Tuesday, December 14, 2010

How To Tell Someone to Please Fuck Off

I've received a handful of competent PFOs over the years. Here are a couple of examples. The first is from Pitt:

Dear [Mr. Zero],

I am sorry to inform you that the Junior Appointments Committee has decided not to pursue your candidacy further at this point. We received nearly two hundred responses to our advertisement, including a great many from highly talented and accomplished applicants. Obviously there are many different considerations on which our decisions are based, and I hope you will appreciate that I cannot go into specifics about individual cases. We will keep your dossier on file until next year, when we shall probably be advertising a junior position again.

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider your credentials, and let me wish you the best of luck in your job search.

Sincerely yours,
John McDowell

Or this one, from UChicago, which I received in the spring of '08:

Thank you very much for your application to our advertised position. After a long and careful process, I regret to say that we are not furthering your candidacy. I wish you the very best in your further endeavors, and look forward to many years as colleagues in our common profession.

"Yours very warmly, ...

In comments here, Zombie mentions another, from UDelaware, that isn't bad:

Dear applicant,

Thank you very much for applying for the position of assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Delaware. I am sorry to have to tell you that we are only able to interview twelve of the four hundred candidates who applied and you were not among those selected.

I hope you will excuse the impersonal nature of this email and accept our best wishes for success in your search of a suitable position.
Search Committee Chair

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

Is it wrong that the first PFO here has inspired me to have a bit of a crush on John McDowell?

THAT's how you tell someone to fuck off without being an asshole.

Mr. Zero said...

If that's wrong, I don't want to be right, anon 11:18.

Anonymous said...

I got the Delaware one too, and I actually thought it counted as a PFO-failure. The most important aspect of any response letter is either the "We regret to inform you.." or the "We are pleased to.." Delaware buries that in the middle of the paragraph. The better ones start with those words, so you at least know whether to be disappointed or excited from the very beginning.

I agree that McDowell's is downright awesome.

Anonymous said...

I recently received a PFO that gave the exact number of applications received and the exact number of interviews scheduled. For whatever reason, I found this more comforting than ballpark figures.

Xenophon said...

Wait a minute. Your name isn't REALLY Mr. Zero? I assumed it was like Chad Ochocinco.

I like the Pitt one more than the Chicago one. Chicago leaves open the possibility that they had a long and careful process that completely omitted any consideration of your applicant (they could have watched Die Hard 50 times and listed all the continuity errors, then decided to throw the CVs down the stairs to decide who to interview).

Word verification: fiedged. "I was writing a PFO the other day, and I'll admit I fiedged a little bit, but I'm sure no one will notice." or else "I was reading my latest haul of PFOs, when I fiedged myself in frustration."

Anonymous said...

Does J McD still sign the PFOs by hand? I kept one from years ago because of the sig...

BunnyHugger said...

I once received a PFO that said something along these lines:

"We received a very large number of excellent applications, yours among them..."

This really annoyed me, since I assume everyone got the same letter and I doubt all the applications were excellent. But who knows? Maybe those truly at the bottom of the barrel got this instead:

"We received a very large number of excellent applications, but yours was not among them."

Anonymous said...

I think including the number of applicants and scheduled APA interviews is an excellent idea and one which could serve a purpose beyond that of helping the candidate keep things in perspective. What if the APA were to collect those numbers from all the departments which advertise in the JFP and then publish them? Wouldn't that help a lot of grad school applicants think twice about entering the profession?

Anonymous said...

I don't want to make too much of this, but is there a correlation between competent PFOs and departments that specialize in things other than logic, traditional analytic philosophy, and contemporary M&E? I mean, we've heard all the jokes about what snazzy dressers those continental folk are, but are they also more considerate?

SLACkerProf said...

OK, I need to start crafting a PFO. Would the following format work?

Dear Applicant,

I am sorry to inform you that the Hiring Committee at NECAWYOHTW has decided not to pursue your candidacy further. We received 388 applications this year. After a thorough, time-consuming, and exacting process, the committee ranked your application 212th out of 388. We have decided to pursue only those applications which ranked 1st through 15th and as a result have decided not to offer you an interview at this year's APA. Thank you for giving us this opportunity to consider your credentials, and please accept our best wishes for your future.

