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How to deal with rejection

We all face rejection in our careers - here's some suggestions for what to do next

Rejection is a painful and sadly entirely inescapable fact of life - even if you were to do nothing but grow flowers, some of the bulbs would obstinately refuse to bloom. We face rejection in all aspects of our lives and figuring out our own methods of coping without too much psychological damage (to us, or to anyone else) is one of the most important jobs we have.

Our careers are where we face more rejection than practically any other area of our lives, from university places to bids, pitches, promotions and publishing deals - everyone hears 'no' more than they'd like. You can also experience rejection while networking. Cold emails can be ignored, requests for coffee or mentoring can be declined, even invitations or access to events and spaces can be refused - all almost always for reasons beyond our individual control.

Being rejected can go one of two ways, either you get the 'no' explicitly (i.e. someone says it) or implicitly (i.e. you don't hear anything back).

If you've reached out to someone, applied for something, submitted a proposal, or anything else and you receive a response:

  • Do send a follow up email/reply saying 'thank you for considering what I put forward'

  • Do ask for feedback if they have not explicitly stated that it won't be available

  • Do ask if they keep your resume on file (for jobs) or to be put on their mailing list for future opportunities, if they have one (for grants etc.)

If you do not receive a response:

  • Do follow up two weeks after the application deadline/your initial message and then again three months after you apply/reach out, asking for an update or for feedback on your submission or just if they have more time to respond

  • Do apply/reach out to the same company/person again, if you want to work there/connect, even if on one occasion you were rejected. Every new opportunity or conversation is just that - new

  • Don't follow up with an individual or a company or an organisation more than three times in six months, or more than six times in one year

With all rejections:

  • Don't assume/try and guess the exact reasons you were rejected - most of the time it will not be about any singular factor and speculating in your own head will only take up time and damage your self esteem

  • Do check your message or submission to make sure it met all the requirements or was a reasonable thing to send in context

  • Don't go on social media and complain about the specific person/company who rejected you unless you have evidence of mistreatment or discrimination in the application/communication process*. Social media never forgets and it may impact your future chances.

If you ever feel like you have been discriminated against when reaching out for an opportunity then you can contact the Citizen’s Advice Bureau or your Union. Not sure if your experience counts as discrimination? We have some advice on your rights at work and you can find a full guide to how discrimination works under the law here.

Long terms tips for healthy thinking around rejection:

  • Remember 'no' is not in and of itself an insult, a moral judgement or an act of aggression

  • Rejection is redirection: if you are consistently seeing no results with one approach try getting some feedback from unbiased/expert eyes, for instance a mentor or industry expert, and changing it accordingly

  • Try not to think in 'should' terms e.g. 'I should be at this stage already' or 'this should be working by now' or even 'they should have said yes'. 'Should' thinking is like a tense muscle; inflexible and more likely to get hurt. Instead, try 'is' and 'will' thinking: 'I am here and I will do this next' or 'this isn't working, what can I try instead' or 'they didn't say yes, so I will ask why'. These centre you in the present and future and encourage you to find concrete actions to take rather than get sucked into speculative thinking

  • There are always new opportunities, and not all of them have gatekeepers. If an application process is wearing you down emotionally, then putting energy into self-promotion and creative development can be very restorative

  • Self-deprecation can feel good but it actually trains our brains to accept negative self-talk more easily, so as tempting as it is to make a dark joke to cope with the sting - don't let it become your only coping mechanism

Keep getting back on the horse - the more you dwell on the times you were rejected the harder it is to put yourself out there.