Monday, March 29, 2010

Rejection and Acceptance

If you follow me on twitter or facebook, you'll know that I recently found out I was rejected from both Harvard and Stanford. I think it's important to blog about the process, not just for cathartic reasons, but for anyone else who might be in the same boat or thinking about applying to graduate school in the future. I waited a couple of days before typing this, because on Saturday I was still crying, wondering all of the "What if"s, and feeling melodramatically doomed about my future.

I'm feeling significantly less doomed, though my self esteem hasn't quite recovered yet. For those of you who don't know me well, I have very, very high standards for myself. Where any normal human being would be elated about their achievements, I can always come up with ways that I can do better. I know I'm a successful student because I'm so hard on myself. While I know I've accomplished some great things in college, it still never feels like enough.

And I'm my worst critic. All of my professors have been constantly telling me since freshman year how grad schools would just be dying to snatch me up, that they'll be heavily recruiting someone with such a strong record, that having more than one publication under my belt would make me a shoe-in, that I'm Harvard and Stanford material, easily. And for most of the time, I was skeptical. I knew I was a good student, but I was going to keep working hard and not get my hopes up. I'd apply, and see how it went.

And apply I did. And then I got interviews. I was flown out, wined and dined, told by department heads how my resume was ten times better than theirs when they were applying to grad school, told how other schools paled in comparison to theirs, told how they can't wait to see me in the fall. I left suddenly believing what those professors had been telling me all of those years. For a rare moment, I felt that I really was smart and hard working enough to belong in Harvard or Stanford. I felt proud of what I had accomplished, that four years of working my ass off and being passionate about science had paid off.

And then I was rejected.

If I had never gotten an interview, or if the interviews hadn't seemed like they blatantly wanted me, I wouldn't have been as upset. But instead of this being a predicted outcome, it was a ginormous let down. I know I shouldn't bitch about not getting into Harvard or Stanford, since I have been accepted to the University of Washington - which I loved and is a fabulous school in itself. It's just that for once in my life I had the amount of self esteem I should have, and it was dashed against the rocks.

I actually felt a bit worse when everyone found out, because they were so shocked. My one professor just seemed to share my disappointment, but the other (a Stanford alumni) seemed mixed between flabbergasted and mad at Stanford. My friends seem to have the reaction of "If anyone should be getting into those schools, it's Jen!" And that really makes me feel like I screwed up somehow - that the unanimous opinion is that I rock, yet I still failed somehow. Though to all of my friends and readers who tweeted at me, emailed me, commented at me, and texted me - thanks for the support. With the attention I got, you would have thought I had posted a suicide note or something (I'm not that upset, sheesh).

As for why I was rejected, you never know. Both letters can be summarized by "You're awesome, but the economy sucks, so we have no money or space and more people applied this year, sorry!" And if that's the truth, it actually makes me feel a little crappier. Any normal human being might feel relieved, but I hate it when things are out of my control. It drives me crazy that even if I had worked harder, I still would have gotten screwed over by chance.

And when it comes to grad school, there are so many variables to take into consideration. Maybe they really were only able to take a few amount of people this year, and I just happened to be the worst of the best - I should still be proud of being with such a smart group. Maybe way too many human population biologists applied, and labs had space for different types of genetics. Maybe Purdue has a crappy genetics reputation compared to other places people were coming from. Maybe I was less desirable since I haven't already worked on humans. Maybe ten people have generously donating alumni for parents. Maybe I have the interviewing skills of a troll. Maybe they found my blog and saw it as a liability (I doubt this one, since all the profs were all "Yay atheist clubs!").

You never know. And to keep my sanity, I'm trying not to dwell on it. Instead I'm reminding myself how much I did love UW when I visited, how I did get into an amazing and well respected genetics program, how awesome Seattle is, and how soon I'll be the first person in my family to get their PhD. For once, I'm trying not to dwell on how I could have done better, but be proud of what I have accomplished.


  1. Rejection from a graduate school isn't the end of the world. It's just something you want but end up not getting it. So? What's the big deal?