Associate Professor of Philosophy
New England College at which you'd once hoped to work

zombie said...

I got that same letter from Pitt a couple years ago. A touch of class.

Today's selection, a combination of good (informative, regretful, attempted consolation) and bad ("your name is not on our short list"):

"Thank you for applying for the Assistant Professor job in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut. The Search Committee decided to skip interviewing at the APA convention in Boston, and instead proceed directly to campus interviews. We regret to inform you that your name is not on our short list. If it is any consolation we had over 400 applicants for this job, and our evaluation became extraordinarily selective and specific. Any selection we make will leave literally hundreds of very talented applicants rejected. Thank you for considering UConn."

Damn! Why is my name never on the short list? Is it too long? It's too long. I should have a shorter name.

I do take small consolation in knowing that there were over 400 applicants, but it is quite small, and mixed with the terror of knowing that I am competing against 400 other philosophers for virtually every job now. I guess I should feel quite chuffed at having landed an interview against those odds.

I'm quite intrigued by the modest trend towards skipping APA, but wondering how this correlates with huge numbers of job applicants. If it's hard to narrow 400 down to 12 for first-round interviews, shouldn't it be harder to narrow 400 down to 3 or 4 for campus interviews? And doesn't this result in there being fewer opportunities for us to interview and maybe, just maybe, improve our chances at a job where we're not the favorite going into the interviews? I'd much rather see SCs opting for skype or phone interviews, rather than forgoing first-round interviews altogether.

Anonymous said...

i still have a PFO from Brandom last year, because it was the best of the season.

Anonymous said...


Generally speaking, I like your PFO. It's informative, so, even though it's not good news, it does contain more useful information than the typical PFO.

I'll confess, though, I don't believe your committee went to the trouble of ranking 212 (!) applicants. 40, maybe. But 212? C'mon.

Xenophon said...

Slacker Prof seems to be taking us seriously! So maybe he deserves a serious answer. I think the best letter is short but polite.

"Thank you for applying to the University of Whatever. We have settled on a short list of candidates to [interview somehow] and you are not one of those. [If the initial search fails, what we will do is blah blah blah.] We received XXX applications for this position. Sincerely, Slacker Prof."

Honestly, if you're going to reject me, I don't care whether you're really sorry you have to reject me, nor I do I care how good the applicant pool was. Those kinds of comments always come off as insincere anyway, so why bother? And I really don't feel your pain, so don't tell me how much time you put into rejecting me, or how hard the decision was. The outcome is all that matters to me.

What I do want is information. How many people applied, what your procedures are, and whether I've got any chance down the road, for example if your search fails or the dean pulls the funding this year. Otherwise, just tell me I'm not the one.

Anonymous said...

In other news, it looks like the Phylo job wiki is having intermittent outages today (unless it's just me). Looks like I'll have to spend my time grading, instead of constantly hitting the refresh button!

Anonymous said...

when applying for grad school I got a PFO with the usual pleasantries about the "large talented group I was competing with etc. and in other years I may have etc." Very standard.

However the word "probably" was thrown in after a hiphen after the polite discussion of how my app really was unlucky, not crap.

I think this was to let people know that though they may have been close, they may also have been a very very long way away.

Anonymous said...

I think SLACker prof is joking.

It's practically impossible to rank 400 applications. It's also practically impossible to customize letters, giving applicant-specific reasons for rejection.

If my application were taken seriously however, and if it was a difficult choice between me and the other man/woman, then it would be somewhat encouraging to read this in a PFO. This would leave the SC with just two letters to write: a general rejection for most and a close-but-no-cigar letter for 10-20.

SLACkerProf said...

We haven't ranked anybody yet, but it seems like folks want to know where their application fell in the process. Given this, ranking each application would be the most helpful to candidates. Or, we could rank them in terms of deciles:

"We received 388 applications and yours fell somewhere in the 6th decile. We have decided to pursue only those applicants in the top half of the first decile, and as a result have decided not to offer you an interview at this year's APA."

Of course, the chances that the committee would agree to all of this extra work, purely to provide information that is of marginal utility to rejected applicants, ranks in the very bottom of the bottom decile. Failing that, I could toss all of the reject applications down my stairs, see where they land, and send along that info accordingly. My guess is that such a distribution would be only slightly more unjust than the scenarios I've laid out above.

