Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Return to Sender; or, the Art of Rejection

In response to recent accusations of smuggery, I would like to say that, although I occupy a privileged position in the world, I am still subject to rejection from time to time. I hate rejection. It makes me feel unwanted. I hate it when students reject me by writing mean teaching evaluations. It makes me feel misunderstood and resentful. Fortunately it doesn't happen very often.

I have had to get used to rejection, though, since between my exalted position as Chair of the Program and the never-ending project of keeping my scholarly life vital, I have to apply for things constantly -- internal to Zenith as well as external -- and, as they say, you can't win 'em all. One year, during the Unfortunate Events, because members of my department were giving me the Big Raspberry and because I couldn't really sleep, I applied for everything under the sun: five jobs, three year-long fellowships, and a tiny research fellowship that the actual fellowship committee chair at the archive had urged me to apply for. It was that last one that tore it -- I sat down on my front stairs and wept. Never, I vowed, NEVER will I apply for anything again -- not even an extension on my taxes.

I got over it. And now, because of "my privilege," as my Zenith students would put it, and because I am really an optomist, I apply for things all the time without worrying much whether I will get them or not. Jobs, fellowships, symposia where your work has to be accepted. And sometimes I do get them, or in the case of jobs, I get a nibble here and there. This is an ideal outcome, by the way, if you are already employed in a good situation: I know I am appreciated, but I don't have to move or say goodbye to my friends. Although I must admit, my friends seem to say goodbye to me with regularity -- another story, for another day.

But because I have been getting a few rejection letters myself, and because I recently sent sixty or so of them, I have been following the discussion in the blogosphere about rejection letters rather avidly. These are people being rejected for tenure track jobs -- one fellow apparently took to papering the wall of the TA lounge with them. This is what I have learned: many of you do not do such a great job rejecting people -- some of you never send a thing, assuming that time will pass and people will just get it after a while that they aren't going to be interviewed. So pay attention, search chairs of 2008-09:

1. Do not send rejections by email.
2. Do not send rejections by post card.
3. When writing a letter to candidates, if you actually met them, or solicited the candidacy, take two seconds to write a personal note. This means not having your departmental secretary sign them, of course.
4. Send rejections in a timely way: at least when the search is over, if not before. In fact, although wisdom has it that you reject no one until the chosen candidate has signed on the dotted line, truth be told, a large part of the pool is out of the running after the first cut. Why not tell the people who didn't make the semi-final cut -- say, in January, rather than April?

I suspect I get the special handling variety of rejection letters because of the rank thing, but there is no reason that has to be so. Being respectful to job candidates goes a long way, from my perspective. I would like to say that this year I got no response from one search chair, one ordinary "We hired blah blah blah..." letter, and two particularly nice letters, both from (cough, cough) women. Odd coincidence, no?

One letter - that came by email, true, but I don't really care -- said it was so good to have read my materials because there might be a position that suited me better some day (isn't that nice? It was the posiiton that didn't fit the candidate, not the candidate that didn't fit the position. Sweet.) The other said that I was not a candidate because of how the position was ultimately defined, not because of "any deficiencies on [my] part." Again -- nice.

Of course, the last letter struck exactly the right note, since this is the letter I always fear I will receive:

Dear Professor Radical,

Are you kidding? We have people defending dissertations who look better on paper than you do. And full professor? Puh-lease.


Sherman Pinprick
Distinguished Tinky Winky Chair of Queer Studies
Venerable University

P.S. You also didn't get the job because of your stinking blog.


Anonymous said...

I would add to that list, if you are doing multiple searches make sure you write the right position in to the rejection letter.

There's nothing like applying for one position, finding out after the fact you've been interviewed for another, and then receiving a rejection letter for a third. I keep mine on the wall in my home office and laugh at it regularly. But at the time it really hurt.

Anonymous said...

PS. I was also tempted to write back "that is disappointing but when will I be informed about the position to which I applied."

Ahistoricality said...

Best (i.e. worst) line in a rejection letter this year: "We hope you will keep us in mind when future positions in your field become available at [small state school]."

"positions in your field"? Three possibilities come to mind: a) they don't think the person they hired is going to last long; b) they expect a dramatic expansion in positions in this field (yeah, right!); or c) someone who thinks Ph.D.s are basically interchangable standard parts (i.e., probably not the search chair, but you never know) wrote the letter.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear Ahistoricality,

Yes, I was told on my first search committee (as a beginning assistant prof) that if and when you communicated with people who were actually interviewed but not offered the job, you always said, "In the end, it was really a question of field."

