How I learned to turn rejection into redirection

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A version of this story appeared in Science, Vol 380, Issue 6640.Download PDF

Sitting in the bar for my friend’s 21st birthday, I feel a buzz in my pocket. Glancing at the email’s sender, my heart races. It starts off as you would expect: “Thank you for your interest” and “the deliberation process took longer than expected as we received many highly qualified applicants.” It ends with “We are sorry to inform you” and my vision blurs. The position—measuring soil respiration in the Namib Desert as part of an undergraduate research program through my university—had felt like the answer I had spent years looking for. I had put so much time and emotional energy into applying, and I thought the rejection meant the end of the road for my science career. Only later would I see that instead, it provided an exciting new direction to follow.

I always wanted to be a scientist. I started off as a biology student but quickly felt unwelcome among the premeds. I tried out physics and spent a semester uninspired and lonely, lectures on a laptop screen as my only company. With each discipline switch I felt increasingly anxious I wouldn’t find the right fit before my scholarship ran out—until, thanks to a random suggestion from my mom, I ended up in geology and fell in love. When I found that summer research program, I thought I had found the perfect topic for my honors thesis and a stepping stone to my dream academic career. This was the one program I wanted. I wasn’t going to consider other options.

Then came that rejection email. I replied graciously, but I felt myself spiraling. Once again, I felt lost and hopeless. It seemed clear I’d never get to work in a lab or become a scientist.

So I was shocked when, not long after the rejection email, the professor running the research program invited me to observe the work being done in her lab. I jumped at the chance, and a few weeks later I was equally shocked—and thrilled—when she invited me to talk with her about potential thesis projects I could pursue in her lab. What she proposed didn’t seem as exciting as the original project I had applied to, but I felt I wasn’t in a position to be picky; this was a great opportunity and I was going to give it my all.

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I reminded myself that rejection would not be the end of the road.
  • Cat Collins
  • University of Vermont

I found myself collaborating with a robotics professor on techniques for collecting data from the desert remotely, and the work introduced me to a whole new way to think about geoscience. That project, which I could complete from my couch instead of in the searing heat of the desert, not only survived the pandemic lockdown but was innovative and fresh and worked where traditional methods didn’t. In the end, I had a thesis and a new scientific interest to pursue.

When I applied to grad school, the earlier rejection and the good that came out of it centered me. I decided I would still be selective about the options I pursued rather than casting a broad net, but at the same time I reminded myself that rejection would not be the end of the road; being proactive and diligent can open doors when others close.

I found three programs that promised to allow me to follow my desired research direction and threw myself into the applications with the same anxious excitement as before. When I was rejected from one that had seemed like a perfect fit, it was undoubtedly difficult. But this time I had the perspective to keep it from sending me into a tailspin. It helped that in the end I was accepted into one of the other programs I was also excited about.

Despite my best intentions when applying, I ended up tackling yet another new research direction: using medical imaging techniques to characterize sediment samples from beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet. It’s nothing like what I envisioned when I started grad school. But just as before, remaining open to unanticipated challenges and evolving interests has led me to new personal and intellectual horizons.

Rather than setting plans in stone, I’ve learned that sometimes I need to take the opportunities that are offered, even if they don’t sound exactly perfect at the time, and make the most of them. And I’ve learned to look at each rejection as a redirection instead.

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