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Rejection Letters for a faculty position (markchang.tumblr.com)
123 points by markchang on June 27, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 78 comments

As the author got the 1 job he wanted out of 30+ applications, I feel this point is appropriate.

The college I went to had a pub with the policy that a rejection letter (for a job, post graduate position, etc) could be traded for one free beer. It was a brilliant policy for encouraging people to try. From one perspective 30+ letters of rejection to get what you want is depressing. From my perspective that would have been getting the thing you wanted along with thirty free drinks.

Some companies offer an ice cream gift card along the rejection letter. That's kind of nice too.

That pub has a brilliant idea!

Well, if you had traded in all your rejection letters back then, we would not be reading them now 8 years later...

Also, he might have been drinking too much to get around to applying for all 30.

Unless he did them in batch mode. Apply to 30 positions in January, go drinking for free 26 times in March-May.

"I am sorry to inform you that we have a strict no-drinking workplace policy and therefore unfortunately the position advertised does not seem to be aligned with your interests. We wish you all the best in your future endeavours."

Or better yet, apply to 300 positions and go drinking for the whole year!

This probably isn't common in tech, but multiple friends in finance have reported sending in over 100 applications for jobs and internships each year.

Make your own luck, right? :)

Having written a few of these in my time I'd like to pick out the best and the worst.

The worst is surely from the University of Colorado at Boulder. I find the prose florid and demeaning. Lowlights include implying that many "well qualified individuals" applied, using a sentence structure that clearly suggests you are not counted amongst them.

Yale runs a close second worst, for their brutal and brief suggestion that you go "elsewhere".

The best is from the Colorado School of Mines. It is pleasant, warm, apologetic. In particular, it bothers to express appreciation of time & energy invested, and it speaks of a "closer match" of the shortlisted candidates rather than pompously announce how grand their field was.

I really liked one from ETH, Zurich. It was a personal letter (i.e. not generated) mentioning that for the particular job they found another person, whose skills were more appropriate at the moment. And the sender asked me to keep an eye for further openings.

In case anyone else had trouble:

University of Colorado at Boulder: pg. 19

Yale: pg. 26

Colorado School of Mines: pg. 14

I must agree the Colorado School of Mines struck me as warm as well, from the get-go, before I read your comment.

One thing that struck me, and in my eyes is the worst, is the response from Colgate. Just starting with "Dear Applicant" makes it seem like they don't care. Granted they may have already finished the search but they could still at least address the letter to an individual person and not a generic person.

A faculty position right after finishing the PhD? Isn't it a bit too early to retire so soon?

I am in germany, so my experience may not compare. But at my institute we have many international postdocs. As far as I see it, there is NO way to get a faculty position without an international research record. Some of our postdocs get a professorship though, but it may be in Korea or China, never in Europe or in the United States so far.

When I thought about my career during my PhD time, I felt like it was a one way ticket to think about science positions only. They were very rare and the competition is hard. What is to gain except a mediocre salary for a lifetime? At least in Europe it is also tough to go back from a research institute and work for a business again.

So I decided to develop software (I am a physicist). That is closer to my interests than science. I finally landed in space projects and write scientific software, have free access to great data (that no scientist in the world can see so early) and I can really focus on my work. The professors, on the other hand, spend their day giving and preparing lectures, organizing money for the research and don't have time to do some research themselves.

There are always ways to go. If one way is tough, it will most likely remain tough all the way. It opens the mind to think about alternatives and this chance should be taken, imho.

True w.r.t. international research record, but in computer science and engineering in the US/Canada it's fairly common to build such a record while getting the PhD, and then get an Assistant Professor position directly. North American PhDs typically take 5-8 years, so it's quite possible (and increasingly expected) to publish ~10 conference papers and 1-2 journal articles before you graduate. It's less common in the natural sciences, where 2-3 years postdoc seems quasi-obligatory.

It would be nice if more startups did this. Just a nice letter saying "While your qualifications are outstanding, we regret to inform you that your expertise-in-X is not what we are looking for at this time." If someone takes the time to fill out a five page web-based form and goes through your online fizzbuzz tests, a customized letter is only appropriate.

