The Afterlife of Rejection

January 17, 2008

Most graduate students heading to the faculty job market see the promise in each ad as an all-or-nothing affair: Maybe I'll get that job, maybe I won't. Each prospect is a lottery ticket, kissed and held high if it's a winner, ripped up and left on the floor if it's a loser.

Occasionally first-time job seekers will adopt a more tempered stance, saying that they will "try out" the market, acknowledging that they might not be quite ready but can't resist bidding for that perfect opening, as it might not come around again. If they end up with an interview but no offer, they'll be consoled at having at least gotten valuable experience. Fair enough.

What I rarely hear is talk of a third possibility, one less immediate or obvious but nonetheless real: how the job-search process, even when it ends in disappointment, can yield unexpected gifts and plant the seed for long-term professional relationships.

I got a hint of that during my first search, right out of graduate school. It was a good year in my field, and I landed several first-round interviews. One was for a university in the Midwest, which surprised my wife, who was doing her own first faculty search, because we had informally agreed to limit our prospects to the East Coast. Yet the job description had proved especially tempting, as it spoke directly to my interests. Besides, a graduate-school mentor had advised me, "Apply for everything. You can always say no later."

After a spirited -- dare I say fun? -- initial interview with the Midwestern university, I was asked to come to the campus, but by then I was also receiving other on-campus invitations.

I explained my situation to the chairman at Midwest U. and told him that it didn't seem ethical to have the department set up two days of interviews for a job I wasn't likely to take. He suggested I come anyway and bring my wife along, as the university was open to spousal hires. Once again, my graduate-school mentor chimed in: "Go. You can always say no later."

So we went, and found the people and programs terrific. A few months later, we were loading up the moving truck, both of us bound for tenure-track positions in the Midwest.

That kind of Cinderella story may not come around often. And there will, in every job cycle, be far more rejections than acceptances. The question is: What good can come of the rejections, other than humility or a stoic sense of growth through suffering?

Quite a bit, it turns out, at least occasionally, and especially when we look at the long-term trajectory of a career.

I learned that when, two years into my first faculty appointment, and quite content in my job, I saw an announcement for a position in a location where I really wanted to live, where family were close by, where I had gotten married, and where I vacationed for a few weeks every summer.

I applied and made it through to the campus visit. The job talk went well, as did the string of visits to faculty offices, the meals with graduate students, the audiences with administrators. I connected especially well, I thought, with the search-committee members, several of them notable scholars in my field.

But I didn't get an offer, and when I checked later to see who did, I had to admit that I, too, would have picked that guy over me. No hard feelings.

Months later at a conference, I ran across one of the committee members whom I particularly liked. Yes, it was a little awkward, but we stepped out of the hallway, shared a cup of coffee, and picked up some threads of conversations from my on-campus visit. That led to e-mail exchanges about our common academic interests, and even now we connect at conferences and whenever we can help each other out.

The following summer I linked up with another member of the same hiring committee at the university where I had interviewed unsuccessfully. I was on vacation, occasionally doing research and writing at that university's library, when I decided to stop by the faculty member's office to say hello.

I worried that I might look too eager, or even a little pathetic, but I genuinely liked the man and his work. He was gracious, we talked and agreed to keep in touch. Two years later, he thought of me while putting together an edited collection in which he thought my work might fit.

I might have considered that failed job search finished the moment I crumpled up the rejection letter. Instead I ended up in fruitful and ongoing conversations.

That won't happen every time, but it can develop when we approach the job search not just as a contest to be won but also as a chance to make connections with hiring-committee members who we are likely to come across in our professional lives for decades to come.

One final experience confirmed for me that the job search, even when it seems to fail, can set dominoes falling in unanticipated ways. This time I was on the hiring side of the table. A talented candidate whom I came to like both personally and professionally during the interview process sailed through to the campus visit with grace but sank when her job talk didn't win over its audience.

I felt a little queasy sending out the "After careful consideration, we are sorry to report that ..." letter, and again found myself feeling awkward a week later when she called, in a spirit of genuine inquiry, to ask what went wrong. I did my best to explain, and we talked for perhaps an hour.

A few months later, I was surprised by an invitation to give a talk at that candidate's university. In a particularly generous move, she had suggested my name to her dissertation adviser.

A year later, another unexpected invitation: I was asked to apply for an opening at that same university. At the time I was going up for tenure at my own college, and applying for the job seemed like a wise enough back-up plan. By the time I was invited to the campus, however, I had gotten the good news about tenure at my college, and that made me feel inclined to pull out of the search.

That's when I heard the echo of my graduate-school mentor's voice: "Go. You can always say no later."

When the offer ultimately came -- and after much anguished deliberation -- I accepted. Still, I couldn't help but be struck by the irony that what had started with my role in denying someone an offer had looped around and created one for me.

Most job searches end neatly with an offer to a lucky applicant and bad news for the rest. But every now and again, when, in the face of rejection, we can muster emotional responses other than resentment or embarrassment, a job search can live a productive afterlife.

Tom Deans is an associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut.