Reapplying for the Job I Rejected

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

November 28, 2012

This past summer, when I wrote an essay for The Chronicle about my first year on the academic job market in Britain ("The Season Finale of My Search"), I explained my decision to turn down a job offer—my only full-time offer—from a major university there. I had my reasons, and, at the time, I felt I had made the right decision, although I confess I had misgivings.

So I'm pleased to be able to announce now: I got a job. At the same university. In fact, I got the same full-time job teaching in the humanities that I had turned down before.

Let me explain. Shortly after my previous column was published, I landed another job interview, this time at one of the five best universities in Britain. I very much wanted that job, obviously. The city near the university was beautiful; my talk was successful; my interview went well. But I didn't get the position. The head of the search told me that the field had been strong, and although that's normally just boilerplate, in this case I believed her. As I told her, it was the kind of job where it really is an honor just to be nominated.

While I was in town for that interview, however, I made a couple of significant discoveries.

One of the reasons I had turned down the earlier job offer at University X was because I had been searching for a position that was equally oriented toward teaching and research, and the job offer had been heavily focused on research. The first discovery I made during the campu interview at University Y was that the research expectations would have been the same as at the institution I had rejected. In an instant, one of my major objections vanished: I wasn't going to find any campus that had lower research demands of its faculty—or at least not at any institution that was reasonably prestigious. It was my own expectations that needed adjusting.

My second major reason for turning down the job offer was because I had worried that University X was located in an area that was far too isolated. I had quit a tenure-track job in the United States, in part, because the campus was in a remote location I had disliked intensely. I wanted to live in or near a thriving city, and British friends had told me I wouldn't find that there.

The second discovery I made during my interview was that maybe my perception had been wrong. At University Y, the surrounding town—which had been described to me as "tiny," "pretty but dull," and "in the middle of nowhere"—was, in fact, a bustling, charming small city, with unusual shops and beautiful scenery. I cast my thoughts back to the offer I had rejected from University X. Maybe I had overreacted. That town, too, had had its charms, And, now that I thought about it, it really wasn't so far from London, was it?

You could say I got a hefty dose of reality, that I took a turn toward the practical, or that I suddenly saw possibilities I hadn't seen before. Whatever the reason, I began to wonder about the offer I had rejected. Would University X advertise the position again? And would it be possible to let the hiring committee know I had reconsidered and was truly interested in the job?

Of course, one of the lessons of life is that you can't go back again. You can't reverse time or recapture circumstances to get what you want. You must accept the consequences of a wrong decision. That was my thinking anyway, until I told the whole story to a friend who pointed out that, actually, I had nothing to lose by trying again.

So I tried. In the fall, I e-mailed the head of the search at the university I'd rejected and told him I was still interested in the job. He responded by asking me to call him.

When I did, I explained my situation. I had a part-time, year-long job but I told him that at the end of the academic year I would be interested in reapplying for the position at University X, if it were advertised again. The most I could hope for, I thought, was reconsideration without prejudice.

But I got vastly more than I hoped for: Two weeks later, the head of the search telephoned me and offered me the job again. The only proviso was that I would have to start in January. If I didn't, the university would readvertise the position and I would have to reapply in the summer with all the other applicants.

I may have been a fool the first time around, but I was only a fool once. I agreed to start in January.

I still can't believe my luck. I've had to keep reminding myself that it actually happened. According to the laws of the cosmos and the job market, I should not have been given a second chance. To me, this is the equivalent of an academic urban legend. And I have a few people to thank: a mentor, who gave me a stern talking to after I turned down the job the first time, and, strangely, some of the readers of The Chronicle, who took advantage of the comments section in my previous column to tell me I had made a big mistake.

Things have fallen into place almost too easily. During the negotiation period, for example, I didn't really have to negotiate at all. The university offered me everything I wanted: I will be able to teach courses outside my area and get involved in its new writing program. Nominally the position is entry level, but the university took my previous experience into account in setting my salary. I'm sure part of the university's generosity has to do with my publication record (a book and multiple articles), which is strong at a time when that is being heavily valued in British higher education.

I am not one for extracting life lessons from events, nor for undue optimism. But in this case, both seem irresistible. When I went on the market for the first time in the United States, my department's career office told me, "You can publish your way out of anywhere." That may or may not be true, but my experience, at the least, has shown that you can use a good publication record to restart your career anywhere.

I've also learned, as painful as it is to admit: Sometimes other people's opinions are right. My original decision seemed right for me, based on what I knew at the time. But without the objective observations of other people, including readers here, I don't think I would have come to my later, and better, decision. A little compromise, a little humility, a little nonpartisanship are useful things. And that is a worthwhile lesson to take to my new position.

Emma Thornton is the pseudonym of a Ph.D in the humanities who, in January, will start a full-time position at a major university in Britain.