Flourish: An Electronic Newsletter for Scholarly Writers July 2007

vol. 3, no. 6

When I was applying to graduate school, a professor told me that graduate school is not a test of how smart you are, how well-read you are, or how disciplined you are, it is a test of how confident you are. I have found this to be true. Unfortunately, confidence often seems to be the property of “men” rather than “women.” Several studies are of interest here.

Productivity Research

The first study compared men’s and women’s responses to rejection. It found that women tended to respond to rejection “by becoming more self-critical,” while men usually responded to rejection “in ways that made them feel better about themselves.” This does not mean that men didn’t feel the rejection. In the study, both women and men who had been rejected felt bad and saw themselves more negatively. But men tended to do more work to turn this around, reacting defensively and continuing to concentrate on their work. In other words, they made themselves feel better.

Backing up this study is another study that found that women who were first-year applicants in a grant process were less likely than men to reapply for the grant in the following two years. Men were more likely to apply, even if they had won the grant previously.

Another study (Cole and Singer 1991) found that academics’ productivity was highly related to their reactions to negative experiences over their career. That is, the more negative experiences you have and succeed anyway, the more resilient you were when experiencing new negative experiences. Your ability to deal with failure is the best predictor of future success.

I had an experience of the gendered difference in responding to negative experiences recently. A male friend of mine got a negative review of his recent book. I was planning on calling and offering some comforting remarks when he called me and, much to my surprise, seemed in excellent spirits. He dismissed the reviewer as someone who didn’t “get” his book and he focused on the prestige of the journal in which the review appeared.

When hearing this story, many of us (male or female) may think, “Now, why can’t I do that?” Well, as some researchers point out, there are costs to this “male” response. An individual who ignores or defends against input from others may run the risk of ignoring important feedback and alienating others. Being able to absorb critical feedback is essential if one is to succeed as an academic. But defending one’s core self-esteem and confidence is also important.

The lesson here, I think, is to embrace whatever response you have—whether taking on or defending against criticism, but also to think about whether you are interested in developing the opposite skill, for instance, the male coping advantage, as they call it.

For it is quite possible for people to learn how to change their response to rejection, to override it, according to some of the same scholars in a different study. If too defensive, you can learn to absorb more, if too self-critical, you can learn to defend more. Male or female, we can learn to use whichever response is most functional at the time.

Another study shows an example of this. Apparently, men are “more comfortable publishing controversial articles in visible journals at earlier ages and then became more cautious with age. Women … often showed the opposite pattern and published more controversial work later in their careers.” So, if you are slow in learning this lesson about coping with rejection, that’s okay, you will. This research on confidence also suggests that we need to encourage each other. We need to encourage each other to incorporate and overcome negative feedback by continuing to focus on our work, connecting with those who can help us, and defending ourselves from unwarranted attack.

Readers Write In

After last month’s Flourish, a reader wrote in expressing surprise about my points that (a) authors almost never get articles published without being asked to make some improvements and (b) theoretical articles almost never get published except by senior scholars. The reader was a junior scholar who had recently published a theoretical article and been given no recommendations for improving it. Could it be that I was wrong?!

On reading the article, I had to agree that it was theoretical. It was a sound article on a hot topic, a global problem, but it had no data, no study, and it was about conceptualizing the problem. After the author and I exchanged several emails, however, things became clearer.

First, the article had not gone through a normal review process. The author received no peer review comments of any sort and the article was both reviewed and published within three months, an almost unheard of speed. We suspect that, since the editor had been on leave and was short of articles for the next issue, the editor rushed some articles through—that’s why the author didn’t get any suggestions for improvement.

Second, the journal had a bent toward conceptualizing real world problems and had published several other purely theoretical articles in the past decade. Third, the journal was a non-US political science journal, where purely theoretical articles seem to be more accepted.

So, it seems that if you are a junior scholar who wants to publish a theoretical article, it helps to be in political science, to pick the right journal, and to happen upon a needy editor. Both skill and luck play a role. Many thanks to the reader for writing in—although I think my advice holds up, it is extremely important for me to keep reviewing my recommendations and considering the exceptions.

News from the Editor

Summer is well under way here in Los Angeles but there is no slowing down! I am teaching several courses and trying to finish my book project. The big news is that, in order to spend more time on writing and teaching, I am wrapping up my editorial job at UCLA next month. Since I have had that job for eleven years, it feels quite odd to be leaving it—and my huge office. But everything I had ever planned to do for the press has been accomplished, so it is time for new adventures. While it is always scary to leave the safe and familiar behind, it is exhilarating as well. Onwards!