Rejection. Now What?

It can be hard to see beyond the initial sting of a professional “no” when you are turned down for a research opportunity, an internship, a fellowship, a grad school program, a job. 

Le Garçon au gilet rouge By Paul Cezanne- [1], Public Domain,
Le Garçon au gilet rouge, by Paul Cézanne - [1], Public Domain,

Rejection happens to everyone, a lot. It doesn’t mean that you have screwed up.

Give yourself time to process your disappointment:

  • Remind yourself that setbacks are an inevitable part of any accomplishment.
  • Recognize that putting yourself out there takes courage and determination – and celebrate the fact that you are doing it!
  • Reframe the situation: you are a work in progress, and rejection is an opportunity to learn and improve, not an assessment of your abilities.
  • Refocus to take in the big picture. While goals are important, each experience, good or bad, contributes to your development and brings you closer to the life you want.
  • Remember that you deserve kindness and respect. Treat yourself with the same warmth and understanding you would offer a friend in the same situation.

When you’re ready, consider what that “no” means for your next steps.

Not all “no’s” mean the same thing. Some possibilities:

  • The thing is highly competitive; large numbers of qualified people necessarily get rejected.  
  • You are currently lacking a couple of key skills or experiences that the thing requires.  
  • The thing is short on resources (time, money, people) that would make it possible to bring you in even though you are qualified.  
  • It came down to you and one or two other people, and the criteria used to make the final decision favored the person who wasn’t you.  
  • The thing wasn’t a good fit for your stated interests and experience.
  • The thing didn’t exist (the relationship between posted job openings and actual jobs can be more tenuous than many realize).

Take time to assess any information you have. Some decisions are final and not worth revisiting; some reflect circumstances that could change; some might be pointing you in a different direction.

  • Would it be worthwhile to apply again?
  • Can you follow up after you’ve filled in some gaps?
  • Will the situation be different in future, such that there might be new opportunities?
  • Have you misunderstood what kinds of knowledge or experience the thing entails?
  • Are there other ways to get the experience you seek?
  • Would it be helpful to step back and reassess your strengths, interests, and goals?

In the case of highly competitive opportunities, keep in mind that many gatekeepers know how to administer a rational process that winnows a large pool of applicants to the number that they can accept. They don’t know you or your potential, and their decision need not prevent you from moving forward. The picture above was painted by Paul Cézanne, who revolutionized the field of modern art after getting turned down from art school, twice.

And what about the rejections that aren’t rejections – when you just don’t hear back from something you’ve applied for? That kind of silence is common and frustrating. Following up with a short, polite email inquiring about your status is a good next step. A second similar follow-up might also be worthwhile: it demonstrates your enthusiasm for the position and your persistence. If there’s still no response, it’s probably a sign to move on.

Rejection happens. LAS Career Services can help. Come to us to talk through the situation and brainstorm some next steps.

For more ideas on navigating your future career path, visit our LAS Career Services Blog

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By Kirstin Wilcox