Monday, January 23, 2012



This piece in the Chronicle occasioned quite a few comments, and for good reason.  Non-superstar academics under the age of about 60 typically have plenty of good (and bad) rejection stories.  This post is an attempt to look at rejection from the other side.

(That’s not to deny that I’ve had my own fair share of rejections, with varying levels of grace.  But those stories are legion on the blogosphere; I’m hoping to contribute some clarity as to why they sometimes happen the way they do.)

As many places have, my college has purchased and used an online applicant screening system for the first cut.  Applicants enter some basic information, and have to certify (or not) that they meet each of the minimum requirements stated in the posting.  They also have the chance to self-identify as a member of one of the specified underrepresented groups, if applicable.  

Applicants who don’t have the minima are immediately disqualified.  If the ad says “Master’s degree or higher in xxx discipline,” and you have a bachelor’s, you’re out.  Those notices are prewritten templates, and they’re quite impersonal.  

At the next level, applicants who seem to meet the minima have their applications read by the search committee.  Depending on the position, the level of selectivity at this point can vary tremendously.  For faculty positions in, say, Nursing, the struggle is just to find a decently sized pool.  For faculty positions in the evergreen disciplines, it’s much more about winnowing the pile down.  The task at this point is to decide who to invite to campus for a first interview.

The role of affirmative action, at this point, is to ensure that any members of underrepresented groups who meet the minimum qualifications get first-round interviews.  (That requirement gets refined when the numbers become unwieldy; we’re not doing forty first-round interviews for anything.)  Those who don’t meet the minima don’t get interviewed.

Applicants whose packages get read, but who don’t get interviews, get impersonal rejections.  That’s largely a function of time.  For a typical faculty search, we’ll have 80 to 100 applications, of which probably 50 meet the first-level screen.  (For English and certain humanities fields, double those.)  There’s no reasonable way to craft personalized rejections for fifty different people.  And it’s not at all clear, at this point, what the incentive to do that would be.  

I know I’ll get flamed for this, but it’s the damn truth: there are people in this world who will attempt to use litigation as a weapon.  A generic rejection offers no ammunition; a personalized one fairly screams to be used in court.  It’s much safer to say something like “we received many excellent of luck in your future endeavors” than to say something like “other people had more relevant experience than you.”  

The game changes slightly with the applicants who get interviewed.  First-round interviews usually involve eight to ten candidates, of whom three or four will make it to the second round.  For faculty, the first round is where teaching demonstrations happen.  At this point, rejections can be slower to come, since some candidates will back out at the last minute and you want to have a full slate of choices.  In essence, some candidates are forwarded, and others are held in reserve as fallback options.  At this stage, fast rejections only happen when someone’s interview led to a “hell, no” response.  Which sometimes happens.

Second round interviews involve higher administrators, including the hiring manager and the chair of the first-round committee.  (For faculty, they include the VPAA and the relevant dean; for staff, they’ll typically include the relevant VP and director or dean.)  This is the decision-making stage, and it can involve its own unique set of delays.  Scheduling a new round takes a little while, as does reference checking.  There’s also the wild card of the time that the first choice candidates takes to think it over.  That can range anywhere from “I’ll take it!” to “can I have a couple of weeks?”  If the first choice person winds up turning it down, which happens from time to time, then we start again with the second choice candidate.  Repeat as necessary.  

At least here, candidates who make it to the last round can expect a phone call one way or the other.  But even there, the calls are -- and have to be -- pretty terse.  The more said, the more sued, and that’s not because the truth is nefarious; it’s because some people are willing to use whatever is at hand to get what they want.  

In a perfect world, it would be lovely to have the option of candor with rejected candidates, at least when they ask for it.  (“Can you tell me what I could have done differently?”)  But even if that were possible, most of them would find it pretty unhelpful.  With exceptions, second round interviews aren’t usually decided by glaring mistakes.  They really come down to casting.  Given the folks we already have, who would add the most?  Inevitably, some of that comes down to professional judgment.  There’s no way it can’t.  Hearing something like “you didn’t do anything wrong; someone else just had wider range than you” isn’t terribly helpful, even though it’s often true.

