Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Rejection Rules

Telling people (by letter, e-mail, or voice) that they are not getting a position for which they applied, or are not even being considered (at all/any more), is difficult. Do I even need to bother to say that I understand that it is not as difficult as being the one getting that information? (Probably, so I just did.)

I have written about rejection letters before, and have a blog label for posts on "criticism, rejection, or failure" (22 posts, including this one). I still stand by the approach I described two years ago regarding how to go about rejecting applicants:

(1) just do it -- once a decision has been made, it's better to let an unselected applicant know where they stand than to leave them unnecessarily uninformed and wondering;

(2) be respectful and professional; the rejectee likely does not care to hear that rejecting them is painful for you;

(3) if possible, be informative with relevant data (number of applicants, where the applicant ended up in the process etc.); this is also part of being professional and respectful, even if there are a very large number of applicants to reject.

I am sure that there is a lot of variation in how and when different departments/units inform unselected applicants of their status. For much of the process in my department, I leave communication with unselected candidates to the search committee chair and/or the department administrator, depending on the situation. My personal role as the bearer of good or bad news comes near the end of the process and involves only the candidates who made it to the very-last stages of consideration.

When a search is still underway, my only contribution to the rejection process is to make sure that  someone is informing applicants of their status in a timely way.

Rejection may occur at any one of many points in the process:

First: rejection of those who reflexively submit applications for positions for which they are not qualified -- for example, those who are in a completely different field with zero experience in the research/teaching topics of the open position. I wonder why these applicants even bother. These applications typically arrive soon after an ad is posted, even if this is months before the deadline or target date for submitting applications (not a good sign if you are applying to a research university with expectations of continuing research activity).

Then: those applicants who meet the basic qualifications for the position but, owing to something about their record or field of expertise, are not selected for further consideration.

Then: those applicants who make it to the long-list but not the medium- or short/est-lists. The reasons for non-selection at these points range widely.

Then: those who interviewed but who are not offered a position -- there may be various subdivisions of these depending on how many are interviewed and what goes on in terms of discussions among faculty, administrators etc., so the timing and mode of rejection may vary.

That's a lot of rejecting. In my experience, departments are encouraged to conduct at least some very broad searches rather than narrow searches in the hopes that broader searches will increase diversity. Broader searchers result in larger numbers of applicants and therefore larger numbers of rejections. If the ultimate goal is noble, I think it is preferable to have a larger number of applicants (and therefore rejections) than to have fewer applicants/fewer rejections.

Agree or disagree?


Lily said...

Agree completely. Prompt, polite and professional is the way to go.
Unrelated question: would you ever hire someone who was denied tenure at another institution?

Anonymous said...

I agree that a broader search is more useful and that you might unexpectedly find an outstanding candidate that a narrower search would have missed. As for rejections, do search committees actually send those out? I've had scores of interviews, and even though I have received several offers (not from all interviews of course), I never once got a formal rejection. Ever. No feedback or anything. Nothing. I did receive a brief email once that asked "so where did you end up?"

Sam said...


I would hire someone who was denied tenure, but of course it depends on the reason for the tenure denial.

There's the often mentioned cases of folks at MIT, Harvard, Berkeley etc who get denied tenure because they are not #1 in their field, but since they are #2 they easily get hired elsewhere. I can think of one specific person who now has tenure at Princeton.

More broadly relevant, I have known of unfair handling of tenure cases that resulted in denial of tenure. I can think of a specific person who now has a decent tenured position elsewhere and has done quite well.

And, I know one case where the person didn't get tenure and told me personally that it was a very fair decision. He worked in industry for a while, then got hired with tenure at U of Chicago and went on to have an outstanding career there, one of the top theorists in his field.

So, that's three successful cases that come to my mind where people who were denied tenure went on to be hired elsewhere, tenured, and success. And that's just people in my particular subfield of science.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with running an OPEN search - not only does this increase the diversity of the applicant pool, it also increases the probability of seeing something unexpected that is also excellent.

Regarding rejections - again - completely agree...

I can also think of someone who's gone on to have an excellent career after denial of tenure elsewhere. This person is extremely happy, has a vibrant and productive research group, and is one of the most highly cited members of our faculty.

Thus - consideration of a applicant after a negative tenure decision? You bet.

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy said...

> (3) if possible, be informative with relevant data (number of applicants, where the applicant ended up in the process etc.); this is also part of being professional and respectful, even if there are a very large number of applicants to reject.


