Sydni Dunn

Staff Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

With Support From

Tired of Waiting on the Search Committee? Just Reject Yourself.

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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.

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  • I have received a few kind rejection letters but more typical is the lack of any notification what so ever. For me, it is worse to be left wondering what happened than to receive a rejection letter, positive or negative.

    SallyAnn Giess
    SallyAnn Giess
  • This is truly one of my pet peeves. Businesses and universities alike treat applicants for jobs like subhumans. Applying for any position these days, especially online, amounts to flinging your resume into a black hole from which no light ever escapes. Frequently, there is no human being from whom you can receive a response.
    My advice: If you are ever treated thus, be glad that you don't work for such an organization.

    William Barnett
    William Barnett
  • There are some schools I'd like to send the letter to.

    Eric John
    Eric John
  • It is disgraceful, disrespectful, unprofessional, and unacceptable behavior for any college not to communicate back to a job applicant, even more-so with a finalist who has been interviewed, with a polite and professional letter of rejection. Shame on them! Like so many others, I have had that happen to me. As a community college administrator for 40 years, I never did that to anyone.
    -Daniel Derrico

    Daniel Derrico
    Daniel Derrico
  • I actually received a rejection letter from the University of Chicago for a position that I did NOT apply for- about 3 years ago. I thanked them for their consideration.

    Ann Marie O'Brien
    Ann Marie O'Brien
  • Departments could use the letter generator to notify rejected candidates. Oh wait . . . . . that'd take some effort. And it might reduce all that awesome Zeigarnik effect (angst stemming from incompletion, AKA lack of closure).

    Cathie M Currie, PhD
    Cathie M Currie, PhD
  • I once interviewed for a job at a school in a small town in Texas. Everything was going great ... until I noticed the committee chair staring at his phone for minutes at a time as I was answering questions. Sorry to be so boring, and to have traveled such a long way to do so!

    About four or five weeks of silence -- no email, no phone call -- I received a form letter in the mail letting me know that I wouldn't be teaching there. Shock. It was more impersonal and boilerplate than many of the letters I'd received letting me know I didn't get an interview in the first place.

    Scott Weaver
    Scott Weaver
  • The other side of this coin -- the chair of the search committee with whom I'd recently interviewed called me to tell me that they'd gone with another candidate. She was very nice, told me exactly what they liked about my interview, told me why she didn't think I was an ideal fit in the department, and wished me luck.

    And she was right -- I wasn't a great fit, something I knew after the interview. But it was nice to hear it from her. Hiring decisions sometimes seem arbitrary (and sometimes they are), but more often than not committees have very good reasons for going one way and not another. It was nice to hear that reasoning.

    Scott Weaver
    Scott Weaver
  • I once received a photocopy of a rejection letter, with my name and address handwritten
    in at the top of the letter. It was insulting, but I felt better when I realized that every other candidate rejected for the position probably received a photocopy like mine. How lucky I was to not join a group of people who sent out photocopy rejection letters.

    Thomas Lindsey
    Thomas Lindsey