top of page
  • Writer's pictureIsabelle Johnsen

The Sting of Rejection: Why You SHOULD NOT Give Up After Getting Rejected From a P.h.D. Program

I got denied from all my P.h.D. programs. I am writing this post first to explain to people who have never applied how freaking soul-crushing that sentence is to even write. And second, I am writing this post to reach out to other students who had their hearts ripped from their chest when they got that rejection letter because I want to tell them IT’S NOT OVER YET BABY! KEEP ON FIGHTING!

Yes, I am admitting this on the internet. I got denied from every single P.h.D. program I applied to. To be completely honest, I did get into a Master’s program that I am super excited about. I applied to this program at the same time as I was applying to P.h.D programs. Although I am going to an amazing school for my masters, the sting of getting denied from all my P.h.D. programs were so hefty that I couldn’t even write this post until several months later.

For those who have never applied to graduate school or a doctorate, let me make this clear: I am not the only one who put their heart, soul, blood, sweat, tears, hopes and dreams into my applications. In fact, most people do.

To explain how intense this process is, I will share with you the advice my mentor gave my class during one of the lectures I attended in my junior year of undergrad. My mentor clarified to the class that a doctorate application would take around a year or at least multiple months to plan. She explained that this amount of time was necessary if you were going to truly put together a comprehensive, jaw-dropping application.

When applying to a P.h.D program, you're not just writing a supplemental essay, filling your information in on the common app, and pressing send as you had for undergrad. No, when you apply to a P.h.D. program you're basically selling yourself. You're proving to a bunch of your elders in the field that not only should they work with you and mentor you, BUT they should fund you as well. A graduate school application is basically like an introduction letter to the field, and submitting a half-assed application could actually give your future colleagues a negative impression of you. Not only do you have to worry about gaps in your CV, explaining your research interests, describing how you and your work will impact the field, but you also have to consider who is actually going to read your application and what might stick out to them based on their own interests! Things like department politics and who will write your recommendation letters actually matters! So you can imagine, for a hopeful and passionate student, the pressure feels HEAVY when you're putting your applications together.

Most people don’t have their shit together enough to plan months ahead, let alone a year ahead. Personally, I felt extremely late to the game. To be fair, I WAS late to the game. Throughout my undergrad, my own self-doubt pushed me away from pursuing a career in archeology. I knew how competitive it was, and I knew what an uphill climb it would be to be qualified to apply to a P.h.D. program. I doubted that I could actually do it.

My passion for archeology versus the lack of faith I had in myself conflicted constantly. This made my journey through my History 4+1 very different from my fellow history students. Mostly because I found out I didn’t want to study history! During my time at Tulane, my intellectual, as well as life agenda, has had many twists and turns. Despite constant indecisiveness and an epic inner battle between history and anthropology, at the end of the journey, I decided I can no longer ignore my love of ancient pottery. So, long story short, I didn’t decide to actually pursue archeology until going into my second semester of my 4+1.

Now, I am not going to tell you how many or which specific programs I applied to, but I will tell you that during the application process, I was dead convinced that an acceptance meant that I should continue with archeology while denial was a sign that I needed to pick a different path. As you can imagine, picking a different path seemed like an impossibly overwhelming task.

Despite having 8 months to prepare before my apps were due, I truly felt that time crunch. I knew what my mentor had said about how long it took to apply, and I also knew that my academic history was literally IN HISTORY when I was trying to apply for a future in anthropology/archeology. So that wasn’t ideal. I didn’t have the kind of commitment to archeology that anthropology majors showed during undergrad, and I knew that my application would have to be that much better to make up for it. The mental strain that I put myself under for those 8 months was extreme. I was constantly anxious about my applications. I had so many people read my personal statement that at some point I knew if I looked at the statement again I was going to drive myself mad. And then after that, I looked at it 10 more times before I finally submitted it. I edited, rewrote, edited, and rewrote again my supplemental essays. Like for real guys, the entire 8 months was basically a montage of writing, crafting, then editing, then drinking wine with my best friend as we wrote some more… which always turned into us stressing and crying over our applications.

