Handling Rejections: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly


“Dear [insert name],

Thank you for submitting your application. After reviewing numerous requests, we regret to inform that your application has not been selected” 

At this point in your graduate career, I’m sure you have experienced what it feels to be rejected. I have been through it countless times, but every time it happens, I am reminded that it does not feel good to get another letter of rejection. Although rejection in academia is part of the process as in any other sector, sometimes it can feel more personal. Grants, manuscripts, fellowships, scholarships, graduate programs, they all come with a yes or a no. Somehow though, it can feel more personal as a group of total strangers are judging your work and all the sacrifices you have made. 

Before going into graduate school, no one ever tells you that your initial first author paper is likely to be rejected. They do not tell you that even as a student at the number one School of Public Health, you will continue to receive rejections. But think about it: When you look at someone’s CV, what do you see? It’s like social media; all you see are the highlights of successes in their lives. No one really lists their failures in their CV (unless you are Johannes Haushofer) or how many times their manuscript was rejected. Because this is the culture of academia, very few people openly talk about their own rejections and failures. 

Because I know how it feels to get another letter/email (lost count already), this blog is to share with you some advice to help you cope with rejection in graduate school:

1. It’s okay to feel bad about it: Feeling sad, disappointed, even angry is perfectly fine. It sucks getting rejected. Don’t fight the feeling. Once you have processed it, use that fuel and energy to continue the fight.

2. Learn from it: Accept it and learn from it. Rejections say nothing about you as a person. However, there is always room for improvement. Do not let rejection define you, instead, use it to your advantage to become a better version of yourself.

3. Don’t take it personally: When it comes to a manuscript or grant, there is always that one reviewer that will give you a harder time. Remember, it’s not about you. They are critiquing the work and doing their job in helping you become a better researcher. 

4. Focus on the process: It wasn’t until about a couple of years ago that all I could see as “success” was me having that dream job. I quickly realized I would be miserable if I did not enjoy the process itself. Enjoy the process, have fun, work hard, and things will fall into place.

In a few years, you will look back at those rejections and laugh about them. Do not let the system bring you down. Rejection is part of the process; the difference is how you react to it. 

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