Friday, January 02, 2015

Contest Entry: Rejection Letters, 3

Would you want to get a letter like this?

(Too?) Much Information Letter

Dear [applicant name],

We received 154 applications for our advertised position. Of these we selected 32 for a "long list" of applicants and we requested letters of reference for those. You were in this group of 32.

Of those 32, we narrowed the list further to 12 individuals. One or more members of our search committee met with most of these 12 at the Big Conference or at least attended their conference presentation. You were in this group of 12.

Of those 12, we selected 5 to interview. You were not in this group of 5. The selection of the 5 individuals was not based on merit. How could it be? All 12 on the next-to-final short list are highly qualified. In fact the 32 on the long list are highly qualified and probably another dozen or more beyond that.

It might not make you feel better to know that the selection process is nearly random in the end. The struggle is to make that semi-random selection fair (that is, not favoring those we happen to know and like or whose advisors are our friends, trying not to let unconscious bias creep into the process, and so on).

So how did we decide? Is it about that nebulous concept of "fit"? Sort of, but fit can go both ways. The faculty could decide that the best "fit" would be someone who "builds on our strengths" in a certain subfield or "fit" could be defined as needing a person who works on something new and different that would nevertheless somehow "fit" with our vision of exciting future directions. In this search, we interviewed some of each type.

Was there anything in your letters of reference that caused you to be non-selected for an interview? No, there really wasn't anything. All the top candidates had excellent letters of reference.

Was it number of publications? No, it was not. Was it the impact factor of the journals? No. Citation index? Definitely not, you are all too early in your careers for that to be any useful indicator of anything.

In the end, the interview list was selected by the search committee, with input from other faculty and other interested parties, after reading and discussing the application materials, including publications (Perhaps it is useful to mention that the research statement can be quite useful as an indicator of what each applicant's ideas are for future research and teaching.). It is a time-consuming process so even if there is some randomness, it is a thoughtful randomness, if that makes any sense.

Anyway, we interviewed the interviewees and a few stood out and we made an offer to one of them and that person accepted, so our search process has now been completed and we wanted to let you know that.


The Search Committee Chair, on behalf of the Search Committee


Rheophile said...

I would really love this letter. The only thing wrong with it is that it could have been sent earlier - presumably once the short list of five has been invited to campus, people off that list are out of luck.

Of course, almost any letter would be preferable to the standard deafening silence.

Anonymous said...

This is actually very similar to the standard decision letter we are required to send out for all positions at my university. Other than a cut-and-paste of the details, they are all pretty much the same. We're also not allowed to send anything about the decision before it is actually made (since the "real" decision is made by someone much higher up, who doesn't care about the selection until it is basically done). Most people do send polite update emails to anyone who directly asks, but this is strictly off the record.

Sergey Kryazhimskiy said...

Yes, absolutely, this is a very nice letter. In general, any kind of feedback is appreciated by the candidates. As Rheophile said, deafening silence (which is the default in most universities in the US) is the worst response.

Anonymous said...

I would have LOVED to receive a letter like that! (once I got a rejection letter over a year after I applied)

Vanessa said...

This made me laugh, although I probably wouldn't have found it as funny if it was sent to me. Hey, at least they made the effort to inform the applicant instead of just ignoring that they ever existed.

Mark P said...

Not sure if I'd like to receive this letter (it is certainly better than no letter) but it's spot on about the process, though in our case the medium to short list cut would be by Skype interview. It's definitely true that on paper and even in a short interview, the top 15+ all look pretty great. It is also true that they don't all look so great after a full interview--if we could figure out the intangible factors we'd be better off.
Mark P

Anonymous said...

What Mark P. said. We brought a good-but-not-great candidate which we wined and dined. We were considering making an offer until he started complaining that we hadn't given him the "star treatment". I mean who wants a colleague like that? epic fail.

Anonymous said...

To Rheophile's comment that sending the letter earlier would be nice:

Unfortunately, this is usually not possible. From the search committee's point of view, until the position has been offered and accepted (usually through a formal signed offer letter), the remainder of the "qualified" candidates must be kept in consideration. This is to guard against the possibilities that all 5 interviewees are deemed unsuitable after interviewing, or that all suitable interviewees turn down the job. While these don't happen often, they certainly do occur.

In my experience, when (and if) such letters are sent is usually a matter of departmental of university policy, and typically can only occur once the search is deemed "closed".

Anonymous said...

I think this letter is great, if the alternative is no communication. Which, alas, happens all too often. Lack of communication is not limited to assistant professor searches. I was a finalist for a Dept. Chair position last year, and was even invited to make a second visit by the Dean, with spouse. After all this time and effort (total of 5 days for interview and second visit), complete silence for the next 4.5 months, at which point I was informed by a third party that the position was filled. I certainly do not begrudge the fact that the position went to a different candidate (perhaps better qualified than me), but some closure (even an abrupt one line email stating the position was filled) would have been nice.

Rheophile said...

Anon @ 1/05/2015 08:04:00 AM: Thanks - that does make sense, though maybe it varies a lot from place to place. Around here, it seems that if no one likes the top five, it is very unlikely that more people will be invited. Has this actually happened in your experience, or is it just something that people are unwilling to rule out?

Anonymous said...

Once in my memory in our Department and once for one of my postdocs i have seen a successful effort to go back into the pool after the initial candidate turned down the offer and others were either already out of the pool by accepting a job or were viewed as not a good fit. Thus while rare it does happen.
Mark P