A Short Reflection on Rejections

7:30am. I open that messy bird app that I’ve been wanting to quit and see someone’s celebratory post announcing that they’ve won a grant. It’s a grant I’ve also applied for. Shoot. I haven’t checked my email yet, but the post says they found out yesterday. I would have seen a rejection email if it was sent yesterday, right? But I need to get off my phone and leave the house now, so I drive to campus with the implied rejection settling in my stomach. On campus, I check my inbox as soon as I have a chance to sit down. Nothing. But a few hours later, an email makes it official:

“…not selected… unable to fund your project. …good luck with your future endeavors.”

These lines are familiar. Just a few days earlier, I’d received another, bigger rejection: a rare fellowship with decent pay, attached to an incredible network. But for the past few weeks, I’d been talking myself out of believing I would get it, even before I learned that this year’s acceptance rate was around 4 percent. It was a disappointment, but relative to other things – like say, grief – the rejection didn’t hurt that bad.

Still, a rejection is a loss.

I describe grants and fellowships to my mom as “scholarships,” a term that’s easier to understand. But a fellowship isn’t really about the money. You need the money to live, yes, but what I’m really applying for is the freedom. It seems cheesy to write, but whenever I bring it up to another student they completely agree. A fellowship is a temporary respite from low-paying jobs and unpredictable workloads, conditions that vary wildly based on a roll of the dice (or your faculty connections). An external fellowship is freedom from your department and/or university, which in some cases, at some points, you may desperately need. So, a fellowship is freedom.

A fellowship is also validation. On a basic level, someone has deemed your work worth funding. When the acceptance comes from a big-name institution, it becomes the ultimate validation, a name you can utter softly – Fulbright, Ford, NSF – that grants you an instant level of respect and recognition. There’s a lot riding on recognition in academic circles. You may know better than to place your self-worth in the hands of others, but you’ve entered an arena where your career depends on the number of times others validate your work. I’m saying you don’t need external validation, but at the same time, you do.

So, this time of year, academic social media is full of shiny, gracious posts about how others are just happy they applied, or that they’ll try again, or they’re still confident in the value of their work. These are nice sentiments, and they can all be true, especially in time. But for now, I don’t feel any desire to present a shiny, gracious surface to cover up how frankly, rejections feel like shit.

I suppose what I’m getting at, and what I’m telling myself, is that it’s okay to feel like shit for a while. It’s okay to sing along to an angry song in the car or at karaoke (because wasn’t karaoke made for messy emotions?). It’s okay to vent about how the reviewers got it all wrong. It’s okay, maybe even recommended, to go out, clink glasses with a supportive friend, and declare “Fuck [Fellowship]!” for a night, or as long as you need, before you feel okay.

Image credit: Engin_Akyurt on Pixabay

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