Three tips for handling rejection in the PhD admissions process 

PhD admissions

It takes a considerable amount of time, energy, and resources to apply to a PhD program. From the time you first begin preparing application materials to when you are anxiously waiting to hear if you received an acceptance, an entire year may have passed. So, if you don’t get that acceptance letter from your dream school, or any school, it can be upsetting. That was my experience the first time I applied to clinical psychology PhD programs. While I fielded a few interviews, I didn’t receive the acceptance letter I had dreamed about. Rejection, despite being a very common occurrence in science (e.g., research papers are constantly rejected by journals), is often not talked about. So, what are some things you can do if you are experiencing rejection? 

Below are some strategies I’ve found helpful when dealing with rejection.

This of course is not an exhaustive list, and you might find that some of these suggestions work better than others. See what works for you!  

Tip #1: Build Your Support Network 

Having a strong support network of mentors, peers, friends, and family was perhaps the most important resource I had when applying to PhD programs. Preparing applications can be an isolating experience at times, and having people you can vent to about tedious application systems or celebrate your first interview offer makes the process much easier. A support network is especially helpful when handling rejection. Think about what kind of support different people in your network are equipped to offer – friends and family may be a great source of emotional support, while professors and other professional mentors can help you navigate next steps (see Tip #2: Have a Backup Plan). 

Tip #2: Have a Backup Plan 

PhD programs are competitive! Having a backup plan can help reduce the anxiety of “what now??” after receiving a rejection letter. Depending on what degree you’re interested in obtaining, post-baccalaureate research jobs and other positions can allow you to gain valuable experience. Often, these positions can provide training that will make you a more competitive applicant – don’t view your backup as a setback, but rather an opportunity to strengthen your skills and knowledge. If you need help identifying backup plans, talking with a trusted mentor can be an effective way to explore strategic positions to apply for that will help you continue towards your career goals.  

Tip #3: Celebrate the Small Victories! 

Applying to PhD programs takes a long time. Some applicants may feel that they cannot celebrate or feel a sense of accomplishment until they have received an acceptance letter – anything sooner might jinx their chances. However, celebrating milestones throughout the process of applying to PhD programs is important! Not only will this help you stay motivated throughout the application process, but it can help to reduce the feeling that all the time and effort spent on applications is “wasted” if you don’t receive an acceptance. Just applying to a PhD program is an accomplishment, and that is worth celebrating. 

Nathan graduated from Iona University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and minors in Neuroscience and Drug & Alcohol Abuse Studies. He is currently a PhD student in clinical psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University.


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