The Great Wall of Rejection

Aussie academic Nick Hopwood on how his “failures” help keep rejection in perspective.

Nick Hopwood Wall Of Rejection
Nick Hopwood's Wall of Rejection. Image used by permission.

Rejection is hard to take but easy to come by. Just ask Australian scholar Nick Hopwood. In June, Hopwood plastered his own academic rejection letters—accumulated over the course of his academic career—across his office door. Little did he dream that the picture he tweeted of his self-mocking mural would go viral. To date, his Wall of Rejection—which features comments like “It is difficult to see the contribution this study would make to existing knowledge” and “The impression is of an article that is quite incomplete and lacks polish”—has received upwards of a quarter-million views and counting.

His rejection slip mosaic seems like the antidote to his polished résumé, which conveys a smooth run from one position to another, with a bump up to Associate Professor. “Lovely, but utterly misleading. The run was more of a stumble, less in my planned direction and more in response to where opportunities lay. Strategic? Partly. Full of compromise? Definitely,” says Hopwood, Associate Professor in the School of Education at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). 

In the following Failure Interview Hopwood discusses the reality of life in the ivory tower. 

Why did you decide to tweet a photo of your Great Wall of Rejection?

Well for a few years now I’ve been running workshops on academic publications and have been building up a collection of rejection letters, many of them ones I’ve received, a few I’ve dished out, and a few that colleagues have shared with me.

We’ve been using them to help students unpack why it is that papers get rejected. As part of that I then became aware of various academics, including a long-term mentor and teacher of mine, Geoffrey Walford of Oxford University being quite brazen and public about the fact that they also get rejected. So people have written accounts of being rejected. 

In Pat Thomson’s blog a professor Stephen Mumford from Nottingham told a story about one review calling him a cretin. Then we got to chatting after a day at a conference and we sat round with a glass of wine and started this one-upmanship about ‘Who’s had the worst then? Who’s had the most frightful experience?’ It was great. 

What regrets, if any, do you have about publicizing rejection? 

The slightly unanticipated thing is just how much time this whole thing’s ended up taking. Like I’m talking to you now, and I’ve done a couple of videos for UTS about it. So it’s escalated quite a bit, but no—no regrets at all. 

Which rejection stings the most? 

It’s hard to say, because how sharply they sting and how long they sting are a little bit different.  So with hindsight I can almost laugh about the one where I was rejected for a postdoc funded by the same people who funded my Ph.D., because the reviewers thought that my topic was too boring and my research too small-scale to warrant publication at all. Now I’ve published heaps from it, so I can think ‘Well, screw you.’ But at the time I found out I was rejected I was on holiday with only about three weeks left of my Ph.D. and no job. So that stung really sharp at the time and that was a big dent. 

Did you omit any rejections? 

No, that would be a bit disingenuous. I think the thing is if you’re going to do one, you’ve got to do all.

How do visitors to your office react when they see the Wall of Rejection? 

To my delight, often with laughter. Part of how we deal with rejection is to defuse that sting that you mentioned. Laughter is a great defuser. Also there’s surprise. Quite a few people said: ‘Nick, I had no idea how many research proposals you had put in over the past four or five years, because the newsletter comes round and we only hear about the ones that we got.’ So people realized I was a bit busier than they thought. 

Some people might say you’re a loser. What do you say to them? 

Well, in a way, they’re not wrong. I mean it depends what you mean by loser. It’s odd that the thing that I’m probably most well-known for is just how often I get rejected. So am I most well-known for being useless? But if people join those dots and come to the conclusion ‘loser,’ then I think that’s a betrayal of how to understand the nature of academic work. We all get rejected and I think a bigger loser … well I don’t like the word ‘loser,’ but I worry about the people who don’t have the circumstances or conditions around them to be resilient to rejection. 

What does the future hold for your Wall of Rejection? 

At the moment we have got a big grant application under review. So as soon as we hear about that—the most likely outcome being rejection—then I’ll stick that on there. So it’s a little bit affected by the pace of academic work. I usually have one or two pieces of writing under review and you usually expect a rejection to come out of every couple of those. So it’s not like a daily or a weekly thing, but nonetheless it will get bigger. It will grow.