we need to share our rejections

Last week I got a really nice mention in Michael Rodriguez’ farewell Hack Library School post.

It made me think a lot, particularly about the fact that we need to be real about our messy lives. Or at least I feel like I do.  I want to share the libraryland rejections in my recent past that you don’t see if you look at my CV. Anyone who has done anything has left a ton of rejections in their wake – but we don’t usually talk about them publicly.

  • 2011 Rare Book School: REJECTED
  • 2012 DPOE Train-the-Trainer program on digital preservation: REJECTED
  • 2013 ACRL Immersion, Teaching with Technology: REJECTED
  • 2013 ACRL Student Scholarship: REJECTED (then when a candidate did not accept, it was offered to me as one of the runners-up)
  • 2013 DLF Fellows: REJECTED (reapplied this year and got it!)
  • 2013 Code4Lib Journal editorial team: REJECTED
  • 2013 Humanities Data Curation workshops 1 & 2: REJECTED
  • 2013 DCIG board election: REJECTED

Then there were many phone interviews that I did not get a follow-up interview (not by a long shot).  I even wrote this post after a particularly embarrassing phone interview.

And then, the big one. The one that hurt the most. The one that’s actually really challenging for me to put out there right now, but I’ll do it anyway because it happened and why not tell you the story?

In July 2011, a month before I started library school, I heard about the NCSU Fellowship. It paid well, seemed challenging and interesting, and I was endlessly inspired by the library director, Susan Nutter. I read everything I could get my hands on about her.

From then on, that fellowship was my ultimate career aspiration. Everything I did, I thought about how it would reflect in my application. Every year, current fellows came recruiting at IU (I went to every session: 2011, 2012, 2013). Conferences that I went to found me talking to current or past fellows. A library student I met as an undergraduate ended up getting the fellowship one year. This thing loomed large in my life. I wanted to be competitive. In spring 2013, I even got the chance to visit NCSU’s Hunt Library. I was in awe, as anyone would be.

And then my final year of library school unfurled. In late October 2013 I submitted my fellowship application – my very first professional job application. Then it was time to wait and see what happened.

I was back in Wisconsin for winter break when I next heard about NCSU. It’s Christmas Eve and I’m in Best Buy when I get the text from a peer: “I just got an interview at NCSU! They’re flying me out in February!” Chatter around me fades to a low buzz. I can’t move, see, remember what I’m doing in this aisle. My dad is right there and I suddenly feel transparent with fear. Quickly, I check my missed calls: nothing. Email: nothing. I feel my heart thudding in my chest. I feel my cheeks coloring. I am afraid I might lose it but I know I can’t yet. I’m in the middle of a bustling store filled with happy people doing last-minute shopping.

Crying came later. I knew just in time for Christmas that I did not get an interview for the job I had pined for. It was hard to feel good about myself. Instead I felt deeply disappointed and humiliated. I had an in-person interview at UW the very next week; I knew I needed to pull myself together for that at least.

Post-interview, I headed back to IU for a new semester, utterly vulnerable as word of who got the call back and who didn’t spread through the department. My failure, known to my parents and partner thus far, was now revealed to mentors and peers. It was a low point. I was very keen on hiding, at this point; no interest in making anyone who had gotten an interview feel bad, I just didn’t want to discuss it. I wanted to survive the next few months, quietly healing.

Unfortunately, frequent reminders proved inescapable. For example: It’s around 8:30pm mid-February and I’m sitting at a computer in the lab, working on yet another cover letter. It had been a day filled with class, jobs, and multiple cups of coffee on a mostly empty stomach. I was still waiting to hear back from UW and I felt doubtful about my prospects. The person who texted me on Christmas Eve walks up to me, starts talking. “I’m just so worried about my NCSU interview. X also got an interview; I’m worried X might do better than me. And what will I do if X gets it and I don’t?”

I’m not even going to take the time to share how this made me feel. I’ll let you imagine.

I just recall my bus ride to the safety of home that dragged on,  stumbling in the front door furious and heartbroken, wine sloshing in the glass as I poured, hand shaking. To say those things to me. Knowing. I couldn’t parse out the intention of this person. The first text was innocent. But bringing it up to my face more than once, despite my lukewarm trying-to-be-polite-clearly-not-enthusiastic reaction? How could that be innocent?

Library school is so small and word travels fast. I was privy to the whole story. The people in my program who were invited to interview, the people who weren’t. The people who were offered the job, those who weren’t. So by the time I got a form letter from NCSU in the spring, duh, I knew I wasn’t being offered the job. In fact, I had already accepted a job at UW. It was laughable.

That’s the story of the most painful rejection I have experienced. Undoubtedly I have many more rejections, big and small, private and public, stretching on ahead of me. If you try, you fail. I remind myself that moving forward is a good thing even if it’s not always easy. Writing about it makes me feel vulnerable again. All the bad things. Judged. Seen as trying too hard. Got what she deserved. Always so intense. (Is this just in my head or is this real? I can’t tell.)

