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Getting rejected from jobs can be crushing — but learning how to deal with rejection productively is an incredibly valuable skill. And hearing others' rejection stories can make us feel less alone and judged, and generally help us orient toward rejection in more productive ways. 

Let's use this thread to help each other with this. 

If you're up for it, comment and share:

  • Rejection stories you might have
  • Any lessons you've learned for coping with rejection
  • What has helped in the past

You can also message Lizka to share rejections that she will anonymize and add to the comments, or you can omit some details or just share tips without sharing the rejection stories themselves.

Sharing rejections like this can be hard. Don't force yourself to do it if it stresses you out. And if you're commenting on this post, please remember to be kind

Luisa's experience — shared in the 80,000 Hours newsletter

Rejection was the topic of this week's 80,000 Hours newsletter, where Luisa shared a lot about her experience and how she's learned to cope with it. (That prompted this thread!) She wrote the following:

I've been rejected many, many times. In 2015, I applied to ten PhD programs and was rejected from nine. After doing a summer internship with GiveWell in 2016, I wasn't offered a full-time role. In 2017, I was rejected by J-PAL, IDinsight, and Founders Pledge (among others). Around the same time, I was so afraid of being rejected by Open Philanthropy, I dropped out of their hiring round.

I now have what I consider a dream job at 80,000 Hours: I get to host a podcast about the world's most pressing problems and how to solve them. But before getting a job offer from 80,000 Hours in 2020, I got rejected by them for a role in 2018. That rejection hurt the most.

I still remember compulsively checking my phone after my work trial to see if 80,000 Hours had made me an offer. And I still remember waking up at 5:00 AM, checking my email, and finding the kind and well-written — but devastating — rejection: "Unfortunately we don't think the role is the right fit right now."

And I remember being so sad that I took a five-hour bus ride to stay with a friend so I wouldn't have to be alone. After a few days of wallowing, I re-read the rejection email and noticed a lot of specific feedback — and a promising path forward.

"We're optimistic about your career in global prioritisation research and think you should stay in the area and build experience," they said. "We're not going anywhere, and could be a good career transition for you further down the line."

I took their advice and accepted a job offer at Rethink Priorities, which also does global priorities research. And a year and a half later, 80,000 Hours invited me to apply for a job again.

It's hard to say what would've happened had I not opened myself to rejection in 2018, but it seems possible I'd be in a pretty different place. While that rejection was really painful, the feedback I got was a huge help in moving my research career forward. I think there's an important lesson here.

For me, rejection is one of the worst feelings. But whether you're like me, looking to work in global priorities research at small nonprofits, or interested to work in another potentially impactful path, getting rejected can come with unexpected benefits:

  • When you get rejected from a role you thought was a good fit, you get more information about your strengths and weaknesses. It can indicate whether you need more career capital or should perhaps consider different types of roles or paths altogether.
  • When applying for roles in an ecosystem you want to work in, you grow the number of people in that field who know you and who might reach out to you for future jobs — or recommend you for similar roles at other organisations.
  • When you open yourself up to rejection and move past it, you learn you can tolerate hard feelings and put yourself out there again.

But these don't make rejection hurt less in the short term — which makes learning to cope with rejection well worth doing.

Here's what I've learned helps me cope:

  • I try to tell my friends in advance when I'm applying for something and let them know about the outcome. Not hiding my rejections from people close to me helps me feel less ashamed and get support. 
  • Not every rejection has a special meaning or evidence of your abilities. Hiring is an imperfect and imprecise process everywhere. So you'll often get rejected for no good reason at all.
  • I remind myself of lessons I've learned in therapy — things like:
    • "If I'm not getting rejected, I'm not being ambitious enough." 
    • "Just because I'm not right for this role doesn't mean I can't add value in another one."
    • "This rejection hurts, but I'm proud that I was brave enough to put myself out there."

Once I've processed the immediate feelings of sadness, I try to figure out what, if anything, to learn from the rejection. I find this not only helpful, but empowering — it makes me feel like I can turn some of the pain of the rejection into strength and growth. 

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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:33 AM

Thanks for doing this!

Here are my application stories in the shape of stats (I tried to include everything from the application to my university on, but I excluded general applications and expressions of interest, unless they led to me applying to an actual position):

I suppose these are worth having in mind to realise applying eventually pays-off, even if the base rate of any specific application is low. Don’t think, just apply! (usually)

Thanks for starting this thread!

When I graduated college I was did a lot of job hunting and got rejected from something like ~100 jobs, including several top consulting firms (which I had been preparing interviews & networking for for over 9 months) and Open Philanthropy. I got rejected from most of the 100 I applied to, including places with warm referrals.

I actually found the OP trial was really useful because I realized I really didn't enjoy that kind of work.

I think the rejection is harder when you have more than just a job riding on it. For me, getting a job after college was also about being able to get a work visa and stay in the US, which I felt was the best option for building career capital. So getting rejected was stressful for that reason.

