By Karen Cardozo
A recent Chronicle article on how to survive rejection linked to a blog post urging writers to aim for 100 rejections a year. How (existentially) low can you go?! This method of throwing literary spaghetti at the wall is par for the course in a saturated creative writing market. Such blind persistence makes some sense, given that history is rife with examples of early rejection letters to famous talents. Likewise, stories abound in the music industry of bands rejected by a major label only to make it big in the end. So if you are an artist, by all means: believe in yourself, and never give up!
However, the analogy between academe and the arts breaks down right quick. You are unlikely to have an independent fan base to correct an academic hiring committee’s decision. Moreover, there is a limited window through which you may clamber into a tenure track compartment — if you miss it, it’s not likely we’ll be reading about you decades hence as the Nobel laureate whom Harvard famously rejected. There’ll be no Pretty Woman comeuppance where you return triumphantly to Hahvahd Yahd and proclaim that they made a “big mistake, HUGE!”
Like creative writers, academics are encouraged to apply to as many institutions as possible. But the new Plan A of authentic career development demands the opposite: mount fewer, more targeted, applications to those organizations with which you feel best aligned. Even in this time of job scarcity, you should evaluate institutional mission, geographic preference and particular job configurations, applying only to those that resonate and blowing off any others for which you’d have to twist your profile (or your lifestyle) into knots. In academe, as in all sectors, it still comes down to a sense of fit: basic qualifications being met, organizations want to know you have good reasons for prioritizing them (sadly, your need for a paycheck is not their primary concern). Perhaps counterintuitively in our age of panic and scarcity, you are better served by supplementing fewer, well-chosen academic applications with pursuit of well-fitting opportunities in other sectors.
In today’s working world, merely increasing the number of applications doesn’t yield more offers. Why? Because outside of academe, most hiring does not go through a protracted search process involving job listings posted far in advance. Rather, prospective candidates tend to be funneled through networking. Employers want to hire someone they already know, or who is recommended by someone they trust. Downloading a stranger’s application from JobsRUs.com is not the preferred route. This means you will have to engage outside of your library carrel to become known to other employers and their networks.
But here again, no need to just throw spaghetti at the wall or aim for 100 rejections! Choose your networking, social, volunteer and other activities from genuine affinity whenever possible. Under Trump, the next 4 years will be awash in new opportunities for activists to connect in a truly passionate, mission-driven way. From these authentic engagements, job offers or even new ventures may arise because you will be in the right place at the right time. Best of all, it will be YOUR place and time—in the sense of being an obvious and organic fit for the situation.
This brings to mind a recent client who got me thinking about the need to rethink rejection. In my three years with TPII, I’ve reviewed the materials of hundreds of applicants from across the disciplines. Most, if not all, have the chops to succeed in academe. Indeed, it is downright painful to witness in their CVs what Marc Bousquet has called the “waste product” of an academic system now built around contingent labor (required reading: How the University Works). They have won awards, published, and proven their capacity for exemplary teaching and service – to no avail when it comes to landing a tenure track job.
Even so, this particular client impressed me more than most. I was struck by the elegant concision of her teaching and research statements, her weighty CV, and the compelling voice in her cover letters. Over the last 5 years, she has garnered several interviews (some at elite institutions) but no job offers. She was feeling defeated, but still not quite ready to embrace “Plan B” or an Alt/Out-Ac search. She wanted to be sure nothing was wrong with her academic materials. In fact, nothing was wrong. Remember, an invitation to interview is evidence that your documents are working! After that, other variables come into play (such as your interview performance, and who else is in the finalist pool—the former is a factor you can control; the latter is one you cannot). [KK: I feel compelled to point out here that when academic job market clients *repeatedly* get interviews but no offers, it usually indicates something needs to be addressed in their interview technique, because many academics have self-sabotaging habits that often derive from Imposter Syndrome or lack of training. Learn more about the interview help here. This is not to take away from Karen C’s larger points and my absolute agreement that rejection is the norm, not the exception, on the tenure track job market, and everyone needs to seriously consider the non-ac/post-ac route!]
Here’s the bottom line, for my client and for you: permanent full-time jobs are scarce in academe, which is not a meritocracy but a high stakes system that breeds conformity. Yet many of you are still not correcting your thinking. You continue to labor under the delusion/illusion that if you could just improve your documents, you will lasso that elusive unicorn. Yes, there is a certain level of professionalism you must achieve in your materials and interviewing (and TPII can certainly help you do that). But in a deep pool of well-qualified people, it’s not always about what YOU did or did not do. It is sometimes about what others did differently: you can’t change your background. More likely, it is about the local politics that lead an idiosyncratic search committee to select one candidate over others.
In short, rejection usually isn’t personal. Not in the sense that you were tried and found wanting. But it IS personal in another important way. Being ignored, rejected, or otherwise not selected is an opportunity to think harder about what you really want, and who might really want YOU. Use this data to fine tune a cross-sector search for organizations and people with whom you are really well-aligned.
The more you embrace this mentality, the more you can reframe rejection. Instead of a controlling narrative of judgment—that you are inadequate—view your job search as a litmus test of mutual fit. Think about it: if among hundreds of applicants you made a first round interview or were a finalist, you were hardly “rejected.” You made your case well enough to be considered seriously. And if you didn’t make any short lists, it likewise doesn’t mean you’re not worthy (there really are too few positions for too many talented applicants). It just means that it wasn’t the right fit, if only on the most basic level: they didn’t choose you!
Knowing this frees you to move on without hard feelings and keep hopping around till you find a better lily pad to land upon (a reference to the frog metaphor from my last post). In contrast, clinging to the foolhardy notion of a sequential Plan A-then-Plan B makes you another kind of frog–one who is about to be boiled alive, yet fails to react because the heat is turned up so very slowly in academe’s kitchen! Remember, authentic career development requires exploring ALL fitting options across sectors at every life stage. This means knowing when to hop out of the pot.
Subscribing to this “free frog” mentality enables you to go from being a supplicant to being an applicant. The academic job scarcity with which we came of age has made sad supplicants of most, like 6th graders lined up for dodgeball teams at recess: “Oh, pick ME! Please, please, pick me!” Instead, start behaving authentically like an applicant who has multiple options, of which an academic career is only one. In so doing, you may ultimately discover that it is you who rejects academe, not the other way around.