Some methods of rejection are certainly worse than others, but at some level, there’s no way to make rejection not suck.  With many qualified applicants for each position, it has to happen.  And with the legal climate we have today, meaningful candor from the institution isn’t going to happen.  That leaves boilerplate.  I don’t like it either, but it’s a rational response to the incentives that actually exist.  The best I can offer is that none of it is designed to be offensive or demeaning, even when it feels that way.  And when it comes down to it, it isn’t about you.  It’s about the institution.  Best to read it accordingly.  

Full disclosure, I have tenure and I have run a hiring committee. Although the details of how we hire on this side of the Atlantic differ slightly in the structural details, they don't differ that much. And everything you've written here seems fair enough. Job candidates surely have to understand that a rejection really *isn't* about them. It's about finding the person who best fits what a department needs at any given moment. Sometimes a specialisation in a particular area is a massive advantage, and for the right job is going to make you the lead candidate - sometimes however it's going to mean you don't fit.

One piece of advice I would suggest to candidates is to consider the size and specialisation of the existing department. A large department can usually accommodate someone who has a rather unusual profile or specialisation and whose profile significantly differs from their would-be colleagues, whereas small departments often need someone who can be a generalist (this is particularly true for teaching purposes), whatever their research publications might be. Most teaching departments have to hire for teaching first, research second. So look at what the department teaches, what existing members of faculty do, and think about how you'd contribute. Of course it's still worth applying even if you will probably be a left-field candidate, but don't be too surprised if you're not hired.
It is quite true that the generic impersonal rejection letter or phone call is the way to go in order to avoid potential litigation. My problem has always been with the current adjunct faculty employes who apply for a tenure-track job. It can be awfully disingenuous to give such a person a generic, "there were many qualified applicants" statement, when in fact such individuals know a lot more about who applied and who got the position. Furthermore, if you have a personal relationship with the your adjunct faculty who did not get the job (or worse, did not get an interview), it seems incumbent on you to at least help them learn from their experience so they will be more successful in the next go-around.

I have been in the situation where we rejected an "in-house" applicant for a disorganized teaching demonstration, when I knew that she was capable of much better. That is when it is only humane to meet with that person to give them tips on how to do better next time.

My worst-case scenario is when, through a combination of delayed hiring from retirements (due to budget cuts, of course) and enrollment growth, we had the opportunity to hire 4 tenure-track faculty in one department. I (and the hiring committee) took that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-make the department with individuals that we knew would be more forward-thinking change-agents. We had 6 adjunct employees apply for those 4 positions, and none of them really stood much of a chance, given our hiring criteria. All were good teachers, a couple were even outstanding; but they were classic old-school lecturers with little demonstrated ability to effect dramatic change. It all worked - we hired 4 incredibly dynamic faculty who dramatically transformed the department. However, we left behind several good and well-qualified adjunct faculty members to whom it would be ridiculous just to say, "there were many qualified applicants", in part, because it was patently clear that we hired folks who were demonstrably less-qualified on paper. At the same time, it would have been unwise to reveal the real reason why they were not hired. So, it was ugly. The takeaway for those faculty was that I had made a decision to never hire in-house employees for tenure-track positions. I don't know what else I could have done though. When I told one of those applicants that there were many qualified... yadda yadda..., he cursed at me, called me a liar, and let me know he was looking elsewhere for employment.

I'm just saying that in certain cases, we owe our own employees a fuller explanation for their rejection.
The most frustrating thing is that many newbies to the job market are mistakenly advised to write generic cover letters stressing how great they are with NO connections to how they fit the institution. In our case, are you able to balance good teaching with decent scholarship - you can't ignore either if you want to be successful. More recently, we've had candidates ask us to wait until their "first choice" gets back to them. Not the best thing to say that people who are asking you to be their next colleague. On the other hand, a committee's first choices don't always end up being the best ones and sometimes we've found our second or third choice to ultimately be the best fit. It all works out. It's also better to get a job before expecting to get the perfect job.

You did a great service to all explaining how litigious it all is now. It's not meant to be impersonal but we don't have a choice. Hiring is expensive enough at it is.
Fascinating post. We live in a litigious society because the shortage of jobs has become so extreme. People are learning that they now have to fight relentlessly for everything.