Having worn a interviewing & selecting hat for <corporation>, I can say my objectives for rejection communication were:

(1) conveying the fact of it politely and unequivocally, (2) ensuring that the process halts immediately, and (3) leaving an impression such that the candidate's likelihood of thinking & speaking ill of us in future is minimised.

The fact is, rejection usually amounts to disappointment and in some people that means they're about to pass through the stages of grief, often quite quickly. As the rejector you have a chance of being on the receiving end of the anger & bargaining stages from a rejectee.

This creates an incentive to give away as little as possible. If one states that the candidate was weak in a specific area, there are a few - just a few but it's enough to be a major deterrent - that will treat this as an invitation to negotiation over that and/or related points. In the worst case this led to a large volume of unsolicited communication that proved challenging to curtail.

Thus goals (1) and (2) had not been achieved and goal (3) was abandoned in the interests of time.

From another dimension, IANAL but I have also been advised by Ms.IAAL that being specific also opens the door to a risk of being wrong (or even being simply perceived to be wrong), and thus a liability concern.

I think the most-needed advice for people advertising positions is: (pre-1) send any kind of rejection communication at all.

That was my point. Not the specific reason but just a good, respectful letter/email.

How about (4) giving the candidate one or two things that they could improve about their performance at interview?

Although many of us would like to get that feedback, there are reasons not to give specific feedback to job candidates: it prevents you from making any statements that could be held against you (esp. legally); it doesn't take time away from other more valuable work; it discourages people from attempting to hone their interview skills to cover for weak fundamentals; it saves you an awkward moment if the no-go decision was based on personality more than technical chops.

If you really want that kind of feedback, do some mock interviews. What you're asking for just isn't a service that prospective employers have much incentive to offer.

Many of the letters started with an apology for being slow, which is a very bad sign. All of them were form letters.

Once an interview occurs then I would hope a far more personal approach gets used. The benchmark for this was McKinsey (I was there 10 years ago). I went through the recruitment process there from both sides, and we had a simple policy to call the person back within 24 hours, letting let them know immediately whether they were in the next step or not. We would also offer to give constructive feedback (and have it to give) to both successful and unsuccessful candidates.

The reason for the "slow" apology (which I have now been on both sides of) is that when you're running a faculty search, you don't want to close the applicant pool until your chosen candidate has accepted the offer, signed the contract, picked their textbooks, rented an apartment, and moved to town. Well, I exaggerate slightly. But there's always this lurking worry that if you send the rejections too early, you may have to re-open the pile if your hire backs out.

That said, June is still ridiculously late. The search should be done by March or so at the latest, with maybe some contract details lingering until April if there's a hard negotiation.

I've often thought that it would be nice to keep candidates a little more apprised of where they stand, but another problem that faculty search committees run into here is that in our litigious culture (in the US at least), we have to be very, very, very careful what we say for fear of a lawsuit. Sigh.

There's an understandably human tendency to highlight our accomplishments and bury our failures, which can give inexperienced outsiders/novices in some field a warped perception of what's "normal," exacerbating their self-doubt. I think it's admirable that he posted the letters and was honest about how they made him feel.

I applied to Waterloo in Canada knowing I wouldn't get in but figured it couldn't hurt.

As such when I got the rejection letter it didn't ruin my day at all, I really wasn't surprised. What did surprise me was the way it was phrased. It was a while ago so I don't remember verbatim, but it was something like this:

you are not of high enough caliber to be admitted into Waterloo

the word caliber was definitely used. What a cold, cold way to reject someone. I can only imagine having gotten that letter thinking I might have a chance of getting in. Would have been devastating.

Talk about not sugar coating anything :)

Mark - thanks for posting these. I was the recipient of my own batch of such rejection letters during my faculty search in 2002, so I know the feeling exactly. I ended up going to Harvard (not bad!) but the sting of rejection still hurts, no matter where it's from. These days I take it most universities do everything by email, but back in 2002 it was still almost exclusively done by paper mail. Somehow a paper rejection letter feels "nicer" than a rejection email.

Hi Matt -- while we're on the topic of academic applications (and the likely rejections), I wanted to say how insightful I've found your blog posts regarding the general academia vs. industry matter to be, in particular since I need to make a similar decision myself very soon. So thanks! :)


The college he works at, Olin, is an amazingly innovative institution. It should be used as a model for all modern engineering programs. Unfortunately, it is not.