People know this is a lie. And I learned this in that search when I called a more senior candidate I had personally invited into the search to tell her she wasn't going to get the first offer and she ripped me a new one over the phone. It was a nasty lesson, but a good one.

What I now do is call each finalist on the telephone and try to be as honest as possible about how we made the decision, what the merits of the candidacy were, and where the candidacy was found lacking. Part of what I have learned in the blogosphere is that candidates think the process is random because search committees act as though it is, and it leaves people with no sense of how their applications might be strengthened next year. While there are some aspects of the market that are a crap shoot, there are many aspects that aren't, but that seem to be because people who run searches find conversations with -- or even sending a letter to -- disappointed job seekers to be an uncomfortable and difficult task. So they punt.

And yeah -- as if another job in your field is going to come up at that school, *and* you would apply again, not knowing why you didn't get it the last time. Dumb.


Susan said...

With word processors, it's not really difficult to do polite rejection letters. It's not even difficult to do letters. THere's no longer an excuse for the one I got (from the Naval Academy, no less) when I was first on the job market: xeroxed, addressed to "Dear Candidate", it told me how impressed they were with my credentials! I wish I kept it -- even then I knew it was funny.

There are jobs where I think my application disappeared into the ether -- and I've known someone on the search committee. Sometimes I know I haven't got the job because I hear that someone else has been hired.

There is one job I applied for this year where I haven't formally been told that I'm not a candidate, though informally the person who solicited my application has told me. Of the others, none has been personalized. (But since all but one of these were "big net" searches that doesn't surprise me.)

On occasions when I've had campus interviews, if the committee didn't volunteer, I've always asked what happened. And I always frame it as something I can learn from. People are usually willing to tell me.

Ahistoricality said...

TR: Your honest is refreshing, nay shocking; it would be worth applying to Zenith just to get that kind of attention!

The line I hear most often isn't "field" but "fit" which is a nice way of saying "we felt better about the other guy" or "She's taught more of our courses before." And it does make it feel random: you don't really know what they're looking for, what "fits," because ads never tell you what's going on in the department, so you just have to put your best foot forward and hope it's what they're looking for.

I actually got one letter this year which said that they'd picked someone (someone without a name) with more teaching experience and more publications. It's possible that the letters were personalized but I have a pretty extensive teaching background; there can't be a lot of candidates in the field with much more. I give them credit for providing some detail, but not as much as when the chosen one is actually named.

Tim Lacy said...

TR ended: "P.S. You also didn't get the job because of your stinking blog." ...Good one! - TL

Anonymous said...

You don't inform the rejected candidates in January because they aren't really rejected until the position is filled. We put together a short list then had our search frozen due to budget concerns. When it was finally reopened all of the people on the short list were no longer interested. That meant we had to go back to the pool and create another list -- in March. If we had already informed those folks they were rejected, we couldn't have done that and filled the position. It isn't over until it's over. On another occasion, I myself was invited to interview in late March, presumably as a second-round candidate because the first round didn't find someone.

Tenured Radical said...

Dear anonymous,

I agree with that logic, although for those of us at the well-heeled private institutions the budget freeze doesn't happen. But honestly, except in a rank-open, field-open search -- there are *some* people you would not hire, and you know that from the beginning - my two general categories for a t-t job would be: someone too senior that you wouldn't be allowed to hire, even if the search failed as a result; and people who are out of field and applied for the job in hopes you would be interested anyway -- and you wouldn't appoint, even if the search failed

Anonymous said...

I agree absolutely with what TR has written, and I too have seen the good and the bad of rejection letters from universities with which I applied for tenure-track jobs (I did finally get one by the way!)

I would also add this to search commitee chairs: I recieved one rejection letter from a university that was so professionally done, and so personal (they made note of my qualifications in the letter, but also to a couple of jokes I made during the interview) that I will actively seek out a position at that university in future years if I become disatisfied with my current university.

That rejection letter was so great that I actually sent them back a 'post-rejection' letter thanking them for their time and efforts and wishing them the best. It just seemed like a great department of which to be a part.
Coincidently, it was also a department of mostly women in a field where there are VERY few women.

GayProf said...

I am always amazed by the lack of professionalism among some professors.

Ahistoricality said...

You don't inform the rejected candidates in January because they aren't really rejected until the position is filled.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. I've gotten plenty of letters from schools that said "we have made our selections for campus visits" or something similar; it doesn't entirely preclude the possibility of a phone call, but it's much more honest than keeping 90% of the applications on life support in the event that a 1% disaster strikes.

Plain(s)feminist said...

Actually mailing the rejection letter is always nice. It sucks to do a campus interview and then never hear from the search committee again.

