty hiring decisions, I have participated in these processes of selection from the other side of the table. I’m here to tell you: it’s not you, it’s us. The way to succeed (within the parameters of the many challenges you can’t control, such as the underfunding of education in this country, the shift to part-time labor in the university, etc.) is to produce the best work you can and keep seeking out professional opportunities. The way to fail is to treat failure like the end of the story instead of the beginning.
Tl;dr: academic careers are digressive, and success involves a lot of failure.
*Meta-failure: This blog post has smashed my website’s record for single-day page views.