23 April 2008

Just Say No (Thanks), But Say It Well

I don't know how many academic jobs I've applied for over the years. I had two big years of job searching, one right as I was finishing my doctorate, in which I applied for jobs all over the US and Canada and tried to work out whether I wanted to be a literature-and-writing researcher or a composition and literarcy researcher, one in which I thought I wanted to be a literature specialist, and then a few more scattered applications here and there for positions that seemed interesting. That's a lot of letters, and, of course, a lot of rejection letters sent my way. I still remember two of them: one, from Big State University, a short rejection letter in the fall, after they'd asked to see a writing sample, with a handwritten note from someone on the committee at the bottom. She used an ocean metaphor I can't quite recall to say that she was glad to have come across my scholarship in the search, and that while this wasn't a good fit, she looked forward to seeing more of my work, more of me in the future. The other, a full-page letter sent from Regional State University, went to all applicants who'd applied for a position whose funding had been yanked after the position had been posted. The department chair's letter explained the situation, and talked about how he had loved reading all the applications, describing in general terms the kinds of research and teaching interests he had seen reflected in the applications, and how much he wished he had the chance to meet more of us, and how he wished us well.

Those letters were written by people who were imagining readers on the other side. They were written by people who were self-conscious about the rhetorical situation. They made me feel good about my work, because both letters showed me that real people were out there reading them.

Tenured Radical recently posted on the art of rejection letters. Her tips, as always, are sound, and search committees would do well to heed them:
1. Do not send rejections by email.
2. Do not send rejections by post card.
3. When writing a letter to candidates, if you actually met them, or solicited the candidacy, take two seconds to write a personal note. This means not having your departmental secretary sign them, of course.
4. Send rejections in a timely way: at least when the search is over, if not before. In fact, although wisdom has it that you reject no one until the chosen candidate has signed on the dotted line, truth be told, a large part of the pool is out of the running after the first cut. Why not tell the people who didn't make the semi-final cut -- say, in January, rather than April? [just to be clear: these 4 tips are the Radical's words, not mine]
I'd add a bit to TR's excellent list (framed in the way that English searches happen, which is to say, with deadlines in the fall, interviews at or around the time of the MLA convention in late December, and campus visits anywhere from January through March):

  1. Do not send rejections by voice mail on people's home phones.
  2. Send rejections in ways that acknowledge interactions with the candidates (at least the formal stages of the search): a letter to someone you interviewed at the convention should be a bit different from someone who didn't make that cut. It should be clear to the candidate that you remember meeting them, and that you remember something about their work. It is easy to personalize letters given the wonders of mail merge.
  3. Send rejections. Does the fact that the campuses who never wrote to me back in 1990 when I applied mean that I'm still in the running? Probably not, and in any event, I've not found the job I want for the next phase of my careers.
  4. Send rejections in waves. When you advertise for a position in Magical Forestry, and specialists in Green Peas who took a single course in Magical Forestry apply, it's pretty clear that you wouldn't hire a Green Pea specialist for the position even if everyone else in the applicant pool fell away. There are probably other candidates who are clearly not going to make the final cut. So send those rejections promptly (I wait until the affirmative action review of the interview list is settled). There's no reason to wait until after the search has concluded, which in English can sometimes be 6-8 months after applications are first received.
  5. When you interview candidates at MLA, and a few of those candidates are clearly not a good fit, send those rejections right away, too.
  6. When you invite your top candidates to campus, but think that the next few people on your convention interview list might be fine to invite if some of your top candidates withdraw, let the other candidates know. Yes, this will let them know that they are not your top choice, but they're likely to figure that out when it's mid February and you still haven't called. This gives you a chance to say, "We've invited some other candidates to campus. We had strong applicants and we're impressed with you and your work. We'll keep you posted." This kind of honesty lets candidates know where they stand. OK, this isn't exactly about rejections, but it's related.
  7. When people come to campus, and they don't get the job, write them a personal note that acknowledges the ways in which they interacted with you. Yes, it is difficult to write such a letter, especially when the reasons for ranking candidates sometimes turns on things candidates can't control (like whose secondary interests overlap or don't with other members of the department), and when candidates 2 and 3 may be really quite good. A short, general "We're reviewing applications and unfortunately your application will not proceed any farther in the search" kind of letter is fine for an early refection, but rejections later in the search should acknowledge the nature of the contact with the candidate.
In some of the departments I've worked in, search committees have used very brief letters of rejection out of fear of creating extended interactions with rejected candidates. But from the writing side, and the receiving side, I'm more comfortable with letters that reveal the humanity in the process. (I'll pause for some snickers. yes, there is much to be cynical about in academic job searches, but the search committees I've participated on or supervised as chair have generally done a fine job working through a crazy process.) There are people on both sides of the search, and search committees hold almost all the power through most of the search. Our correspondence should be gracious, clear, honest, and timely. Searching creates networks, and we never know how candidates will move along in their careers. Writing well on a search creates a good impression of a department, and it helps job seekers.

And yes, I do like to read Ms. Manners, in case anyone was wondering.


Judy said...

I agree with what you say.

Being in academia and having served on (and currently serving on) search committees, I have to say that some of us are doing rude things because certain things (like not sending ANY rejection letters until the entire process is complete) are University. Policy.


Ahhhh, bureaucracy. Yes, the big muckety mucks should read Miss Manners too, but they don't.

(Just Enjoy Him)

peripateticpolarbear said...

Here's one to add (albeit from academic administration):

When you've applied for a position via a search firm, it's reasonable to expect that the firm will send you a reject note, etc. early on. But at the point of having actually interviewed on campus and met people (but not the research firm, of course) AT YOUR ALMA MATER, it's sort of tacky to send the search firm to call you and reject you.

Second, when you've gone for an on-campus visit, done the whole hour-long presentation to the faculty, blah, blah, and then never hear anything, you can safely assume that you didn't get the job and they didn't read Miss Manners. But when the Dean of the same college calls you 8 months later to ask you a question about something you said in your presentation 8 months ago without ever acknowledging the search or the fact that you never received a freaking rejection notice--that's tacky.

susan said...

Hey, welcome, Judy!!!

And PPB: while it's possible the Dean has no idea that most candidates never got a rejection notice, it is totally tacky to act like the search never happened. What are people thinking sometimes?

Rev Dr Mom said...

Excellent. And you know, most of this could apply to clergy job searches, too, where the people seem even more clueless than do those who are in charge of academic searches.

Songbird said...

As the recipient of a variety of canned or emailed rejections from church search committees, I concur with RDM.

jo(e) said...

I am currently chairing a search committee. And I have almost no choices when it comes to the rejection process. University policy dictates that I do it by telephone (not in writing), that I follow a bland script that says almost nothing except, "we are rejecting you," and that I give out no other information.

What Now? said...

Amen to this list! I guess I understand institutional policies that are no doubt trying to head off potential legal issues from badly worded rejections, but in that case I'd probably try to sneak around the edges of the policies to let candidates know that the search committee honors the extraordinary work it takes to be a candidate.