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Grad Student Defends Her Dissertation in Skirt Made From Rejection Letters to 'Normalize Failure'

Caitlin Kirby wore a skirt made out of 17 rejection letters to her dissertation defense.

At her dissertation defense last month, Caitlin Kirby wore a one-of-a-kind, handmade skirt — made out of 17 rejection letters that she had received over the last five years! The 28-year-old Michigan State University grad student, who has spent the last 4 1/2 years working towards her PhD in environmental science and policy, says that the rejection letters had come from other PhD programs, scholarships and academic journals. Kirby says that she created and wore the skirt "in the spirit of acknowledging & normalizing failure in the process," observing that “the dissertation presentation is in this narrative form, where … it looks like everything went smoothly in my process from start to finish. So I wanted something in my presentation that shows that really isn’t how it goes. There are a lot of roadblocks along the way."

Photos courtesy of Caitlin Kirby

To find the letters, Kirby searched her email for keywords like "unfortunately" and "we regret to inform you." Looking back, she observes that those rejections taught her as much as her successes. Rejections for smaller grants, for example, taught her to write better proposals, which eventually led to a Fulbright Scholar grant to research urban agriculture in Germany. Her PhD advisor, Dr. Julie Libarkin, who heads the university's Geocognition Laboratory, seconds the importance of failure: "Science is all about going in directions that turn out to be dead ends and then having to turn around and start over," she says. "[Kirby] embraces trying and failing and trying until you achieve a success — which is sort of what we do in the lab. It’s all about failure."

Learning to recognize failure as a normal step on the road to future success is a particularly important lesson for girls and women. As discussed in our article, Growing Grit: 7 Ways to Raise a Resilient Mighty Girl, research has found that girls are more likely than boys to suffer from perfectionism and struggle with a loss of confidence when they make even small mistakes. Cultivating resiliency in girls is essential to countering these tendencies; as Rachel Simmons, author of Enough As She Is, asserts: "What we want is for girls to have is the capacity to move through a setback without beating themselves up."

For Kirby, the process of making the skirt proved cathartic. "Sitting down and spending time with your rejection letters to make a craft out of them is kind of therapeutic," she observes. "When I put them together, they didn’t really seem as painful anymore."  The original idea for creating the skirt was inspired both by seeing photographs of other students wearing graduation dresses they had made from academic posters and by the character of Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation, who made a wedding dress out of articles written about her. "Somewhere along the way, I decided that doing the rejection letters would be an interesting twist on that," says Kirby. She printed out the letters and made accordion folds at the top, then punched holes and strung them together with white ribbon attached them to tulle.

Her defense committee loved the unique skirt and her courage in wearing it, and so did many people online after she shared a photo of it on Twitter. "It definitely resonated with people more than I expected," she says. Now that her dissertation defense is done, Kirby is heading to Dortmund, Germany with the funding from the Fulbright grant, where she will work at the Research Institute for Urban and Regional Development for eight months, after which her PhD will be official. "I’m sure there will be a lot more rejection letters [to come]," she says. "This doesn’t mean that I’m totally okay with all rejections now. It’s still just as painful when it comes across through my email." Thanks to her experience, however, she knows she can overcome those rejections and even has an idea for taking them in stride: "Maybe I’ll make a longer skirt," she says with a smile.

Books To Help Build Kids' Resiliency at Every Age

Sometimes You Win — Sometimes You Learn for Kids

Sometimes You Win — Sometimes You Learn for Kids

Written by: John C. Maxwell
Illustrated by: Steve Bjorkman
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

Wendy and Wade are Woggleball stars, and they love winning — so when they suffer a disappointing loss, they feel ready to quit. Fortunately, their grandpa encourages them, reminding them that "What you learn from your loss can bring victory!" Best-selling author and motivational teacher John C. Maxwell adapts the life lessons in Sometimes You Win — Sometimes You Learn for young readers in this picture book that encourages a positive attitude to failure and the persistence necessary to achieve your goals.

