How to Handle a Job Rejection

It’s a quiet afternoon at the office when I hear the sound of an e-mail pinging into my mailbox. It’s the decision letter for the job I’ve been waiting for, and – AAARGH! – I roll my eyes when I read the typical sentence: “I regret to inform you…”. Seriously, again?!

I’ve been on the job hunt for one year now and I have mastered the game I am in. I tailor my CV to best match an exciting opportunity, I fully research and prepare for the interviews and I normally go through until the last round of interviews. Once I become optimistic that I have got the job, getting the rejection letter feels feels like a ton of bricks, but every time I just mumble some cliché to myself like: “There is no failure, only learning experiences” or “Each NO brings you one step closer to YES”. After this short grieving period I get back to the business again, energetic and fresh for the next job interview. This cycle repeats again and again.

During this one year, I have tried different suggestions in order to deal with the pain of rejection, such as: “exercising”, “processing emotions”, “looking at the positive side”. While these methods might help us to forget the bitter taste of rejection for a short period of time, they all miss the point that rejection hurts because it is basically a judgment of our personality. We might forget the sadness of rejection for a few hours by exhausting ourselves to death by running, but at the end of the day, the feeling of unworthiness is still there, staring at us. Rejection hurts because it severely knocks our confidence down and make us doubt our abilities. And if the rejection song is on auto-repeat, like in my playlist, the feeling of unworthiness can spiral into a full-blown pity party.

I needed a solution to create distance between how a hiring manager thinks about me and how my subconscious mind thinks about me. Soon I realised that experts in the “coping with job rejection” community just miss the point that we subconsciously doubt our capabilities after every rejection. We do not have the same self-confidence after a rejection. Period. I, however, wanted my confidence to stand tall even when it is being punched over and over.

Some time ago, I read about “identity diversification”. The gist of that article is that we should always divide our attention into different directions; a job, a sport, social life. That concept is the key to handle rejection. To recover from a rejection, we need to prove to our subconscious self that we are worthy, no matter what other people think, no matter of any external invalidation. I see “learning new skills or activities” during a job hunt as a way to avoid the rejection song becoming the only song in your playlist. Learning new skills is the key to harness our self-confidence when it is out there and vulnerable in the hands of other people. We can control our self-confidence by investing in a new language or a new sport in the same period that we are looking for a job. Then, when rejection rears its ugly head we are still proud of ourselves. Doing newly learned skills after we hear about another rejection is not a painkiller, but a reminder that we are capable and worthy. A reminder that we are in control of our abilities and that there is more to life than just the thing you got rejected for.

Today, after seeing that unpleasant rejection, I did not hesitate for a second. I rushed home, took my swimming stuff and headed directly to the swimming pool. Not because it was an exercise, but because I started to take swimming lessons two months earlier, exactly at the same time I started my first interview for the job that turned me down. It was the first time in my life I could freely (and officially) swim, and I needed that joy to remind myself of my capabilities. I did not forget my rejection, but I felt so happy because I knew I am capable of doing anything.  And now, wrapping up this article a few minutes before the midnight, I can tell you I feel nothing but pride and happiness (apart from the stomach pain from swallowing too much swimming pool water).

Modern society has brought us many opportunities for success and with that even more opportunities for failure. Rejection is hard to take, but is inevitable at times. I know being uncertain about the future is not a fun place to be in, but learning new skills during this hectic period will pay off quickly. It will help you feel better about yourself. Besides, it may also help you make valuable contacts or learn skills that can help your job search. The bitter truth is that there will be some part of your life that sucks! Having the right mindset to cope with difficulties is an essential skill to live this life. It will teach you how to press the shuffle button when your playlist stuck on rejection songs. Now, I am going to post this here and search the net to see what I should do to relieve the pain in my stomach.

Post College Depression

Time: 5:30pm, 12th December 2014, occasion: last seconds of my PhD defense. I was standing in front of my PhD committee and peeking at that giant round clock praying for the bedel to come and rescue me. The bedel came inside the defense hall and stamped the mace on the ground. All the committee members were satisfied and the next thing I knew was the chairman saying “Congratulations, Doctor Rohani!”. And I thought to myself: “Well, that is it. Now the fun begins”. Was I right? Or maybe wrong?!

