Earlier this year Linda Ziegenbein, an adjunct lecturer of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, was one of three candidates selected to interview for a tenure-track position at a university in the Midwest. The search committee flew her out for two days of serious courtship: a tour of campus, lunch with students, dinner with faculty members, meetings with various administrators.
By the time she left, she was feeling confident. “It seemed to go really well,” she says. “I had a wonderful experience.”
Then six weeks passed. Ziegenbein didn’t hear a peep from the committee. She began to wonder if it was a lost cause.
Her suspicions were soon confirmed when she came across a status update from a Facebook friend. The friend, it turns out, had just landed the very same position.
As for the search committee? “I never did hear from them again,” Ziegenbein says, chuckling. “It’s one of those things that’s so absurd it’s laughable.”
“Departments spend hundreds of dollars to fly people in, they spend two intense days with them, and then they don’t acknowledge it,” she says. “They aren’t even doing a little bit to take the sting out of it.”
So Ziegenbein decided to take matters into her own hands. With the help of her husband, a software developer, she created the Academic Rejection Letter Generator, an electronic service that provides closure to academic job hunters.
“I thought this would be something nice, and give people a chuckle,” she says. “So many people have had this experience. It almost seems normal for us.”
The generator is as simple as it sounds: Enter your name, and the tool will deliver the personalized letdown you’ve been craving. As a bonus, it’s polite and professional.
“When I wrote it, I thought, ‘What are things you would want to hear? What are the elements of a gentle rejection?’” Ziegenbein says. “I came up with four parts: Thank the person for coming out, compliment their research, give them a soft letdown, and wish them good luck.”
Not every letter is the same, though. She crafted different sentences for those four main sections, which are scrambled each time the page is refreshed. In total, she says, there are 256 versions of the denial.
One letter, for example, might say your research will “revolutionize the field,” while another will remind you their decision is “not an indictment of your worth as a future scholar or colleague.”
It’s hard to say exactly how many people have used the letter generator so far, she says, but she can tell, at least, that it has been in use. She’s also received positive feedback from people who have circulated the tool.
But for Ziegenbein, it’s not about how many people visit the site; it’s about what they take away.
“Anything we can do to help people on the job market is a good thing,” she says. “I hope this helps people who are in that awful place and encourages search committees to get in touch with candidates.”
Have you ever received a truly awesome or terrible rejection letter? Tell us about it in the comments section below.