7 Ways to Bounce Back from a Bad Review

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Have you ever had a bad review? I am a scientist, so dealing with a bad review is quite literally part of the job. In this blog post, I am specifically referring to dealing with bad reviews of manuscripts in the peer-review process, but as a non-scientist, many of these tips still apply to you!

What is peer-review?

When a scientist completes a study, they write up a manuscript and submit it to a scientific journal. The editor of the journal then sends the manuscript to other scientists in your field and they review it. A few weeks or months later, you get it back with LOTS of comments, and if deemed permissible, they will invite you to submit a revision with responses to each of the reviewers comments line by line. As the reviewer process is largely anonymous, reviewers might be more direct, and sometimes downright mean, than they probably would be in real life.

Bad review

My tips

Many scientists have cried over reviewer comments. I certainly did with my first manuscripts, but over the years I’ve developed a thick skin. So how did I get to this point of non-reaction? These are the strategies I’ve developed over the years.

1. Look at it as the first step

When I got my first manuscript rejection (no review, just an outright rejection), I told my (now passed) committee member Ray Semlitsch about it. I was crushed, but he said “good.” That it was the first step of the process and to move on to the next submission. I took this to mean two things: (1) if you aren’t getting rejected, you aren’t aiming high enough, and (2) even prestigious professors at R1 universities get rejected and it’s normal.

2. Remember that successful people are rejected for the best ideas in the world, and usually dozens of times

One of my favorite books to read (especially for confidence-building) is Tim Ferriss’ Tool of Titans. In this book, he includes excerpts from interviews from all types of world class performers. A common theme is failure and rejection. His own New York Times best seller, The 4-Hour Work Week, was rejected 25 times by publishers. It’s just one person’s opinion! Usually the really bad review is just one out of three. Did the others think it was so bad? Sure, there are probably criticisms, but likely not as extreme as that one reviewer. Not to mention, your coauthors also deemed it was acceptable for submission, so you have some company that agrees with you.

3. Use it as an opportunity to deal with criticism

In science, you will get rejected over and over and over again. The odds are usually not in your favor. For example, your chances of getting a grant can be less than 10%. Rejection is just part of the process (see #1), so use this review an opportunity to start dealing with it!

4. Separate yourself from it

Can you read the review while dismissing any personal attacks? Again, when I was having a hard time dealing with personal criticisms in graduate school, Ray suggested I visualize the comments “rolling off your back.” I used it, and it really helped me. For comments that attack me personally or my life choices, I now imagine them moving past me and rolling off my back as if they can’t touch me.

5. What can this review teach you?

This may sound contradictory to #4, but after you de-personalize it, there are likely some at least a few things you can learn from. I have had reviews that I (and my coauthors) largely disagree with, but there are likely a few nuggets of wisdom you can learn from the bad review.

6. Is it so bad you can laugh at it?

Everyone gets a bad review. When I told my labmates about my recent bad review, one of them dug through their emails to read theirs out loud to me. We both laughed at how ridiculous they were. Wear it as a badge of honor. I also learned this lesson from listening to founder of Basecamp Jason Fried on the Tim Ferriss podcast. He once got a rejection that was so ridiculous he found it funny.

7. Prove them wrong

This is also advice from Jason Fried. His biggest response to the ridiculous rejection was not be defeated by it, but to prove that person wrong. Use this for momentum to work on the revisions or resubmit.

How do you get through a bad review? Leave your tips in the comments below.

woman at computer with bad review
One of my many reactions to a bad review.

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Stephanie Schuttler is a wildlife biologist with 15 years of experience on mammal ecology and conservation, education, and outreach. Read her inspirational story, “My Unexpected Journey Into Science” to find out how she went from the daughter of a jeweler to a Ph.D. in wildlife biology. Feel free to contact Stephanie here.

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