Entry 3 – Rejections: the More the Better!

Time needed to read entry: 8 minutes

ME is a 3rd Year Graduate Student who had worked in Industry for numerous years.
ME TOO is a 2nd Year Postdoctoral Research Fellow who began graduate school directly after her undergraduate studies.

ME gets rejected from many of her graduate school applications:

ME: Bummer, I just got rejected from yet another school — University of Washington.
ME’s Brother: They also rejected me!
ME: Something to strengthen our bond I suppose?

Several months later, ME gets rejected from 5 fellowship applications…

ME: Bummer, I just got rejected from NSF graduate research fellowship program 😦
ME: And I was rejected from four other fellowships I applied too 😦
ME TOO: I also was rejected from NSF my first time.  In fact, I was rejected from all of my fellowship applications when I applied the first time.  Then my advisor in Graduate school encouraged me to apply again.  So I revised my essays and CV like crazy for two weeks straight, submitted my application, and was actually awarded a fellowship on my second try.  I would recommend you use their comments to fix your application and try again.
ME: In retrospect, I should have anticipated the reviewer’s comments.  I should have known what they were looking for and didn’t write my application as I should have.  I feel like the rejection was my fault.
ME TOO: I disagree. I think the competition this year is much more competitive than when I applied.  There are many overly qualified students who are submitting applications now who are not getting the fellowship who would have won the fellowship if they had applied in the year that I applied.  In addition, I am not sure that you could have known what they were looking for, since it always depends on the mood of the reviewer at the time that she or he reads your application.
ME: Hmmm… my advisor did mention that “reviewers in my field are much tougher than in other fields, giving computer science students a disadvantage against other disciplines”.  Still, I am bummed since I really could have used the money, flexibility, and prestige that the award gives.  On the upside, I know that I am capable of getting the fellowship since I am genetically identical to you and you received one.  I also feel very fortunate to be in graduate school getting paid to study topics I think are very cool.  As Mom said, “receiving the award would have been the cherry on top; getting into graduate school was the real treat”.
ME TOO: Also, consider the fact that there is someone who cares enough to criticize your work and provide feedback — now you have the opportunity to get better and then to ask for feedback again by applying for other fellowships in the upcoming years.  I’d recommend applying for some fellowships or grants again next year, and I will be happy to help you again then with the applications.
ME: Sounds good.  And as you had mentioned before I began writing my application, the process has been the reward in itself.  It has helped me to better understand the literature in my research field and to focus myself on a particular research direction.

Another year later, ME gets rejected from her first application to a workshop…

ME: I just got rejected from my application to the NSF-funded workshop you attended last year…
ME TOO: I am actually not surprised.  I could have told you that most likely you would not have been accepted.  
ME: Really?  Why?
ME TOO: You are too young in the program to be supported to attend such a workshop.  Early in my graduate years, I also applied for this type of workshop and was rejected.  Fortunately, one of the workshop organizers who I knew told me I was rejected because I was too young in the research process.  I ended up applying for the workshop again the following year and was accepted.  And the application process was much easier the second time around!  In general, through my experience, I have learned that there are a million reasons why I receive rejections, many of which are out of my control (such as experience, GPA, connections, …), so I try to not take any ‘rejection’ so personally.  I never know what the reasoning is from the other side for not accepting me.
ME: To date, I have just received one rejection after another.  From looking at some peoples’ CVs, for some people opportunities and awards are consistently given to them.
ME TOO:  So it seems.  A funny story… a colleague of mine has an incredible CV in which she lists all of the fellowships that she won.  When I asked her how she got them all, she responded by saying,  “you have no idea how many rejections I have received”.  

Several months later, ME is fearful of a rejection on her publication submission when the conference requests a rebuttal on several of the reviewers’ comments

ME: Bummer, I just got feedback from the reviewers that my paper might not be accepted…
ME TOO:  Ugh…  still, from my experience, you may eventually be able to publish your work.  I have a paper that I have been sitting on for nearly three years now.  I ended up looking at my data in a new way, coming up with a new message, and then writing up my results with a novel story and resubmitting it.  After a long frustrating path, it is finally getting published.  I wish the process would have gone more smoothly and quickly, but all the same I agree with the reviewers’ feedback and am grateful that my understanding of the work and the quality of the paper has reached the place where it is at today.  Hopefully, the feedback from the reviewers is just the first step to getting your paper completed and published.

* By including in the rebuttal modifications that would address the feedback, the paper was subsequently accepted!

Ways ME and ME TOO Rationalized The Rejections

* It’s good they did not accept me.  If I don’t have what they are looking for then it is better that we not work together.
* I wouldn’t have had time for that anyways (conference/workshop).

Comforting Thoughts

1.  From a statistical standpoint, your chance of rejection is greater than your chance of acceptance.  You have a lot of company.
2. That was good feedback; at least I know how to improve and possibly get it the next time.
3. You may think you know what they are looking for, but you never do.
4. Huh, I guess they didn’t understand my ideas and work.  Seems like I need to fix my writing so that my message is better understood.
5. “It’s lucky you’re going so slowly because you’re going in the wrong direction” – Wanda the Fish
6. “My therapist told me the way to achieve true inner peace is to finish what I start. So far today, I have finished 2 bags of M&M’s and a chocolate cake. I feel better already.” -Dave Barry

Lessons

What is a rejection?
→ An acceptance — someone has provided feedback and thus welcomed you to the club (a discussion)
→ An opportunity — someone is giving you feedback and talking to you.  Imagine if you sat in your little bubble and no one cared!  Use the feedback to improve and then try again.
→ A safe place to learn how to receive a ‘no’; this will be the first of many… gather enough experience receiving rejections that you become comfortable enough to not take them personally.

Nature versus Nurture

Rejections have a profound ability to knock down one’s self-confidence… unless your mentor is an identical twin who has proven that your genes are good enough.  ME and ME TOO were born with this luxury to have a double to look at when feeling under-recognized/appreciated.  When ME felt rejected because she was not awarded several recognitions that ME TOO had received, both ME and ME TOO believed that it was due to a change of circumstances rather than because ME’s applications were fundamentally not good enough.  In other words, ME and ME TOO believed that ME’s effort (including her genetic makeup) was good enough, but the external circumstances had changed.  And most importantly, ME kept her confidence.  

The message to others is to stay focused on your path, in spite of any external recognitions that you may not receive.  There are a million reasons for why you may have not received the recognition — good and bad — that are out of your control.  ME and ME TOO believe that one’s recognitions are not necessarily a one-to-one matching with one’s potential; and that one’s future actions should be motivated by the continual belief in one’s potential regardless of how many rejections arise.   

Resources

PhD Comics
Motivational Quotes
And More Motivational Quotes 
And Just a Few More Motivational Quotes if You Are Still Feeling Blue

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