by Ludivine Broch (University of Westminster)
It was a sunny morning in February 2011 when I opened my computer to impatiently check my inbox. Each time I clicked on that webmail link, my heart fluttered slightly at the thought that I could have a response from one of my many postdoc applications on the go.
And there it was: RE : Application. My hand started to shake slightly as I scrolled to click on the email. I started to sweat as the email box opened. And then, I began to read :
Dear Dr Broch,
There were a large number of very strong applications this year, and unfortunately we would like to inform you that your application was not successful. We would like to thank you for your interest, and wish you good luck for the future.
All the Best,
Marion Drummer (1), Secretary of blabaddlybla, College of blabaddybla.
My heart collapsed, I felt nauseated, and slightly dizzy. Those were the usual symptoms : after 18 months of constant applications, I was getting used to it. What differed this time, however, was that instead of crying (first reaction) or of taking a deep breath, relativising, and just forcing it out of my mind (second reaction), i got angry. REALLY ANGRY. ‘WTF ?!?!?!’ I thought. ‘You gotta be kidding me !!!! Why don’t you want me ?!?! This is RIDICULOUS my application was PERFECT I spent so much bloody TIME ON IT ! WHY DO YOU WASTE MY TIME LIKE THIS !’
Thankfully, I had a small support group : 3 friends who I had done my PhD with and who were, like me, recent postdocs applying for everything we could get our hands on. And we were all suffering collectively, sharing job adverts, application tips, ideas, and of course, rejections. And so, before even taking a bite of my toast, I immediately forwarded them this most recent rejection email, with, at the top, my mock reply :
I’m actually really glad I’ve been unsuccessful in this early round of applications, since I never wanted to come to your FUCKING SHIT (2) university in the first place. So I guess we should all fucking celebrate. But when I do get a great postdoc, you’ll be fucking sorry, because my research is fucking awesome.
All the fucking best,
I must admit, writing this mock email to my postdoc friends helped me vent a bit. In fact, I was pretty pleased with myself. It was helping me process the whole thing, and I kind of wanted to embrace this whole new anger I felt. So I went into my Sent Items to re-read my email and keep chuckling at myself.
And that’s when I realised : I had not forwarded the email to my 3 friends – I had actually pressed Reply. Reply. REPLY ! And all of the sudden, the feeling of nausea really kicked in, I was so mortified. Poor Marion, it was not her fault!! She was the messenger, and you never shoot the messenger! On a more selfish note: WILL THIS END MY CAREER COMPLETELY ?!?!?! MY CAREER HASN’T EVEN STARTED!!!!! I took a couple of deep breaths, and after accepting the fact that there was no way I could retrieve it from cyberspace, I could at least contact her:
Please, please ignore the last email I sent you. I am so, so sorry I sent this message, it was not at all meant for you. I was one of the unsuccessful applicants for the position, and I hope you understand that applying for these positions is extremely stressful. When I got the rejection this morning, I was very upset. And this last email was only venting. It in no way meant any disrespect to you, your college, or the university
I sincerely apologise, please let me know if there is anything else I can do to explain myself.
All the best,
OK, breathe, calm down. Wait. Wait. Do I call her ?! Ok, maybe. But when, now? wait an hour? Oh my god. Oh my god. Ok Click ‘refresh’. Again. Again. Again. Ten minutes later, an email popped up:
Thank you for your explanation, and do not worry. I understand that this is a very hard time for you. Good luck with future applications.
I wanted to kiss her. And then I laughed. And then I emailed my 3 friends and told them about it. And then we all laughed.
This is one of my better/more original memories of receiving job rejections. But it is far from being the only one. Over my four years as a postdoc, between 2010 and 2014, I wrote approximately 60-70 applications.(3) I got offered 5 jobs in total, approximately 1 each year, and the last one was for a permanent position: I could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
You need thick skin to get through the application process because the rejections can be overwhelming and truly confidence-shaking. And no one prepares you for the onslaught of rejections. You get tips on how to write a CV ; how to write a cover letter ; what to emphasise in your research statement… but rejection remains one of those personal, emotional, intimate territories which we don’t easily discuss outside of the conference/pub setting where you might have a quick and uncomfortable laugh about it with some colleagues, and a good moan.
Writing mock angry emails to universities is one way of having a chuckle, but it does not solve the long-term, problem. In 2010-11 alone I wrote 27 applications and only got shortlisted for a couple of things. I found it truly, truly difficult to experience the 25 other rejection emails (and some places don’t even bother rejecting you – they just ignore you). I realised that this application process was eating up my life, not least my self-estime.
So I decided to take on a new hobby which had nothing to do with academia : I started running. I was never, never, NEVER a runner. Always the last one to arrive in school races. Always heaving, sweating, passing out after 15 minutes of light jogging. But the frustration of the application process was building up, and I knew I needed to clear my head on a regular basis : why not start going to the gym? At first, I began on the treadmill : 1 min running, 2 mins walking, for 10 minutes. Over a month I was building up stamina : 12 minutues running, 2 minutes walking, 12 mins running. And one day, I did it : I ran 35 minutes straight, and I felt great. I started to run outside, and this felt even more exhilirating. I would run along the Thames, with my head phones, not going very fast, but going a bit further each week. I signed up randomly for the London Marathon 2012 – my partner laughed out loud when I told him – and I got in the ballot. I started training regularly, pushing myself each time, being careful not to injur myself. In Spring 2012, I ran the marathon in 5 hours – something I never thought I could have done. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.
Running helped me take back some control in my life, which I felt I was losing with all of these applications. It allowed me to regularly go outdoors, and enjoy time away from phone, computer, daily life. Most importantly, it helped me build back some of that self-confidence that I felt I was losing whilst going through the arduous application/rejection process. There’s no secret recipe to dealing with rejection, but finding other ways to value your work and your abilities can help you get through some of the rough(er) patches.
(1) Name has been changed/forgotten/blocked from memory.
(2) Having been unable to locate the exact email in my inbox, this is a reproduction based on the (emotional) memories of that period. Thanks to one of above-mentioned friends, I have been informed that there was much less swearing in the original – although, knowing me, I presume there was at least some.
(3) And this is a RESTRICTED number comparison to others I know. I would have written more, but I had to apply for jobs within the London vicinity for personal reasons – this greatly restricted the number of jobs I applied for.