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.