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Dealing with rejection when applying for a PhD position

Today, I have the pleasure of welcoming Iván Carrera as a guest author. Ivan is a professor at the Department of Informatics and Computer Science of Escuela Politécnica Nacional in Quito, Ecuador. His research interests are Performance Evaluation, Distributed Systems and Bioinformatics. Check out his webpage: You can follow him on Twitter.

I majored in engineering in Ecuador, my homeland. When I finished, I wanted to do grad-school in Brazil. I had studied Portuguese, and for me it was a dream to have the opportunity to do research. I applied to several universities, got a few yes’s and a lot of no’s. In engineering they say that you shouldn’t worry about communication skills, but it was very difficult for me to write. I had to learn how to write formally. I got accepted in University of Rio Grande do Sul in Porto Alegre, and went to do a Master’s in Computer Science.

During my Master’s I felt that my research wouldn’t have much impact in the market and the public. I graduated in 2014 and immediately got the offer to continue my research with a PhD position. I rejected the offer because I felt lost and I didn’t want to continue to do research in a topic that doesn’t have, in my opinion, much impact.

In 2014, I got a teaching position and began to do some research. Doing research by yourself without proper experience (which you can get in a PhD) and without a supervisor (because mine was in Brazil) was almost impossible. In my department there wasn’t any colleagues with similar research interests. I started supervising a few graduation projects involving software development and bioinformatics applications to begin my research.

Working with Bioinformatics was the opportunity for me to make research with very visible impact. But again, I was alone in my department, I lacked a research group. I began to look for Bioinformatics research groups. In 2015, I contacted the Bio and Cheminformatics Research Group in Universidad de las Américas. They gave me the opportunity to work and join their research. Now I lacked a PhD.

I started looking for PhD programs. The most direct decision was to do it in Brazil. I already lived there, so the adaptation phase shouldn’t be hard. The problem was they didn’t want my research topic. I was working on a topic called ‘drug discovery and repurposing’. My research was about how to discover new interactions of drugs using computers so we can understand undesired effects of drugs. Interesting, just not for everyone.

I contacted several universities and programs in Porto Alegre, Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. They always said something like “I like your research, but I couldn’t supervise it”. And they were right. No one should accept students who couldn’t closely supervise. This was my biggest problem. I participated in several courses about Bioinformatics, because I had to learn the basics. In 2017, at University of São Paulo I spoke to almost 20 professors from research lines similar to mine, and every time they said they liked my project but couldn’t supervise it. I felt alone, and felt that maybe I shouldn’t have changed my research topic.

Then, my supervisor in Universidad de las Américas contacted some researchers from Universidad de la Coruña in Spain. They offered me a position in a PhD program in Information Technology. I made the paperwork, wrote a proposal and got accepted. I was very excited. I worked in Ecuador during my first semester of my PhD, setting up some databases and writing a lot of code.

In July, 3 months after I started my PhD, I received an email saying that I couldn’t get accepted as a PhD student. Turns out that my Master’s degree in Brazil was ‘too short’. According to Spanish regulations (as far as I understand), Master’s programs should have a duration of 60 ECTS, but my Master’s in Brazil was just about 45 credits because they don’t account for the dissertation. There was nothing to do. I got (sort of) expelled.

Once again, I had to knock on doors.

I knew some colleagues who went to do a PhD in Portugal. Maybe they could help me with my problem. I wrote them, and they presented me a different view: studying in Portugal.

Again, I had to write to several professors in Portugal. One of them, in University of Porto, accepted me, and wanted us to write a joint proposal. We wrote it, and last month I got accepted in the PhD program of Computer Science. After all these trial-error rejections, I finally got accepted in an excellent PhD program. Now I feel all this was worth the effort.

I acknowledge that changing research topics is hard and it makes you lose your credentials and expertise on your field; but it also makes you a richer researcher, since you can contribute with knowledge from your previous field. You have to learn from the basics, so it’s like beginning from scratch. But if you want to do it, if you want your research to be better and to make an impact, you will have to work harder.

Being rejected is part of working in an academic environment, it’s hard on your self esteem, but it’s something you’ll have to deal with. Science teaches us to doubt and overcome our biases, but rejection makes you doubt about your own abilities, your knowledge and your decisions about your career.

Having a support net that includes family, friends, and colleagues is important because sometimes you just want to give up. When you get rejected so many times, you start to think that everyone got it easier than you. You never know other people’s struggles, you just know your own.

Pursuing a research position, in a master’s or PhD, requires a set of skills that you don’t know you’ll need. Learning to communicate is key, and believing in yourself is crucial.

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