New day, new opportunities: Letting resilience win over rejection

“Unfortunately,” “Sorry,” “Not at this time.” This time of year can be tough for those who are getting the thin letters or the short emails that say that they haven’t been accepted to their programs of choice, that they didn’t get the job, or that they didn’t receive the funding that they expected. I’ve found that I’ve been having “the talk” with students and professionals quite a bit recently, so I wanted to expand on my post about not failing, Edison (10,000 trials), Gladwell/Ericsson(10,000 hours), and resilience.  When one is rejected, there is tendency to give yourself a new name: failure. Your name is NOT “failure.” People often internalize rejection and think that it is reflection on their performance, but that is not always the case. Yes, there are always things that we can and should be doing for continuous improvement. However, competition is at play, and it’s important to realize that there may be situations that are not necessarily directly related to your performance or preparation. Examples include limited number of slots for a position, very competitive process, the pool of candidates included people who had more years of experience, your interests may not be the best fit for the lab, or perhaps the faculty may not have the capacity to mentor you based on your current need.  Even if there are deficits in your preparation, or if your performance needs improvement, you should not refer to yourself as a failure, and you can still move past rejection. The key is to make “action” the next step. Action is part of resilience. Here are some suggestions for moving forward.

1. Contact the graduate program director, faculty member, hiring manager/contact and ask for constructive feedback. This can be difficult because no one really wants to feel as if they’ve done anything wrong, especially when they’ve worked so hard. However, it’s important to get feedback from people who are evaluating you and people who are in the positions that you’re seeking. Do some self-assessment first, and be honest with yourself. Talk with friends and colleagues and give them permission to really be honest with you so that you’ll be prepared for the discussion that you’ll have with those in the supervisory positions. Take the advice that is being provided. Do not suddenly think that the world is against you. Try the advice and suggestions that your mentors are sharing.

2. Think about your plans as pieces to a large puzzle. Rejection can occur because of a lack of “fit.” Look at the places to which you’re applying as a puzzle. Are you one of the pieces that will fit that particular puzzle? Or, are your skills and talents better suited to another puzzle? That puzzle could be another job, another school, another discipline, or another profession. Sometimes we push hard in one area, but our skills and abilities are actually growing and thriving in another area so we may be attempting to fit into the wrong puzzle. Similarly, perhaps you aren’t quite ready to fit into the puzzle of your choice just yet, but you be able to be a connecting piece in the not-so-distant future.

3. Make the A-Z list. I always ask my students, “What is your PLAN B? PLAN C? PLAN D?” Too often, there was only a PLAN A or PLAN B, and if that first or second plan doesn’t come to fruition, there is a feeling of devastation. It’s critical that people make alternate plans, and that they take time to consider pathways to actualizing those plans. Making an  A-Z plan list does not mean that you should just send out 26 applications of the same type (corresponding to the 26 letters in the English alphabet), and call that “the  A-Z plan.” No. The A-Z list should include options that connect to people in your circle, in addition to those that are “cold-call” pursuits. Here is an example. If you’ve applied to your dream school for a PhD program, and you were not accepted, what constitutes PLAN B, C, D? Consider the following:

  • PLAN B: Talk with your mentors and faculty in your undergraduate or master’s program (particularly those who wrote your letters of recommendation) to get their suggestions on where you might apply for graduate school for the next semester or the next year. There may be options that will be available for a new cohort in the near future. Ask them for specific people whom you can contact who are part of their networks. Faculty often work with their colleagues to “share” students who might be working on similar projects.
  • PLAN C: Apply to different types of schools, e.g., Carnegie Classifications, as there may be other types of programs that will be better suited to your learning style. Too many people make the mistake of solely applying to certain schools, and they completely ignore other opportunities in other places. Take a chance and expand your horizons.
  • PLAN D: Find (accredited)  schools that may be looking to grow their enrollment, and have special emphasis on something that is important to you and where you already know that you excel, e.g., teaching hands-on labs for undergraduate researcher, lab internships at local biotech companies.
  • PLAN E: Consider employment options that make the most of your current degree(s). Where can you make a strong contribution?
  • PLAN F: Find out if there are “transition” opportunities at your current institution, or opportunities to take some classes within your dream school, intern on a project, connect to professors, and then, if there is faculty buy-in, re-apply.
  • Etc.

4. Call on the people in your life who can affirm you. It’s important to be sure that you don’t become overwhelmed by your own negative thoughts. Share your thoughts and feelings with others who are part of your support network, and who can remind you of your successes to date. It can be easy to focus on those things that have not gone as expected. Be sure that you are not making the decision the focus of your existence. Understand your worth in the larger context of the world. Don’t neglect your spiritual foundations, your family, and your friends.

In general, remember that you can be resilient, meaning that when things don’t go according to your plans, you have processes in place that can help you to recover quickly, re-group, and re-engage. Best wishes as you move toward your next steps, and as you continue to pursue goals that will allow you to make positive contributions to the world-at-large.

Photo taken at UMBC, after I had the conversation on

Photo taken at UMBC (Spring 2015), after I had the conversation on “resilience” with a group of graduate students. I spoke about my own challenges, and let them know that everything won’t always be perfect. In one way, the photo represents resilience over time, and that it’s nice when you can look back on situations and see why certain things happened, even when they didn’t go according to my original plans.