This experience is in no way unique to me. I know for a fact it’s not unique to me, because my friends that were applying were going through similar mental breakdowns, exhaustive writing sessions, and seemed just as desperate as I did to get an acceptance. Instead of being relieved when I submitted my applications, I actually felt more dread. I no longer had control of my application, it was in the school’s hands now. I overanalyzed my applications after the fact, thinking “What if I did this differently? What if I submitted a different paper? What if they just throw away my application right away because it has ‘History Major’ written all over it?”

When the rejections came rolling in, I felt complete and utter heartbreak. It felt like each department personally told me ‘you’re not good enough,’ and in a sense, they did. Anyone who's gotten denied from a graduate program knows the kind of heartbreak I am talking about.

Guess what, you're NOT ALONE! Even if your too embarrassed to admit to friends and family the mental toll that applications took on you or discuss the hopeless feeling of ‘it was all for nothing’ that inevitably hits you after you get the rejection, I will admit my own shame and embarrassment on the internet because I want you to know that you are not alone and that the fight isn’t over!

I will not pretend to be an inspirational figure nor a success story. I acknowledge that it would be hypocritical of me to pretend that I wouldn’t be drowning in a sea of misery right now if I didn’t get into the master's program. When I got that acceptance, my first thought was “this just saved my career” and then I genuinely cried for three days of complete relief. I thought to myself “at least this wasn’t all for nothing, at least I have this.”

It took me months of reflection and clarity to realize that perhaps I got denied from all my P.h.D. programs because I simply wasn’t ready to start my doctorate. Perhaps I was just genuinely underqualified. Even if I had the chance to redo all the applications that I had sent in, there is always the likelihood that I would have been denied anyway. However, that doesn’t mean that I will be underqualified forever. It just meant that, at that moment, that school didn’t want me. Now, I am obviously not thrilled I didn’t get into a program, but I am recovering from my heartbreak. In the wise words of Micheal Scott, “no question about it. I am ready to be hurt again.”

The thing that shifted my attitude was, as usual, advice from my mentor. She told me that she even got denied from many programs and had to redo the application process before she was accepted into a doctorate program. She told me that a career in archeology is not necessarily linear and that it's always a process. Even when you get into a program, you still have to work your ass off to complete it. Even after your doctorate, you have to find a job. Even if, even when…. THE WHEEL DOESN’T STOP TURNING AFTER YOU GET DENIED! If you are brave enough to try again, and you get accepted, you're only on the next step. By getting me to relook at my rejections as part of this process, my mentor helped me regain confidence in my ability to pursue this career.

If by some chance you are an archeological student reading this and you relate to my story, please don’t give up! The passion it took to get you to this point is so beyond exceptional, and I want to encourage you to keep reaching for the stars. I know for so many people that the whole process is so grueling and expensive that they don’t have the opportunity to apply again. But, if you by chance find a way to take the next step, think about applying again before you throw in the towel! Because, as cliche as this sounds, you truly never know what is going to happen!

Everyone, please manifest that the next time I write a post like this, I can write about how my second go-around was more fruitful. My main reason for continuing to pursue a P.h.D. is so that I can mentor the next wave of female archeologists and inspire them as my mentors, friends, and colleagues have inspired me. Although I am not a success story yet, you have to believe that I am going to keep going around and around on that wheel until I become one! And I truly hope you do too. I can’t wait to meet you on the field or at my university so we can share horror stories about the graduate application process!

Recent Posts

See All


Renee Trep
Renee Trep
Jun 09, 2021

This is an amazing post! Facing rejection in any situation feels personal and crushing. Thank you for being open and vulnerable enough to tell the world how you felt and your process.


Kitty Gruber
Kitty Gruber
Jun 08, 2021

Izzy you're not just brave, you experienced something that everyone experiences (including me), rejection. It should be normalized that rejection/failure is a part of academia, and instead all we feel is immense shame that we did something wrong when it doesn't work out. I am happy that you are addressing this problem! I hope someone out there realizes they are not alone and there is no shame in getting any X amount of rejection.


Leave us a comment and let us know what you thought of the blog!

bottom of page