Dealing with rejections – 6 suggestions for how universities should treat unsuccessful job applicants

It’s the time of year again when adverts for university posts – some permanent, most sadly temporary – are starting to trickle into my email inbox. Fortunately I have the luxury of being able to not pay them much attention because I started a new three-year position last October. I’m only just settling into Denmark, am enjoying my work and don’t want to think about moving again just yet. However, I can’t help being reminded of this time last year when I was in a very different situation applying for a string of jobs that I was both qualified for and would love to have been appointed for, anxiously hoping for invitations to interviews and dealing with the frustration and disappointment of receiving rejections.


My Twitter feed reminds me almost every day at the moment that countless colleagues are now going through precisely the same harrowing process. Social media requires us to be relentlessly positive so the stories that get through are above all the good news stories of people gaining tenure. But we all know that for every successful appointment there will be tens of people, perhaps even a hundred or more, who’ve missed out, many of them highly qualified and suited to the position in question.

Few people tweet about rejections while they’re still trying to get hired. Recently, however, I’ve also seen a growing number of early career academics tweeting or posting blog posts about their decision to abandon the attempt and pursue an alternative career. There’s clearly a growing feeling that there’s something seriously amiss with the academic job market and it’s more than a little sad that the people who feel most able to speak up about it are those who no longer have a vested interest in it because they’ve decided to leave academia altogether. To be fair, on Twitter at least, I’ve also noticed a number of academics with tenure also expressing their dissatisfaction at the unfairness inherent in the system.

When I was in the middle of my applications last year I made up my mind that once I got a permanent position something I wanted to draw attention to is the way that universities (mis)handle the process of rejecting applicants. I’ve had many experiences of this being dealt with badly. As I said already my current job is temporary but it seems to me that if only people with tenure talk about these things nothing is going to improve. So, in the hope that this might go some small way toward changing things, I’ve decided to put my thoughts to paper (or should that be on the screen?) now.

I’m pleased to say that most universities, in my opinion, do get the rejection letter right: a short email thanking the applicant for their interest in the position, explaining that the number of qualified applicants was very high and that due to a range of considerations to do with balancing the needs of the department the application was not successful this time and wishing the applicant success in their future career. Of course I know that this is just a standard message sent out to all non-successful applicants but it says exactly what needs to be said – no more, no less. It gives the impression, at least, that the application was taken seriously and offers the applicant some form of consolation in the thought that they were up against stiff competition, something that will invariably really have been the case.

Over the course of the many applications I’ve submitted over the course of more than a decade I have, however, also encountered a frustratingly large number of universities that don’t seem able to get this simple formula right. An academic job application is almost always a major investment on the part of the applicant, in terms of time – both the time spent writing it and the time spent obsessively checking email for a response – and emotional energy; few people apply for jobs that they don’t feel they are qualified for and it can often feel as though there is an awful lot riding on an application – nothing less than a future of being able to carry on doing work that you enjoy and are good at, to say nothing of financial security, especially if the job is a permanent one. The last thing any applicant needs or deserves is a rejection that magnifies how bad they will feel anyway at being rejected.

On the basis of some of my experiences then I’ve put together a list of six recommendations that I would like to see universities take account of in handling the process of rejecting job applications:

1. Send a rejection letter/email. In my opinion this is a basic courtesy and the failure to send a rejection is never acceptable under any circumstances yet surprisingly I have had applications that I’ve never heard back from. The only excuse I’ve ever heard for this is that universities are inundated with applications and don’t have the resources to answer them all. This is a poor excuse, especially nowadays. It is now standard that applications are made online through filling in forms. The information you provide includes your email address. It would be quite straightforward to set up a process by which any candidate who has not been shortlisted for interview will be notified automatically after a set date that their application has not been successful.

Not only is not getting a rejection extremely frustrating and creates the impression that your application has been dismissed out of hand, the fact that some universities don’t send rejections means that you never know with any given application whether you are still in the running for the post or not. Sometimes application processes unavoidably take a long time but if you don’t know for sure you will a university will send a rejection letter you can’t be sure whether the position you are waiting to hear about has already been filled. The certainty that you can count on a rejection letter if you are rejected would avoid weeks of wondering if the application you are waiting to hear back about has already been filled.