Re. mean teaching evaluations - as a Zenith alum, I've always thought teaching there would be incredibly scary.

Anonymous said...

I'll take an email rejection notice, or even a postcard, if it means that I get some sort of response. I'm still waiting for about half the jobs I applied for six months ago. Do I think I'm still in the running? Obviously not. But it would just be nice...

Anonymous said...

Having been on the job market for several years, I have to say I do not understand the whole rejection letter. I cannot think of any other job that sends a rejection letter--if you do not hear from the job within two weeks or so, you know you aren't getting the job and you move on with your life. Of course academic jobs are different than other jobs--they often require much more application materials and take much longer. So I humbly suggest that 1)Search committees send an acknowledgment of application materials with a note that outlines the timeline for hiring and says that if the candidate does not hear from the committee by a certain time, they should assume the position has been filled; 2) search committees send a rejection letter to only those candidates who were interviewed or other wise made to believe they were under real consideration.

My main problem with rejection letters is that I often do not know if my materials actually arrived, and I never hear back from committees after an interview (this happens almost every time I interview). The above would solve both these issues.

cultcrit said...

I am in my first year on the tenure track in a university town I bummed around in after undergrad. Every time I walk past a certain bookstore and a certain coffee shop, I feel the urge to ask whether they've had a chance to look at the resume I dropped off 15 years ago.

Anonymous said...

...or, when it takes a while to hear back only to be informed via e-mail.

Debrah said...

I really do sympathize with many inside the academy who just can't comprehend why they were rejected when their qualifications and experience far exceed others who are in the running.

Curious as well as baffling.

Why such shoddy scholarship allowed from some.......while others more talented and hardworking languish?

Here's an example that has shocked many of us. This fellow used to be at Duke but is now at Vandy.

Read and your jaws drop to the floor:

(And here was "one of the most wide-ranging intellectuals in America" responding to a lacrosse player's mother, who asked if he would consider apologizing for his actions after the case collapsed. He penned the below from his e-mail account.)

From Houston Baker:

LIES! You are just a provacateur [sic] on a happy New Years Eve trying to get credit for a scummy bunch of white males! You know you are in search of sympaathy [sic] for young white guys who beat up a gay man [sic] in Georgetown, get drunk in Durham, and lived like “a bunch of farm animals” near campus.

I really hope whoever sent this stupid farce of an email rots in .... umhappy [sic] new year to you ... and forgive me if your [sic] really are, quite sadly, mother of a “farm animal.”

Debrah said...

And there's more. This guy is actually featured on the Vanderbilt website.

Read this.

It is not to be believed.

Anonymous said...

I received a very nice acceptance letter from a post-doc this year addressed to "First Name." I also received a "personalized" rejection letter from a school where I had interviewed. The personalized part wished "my family well." Thanks for confirming my suspicion that you were leery about hiring me as a 4/4 VAP because I was 7 months pregnant while I interviewed. (This interview was one of those one-at-a-time interviews, where they call in the next person on the list if they don't like you enough.) Happily, I will be starting a "real" TT job next year with a 2/2 load.

Anonymous said...

I wish there were more tenured radicals out there!

I was on a committee last year, and the chair refused to communicate with the candidates re the process. When two candidates had not heard from him within a few weeks of their day on campus, he openly mocked them for not getting the position and laughed about keeping them out of the loop.

I interviewed at a CC in Jan. and never heard back. I emailed and inquired, and they never emailed me back either. It's irritatating and rude when they never get back to you. It makes it worse when you are miserable in your current job.

Ob-la-di, ob-la-da life goes on.

Anonymous said...

4. Send rejections in a timely way: at least when the search is over, if not before. In fact, although wisdom has it that you reject no one until the chosen candidate has signed on the dotted line, truth be told, a large part of the pool is out of the running after the first cut. Why not tell the people who didn't make the semi-final cut -- say, in January, rather than April?

Its not just "wisdom,"; I chaired a search this year and was told it was technically illegal to reject a *qualified* candidate before the hiring was done. I asked my Department Chair and EO Office if I could send out earlier rejections and was told no dice.

Anonymous said...

