Three Stories of Rejection and Recovery

Feb. 13, 2020

In any given year, the majority of people who apply for nationally competitive fellowships do not receive the fellowships. It is easy for me to bring up the clichés . . . Keep trying! . . . Rejection is part of the process! . . . Etc. etc. But I am not in the middle of a graduate degree and I am not actively searching for fellowships for myself. I thought it would be better for you to hear from the people who are in the middle of working through the process of applying, being rejected, and trying again. 

Here are three voices from three disparate fields about dealing with rejection. Spoiler alert – none of these students gave up after initial rejections and they all have gone on to be successful, but their thoughts about the process are instructive.

  • Catherine Klesner from Material Science and Engineering shares what she learned from not receiving the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and how she moved on from there.  
  • Julia Cheng from Cancer Biology shares her lessons learned from not receiving the NIH F31 and explains her approach to persisting in her search.
  • Finally, Danielle Barefoot from History brings it all together with seven tips for dealing with rejection.

For all of you who have been successful in obtaining funding in the past year, congratulations! You can come back to this newsletter another time.

For all of you who were not successful, you are in good company. Keep on reading below.


Catherine Klesner – Material Science and Engineering

My name is Catherine Klesner. I am a 4th year graduate student in material science and engineering (minor in anthropology) studying ancient ceramic technologies. Since coming to the University of Arizona, I have applied for many, many grants, large and small, and have experienced many more rejections than successes. I applied twice for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP0 – both time unsuccessfully. When I first applied, I was in my first-semester of grad school, and I had no idea what my research would be. I treated the application process as a mechanism to help me clarify my research topic. While unsuccessful, the process of preparing the application actually helped me decide to change research topics. The following year I reapplied [note: graduate students can now only apply once to the NSF GRFP], with a new topic which I was more motivated to pursue. My application was still unsuccessful, but I received positive feedback and helpful suggestions from the reviewers that informed the direction of my dissertation research. Both cycles of applying for the GRFP were bittersweet – while it hurt to have my research ideas continually rejected, the actual process of completing the application and the feedback were ultimately extremely beneficial.

I kept applying for grants, especially those that would directly fund my dissertation research. I did two internships that allowed me to conduct preliminary research for my dissertation topic. This research helped strengthen my subsequent applications because it both demonstrated the feasibility of the research, and that I was able to conduct that research. I also volunteered to serve as a reviewer for the GPSC grants to better understand what reviewers were looking for. Through the OFCE Summer Fellowship Application Support Program I prepared two grant applications: a Research Fulbright to Greece and an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement (DDRI) Grant. The program sets deadlines to help you prepare grants and lets you work with students who had been successful.  My reviewer was great because she was outside of my field and was able to help me refine my language for a non-expert audience. The program also made me start working on my grants earlier than I had previously. I ended up spending a total of three months preparing the Fulbright and six months on the DDRI. Both grants were successful (yay!) and they will fund the rest of my graduate research.


Julia N. Cheng – Cancer Biology (Graduate Interdisciplinary Program)

My name is Julia Cheng and I am a doctoral candidate in Cancer Biology. During my 3rd year as a PhD student, I worked non-stop with multiple mentors for over a year on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award (F31) application, only for it to be rejected “without discussion” by the reviewers. I was well aware of how competitive the process was, but having my application score so low that it wasn’t even “worth” discussing was shocking. However, my initial tidal wave of disappointment was quickly settled due to a few reasons:

1) My supervisor was extremely supportive and immediately sent me an encouraging email;

2) My three anonymous grant reviewers responded back with pages of constructive feedback on both my application and my research, which made me feel more supported than criticized; and

3) I recognized that this roadblock didn’t reflect who I was as a scientist, a student, and most importantly, as a person.

It was time to learn my lessons and move on, as I knew it was imperative to find funding so I didn’t strain my laboratory’s limited grants. I applied for as many grants as I could whenever my program coordinator and the UA Graduate College would email out application calls, always keeping in mind the lessons learned from my F31 process to improve my application skills. I was fortunate enough to be selected to be on my program’s NIH T32 Training Grant for two years, during which I was also awarded the Achievement Rewards for College Scientists (ARCS) Foundation Scholarship from the Phoenix Chapter. In addition, I supplemented my education and training by attending and presenting at one international conference per year, which were all nearly fully funded by awards such as the UA’s Herbert E. Carter Travel Award and Donald G. Sheer Memorial Fund Travel Award.

For my final year, I have applied to UA’s Marshall Foundation Dissertation Fellowship (rejected), Andrew C. Comrie Graduate Interdisciplinary Programs Doctoral Fellowship (results pending), and a teaching assistant position (results pending). I am determined to secure external funding for the remainder of my graduate career to free up valuable funds for my laboratory’s research projects, and to prove to myself (and others) that missing some shots is part of the journey of learning how to score. 


Danielle Barefoot – History

Hi all! I’m Danielle B. Barefoot, a Ph.D. candidate in History with an emphasis in Latin America. I have had a number of successes with fellowships, but I have also dealt with a number of rejections.

Fulbright, Tinker, the History department, and the Graduate and Professional Student Council (GPSC) have funded my dissertation research on Chilean university student activism. During the last half of my Fulbright year, I began applying for dissertation completion fellowships in hopes I could focus exclusively on writing upon my return to the U.S. In the 2018-19 grant cycle, I applied for the Mellon ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship, the AAUW American Fellowship, the Bilinski Fellowship, and the P.E.O. International Scholar Award. This spring, I received rejections from all four fellowships. I am still easing back into dissertation writing, but I have learned a lot about my project and have half a chapter draft completed thanks to the Mellon DCF requirements. 

So, how do we deal with rejection? I’ll be honest, this has been a gut-wrenching process. Applying to grants then receiving rejection after rejection is draining. Yet, this is what we do. We apply; sometimes we win, sometimes we get rejected. Grant writing is akin to a game of chance and rejection does not mean you have a “bad” project. Keep going. Don’t let rejection, or a stream of rejections, hinder your progress.

Here are my tips for dealing with rejection.

  1. Remember the maxim from Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “DON’T PANIC!”
  2. Ask for feedback. Of the four fellowships, only the Mellon DCF provides feedback to applicants—but this can take up to 6 months. If you have time to reapply to the next grant cycle, ask for feedback, review it, and implement it.
  3. Take time to step back and think about your project: what’s the big picture, how do all of the components fit together?
  4. Talk to people, especially graduate students who have applied or been awarded the fellowships that you might apply.
  5. Connect with campus resources. A few at UA: Office of Fellowships & Community Engagement and Application Support Programs, including Summer Fellowship Application Support. For SBS students, SBSRI offers proposal development support. Check with your college or department to see if they offer similar services.
  6. Use successful grant models as a template.
  7. Finally, keep applying. Rejection is a part of the process, but you’ll never know the outcome if you don’t apply! 


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