For The Love Of All Deities! At Least Tell Me You Don’t Want Me! – The Secret Life of Academic Applications & Being Ghosted

The impact of tearing up my application, … ahem er Robot Heart!
Photo by burak kostak on

Another day, another disappointment as some declines came in for roles I had applied for. WAIT! Before you run away, this is not a self-pitying post I promise, actually: it’s a thank you. Now while two of them are exactly the disappointing experience I go on to talk about; the refusal that came in yesterday that in two ways was more of a relief. First because it was a kind note from the application overseer that said they didn’t want me to find out by a generic auto-response, and second, because it actually let me know. So I thought I would steal some time from my day to write something about how important this is, and the difficulties of academia, mental health, and the impact of the pandemic.

No News is Good News?

Well that is nonsense for a start. Let’s take a look at an application I made last year (no naming and shaming here):

Typically any application I make takes around 8-10 hours of work to complete. More if there is additional aspects such as a research overviews, additional statements (on top of the usual statement or Cover Letter), or written competency based questions. In fact I usually find that each CBQ adds an extra hour to two hours. Additionally, applications which demand a CV and an application form can be tough because you don’t want to replicate or copy, so this takes more time. Before I was an academic I was a recruitment consultant. As I trained in academia I acted as a Careers Advisor, Application Specialist, and Development Mentor. Today, I run a small company that while now specialises more in digital design and websites, also still provides career and application support to candidates. So, while I would never say I was a super expert, I do know what should be in an application; and of course how crucial it is to tailor, edit, and reflect the role you are applying for. So, long story short – the application takes time. Plus the several hours of research and preparation that go with it. So I did it.

Artist Rendering of my Application Writing Face!
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

So the application went in, and now its time to play the CHECK YOUR EMAILS EVERY HOUR GAME. Ok, so i need to be more patient. It is good feedback. As famous matriarchal figures are often to say ‘A watched kettle never boils’, so torturing yourself is not going to help you. Ahem, by the way fictional mother that I never had, I have actually tested this theory with my own kettle (and a saucepan as a control group), and you may be surprised to know that the kettle actually did boil with no significant difference in timings. So, your hypothesis is rubbish i’m afraid. Dr Si 1 – fictional matriarchal figure 0.

Spin The Wheel of Fortune - Trade Stand Entertainment | Kent

So let’s spin the wheel and wait; and honestly that is the worst part. So the the first week past the closing date, having checked my email 6 times an hour or so, there is nothing to worry about. They are sifting. It’s normal, but lets have a check on the application website to find out if it’s been updated. annnnnnndddd – nope. Ok its all fine. Try singing, know any good songs?

Sing Along Gang!
Photo by Charlotte May on

Two weeks now. The phone checking has calmed down but there is a twice daily pilgrimage to the application portal. ‘Maybe the email didn’t come through, and there is an interview sitting there and you just missed it?’ Doubt is setting in, it’s been too long. I know that I would have returned to the successful candidates by now to get the interviews sorted, but maybe something else is going on. Its fine, its fine… dum dum, er where is that biscuit tin?

Biscuits are Great. Maybe just one more…
Photo by Laura James on

Three weeks now, and I have neither hope, biscuits left, or as it happens any nails. Back to phone checking, and I’ve started scanning through the application I made for the big glaring mistake. Did I accidently write I was really a Turtle posing as a human or claim to be from Mars? Is there a chance that I claimed I was an expert in seasidology instead of suicidology? OMG did I make a misspelling again and make an audacious and outrageous claim about being an expert in Public Engagement but missing the L in public (take a minute, got it? BTW early on in my career I actually did this – never lived it down!). It’s obvious that its over, but they haven’t told me I’m out of luck. It can’t be possible that they are still considering me are they? No Si, it’s done. Delete it from your pending file, and remove the email from your inbox. Stop checking the application portal. It wasn’t to be. It’s ok, onwards and upwards eh?

High Five anyone?
Photo by Luca Nardone on

4 weeks. It’s over. It was over last week but you couldn’t let it go. Maybe your application got stuck somewhere or something has happened. Let’s email the recruitment team and ask. If nothing else, lets ask for feedback, maybe they can at least tell you what you did wrong. Stop checking the application portal. It’s not doing you any good. Ok, write the nice email, and maybe not casually check the website or twitter to see if there is any new hire announcements. That would not be a good way to find out. Ok check once. Anything? Nope. Email sent? Yup! Response? Nada. Feel Better? Not in the slightest. Questioning your ability and self-worth? You got it inner voice! Want me to shut up now? Yes please! ….Ok, Sorry! SHHH!

I’m FINE! ok?
Photo by cottonbro on

6-8 weeks. Nothing. No Response. Nada. Zip. This is the worst outcome. Being declined is not fun. In fact each decline I get I used to record in a spreadsheet of failure. That was NOT healthy, so instead now i have a yearly counter on my phone home screen. Much more healthy! But at least with a decline, even a generic one – you know. Hope festers, and while I comedically made this out to sound like an obsessive stalker, its unfortunately, and un-funnily true; at least it is for me. Being an Early Career Researcher and an academic, rejection is par the course. If you can not deal with it, you are in the wrong industry, this is not a nice place to be. There are far too many of us and continually declining funding opportunities and jobs. This is not a happy place where everyone gets a job, a badge, and smile. I get that. Three years since my PhD viva, five articles, one book, two research projects, and a host of overlapping part time and unpaid positions I have received my fairshare, perhaps maybe more than but who knows, of rejections for funding bids, job applications, and publication opportunities. With each one I have tried to learn from it. Swallowed my pride, asked for help and advice from colleagues, volunteered my abilities in exchange for experience, worked in my own time constantly, and treated every application as a fresh opportunity. It’s hard but it is also important, and I am not arrogant enough to think that I deserve everything I ask for or there is the great Anti-Walker conspiracy keeping me from my dreams. I’m just a struggling academic in a time of financial crisis and lack of support like thousands of others. But, if i deserve anything, if WE deserve anything – we deserve a response at least from our tomes of aspiration that all to often go as silent as the word’s near sounding homophone.

Tomb vs Tome – Get it (I know its bad)
Photo by Maria Orlova on

So what do I want. err.. a job, grant, and/or funding please? But aside from that, we (the applicants) need that closurer at least. Better yet, we need feedback. The kindest of strangers has allowed me to improve my applications considerably. We get that there were better applicants, but if you could tell me what they had or said that I did not, that could be all the difference next time.

To end, lets finish on a positive. As I said when I started, another rejection came in, but this one was different. No, it did not come with a job or opportunity; it came with a personal note saying ‘thank you for applying, your application was really strong, and I wanted to let you know before you get the depersonalised admin email’. Did it make me feel better to know that I wasn’t to be considered, not really. But did it make me feel more hopeful and accept it? Absolutely. I emailed back and asked for any advice, and they gave it. It gave me a nugget of something to improve on, and even a connection with a colleague. Most of all it gave me closure. So thank you, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Thanks for rejecting me – such an odd statement
Photo by u0158aj Vaishnaw on

By the way, i’m still to receive that reject mail 🙂

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