Universities that did not hire me (a chronicle of absolutely normal rejection)

Rejection is normal in academia.

One could take that as depressing, I suppose, but one shouldn’t.  Rejection is normal in most everything; if you go through life without being rejected, you’re definitely not trying hard enough.  But this can be hard to remember, especially when the stakes are high – when you’ve submitted your first paper, or applied for your first job at a university you’d love to join. It’s only human to find such rejections weighing you down (and perhaps confirming your imposter syndrome).  One way to lessen the impact is surely to see your own rejections in the context of other peoples’ – and that’s the idea behind the “shadow CV” or “anti-CV”.  (Here’s Jacquelyn Gill explaining the same idea, but better.)*

I don’t have a complete shadow CV, because I haven’t kept track of every time I’d had a paper or a grant rejected.  But I was sifting through a filing cabinet and discovered that I do have a pretty-much complete list of the (academic) jobs I’ve been rejected from.  I’ve been on the job market twice – once as a grad student/postdoc in 1992-94, and again in 2000-2001 when I decided to leave my first faculty job because of a change in departmental direction.  Each time, I got plenty of rejections.  The (combined) list follows.  If you get bored with it, please scroll to the bottom, because I’ll try to end with some lessons learned.

Universities that did not hire me:

(bold denotes those that interviewed me, but still didn’t hire me)

  • Amherst College
  • Arizona State University
  • Australian National University
  • Boston University
  • Carleton University
  • Clemson University
  • Concordia University
  • Duke University
  • Georgetown University
  • Imperial College, Silwood Park
  • McGill University
  • McMaster University
  • New Mexico State University
  • Northern Illinois University
  • Oxford University
  • Smith college
  • St. Francis Xavier University
  • St. Mary’s University
  • Stanford University
  • State University of New York at Stony Brook
  • Swarthmore College
  • Syracuse University
  • Texas A&M University
  • Université Laval
  • University of Aarhus
  • University of Akron
  • University of Arizona
  • University of British Columbia
  • University of California – Davis
  • University of California – Irvine (twice!)
  • University of California – San Diego
  • University of California – Santa Barbara
  • University of California – Santa Cruz
  • University of Chicago
  • University of Connecticut
  • University of Florida
  • University of Houston
  • University of Kentucky
  • University of Maryland – Baltimore County
  • University of Maryland – College Park
  • University of Massachusetts – Amherst
  • University of Massachusetts – Boston
  • University of New Mexico
  • University of North Carolina
  • University of North Dakota
  • University of Northern British Columbia
  • University of Oklahoma
  • University of Oregon
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • University of Prince Edward Island
  • University of Queensland
  • University of Regina
  • University of Rochester
  • University of South Carolina
  • University of Tennessee
  • University of Texas – Austin
  • University of Toronto
  • University of Utah
  • University of Vermont
  • University of Virginia
  • University of Washington
  • University of Western Ontario
  • University of Winnipeg
  • University of Wisconsin – Madison
  • University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee
  • Vanderbilt University
  • Washington State University
  • Washington State University – Vancouver
  • Washington University
  • Wilfred Laurier University
  • Yale University**

Well, that’s, um, “impressive”, isn’t it?  I’ve been rejected by universities in four countries on three continents – in a few cases (although I haven’t indicated them) twice.

But now comes the part where I draw some lessons from my chronicle of failure. It’s important to realize that a lot of that failure was necessary in order for me to find success. Here’s the list of universities that have hired me (or more precisely, have made me job offers):

  • University of Iowa (my first faculty job, 1995 – 2002)
  • Saint Louis University (position offered, but I went to Iowa instead)
  • University of New Brunswick (my second and current faculty job, 2002 – )
  • Brock University (position offered, but I went to UNB instead)

You may have noticed that the “hired me” list is a lot shorter than the “rejected me” one.  Ultimately, though, the “hired me” list only needs to have one entry.  Now, it would have saved a lot of people a lot of time if I’d figured out which one job I matched with, and then applied to and got that one.  But you can’t do that, of course, because neither applicant nor hiring committee can possibly know about the match without a whole lot of feeling each other out.  The rejections are just part of that process.  Of course, I’m not saying they don’t hurt; just that once you understand the process, you can (I hope) come to see that a job rejection doesn’t mean you’re being dismissed as a scientist.  Academic jobs are complex, and a lot of factors determine the fit between an opening and someone to fill it.  (Jeremy Fox shows some quantitative data to back this up over here.)  You should, therefore, never be offended by any particular rejection.

If your goal is an academic job, you’ll probably accumulate a list like mine***.  Of course, it may not be quite the same.  The job market changes over time and varies across fields, and candidates vary in their application strategies and the strengths of their CVs.  I applied “big and broad” – mostly large research universities, without much geographic restraint.  I had a fairly strong CV and an academic pedigree that probably got me a first look.  My research was pretty esoteric, though (especially my first time on the market), and I did only a mediocre job selling it in my research statement.  My teaching statement was (I now understand) terrible. Nonetheless, I got quite a few interviews (the bolded entries on my list) – which I proceeded to stink at.  But I stuck with it, and all came out well. On my first round, I was pleased to end up with some great colleagues in a lovely college town.  I published a bunch of papers there, trained a bunch of grad students, got NSF funding and tenure.  When that department’s priorities shifted and I decided to test the job waters again, I ended up coming home to Canada, to a beautiful city that I now can’t imagine leaving, and with colleagues who make me smile every day.

