The Rejection Letter I Wish I Could Send

July 24, 2008

Dear Unsuccessful Applicants,

By now you are in receipt of the generic, photocopied letter indicating that our tenure-track position was filled by someone other than you. Unfortunately, our letter gives you not a smidgeon of information about why you were not that person; you are left to divine what went wrong.

Ideally, I would call each of you to explain what we found wanting in your cover letters and CV's, but I suspect my university would never approve of that plan. Still, I want to let you know why we placed your applications at the bottom of the pile.

Let me be the first to admit I am no expert on academic searches. My own job search was considered a success simply because out of 65 applications, I was rejected only 64 times. But now I am on the other side of the hiring table. So I can tell you why I didn't argue on your behalf during our lengthy search-committee meetings, and I hope that my remarks here will help some of you as a new job cycle gets under way.

No secret formula exists for securing a tenure-track job, but there certainly are things you can do to make it unlikely you'll ever get one. To my dismay, many of you did them.

Surprisingly, about half of you didn't seem to take our detailed position announcement seriously. I wrote the ad meticulously, not just because the publisher charged for each word, but because our department has particular teaching needs.

Several of you were simply unqualified for the position. A law degree is not a Ph.D., and a Ph.D. in another discipline is not equivalent to one in our field — notwithstanding one cover letter colloquially inviting us to "think outside the box" in making a hire.

A few of you had doctorates in literature, religious studies, or political science, but those degrees do not give you a professional competency to teach our classes, even in this interdisciplinary age. In another cover letter, one of you promised to enter a Ph.D. program upon being hired. Surely we are not anomalous in preferring that our colleagues begin their graduate degrees before starting employment here.

Our ad also noted that candidates had to have the Ph.D. in hand before the start of the next academic year. Some of you were very creative in omitting the fact that your dissertation was nowhere near completion; your references were not so creative.

Several of you were perceptive enough to recognize that our university's mission includes the serving of minority students. A few of you, however, spoke rather ineloquently about that fact in your cover letters. What, exactly, did you expect us to think when you said you were "comfortable having Asian students" in your classes, or that you regularly give "extra support" to African-Americans? I happen to be of minority descent, and I found the implications of your brief discussion of racial matters to be bewildering, at best.

At a small university like ours, teaching is primary. Therefore, it was not a good idea for one of you to mention your personal Web site on your CV, because when I visited it, I read the part where you described your aspiration to be an independent scholar free from the obligations of a university career. Like teaching?

As noted in our ad, we are a teaching-oriented institution with some expectation of research for all faculty members. In the end, we decided to consider only applications that listed at least one peer-reviewed article or book. That principle helped me reduce the pile. Some of you stumbled here.

Not all publications are scholarly publications. Several of you claimed articles in print but neglected to say where those articles had been published. With a little digging, some of those interesting-sounding titles turned out to be opinion essays in local newspapers or guest columns in newsletters.

Some of you had a section on your CV's titled "Publications," but you listed submissions that were only under review at prestigious journals. Since many of those journals have acceptance rates of only 3 to 5 percent, we simply could not assume that your submissions would necessarily result in publications.

While a diversity of interests surely counts for much in an application, it was not a good idea to emphasize, as one of you did, your side interest in anarchism. Academe is surprisingly full of regulations. I asked myself, "Would a self-styled anarchist show up for classes regularly, turn in grades, attend meetings promptly, exhibit customary civility, and fulfill other expected academic obligations?"

Many of you did not tell us why you were applying for our assistant-professor job. To those full professors who applied, we were complimented that you assumed we possessed the rhetorical powers to persuade the administration to change the search in medias res. If you truly were willing to start over here at the assistant-professor level, you should have explained that in your cover letter. Perhaps your family lives near here? Such an explanation might have persuaded us to interview you.

Then there were several deans who applied for our position. Perhaps you wanted to return to full-time teaching, or maybe you just saw our position as a stepping-stone to a deanship here? You didn't say.

Similarly, for those tenured professors at more prestigious universities and elite colleges who applied, we had to wonder why you would be interested in coming to teach at our institution. In the absence of a stated reason, it seemed to me that you were just fishing for an offer that you could use as leverage to get a raise at your home institution. Some indication of your motives would have led us to give your applications more consideration.

In short, if we had to make up a story for why you were interested in our position, then interviewing you was too risky. There were many other applicants who stated in concrete terms why they wanted to teach on our campus. Here's the moral of all this: Every cover letter should state precisely and persuasively why the applicant is seeking the job.

A few of you seemed quite excited about fonts in your applications. I must tell you that wildly underlining or bolding phrases, or occasionally changing the font size for keywords, does not betoken professionalism. When I encountered such cover letters, it was hard not to hear the intonation of a desperate sales rep trying a bit too hard to close a deal.

Additionally, we set aside a few applications with cover letters that came across as arrogant. One of you stated that you considered yourself to be one of the few instructors in the country qualified to teach in our discipline. We couldn't help wonder how you would feel about your colleagues if we were to hire you.

Our job ad carefully explained that we are a religiously affiliated institution. Omitting any recognition of that fact in your cover letter wasn't a deal-breaker, but I wondered how well you knew our institution. Some of you discussed our religious affiliation, but it came off sounding like you didn't mind that we were religious, or you were congratulating us that we happened to hold some beliefs that you happened to hold. Letters of that sort raised all sorts of red flags about whether you would be a good fit here.

I should state openly that I tried to find out as much as I could about you by consulting the modern oracle Google. Yes, I did find those pages about you. You're surprised? At a university like ours, we have to be careful about whom we bring into our community. And yes, I did see the photos. When I also found all of your rantings — political, religious, autobiographical, and otherwise — I wondered whether you would say such things in classes to our students.

Perhaps you are reading all of this, and even though you didn't commit any of the application sins I have mentioned above, you still received our bland rejection letter. If that is the case, take heart. Your application survived several rounds of paring, and you know how to prepare a strong package. In the end, we had a handful of well-qualified applicants with only one job opening.

When we hire again in the new academic year, I will send you an e-mail message encouraging you to apply again. In the best-case scenario, you'll be able to respond and then reject me, saying you've already secured a tenure-track position.


A Search Committee Member

Clement Vincent is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of philosophy at a university in the Midwest.