The fall season is one of cool weather, changing leaves, hot beverages, and, for grad students, scholarship applications. Whether you’re a graduate student, academic researcher, or prospective graduate student, September and October likely mean you’re in the midst of scholarship and grant applications. You may be swamped with last minute manuscript submissions and/or working on other accomplishments to try and pad your CV before you submit your application. I am here to tell you that you are not alone and we are in it together! Unfortunately, the flip-slide of this hopeful work, multiple drafts, and late-night edits, is the lurking possibility we all face: rejection. In theory, we take our rejections in stride and move on. Maybe we try again next year or with another journal or for a different grant, but today I’d like to discuss the crushing feelings of disappointment and personal failure that can unfortunately accompany academic rejections, and offer a few ways to reframe the outcome to help us get back on track.
Don’t get caught up in rejections
Preparing scholarships or manuscripts can be immensely consuming of both time and energy, and subsequent rejection can be crushing. By necessity, we incorporate a lot of ourselves – our volunteer work, our passions, our interests – in scholarship and graduate school applications, and rejection may feel like a direct attack on you. This personal investment makes it even more difficult when we are rejected and can result in considerable doubt about ourselves. However, it is important that we put our applications in perspective. We are not our application and we also don’t know who we’re up against and what types of decisions are happening on the other end. In a recent blog post, my friend and former lab-mate Ally Menzies highlights how students are notoriously bad at being able to separate themselves from their projects and, by extension, their rejections. Ally points out that criticism and rejection of graduate opportunities, scholarships, and manuscripts do not reflect criticism on you as a person. This is an important distinction that can help us overcome a rejection. Your application was probably very good, and the fact that you applied means that, despite the possibility of doubt, you are working toward where you want to be and you are taking positive steps to be doing exactly what you want to be doing. Rejection is part of the process and, more often than not, rejection can lead to future success.
Reduce, re-use, recycle
One way to think about rejection, particularly scholarships, is as a stepping-stone. Typically, you’ll be applying early in your degree, so the application period provides a chance to read about your new field and build the foundation for your project. The work that goes into a scholarship or grant application can establish a baseline familiarity with your academic field, and can clarify where you fit within the literature. But all that hard work does not go to waste just because an application has a disappointing outcome. Aspects of scholarship applications can be re-purposed for other things throughout your graduate school experience. For instance, the personal statement you had to include in your application can provide the basis for a future biographical statement you need; parts of your research proposal could be reduced into a conference abstract; the stellar CV you created can be used again and again. Re-using aspects of previously submitted applications for other purposes can help reduce the feeling that time and energy were wasted in the preparation of the application.
Similarly, any external reviews or comments you receive in the process may help improve future applications, and provide constructive feedback on your work. An unsuccessful application to a graduate program or request to work with a specific supervisor might be returned with some insight into why you were not accepted – and while it is essential to reflect on this information and possibly incorporate it into future applications, it’s also important not to internalize it. In general, I’ve found it helpful to think of scholarship applications as the groundwork on which I can build future project and applications.
Everybody gets rejected, sometimes
To rephrase the title of a well-known R.E.M. song: “everybody gets rejected, sometimes”. Even established researchers and professors have grants and papers rejected regularly. This is important to remember, because we often see supposedly successful students, researchers, and professors who have fancy grants and many publications, but what we often forget, is that for every grant or manuscript they have received, there is likely anywhere from two to three times as many that have been rejected. Recently within the academic community, researchers and academics have been documenting their rejections and publishing them for others to see – a process often referred to as a ‘shadow CV’ – to normalize rejection. See some excellent examples in the links below. My own ‘shadow CV’ includes two or three major scholarship rejections, a grant rejection, and at least 10 rejections from academic journals. For instance, one of my first manuscripts was rejected based on methodological and statistical concerns raised by a reviewer. While it was an understandable rejection, the sting can be a bit more real when you receive a response like: “This study is fundamentally flawed and I urge you to go back to the drawing board”. This was not a particularly helpful rejection, but I really feel I learned a lot and the manuscript in question was recently accepted at a different journal with two positive reviews – a result which makes me feel somewhat vindicated after the original rejection.
As we work through our busy fall season together, remember grad school is a marathon, not a sprint, and there are many ups and downs. As we work toward our long-term goals, it’s helpful to embrace challenges and set-backs as part of the process, but to also let them go. We can sometimes get caught up in the milestones associated with graduate school, such as, scholarship applications, thesis chapters turned into manuscripts, or comprehensive exams – and if these things don’t go the way we expect them to, it can sometimes be demoralizing and disorienting. Despite inevitable feelings of failure, we can over-come our rejections. Be persistent, and, if possible, surround yourself with passionate and talented colleagues who will support you, but can also help you over-come these hurdles. I’m not the first one to discuss rejection as a blog topic – there are many fantastic articles out there about academic rejection and the idea of a shadow CV, so if this is something you want to read more about I’d suggest checking out the links below.
**This blog post was greatly improved by conversations and editorial help from my partner Julia