Hey, I got rejected from grad school too. Some advice from another reject:

If you're reading this, you may have been rejected from all your graduate schools. Some of you may be worse off than others. I want to share my story with you because I was also rejected my first attempt at applications and really fell into a huge depressing hole. I might say 2013 was the worst year of my life. But I learned more from 2013 about graduate school, research, work ethic, ambition and all of the above than I probably would have if i went directly to graduate school.

Let's start out by walking down an old path of nightmares:

rej03

This was a long email (about a page from this PI), and most informative. Needless to say, that's one prospect gone.

rej01

Small number. Gotcha. Next.

rej02

I'm a good fit, but not good enough. Cool.

A few others were automated rejections that were from other schools. Duke. UC Santa Barbara. Northwestern. After that trainwreck of failure, I decided Hey, might as well fail more. Here are some paid RA positions I didn't get over the course of the same year.

rej08

Budget constraints. Okay, maybe a legit excuse. Next.

rej04

Nothing changed. Talk to you never. Next.

rej05

Didn't hear back from anyone. Cool story, bro. Next.

rej06

At this point, I was a fan of the short and sweet rejection. Moving on.

rej07

Another perfect fit! This time with a splash of funding issues and a peppering of unclear job announcement specifics. Delicious.

If you were following the timeline of these emails, I was actively applying as a post-bacc with a seemingly impressive CV for over a years-worth of time. That's over a years-worth of rejections. So I'm right there with you, rejects. I know that road and I know how much each of those emails sucked. As I read those, half of me wants to crawl into a ball and never come out of my room. The other half of me says You'll be sorry. They will be.

Because legends aren't created after an acceptance, or from a top-tier program, or from a single publication in Nature. You make your own path and if you are serious about what you want to do, one day you'll get a letter like this:

accept

That was one of the better days I had over the course of 14 months.

Here's some tips I learned about my rejection year:

1) Put more feathers in your cap. Sometimes you're rejected because you look like everyone else. One professor I had said most people will relatively have the same letters of recommendation, most people will relatively have the same grades, most people will relatively have the same exposure to research (if any). Some things I did to separate myself away from the crowd, post-bachelor's degree was a) work in a high profile lab that does the research I want to do. I worked in Adam Gazzaley's cognitive neuroscience lab at UCSF for a little less than a year under the supervision of David A. Ziegler. I helped on some EEG work and was able to attend workshops and meetings during my time there. A lot of it went on my CV. It was definitely a talking point at a lot of my interviews.

2) Move. Get out of the area of the institution you were at and start fresh. Now, if your institution is already a top institution and you have some work set up there already, you may want to finish your projects post-bacc (if you can) and then move. My move, from Moraga, California to San Francisco, was far enough to get away from my college friends and college habits and really focus on what I need to do to become more competitive as a prospective graduate student. The distance was pretty small (40 miles) but it really changed my outlook.

3) Email prospective professors who you want to work with. This seems simple, but so many people overlook this part post-bacc. It's cheaper than having to apply to the school and be rejected. And there may be other opportunities at other schools that your prospective PIs may know about.

4) Think about a master's program. I personally wouldn't redo the year I had, but in a parallel universe I think I'm in a master's program for computer science with a neuroscience focus. They have that sort of specified master's program around the US, and I personally think that would have been a deal-maker for a lot of the labs and programs I applied to if I came in with a master's -- particularly with a computer programming emphasis. It's no secret that master's programs are a little easier to get into. If you can afford to spend an extra two or three years of your life specializing or refining your technique, then do it. Remember, legends aren't talked about over the course of a few years. Legends last decades, even centuries. If you aspire towards that goal, then 2-3 years is nothing.

5) Think about your back up plan that doesn't include going back to school. Worst case scenario: you can't get a better score on your GRE, there's no way to boost your grades, you can't afford to move and there's no way you can work as a volunteer RA. What's the back up plan? What were you trained to do? If you were "trained" to go to grad school, you successfully failed that. Unless you're wiling to commit time and energy to becoming more competitive, that dream is gone. So now what? Think of realistic goals. A realistic goal for me was to become a music journalist. I had three years of experience as a journalist going into my year of rejections. I could have pursued that as much as I pursued science. But I knew I wasn't too far off the path to be accepted to grad school -- I knew where I stood because I communicated with my advisors and colleagues -- so I chose science over journalism (which is what I wanted to do anyway).

6) Keep in touch with your UG advisors and professors. Send them an email every month or so talking about what you're doing and your goals. You don't want to lose out on your network you've created -- read: you don't want to lose out on letters of recommendation -- so keep the people who really tried to help you out in your circle. If your advisors are actively researching and publishing papers then they may know of opportunities that you don't know about. Just recently, an old advisor asked me to recommend any graduating UGs to a paid RA doing EEG and neurofeedback. That opportunity won't be posted on any listserv or ad board because this PI has a large enough network to have someone be recommended by one of his collaborators.

A year is a long long long time to wait. I know. And I felt like crap every day during that year. But I used that chip on the shoulder to propel me once I got in because that's what competition in science really is: how will your failures motivate you? Will you let them drown you? Or will you let them ignite you?

