The Art of Rejection
By Melissa Girard and Cristina Stanciu
"The art of losing isn't hard to master," Elizabeth Bishop writes in her poem "One Art." "Lose something every day," she advises, "Then practice losing farther, losing faster." As academics, we want desperately for Bishop to be right. Against all evidence to the contrary, we persist in believing that it's possible to inure oneself to the losses and rejections that are an inescapable part of academic life. Facing a career filled with rejections, some minor and some monumental, we tell ourselves and our students, "Don't worry. You'll get used to it."
That is the advice every job candidate has received from well-meaning job-placement directors, advisers, friends, and family. "Don't take it personally," or "Try not to think about it," and, inevitably, "It'll get easier."
As veterans of the academic job market, we have endured countless rejections. At the end of this long journey, both of us were fortunate to find tenure-track positions, and we can say with certainty that it does get easier—except when it doesn't. Like most job candidates, we have taken rejection very personally, thought about it endlessly, and wondered bitterly how hundreds of rejections could ever be "easier" than one.
Right now those of us in English, foreign languages, and allied fields are entering the season of rejection. A large number of job interviews took place at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, which ran from January 5 to 8. In the weeks following the convention, job seekers will be checking their e-mail, voicemail, snail mail, and the Academic Jobs Wiki compulsively, filled with a mixture of dread and hope, waiting to find out if they have been selected for campus interviews.
In its "Report on the MLA Job Information List, 2010-11," published last September, the association reported a statistic that may simultaneously comfort and terrify job seekers. Over the previous two years, the MLA found that more jobs had been advertised in the spring and summer months than in the fall. In fact, 52.6 percent of jobs in English and 60 percent of jobs in foreign languages appeared after the MLA convention in 2011. Those are welcome opportunities, to be sure, but that statistic also means that the so-called season of rejection now runs continuously from October through September. Under such circumstances, we ask, is there ever a time when a job seeker isn't being rejected?
While landing a job in academe—particularly in the humanities—is often a game of chance, rejection letters can and should be composed purposefully. Search committees will inevitably disappoint, and while coping with rejection is part of our professional lives, well-written and timely rejection letters can make a difference in the candidates' searches.
Search committees often think of those form letters as impersonal transactions, delivering a message efficiently while adhering to institutional, state, and federal guidelines. But the human element should not be overlooked in these "transactions." In what follows, we draw on our recent experiences on the academic job market as well as on conversations with colleagues, friends, campus counselors, and departmental and university administrators at our graduate institutions.
Let's start with an incomplete list of the ways in which we have been rejected. We invite readers to add their own examples to this list: an e-mailed rejection within 24 minutes of uploading a 50-page application; mail rejection that arrived 14 months after submission of a five-page application; e-mail rejection that showed up on Christmas morning, wishing us "a pleasant holiday season"; e-mail rejection that came immediately after writing to a search committee to inquire about the status of the application; a rejection in a spam folder; rejection by telephone call from a campus administrator; indirect rejection over dinner with a friend who, we discovered, had accepted the position for which one of us was a finalist; rejection made clear by checking the Academic Jobs Wiki ("offer made and accepted"); group e-mail rejections in which we could see the names and/or e-mail addresses of the other applicants; e-mail rejections from jobs we did not apply for (true story!); and no rejection letter, e-mail, or call at all.
Along with waves of rejection letters, both of us have also received encouragement along the way via handwritten notes, business cards, books, Facebook friend requests, invitations to contribute articles or reviews, and supportive e-mails from scholars we admire, from people we've never met, or from search-committee members we met during interviews. Such acts of kindness can be risky during a job search, and we've always appreciated those who have reached out to offer support or advice.
At the same time, the two of us have had longstanding debates about what we call the "personalization of rejection."
Throughout our years on the market, one of us greatly preferred rejections tailored to her application and sent by actual, identifiable humans. The epitome of that form of rejection would be a letter printed on institutional letterhead and signed by a member of the search committee or department and addressed to the candidate accurately and personally. It's a respectful form of communication that honors the significant investment of time and energy that candidates and their recommenders have made in a search.
