From Rejected to Accepted: Learning from Mistakes and Setting Yourself Up for Success

By Andrew Klumpp

One of the things no one told me about graduate school when I started was exactly how much rejection I would face as a graduate student. The application process to graduate school probably should have indicated that the academy includes a fair amount of rejection, but I’m not sure that I really understood that until I started the process of really putting myself out there for fellowships, conferences, and jobs.

Social media and departmental websites make it easy to witness our colleagues’ successes. When someone receives a prestigious grant, their name and picture, deservedly, show up on the department website. When conferences make decisions about accepted papers/panels, I often find out first from enthusiastic announcements on Twitter before I even have time to check my own inbox.

Conversely, people infrequently announce their rejections from fellowships, jobs, or conferences.

I’ve been fortunate enough over the past four years to receive my fair share of acceptance emails, and on occasion, I’ve even announced my delight on social media; however, a big part of my process of receiving more acceptances has involved learning from plenty of rejection.

I used to keep all of my deadlines in my head and just presumed that I wouldn’t forget any of them. Vaguely, I knew when conference proposals were due and which fellowships might apply to my research interests. I had a bit of success that way, but I also got my share of rejections. I occasionally missed a deadline because it came up more quickly than I anticipated or failed to pull a panel together in time because I didn’t start my work putting it together soon enough. My first few years as a grad student, I learned some of these lessons the hard way, through rejection and the occasional missed opportunity.

I don’t mind be open about those early struggles, failures, and rejections, though. First of all, I’ve learned and changed as I’ve developed as a scholar. Secondly, I recognize that this is part of the process of my learning as a graduate student and good preparation for future efforts to navigate the academic world.

So, what have I learned from all of this?

1) Keep a Spreadsheet

In light of the lessons I’ve learned, I do things differently now. Every August I sit down to prepare an excel sheet to keep track of all upcoming conference, fellowship, and job deadlines for the academic year. This year, as a fourth-year student, I knew I’d spend a lot of my time in the classroom, in the archives, and writing my dissertation, but I didn’t want to lose sight of the many opportunities that would come my way. Missing a few deadlines earlier in my career or being rejected because I knew I didn’t allot the appropriate amount of time to an application taught me a lesson. Knowing the importance of these applications forced me to set myself up to maximize my opportunities for success.

During this process, I also take time to scour fellowship announcements, research library grants, and a variety of other sources of support for graduate students. If I find something that looks like it will apply to my work, I enter it into my spreadsheet, copy the website into the appropriate line, and insert the due date. Most of these opportunities occur annually, so I can find them at any time of the year, and by doing much of the legwork ahead of time, funding opportunities are less likely to sneak up on me. Sure, things come up unexpectedly, but when they do, I put them in the spreadsheet and continue with the process.

With all of that information collected, I can arrange my spreadsheet by due date and pace my work appropriately without the fear of missing an important deadline.

2) Start Conference Planning Early

Plenty of rejections have also taught me quite a bit about the process of putting together panels for conferences. Most crucially, I’ve learned to start earlier rather than later. Sometimes things come together last minute, but I’ve often found more success when I started early. It takes work to put together a dynamic panel and as a graduate student, that meant leaning on my contacts in the field, sending emails to folks I’d never met, and in at least one instance, turning to Twitter to fill a last minute vacancy. It’s work that takes time. An important part of getting your work out there is the process of presenting at conferences, but coordinating between scholars, particularly over email, is something done best with plenty of time to spare.

When setting up a panel, it’s also important to know who you are and pay attention to creating panels that represent the diversity of voices in the field. That’s been hard sometimes, especially because as a graduate student many of my closest colleagues are other graduate students. I know of panels of graduate students that have been accepted at some conferences, but your odds always improve if you are able to folks at diverse points in their career—the same goes for representing all other forms of diversity working in the field. With a bit of time and chutzpah, you can often secure established scholars for a panel. In fact, I’ve often been surprised by how gracious, kind, and encouraging these folks are when approached about panel opportunities.

3) Don’t let fear of rejection stop you.

Rejection can be very hard, and with every letter or email I get, there’s a tinge of disappointment. But I’ve learned not to be afraid of it. More than once in the past year alone, I’ve been happily surprised because I took the time to apply for fellowships or ask well-known scholars to participate in a panel I was developing.

When I look back on my 2018-2019 spreadsheet, it’s a mixed bag. I still got plenty of rejections, but I also met almost every single one of my deadlines with time to spare. At the end of the day though, it was my most successful year by far, particularly for fellowships and panel and paper proposals.

By taking the lessons I learned from rejections earlier in my career, I received three wonderful research grants for the coming year from the Van Raalte Institute in Holland, Michigan, the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the New-York Historical Society in New York City. I also managed to snag a small dissertation completion fellowship, which will certainly ease the stress of writing next year and a few conference travel grants. This year, I’ll also have the opportunity to present my work in a variety of contexts, including on panels that I organized at the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the American Academy of Religion.