I think having friends who support you is really important for handling rejection. One my of college friends (who's went into investment banking) helped me a lot throughout the process - sending networking emails, prepping my resume and for interviews. I don't think I would have been as successful or put myself out there as much without her.

Since college, I think I've gotten some rejections that felt more personal. I think in those cases I've found it helpful to give some space and then come back to the rejection and process the feedback (if you receive any). Often I find I'm in a better place to view it more constructively and reflect on what I'd do differently in the future.

Happy to pitch in with a few stories of rejection!

  • 2010: I applied for MIT and Princeton for undergraduate studies and wasn't accepted to either. Not trying harder to get into those schools was a major regret of mine for about 5 years (I barely studied for the SATs, in part because I was the only person I knew who took them... it's uncommon for Canadians to attend university in the states). I later ended up working on teams with people who had gone to fancy US schools, such that I no longer believe this had a clearly negative impact on my trajectory.
  • 2018: Rejected for LTFF funding for the biosecurity conference that eventually became Catalyst. We re-applied in a subsequent round and were funded.
  • 2018: I applied to be a Research Analyst at Open Phil in their big 2018 recruitment round, and got through two rounds of work tests before ultimately being rejected after an interview. The interview really didn't go well; I felt like a total idiot, and didn't get the job. This was maybe the most rough rejection; I felt like I wasted basically all of my non-work time for a month on work tests, at a time when I was feeling pretty bad about how effectively I was spending my time.
  • 2018: rejected from the SynBioBeta conference fellowship run by Johns Hopkins, which at the time felt like it could have been an entry point into a biosecurity career transition. Definitely had some angst about whether it was even possible to make such a transition.
  • 2019: I was rejected from a really cool engineering role at Culture Biosciences after a phone screen interview. I got so distressed after this ("I'm not technical enough for a real hardware-y engineering job any more! augh!!") that I did some electronics projects that I really didn't have time for, largely out of angst. They later reached out to me again when they had a role closer to my (more software-specialzied) skillset, and I completed a full round of interviews and received an offer, though I ultimately decided not to leave my job in order to have more time to focus on my part-time biosecurity projects.

These were all pretty painful for me at the time... and I'm realizing I've since come up with stories where the rejections were okay, or part of a fine trajectory. I guess one message here is "just because you were rejected once doesn't mean you will be if you apply again"?

Anonymous submission: 

I'm a full-time staff member at an EA org and have been for ~5 years. I applied for another job recently mostly to explore whether I'd be good fit for a different type of work. I got rejected in the first round before I did any trial tasks and didn't get any feedback. I can guess at why this happened, but it was still a real confidence blow

I was rejected from the first EA conference I applied to (I've mentioned this before), and some other jobs/opportunities (mostly non-EA ones). I think the most stressful rejection experience was actually for PhD programs — I ended up getting into a few and deferring one, and then not going because I'd decided I didn't want to go into academia. (It's possible that college applications were worse, but I have trouble remembering exactly what I was feeling at that point.)

Overall, I think I haven't had that many stressful rejection experiences due to a combination of luck and not applying for enough opportunities. I think the latter is really costly. This post is on the right track: We learn long-lasting strategies to protect ourselves from danger and rejection, and I think this paper also suggests that a lot of people avoid applying to things because of psychological blockers (where my guess is that protection from rejection is an important factor). So for me, overcoming an ~anticipatory fear of rejection seems like it could help a lot. 

I do also think that a few experiences helped me. Some examples:

  • In some sub-communities in the US, getting into the "right" college is seen as the main goal for a high school student. I worked for a few summers at a summer math program where we had >100 campers from exactly these circles — many of them were really stressed about this. So staff would have many conversations on this topic. (I also know people who work in colleges and sit on e.g. grad school admissions committees, so I had a sense for the process and its ~mundanity.) Some useful considerations: 
    • College admissions have a lot of randomness
    • Colleges (and most opportunities) are trying to filter for something that is not the measure you probably want to use to judge yourself (and judging yourself is generally often counterproductive)
    • Some application processes are in fact less random, but they're still looking for something specific that isn't a holistic judgement
  • Being on the other side of admissions processes and having a very strong feeling that (1) I'm not sure who I should pass, in some cases, and (2) that I'd absolutely love to work with/do something with some of the people I wasn't not passing. (Or talking to people who experience similar things.) Again, The Application is not the Applicant.
  • Having tried to get out of a scarcity mindset for dating, and extrapolating that to some extent for jobs.
  • Seeing friends who were wonderful and great get rejected from various things, and knowing that this doesn't diminish them in my eyes
  • Reading Keeping Absolutes in Mind
  • Having supportive friends and family and knowing that they won't reject me if I'm rejected from jobs or graduate schools, having a safety net

Something I found especially troubling when applying to many EA jobs is the sense that I am p-hacking my way in. Perhaps I am never the best candidate, but the hiring process is sufficiently noisy that I can expect to be hired somewhere if I apply to enough places. This feels like I am deceiving the organizations that I believe in and misallocating the community's resources. 