I Can't Do That, YET

I Can't Do That, YET

Written by: Esther Pia Cordova
Illustrated by: Maima W Adiputri
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

Enna loves stories before bed, but whenever her dad asks her to try reading the first page, all she can say is "I can't do that." In fact, that's the first phrase that comes to mind for anything difficult! But one night, she meets her future selves — Ennas who did all sorts of difficult, daring things — who tell her that any of those possibilities could happen with time and practice. By the time she wakes up, Enna realizes that "I can't do that" has become "I can't do that YET!" This empowering story will encourage kids to transform their own way of thinking.

The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes

The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes

Recommended Age: 4 - 8

Beatrice Bottomwell has never made even a single mistake in her nine years alive — in fact, her whole town knows her as The Girl Who Never Makes Mistakes. But when she almost makes her first right before the big talent show, she's rattled. Suddenly, she starts avoiding things she used to love, just in case she makes a mistake while she's doing them. However, when the inevitable happens and she does make a — very public and messy — mistake, something amazing happens: she laughs it off! It turns out that life is more fun when you realize that mistakes can be overcome... and that no one is perfect. This charming picture book will encourage kids to shake off their mistakes and get ready to try again.

The Book of Mistakes

The Book of Mistakes

Written by: Corinna Luyken
Illustrated by: Corinna Luyken
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

On an empty page an artist starts to create — and things don't work out exactly as planned. But amidst mistakes like one eye bigger than the other, or a weird frog-cow-cat... thing, or an inky smudge, this artist is able to see possibility. The eye may have been a mistake, but the glasses look great; the frog-cow-cat makes an excellent bush; and even the smudges can look like leaves floating across the sky. With simple, playful text, author/illustrator Corinna Luyken reminds readers young and old that "mistakes" can be the start of bright ideas — and that all of us are works in progress.

What To Do When Mistakes Make You Quake

A Kid's Guide to Accepting Imperfection

What To Do When Mistakes Make You Quake

A Kid's Guide to Accepting Imperfection

Recommended Age: 7 - 12

Everyone makes mistakes sometimes... but for some kids, the possibility is terrifying. Perfectionism can trap kids in their worries, and even discourage them from trying something new and challenging in case they don't measure up. And with self-critical thoughts raging, it's hard to build confidence. Fortunately, with this interactive book, kids can learn to use cognitive behavioral approaches to understand their worries, quiet critical thoughts, and cope with mistakes. Encouraging and empowering, this accessible guide will help kids learn to live with imperfection and motivate them to push their limits.

The Confidence Code for Girls

Taking Risks, Messing Up, and Becoming Your Amazingly Imperfect, Totally Powerful Self

The Confidence Code for Girls

Taking Risks, Messing Up, and Becoming Your Amazingly Imperfect, Totally Powerful Self

Recommended Age: 8 - 12

Many girls are consumed by self-doubt on the inside, especially during the tween and teen years — but if they can crack the confidence code, they can learn how to set worries aside and focus their energy on what's really important: confidently pursuing their dreams and embracing their authentic selves! In this book, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, the authors of the best-selling The Confidence Code for adult women, draw on the latest research to help tweens understand how to short-circuit the thoughts that drain your confidence and hold you back. Illustrations throughout help draw girls into the book, while lists, quizzes, and stories from real-life girls help readers understand how to embrace risk (and failure), overcome anxieties, and be happy in their own skins. Girls will also enjoy the companion journal which will help them put these skills into practice.

Jaclyn Hyde
New!

Jaclyn Hyde
New!

Recommended Age: 8 - 12

Jaclyn Hyde is smart, determined, and responsible... and almost, but not quite, perfect. She desperately wants to show her parents and the big sister she idolizes that she can do it all, so when she finds the last vial of a "perfection potion" in an abandoned lab, it seems like just what she needs. Except the potion actually unleashes Jackie, a monstrous version of Jaclyn who will break any rule and trample any person to be the best. With the help of her friends Fatima and Paige, Jaclyn has to figure out a way to defeat Jackie — even if that means admitting she's not so perfect after all. This hilarious adventure is surprisingly deep, with important messages about what it means to be your best self.

Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens

A Workbook to Break the Nine Thought Habits That Are Holding You Back

Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens

A Workbook to Break the Nine Thought Habits That Are Holding You Back

Recommended Age: 13 and up

Negative thinking habits can lead teens to develop a distorted view of themselves and others, leaving them feeling anxious, angry, and sad. Fortunately, it's possible to learn to recognize these habits — whether it's the "I can't" habit, the "zooming-in-on-the-negative" habit, the "mind-reading habit", or any of the other common negative thinking habits — and develop more helpful ways of thinking that can help teens gain perspective, resiliency, and self-confidence. Psychologist Mary Karapetian Alvord and writer Anne McGrath provide sections addressing the emotions and bodily sensations that are commonly associated with each habit. Filled with real-life examples, the guide gives teens a step-by-step action plan on how to take control of their thinking and their lives.

Sometimes You Win — Sometimes You Learn for Teens

Sometimes You Win — Sometimes You Learn for Teens

Written by: John Maxwell
Recommended Age: 13 and up

The greatest leaders and achievers know that no progress happens without problems, failures, and losses! John C. Maxwell, author of the bestselling adult book Sometimes You Win — Sometimes You Learn, adapts his advice for teen readers in this book that draws on the stories of people who overcame adversity to reach their goals, including entrepreneur Steve Jobs, Olympic Gold Medalists Gabby Douglas and Mikaela Shiffrin, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Malala Yousafzai. With the right attitude to failure, you can become a true learner; this book shows you how.

The Resilience Workbook for Teens
New!

Activities to Help You Gain Confidence, Manage Stress, and Cultivate a Growth Mindset

The Resilience Workbook for Teens
New!

Activities to Help You Gain Confidence, Manage Stress, and Cultivate a Growth Mindset

Written by: Cheryl M. Bradshaw MA
Recommended Age: 13 and up

The teen years bring lots of challenges — and they're also a critical time for building positive strategies for handling setbacks, struggles, and the tough emotional moments that are a part of everyone's life. In this workbook from the Instant Help Solutions series, psychotherapist and youth mentor Cheryl M. Bradshaw teaches teens how to build a positive relationship with themselves, one which helps them believe in their ability to handle whatever life has to throw at them. Interactive activities and evidence-based practices help teens build the resilience they need to survive and thrive, both now and for the rest of their lives.

The Gift of Failure

How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed

The Gift of Failure

How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed

Written by: Jessica Lahey

As a parent, it's easy to fall into the instinct to protect your child from hurt — even if that means the disappointment and frustration that comes from failing. But as teacher and writer Jessica Lahey explains, how to fail — and how to get up, dust yourself off, and try again — is a key skill that kids need to learn young, when the stakes are still low. In her book, Lahey lays out the case for allowing kids to fail, and to feel the full emotional brunt of that failure, and shows parents how to model and teach resiliency and problem-solving. Individual chapters target particular challenges like homework, report cards, and sports. This celebration of the value of reaching high and missing the mark will make you think differently about how you respond to your child's mistakes and problems.

Enough As She Is

How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy, and Fulfilling Lives

Enough As She Is

How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy, and Fulfilling Lives

Written by: Rachel Simmons

Although girls seem to be more "successful" than ever today, outpacing boys in GPA, college enrollment, and more, they're also reporting feeling overwhelmed by the need to be exceptional at everything. This book takes a look below the put-together surface that girls project to the world, and provides practical tips for parents to help them reduce negative thoughts, embrace risk and authenticity, and prioritize feeling confident and happy as the ultimate sign of success. Best-selling parenting author Rachel Simmons relies on in-depth case studies and careful research to create both a portrait of the challenges facing girls today and a road map to help girls create their own paths to happy, healthy lives.

Written by: Carol S. Dweck

What makes the difference between someone who perseveres until they succeed, and someone who gives up? The answer is mindset! Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck has conducted decades of research into how mindset affects performance, and in her book she talks about how developing a growth mindset — the belief that abilities can be developed — helps set the stage for achievement. A selection of case studies highlight the differences between fixed and growth mindset, while the included tips can help parents and educators foster growth mindset in both individuals and communities, so that everyone can reach their full potential.

Price: $10.49

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