So, did I fail in some job applications?  Absolutely!  Take my failure as evidence that it’s perfectly normal to fail, and fail again, and keep on failing until you don’t.  I’ve built my career on a foundation of failure. Most of us have, and that’s OK.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) January 17, 2017

*^And here’s Jeremy Fox’s shadow CV, which just strengthens my sneaking suspicion that pretty much everything I blog about, he’s done better and first.

**^I also applied at the University of New Orleans, and interviewed there, but pulled out of the search before it was finalized.  Count that neither success nor failure, I guess.

***^Actually, if your goal is a non­-academic job, you’ll accumulate a rejection list, too – it may be different, and it may be shorter, but it will still be there.


17 thoughts on “Universities that did not hire me (a chronicle of absolutely normal rejection)

  1. jeffollerton

    Holy shit that’s a long list! What were you trying to do, tick off every letter in the alphabet?! 🙂 I’d be amazed if many British ecologists had lists that long, but then there are far fewer universities in Britain that teach/research ecology (though many more in Europe of course).

    My own list would be a fraction of that: Leeds, Imperial, Reading, Oxford, Northampton, plus one or two American universities that I now can;t recall. I’ve not kept a record of any any of them, rejection letters got assigned to the recycling bin when I arrived in Northampton in 1995.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Well, it’s long in part because it’s TWO trips through the market. But yes, it’s also long because I applied really broadly, and then interviewed poorly.

      But now that you mention it, I deeply regret not applying to Emory University (strictly to tick off “E”) and a few others 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. sleather2012

    Impressive list – like Jeff’s mine is not as long, although I was on the market three times – rejection list for those I had interviews for includes, Sussex, Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan), Exeter, Harper Adams (25 years ago – ironic as now where I am), Lancaster, Lincoln (New Zealand), Bath, Birmingham. There must be others but I guess I didn’t get called for interview so don’t recall the trauma 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jonny from sci.casual

    I’m currently in the same boat with post-docs and teaching faculty positions. It’s nice to know that I can still move up to the next level even after a long string of rejections. Of course, if my non-academic applications offer me a job first, well…


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Yes, absolutely don’t give up!

      I didn’t pursue non-academic applications, but only for personal idiosyncratic reasons – I would encourage all early-career folk to consider career paths both inside and outside the academy. Good luck!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. sleather2012

        I only applied for two non-academic jobs, one (CSIRO Australia) rejected me, the other Forestry Commission Research, took me on and I was there for ten years before getting back to Academia.


  4. Jeremy Fox

    Thanks for the kind link to my old shadow cv, but you went me one better since I didn’t track positions for which I applied but wasn’t interviewed. Actually, I did track some of them for a while, but then I deleted the data. Specifically, I kept every rejection letter I ever got, and then when I was offered the Calgary job I celebrated by ripping them all up. It was very satisfying.

    And to save readers the trouble of clicking through: I’ve had 12-14 on-campus interviews in my life (going by memory; too lazy to go back and do the exact count). I’ve only ever been offered the job I currently hold.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. whatfisheat

    Have you ever thought about going back to those university’s with your book, pressing it up against the glass, and shouting “how do you like them apples” and then walking away, leaving a trail of confused students and academics across the country.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Peter Apps

    On a vaguely parallel path; what if the acknowledgements section of papers included the organisations that declined funding applications as well as those who provided funding ? – there might be some embarrassing moments for the non-funders of breakthrough research.

    There is, of course, a whole shadow universe of work that never gets done because nobody wants to fund it – I wonder what important discoveries are floating around there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Well, Peter, there’s Leigh Van Valen’s famous acknowledgement: “I thank the National Science Foundation for regularly rejecting my (honest) grant applications for work on real organisms , thus forcing me into theoretical work.” (Van Valen 1973. A New Evolutionary Law. Evolutionary Theory 1:1 1-30) So at least one person has given into the temptation!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Peter Apps

        Thanks Stephen, I had not come across that one.

        When I’m too old to care any more I’ll bow out with an honest funding acknowledgement;

        This work was conducted with 50% of the funding that was needed to do the job properly and was obstructed at every turn by bureaucrats. The following organizations failed to recognize a good thing when I waved it under their noses; ………

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Sam Bolton

    Some of the non-American commenters here mentioned that they applied to many fewer universities than Stephen. However, it’s not really like for like because Stephen applied to many American universities, where there is high pay and even higher job security. Therefore the competition for those jobs appears to be much greater.


    1. jeffollerton

      Is there really more competition for academic jobs in North America? There are far more universities than in the UK and I have the impression (though could be wrong) that there’s more posts available in ecology (broadly speaking). At least Science seems to advertise many more jobs than Nature. I’m happy to be proved wrong on this if someone has some data.


  8. Pingback: Friday links: mad (lack of) skillz, preprints vs. double-blind review, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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