I don't see that shortage easing any time soon. It will get worse before it gets better.
The litigious nature of some rejected applicants is a bit surprising to me, but it makes a lot of sense. Academic job hiring for some candidates is high stakes; once you graduate from a PhD program you have four or five years tops before your market value declines considerably. Also consider the investment each job application involves. The process DD outlines probably occurs over a few months, and several applicants probably come from out of town. Then comes the comments about hiring in-house adjuncts or the lack thereof .

The only way to truly reduce the legal risks of hiring/rejection would be to hire more often and more reliably (which will almost certainly not happen without some major disruptions in higher ed).
Kudos for at least sending out rejection letters. When I was applying for software jobs, many employers didn't even acknowledge unsuccessful applications. It was frustrating.
Johan Larson's comment is worth expanding on. It's interesting to talk with students about their job-search experiences as they leave college. Many of them apply at a huge number of potential employers; sending out 100 + letters of application is common. The stories I hear from them is that those letters are rarely acknowledged, even in cases in which an employer has advertised an opening through the campus placement service. It's even rarer to be told that the search is over because someone else got the job. And, in non-academic jobs, there is no well-defined hiring season (and never has been), so the notion of year-round rejection (or year-round-being-ignored) is the norm for our students.

Not that searching for a job is a lot of fun in any circumstance. One of the many pleasant things about the past 25 years for me is that I have not had to look for a job. Believe me when I tell you that it has been great.
Interesting scenarios laid out by Al@7:39AM.

It would seem to me that the time and place to address the reasons an adjunct did not even get an interview or failed the demo is much earlier (before they apply) when evaluating their classroom work and mentoring them on places they can improve. That goes double if you suspect that their goal is a faculty position.

Similarly, the applicants might not have been blindsided in that multi-position search if the ad had mentioned your goals. I have seen ads where they made it clear they were seeking to move in a new direction. Who knows, some of your adjuncts might have shown you something that you didn't know they could do because they had come to assume that you actually wanted boring lectures based on their annual reviews.
I definitely agree that the conservative project of destroying the middle class has reduced the number of jobs available.
This is an interesting and useful post because it addresses some puzzling (to outsiders) issues with candor.

How do you feel about the age of an applicant? After I was laid off an administrative position at a large state university, I started teaching adjunct at a very good community college where I would love to work full-time. However, two years after the layoff, I'm now 66 (my plan, while employed, was to work until age 70; if I ever get another real job, the changed circumstances will require that I work until I drop in the traces, or at least until age 75).

I applied to a position for which the search is now in progress. Don't feel much hope because I'm so long in the tooth, and because the Ph.D. and years of academic experience presumably would command a higher starting salary than the college would have to pay an M.A. with a shorter track record. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I suppose...

But as a general rule: when a person qualifies for senior-citizen discounts, is there really any point at all in applying for an opening? It's a time-consuming process and it requires other people to use their time and effort -- really, I hate to waste my time and theirs.
Funny About Money,
Unfortunately, we live in a very ageist culture and I imagine it will be very difficult for you. I was once asked on an interview, "How long do you think you'll stay if we hire you?" Hmmmm, do you think they asked the other applicants that question (even though ALL questions had to be identical??)
@ Itz Kate: Are they even allowed to ask you that question?

Where I was full-time, we were mightily enjoined from asking a candidate any personal question, even in a social setting. One of my friends was at dinner with an interviewee and several colleagues when he asked her, trying for small talk, if she had any kids. The Vigoro hit the fan! He was called on the carpet, and the committee even considered folding the search because this one candidate was asked an out-of-bounds question.

"How much longer before you're ready to throw in the towel" seems to fall into the same category as "how many kids." People over the age of...uhm, 50, I think -- it's surprisingly young...fall into a protected class. It's illegal to discriminate against the long of tooth, and so a question like that could put the search (or the school, if they hired anyone other than the geezer) at risk.
How long do you think you will stay goes to younger people too because they may be thinking of moving on for professional or personal reasons. Start ups have a cost and that is a legit question to which you will never get an honest answer
The way you ask the "how long do you think you'll stay?" question is: "Where do you see yourself in five (10, etc.) years?"
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