  2. I kinda fell you here. I had job interviews (sorta kinda TA job, but still) go like this. People telling me how well I fit the profile and so on and so forth. Took the bus home, had dinner, checked mail, was rejected. That kind of treatment can put a dent into anyone's self-image. Not saying it was evil on the side of the interviewer, but it is just not exactly a great way to be rejected after all everyone involved did was sing your praise.

    P.S. Got an umbrella yet? ;-)

  3. Graduate programs don't tend to write excuses (beyond the normal "We had many excellent applications this year," which is sort of stock and trade and intentionally doesn't mention that your particular application was excellent) in their rejection letters unless they're actually true. Rejection letters (and emails!) tend to be terse and to the point. So if your's explained why you were rejected, I would take it at face value. You are applying in the middle of a recession that has hit academia hard, and that sucks, but you still deserve to be proud. You were clearly seriously considered by Standford (!) and Harvard (!), and that is an accomplishment. Which isn't going to make you feel better like a bowl of ice cream would, so I recommend that.

  4. That's awful, I'm sorry -- though I got a rejection this year that I definitely didn't want. I'm waiting to hear back from others, but I think (hope?) I'm in at my number 1 school (number 2 program choice, unfortunately).

    I'm of course a little biased here, but why don't you apply to any Canadian graduate schools? All of our provincial universities rank amongst the US Ivy Leagues, so you would enjoy a world-class education and be a little bit traveled in the meantime. I think the cost is also comparable, or cheaper, than US schools. And our stipends are much higher =)

  5. I have a friend that just finished his MA in Genome Science from Washington and he has really enjoyed it. You can (and face it, probably will) wonder "what if" for the rest of your life, but I am sure you will have a hell of a time out west!

  6. well, I hope it is a bright side, being stuck with UW. It is a great area and a great school. Among many of the positives, you no longer need to worry about getting a tan :)

  7. I'm sorry! :( I kinda know how you feel. College kids have been hit hard by the economy because so many can't find jobs which means more apply for graduate schools which are also hit hard by the economy and have fewer spaces. I know SO many bright people who can't find a job/graduate school at all. Seems like everyone our age is getting a lesson in things out of our control. I hate it, too!

  8. One of the things I've found about grad school is that it's more important to find a problem that you really want to work on, and an advisor that has the ability to help you do that, than getting into the biggest name school.

    I got rejected from both Harvard and MIT, and ended up at Northeastern. But, my advisor and I are working on some great research; stuff that I probably wouldn't be doing if I went to Harvard. I actually think I'm probably better off here than Harvard, now that I've been working on these problems for a few years. (Of course I could just be rationalizing, but I don't think so in this case.)

    If you can find a problem that needs solving and do good work on it, people will take notice of your papers, regardless if you're at Harvard or UW.

  9. Sorry to hear about the rejections, Jen.

    Recession, too many good applicants, blah blah blah, etc.

    So, on to UW.

    Remember that you know how good you are and how much you deserved a slot at every school to which you applied. Being turned down doesn't diminish your aptitude or abilities one tiny bit.

    We all know you'll go on to a brilliant grad school career, and an even more brilliant academic career. Just remember us little people when you become rich and famous. ;o)

  10. Sorry about your rejection. But, on the upside, at least you had a good shot at it. I didn't even have the credentials to make Harvard or Stanford look my way when I was applying for grad school.

    Not that I'm down about that. I like where I am right now at a decent state school. I pretty much have the run of the lab as one of two grad students, my boss is a fun guy, and I find the work I'm doing interesting. Lots of schools around with interesting people you can work for. It won't necessarily be world-shaking researching, but there's a lot of really interesting stuff out there that needs to be done and needs grad students to do it.

    And yeah, as the others said, the reason you didn't get in is exactly what the letters said. The bad economy hit everyone, they got smacked with a budget cut and had to cut some slots in their stipend funds, which means less grad student as they'll want to focus on ensuring any stuff being funded by that fund there already are sure to keep getting paid.

