From the issue dated September 5, 2003

Thank You for Advertising, but Your Needs Don't Meet My Interests


For some people, the academic life is a long series of triumphs and accolades, beginning with a National Merit Scholarship and culminating a few decades later when the king of Sweden hangs a medal around their neck. For the rest of us, it involves a lot of rejection letters.

Of course, rejection letters are often quite helpful. They contain information vital to improving your work, like the comments that (a) your references overlooked an important recent article, and (b) the important recent article was written by the person who reviewed your manuscript. Still, being rejected is always demoralizing. Having recently suffered through a veritable blizzard of rejection letters, I have developed a new strategy for rebuilding my self-esteem. I recommend it to other academics like me -- that is, academics who will probably visit Stockholm only as tourists.

My idea is simple. It revives a concept that had a small but devoted following among cold-war missile strategists: Strike first, strike hard. My method involves launching a series of pre-emptive rejections against targets with which a conventional academic exchange has a low probability of success. I call the technique "prejection."

Here's an example of how it works. A few weeks ago, I mailed out the following letter to the editor of The American Economic Review, the leading journal in my field:

"I have now heard from two reviewers of academic journals, and I regret that neither recommended The American Economic Review as an appropriate place to submit my manuscript. One referee thought that, while your articles tend to be topical and interesting, quite a few have substantial methodological problems. The other referee considered my paper better suited to a venue with a more rigorous theoretical focus.

"Other authors may disagree with my assessment of your journal, of course. Thank you for offering to be an outlet for research and best of luck in filling your next issue."

It felt good to write that letter. So good, in fact, that I couldn't resist sending this one to a search committee at Stanford:

"Thank you for your recent advertisement in The Chronicle of Higher Education announcing the search for a new provost. I am afraid that Stanford is not currently on the shortlist of universities at which I am prepared to interview. That is not necessarily a negative judgment about the quality of your institution. A number of other universities simply offer a better match between my skills and their needs. Please be assured, however, that I will keep your advertisement on file in case my circumstances change."

I was on a roll. I started surfing the Web for more first-strike opportunities, more chances to preject. A visit to the National Science Foundation's Web site led me to fire off the following e-mail message:

"Congratulations to the National Science Foundation's Division of Social and Economic Sciences for its impressive Methodology, Measurement, and Statistics Program. I gave your program careful consideration as a source of support. As you are aware, however, the currently large number of agencies supporting research makes it impossible for me to accept money from every one. Unfortunately, yours is among those I feel that I cannot apply to this year. Nevertheless, I encourage you to offer support again next year, at which time I will be happy to reconsider requesting funds."

Of course, like most things that feel really good in the short run, the prejection strategy has some long-run drawbacks. For example, before I prejected The American Economic Review, the probability of my publishing there may have been vanishingly small, but it was not zero. Now it is. (Come to think of it, maybe the threat of retaliation was why the first-strike idea never caught on during the cold war.)

I would advise new users of my strategy to start small. Send your first prejection letter to, say, The Central Appalachian Review of Applied [your field here]. Then work your way up. Save the letter to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences -- "Take your prize and shove it!" -- for that especially bad day when an editor asks if you have ever considered plumbing as a career.

With that caveat, I think you'll like prejection. I warn you, however, that once you start, it's easy to get hooked. Personally, I can't wait until Harvard starts looking for a new president.

Mark Montgomery is a professor of economics at Grinnell College. He is co-author of Theoretically Dead (New Victoria Publishers, 2001), an academic mystery novel written under the pen name Tinker Marks.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 50, Issue 2, Page B15