The ‘Identity’ Rejection Letter: Should search committees reveal the identity of the people they hire to unsuccessful applicants?

I’m a philosopher on the academic job market and an aspect of this ‘rite of passage,’ as I like to call it, is receiving rejection letters for the many jobs one has applied for. How many such letters one gets is of course a function of how many jobs one applies for (the more applications submitted the more rejection letters one is likely to receive), and I won’t here supply the details of just how many jobs I have personally have applied for and their results (though I have often thought that this information might be of interest to other applicants). However, having been on the market for a few years and having received my share of rejection letters, I’ve noticed that these letters take a variety of forms. The most common is the ‘stock’ rejection letter, sometimes sent from the committee directly, sometimes from the human resources department, sometimes addressed to me personally, sometimes to the ‘Dear Candidate,’ which thanks me for applying and regrets to inform me that I haven’t been short-listed or the committee has chosen the candidate that best serves their needs. (I don’t mean to bash the stock letter. There is good reason the stock letter is so common: the number of candidates applying for most of these jobs is so high that anything other than the stock letter would require an unreasonable amount of labour by the committee or secretarial staff.) Every once in a while, however, the rejection letter I, and presumably all other candidates, receive informs us of the identity of the person that the selection committee has hired for the position in question. What I’d like to discuss here is this specific type of rejection letter, let’s call it the ‘identity letter, and ask a question: should hiring committees reveal to applicants the identity of the successful candidate? I’ll be honest, I’m not sure committee should, in the end, do this, but there are some reasons for and against, and it seems worthwhile to at least discuss the question since committee practices are so varied.

Let me start by speculating on why the committees that do reveal the identity of the successful candidate to all applicants engage in this practice. One reason might be that it is merely serving the function of an announcement – informing a community of an important development that the community has an interest in. Another, related reason is that it’s performing the dual function of informing applicants that they were unsuccessful while at the same time saying ‘and we did in fact hire someone, their name is X.’

Now let me consider some reasons NOT to reveal the identity of the successful candidate. I think the main reason not to do this is simply that there doesn’t seem to be any good reason TO do it in the first place. Indeed, to speculate on why some committees don’t write identity rejection letters is because the applicants aren’t entitled to this information in the first place. There is likely no institutional pressure to reveal this information, and there doesn’t seem to be an obvious moral or practical reason to do so either. After all: who a department hires is the business of the department and the successful candidate – nobody else’s!

At the same time, let me offer a few reasons in favour of committees revealing the identity of the successful candidate to applicants. One reason to do this, although not a very good one, is that everyone, including unsuccessful applicants, will most likely be able to find out this information themselves anyways. With sites like the Philjobs ‘Appointment’ page, and the websites departments maintain of current faculty and staff, any interested party can learn who the successful candidate for a job was by a simple google search once these sites are updated. But again – this isn’t a very good reason for committee to proactively reveal the identity of the successful candidate. So,are there any good reason?

I can think of at least one that I have experienced as an unsuccessful applicant. I admit that I have sometimes searched to see how was hired for a position I applied for unsuccessfully. But despite what you might think, this wasn’t because I was nosy, snooping, wanted to gossip, etc. (Okay, sometimes I’m just curious). I sometimes try to find information about not only the identity, but the academic record of a successful applicant so that I can see what the record of a successful applicant looks like. Indeed, to be honest the ‘identity’ of an applicant (i.e. their name and other biographical information) is only indirectly of interest to me insofar as it can help me find their CV. On the one hand, this sounds like a terrible thing to say – it’s not to say that I’m not interested in who these people are either and that they’re reducible to their CV, it’s just to say that given my specific interests in this situation, biographical information is not and indeed SHOULD not be of any interest to me, for reasons related to discrimination. Whenever a committee sends me an ‘identity’ rejection letter, and once I’ve gotten over the bitterness of rejection that always seems to be present despite the fact that this is rejection #148, I’m very grateful so that in my cool hours of reflection I can process why they hired one person and not me, and I can see where my experience fell short, how I might work to build my experience in the future to give me a better chance, etc. I know people use sites like Philjobs ‘Appointments’ simply to gossip and track where people move, who gets hired where, etc., but these sites and the identity rejection letter perform a valuable educational function not only to philosophers currently on the job market like me, but also to younger grad students and those considering an academic career: it shows these people what it takes to be successful in the competitive market we’re currently faced with. I’m not sure this is enough reason for committee to adopt the identity rejection letter as standard practice (indeed I really don’t think this is a good enough reason to ignore the competing concerns of the candidate’s right to privacy or the fact that anyone other than the applicant and the department really has a right to know who was hired before officially making this information public via a website or other mediums down the road). At the very least, however, I think this is a good reason to engage in this practice, despite initial intuitions to the contrary, and committees who decide to do this have this reason to support their practice.

