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To whom it may concern: Rejection letter do’s and don’t’s, Part 1

So, for whatever reason, I’ve received a whole batch of rejection emails in my inbox the last few days, for jobs that had long been filled (thanks, Wiki!) and for some applications that were still open (boo-hoo!).  This is probably a total breach of protocol, but here’s some of what has come through my inbox in the last 48 hours:

The Good

Dear Candidate:

I am writing to thank you for your interest in the Americanist position at [school name redacted]. We received an extraordinarily high number of applications for this position and choosing among them was particularly difficult. We have now concluded our search and regret that we had to turn away candidates who had so much to offer. We wish you success in your job search and appreciate your taking the time to prepare materials for [redacted].

Sincerely,

“Search Committee Chair”

The lame:

Dear Arnold;

Thank you for your interest in the Assistant Professor of English position at [school name redacted]. The search committee recently ended the search process; this letter is to notify you that we have selected another candidate.

Best wishes for continued success in your professional endeavors.

Sincerely,

“Human Resources Person”

Unfortunately, I have enough experience with this subject to offer some “insight” into what makes a good rejection letter and a bad rejection letter, if search committees want input from the rejected.  (The answer is, probably not.)  It really is a reflection on how bad the academic job market has become, when one’s pride and dignity depend on how s/he is rejected and when a little professional courtesy has become an exception rather than the rule.  There may be no vested interest in being courteous, but every job search committee member has been this position before (though perhaps at a time that wasn’t so dire) and has students who are encountering this crumminess right now.

While, of course, what I’m discussing doesn’t apply to all departments, it probably applies to all-too-many, at least if my experience is any measure.  In fact, there’s a whole Academic Jobs Wiki section addressed to hypothetical search committees, as well as some discussion on the Modern Brit lit list over good and bad rejection letters (scroll to the bottom of the page to find it).  In particular, there’s an interesting exchange on the Wiki American Lit page (scroll down to the Case Western Reserve section to find it), where a search committee member asked applicants what they found wrong with a particularly cold rejection (which I received too!) that picks up on a lot of the issues I address below the fold.  Today, I’ll cover the basics and I’ll address some personal pet peeves and pats on backs later.

* Do: Address your applicant personally — Is it really so hard to simply address the letter to an individual, as opposed to “Dear Applicant” or “Dear Candidate”?  There is probably some IT person who can configure a program to do this for you, and, if not, some work-study kid can input the names, right?  Bonus points for getting the honorific correct, too: There aren’t many professions outside of academia that understand a Ph.D. is a “Dr.”, so at least our own fields could recognize it.  My friend told me a case of how a program misspelled his name multiple different ways–and that’s after he was hired for the position (which was rejected)!

* Don’t: Give a bureaucratic B.S. rejection (see above with “The Lame” example) — We applicants do appreciate how busy the search committee and staff are during job applications season.  But is it really that hard and time-consuming to write a rejection letter that provides a little detail and attention to tone, especially in Humanities fields where good writing is a prerequisite to being part of the profession?  Keep in mind the tens of hours each applicant devotes to his/her application and multiple that by a few hundred (the number of applicants), so maybe that extra couple of minutes writing a few more sentences about the process and the depth of the field of candidates won’t be so onerous.  It probably didn’t take much more time to write “The Good” letter above, but those minutes are well worth making everyone (probably including the search committee) feel a little better about the whole process.  And, as in the case of “The Lame” example, don’t have HR do the search chair’s job, OK?

* Do: Be prompt — Search committees expect applications to be received by the deadline, so at least they could respond in kind with a prompt acceptance letter and prompt rejection, when it comes to that.  It’s fast and cheap, cause there’s this thing called email!  Doing so isn’t actually a waste of time, either: It will probably save the staff time, since they won’t be forced to respond to nervous applicants waiting to hear back, whether it’s regarding the receipt of the application or the timeline of the decision.  The mid-Spring rejection is like picking off a scab.  By then (or really, by Christmas), those of us who didn’t get the job know the score, so what’s the point at that point?  There’s probably a standard bureaucratic practice that requires all applicants be notified, but let’s just not be lame.

* Don’t: Write ungrammatical letters/Do: Write grammatically correct letters — Come on!  How can English Departments justify sending out ungrammatical correspondence?  In particular, don’t use a semicolon if you don’t know how to (again, see “The Lame” example)–plus, adding a period means another sentence, so the rejection won’t be a one-sentence blowoff!  Below is a particularly egregious example of an ungrammatical notification, which reads more like spam than professional correspondence:

Good Morning,

Your material for the Professorship in American Literature at [redacted], can you please click here and fill out the Affirmative Action Survey.

This is basically a one-line response that includes 2 grammatical errors (comma splice and missing question mark)!  Well, it was prompt as an acknowledgement, so it did its job.  It’s a also a good place for me to pick up on next time, since EEOC groveling is one of my biggest pet peeves!

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  1. The difference between the Good and the Lame is instructive in that both are short. The Good rejection letter proves that it doesn’t take that long to be courteous. Given current e-mail blast software, it also shouldn’t take much effort to keep job candidates appraised of the process. This could be a marketable service for grad programs … how to write a better rejection letter!


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