Caitlin Kirby was greeted with curious looks from her professors when she walked into the room where she would defend her doctoral dissertation at Michigan State University. She opened by explaining her attire: Her skirt was a handmade, knee-length garment made out of 17 rejection letters she had gotten in the past five years.
The letters, which Kirby strung together with ribbons and attached to tulle, were email rejections from other PhD programs, scholarships and from academic journals where she had hoped to get articles published. She had others, but she used the best ones for her skirt.
Kirby was literally wearing her failures, and it was cathartic.
The skirt communicated what her presentation didn’t: the grueling, bumpy process she went through on her way to her major moment in front of a committee of five professors on Oct. 7.
“The dissertation presentation is in this narrative form, where … it looks like everything went smoothly in my process from start to finish,” said Kirby, 28, who for the past 4½ years has been a doctoral student in environmental science and policy. “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.”
Both the audience and her professors loved it. The professors chuckled at her ingenuity and bravery. She was grateful for that, and even more so that they accepted her dissertation, which examines how people and organizations make decisions about the environment.
“It definitely resonated with people more than I expected,” Kirby said about her outfit.
Kirby’s adviser, Julie Libarkin, who heads the school’s Geocognition Research Laboratory, found the paper skirt clever and educational.
“I thought it was perfect,” she said. “It fits our lab culture really well, and Caitlin is delightful. She 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.”
Libarkin added: “Science is all about going in directions that turn out to be dead ends and then having to turn around and start over.”
Kirby, who lives in Lansing, Mich., and grew up near Kalamazoo, got the idea for the skirt after seeing photos of people at graduation wearing dresses made out of posters they made and accumulated during their PhD work.
“Somewhere along the way, I decided that doing the rejection letters would be an interesting twist on that,” said Kirby, who received her undergraduate degree in environmental biology from Michigan State in 2013.
The show “Parks and Recreation” also inspired Kirby: Character Leslie Knope made a wedding dress out of paper articles written about her.
Kirby gathered her electronic rejection letters by searching in her email for the words “unfortunately” and “regret” — words she knew would be in messages telling her she didn’t make the cut. Her search turned up about 25 rejections from places such as the University of Colorado, the National Science Foundation and the journal Agriculture and Human Values. She printed them out and used 17 of them for her project.
To construct the skirt, she made accordion folds in the letters and punched holes at the top, then strung them together with white ribbon. She attached the ribbon to the white tulle, and reinforced the punched holes with packing tape in the two-tier skirt, which she could only wear while standing up. She drove to her presentation wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and once she got there, she went to a bathroom and slipped on her black-and-white skirt. She paired it with a red ribbon, a gray top, a black blazer and black shoes.
Kirby said the creative project felt like a curative way to handle her many rejections. And it also struck her as funny.
“This doesn’t mean that I’m totally okay with all rejections now,” she said. “It’s still just as painful when it comes across through my email. … But sitting down and spending time with your rejection letters to make a craft out of them is kind of therapeutic.”
Some of the letters, she said, stung more than others.
“But when I put them together, they didn’t really seem as painful anymore,” she said.
In a bonus, she posted a photo of her skirt on Twitter with an explanation, and it was much celebrated, getting about 23,000 likes.
Successfully defended my PhD dissertation today! In the spirit of acknowledging & normalizing failure in the process, I defended in a skirt made of rejection letters from the course of my PhD. #AcademicTwitter #AcademicChatter #PhDone— Caitlin K. Kirby (@kirbycai) October 7, 2019
THANK YOU to everyone involved in my journey pic.twitter.com/FQbXYQ1Oov
Like a wedding dress, the paper skirt is pretty much a wear-once clothing item. But, Kirby said, Halloween is coming up — so, she may just make a scary costume out of the skirt, perhaps by pairing it with a shirt that says “Unfortunately.”
In January, Kirby leaves for the final stage of her doctoral degree. She will be spending about eight months in Dortmund, Germany, working at the Research Institute for Urban and Regional Development. She received a Fulbright Scholar grant for the project.
Kirby has been preparing by learning German for the past year. When she finishes her European stint and her PhD becomes official, Kirby intends to return to the United States, most likely to the Midwest.
“I’m sure there will be a lot more rejection letters between now and then,” she joked.