I went out on the faculty job market 1.5 years (the second year I wasn't as serious about it so I'll count it as .5). The first year was 60+ applications, the second was less than 10 if I remember correctly. All of that resulted in 7 interviews, 1 offer that I didn't end up accepting, and a whole lot of rejections.

My advice to anyone applying out for faculty jobs is just to expect a ton of rejections. I stopped reading the letters/emails after I knew they were rejections. Reading more doesn't do any good and it's not like it is a personal letter anyways. One of the things that made it easier was that I was once involved in a faculty job search. 400-500 applications were whittled down to about ~40 that looked good. The process of whittling those down to the 7-8 we interviewed seemed very arbitrary; many of those we didn't interview looked very good. After the interviews, you could have made clear arguments for a few candidates. In the end, one got an offer. So, after seeing the number of applications involved, and the randomness involved in the process, it's pretty easy to just know there will be a lot of rejections.

I remember, in the early 90s, someone in our department sent out over 500 applications, and got nothing but rejections. He then started putting the rejection letters outside his office. The department chair politely asked him to take them down, so that prospective PhD wouldn't be scared off. :-D

500? If there were only that many faculty openings when I was on the job market... Ever since the dot com bust and more recent state government delevering, the academic job market for computer science has never been quite the same. I hear that enrollments are finally starting to rebound.

(Off-topic, but surprising to me -- Tumblr isn't blocked in China under the Great Firewall. I clicked on the link, saw my VPN wasn't on so didn't expect it to load, and then it works. I wonder why they didn't block it when almost all blogging platforms are blocked.)

None of these letters served any purpose- all were simply form letters that offered no information or relevant feedback to the applicant.

I would have been happy to receive rejection letters.

I often get non-committed, non-final quasi rejections along the lines of "we didn't land the project we wanted to hire you for, can we talk in half a year please?" or "we're now moving headquarters and delaying all hiring, would next fall be fine?".

On the one hand it feels good not to be outright rejected, but I always have trouble judging what's really going on. Is that really the reason, or just an excuse? Are they merely trying to keep contact with potential future hires?

They served one pretty important purpose: conveying the information that he would not be working there.

Exactly. In my experience, it's far more common to not receive a letter at all. As disappointing as it is to receive a form rejection letter, not hearing anything is worse.

I'm guessing in some cases they've made a hiring list and you're on it. Just not at #1. They don't want to reject you and then find out everyone above you on their list has taken another position.

On the other hand, most of them are probably just jerks.

The worst rejection reason I ever got was because my high school and university attended were in the same area code.

How does such a touching, honest article get such terrible comments? (Referring to the comments on the author's blog.)

In any case I don't see why anyone would allow such lampreys to suck the life of their own web page.

The letter from Yale is excruciatingly short and (to my eyes, anyway) kind of ghetto looking.

It doesn't force you to read through three introductory paragraphs to find out if the answer is yes or no.

Bah. You already know it's a rejection letter before you open the envelop. If they're actually interested in hiring you you'll get a packet from HR instead of a letter all by itself. It's not much different from applying to a college.

Just curious -

I found it interesting that most of the letters (with the exception of two) referred to you as Mr. Chang rather than Dr. Chang. I just since you had not technically finished your PhD by that point they were technically accurate. (The letter from Brown seems to be dated June and begins with an apology for delay, so maybe by that point you were actually a Dr.)

Did you find it demeaning that they didn't refer to faculty position applicants as Dr.?

Not at all. But then again, I'm not huge into titles. I also didn't defend until June, so it was technically correct.

Part of what motivated my question today was the amusement at being called Dr. by some guy at work. Since I work in a hospital, he just assumed I was an MD. Alas, I am "just" a programmer.

"Dr" Chang. :-)

I find this surprising. Every professor I've ever had insisted, "I did the work, and as such, you will refer to me as Dr."

At UVA it's against the rules to call anyone doctor who isn't an MD.

At UVA it's against the rules to call anyone doctor who isn't an MD.

1. Academics actually have a better historical- and linguistic claim to the title "doctor" than do physicians and surgeons.