Since I started graduate school four years ago, I’ve been rejected a lot. Those rejections have often been difficult, disappointing, or frustrating, but they’ve also been instructive. I’ve learned that rejection is a part of the process. The system I’ve developed isn’t perfect and it certainly doesn’t stop me from getting rejected. Ultimately, though, it works for me. It helped me, as a fourth year Ph.D. candidate, look back at 2018-2019 academic calendar as one filled with both instructive rejections and also plenty of acceptances.

The Grad Experience at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting

Andrew Klumpp is a Ph.D. Student in American religious history in the Graduate Department of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University.

Shortly after ringing in the new year, I made my way to Washington, D.C. for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. The weather was unusually frigid, which made trekking between hotels a bit of a chore. Charter buses did shuttle us between venues, resulting in some of both the nerdiest and best bus trips that I’ve ever taken. Luckily, though, the charter busses full of historians weren’t the conference’s only highlights.

First and foremost, AHA offered some of the most robust programming for graduate students that I have seen in my conference travels as a grad student. It provided frequent opportunities for graduate students to receive mentoring from established scholars, attend sessions about the job market, or explore career diversity for historians.

In particular, I managed to attend two sessions that focused on work for historians in the federal government and in think tanks. These sessions highlighted several excellent opportunities outside of the professoriate that are available to historians. In each case, the panelists shared their experiences and also how they used their skills as historians in the current roles. Historians from the National Museum of American History, the Center for American Progress, and the Heritage Foundation all shared about their journey to and work in their current positions.

On Saturday these opportunities conversations about career diversity extended into a career fair. During this event, graduate students could meet individually with historians working in a variety of fields. I chatted with a historian working in the Office of the Historian in the U.S. House of Representatives, a historian at the Department of State, curators at the Smithsonian Institute, and many historians working in exciting roles. I learned about opportunities like the Council on Library and Information Resources Fellowships and the Presidential Management Fellows Program. In each case, these historians offered examples of how to use skills as a historian in fields beyond the professoriate.

Beyond grad student-focused sessions, AHA also offered particularly engaging panels on digital history. Each of the panels on digital history that I attended gave excellent examples of current digital projects and also identified some of the challenges faced by those employing new methodologies. I got to hear more about a number of projects, such as Lincoln Mullen’s America’s Public Bible Project, Kyle Robert’s Jesuit Libraries Project, and Denise Burgher’s work on the Colored Conventions Project. These projects offered outstanding examples of what can be done through digital methods and also helped to emphasize some of the particular challenges of working with digital methods in research, writing, and in the classroom.

In addition to these digital history panels, I also made sure to take in a panel on urban history while at AHA. Admittedly, I am a rural historian, yet one of my favorite things to do at a large conference like AHA is to attend panels that discuss urban history. I always find myself interested in the methods and explanations being used by urban historians. These types of panels sharpen my own analytical approach.

This year I attended a panel focused on urban environments on the edge of what some deem urban. The panel discussed ranches in Nevada, the Black Hills in South Dakota, and the Burning Man festival. Of all of the panels I attended throughout the conference, this is the one that has stuck with me the longest because I continue to wonder if I agree with the whole panel’s basic premise. From my perspective, the spaces explored in these papers appear more rural than urban. What is more, even if they are situated between rural and urban space, as my colleague Joel Zapata reminded me, they may be better understood as borderlands.

I came away from the panel with a bevy of questions. Does any built environment constitute an urban space? Are a cluster of ranches in Nevada really urban or are they a small town like those found throughout rural America? What makes these rural and borderlands spaces appear urban? What are the benefits or drawbacks of such a classification? I still wrestle with the premise of classifying rural communities as simply the edge of urban ones; however, the panel has certainly driven me to examine many of my own presuppositions.

Finally, the last panel I attended got heated, providing some fireworks for the close of the conference. During the question and answer session on a panel focused on religion and good government, a debate broke out about the negative tone taken toward conservative political and cultural figures. An audience member argued that many scholars present the conservative agenda in a negative light while presenting more progressive movements in a more positive light. The audience member highlighted that eight years ago, there were no panels ending with the phrase “in the Age of Obama” while there were multiple panels ending with the phrase “in the Age of Trump” at this year’s meeting.  One of the panelists—a Democratic congressional candidate—shot back rather forcefully and a spirited debate ensued.

By nature, I am inclined to stay out of the fray and did so during the debate. Nevertheless, the moment reminded me that many of the tensions that continually bubble up in our current political environment are not far from the surface even in professional meetings.

As AHA concluded, I happily traded frigid D.C. for Dallas’s temperate winter weather, and I left with a much better sense of the field and the opportunities available to me as a graduate student. I’m grateful for the financial support from my department, SMU’s office of Research and Graduate Studies and the American Historical Association that made the trip possible. Ultimately, I leave grateful for the trip, enlightened by the conversation, and looking forward to continue to pursue my future as a historian.