Gender & Anxiety: Reflections on the Academic Publishing Process

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I’ve been in academia for about seven years, but have only been publishing for about four of those years. As such, I’m still getting used to the revision process. I know it’s part of the publishing process and I really do value the feedback I receive from editors. However, that being said, I also find it a rather trying and at times a difficult process.

I tend to get a bit of a knot in my stomach when I hear back from an editor. I read the summary of their remarks and warily open the document for more comments. Often my initial reaction is “wow, they’re right, this article really sucks” (not that they say that, but that’s what I hear). I feel as though I’ve failed as a scholar and I’m downright distraught because of the revisions they are requesting. Thus, I tend to just ignore the manuscript for awhile. Eventually I return to it, re-read the remarks, and realize they are offering really valuable suggestions and that they aren’t as horrible or scary as I initially felt they were. After letting the critiques settle for a bit (and reminding myself I can do this), I finally get to work on making the revisions. This leads to even more mixed emotions of “I can do this” and “I can’t believe I didn’t see this the first time.” I vacillate between feeling completely incompetent as a scholar and losing confidence in my ability to write, to more moderate perceptions of “this is part of the publishing process and I can see that it’s making my article stronger.” It’s a constant battle of anxiety and positive self-talk.

I’ve shared these thoughts with colleagues and other scholars lately (at my university and at conferences) and I have started to notice a trend (granted, this is all anecdotal, but I still want to throw it out there). Male colleagues tell me they just immediately read the comments and address the revisions and move on, no big deal.  Sometimes they complain about the details or the vague comments, but rarely (if ever?) about the way the feedback makes them feel. Those who note they too procrastinate on the revisions (like me), attribute this to being busy and not any sense of anxiety or dread associated with the  process. One male scholar actually chuckled at me when I expressed anxiety about reading feedback and addressing revisions. Am I the only one who wants to just run away and hide from the document for awhile?

Female scholars on the other hand tend to be more likely to understand and relate to the anxiety-inducing process. Many have expressed they begin to doubt their ability to be published and wonder if they are doing this whole scholarship thing correctly. I’ve had several lament they feel like a failure after getting rejected from a journal, which leads down a spiral of self-doubt over their career path and research trajectory. Similarly, I often feel embarrassed after I receive a journal rejection and do not want to tell my academic friends.  Of course, in those instances when my colleagues are expressing doubt, I’m always ready to reassure them this is all part of the process and we all have to do it. Yet, when it’s me on the receiving end of the feedback, I’m right there with them questioning my intellect and capacity to be a successful scholar.

As I said, this is all very anecdotal but got me thinking about gender, confidence, and competence. Are females more likely to internalize critique in such a way that we believe it’s a reflection of our overall intellect and abilities? Are males better equipped (socialized) to remain distant about critique? Are my male colleagues just not comfortable expressing anxiety to me (as a female?) or do they generally not experience the same level of anxiety my female colleagues and I seem to experience? My hunch is that male academics are less likely to internalize the critiques and rejections in the way some female academics do. We get frustrated and begin to believe our intellect has failed and therefore we are failures.

Research suggests this may not be completely anecdotal; women may actually experience greater insecurities about their talent and skills. Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson wrote an intriguing article in Psychology Today entitled, “The Trouble with Bright Girls” in which she claims:

“Smart and talented women rarely realize that one of the toughest hurdles they’ll have to overcome to be successful lies within. We judge our own abilities not only more harshly, but fundamentally differently, than men do…Researchers have uncovered the reason for this difference in how difficulty is interpreted, and it is simply this: more often than not, bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.” 

As one of my friends pointed out, this is undoubtedly linked to class. She is a teacher in an economically disadvantaged school district and anecdotally noted she has observed quite the opposite in terms of how boys and girls deal with difficulties.

Nonetheless, I think this sheds some light into the different ways my female colleagues and I experience the revise and resubmit process compared to many male colleagues.  Knowing that I have a tendency to internalize critique and therefore (fallaciously) believe it is representative of my intellect, does not actually allow me to transcend the feelings of doubt and failure. Just as many feminists intellectually know their bodies do not represent their value and worth, internally and emotionally they still struggle with self-esteem and body issues. In the same way, intellectually I know that the revision process and critique is not a reflection of who I am as a scholar as a whole, nor is it a jab at my overall capacity to succeed. Yet, nonetheless, some other powerful and internal emotional force tends to override the intellectual capacity to digest feedback without feeling like some kind of failure (at least temporarily).

That said, after I make the revisions I’m always pleased with how much stronger the article is. I often reflect upon the process and take away many valuable lessons for the next manuscript I submit. I absolutely value the process by the end, but nonetheless get anxious every single time an editor’s decision email hits my inbox and I know I have to read each and every one of the daunting critiques and questions.

All of this is to say that we need spaces wherein scholars can discuss failures and setbacks and critique. Grad school is competitive and the job market is even more competitive. In a lot of ways we are conditioned to hide our failures and only discuss our successes. This leads to the silencing and shaming of what is actually a very normal part of everyone’s academic career. I’m reminded of something a very admirable senior researcher once told me, “None of us put our rejections on our CV.” Yes, it’s obvious, but it was a nice reminder that even those scholars whom I look up to have been rejected many times and still go through tough revisions, I just don’t see it. Our mentors are senior scholars who have learned how to “play the publishing game”, thus they likely do not receive as many rejections and major revision requests as they did when they were just starting out. This further fosters feelings of inadequacy and alienation through the highly individualized process of publishing our work.

I’ve chosen to talk about this here in order to speculate the role gender plays in the publishing process, but also because I don’t want to be ashamed or silenced about my own setbacks and feelings. I would love to hear feedback from male and female scholars and their emotional reactions to the process. Maybe my observations are completely off base concerning gender differences, however I know I’m not the only one who struggles with doubt and the “impostor syndrome” of academia. I figure this is as good of space as any to share my experiences and hopefully hear from others (academic or otherwise).

4 thoughts on “Gender & Anxiety: Reflections on the Academic Publishing Process

  1. Hey Jacqui, I used to follow your blogdrive blog pretty closely back in about 2006 (I authored onceuponastar). Good to see you're still writing, though less frequently (aren't we all)? Anyway, I think I might pick up following you again. I've started a new blog, too, dedicated to my dance journey. How we have changed!

    Sorry to hear of your grandmother's passing. The eulogy you wrote for her was beautiful; I can only imagine how touched those who actually knew her would have been. But congratulations on your recent wedding! =) I, myself, got engaged several months ago. Anyway, hope you're well and I'll be reading your posts again.

    -Bernz (although I'm now more likely to respond to Honey B or, simply, B)

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  2. Wow Hi! How in the world did you find this?

    I really miss my old blogging days, I loved the freedom of writing like I used to and the community of people with whom I connected. Once I started my academic career I became a lot more discerning about what I wrote online unfortunately. I still write a lot, but mostly for academic publications. I try to maintain this blog, but as you can see, I don't do it very often. I'd love to follow your new blog and it's great to hear from you. Thanks for taking the time to say hi & congrats on the engagement.

    – jac

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  3. Thank you soooo much for this blog post. As I sit here waiting to receive the reader's reports on my book manuscript, I am riddled with feelings of anxiety and inadequacy and just like Anxiety Girl in the above cartoon, I leap to dreadful conclusions before I have even read the reports. Your blog helped me feel less insane and to put the gendered nature of my reaction into perspective. We women do internalize critique and are our own worst enemies, unfortunately. But we also possess the extraordinary ability to share our vulnerabilities with each other, to process our fears (in public, like this blog), and to learn from the wisdom of our fellow sisters. Thank you! Prof M in MA

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