From Wikipedia: "Doctor, as a title, originates from the Latin word of the same spelling and meaning. The word is originally an agentive noun of the Latin verb docēre [dɔˈkeːrɛ] 'to teach'. It has been used as an honored academic title for over a millennium in Europe, where it dates back to the rise of the first universities." [1]

2. In the UK, surgeons are called "Mister" for historical reasons, as explained by a FAQ of the Royal College of Surgeons. [2]

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_(title)

[2] http://www.rcseng.ac.uk/patient_information/faqs/surgeons.ht...

I suspect I've taken classes with over 50 professors, and only heard that once. And in that case she'd repeatedly asked the students to use her first name, and someone kept calling her "Mrs", and eventually she corrected the student: "Not Mrs. Either <firstname> or Dr. <lastname>".

Haha ... I've never been referred to as Doctor after the friendly "congrats Dr. X" when I finished my PhD. The funny thing is .. I only cared about it before I got my PhD. After that, it doesn't matter to me one bit.

Well .. it would be nice if I could put Dr. on my passport or drivers license. But that doesn't seem to be an option.

Eight years ago I taught as an adjunct instructor. I'm still getting physical junk mail addressing me as "Professor". It's kind of nice. :-)

Why would they address him with a title he didn't possess? And why would that be demeaning?

Academics tend to guard jealously their hard-won academic titles, and also to strive for accuracy in the things they do. An unsolicited 'Dr' might be extended as a courtesy to a graduand, i.e. someone who has already submitted and successfully defended their thesis viva voce. But surely not to someone who is merely 'finishing up' - a process that might never terminate.

Interesting, I don't think I got any rejection letters when I was job searching after college a few years ago. If I didn't get the interview I didn't receive any response at all. Now, the search didn't go too long, so maybe it was just too small of a sample to judge anything by. I certainly didn't expect to get any letters though.

As a former student of Mark, this should really be "26 schools that totally missed the boat"

Thats not bad. I did not even get rejection letters for my faculty applications.

Ouch, being rejected from University of Arizona AND Arizona State University?

So this guy is an employed PhD (at the job he "wanted most") and writes a blog post about how emotionally traumatic receiving rejection notices at normal (if not below normal) rates was. I don't get it.

One of the reasons I posted the letters was because I'd not seen a big set of rejection letters anywhere before. In fact, I hadn't actually looked at the mass of them together before myself.

You are right. I didn't outline the reasons why I posted this very explicitly. I hoped that people would form their own opinions about these things, honestly. One reason, for myself, was that I found myself reflecting on failure, persistence, bad job application strategies, etc., and just marveling at the mass of it all there in one spot, all looking rather similar.

The feeling of rejection is one that we all share, and I thought I could connect with people by posting these letters.

Anyways, normal rates, yes. Special post? Guess not. I felt it was worth sharing.

I don't understand the parent's disdain. Your post definitely was worth sharing. Thank you.

There are surely many reasons it was worth sharing. For me it was educational to contemplate the number of applications submitted.

Also, in this case it was fun to the see the letterheads for a large number of well-respected engineering schools all addressed to the same person. Just to be in the position to be rejected by those departments is a significant accomplishment, after all.

In my experience, the number of applications submitted is actually somewhat low compared to most recently graduated PhDs these days.

Rejections hurt, period.

I think it's an extremely useful blog post. It's a fantastic perspective check for people who might be going through a similar process.

Y'know what? Twenty-nine rejections and one offer is a perfectly normal rate, not just for faculty positions but for many things in life, but it doesn't make each one less painful. When you're stuck in the middle of it and you don't know how the story is going to end, you can lose perspective.

I don't even understand how the parent expects people to know what is normal without posts like these to provide (admittedly anecdotal) data.

Listen people, here's how HN works.

If you disagree with somebody, you reply.

You don't downvote just because you disagree, and you definitely don't downvote without a reply just because you disagree.

Downvotes are for trolls/rude people.

Explain to this person why you disagree, I want to know.

Listen people, here's how HN works. If you disagree with somebody, you reply.

You'll note I'm taking the trouble to reply. I checked your join date. It is before several of the many repostings of this statement from pg,


first posted 1592 days ago:

"I think it's ok to use the up and down arrows to express agreement. Obviously the uparrows aren't only for applauding politeness, so it seems reasonable that the downarrows aren't only for booing rudeness."