If you ever want to complain or moan about rejection more privately, you can always email me: nickwan at aggiemail.usu.edu

10 thoughts on “Hey, I got rejected from grad school too. Some advice from another reject:”

  1. Feeonaliu says:

    I just received an unsuccessful post-grad application from another university. I did an interview for a prior one, but got an unsuccessful reply in the post. Even though i'm trying hard to be resilient, keeping my head held on, I still feel like I'm never going to be good enough or as good as the other better candidates. I feel slightly depressed and down at the moment, feeling lost and don't know what to do about the future. I suppose I made myself feel this way as I often compare myself to my classmates who are now happily working in their dream industry, doing PhD or studying the post-grad masters I wanted to do, but they got it first time round...

    1. nickwan says:

      Sorry to hear!! Being down that road, I want to say it definitely gets better. I did a lot of comparing (myself vs. all others who got in) and definitely went into a spiral of self-doubt and depression. But that was a fleeting moment -- you will get in if you have ambition and a good game plan. Hope you land on your feet and in a lab soon!

  2. Maggie says:

    Hey there, thanks for sharing your story. I am in a similar situation at the moment. I feel depressed mainly because I had built up the idea of grad school so much to my friends and family this past year and now not only am I being told that I'm not good enough by the school, but I also then have to echo that message to everyone else and relive that rejection over again.

  3. Eva Zapien says:

    Dear Mr. Nick,

    Just got rejected from grad school (masters program) to San Diego state university's social work program.

    Yeah, social work - not even rocket science and I didn't get in..

    I will most definitely let my failures ignite me.

    Meh, I didn't wanna get accepted anyway... [the beginning of your article hit the nail on the head]

    Best wishes,

    Eva Zapien
    Social work undergrad
    Graduate this semester
    Going to enjoy not going to school for some time
    Single and no kids
    Hello, Costa Rica...

    1. Kajsa says:

      I also got rejected from the MSW program at SDSU. I totally thought I might get in, although there are some areas of the application requirements that I barely met, so I should have known. I'm super numb and don't know if I can wait a year to apply just to get shot down again. I don't know what to do, but your article helped me realize I'm not the only one...

  4. David says:

    Well... Thank you for this post. I think it really helps to give me some hope.

    My case is kinda tragic. I graduate from environmental egineering two years ago and then I decided to go and live new adventures so I had a 'gap year' which was extended for almost two years. During this time I didn't work on my field, I was a cashier and a bartender. Also, I was applying to different jobs but never received a reply. So I said 'well this is gonna change soon'.

    Last year I applied to a master program in Europe and two days ago I got rejected. I feel so down. I had big hopes on this application cause I was awarded with a scholarship of academic excellence for my bacherlors and I was ranked number 1 when I graduated, and I thought this would really help despite only having 9 months of experience on my field for previous internships done before my 'gap year'. Also, English is not my first language so I took the TOEFL which costs a lot of money and I'm feeling that I lost that money since I wasn't admitted to the master I applied.

    I'm currently still looking for a job, I have applied to almost 20 jobs since early 2016 and still don't get an answer.

    Nevertheless, I won't give up and I will still try to get to grad school maybe with more job experience that I can hopefully gain this year.

    Any further advice anyone?

  5. junjun says:

    I had my application sent whose deadline was February 15 and haven't heard from the school up until now. So, I am preparing myself for rejection in advance and want to prepare for reapplaying next year. However, what exactly should be my step to develop myself further if I want so badly getting into Master of Science(Mathematics in my case) and better prepare for the reapplication? Any advice?

  6. India Stinson says:

    Nick,

    I recently received a devastating letter of rejection. Due to GRE scores and B.S. gpa. I cant express the feelings. I am the only person in my family to get a degree and now I cant even obtain a higher degree. I just feel like such a let down to my family and myself. I have had to fight and work so hard for everything I've ever done. I just wanted one break, ONE! You talk about having a back up plan, I can't think of a back up plan. This is all I've ever worked for. Looks like I have another year to study and work as a waitress. :I

  7. Joey says:

    I just got rejected after an interview. The "funny" part was, after interviewing I was told the there was no room in the budget for me. The previous year I was rejected without even an interview. this year I was rejected after an interview. I feel like I have been getting better and better. Unfortunately, I had to move across the country because country because I could no longer support myself so I had to leave my circle and now it's back to living with mom and dad. I am currently applying for RA positions and I am planning on retaking the GRE. lets see how I do next year. maybe third time will be a charm.

  8. M says:

    Just thought I'd chime in with my rejection story. It was an MSc. in Biology at Dalhousie working on fish genomics and fisheries. The advisor is a research scientist working for DFO (AKA government organzation AKA serious networking opportunity). The fact that he actually emailed me back felt like a dream come true!! This was way back in February and my application took way longer than it should have (about 5 months due to transcripts being sent elsewhere, etc.) Unfortunately after all of that buildup, I received my rejection email. I was told by everyone that I had it in the bag. I called my advisor and it seems like I missed the cutoff for some internal scholarships.

    He wants to put me into another project with another advisor, but it's been a week since I sent my CV and no response. I am unsure if I want to follow up, but at least I know that I am not alone in my struggle. Thank you for sharing your story! I will use it to motivate my future prospects.

    Cheers,
    M

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