2. A rejection letter should not be about how wonderful the university is. The applicant already knows that and has probably spent the last couple of weeks imagining a shiny happy future in their new dream job. Over-emphasizing what a fantastic place the university would have been to work at in a rejection letter only makes the rejection more sour. Furthermore, stressing that the university is an international leader in research and teaching – which is what one of my rejection letters last year did – makes it seem rather as though the subtext is “so what on earth did you think you were doing applying here? Better luck somewhere less prestigious”. Not very nice.

3. Don’t insult the applicant. This really should go without saying and fortunately I’ve only experienced this once but from one Dutch university I actually received a rejection that took the sentiment discussed in 2 and turned it up to the max. I wish now I’d kept the email because it provided a master-class in how not to treat an applicant with respect. It read something like “There were a very high number of applicants many of whom met the requirements of the position to a far higher degree than you”.

4. If you are going to outsource the application process make sure the company you use is reliable. This is also something I’ve only experienced once but it wasn’t a reassuring experience. After completing the application form and sending my CV and letter for a job at a leading UK university last year I received an email saying “Thank you for your application to [Institution]. [Institution] will send you an email soon notifying you of the outcome”. I’m again paraphrasing here but the word “Institution” in square brackets was really there. The website was using a script that should clearly have substituted “[Institution]” with the actual name of the university in question but didn’t. Such a careless error by the company hardly inspired confidence that my application had actually been received or that, if this company was responsible for compiling the long or short list, that this would be done in a professional way.

(After a few weeks I hadn’t received an email from the university so I wrote to the relevant department to ask if my application had been received. I never received a reply. This was also one of the universities that never sent a rejection so I still have no idea if they ever saw my application.)

5. Don’t send rejection letters in the middle of the night. Again this is something that only happened once but it wasn’t a pleasant experience. For one job last year I thought that I had a particularly good chance of being shortlisted, both because I matched the job criteria to the letter and because I’d spent even more time than usual honing my application, taking on board feedback from colleagues who’d said they were impressed with my letter. Typically it takes at least a week, often longer to hear back about an application, often last thing on a Friday afternoon when the sender of rejections can rush immediately away from the office, giving the failed applicants the weekend to process the bad news in case they might feel the urge to challenge the decision (of course not a good idea in any circumstance). So imagine my surprise when only three days after submitting this application I opened my email over breakfast, safe in the knowledge that I could expect no news whatsoever about that job for a good few days, only to find that somebody had sent me a rejection letter at 2 am. The university in question was in the same time zone – the same country – as I was. Either a member of the administrative staff was so overworked that they were working through the night or else for some reason that I can’t imagine the message had been written earlier and scheduled to be sent then. In either case that was a particularly bad way to start the day. At least give people the chance to have had their first cup of coffee before sending the bad news.

6. Provide feedback (at least to people who’ve made it to the shortlist). Last year the chair of the selection committee of a position I was interviewed for told me that they could only give feedback to people who’d had an interview because the number of applicants for positions was just too high. That seems perfectly reasonable to me and I was very grateful for the useful feedback that I did receive after the interview. However, for another position I was interviewed for I sent an email asking for feedback and then never received a reply. To be honest that did make me feel a little better that I hadn’t ended up working in that department. On a more positive note, for another application the chair of the department took the trouble of writing me a very friendly and encouraging rejection message offering feedback even though I had only been long listed for the position in question. That really did help in cushioning the blow and made me feel that even if we weren’t going to be direct colleagues – at least in the immediate future – I was respected as a colleague working within the same field of academia.

As I said most of the rejection letters I’ve received over the years have been perfectly reasonable. It is good that most universities are getting this right but surely there shouldn’t be any need at all to raise any of the issues I’ve raised here. If – WHEN – in the future I find myself on an academic hiring committee I’m determined to make sure that unsuccessful applicants are treated with the courtesy and respect they deserve. If anybody reading this is in a member of a selection committee or will be in the near future I really hope they’ll take note of these points and make sure they do the same. If any readers have other experiences of how universities handled the rejection process badly (or perhaps how they’ve handled it exceptionally well) I would be very glad if you would share them – please leave a comment below.

And if anyone from [Institution] is reading, cancel your contract with that HR management company. They’re taking you for a ride.