    You can always shoot for a post-doc at Harvard or Stanford, too. So all isn't lost.

  11. Congratulations on getting accepted into UW. You will be an awesome student and too bad for those that rejected you. Work hard and become what you want to be.

  12. I don't know anything about how American academia, or modern academia works, so can't say anything intelligent about this. Courtney sounds as if she knows whereof she speaks. But can I just say I understand the emotions and feel for you? Don't know if you remember, but I'm the one who still dreams of Ph.D deadlines 26 years after I finished -- yes, exactly as in the xkcd cartoon -- as well as about trying to find a place to live in a new university town and even about being accepted in the first place. Takes me a while on waking to realise that this is all ancient history.

    To adapt an old saying, "publishing well is the best revenge". When you're the new go-to person for human sexual biology, and Time magazine cover girl, you will mention being rejected by Harvard and Stanford, won't you now?

    I'm in a sister city of Seattle. We have umbrella automats on the street, for the party crowd.

  13. The same thing happened to me for undergrad... people got my hopes up, and it didn't happen. It's an absolutely horrible feeling... like, if everyone THOUGHT I was qualified, and I'm not... did I screw something up? My application? If I had been just a LITTLE more involved in high school, would that have done it? What about not getting that one bad grade in calc? Thinking about all the tiny ways I might have RUINED MY LIFE was paralyzing. [But then, Purdue gave me a full tuition scholarship and begged me to come here. Which should make me feel good, right?]

    Grad school was a somewhat easier ride because people have lowered their expectations of me, if only slightly. Watching you apply to the top of the top resulted in some really mixed feelings. Partially, I was really, really jealous. I know you've worked really hard to get what you have, and you totally deserve it. But I also know if I had worked a bit harder, I might have been able to be in your place, and I hated that. On the other hand... I was so relieved to not be expected to get in everywhere, because I know this whole game is a crapshoot, but I also know how I'd be crushed if what happened to you happened to me.

    Not that any of that is helpful. Sorry.

    Anyhow, what was I saying? Ah yes... I'm glad you've come through the worst of the emotional shit this threw up, and glad that you're all logical and getting excited about UW. But I know it's still upsetting. I know part of you is still sitting there thinking this rejection is proof that you aren't as great as everyone thinks you are.

    But you really, really are. You're really great. You aren't perfect, but fuck it, no one is. And fuck Stanford and Harvard. In a few years they'll probably be very happy to take you on as a postdoc.

  14. Ur pain--Im feelin it.

    Two out of my four schools rejected me. I applied for an MFA in Creative Writing at two art schools and two football universities, and the football schools turned me down. Did they really get ~8 other published authors? REALLY? No: they must have just hated me.

    I write gay fiction, so I have the built-in excuse of "AHA! They don't like BUTTSEX!" But then the two schools that did take me couldn't give me any merit scholarships (which equals I have no merit--or else the economy is balls like they say, but guess which one I come away thinking?) and going into debt for an MFA? Not in the cards.

    I'm not going to grad school next year, even with two acceptances--it's just not practical right now. Adult decisions suck.

  15. Congratulations on the acceptance at UW. I am sure that you will bring luster to their program.

  16. Have you seen the Randy Pausch lecture?

    One of the experiences he describes is how we was rejected from both his undergraduate and graduate schools, but in each case was resilient and kept pestering the school until they let him in.

    Not to get your hopes up or anything, but it's worth a shot, right?

    Sorry you didn't get in; I definitely know how it feels to have lifelong dreams crushed by college admissions :(

    Good luck with whatever you do, and UW really is a great school!

  17. I'm sure you'll have a great time at UW, Jen. Thanks for the heartfelt story. In the end, what's important is you'll have the PhD, and be able to do…uh, whatever it is people with PhDs in biology do.

  18. I feel your pain. I've been applying to grad schools this year and all my friends and family have been insisting that I will get in wherever I apply no problem. The idea that I might fail seems unthinkable to them so now if I am rejected I'll feel miserable. I know they are trying to be supportive but sometimes it is not as comforting as they mean it to be.