I'm an experienced community college faculty member (tenured at my current institution) who is on the job market, and I usually get a telephone call rejection after I crash and burn during the interview phase. I find the post-interview voice messages annoying: "This is so-and-so and such and such community college. Please call me back at your earliest convenience." The first couple of times when someone called and did this, I thought, "Great, I'm getting a job offer." Instead, the institution was apparently attempting to be polite by rejecting me personally instead of simply leaving a message. Once a HR director called and left a message while I was out. I didn't get home until her office had closed for the day, so I had to wait until the next day to find out whether I had gotten the job. Then when I called her back and said, "This is so-and-so returning your call," she said, "Who?" It took her a few seconds to remember who I was, and then she said, "Oh, I remember, I was just calling to tell you that you were not selected for the position. A dean at another institution did something similar; she left a chirpy, perky, "Please call me on my cell phone" message. When I did, I caught her in the grocery store. Like the HR rep at the other institution, it took her a minute to remember who I was, and when she did, it was, "Well, sorry, but we picked another candidate." I could hear the "bip, bip, bip" of the electronic grocery scanner in the background.

I know some people hate the impersonality of the rejection letter, but I would actually prefer the letters to these lame attempts to show courtesy to me that end up being more insensitive in the long run.

Anonymous said...

Even the personal notes are nuts sometimes. I once was rejected from a job where I wanted lateral movement (asst. to asst.) because I was told I was "too senior" in a note in a hand written PS. It was a nice touch in a way and I understand the gesture, but it just doesn't make sense, even to a scholar who realizes the very conservative nature of institutions such as Universities who have no concept of risk and reward. I mean to tell a candidate that they have somehow accrued "too much experience" to even be considered for an interview is just strange, even for the academy. Tell that to someone in the business world and you sound like someone from bizarro world.

But easily the best, most memorable rejection letter recently came from a large state school, which notified me that, in an email which addressed me as "Dear Applicant", "My candidacy was strongly considered." Yep, I was such a strong candidate that you couldn't even address me by my name. Basically I wish the letter had had a set of questions at the end of it such as "As a reader, in a most basic analysis could please provide credible evidence that you know the writer is a liar, has no grace, or both?"

In a more serious point about hiring, I have been on both sides of the coin so I know about how committees work as well. The serious effects that these hires have for students and faculty demand deep consideration at every level. I mean, trying to get professors to actually read materials like articles, and do it in a responsible manner, is often like pulling teeth. I should note that this is most true with the most senior faculty who often have no clue about any of the most recent changes in their respective fields. When you do this work you always need to think through issues of grace and seriousness since people have poured their lives into getting to where they are as well as the fact that they can change the lives of those they touch. Frankly, reading this column confirms just how ungraceful so many highly educated people in positions of power often are. I mean, if you can't even get my name right in an emailed rejection letter that claims that I was "strongly considered", well you are not only lying but you think little of people who often match and exceed you in qualifications. If only academics were more grateful then they would understand that what people often remember of them is not their CV but how you treat others who are not as lucky as they are. And by the way, if you don't believe luck has anything to do with the getting a TT job then you just haven't been around enough.

Anonymous said...

I want to defend both email rejections and the excuse of "fit," perhaps not successfully.

I was both rejected this year and also a search chair. My rejection came by phone; as a senior person, rejected by people I know professionally, there probably is no alternative to a phone call, painful though it might have been on both sides. I had to act like an adult, which happens now and then, and overall it was best. The awkwardness is now almost all out of the way.

As a search chair for junior candidates, I didn't call anyone. I emailed the candidates we brought to campus, with personal messages emphasizing what we liked, and how it came down to fit, which it did. Of course, some visits didn't work out for other reasons too, but I'm not sure what the benefit is of saying, "you have really bad presentation skills and a quarter of the faculty believe you misunderstand your question." I did tell them who did hire, which I gather can also be controversial -- but I couldn't think of why they shouldn't know, and it helped to explain the outcome. I can't think how this would have better by snail mail, or by being overly honest about the gamut of reasons.

Those we didn't interview got form emails, addressed to them by name. Partly it is a staff time issue since we had 100 applicants. I do agree it is important to be timely about this, if at all possible, and to reply promptly to inquiries from applicants during the process about where things stand.

Plain(s)feminist said...

I'm not sure what the benefit is of saying, "you have really bad presentation skills and a quarter of the faculty believe you misunderstand your question."

The benefit of saying this, in a nice way, is that it helps the candidate to do better on his/her next interview. Not addressing it doesn't help anyone.

And why, if a quarter of the faculty believes a candidate has misunderstood the question, would someone not rephrase it?

Anonymous said...

No one will read this now, but oh well...I can only second the comments about sending a personal response to people you have interviewed. Also, search committees, it is perfectly fine to say, "We have decided to hire X." This is useful, because half the time you can figure out that X was the inside candidate, or somebody's spouse, or whatever. What is not fine is going on and on for several sentences telling me how wonderful X is. I actually got a letter like that, from Second Tier State U.