You were convinced that this was your year. You had been duking it out with the job market for some time now, but, when you saw your dream job listed this past fall, you really felt like this was it. So after working diligently on your cover letter and CV and tailoring the information to fit what the department seemed to be looking for, you sent your application in and, sure enough, you were called for a first-round interview.
And you could tell that the search-committee members really liked you. So, you were not surprised when they called you back to teach a sample lesson on campus. You were ready for it. Then they asked you to have dinner with the deans. You knew that you were a finalist, and you were starting to think about salary questions, benefits, and teaching schedules. You even started looking at apartments and houses in the area.
And then the phone call came. "I'm sorry to have to tell you this," the chairman began. Somewhere beyond your disappointment, you knew you had to finish the conversation, but what were you going to say, and how were you going to handle it?
This all sounds a little dramatic I suppose, but, for those of you who have already been out on the academic market, I'm sure some of it also sounds familiar. And it soon will be for those of you about to go out on the market. Given the number of people who apply for faculty positions at colleges and universities nowadays, the fact is that you could well face some kind of rejection before you finally land the job that you want.
For all that has been written about getting a job in this difficult economy, and for all of the advice that you have probably received from friends and faculty members, not much is said about dealing with the other side of coin -- about not getting the job.
Although rejection happens so often in the crowded academic market, there is still a strange kind of denial about it. It is one of those ugly realities that only seem approachable through statistics and ratios that compare applicants to openings. But when it comes to the personal experience of being rejected, the attitude of both advisers and job candidates is not unlike what George tells Nick at the end of Hemingway's short story "The Killers": "You better not think about it."
Graduate-school placement programs tend to focus on the positive; they want to hope for the best and make their graduates believe in their chances, so they may not spend time talking about worst-case scenarios or how to deal with bad news. But, as one hiring season winds down and another one starts up, you should take a moment to think about rejection. How will you respond if you do not get the job? How you handle that scenario can be as important as what you say or do during an interview.
Some forms of rejection are less painful than others. If you applied for a position and never made it to the interview stage, receiving a rejection letter in the mail may be disappointing, but it isn't usually devastating. After all, the hiring committee members never saw you face to face. They don't know what you are like or how you conduct yourself in a professional conversation. They have not seen you teach or heard you speak passionately about your research interests.
In short, they have not rejected you personally and, conversely, you have not had the chance to size them up and get a sense of how you would fit in with the department and the institution as a whole. In a sense, it has all been a paper transaction.
All the committee knows of you is what's on your cover letter and CV, so, if you want to think about this constructively, your attention should be focused on those materials. Did you tailor your cover letter to meet the needs and requirements as they were set out in the job ad, or did you send a generic cover letter? Did your letter focus too much on research for a college that emphasizes teaching, or too much on teaching for a university that emphasizes research? Have you honestly assessed your CV and given serious thought as to how you could make it more competitive and more enticing? Do you need more teaching experience? Could you be more active professionally? Do you need to publish more? Do you need to get more involved in professional organizations?
Now, say that you do make it past the application stage. You are called in for an interview but, alas, do not get the job. The sense of personal rejection is far more acute, and the emotional consequences more severe.
In a competitive market, getting an interview is a feat that can actually make you believe, often cruelly, that you might get the job. The odds have dramatically improved in your favor; where you were 1 of 150, now you are 1 of 5 or 10.
As calm and collected as you might try to be about it all, you might not be able to help daydreaming about job offers or planning your future on campus. And, since what largely determines whether you move on or go home is how you present yourself and your performance during this process, it is hard not to take a rejection at this stage of the game personally and not to feel that somehow they just did not like you.
Rejected after an interview, your initial impulse may well be to return the blow that you have been dealt in some way, shape, or form. If someone does call to give you the news, you may feel like hurling a host of curses at them and wishing the plagues of Egypt upon their department. Or if they have notified you by mail, you may be inclined to send them a scathing letter in return that burns a hole through their ink blotters and forces them into monastic seclusion.
But, while it may make you feel better temporarily, with every damning word and every seething syllable, you will, in more ways than one, be cutting your own throat, professionally speaking. An emotional outburst after a rejection can make navigating a tight job market all the more complicated, awkward, and difficult, because you may have to see or work with these people again in some other professional capacity. It is amazing how small some of these disciplines can actually get. You may suddenly spot a member of the committee on a panel at a regional or national conference or see them in the audience when you deliver a paper.
Worse still, the hiring-committee members who rejected you could have attachments with journals and publishers. Some faculty members work as peer readers for journals and editorial boards or guest edit journal issues on topics of interest to them. A negative association with your name would do nothing for your chances if you should decide to submit something for publication.
Networking is part of the job, so, by offending a faculty member, you could also be offending a network and burning more bridges than you realize. Moreover, even though you have been rejected for the job in question, you never really know how things will work out. New hires do not always stay put or keep their jobs. Some simply do not fit in as well as the hiring committee thought that they would. Others move on after a semester or two because their dream job was something else or somewhere else. In addition, departments often find themselves with sudden retirements or extended leaves of absence.
In any of these cases, they could be forced to start another search and, if you made a good impression on your interview or were a finalist for a previous job, you could suddenly find yourself a frontrunner at an institution that you thought was long since out of reach.
If getting a job in academe is like winning the lottery, then maybe the catchphrase still applies: "Hey, you never know."
And though you may be inclined to believe that they sadistically did this to you just to see you suffer, the fact is that the faculty members on these committees are people, too. Not too long ago, they were sitting in the same seat, dealing with the same stress, and responding to the same types of questions. They probably hate rejecting you just as much as you hate being rejected. They have also had to give up their free time to serve on these committees.
Your anger, your bitterness, and your insults will not mortally wound them or make them change their minds and realize the error of their ways. In the end, it will only confirm their decision to reject you.
For all of the negatives that go along with being rejected, then, there still can be some positive payoffs. Whether it leads to a job down the road or it adds to your list of contacts or not, you should still try to think about the experience in constructive terms, in the same way that you would revise your cover letter and CV for future searches.
Make a note of questions that you had difficulty with or questions that stood out in your mind. Also, make a list of questions that you could have asked. Think about how you handled yourself and how you prepared. Were you able to effectively elaborate on the information that you provided in your initial application? Did you do some research on the college before you interviewed? If you think that your interview skills need work, then you might want to set up a mock interview or make an appointment with a career counselor to talk about how you conduct yourself through the process. You could also consult with your graduate adviser if you had questions about what you said or did during the interview itself.
The interview process does not, and should not, end just because you were rejected. In a sense, the rejection is still a part of the interview. It gives you yet another chance to demonstrate your maturity, to show your understanding of the profession and the hiring process, and to prove to the committee that you are a worthy candidate, even if you are not its choice. It certainly is a possibility that you should be ready for, because, depending upon how you handle it, it could conceivably be that situation that makes it your year after all.