  19. On the upside, welcome to Washington. Now come over to the east side and help me spread reason to this ass-backward side of the state. I swear that we have two state up here and I am stuck on the wrong side.

  20. Rejection sucks. I don't know anything about Stanford or harvard, or the culture there. I have been living in WA for a few years now. Imo, it's great out here for a liberal, smart, gaming, atheist.

    In Seattle, the people who apologize for their beliefs are the Christians not the atheists. I haven't met very many men who weren't feminist and turned on by smart women. I haven't been to any of the nerd cons as I like to call them, but it dies seem as if we host more than our fair share. The weather isn't as bad as people have been led to believe. The head of the UW atheist group is a sweet guy who's seeing my friend. I never feel shame for having the latest gadget like a smartphone. People at my friend's job come in on Monday with Wii injuries. Microsoft, whether you like their products or not, has done a lot for this town in terms of hiring talented smart people. It's a very walkable city, with distinct and interesting neighborhoods with great happy hours.

    These are some random unfocused thoughts on why even though I don't know you personally, I know you'll love it here.

  21. "When you're the new go-to person for human sexual biology, and Time magazine cover girl, you will mention being rejected by Harvard and Stanford, won't you now?"

    I like this, hehe.

  22. I've been working for a few consultancies for the past 12 years. Currently a senior scientist where I am now. Thing is, nobody knows what qualifications I have. It affects your starting salary, but once you've got about 5 years of work experience behind you it becomes nothing more than a line item on your resume. And that is what qualification, where you got it is even less relevant.

    So get it because you want to improve yourself. Get it because it will get you into some interesting jobs. Don't get it to earn more money (you'll be playing catch up to people with 5 years of salary increases) and don't get it because you expect anyone to find phd from Stanford even slightly impressive.

    Of course my comments relate to working for the government, or consultants. Possibly very different if you end up working in a research institute of something.

  23. Remember, it's not you that failed. They failed by not choosing you.

    I hope I can have the same attitude as you do when I make my first applications for grad school. I'm a completely different field, but I'm going to be busting my ass trying to get any fellowships I can because I simply won't be able to pay for it on my own.

    UW is a fine school. Don't beat yourself up over Harvard or Stanford.

  24. My condolences, Jen. I haven't quite reached that stage yet myself (this year I'll be applying to PhD programs myself, possibly including those same schools), but I still remember how I felt when I was rejected by MIT for undergrad; it was a lot of the same. Of course, now I'm extremely happy that I did not go there... although I don't know how much of that is simply the 'sour grapes' phenomenon.

    I honestly don't know what to tell you - I'm on friendly terms with the professor who reads graduate applications in my department here, and he's told me a bit about the acceptance rates (they take maybe 50 students a year in our department and have thousands of applicants), so in all probability it's just a numbers game and no particular failing on your part... which makes it all the more frustrating, of course.

    In any event, good luck. I'm sure you'll do great work irrespective of where you end up.

  25. IMHO: There is nothing that Harvard or Stanford would have given you that you won't be able to get for yourself.

    Rejection Stings...but don't let it fester.

  26. This is the first time I've actually felt a need to comment on here.

    I know pretty much how you feel - I failed to get into my first choice of university for PhD (for somewhat more complicated reasons, but again it wasn't a case of "you're not good enough.")

    All I can suggest is trying to view this as a challenge - you're going to have to work harder to prove yourself, but you know you're more than capable of that.

  27. Hey Jen-
    Remember that even in Academia, school status does not a good scientist make. Hard work and passion with a dab of ingenuity accomplish that, not your grad school prestige.

  28. I failed once, at teacher's college. I got really high marks in class, but I can't teach any better than a dead fish so they didn't give me my degree.

    Now I'm just hoping to become so famous that all the universities will give me honorary degrees.

