It’s no secret that rejection is a constant and integral part of academic life, especially during job-hunting season. But that doesn’t make repeated knocks to your candidacy (or your psyche) any easier to take or less painful.
There’s an abundance of advice, much of it from these pages, on how to get an academic job and manage your career. But little is offered—besides the words “better luck next year”—on how to manage your misery when search committees shut the door on your bids. Here are some constructive (and not-so-constructive) coping tips from academics who've endured some stunning job-search shellackings of their own:
It’s painful to lose out on a job, but it’s a special hell for academics because everyone and your mother knows about it. “Your friends, advisers, and a bunch of strangers on search committees are aware of the positions for which you have applied,” David Perlmutter says. And if you were a finalist, chances are that “everyone in your field knows that you were vying for that post.”
So how do you regroup? Lick your wounds; thank your family, friends, and mentors for their support; and conduct an honest appraisal of what went right and what went wrong. Then either prepare to fight another day, Perlmutter says, or find an exit strategy.
What’s the appropriate response to failure on the academic job market? Sucker-punching a plastic penguin was Jon Coleman’s first reaction, but it probably ranked “among the least helpful,” he admits.
It may be healthy to express your emotions and rail against the unfairness of the system—up to a point. But then it’s time to hit the gym (instead of the Christmas decorations), rework your application materials, and redirect some of that rage toward turning out new publications.
Emily Peters had a Ph.D., teaching experience, and multiple publications. After several years of job searching, she still didn’t have a job. But she did finally have an epiphany: “It’s not my fault.”
Odds are Emily’s right. The reason you didn’t get the job probably had nothing to do with you, Rob Jenkins writes: “The single factor most likely to sink your candidacy is simply that, in today’s academic job market, more and more people are applying for fewer and fewer jobs.” Seems obvious, sure, but it’s something worth remembering.
Of course, knowing your job prospects are mostly beyond your control can be cold comfort, but isn’t that better than beating yourself up?
On the other hand, some of the factors keeping you from getting hired may, in fact, be within your control, Rob Jenkins says. If you’ve always been an applicant, but never an interviewee, it may be time to assess how your qualifications and experience stack up against those of your competitors. Ask your friends and mentors to review your materials. If you meet all the requirements and are willing to move where the jobs are, but still haven’t had an interview—or if you’ve had many interviews but keep coming up short—then you’d better take a cold, hard look at how you’re presenting yourself on paper and in person, Jenkins says.
When you are rejected—as you will be at one time (strike that and read: 50 or more times) or another—keep calm and carry on as best you can, Douglas Howard advises. And for heaven’s sake, keep your sour grapes to yourself. If someone calls you to break the bad news, you might be tempted to “[hurl] a host of curses at them and [wish] the plagues of Egypt upon their department.” Don’t. It might make you feel better in that instant, but “with every damning word and every seething syllable,” you’ll be digging your own grave, professionally speaking.
Not really. But, occasionally, some good can come from rejection if you take the long view, Tom Deans writes. Savvy academic job seekers realize that academe is a small world. And they think of the job search “not just as a contest to be won, but also as a chance to make connections with hiring-committee members” whom they’re likely to meet again later in their professional lives.
So you didn’t get the offer. Maybe, just maybe, months later you’ll be at a conference, and you’ll bump into a committee member who liked you. Maybe that person knows a professor who knows a professor, and … well, who knows?