How I embraced my first academic rejection

Walking through a doorway

Credit: Solarseven/Getty

“Dear Katherine Bassil,

The Selection Committee wants to thank you for taking the time to participate in the Recruitment Day.

We are sorry to inform you that you have not been selected for the PhD position…

While you were not selected for this position, the selection committee did…”

The rest was not important. The only words in my head were “failure,” “not good enough,” “someone was better than you,” “you are not qualified for the job.” I burst into tears.

Following my undergraduate studies in Lebanon, I moved to the Netherlands to pursue a master’s degree in neuroscience. This opened up several opportunities for me, such as an internship at one of the best research institutes in the world — the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. My confidence levels were high after the internship; I could envisage my future, successful academic career so clearly that it felt like it was almost in the palm of my hand.

Then the time came to apply for a PhD position. Perhaps I was too confident at the time, but I was sure that I would nail all my interviews. In June, I received my first rejection letter. I was in shock. I was certain that I had presented myself as a dedicated, passionate student eager to learn and pursue her doctoral studies. Was it not enough? Did I completely misjudge the room? Was I overconfident? Was I even fit to be a PhD candidate? These questions washed over me, and I couldn’t shake the negative thoughts away. My self-esteem was shattered, and I lost all belief in my abilities.

Since that first rejection, what I have come to learn the hard way has changed my whole perception of failure. Instead of looking at rejection as a step backwards in my academic career, I’ve started to consider it as a step forward. I now see my ‘failure’ as a door to success, and not a wall standing in my way.

Rejection itself isn’t a problem; the issue is that we never talk about it. A typical academic CV is composed of all our achievements and successes. We never mention the PhD applications that got rejected, the papers that were turned down several times, the list of courses we did not pass.

From the outside, it seems like rejection never happens in academia. You never walk into someone’s office and see rejection and failures mounted on the wall. But what is success without failure? What would have happened if Albert Einstein had given up after his first rejection?

Rejection in academia doesn’t come once but several times throughout a career, and it occurs in all shapes and forms. It could come in response to journal submissions, or to applications for PhD positions, grants, tenure-track jobs or even senior and management roles.

Unfortunately, we are never handed a manual on how to process rejection and how to secure future opportunities. Instead, the scientific community rarely discusses it. We each have to learn how to grow resilient, often without enough support.

It is inspiring to see that many are starting to do so. Johannes Haushofer, a psychologist at Princeton University, New Jersey, wrote a “CV of failures” — a document that includes a detailed list of his rejections. Veronika Cheplygina, a biomedical engineer at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, started a series on her blog titled “How I Fail,” where she interviews both junior and senior academics about their failures.

Science is also about success, of course, and it’s important to recognize this as well as failure and rejection. A few weeks after I received that letter, I was contacted independently by two principal investigators for an open position in their labs at the same institution that had first rejected me. In October, I started a position in a lab where I am now pursuing my PhD. I know now that this failure was not my first, and it will not be my last.

If you were to ask me what I thought of failure today, what would my answer be? Keep it coming.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareerseditor@nature.com.

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