  29. It's the determination of the student that matters, not the prestige of the school.

    Having grown up in San Jose (close enough to Palo Alto), lived in San Francisco and lived in Seattle, I can tell you Seattle is cooler. I told you this on Twitter, but the University District in Seattle is awesome and you're close enough to downtown Seattle and everything else. Arguably better than being in Palo Alto and having to drive to San Francisco.

    In a couple months I'll be applying for a job for when I ETS and Seattle is one of the top places I want to go.

  30. No one likes rejection. I'm sorry that happened to you.

  31. I think they were afraid of you.

  32. I am on the tail end of a PhD in criminal justice right now. As in, I'm procrastinating writing my dissertation to write this comment.

    You're not going to want to hear this: Rejection sucks. Get used to it. Every step of the academic process is an experiment in multiple rejection. I was rejected from multiple graduate schools five years ago.

    More recently, I applied for assistant professor jobs starting in fall 2010 at about 14 colleges and universities across the US. I was rejected outright by all but three. That's 11 rejections. I did phone interviews with three schools. Only two of the three brought me out for an in-person interview. That brings the total to 12 rejections. Both interviews went very well from my perspective. One of those two schools gave me a job offer. That brings the total to 13 rejections. Out of 14 applications. A nearly 93% fail rate, by one method of accounting.

    And the only thing I could think was, "Holy crap! I have a job!" It doesn't matter how many places rejected me: in the end, I have a job. And I'm happy with the university, department, and location. Thrilled, in fact. Just like getting in to graduate school, having a job is a dichotomous variable. Either you succeed or you don't. By that measure, I was 100% *successful*! Yay me!

    So don't worry for another second about the places you're not going. They don't matter. What matters is that you're happy with the place you are going. And it sounds like you are. In my book, that's 100% success.

  33. I don't think anyone else has observed this -- at least not directly -- so I will: remember that grad school is just a means to an end, not the end itself.

    Yeah, you'll be spending a lot of time and effort there, and it would be nice to have a choice of what place not to have time to visit properly because you'll be living there and too busy/impoverished to explore much, but still: no matter which place you go to, the letters after your name look pretty much the same.

    (...unless they use a different font or something. Watch out for those Comic Sans Ph.D.s; they're not to be trusted.)


    Einstein puts the final nail in the coffin of atheism...



    atheists deny their own life element...



  35. @Woozle: You're exactly right, but didn't go far enough.

    Even a PhD is just a union card that you've got to get punched to do certain work.

    It's enjoying the work that matters. And despite how much I might complain about specific aspects of academia, I love the work on the whole.

  36. Eh, the first time my comment got lost somewhere.
    So, I think you need this info now... - good luck!

  37. Hi Jen,

    Read your stuff with interest, always enjoy it. Have a thought for you: Name brand is really, really important, much as all of us hate to admit it (and as much as the above comments deny it). It's not that the paper matters; it's the connection, the exposure for your writing in the future - the fact that people will just plain assume you're smarter to begin with. It matters. So:

    If the Harvard/Standford profs really liked you - and you believe them - then get ahold of them now. Tell them you enjoyed talking with them. And that you're disappointed. And then ask if they'll support your application next year. ... and then take a year off and do something (even more) interesting; travel, write a book, whatever. Get out of the Midwest ;)

    ... in the long run, the Harvard/Stanford degree matters more than a year of your life, and a year off's always worthwhile, anyway.

    I know this is unsolicited advice, but everyone i know got rejected from grad school this year, so I've got an opinion: It's better to wait and get what you really want.

    hit me up on twitter sometime if you wanna discuss.


    - Lauren

  38. You may remember that awhile back I wrote a fantasy about you receiving a Nobel after a distinguished life in both art and science (although I think I 'awarded' it rather late in life!). If it'll make you feel better, go back and read that for grins.

    Otherwise, lots of posters have already said what I would say, but a lot better and from more relevant experience than I have. Go get 'em. A year from now when you're up to your armpits in whatever graduate geneticists get into, you'll have forgotten about Stanford and Haahh-vaahhd. And being in Seattle, probably a bit over-caffeinated to boot.

    (I also once wrote about your hair style, but let's forget that.)