Surviving Rejection on the Academic Job Market

I still remember checking my watch and thinking vaguely about what I would eat for lunch. It was around lunchtime, so normally there wouldn’t have been anything odd about my wandering thoughts.

Except that I was in the middle of a job interview for a tenure-track position.

I knew from the direction of the conversation that I wasn’t going to get the job. My thoughts had thus turned to more immediate matters–my growling stomach. Indeed, after the interview was over, I emailed my recommenders to let them know I would need more letters. I called my husband. And then I got lunch.

My gut was right. I didn’t get that job.

Unfortunately, with more than 1,183 new history PhDs on a market in 2014-2015 that only had 587 tenure-track history positions, my past experience is far too common. Almost everyone on the job market today will be rejected, probably multiple times. Most rejections will come after minimal contact with the potential school. The rejections that really sting, however, come after making it through the initial review, the phone interview, and then actually spending 1-2 days on campus. These rejections seem more personal. As the Chronicle of Higher Education quoted one rejected academic: “Academic job rejection hurts because, as they tell us, there are so many qualified candidates and it’s all about fit,” so rejections “means you don’t fit in anywhere.”

So how do you deal?

First, be upset. This is okay. Rejection is always hard. It is especially hard when it means the difference between having a job or not having a job. Talk to someone. Eat a Reese’s peanut butter cup (seriously–I told my husband to stop buying them for me!), or whatever is your equivalent indulgence, and do something other than revising your c.v. for an evening. I recommend listening to a fiction series on your iPod while you rip out the box shrubs in the front yard (I guess now you know what I did….).

Second, start moving forward from the rejection by treating it as a learning experience. Maybe there is something you can do to improve your chances next time around. After all, if you have sent out multiple letters and c.v.s, but never have received an interview request, probably your letter and c.v. need revision. If you have interviewed for several positions, perhaps your interview technique needs adjusting.

Think about it: Did you get flustered during the Provost interview, or perhaps had difficulty in the department interview? Talk to some peers and set up a practice interview or two to help you get better. How was your teaching demonstration? I find candidates often make one of two mistakes. Either they provide only content, trying to prove they know the information, or they provide only method, trying to prove they will be engaging for students. Try to do some of both. Make sure you provide enough background information for the department to know you do have mastery of the subject, but also demonstrate what you would actually do with the students in class (such as reading texts aloud, analyzing a source, or dividing into small groups for discussion). Please, please don’t just stop your lecture long enough to tell what you would do at various points and then go back to your lecture; it is far more effective to treat your demonstration audience as a normal classroom. It may seem weird, but–believe you me–it will make a much better impression. If you’re not sure how your teaching demonstration went, see if you can get a fellow grad student or colleague to evaluate your teaching and talk through it with you.

Finally, if you didn’t know enough information about the school and department you visited (did you know names? research fields? basic information about the school, such as its religious affiliation?), make sure you do your homework in the future. I also strongly recommend picking up a copy of Kathryn Hume’s Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt and reading it thoroughly before your next round of applications.

Third, realize that the rejection may have had very little to do with you. Seriously. My adviser told me that getting a job was a crapshoot. Being a good Baptist, I didn’t know what a crapshoot was at the time. I looked it up and realized she meant getting a job often had less to do with skill and more to do with luck. Unfortunately there is a lot of truth in this. Sometimes rejections happen because of infighting within a department. Sometimes rejections happen because of internal pressure for the other candidate. Sometimes rejections happen because both candidates were simply so good that the department just picked one (although hopefully not by literally rolling the dice…). Sometimes rejection happens because the plug is pulled on the search. And, my favorite, sometime rejection happens because the department finally decides which direction they want to go with the position, and it is not the position you represent.

In other words, the rejection is probably a lot less personal than you originally thought. I would argue that there is almost always something within a department that influences candidate votes but has very little to do with the actual candidates…..

Finally, remember to always respond with grace. Academia is a small world. Candidates get reputations. Make sure your reputation is one of gracious persistence. It might make you feel a lot better to respond snarkily to a rejection email, but it doesn’t help you when you run into those same committee members at conferences and learn they are close friends with committee members at other universities to which you are applying….

Take a deep breath before you write any response, and remember to think of long term goals instead of short term satisfaction.
What did I really do when I got rejected (before I pulled out all my box shrubs, I mean)?

I put the phone down after getting the news. Then I put my head down on my desk and just sat there for about 20 minutes. Then I called my husband, sent out a few emails to those who had written for me with the news, and sent out some thank yous to the department that had just rejected me. Then I got up and kept doing my job. After all, I still had papers to grade.
Several weeks later one of the committee members responded to me. This is the gist of what was said: “Beth, I am so sorry you didn’t get the job. I want you to know the decision was more about the direction of the department than about you. You have handled this whole experience with more grace than we could have expected. I wish we could have hired you also.”

Well, I still didn’t get that job. I learned a great deal about the interview process and how to handle rejection, though.

It wasn’t fun.

But I survived it. I promise you can too.

Surviving Rejection on the Academic Job Market

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