I successfully defended my PhD dissertation about ten months ago. After four years of having been occupied with reading, experimenting, teaching, publishing, filing patents and getting my thesis done, I was finally called a Doctor. Despite a very successful defense, countless compliments and a job lined up next to my PhD, I had a ‘so what?’ kind of feeling. I was empty, apathetic and dull; doubting whether this blue diploma had been worth the effort or not. That uncertainty drowned me further and further every day. One month later, I underwent a “clinical depression”, a dark period of my life which was filled with alcohol, cigarette after cigarette, and twelve hours of sleep per day. A time that cost me losing dear things in my life I can never get back.

Apparently I was not the only one in experiencing a post college depression. According to a survey about phD depression from UC Berkeley, 47 percent of PhD college students experience depression sooner or later. 47 percent! What is going on? Wasn’t our PhD supposed to make our life easier and make our sense of self stronger at the first place?

The fact is that after having worked for so long on one thing, the PhD dissertation in our case, our identity begins to revolve around it. Our personal sense of self will be wrapped up in the dissertation. Thus, when the dissertation is finished our identity slides into limbo, which in turn leads us to depression. Our identity after the college is the answer of the question “what have I become good at during these years?”. And if you cannot come up with any answer other than “Ahem, an independent researcher!”, then welcome to the “post-dissertation depressed” club, in advance!

When your identity is bound to your dissertation, it ends as soon as the dissertation is finished. Losing your identity in such a sudden way can cause severe disorders, like depression and anxiety. If you put all your eggs, or identity in this case, in one basket, then you are putting your emotional health at risk, no matter of how strong your identity might be. It is the same slump that some celebrities experience after retiring from a very successful career. “I cannot find anything to fill this void in my life”, wrote Jeremy Clarkson in The Sunday Times after his career unexpectedly ended in “Top Gear” in 2015.  As you might know, “Top Gear” was the most widely watched factual show in the world and Clarkson spent seventeen years of his life merely to build and lift up the show, as he called it “my child”.

A while ago I was reading an article from Mark Manson, the author of the best seller book “Models”. I could not take my eyes off of its title, “Diversify your identity”. In this brilliant article he talks about the danger of deriving the majority of your “validity” and “self-worth” from only one source and how your entire sense of self will be vanished when that source is finished. I loved that article and I read it again, and again, and again.

I see identity diversification as a life jacket to prevent drowning in depression, either during the college or after graduation. A mistake that the majority of PhD college students makes is to invest all of their time and energy in their research, especially international students who may feel insecure because of language barriers and cultural differences. So, they lock up themselves in their office while sticking to their old habits after office hours. Well, PhD research is not as straightforward as assembling an Ikea table (especially those white side tables) that each step brings you closer to completion. Sometimes our efforts during the PhD take us one step forward – then two steps back, and another day two steps forward etc. etc. This is why our entire identity might be defined by a successful completion of this complicated task, only destination that many PhD students strive to reach every day of their PhD studies. And if you are one of those students, I have good and bad news for you: the bad news is that once the dissertation is finished, so is your entire identity that you have held for several years. The good news is that there is a safety net here, identity diversification.

Do not invest all your time on research. Choose new areas of interest, completely different from your academic life, and invest in them. Join a social club and make new friends. Sign up for some courses in the sport center and make an athlete out of yourself. Go to the culture center and pick an activity which is completely out of your comfort zone, singing, dancing or theater and overcome that damn shyness in yourself for ever. And do not just do these things, care about them, invest in them, dedicate yourself to them. An immediate result is that you can have a great day by, for instance, reaching a new record in the gym, despite the fact that your simulation results were all messed up the very same day. This good feeling can even make your PhD research more productive. But most importantly, when somebody asks you during your PhD graduation, “so…, what have you achieved in these years?” you have a much more satisfying answer rather than just obtaining a PhD degree. Answers like, I have become a professional runner or an enthusiastic dancer, which I was not before.

I was lucky enough to recognize the roots of my depression, act on them and get my feet back on the ground again. Now what if my current job grinds to a halt suddenly? Well, I will be sad, for sure, but I will conquer the daunting feeling by putting a new record on my running track which I have been practicing for months, going for gliding which I have started taking lessons for a few months now (a very cool thing by the way), getting on my road bike which I just bought, or simply by catching up with some of those awesome friends that I have found recently. Nothing can make me feel broken again, because if one part of my identity goes down, I will stay standing by holding on to another part. Ensure that you have made a diverse identity for yourself, before it becomes too late. Otherwise, one day the cruel reality will slap you in the face and say, “Really?! four years and just a PhD degree!?”