"Dear Darin: The task of our committee was inevitably both exciting and excruciating."
So begins what has become my favorite rejection letter. I find its combination of familiarity and hyperbole particularly appealing. I don't usually fixate on titles, but in certain circumstances basic etiquette governs their use; after all, I didn't address my letter "Dear Brigitte." And while reading applications might be interesting, it is rarely exciting or, for that matter, excruciating.
Nevertheless, I am thankful for this letter. At least the committee had the consideration to compose and send such a letter, even if the department head couldn't be bothered to sign it.
I am not going to complain about the dismal academic job market or the difficulties of applying for jobs. At some level, all applicants know that the market is flooded with overqualified candidates and that the final decision often rests on seemingly arbitrary and often cabalistic factors.
Instead, I want to suggest a simple way that search committees can introduce a modicum of civility to the process: timely and earnest rejection letters.
So far, I have not heard anything from almost half of the departments where I've submitted applications this academic year. That insult is exacerbated by the trite and often impersonal content of the letters that do finally arrive. Were my experiences unique, I could dismiss them as somehow idiosyncratic. However, I fear that most job applicants endure the same thoughtless treatment -- vacuous tropes about qualified candidates and well wishes do not justify the long delays in sending rejection letters.
Some institutions have no trouble with promptness. My first rejection letter was dated November 20 and mailed the same day: "Dear Mr. Hayton: We regret to inform you that your application material arrived after the deadline posted in the advertisement for our position in Medieval/Renaissance history." The letter continued in a condescending tone, suggesting that some personal flaw prevented me from meeting the advertised deadline.
Thinking I had misread the date, I checked the original job ad. It stated: "Send application letter, c.v., official transcript, and one-page statement of teaching philosophy, and have 3 letters of recommendation sent, by 15 Nov. 2003, to the address below." My post-office receipt is dated November 14. Apparently I should have divined that "deadline posted," despite lack of specification, was the deadline for receiving applications, rather than the postmark date.
Surprisingly, departments at large, supposedly impersonal state institutions were the most considerate in replying to my application and keeping me informed on the status of my candidacy.
The University of Maryland at College Park was a model in that regard. Two days after the posted application deadline, the head of the search committee there sent me a letter to acknowledge receipt of my application and said that the committee would complete its "initial consideration of applications by early- to mid-December. At that time we will notify candidates who are no longer under consideration and request additional material from other candidates." On December 19, the chair sent me an e-mail message stating that the committee was no longer pursuing my application. The message, he assured me, was sent in the interest of efficiency and would be followed by an official letter. A few days later I received a letter confirming his note.
By contrast, small, liberal-arts colleges turned out to be the most remiss. Such colleges pride themselves on the personal education they impart, one that develops respect, instills values, and promotes intellectual honesty and integrity. Perhaps those values are conterminous with the campus, for they don't extend to the way search committees treat external job applicants.
The discourtesy I encountered at liberal-arts colleges seemed to fall into three types: information that was sent too late to be useful, information that was promised but never showed up, and no information at all until the search was over.
In the uselessly late category, one hiring committee responded promptly, acknowledging my application and requesting that I complete the affirmative-action forms. By the time the committee wrote again, it was well past the annual American Historical Association convention at which initial interviews were held. I was left to infer that the committee had no interest in hiring me.
In one absurd instance, a search committee sent me a letter the day that the convention began, telling me that it had proved "a daunting task to choose from among so many obviously qualified candidates a necessarily limited number to be interviewed at the AHA in Washington DC. I am sorry to tell you that your name was not among those selected." At least the committee fulfilled its moral obligation, however late, to tell me that there was no need to show up at the convention. Other committees were not so thoughtful.
In the second category, all too common was the committee that quickly thanked me for applying, assured me that "the search and screen committee will begin reviewing applications soon," and then fell silent for the duration. Speaking for his colleagues, one search-committee leader wrote: "We want to assure you that your application will be treated with the respect you deserve." Now that I haven't heard from them for months, I wonder what he meant by "respect," or how little the committee must have for me.
Finally, some committees didn't bother to acknowledge my application at all before writing to inform me that the position "had been filled."
An assistant at one department waited until late January to compose the letter telling me that it had "selected a top group of candidates to invite to campus." She did not, however, send the letter for another week. I know for a fact, however, that by December 19, two hiring committees had screened applicants and had invited candidates to interview at the historical association's convention in early January. Clearly, they could have let me know I was not in the running by that same date.
That practice seems epidemic.
Another committee finally wrote on February 24, but then waited until March 3 to mail the letter. The head of one search committee at least acknowledged his gaffe in the opening sentence of his letter: "We are sorry not to have been in touch earlier, but we are writing now to let you know that the early modern European history position at the college has been filled." Given the brevity of the letter, which contains only one more sentence, I suspect that the gesture was intended to fill space rather than express any true regret.
Rejecting applicants should not take much time. Committees, or their secretaries, rarely craft a unique or helpful rejection letter. Indeed, the rhetoric of rejection, like the rhetoric of praise, is just simple variation on a theme:
First, thank the candidate for applying. Make the applicant feel good, that the committee enjoyed reading yet another dossier: "Your application was greatly appreciated." Or, "I want to express my gratitude to you for your interest in the college and the position."
Describe what a difficult task it was to select the finalist. A well-crafted letter evokes the applicant's sympathy for your Herculean efforts to narrow the pool. As one of my rejection letters put it, "We received an exceptionably [sic] large pool of applications including a great many of outstanding merit." And another: "Our applicant pool was strong and quite impressive."
Wish the candidate the best of luck elsewhere. The key here is closure: "We wish you every success in your future career." "We wish you the best in your efforts to find the match that will most enrich your life."
Finally, sign and mail.
If neither the content nor the length of the letters justifies the delay in sending them, why are committees so reluctant to notify candidates of their status? Perhaps it is simply that people do not like to convey bad news. Or perhaps committee members focus myopically on hiring and pay little or no attention to the flotsam and jetsam of their own searches. Or perhaps they just do not think about it, being secure in their own positions.
Whatever the reason, the closing words in yet another of my rejection letters applies here: "It is also a sad commentary on the state of our profession."