I upvote to approve of posts that I agree with and advance the discussion, and I downvote from time to time if all I have to say on an issue is that the statement in the comment I'm downvoting doesn't warrant agreement. I look at my own comments for reasons why people might disagree with them, but I don't feel obligated, as a reader here, to spell out ALL the details about why I might disagree with a comment to everyone who posts a comment containing a dubious statement.

Keep in mind, that was during a much more civil era at HN, and at a time when vote totals were actually displayed. Back then, I downvoted lots of posts I disagreed with because I thought they were worth 10 points instead of 11, but I wouldn't downvote one with 1 point because it clearly wasn't worth 0. The site and culture have changed, and it's silly cargo-culting to just go by old pg quotes that speak to a totally different era of HN.

The site and culture have changed, and it's silly cargo-culting to just go by old pg quotes that speak to a totally different era of HN.

I appreciate your reply. (Yeah, I upvoted it.) If someone had found a newer quotation on the same issue, I'd refer to that whenever this frequently asked question comes up. To the main point, there is no rule here either in the explicit guidelines


or in the established custom of the site that a downvote mandatorily must be accompanied by a reply, nor is there any rule or custom that downvotes are solely to be applied to the kind of comments that pg has described


as "comments that are (a) mean and/or (b) dumb that (c) get massively upvoted." The question is a question of line-drawing. I try on my part to make my upvotes far outnumber my downvotes, and I try actively to upvote any comment that made me think of an aspect of a problem I haven't thought about before or that cites information I haven't learned before. I lurk in a lot of threads just to upvote good stuff. But some comments mostly just try to express poorly thought out opinions with little factual basis or to make lame jokes, and there is no particular reason to explain downvoting those comments. I don't always claim that comments that I downvote are from "trolls/rude people"; sometimes they are just comments that don't meet the usual high standards of regular participants here.

Said better than I could've.

Thank you.

I don't know that people disagree. I didn't downvote him, but I can imagine that people might have because his comment is a no more than an uninteresting summary of the blog post. It's not really adding much to the conversation.

Actually what the comment does is simultaneously satirizes the blog post author as a person of a highly privileged status feeling sorry for himself because of the "emotional trauma" of his highly successful job search AND thusly questions the relevance of the post at all. I guess I should have spelled it out more clearly.

And that is why you got downvoted. Obviously a lot of people find this post interesting (at 6th position on the front page with 87pts right now). Furthermore, a lot of people tend to find the "does this even matter" posts that show up on almost every single comment thread boring and irrelevant.

If you don't like an article or don't find it interesting just ignore it, that's the whole point of the voting system. Things that are interesting to a lot of people bubble up, things that aren't, don't. Commenting with "I don't think this is interesting" isn't helpful.

As for your actual post, the author is saying the rejection letters had a particular impact on him even though he eventually got what he wanted. Having been rejected by a few places when applying for graduate studies after having decided that I didn't want to go anyway(because I had decided against pursuing further studies and starting to work) I can definitely sympathize with the author, it still feels bad.

Furthermore, I think the collection of such letters is definitely interesting. Most people when they get rejected tend to think that their case is unique and think that this reflects badly on themselves. I think that it's interesting to see that even people who "made it"(got his dream job, didn't he?) still went through that. So it's perfectly normal.

I'm applying for faculty positions at the moment.

I haven't even got one rejection letter yet. A few rejection emails, in each case many months after I'd given up all hope of getting the job, is all I've got to show for it.

Sigh. Good thing I'm pretty.

I think times have changed. I haven't gotten a rejection letter in years, now.

I remember sending out of 200 resumes during the recession at the end of the 80's. Back then you'd always get a letter back -- even if you didn't get an interview!

Now, it's so much easier for companies to send a rejection -- yet most don't bother. Sigh.

Times have definitely changed. Along with each application (at least most of them), since they were mailed in (yes, physical form), I got an acknowledgment letter back along with an equal opportunity employment demographic postcard to fill out.

My wife went through this same process last year. Not one single rejection letter.

Times have changed.

Sounds like the "academic edition" of the Rejection Therapy game: http://rejectiontherapy.com

But on a more serious note, Mark reframed his rejections into a positive learning opportunity for many people. Thanks for doing this Mark.

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