Grad Student Defends Her Dissertation in a Skirt Made From Rejection Letters To Help ‘Normalize Failure’

A PhD student in Michigan defended her dissertation while wearing a skirt made of rejection letters received while studying.

To make the tiered black and white number, 29-year-old Caitlin Kirby printed out 17 of her rejection letters—from scholarships, academic journals, and conferences—then folded each one into a fan. She connected them in row, and by the end she had an item resembling a skirt.

She told Lansing State Journal that the idea behind her unique clothing item came out of a desire to normalize rejection and take pride in overcoming it. “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.”

Caitlin’s adviser, Julie Libarkin, a professor of earth and environmental science at Michigan State University, also encourages the acceptance of failure in her students.

Libarkin believes it’s important for students to get into habit of applying for things, and to get used to the feeling of rejection, so she encourages them to chase after any opportunity that comes their way. If a student doesn’t get the grant or the spot in the academic journal? That’s okay. They’ll still have learned something in the process.

As for Caitlin? Her rejections over the years have led to great things: Since her doctorate, she’s won a prestigious Fulbright grant to do further research on urban agriculture in Germany.

Currently, she’s a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. As for what the future holds? “I’m gearing up to receive a few more rejection letters along the way,” she joked Lansing State Journal. “Maybe I’ll make a longer skirt.”