Thursday, April 21, 2011

Let Me Down

At this time of year, some of my colleagues and I like to show each other our favorite "rejection letters" from the recent crop of grad applicants -- that is, the letters that we get from prospective graduate students who decide to accept an offer other than the one from our own department.

I am sure that these letters are difficult for students to write, and it already shows a degree of thoughtfulness to send one. A personalized rejection-of-offer is of course not required; students can just click 'decline' on a webpage and be done with it.

Even so, it's nice that some students send a note of some sort. Some students send a lot of e-mail to potential advisors during the application process, request individual meetings at conferences, come for visits, and basically need a lot of time and care from faculty as they (the students) collect information to make their big decisions. It's polite to thank someone for their time, whether or not you decide to work with them.

The mutual-sharing of entertaining rejection letters is therefore not a mocking of sincere students, but just a weird professorial habit of laughing about some of the stranger aspects of advising (or not advising) graduate students. In particular, some of these letters are interesting for the contortions the students go through in an attempt to let us down easily as they explain that we will, unfortunately, not have the opportunity to work with them -- at least.. not directly. Some students comfort us with the possibility that they will stay in touch, we will see them at meetings, and we will get to see how it all turns out for them in the end.

I have written about this before..

In short, my preference is for a brief and sincere thank you. It's also nice if there's a mention of where the student has decided to go, but there is no need to explain why that was the decision.

In particular, there is no need to reassure a professor that the applicant really does respect them and their work. We do not need to be told that we do interesting research, but.. These 'I actually think you do really good work' e-mails from students annoy at least one of my colleagues, but I think most of us recognize them as classic examples of an academic- letter genre and appreciate the thought, if not the awkward language.


Anonymous said...

Another related academic-letter genre: the email from the professor who didn't choose a potential graduate student for admission. I got two: one from a professor who I had interviewed with and one from a professor who had been very encouraging when I asked whether she would be taking students this year. In both cases, the professor wanted to convey to me that I was a great candidate and that if circumstances were different they would have liked to accept me. They both used some emotional language: 'I'm afraid the news isn't good.' and expressed confidence that I would have a great academic career - launched somewhere else, of course.

I was happy to receive these - they seemed sincere and showed that these professors seriously considered me. I think that if I hadn't received an offer this year those notes would have helped me to have the self-confidence to try again next year.

Now the most hilarious of grad admissions letters - the form rejection letter. My favorite sentence: "We examined all applications conscientiously, accepting for each program those applicants who appeared to have the greatest potential." So I don't have much potential? Thanks for letting me know! Ironically, this came from the department of one of the profs who sent me a personal rejection assuring me that she could see my potential.

Anonymous said...

I didn't send any follow up to the Profs I contacted if I didn't get in to the school. The reason is I don't want them to reply and wish me back. It's also dilemma if the school I got in actually turns out better than the one I got rejected (ok, programs or school reputations or whatever, but let's save it for the time being), if I'd send an email and let them know I'm going to which schools, I don't want to appear like "Hey you see? I don't care about your school rejection" kind of email. So I kept it quiet.

On the other hand, I did get in to the schools where I contacted Profs but I'm not going to accept their offer, then I composed personalized emails and send my gratitude for their gesture before the application.

Anonymous said...

I've sent some when I've rejected the other projects that I could've been on. After reading your earlier post I was conscious of what I should put in though the first one was bad, the ones after that were much better as I do intend to collaborate with them later on in my career. However, for one of them I kind of subtly showed my hatred. It's nice to think that I've finally put my point across. Childish, yes. Satisfied, also a big yes. Though I'm sure FSP will never get one like that, and I extremely rarely hate someone.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the students are trying to console you. The idea would be more that they (1)appreciate that you took the time to consider them / fly them out to visit, and (2) want to keep the lines of communication open so they can take advantage of future collaborations. You probably don't care about their career, but they do! It's always advantageous for the student for all PIs to think well of them and remember them as good potential future colleagues.

GMP said...

I'm with FSP's colleague -- I am really annoyed by elaborate attempts to let faculty down easy, including patting our egos ("You do interesting/world-class research" -- thanks, we know!), promising continued contact ("Perhaps we will have a chance to work together in the future" -- LOL! No worries kid, no broken heart here), or sharing the agony of their thought process topped off with a bit of patronizing ("This was a really hard decision, and, in the end, I feel that going with FancyPants U is the best decision for me." -- Duh! Of course, otherwise you wouldn't have made that decision.)

If a professor has taken the time to correspond with you prior to admission and especially if they took an interest in recruiting you (e.g. gave you an RA offer), you should definitely let them know that you are going elsewhere. However, keep it brief. Simply write "Dear Prof. X, I have decided to accept the offer from FancyPants U. Thank you for your time and your interest in recruiting me/your generous offer. Best regards, Student A". You don't have to justify yourself or share the details and the agony of your decision process.