The other one of us, however, responds with even greater shame to that type of rejection, finding such personalized rejections, which arrive in the mail looking suspiciously like wedding invitations, as more disappointing than the form-letter variety. Personalized rejections cost departments more, which is knowledge that can exaggerate the importance of the rejection. Being hailed personally and then rejected can feel worse than receiving an automated bulk e-mail addressed to "Dear Candidates" and signed "Human Resources." Automated e-mails are less painful to delete.
The two of us may never reach agreement on whether impersonal letters to candidates are less damaging or more sensible than personalized messages. If the Academic Jobs Wiki can be trusted, candidates there are divided on that issue as well. Some candidates respond favorably to personal encouragement in a rejection letter, while others find it condescending or even insulting.
Given the heterogeneity of job candidates and of the positions advertised, perhaps this debate is unavoidable. But it is also true that candidates spend hundreds of hours and dollars preparing applications, flying to interviews, and incurring significant financial debt in the process. Is a carefully written rejection letter too much to ask?
We believe that, irrespective of a search committee's investment or interest in personalizing its communications, a rejection letter should be as carefully crafted as any governance document. It represents the department and, more broadly, the institution. Here are a few ways that search committees could reform their rejection letters:
The stages of rejection. Timely rejection is always better than no rejection. Contact candidates promptly after a phone, conference interview, or campus visit if the news is less than favorable. If you have met the candidate in person, you owe him or her a timely update. A boilerplate rejection letter, which begins with "Dear Candidate," is simply insulting after you have met a candidate in person.
Accuracy. Please stop misspelling our names. And make sure that we did actually apply to the position for which you are rejecting us.
No room for ambiguity. Tell candidates exactly what their status is. Saying that the search process has been a difficult one (without saying that the position has been filled) is not helpful, nor is the vague promise, "We will keep your application on file." Don't tell candidates that you will "be in touch" if you won't, and don't give them a search timeline unless it is accurate.
Timing. Send an update to the candidate as soon as possible within the parameters of the search. If the position has been canceled, let the candidates know that right away. If the human-resources office is responsible for communicating with candidates (thanks to online application systems), offer advice from the department on the phrasing of the rejection letter.
Passive-aggressive behavior. Stop allowing the Academic Jobs Wiki and your own silence to do the important work of rejection. It is confusing and disheartening to receive an acknowledgement that says, "We will set up MLA interviews during early December. If you have not heard from us by then, you can assume you have not been selected." It is even worse to apply for a job or interview at MLA and never hear anything. Most of us want to be rejected directly. It is unambiguous (see above), and it helps us move on.
Too much information? On the contrary, there is rarely enough. It has become customary, especially after the market collapsed in 2008, to state the number of applicants in the rejection letter. In rare cases, the names of the hired candidates are offered in lieu of the standard explanation (about qualifications, meeting departmental needs, etc.). Knowing that 700 applicants coveted the same position makes the rejected feel less alone.
Be supportive and encouraging. In several of the rejections we have received, the writers took the time not only to sign the letters but also to lament the state of the profession and of the job market, in particular, and to offer encouragement. While some candidates may find such encouragements condescending, they do help other candidates cope with rejection. As you draft a rejection letter, imagine that you see the recipient. Remember that he or she is all too likely to take your words to heart and overreact.
Both of us were lucky enough to find tenure-track positions in 2011. In the process, we learned to rely on our families, each other, our friends, our placement officers, chairs, graduate deans and directors, mentors, sometimes students, antidepressants, wine, chocolate, exercise, and—most important—the sustained belief in careers we've been preparing for over the past decade. And it gave us great pleasure, after accepting our current positions, to call other provosts, search-committee members, or department chairs to say, "I'm sorry, I have to decline an interview with you."
As much as we wanted to shout "We reject you!," we didn't.
Melissa Girard is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. Cristina Stanciu is an assistant professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.