Reflections on Rejections

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

According to Glassdoor employer statistics, there are 250 applications on average for any given job opening. Of those, only ~2% will receive an interview offer. It is probably a safe assumption that a certain fraction of these applications were throwaways without a CV tailored to the position. Even so, these statistics suggest that if you’re in the market for a new job, then you’re probably going to get at least a few rejections. So line up Dust in the Wind on your Spotify playlist and get ready for some soul-searching. These are my recent introspections on the job search and rejection process.

Take the employer’s perspective

Immediately after receiving a rejection you might think, “Hey! That’s not fair! I was basically the perfect candidate.” And you’re most likely right; you were probably a pretty strong candidate for the job. As a graduate student you are likely a good communicator, an excellent problem solver, a team player, a critical thinker, and a leader. But you’re thinking about the rejection from your perspective, not from their perspective. Unfortunately for job seekers, it’s a buyers’ market. Employers don’t have to settle for a candidate that is basically perfect for the job; they can select that candidate that is exactly what they need for the job. That might initially sound disheartening, but there are things you can do to improve your lot in the application process.

Do your homework on the company and make sure that you tailor your resume and cover letter to the job. Generic CVs are a no-no. This means searching on LinkedIn or the company website to make sure that you’re directing your application to the hiring manager and that you know what their company actually does. Try and contact employees either in person at an employer event or via LinkedIn to get that personal edge on your application. (The same principle applies to academic postings). Next, look for any keywords in the job description and make sure that you include these keywords on your application. If the company isn’t already screening your application using a technology-based approach the hiring manager will immediately be looking for these keywords. For example, if the job description says “the candidate should have experience with flow cytometry,” then your CV had better point to the fact that you know how to do flow cytometry. When you consider the number of applications that the HR departments of these organizations are screening,  you realize how important it is to make sure you’re ticking all the boxes in their checklist. Personally having been involved in the hiring process before, I can attest to the fact that it is easier to screen out applicants than to give people the benefit of the doubt when you’ve got a stack of CVs cluttering your desk.

Reflect on the screening process and make sure that your CV is outcome-oriented. Your CV should not be an unreadable laundry list of your accomplishments, but a bulleted list of important achievements. Efficiency is key. Familiarize yourself with the STAR (Situation/Task, Action, Result) method for your CV to highlight key outcomes of your work. I have revamped my CV using this approach, and I can attest that it does make a difference to the number of interviews that I’ve received. As I mentioned in my previous post, it helps to have a professional assess your CV as well!

Practice, practice, practice

Once you have optimized your CV and made it to the interview stage, make sure that you have allocated enough time to prepare for the interview day. You only get one shot to make a first impression, so you had better make it a good one. Returning once again to Daniel Kanheman’s insights, job performance can be unpredictable and on most days your performance is going to be, well, average. The questions that employers are going to ask you aren’t going to be unanticipated, they want to make sure that you will be a functional member of their organization and those traits are generally transferable. Apply the STAR method again and make sure that your stories are concise and illustrate a clear outcome. Then keep practicing until it feels natural and you can begin to anticipate the follow-up questions. If you put in the hours, your confidence will come through.

Not failure, experience

Being rejected is never a nice feeling. It feels like you tried your best and that your best wasn’t good enough. Take a minute, feel sorry for yourself, and then figure out how to keep going forward. Try to put a positive spin on the experience and think of it as an investment in your education. As Julius Caesar wrote in 52 BCE, “Experience is the teacher of all things.”  If you don’t take the time to reflect on why you were rejected then you’re doomed to keep making the same mistakes. Just make sure that you learn something from the experience.

Don’t dwell on it

Learn from your experience, but don’t internalize the rejection. If you’re going for a job that you really want, it’s likely that you’re going for a job that a lot of people want. We can’t all win, but we can all keep trying. As Angela Duckworth puts it so eloquently in her book (and TED talk), Grit: The power of passion and perseverance, “as much as talent counts, effort counts twice.” So pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and double down on your efforts. It will work out!  

Find me on twitter @SciMJHarris or keep up-to-date with recent posts @NIHBEST.

Image shared under CC Attribution License (CC BY 2.0). No modifications were made.

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