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:
This was a long email (about a page from this PI), and most informative. Needless to say, that's one prospect gone.
Small number. Gotcha. Next.
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.
Budget constraints. Okay, maybe a legit excuse. Next.
Nothing changed. Talk to you never. Next.
Didn't hear back from anyone. Cool story, bro. Next.
At this point, I was a fan of the short and sweet rejection. Moving on.
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:
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