Career Matters

Rejection as a springboard to success

Several recent news developments underscore the importance of using persistence, adaptability and humor to conquer rejection and achieve goals. One such development was covered in a Washington Post article: A Doctoral Student Wore A Skirt Made of Rejection Letters to Defend Her Dissertation. The article described a doctoral student who wore to her successful defense of her science doctoral dissertation at Michigan State University a skirt made of strung-together rejection letters she had received from academic programs, scholarships and journals.

In the article, the student said she designed her paper skirt — a cathartic experience — to convey the bumpy road that led to her dissertation defense, which was outside the scope of the smooth research process presented in her dissertation. The student’s academic advisors applauded her sartorial statement — describing it as “perfect” because “science is all about going in directions that turn out to be dead ends and then having to turn around and start over.”

Providing a more strait-laced but still surprising perspective on rejection is a recent “Nature” study entitled “Early-Career Setback and Future Career Impact.” Conducted by a team from Northwestern University, the study involved comparing the careers of early career scientists who just barely missed getting grants (the “near misses”) from the National Institutes of Health to the careers of a similar group who just barely qualified for NIH grants (the “narrow winners”).

Study results showed that after 10 years, “near misses” who didn’t leave their field altogether and kept applying for grants tended to ultimately forge better, more impactful careers than “narrow winners.” What’s more, the insights and resilience gained by “near misses” from their early career rejection helped them shape successful long-term careers.

Some lessons from the student’s rejection skirt and the Northwestern University study: 1) Too much shame is showered on rejection — a universal experience that can be a prerequisite for success. 2) There is truth to the adage, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” 3) Disappointments may inspire you to reassess approaches but shouldn’t derail you. 4) Keep laughing — a morale booster. But when deciding whether to weave the paper trail of your rejections into your dress-for-success outfit, consider your audience!

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