Everyone Knows Your Search Fell Short

Brian Taylor

June 08, 2010

When you apply for jobs in the corporate or government sector, only you and the employer know you didn't get hired. But rejection in your first search for a tenure-track job is particularly hard to take because it involves failure in plain sight.

Your friends, advisers, and a bunch of strangers on search committees are aware of the positions for which you have applied. If you were a finalist and went on a campus interview, perhaps everyone in your field knows that you were vying for that post.

That the academic job market continues to be bleak in many fields is something of a consolation, but it doesn't remove the sense that "everyone knows" your search fell short.

At least fellow academics understand the realities of a job hunt in higher education, so they tend not to overplay their confidence in you. Outsiders may be less sensitive, even though they mean well. A doctoral student recounted a dreadful campus visit from which he returned home certain of not getting the job only to find, to his horror, that his nonacademic parents and relatives had arranged a big party featuring posters with inspiring slogans like "We believe in you, Tony!" When the predictably thin letter arrived months later, informing him that he had not been chosen, his embarrassment was amplified.

The pain of rejection can vary, of course, depending on how it's handled. Search committees are accretions of sometimes unwilling or inattentive people who can be amateurs when it comes to hiring. It's not surprising that the committees vary in their skills at efficiency and mercy. Read any academic forums, blogs, or wikis, and you find no shortage of job-search tales: committees that never informed candidates about the outcome of the search, that sent curt letters of dismissal, or, perhaps worst of all, that told a candidate, "You will be hired," and then followed with radio silence for months and, finally, a rejection.

Rejection in academe feels more significant today than ever because so many voices are advising Ph.D.'s to abandon ship. Fail to get a tenure-track position and people immediately begin urging you to delete "Ph.D." from your résumé. Don't call it a CV anymore!

So how should you proceed after a year of applications led to nothing? Don't give up academe too quickly, especially if you've only had a single shutout season.

Mourn. It is acceptable to get angry, cry, pout, or generally have a strong emotional response to falling short on the job market—for a while. While it serves no long-term benefit for you or your career, the temporary wallow in self-pity should be treated with respect. Put aside a weekend and rent several films by Zhang Yimou, read the novel Jean de Florette and the complete poems of Sara Teasdale, eat a quart of ice cream. Do not in any way think of anything productive or related to academe. Emerge cleansed and ready for action.

Thank your allies. The whole world did not reject you. In fact, it is possible that entire swaths of graduate students, faculty members, even chairs of search committees liked you, were impressed by you, and even wanted to hire you. They may have been outvoted, or another candidate may have legitimately outscored you in some key required characteristic.

So don't, in turn, reject people wholesale for their official rejection of you. After every interview, make a note of the people who were kind to you or with whom you had positive exchanges. You should have thanked them after those encounters, but now, once it has been confirmed that you didn't get the job, write to them again, in the vein of "I'm sorry it didn't work out, but I want you to know I really enjoyed our talk."

Even for applications where your only contact was via e-mail with the head of the search committee, if you were treated well—with timely notifications, efficient processing of materials, and a tactful rejection letter—send a brief note of appreciation.

Avoid recriminations. In any discipline, you never know when faculty members might be judging you again. Never burn a bridge or express sour grapes in public. In academe, good sports get to play and win another day.

On the other hand, surly comebacks and even noncontact can cost you more than you realize. A true horror story of phantom rejection: A job candidate for a position in the social sciences felt she had aced the campus visit and was truly crushed when she received a rejection note. The head of the search committee added insult to injury (in her estimation) by praising her interview skills and research and teaching presentations. Without thinking, she shot back a harsh e-mail message that stated, in effect, "If you liked me so much, why didn't you hire me?"

The dean of the school, meanwhile, had been equally impressed by the candidate, and was already starting discussions about creating a postdoctoral position specifically for her. The poison-pen e-mail, however, sank the opportunity.

Conduct your own review. The U.S. military has a system in place that all job candidates should emulate: the "After Action Review." Now is the time to conduct a sober appraisal of what went wrong and what went right in your job search.

If you have friends at your target institutions, contact them and say, "I want to improve myself and learn lessons from my job-hunting experiences this year. Is there any advice you could give me? Please don't hold back." Faculty members and graduate students who sit on search committees wish they could give honest feedback to people applying for jobs who make really obvious errors in, say, presentation content, tone, style, or delivery, but who are clueless about their fumbling.

Aside from your performance as a candidate, you may uncover problems in your materials that hurt your chances: a bad reference letter, low teaching scores, slides in your PowerPoint talk that confused everyone, perhaps even the garish tie that failed to impress senior members of the faculty.

That said, pay measured homage to the goddess Fortuna. The 2009-10 hiring season is the era in which "luck" has been blamed for almost all job-search failures. In part, even in large part, that is reasonable: Chance always plays a role.

However, asserting that it was all "just luck" can undermine a comprehensive and accurate self-assessment. A job candidate who got shut out this year on the market told of being turned down for almost a dozen positions in his area of specialization. Through his contacts at one institution, he learned that a key reason it had downgraded his application was that he had not taught a basic undergraduate course in his field. He began to wonder how many of the other colleges he had applied to felt the same way. He has worked out a deal with his doctoral institution to teach an introductory course for one year as an adjunct. He will find out next year if that makes him more attractive on the market.

Assess your options. Meet with your senior advisers to discuss exactly where you are in your career and where you hope to be. Obviously, if this is the seventh year in which you've been shut out of the tenure-track market, your options are different and more limited than if this were your first year.

What other possibilities exist for you? Did you get an offer for an adjunct position? Is your graduate program willing to create teaching or research opportunities to keep you on for another year? Can you delay your doctoral defense so that you don't officially graduate? Will some sort of grant support be available? Can your spouse or partner spot you for a year while you cobble together some local teaching assignments and work on improving your CV through, for example, publication?

The single most important consideration is affiliation. Hiring committees are not universally made up of cruel and heartless folk—usually the contrary. But when assessing a candidate, prestige matters, and it is diminished when you have no current affiliation with an institution. Members of the committee will point out, not necessarily maliciously, "Oh, she seems to be unemployed." It gets worse. Prestigious university presses will often turn down manuscripts from unaffiliated scholars. It is important for you to retain or find some sort of connection with academe. In these years of terrible job prospects, most graduate programs should try to find a way to support their recent grads in this way.

Consider an exit strategy. One of your options is to leave academe. That solution certainly has its partisans this year. It may be a clear and clean choice, especially for people in fields that have strong hiring options in the private sector or government agencies.

But for everyone else, now is the time to think medium-term. What is, to use the stock-market analogy, your stop-loss target? How much uncertainty are you willing to endure without a tenure-track position? What about your family or others who depend on you? While you find some way to keep an office and an affiliation in academe, can you have an escape route ready if it becomes necessary?

A Ph.D. who is entering his fifth year on the market explained that he had given himself four years to find a tenure-track position. In the meantime, he had gotten an online master's in a related field, one with private-sector possibilities. He is now conducting two separate job searches.

Whatever the future of the tenure-track market, there is nothing wrong with trying to learn as much as you can from momentary failure, especially if your resources—mental, physical, financial, social—allow you to try again next year. After all, luck and the lessons of experience might then be in your favor.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa. His book on promotion and tenure will be published by Harvard University Press in the fall.