Doctoral student wears skirt made of rejection letters to defend dissertation

She wanted her past rejections to be part of her success 

Chelsea Ritschel
New York
Thursday 24 October 2019 16:21
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Doctoral student wears skirt made of rejection letters to defend dissertation

A doctoral student openly embraced the low points of her career during her dissertation defence by wearing a skirt made of the rejection letters she’s received over the last five years.

Caitlin Kirby defended her research on earth and environmental sciences, the last test needed to pass before she received her doctorate degree, on 7 October at Michigan State University (MSU).

In a photo posted to Twitter, which has since been liked more than 23,000 times, Kirby revealed that she successfully passed the course of her PhD, while wearing the skirt outlining her various rejections.

“Successfully defended my PhD dissertation today!” she wrote. “In the spirit of acknowledging and normalising failure in the process, I defended in a skirt made of rejection letters from the course of my PhD.”

The skirt was comprised of 17 rejection letters - from scholarships, academic journals, and conferences - folded into fans and then connected.

According to Kirby, who told the Lansing State Journal she had rejection letters left over after the skirt was completed, she wanted to wear the skirt as a reminder of what it takes to succeed.

“The whole process of revisiting those old letters and making that skirt sort of reminded me that you have to apply to a lot of things to succeed,” she said. “A natural part of the process is to get rejected along the way.”

Kirby also discussed the importance of “normalising rejection”, a topic that she, her colleagues and her advisor regularly discussed during the course.

“It seems counterintuitive to wear your rejections to your last test in your PhD,” she told the outlet. “But we talked about our rejections every week and I wanted them to be a part of it.”

Kirby’s rejections were what ultimately led her to achieve significant accomplishments, according to her advisor and MSU professor, Julie Libarkin. In addition to passing her PhD course, Kirby secured a grant through the Fulbright Program for research on urban agriculture - an achievement Libarkin thinks was possible because Kirby’s proposals improved after each rejection.

On social media, people have praised Kirby for her positive, inspirational attitude and humour when it came to rejection.

“Congratulations! I’m going through some difficult rejection stuff lately so I was glad to see this,” one person wrote.

Another said: “Congratulations and what an awesome way to flout failure.”

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In response to the outpouring of support, Kirby told The Independent the skirt "has resonated with people much more than I imagined it would".

"It seems like the idea of being open and getting more comfortable with rejection is helpful to others in any creative, academic, or professional pursuit! I have had a lot of people contact me about recent rejections they have received and that seeing my project was helpful to them in processing the rejection," she said. "I myself have received a rejection letter since then and I think it did help me receive it with a little more levity."

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