Halfway through my first tenure-tack search (which had so-far generated a mixture of computer generated rejection and no-response-what-so-ever) I got an email written by a human telling me that I had made the first cut and been considered for the short-list, but there had been 180 candidates who met the minimum qualification and more strong candidates than they had time and funds to interview.

In a sense that is a pretty depressing message, but I took heart from it, and got a job on later search.

Anonymous said...

I agree: preferable to have a larger number of applicants (and therefore rejections) than to have fewer applicants/fewer rejections.

In response to a suggestion made during our 10-year external review, my department completely revised how it does faculty searches, moving to open searches that involve everyone in our (extremely broad) department. It worked fantastically well, and in contrast to the more targeted searches that had been the norm in previous years, we had no trouble identifying excellent, diverse candidates.

Unfortunately, during this transformation our university launched a major initiative to make targeted hires in certain "strategic areas". Diversity amongst top candidates dropped like a rock. Really a shame: felt like we took one step forward but then were forced to take two steps back.

EliRabett said...

This is a two parter. The first reason that there are so many applications is that there are so few jobs. The second is that today the cost of an application is zero (crank up the word processor)

Anonymous said...

As a candidate I really appreciated the fast and factual reject. It lets you move on and helped remind me that the rejection was not a rejection of me as a person.

I think broad searches can be good in many ways but I have also seen problems in both my grad institution and here where broad searches are too undefined and lead to a failed search because the committee cannot reach a consensus when choosing between very different but excellent candidates.

Anonymous said...

Receiving notification of a rejection is much better than never hearing anything. Unfortunately it seems to be common practice to simply forget about the rejected candidates. The cost of applying may be zero for some, as EliRabbett says, but the minimal cost of rejecting should be an automated process requiring a single button press. It shows complete lack of respect for the candidates not to bother notifying them. Anything more is a bonus!

Anonymous said...

@ Lily
"would you ever hire someone who was denied tenure at another institution?"

Fortunately, people do. My PhD advisor was denied tenure. He was going into it with several ACS pubs, and two science papers. He just had ZERO political game skills. Fortunately, we were able to finish out at the new institution.

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy said...

> today the cost of an application is zero (crank up the word processor)

I don't know about that. Even for candidates who don't customize their applications---and in the last search I was part of we simply circular filed applications that felt that way---they usually have to negotiate some horrible data entry form that asks them to retype everything on their CV. That generally took me 30-45 minutes each.

Add to that the usual steps of parse the add; google the department; select the best suited cover letter template and customize it; select the versions of my CV and various lists or statements that best fit the add and then tweak if necessary; proof read everything again; and final delve into that horrible application web application and I could spend two hours or more on one application.

And in many cases I didn't even receive an automated rejection email (in a few cases not even an automated acknowledgment of receipt) which is just downright rude. I can understand why personalized communications can't be sent to every applicant but as long as you are using a program to collect the applications you ought to be able to send a @#$&(ing email!

Anonymous said...

I agree, of course, that it is better to know if one is rejected.
I have another related question: would you accept a visiting position (say, for a semester) if it was clear that the very broad search had resulted in an uncertain committee that then wanted to try you out, ie., was not sure enough to offer the position. I refer to a position with tenure, and the candidate too has tenure elsewhere. What would you advise - to visit or not to visit?

Anonymous said...

I greatly appreciate FSP's professional and courteous method towards rejection letters. It's frustrating to apply for jobs, have an interview perhaps, and then not hear anything back (this goes for all jobs, not just academic).

Anonymous said...

I'd be curious how many institutions don't send rejection notices because they feel notices are a liability: maybe it opens them up to "why was I rejected" sort of questions. I've heard that for job searches and for tenure applications, committees like to keep their reason for rejection vague so they don't open themselves to lawsuits.

Lily said...

I had interviewed at five places. I got two offers, two very civilized rejections (one by phone and one in person at a conference), and nothing at all from the fifth place.

Thanks to all who answered my question earlier!

Funny Researcher said...

Never got a phone call for a rejection (always an email) when I was invited for an interview. Mind you that I was rejected more than a dozen times.

The ones that I didn't get an interview will not even bother to send an automated email.

Anonymous said...

I was rejected from every academic position to which I applied last year, and each one sent me either an email or a letter to that effect.