What one personality trait do you need to be a successful academic? To be intelligent? Hard working? Creative? I suspect that you will need all of those. But they will not be enough. I am mainly asked about this by budding academics in their very early career stages. Typically, they might be considering a PhD and wondering what an eventual academic life would be like and would it suit them.
With time to dwell on it, and reflect on my own experiences, I’ve arrived at an answer that I now know to offer. It’s an ability to cope with rejection. There are very few academics I have met who have not been rejected in many and major ways. In our careers we will make unsuccessful job applications, grant applications and probably promotion applications. And those are the nice rejections. In addition, most of the papers you submit to journals will be rejected, often with brutal comments stating as fact that you don’t know anything about a topic you’ve worked on for the last five years. A referee might even point out that you struggle to write English to an acceptable standard. If you’re lucky enough to get work in print, there’s every chance a reviewer will come along and point out that it’s not worth reading. I’ve had all of this and more.
Academia will not be a great experience if you struggle with rejection since it is the default. It would be easy to say that you need to be tough but I don’t entirely buy that. Our profession would not be best served by us all becoming hard as nails and accepting of a brutal, Darwinian competition of all against all. Other coping strategies have their drawbacks too. Some academics become reluctant to submit themselves to peer review but then they don’t publish enough to gain success. Others come across as arrogant but I’ve found this usually an ineffective defence mechanism. Their self-confidence might in truth be eggshell thin and can crumble with the next set back.
Some degree of personal resilience will undoubtedly be necessary. There are ways that you can bolster this. Supportive friends, inside or outside academia, can help you through those difficult moments of self-doubt. We also need to develop our senses of self-love, self-care and self-esteem, since these can become eroded and have to be replenished.
The biggest positive impact on our profession would come from systemic changes. This sounds like something beyond our control until we realise that many of us are parts of that system. Almost imperceptibly, there comes a transition from being the one rejected to being the one making the rejections. If you’ve lost your humanity on the way up, then you might end up perpetuating that brutal and harsh system you originally despised. The self-love and esteem that got you to your new position of power now needs to be replaced by care for others. A key realisation, which sadly not everyone has, is that qualities you need when you are fighting the system are not the ones you should have once you are the system. If we lose our empathy along the way, we can end up being exactly what we fought against. With an oversupply of willing labour, I am sure rejection will remain a fact of academic life. Nevertheless, there are better ways we can manage it if we can reflect upon our own contribution to the professional environment.