Florianne Jimenez is a PhD student in rhetoric and composition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. You can find her on Twitter @bopeepery.
So you did it! You finally turned in that fellowship statement/job application/grant application/article that you’d been slaving over for weeks. You had shopped it around for feedback to mentors, colleagues, mom and dad, even your cat. You faced some writing blocks, but you pushed through, and you produced a piece of writing that you’re incredibly proud of. Maybe you went to an interview, and shook hands the perfect way, and made appropriately witty jokes and gave very articulate answers. You were feeling good about that application, and started picturing how you’d treat yourself once you got the amazing news.
And then the email came! “Dear Ms. GradStudent, Thank you for submitting your application. We regret to inform you…”
WAIT, WHAT?! This is NOT supposed to happen to people who work hard. This is NOT fair. The committee must have overlooked something. Maybe they misfiled my application! Or I must have really screwed it up. Oh, I must have REALLY screwed something up… (Cue screaming, crying, and intense ice cream consumption).
If this scene is familiar, it’s because rejection is awful, and everyone hates it. Nobody wants to be told they weren’t good enough, especially not a graduate student. Graduate school is made up of people who were (and are) excellent students, who were often at the top of their class in college and were always being singled out for praise. When we’re told that we didn’t quite make the grade, it confirms the harshest, meanest doubts that we already have about ourselves.
Given how badly we hate – and try to avoid – rejection, how can we make it better? How can we turn it around and actually make it work for us?
I have so many feelings! How do I deal?
This post makes me sound like Pollyanna, but trust me: I am the saddest, gloomiest person I know after a rejection, and I’ve accepted that about myself. I wasn’t always like this. I refused to be a downer, and I would chirp, “It’s okay! Better luck next time!” as a rejection rolled in and forget it even happened. However, pushing away my bad feelings about rejection didn’t help me feel better, nor did it help me grow as an academic or a person. I’ve learned that when I get a rejection and I feel bad about it, I should just go ahead and feel bad about it. Sometimes I’ll take off work for an afternoon and watch Netflix in my pajamas, or order a big ice cream sundae, or go to a spin class and burn off some frustration – I just do what my mind and body need to deal with disappointment.
I need to vent! Who’s around?
Feeling your feelings sometimes means talking them out with somebody, and that’s totally fine. However, remember that somebody means just one trusted person, and not “every colleague you run into that day in the hallway.” If somebody in your department received a fellowship, award, or job over you, complaining about it does not put you in a good light at all. Choose who you’re going to rant and be petty to wisely: is it someone you trust? Is it someone you won’t be putting in an awkward position? If it is, then by all means, grab a drink with this person (and ONLY this person) and rant away.
As for social media, I would treat this with caution as well. Tread the line between expressing disappointment and mounting aggression. There’s no need to unnecessarily cut ties, especially since you may be going through a screening process again. If that Facebook status or snarky tweet you’ve got brewing is directed at a person or persons, such as the screening committee, the person who beat you for that award/job/fellowship, your department, or a journal, DON’T HIT SEND. Rejection is exhausting enough – don’t add professional drama to the mix.
Feelings resolved! I’m all done here, right?
Not quite yet! Once you’re feeling a little better (read: you can talk to whoever rejected you without wanting to punch them), there are a few more things you should do.
Save your application for the future.
When I started graduate school, I made it a habit to try out for any job, fellowship, conference, or award that I could. I felt silly because I got my heart broken so many times (and still do), but I’m starting to think of applications, rejections, and acceptances as part of the normal rhythm of academic life. Writing so many applications has given me a steady bank of letters, CVs, resumés, and personal statements that I refer back to every year, so I never feel like I’m starting from nothing when I have to send in an application. Think of your rejected application as the start of a future successful one. Writing up application documents is great training for the academic and non-academic job markets, and practice writing in various professional genres is always a long-term benefit. So keep the applications you’ve worked on, file them where you know you can retrieve them later on, and make revisions to them as appropriate when you have another opportunity that you’re applying for.
Say thank you.
Even if you’ve been rejected in a form letter, it never hurts to be courteous and send a brief thank you email. Screening people takes up a lot of time and energy, and people who take on that work should always be thanked. (Yes, even if they’re breaking your heart.) It never hurts to put some good energy out there, and the process of putting kindness into writing has actually made me feel better. In smaller circles, such as within your program or department, it might help the person reading applications remember your name in the future. Your email doesn’t have to be overly effusive, long, or tailored to your recipient: two or three sentences that say “Thank you for your time, good luck” will suffice.
When it’s an option, get feedback.
If you think your recipient has the time, it’s productive to add a short, polite request for feedback in your thank you email, either in person or by email. Make sure you convey that you’re definitely interested in the job/fellowship/award/etc. in the future, and that you’d like to know what you can do to improve your chances later on. I’ve learned a lot of useful tips about application writing and interviewing from these conversations. For example, I (grumpily but politely) asked for some thoughts on a recently rejected summer fellowship application. I wasn’t expecting a reply, but the professor that wrote back explained that the strongest applications had gone into extensive detail about their writing and research plans under the fellowship, and I realized that I had spent most of my statement explaining what a hard worker I am and the scholarly merits of my work. I’m still disappointed in the outcome, but now I know how administrators screen applications across various departments and colleges, and I feel more prepared to write fellowship applications in the next funding cycle.
Success in graduate school doesn’t hinge on one fellowship, job, or award – it’s about the sum of your successes and failures over time. Feel free to sulk for a little bit, but don’t take a rejection to mean that you’re not cut out for graduate school, or for an academic life. Rejection will always sting, but it’s also an opportunity to get better. Go through your stages of grief, but also make sure to take what you can from it, and then move on to the next application.
How do you deal with rejection? Let us know in the comments!
[Image by Flickr user Chris and used under the Creative Commons license.]