So, yes, I hear all of you. I *am* taking the crafting of PFOs quite seriously, and your input on these is valuable. But, keep your expectations appropriate, given what most committees face. My hunch is that within the next three or four years, as younger philosophers are put in charge of dealing with PFOs, we'll start to see a shift in how they are written.

None of this helps the fact that the job market sucks dog balls, however, and that it is largely a crap-shoot.

Best of luck and well wishes to all of you!

Anonymous said...

What about something direct and to the point?

Dear applicant:

Nope. Sorry.

The Department Chair

A-158 said...

This doesn't go here, but I've no where else to put it.


For when the discussion turns to "but what do i wear???"

Anonymous said...

I think the three samples are really good model PFO. They state the crucial "no" in the first or second sentence, and they tell it to you directly. The statistics are good as well. It's good to know the size of the overall applicant pool and what proportion got interviews - it's a clear, objective statement of your position, which helps you feel generally a little better about not making this particular cut. I particularly liked the McDowell one, because he doesn't do that annoying "unfortunately, your application didn't make it to the next round - I'm not sure how this happened." His regret is for being the bearer of bad news, whilst taking responsibility for the actual decision.

It's conceivable that two different form letters could be sent out, one for the "you narrowly missed the cut" and one for the rest, so that those who were close would be encouraged to keep trying - but I don't think there's any obligation on a department to do that.

Basically, I think a good PFO is clear and direct, doesn't patronise you, and tells you explicitly that you haven't made it. You know to be disappointed from the fact you're getting a single-page letter in the mail, rather than a phone call. (If they want to interview you, they're going to try to phone you first, surely. Of course, email is the naughty little in=betweener here.) So there's no need for them to waste time about it. Be direct, indicate the number of applicants and interviews, and don't waste the rejectee's time with lengthy excuses.

Anonymous said...

Does one really need the crucial 'no' in the first sentence. Isn't getting the thin envelope enough? Good or bad PFOs, the only satisfaction I get out of them is wadding them into a ball, throwing them across the room while walking to the fridge to get a beer.

Anonymous said...

How 'bout this for a PFO:

Dear Applicant,

OMG! OMG!!! I SWEAR to GOD you were at the top of our list to interview! But somehow -- SOMEHOW!! -- the list was reconfigured. I'm so sorry; I don't know how this could have happened. :/ Oh well, I guess it's just one of those things. Good luck!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Oh so regrettably yours, :(
Search Committee
[[[Big Group Affirmation Hug]]]

Anonymous said...

Delaware's isn't terrible, but it still rocks the passive voice where it matters.

729 said...

The idea of PFO letters that differentiate between the group of "near misses" and the rest has a bit of precedent in the world of literary journal submission rejection letters. There are certain costs and benefits to this practice.

These rejection letters are standardly form letters (now most often form emails). They tend to be fairly well-composed (they are literary journal PFOs), but form letters are just that in the end. These form letter/email rejections are sometimes called "B rejections." Writers hate them, even it they're well-written. Then there's the "A Rejection" letter. These are the near-miss letters. They typically state something about submitting something else again in the future. Sometimes and editor hand-writes this message on the standard form letter. Journals, like the Paris Review, reserve a special form letter for this purpose.

Here's the thing. The "market" for writers getting a shot at making it through the slush pile has been over-saturated for a long, long time. As a result, there is something almost prestigious in receiving the near-miss "A" rejections. One does, I admit, feel a lot better, if not totally inspired. However, when one gets a whole bunch of them, and gets them over the course of many years it's a special sort of torture.

"I coulda really been a contender!"
No really! I got the proof right here!
**Waves near-miss PFOs in the air**

Anonymous said...

Of the hundreds of rejections I've received over the years, McDowell's has always stuck with me. I don't know him at all, but the letter's perfect pitch made me like him.

Anonymous said...

I've yet to receive a PFO for a job app from Pittsburgh, but I do remember that the Pittsburgh rejection letter for graduate school applications was more encouraging and friendly than some of the acceptance letters that I received. That letter was signed by another Pitt faculty member than those mentioned. I've always retained a high estimation of Pitt from that letter.