There might be some truth in this, but it's easy to take the idea too far. I like to remind myself:

  1. The process is so noisy! A lot of the time the best applicant doesn't get the job, and sometimes that will be me. I ask myself, "do I really think they understand my abilities based on that cover letter and work test?"
  2. A job is a high-dimensional object, and it's hard to screen for many of those dimensions. This means that the fact that you were rejected from one job might not be very strong evidence that you are a poor fit for another (even superficially similar) role. It also means that you can be an excellent fit in surprising ways: maybe you know that you're a talented public speaker, but no one ever asks you to prove it in an interview. So conditional on getting a job, I think you shouldn't feel like an imposter but rather eager to contribute your unique talents. My old manager was fond of saying "in a high-dimensional sphere, most of the points are close to the edge," by which he meant that most people have a unique skill profile: maybe I'm not the best at research or ops or comms, but I could still be the best at (research x ops x comms).

A few EA-relevant rejections:

-I was rejected from a CE incubation program

-I was rejected by Clearer Thinking's regranting program

Another frustrating, non-EA rejection:

-I had spent lots of my spare time giving my boss' boss actionable and data driven insights on how to deliver better results. I had been part of a management training. When my boss quit and I applied to become the lead of my team, I was rejected. That was very disappointing.

I should note that I am steeped in privilege. But personally, for me, that actually makes it hurt a bit extra as I cannot say I might have been rejected due to ethnicity, gender, etc. Even with a potential unfair advantage I was rejected so it is probably simply down to skills and experience in a big way.

That said, one method I have used for coping is finding some area where I am highly sought after. In my case it is project management or sales in cleantech. After some rejections I take a decent paying job in this sector where it is easy to do well. The salary in addition to the positive feedback really helps me remind myself that I am competent. 

Another thing I did was starting forecasting on GJOpen (I think Metaculus is good too). Many of my lowest points in my career was when I thought something was about to go wrong, I provided solutions for averting such bad outcomes but then got punished for it. Having built a small but seemingly strong track record in forecasting was a very quick way for me to get extremely unbiased feedback on at least my ability to understand the world around me and gaining confidence that I should keep on flagging sorely needed improvements as long as the data/analysis I have used is on par with the work behind my forecasting.

Lastly, in one of the above rejections I really dug into the reason for the rejection and decided that I have actually improved in that area and I learnt that maybe I should present myself differently in applications going forward and building evidence to show that I actually do well in this field and avoid referencing the story about my old, naive me.

Another tip: Go slow. Be gentle on yourself. If you are rejected e.g. when trying to make a career change, but you have a current, decent paying career you are good at - don't burn out trying to improve yourself and apply to a ton of positions. Take time off, take care of yourself. Most of you reading this probably have 30+ years of your career left. If you take it slow for a year or 2, only applying to 2 jobs per year that is fine and perhaps even beneficial. There are also many in EA circles who say that building on your strengths might be the best strategy. So if you have this job that you are good at, there is perhaps value in just sticking with that for a while until you find a way to work in a similar capacity in an EA org.

I wrote about getting rejected from jobs at GiveWell and Open Phil in this post.

Other rejections that shaped my career:

  • Soon before graduating, I was rejected from Bridgewater, my dream job at that point, after full-day interview at their office. I got a bit of feedback here, along the lines of "you had trouble connecting the ground and the clouds" (however confusing that sounds, it's how confused I felt at the time).
  • I was rejected by The Onion for a writing position, and by the New York Times when I submitted a review to their newsletter for student writers. I wrote in detail about both rejections, including the content I submitted. (I still kind of like the sample Onion articles I wrote, but most of the headlines are total garbage.)
    • More relevantly, I was rejected by Vox when they hired their first set of Future Perfect writers. I figured it was because I had no professional experience, but then they hired Kelsey Piper, who had no professional experience and turned out to be incredible. A memorable case of "huh, I did not realize how outclassed I was here".
  • When I was in college, I tried many times to get work published in non-student publications and succeeded only twice (for something like a 5% hit rate). The two articles I pitched successfully took dozens of hours in total (one of them involved a multi-day trip) and earned me $100 in total, so maybe the other rejections were a blessing?
  • Despite many applications, I never secured a "real" summer internship in college — some combination of "bad interviewer" and "mediocre GPA", I think. Particularly painful was a rejection from Ideas42, a behavioral-science think tank, since I'd been reading several shelves' worth of relevant books in the year leading up to that. (At the time, I conflated "knowing a lot of things" with "good at doing work".)
  • I was also rejected by McKinsey, BCG, and various other "normal" consulting firms that seemed to be hiring hundreds of my fellow students.
    • Looking back through my journal, I'm reminded that part of this might have been the fact that I sent out ten or so resumes with the wrong link — instead of my homepage, I was sending recruiters to a random, somewhat ominous image hosted on my blog. Shudder.
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