How to Accept Being Rejected

April 16, 1999

I was unexpectedly invited to an on-campus interview last month. It was for an assistant professorship in American studies at a branch campus of a large state college.

Various sources informed me that I was competing against another candidate from Harvard and at least one from Yale. One of them supposedly had a book in print at a major university press. The other had completed her dissertation three years ago and had accumulated a lot of teaching experience since then.

I laughed when I read the program's brochure, which describes "a growing need for American studies professionals" (usually there are several hundred candidates for every teaching position). But the college's master's program apparently does a fine job of enhancing the credentials of local secondary-school teachers and archivists. I was pleased to hear how many alumni they had in historical societies, museums, and high schools.

Trying to impress me with their vision of the future, the administrators boasted about a new doctoral program they were planning. It would raise their prestige, provide teaching assistants, and bring their graduates into competition for positions with those of more established programs, they said. This filled me with foreboding, particularly when one of their students asked me whether she should go on for a doctorate. ("Look on me and despair," I wanted to say.)

Despite these concerns, I competed wholeheartedly for the position. The salary and teaching load were appropriate. I liked and respected many of the faculty members right away. The program seemed poised for growth. Since the doctoral program was still potentially open to non-traditional specialization (such as public history and tourism), I would have been pleased to join the program in producing employable job candidates. Sometimes one can do more good from inside the system.

But an aura of sadness surrounds the heads of most search committees. They know they are going to have to cast several hopefuls into the darkness. They realize how their own positions are the outcome of a series of random events. And they are loath to choose between candidates who are often more energetic, more committed, and even more widely known in their field than the tenured faculty whom they are powerless to retire.

The head of the committee treated me to pie and coffee while I waited for my plane. A small but meaningful gesture. The clock is now ticking past the notification date, but this interview was one of the better experiences I have had in academia.

Now I am coming to terms with the probable outcome. It is impossible to prepare for an on-campus interview without seriously imagining how one's life would be transformed by an offer. The disappointment of not being selected inevitably leads to some personal stock-taking. In that spirit I have tried to answer the questions many of you are asking yourselves:

Question: I had the strongest qualifications, and I gave a great job talk. Why didn't they choose me?

Answer: These days, every candidate who gets an on-campus interview is well qualified and likely to give an outstanding performance. The differences between candidates at this level are often trivial, and the outcome is seemingly random. Some interviews are foregone conclusions with an inside candidate. Some committees are under pressure to hire people from under-represented groups; others quietly discriminate against these groups.

Perhaps most maddening of all, sometimes you may not be hired at the second-tier (or lower) institutions because your credentials are too strong. Many older faculty members were hired in a less-competitive era, and they can be intimidated by today's candidates. Administrators at these schools often fear that the best candidates will leave at the first opportunity. Unfortunately, candidates are never told the real reasons why they are rejected; indeed, the committees themselves often cannot recognize their own motives.

Question: Could I have said something differently that might have pleased someone more?

Answer: After meeting with numerous faculty members, you will hear completely contradictory opinions about what the department and institution want. You obviously should not tailor your views for every person you meet. Some faculty members like to play devil's advocate, misrepresenting their opinions to see how you will react. Sometimes you will be rejected for pleasing the wrong person; sometimes you will be hired for offending the right person.

It's trite, but it is wisest to be yourself at your best. You will want to be hired with the majority of the department in favor of the real you, which will come out in the long run anyway.

Question: Why did some of the faculty seem so contemptuous of my work?

Answer: Sometimes the senior faculty at teaching-oriented colleges are uncomfortable discussing recent scholarly issues. Many rationalize their (sometimes understandable) inability to keep up with scholarly change by denouncing anything written after they left graduate school. This is particularly true with topics related to gender studies, popular culture, and anything that can be labeled "multiculturalism."

Sometimes junior faculty will grandstand and jockey for position in the inappropriate context of an interview or job talk. Sometimes faculty members want to see how you stand up to pressure. All you can do is defend politely the work in which you believe without impugning your interviewers' currency in the field.

Question: Should I give up?

Answer: It all depends. How much longer can you afford to live as a graduate student? How much longer can you (or your family) stand the uncertainty? How much do you really want to be a professor? It takes most Ph.D.'s about three years after completing their degree to find their first full-time teaching position. It is rash to write yourself off after only a year or two on the market, particularly if the search was conducted as an A.B.D. (as in my case). But sometimes it is better to cut your losses, particularly in a booming economy when there are so many other jobs available. If the economy slows down, you may not be able to begin a secondary career so easily.

Question:. How can I do better next time?

Answer: If you want a tenure-track position, it usually helps if you can establish yourself in your field before you go on the market. (Try to forget the possibility of over-qualifying yourself.) Build a teaching portfolio of courses in your field. Set up a Web page. Keep networking. Present papers at every major conference and some minor ones. Publish your dissertation chapters in top-flight journals, then assemble them into a published book.

Look for work that will put food on the table, enhance your academic credentials, and prepare you for the possibility of leaving the profession. And keep supporting the academic labor movement's efforts to reduce part-time employment and preserve tenure.

In short, if you get even one on-campus interview, you are probably one of the best job candidates around. The outcome of the hiring process is not an objective indication of your worth as a teacher, scholar, or person. The motives of hiring committees are mysterious, unconscious, and sometimes unfair. All you can do is make yourself the best candidate possible, support the movement to save the profession, keep your options open, and keep trying.

Bill Pannapacker, a graduate student at Harvard University, welcomes letters and can be contacted through his Web site at