There are a few things I took away from this.

Be kind and considerate to your peers. We are all scared, insecure, and trying our best. We need to encourage and help each other. It’s a fact of life in library school that a big pool of students will apply for the same job or opportunity and only a few will get an interview and/or job offer. It’s hard to manage your emotions and interactions with other people no matter what side of this equation you’re on. Talk about an awkward time. But seriously? If you get an interview and your pal doesn’t, just don’t bring it up unless they do. Certainly don’t seek out the chance to talk about it with them. It’s not okay. It’s not nice. And if you don’t get an interview/job, try to be happy for the people who did. Don’t hold it against them. Just let them be. Refocus on new opportunities and keep believing in yourself.

Knowing what I know now, I encourage you to have a big, scary goal to push toward. This was CRITICAL for me. If you are a library student, go find a job description that is entry level-ish but still challenging. Tell yourself, “I am going to be competitive for this job.” Give yourself a timeline. Start picking up the skills you need however you can. I am endlessly grateful that I had the fellowship to work toward throughout my three years in library school – the jobs I sought out to make myself well-rounded for the fellowship gave me a heck of a lot of options when I graduated.

Know too that great things happen even if you don’t get that dream job. I love my challenging, bewildering, and slightly mysterious job. Life goes on and it turns out it’s pretty awesome.

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18 comments

  1. I have to point out this gap on your list:
    2014 LITA Blog Editor: ACCEPTED (and awesome, I might add)

    But I have to admit, you got me thinking about what I’ve been rejected on. I’m sure it’s quite a long list.

  2. Thank you, Brianna, for your honest post. I too have been thinking a lot about how our professional culture encourages the sharing of success stories, but not failures. In addition to personal rejections, I would love to hear more stories from colleagues about strategies, plans, approaches that failed and the lessons learned. Perhaps new librarians like yourself will be the ones to help change this aspect of the culture. Cheers!

    1. Thanks so much for sharing, Kate. I completely agree with the need for sharing project failures too. Feeling like we have to maintain a flawless image of success in any aspect of our careers is dangerous. It’s easy to feel that way, I think largely because of the ease of peering at other people’s digital lives/impressive projects and comparing ourselves to them. As hard as it is to admit to rejection or failure initially, once you do it’s so much easier to connect with people because we can all relate. And I’ll also add that your support makes it easier to feel okay about being so honest – so thanks again!

  3. Brianna, your idea for spurring a discussion about sharing rejections in the library profession is brilliant. I am amazed at how many initiatives you’ve applied for over a short time. They are a reflection of your passion for librarianship and your perseverance. I will muster my courage as you have done and write a list of my rejections to share…stay tuned!

  4. Brianna, thanks so much for being brave enough to post this. I have had many frustrations with the job search and the rejections; one major one recently. It’s encouraging to see others share their troubles and to know that I’m not the only one out there suffering. I hope you are doing well.

  5. Brianna, this is a remarkably bold, honest piece. Thank you for writing it.

    I, too, have had my share of rejections over the years. I was declined for In the Library With the Lead Pipe and for Public Libraries Online, I had a paper rejected by a scholarly journal in the final stage of peer review, I failed to repeat my win for best student speaker at my undergraduate alma mater, and I was rejected for a paraprofessional promotion at my previous employer, even though I had the best annual evaluation in the department the previous year and repeated the feat a couple months later. A more senior internal candidate who was likely to stay longer with the institution got the job. This rejection was painful. My supervisor and I—rejector and rejectee—both cried. (Then I went home and ran 17 miles with Judas Priest on infinite replay!)

    I knew, however, that a great many so-called failures are due to external circumstance, not to personal inadequacy. (The same principle applies to successes.) Someone else said just the right thing or was just the right fit at that particular time and place. Bearing this in mind helps sustain personal morale and resilience. It doesn’t mean to abandon self-awareness; otherwise, one will be falling and think one is flying. But it does mean that we are not the masters of our fates, not always . . . not even close.

  6. Definitely appreciated this. It reminds me too of the experiments Facebook did with sharing good/bad news and the mental health effects this congratulatory culture has on us.

  7. I think the toughest part is not getting the rejection letter. Very often a person interviews and waits and waits and hears nothing. Very often no rejection letter (e-mail) is sent or it is sent months after the interview. This happens in all professions and at jobs in all levels.

  8. Thank you for sharing this post Brianna. When inspiring people its always easier to share the success stories and people might think that the successful people have never failed. But by sharing our failures and in your case rejections, it encourages someone to know that despite the rejections one can still come out of it and make it.
    The good thing with such negative occurrences is that they build ones character because you get to know how to respond to rejection and failure in general.

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