I heard a professional conversationalist once say that talking to people is easy. Down South, just ask, "Where are your kinfolk from?" Up North, simply ask, "What did your family do for a living?" In academe, I would add, you can always strike up a conversation by asking, "Got any job-search horror stories?"
For the first time in recent memory, my department did not conduct a search this academic year. It's routine for us now, a natural rhythm of spring, to stand around in the halls discussing job candidates. This year, however, we had only ourselves and our own job-hunting experiences to talk about, and so we did.
One colleague spoke about getting a job offer from a dean at 4 p.m., only to receive a frantic phone call at 7:45 the next morning rescinding the offer (the provost had killed the position overnight). Another colleague recalled how, just as she was leaving to be interviewed a final time in anticipation of a job offer, she ran into an acquaintance who casually mentioned that he hoped that the institution's recent administrative scandals had been resolved.
A third colleague recounted how he had been interviewed at a college near his family only to discover that there wasn't actually an opening; the department was merely anticipating the next year's search by scouting for good candidates. It also took him several months to get reimbursed by the college for his travel expenses.
I myself recall being contacted two days before an on-campus interview by a search-committee chairman who informed me that the college's regional accreditor was going to place the institution on some sort of probation.
We also swapped stories about turning down job offers. Some of us rejected offers because the institutions had heavy teaching loads (one colleague said no to a college with an annual load of 33 credit hours, 27 of them in freshman composition). Some of us declined offers from institutions that had seemed openly hostile to us during the interview process, only to inexplicably make an offer. And some of us rejected offers for personal reasons (geography, lack of family support, and even allergies specific to a region). Our common sentiment, though, in recalling those rejections was, "Thank goodness I didn't end up there."
I realize that to some readers complaints about interviews and job offers may sound, as the Friends character Chandler Bing once phrased it, like complaining that your "diamond shoes are too tight." But I've been on both sides of the hiring table for a decade now, and I can say that sometimes it takes courage to say "no" and that there is occasionally great wisdom in being glad you were rejected. I'd like to share a few lessons that my colleagues and I have learned over the years.
Getting a job offer is not necessarily the best thing for your career. That is particularly true if you have not yet defended your dissertation.
I know many A.B.D. candidates who were offered jobs that ultimately snuffed out their dissertations. Doctoral programs that offer fellowships or instructor positions to their A.B.D. students perform a valuable service in allowing such students the luxury of being at least minimally selective.
Your research progress, your family situation, and even your specific career goals should be considered in any decision to accept a position, as should the pay and benefits. Some institutions abuse A.B.D.'s with low pay and nonexistent benefits. You've worked too hard to allow yourself to be oppressed like that.
Don't let pessimism about the competitive academic job market distract you. If one department has offered you a job, chances are that you are doing something right and will receive an even better offer in the next hiring cycle or two.
A bad teaching job is much worse than a good nonacademic job. I was at a conference once where I struck up a conversation with a professor who looked really bedraggled. She unpacked a tale of a merciless teaching load, apathetic students who bullied professors, and nasty colleagues. I could feel my hair curling as she continued through every twist of the past year's traumatic experiences.
When she finished, she said, "Oh yes, and we are running two searches right now. Do you know any good candidates?"
My only thought was that there was no way I'd ever recommend that anyone, no matter how desperate, take a position at her institution. An academic job isn't going to be the salvation of your life; no job of any sort is. Better to wait for a good job of any kind than to find yourself trying to send out CV packets in secret while teaching a 33-hour load.
Declining an offer will not kill your career. Saying "no" in an ungracious manner is a bad idea, but if you explain your reasons in a professional manner, your candor will be appreciated.
My department once had a promising candidate who withdrew from a search, gently expressing concerns about our course loads (we are a teaching-oriented institution). I was able to pass those concerns along to my administrators, and her comments generated a very good discussion about some important issues for my department. I look forward, in fact, to seeing how that person builds her career and to thinking, "Wow, we could have had her here!"
For candidates who tactfully say no to interviews or to job offers, there is no blacklist. There are only networks of could-have-been colleagues who will remember you as the one who got away.
Rejections are almost never personal. Academics may trade stories about the strangest candidates we've ever seen, but the reality is that rejections almost never arise out of personal issues.
The reasons are usually far more complicated: Maybe a candidate's subfields did not make for a good fit with the department. Maybe there was administrative pressure to reconfigure the position. Occasionally the hiring of a faculty member in another department will create a last-minute need to fill a position with a trailing spouse. Even when the reason for the rejection involves issues of collegiality, which certainly are personal, those conflicts may say more about the department's personality than the candidate's.
Just do your best and don't second-guess yourself compulsively. Out of the many times I myself have been rejected, even the instances that were heart-wrenching at the time, almost without exception I can look back and say that I'm glad that I didn't end up in those positions at those particular points in my career.
Rejections are not always the end. I know of a half-dozen people who were turned down for a position only to be later offered a different position within the same department. In most of those cases, the candidates were so gracious in the interview process that the department just fell in love with them. They handled the rejection politely, and, sometimes even the same semester, a position opened up unexpectedly and the candidate was called and offered the job.
Likewise, I myself as chairman have been very impressed with some candidates whom we've had to turn down, and I've called fellow department heads who were conducting searches to pass along names. Pouting or accusations are never appropriate (well, maybe in extreme circumstances). Bridge burning is rarely a good idea; the academic world is too small for you to cultivate a reputation as an arsonist.
The passage of time can be a great means of gaining a clearer vision of events. If you are still looking for that first job, ask some of your favorite professors to share their horror stories. Odds are, they were rejected a number of times and perhaps turned down a few positions along the way. Life goes on; careers go forward. A little courage and a bit of wisdom make both a great deal sweeter.