I actually prefer students to be forthright about their intentions from the get go, then they might feel less need for guilt-ridden apologetic emails later. If the student says "My first choice is MIT, my second Stanford, and you are my 3rd choice." That means if you flame out at MIT and Stanford, you will come here, and that's quite OK.

Anonymous said...

I believe the students mean well when sending these thank-yous (agree that it shows a level of thoughtfulness to send one in the first place), but my colleagues and I think they also show a rather significant level of "self-regard" (perhaps useful in their intended career path) to hold out the possibility of some other form of interaction with the rejected advisor. One of my friends got one this year in which the student promised to continue to seek research and career advice from my friend, despite going to work with someone else. Many of us do actually care what happens to these students, are not upset that they aren't working with us, wish them well, and know they may one day be our postdocs or colleagues. These obnoxious emails are not important, they are just something to wonder at and laugh at now.

Anonymous said...

I remember sending out these "rejection" e-mails about ten years ago, and was probably horribly awkward about it... Being 21 and still in college, and then having to tell some of the world's experts in your field "Thanks, but no thanks" is just... weird. Especially if you have zero experience with this kind of thing. At the time it felt sorta like breaking up with someone, and you don't know how to handle it. These applicants definitely mean well, but are probably just young and awkward... not all scientists are known for their social skills. :P

Ten years of science and one Ph.D. later, I am *far* better at this kind of thing - I realized that professors have gotten tons of these "student rejection letters" over the years, so I just politely rip the bandaid off as fast as possible, and convey my sincere thanks. Made sending my postdoc lab "rejection letters" far easier (and much less awkward :)

Anonymous said...

As grad director for my program, I really would like to know where they ended up and why they chose as they did.

It makes a difference for future planning whether students are turning us down because someone else offers more money, because we don't have as strong a program in subfield X, because of 2-body or family ties, because the cost of living is so high here, …

As an adviser to undergrads it can also make me aware of grad programs I might not otherwise have known about. Many of the "good" programs in my field only have one or two good faculty, and when they move elsewhere, I may not know that the good program no longer really exists.

Tamsin said...

I recently had to write a 'rejection' email. On one hand, I know that in the grand scheme of things, the profs aren't that bothered by my choice to go to another university, but on the other, I did struggle with the choice considerably and it took a lot of self-restraint to not share the details of my decision making process with them. I had two excellent offers, one at a HRPU in a cool city, and another at a HRPubU in a smaller city. I guess I worried that the Public U folks would assume that I chose the Private U because of its name, when in reality the major factor for me was location (the programs and research were both really great and I couldn't really decide between them on the program alone. Likewise the advisors at both places were people I would be very happy to work with).

And the thing is, I really would like to work with these people (at the 'rejected' U) in the future - they're in a similar field to the one that I ended up accepting for grad school, and the profs at both places know each other pretty well. I really wanted to say that I hoped we would work together in future, but I didn't, mainly because I am aware that it could be seen as patronizing. However, one of the rejected profs DID reply saying that he hoped it wouldn't be our last encounter, so that made me feel a little more at ease about it :)

It's a tough letter to write - I felt so keenly aware that these people had put a lot of time and effort into my application (even applying for external funding for me) and visit (I stayed at one prof's house!), so I struggled to find a good balance between staying brief, and trying to express how deeply I appreciated their help. In the end I just said that I had decided for the other university, said that location was a big deciding factor for me, and that I appreciated their time and to thank their lab members for their kindness also.

The one thing I do feel really bad about is waiting until the last minute to make a decision. In my defense, the reason I took so long is because I only got to visit the places in the last two weeks before the deadline (I came from overseas). I hate the idea that I deprived someone else of a place at this university.

Poor Princess said...

It is always gracious to thank a host, and just as interviewees are hoping to understand why they are rejected (perhaps it's a poor fit, but perhaps something else--a bad letter of recommendation, a problematic CV--the knowledge can only help the interviewees improve their chances elsewhere), it seems beneficial for interviewers to understand why their candidates choose another program.

I am taken aback by GMP's comment--"You do interesting/world-class research" -- thanks, we know!" Apart from being a rather ungracious response to a gracious gesture (even if only articulated between colleagues), it suggests an unwillingness to learn from these rejections. As gasstationwithoutpumps indicates, much can be learned from the letters, and graduate programs (as well as PIs) should aim for open-mindedness and look to improve themselves at all times--none is perfect, few are close.

Anonymous said...

Professors bend over backwards to woo prospective students. Why are you surprised when the prospectives get the impression that they are letting you down by not coming? Don't put on the full dog-and-pony show if you don't want your prospectives to take it to heart that you actually care about them.