There was an article going around about a PhD candidate who defended her dissertation wearing a skirt made out of rejection letters she’d gotten during her doctoral program: scholarship rejections, journal rejections, grant rejections, conference rejections, and more. She wanted to show that in order to eventually succeed, you have to put yourself out there and risk failing.

The candidate also wanted to normalize rejection. Most graduate students are perfectionists or have perfectionist tendencies. We are driven, thrive on achievement, and work hard to reach our goals. By the time we’ve reached a doctoral program, no doubt we’ve all seen our share of rejections and failures – but are these really “failures"? At the risk of sounding like an old cliché, if you don’t give up, is it really a failure?

Believe it or not, there are benefits to failing. Failure teaches persistence and resilience. A setback forces you to reexamine what’s working and what’s not, and you adapt and change. You get better. The secret to earning a doctoral degree isn’t smarts; it’s persistence. Setbacks and rejections help you develop endurance and remind you to keep the long game in mind – a must for anyone in a doctoral program. Failure helps you to refine the path you’re on and develop innovative strategies for succeeding. Without setbacks, challenges, or even outright failures, you might not end up where you do.

Think of it this way: without a rejection from that journal, you wouldn’t take a closer look at your journal article and subsequently refine it and make it even better. Without a rejection from one program, you wouldn’t be where you are now. Without your professors providing you with feedback and requiring rewrites, your work wouldn’t be as polished as it is or you wouldn’t look at your data as carefully. All of these things help to build you up, although it may not feel like it at the time – but these things rarely do, in the moment.

So how do you move forward when faced with a setback or a failure? Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t take it personally. It’s not about you. You are not your work or your failures, just like you’re not your accomplishments, either. When you start to personalize it, it can interfere with your work and confidence. Stay objective (we know, it’s easier said than done) and move forward.

  • Look at the failure, see what you can learn from it, and make the necessary changes. Every setback gives you an opportunity to learn something. When you’re defensive, it prevents you from seeing the learning opportunity.

  • Let yourself feel what you need to, and then move ahead. It’s okay to feel sad or discouraged when you face a setback. This is normal. You’re human. But don’t let yourself become immobilized by these feelings. When they start to prevent you from forging ahead with work, it becomes a problem.

  • If you find it hard to cope with failure or setbacks and this interferes with your work, consider talking with a professional. Your student health center has resources for you, and the counseling center can be very helpful.

Dissertation Editor is staffed with editors and statisticians who’ve been where you are. We’ve seen our share of setbacks and failures, and know how hard it can be – but we also know how important it is to learn from them and move ahead with our journeys. We can help you do the same. If you’re struggling with your research, thesis, or dissertation, contact us today. We have a range of services that can help you reach your goals.
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