How to write, and read, a (job) rejection letter

Photos: Header: (part of) one of my many, many rejections.  Embedded image: the whole thing.

I’ve gotten a lot of rejection letters over my career.  Job rejections, grant rejections, manuscript rejections, fellowship rejections – you name it.  Every scientist does.  I’ve also written quite a few rejection letters – mostly, in my roles as an editor and as Department Chair.  I don’t like writing them much more than I like receiving them.  But if there’s a bright side to this coin, it’s that my all-too-extensive experience suggests that there are better rejection letters and worse ones.  I can suggest a few ways to steer the ones you write, and the ones you read, towards the “better” category (and please add your own thoughts in the Replies). Today, rejection letters for academic job applicants.  In a future post, I’ll tackle rejection letters for manuscripts.

(1) Writing a rejection letter

If you have to write a rejection letter, you’ll presumably want to let its recipient down as gently, and as little, as possible.  Doing this is both simple and fraught with complexity.  It’s simple, because there’s really only one rule: be as kind as you can be.  It’s complex, because “as kind as you can be” isn’t completely obvious to figure out, given the need for search confidentiality and the constraints of HR procedures.

You can be kind by recognizing both the recipient’s humanity and your own.  Don’t write a two-sentence rejection; make sure it has some body.  Give some context: how many applications were there? Was it especially large compared to other searches?  You might even connect the letter to your own experience, perhaps with a sentence about understanding disappointment because you’ve received such letters yourself.  Be cautious, though; unless this kind of thing is phrased carefully it can come off as false modesty, or worse, as condescending.  Ask someone with recent job-search experience to read the (anonymized) letter before you send it.

Mention, if at all possible, something positive about the candidate.  Make it something concrete, though, because “we were impressed with your accomplishments but” will be taken as exactly the boilerplate it so obviously is.  There will be a lot you can’t say, of course (see “Reading a rejection letter”, below); so don’t take this too far.

If you’ve met or otherwise interacted with the letter’s recipient before, acknowledge that connection – perhaps by striking out (by hand) the formal salutation and handwriting a first name.  Best of all, in my books, is a short handwritten note – even if it’s just one sentence – that shows you haven’t just signed a form letter but thought specifically about that letter’s recipient. The handwritten-addition strategy actually simplifies the letter-writing job considerably, as it lets you compose a standard letter (to satisfy the logistics of sending dozens of letters) while giving you a relatively quick way to customize as many as you can.

Here’s one of the best rejections I ever got, and it checks most of the boxes above*:I didn’t enjoy not getting that job (I didn’t enjoy not getting any of the jobs I didn’t get) – but I’ve always remembered and appreciated the personal touches that made this letter sting less than most.

(2) Reading a rejection letter

Communication is always a partnership between writer and reader.  If you’re reading a rejection letter, it’s completely normal to be disappointed or frustrated.  However, you’ll make it worse than it needs to be if you forget (or don’t realize) that the letter writer is under some pretty severe constraints.

If the letter is short or generic, or the signature is sloppy, keep in mind that there were almost certainly dozens of applicants for the position, and there may have been hundreds.  The kinds of handwritten modifications I’m suggesting above are possible for a few letters, but they just aren’t in the picture for every letter that needs to be written.

Understand that there’s lots the letter writer can’t say – in fact, nearly everything relevant is something they can’t say.  (The ‘concrete’ positive thing they might say about you will generally be the roundest-cornered piece of concrete.)  This isn’t an evil conspiracy of silence. It merely reflects the fact that search committee and departmental deliberations are confidential, because that’s the only way there can be full and open discussion of the candidates.  Even if that weren’t true, standard HR procedures restrict the flow of information to candidates.  If a letter-writer is circumspect, it’s only because they have to be.

Finally, realize that the letter isn’t an invitation to further conversation.  You may well wish you could know more about why you weren’t hired.  But don’t contact the letter writer, or anyone else, to ask for further feedback (not even “so I can improve my future applications”).  Believe me, we understand how much you want that feedback, because when we were in your position we wanted it too.   But the same confidentiality considerations that kept the letter short and a bit vague apply to later conversations too.  I’ve learned not to budge even an inch on this one, because in my experience any other response doesn’t go well.  Even providing an additional harmless tidbit only sends the conversation in awkward directions: once someone has answered the first question, it’s normal and human for the enquirer to want to know more, or even to explain how the committee was mistaken.  But as that enquirer, you don’t, and can’t, have the full search-committee story; and partial information will only put both you and your hoped-to-be-informant in an increasingly awkward position**.

To summarize: letter writers, be kind; and letter readers, understand that this kindness has to be limited.  We can’t remove rejection letters from our system, and we can’t entirely remove their sting; but on both sides of the transaction we should do the best we can.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) June 5, 2017


*^Thanks to Tony Ives for permission to reproduce this letter here, and for writing such a gracious letter in the first place.

**^Unfortunately, search confidentiality means that it’s possible for institutions to hide discriminatory and other unethical behaviour during a search, or to let unconscious biases colour results. I don’t know how to fix this (nobody does, entirely, or we’d have done it by now), but I’m quite sure that a fully transparent-to-candidates search isn’t the way. Here’s where search committee members and the administrators who manage them bear enormous responsibility; and here’s where a good human resources department – whose members understand the academic search – is invaluable.

 

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8 thoughts on “How to write, and read, a (job) rejection letter

  1. zsiders

    Thanks for writing this, have been putting in for postdocs and I expect to receive more of these. Already got one rejection letter in the bag! This was helpful for understanding the process under which it was written.

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  2. Jeremy Fox

    Nice post.

    I’m curious if any readers would disagree with your second footnote re: the importance of search confidentiality. One unfortunate (though hopefully rare) symptom of the frustration and anxiety some candidates feel is wanting to see radical reforms that would be really, really bad. I saw someone on ecoevojobs.net say that search committees ought to hire (not “decide who to interview”, *hire*) based on a publicly announced mathematical formula involving things like number of publications, h index, number of classes taught, etc.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Whether or not my second footnote is an example of it, I think you’re right and that your point is much more general. I think it’s very common for people to identify an undesirable feature of the way things are now and propose a radical new system that would very possibly be worse. I worry about this with proportional representation (although I’m probably wrong) and with nearly every proposal to replace peer review (and cue pitchfork-wielding mob in 3, 2, 1…). Of course, readers are free to suggest that you and I are just old fuddy-duddies who can’t bring themselves to think outside the box (https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2015/09/17/please-stop-asking-me-to-think-outside-the-box/) 🙂

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      1. Thiago Sanna Freire Silva

        “to hire (not “decide who to interview”, *hire*) based on a publicly announced mathematical formula involving things like number of publications, h index, number of classes taught, etc.”

        This is pretty much how the Brazilian hiring system works, and let me tell you, it SUCKS. It makes it almost impossible to hire the true best candidate/fit to the job. But many of my colleagues defend it, because it is ‘transparent and fair’ (fairness has a strong cultural weight in Brazil, where it’s often assumed everyone will cheat if/when given the opportunity).

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