What does it mean to be ‘actively’ researching a paper?

After reading one of Martin’s earlier posts on turning a half-baked idea into a paper, it got me thinking about the writing project that I’m currently engaged in, which one might describe as turning a fully baked idea into a paper – but that I left in the oven for too long. This might not be the best metaphor – I don’t think the idea I express in the paper is burnt or has gotten worse over time (at least I hope not), but the paper is one that was nearly finished and that I started to refine into a publishable article nearly a year ago, but that I put down to work on other projects that had more pressing deadlines. It’s now at the point where I’m returning to the paper and finally bringing it to completion. This situation has certain disadvantages to it that I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss and caution against, and it also got me thinking about what it means to be ‘actively’ working on or researching a paper.

Obviously, this kind of situation (where one has to return to and finish an already started and possibly almost finished project) is less than ideal. In an ideal world one starts a paper and continues to work on it regularly and without significant interruption until it’s finished (for my purposes let’s say a ‘finished’ paper is one that is submitted for publication). I say without significant interruption because rarely is it the case that an academic is able or even wants to work on only one paper for a length of time until it’s finished, and not work on anything else. At the very least there will be other things one is working on – other research projects, grant proposals, administrative work, teaching, etc. – and that will necessarily interrupt progress on a project to some degree. The situation I have in mind, rather, is where working on a project gets interrupted to the extent that one has to put down or stop working on a project for some period of time such that returning to it is not an easy task. In this scenario, returning to the project requires re-familiarizing oneself with the project itself (what you are trying to argue in the paper) and perhaps also the secondary literature one is engaging with. Not only this, but depending on how long the project has been sitting, one might also need to make sure that no new research has been published in the meantime that one ought to consider. There are, therefore, significant disadvantages to ‘leaving a paper in the oven’ or, perhaps better, leaving it in a folder to collect (virtual) dust for too long. Given one shouldn’t forget about a paper for too long, and also that it is unrealistic that anyone is able to work on a single project from beginning to end in a short time frame, what sort of scenario should we aim for that both avoids the disadvantages mentioned as well as counts as ‘actively’ researching a paper? What does it mean to be ‘actively’ researching a paper anyways?

I won’t try to answer all of these questions here, and I’ll focus on the last one. To start, I should clarify that, although related, I’m not here interested in what it means to be an ‘active researcher’ for any institutional purposes. However, given institutions have definitions of this, it might be interesting to look at one. Let’s take the first option that google offered me, namely the definition adopted by Dundalk Institute of Technology in Ireland: they define a ‘Research Active’ individual as “someone who conducts research on an ongoing basis and ensures it is a significant focus of their academic activity”. This definition is shared by institutions like Macquarie University as well (see here).[1] This basic definition is a good one to work with, and emphasizes what I think are the key factors when it comes to avoiding the disadvantages associated with leaving a paper in a drawer, a folder, or the oven for too long: when working on a paper we should aim to conduct research on an ongoing basis, and it should be a significant focus of ours.

The idea of working on a paper on an ongoing basis stresses that we never let a project sit or forget about it, that we’re thinking about it almost every day, and keeping up to date on the secondary literature. This ‘ongoing’ work should prevent one from having to re-familiarize oneself with one’s argument in the paper, and also with the intellectual conversation one is contributing to with the publication. I suppose these features are also stressed by the idea that working on such a project should be a ‘significant’ focus of ours, but this second feature might emphasize that the time and energy we devote to working on a project never falls below a certain threshold, i.e. that we are always giving the project an amount of attention needed to bring it to completion. I’m not sure what this threshold is, and it might even vary from individual to individual (we each have our limits when it comes to how much multi-tasking we’re capable of). But if we want to be actively researching something, we should never take on too much given our limits, and if we want to finish a project it should always be a significant or main focus on ours.

I’m sure much more can be said about what I’ve discussed here. To conclude, it’s worth highlighting that I’ve assumed that the end goal of working on a project is its eventual publication. This may not be one’s goal, but academics working at institutions will likely have this goal, and it is at least mine for the project I have in mind. It would be interesting to think about how things might change if our end goal is different, but I leave that for a different occasion.

[1] For another definition of ‘research active’ that is obviously tied to more institutional concerns, and thus that I’m not interested in here, the (now non-existent) Higher Education Funding Council for England defined someone as ‘research-active’ for contractual purposes as someone who is carrying out “research that would be appropriately assessed by the criteria used by the REF.” (see here)


P.S. Seeing as it’s my first post, let me take the opportunity to thank Martin for having me on the blog! I’m really looking forward to taking part.