Wednesday, April 26, 2006

On rejection

It is the time of the year when those on the job market are receiving, and considering, their offers. To those who are disappointed for not receiving an offer from one of their top choices, I would like to offer the story of my first job search.

In the Fall of 1997, at the beginning of the wonderful year I spent at MIT, and still undecided whether I wanted to go back to Italy or not, I sent out a few applications for post-docs and tenure-track jobs.

By February, the rejection letters were pouring in. Some of them were written by Dogbert himself.

At one point, I received a letter from the Institute for Advanced Study. They regretted that they were not able to offer me a post-doctoral fellowship. That was quite all right, except that I had not applied for it! What was that? A preemptive rejection? Did they mean to write: "Dear dr. Trevisan, we hear that you are on the job market, and we are pleased that you did not apply here."? What worried me was that I was going to break a record, and receive more rejections than applications, or having a negative number of job offers, as I preferred to think of it.

As it happened, in another few weeks, I received the DIMACS post-doc. In their acceptance letter, they also mentioned that they had forwarded my application to the IAS, and that the Institute would inform me at a later point of whether it was going to offer me support for a second year.

This not only explained the mysterious letter from the Institute, but also suggested that the IAS bureaucracy worked faster than DIMACS'.

Late into May, or perhaps already in June, I got a call from Columbia. Having apparently gone down their list of top candidates, back-ups and back-back-ups, they wanted to offer me a job.

I was delighted to move into my faculty housing apartment in New York (which I still miss) and to work in a very friendly department with very smart undergrads. I loved Columbia, and I loved New York. I would have stayed there until retirement if Berkeley had not made an offer that I could not refuse.

So what's my point? There are two points, actually. One, New York is wonderful. Second, don't take rejections too hard. In the long run, things even out. (And, yes, I know what John Maynard Keynes has to say about that, but it typically does not take that long.)

Update: Oded Goldreich has written an essay in response to this post.


  1. Anonymous Anonymous
    4/27/2006 08:58:00 AM

    Had you interviewed at Columbia before that or did they invite you to interview in May or June?

  2. Blogger Luca
    4/27/2006 11:21:00 AM

    I had interviewed earlier at Columbia,
    it was the only place that invited me for an interview. I thought the interview had not gone very well, so I was not expecting anything.

  3. Anonymous Anonymous
    4/27/2006 11:29:00 AM

    did you apply for jobs in Italy at that time?

  4. Anonymous Anonymous
    4/27/2006 06:19:00 PM

    what did Keynes say about rejection? Please enlighten...

  5. Blogger Luca
    4/27/2006 06:27:00 PM

    No, not about rejection, he had something to say about focusing on the long run

  6. Anonymous Anonymous
    4/27/2006 09:46:00 PM

    it's a nice story luca, but maybe it's just the result of an academic anthropic principle: you're only around to tell us about how things worked out because they happened to work out for you.

    there are people on the other side too, who "deserved" a better position than they got (due to the bizarre market factors that come into play for CS theorists), and have to settle for a job in a city they don't like at a school where it's difficult to find good students.

    and there is a huge premium on youth in CS hiring decisions (these days, at least): the "long run" means about 5 years out of your phd; after that, there is very little mobility.

  7. Anonymous Anonymous
    4/28/2006 01:39:00 AM

    Did Berkeley actually make you an offer you couldn't refuse, or was is just that you couldn't refuse Berkeley over Columbia? What I mean is, I don't imagine the decision came down to how much money they were offering (or something like that), did it?

  8. Blogger Luca
    4/28/2006 11:02:00 AM

    In the context of the original quote, don Corleone makes an offer that, monetarily, is not very advantageous, but he has his way of being persuasive.

    Now, of course, Berkeley is persuasive through its outstanding graduate students and its dreamy-eyed alumni, not by don Corleone's methods, but I still think that the quote is apt.

  9. Anonymous Anonymous
    4/29/2006 01:26:00 AM

    What about Italy ? There are wonderful places, good food..

  10. Anonymous Anonymous
    5/03/2006 03:18:00 AM

    I agree with the critique of this persoanl story, which cannot serve as a basis for general lessons.

    I think that there is no way to
    compansate or cheer-up a person
    that didn't receive something he/she wanted and/or needed.
    The damage is real and one should not underestimate it. Still one
    may make two comments.

    The first is that people often make their loss worth by reacting emotionally to unrealistic aspects of it. For example, people don't merely grieve the fact that they did not get an offer from X, but rather they feel that they were "rejected" and/or objectively judged to be infior etc. The latter is a clear mistake: one should bear in mind that the committees that make decisions are not rational entities and their decision sghould not be viewed as a value judgment. It is just that a decision has to be made (for allocation of restricted resources) and so a decision is made by some social process of negotiation between committee members. At best, each committee member applies the best of her/his judgement (which she/he believes to be objective), but even then the outcome is not "rational"
    (beyond the technical rationality of a majority vote or other arithmetics).

    The second comment is a suggestion to consider the real necessity of the lost thing and alternatives.
    That is, ask what is my real need for the thing I did not get and whether good alternatives can be obtained. This is far more productive (not only to soceity but rather to the interbnal well-being of a person) than preoccupation in what was lost
    (and what this lost means beyond it mere reality).

    And yes, one may say that it is easy for me to write all this,
    because I do have what I wanted etc. But this does not diminish the truth of what I said. Let alone that I didn't always got what I wanted. Actually, I guess I did learn to cope with such situations from very early age.

    Oded Goldreich

  11. Anonymous Anonymous
    5/03/2006 02:18:00 PM

    Luca got rejected from a job he didn't apply to ... today I got a rejection letter from a job I had applied to but later withdrawn my application from (Computer Science academic job - good, fairly prestigious department)

    The letter closed saying "We appreciate your interest in our department and we wish you good luck in your job search". My response "I appreciate your continuing interest in my application even after I withdrew it, and I wish you good luck in your search for a new hire".

    They clearly need the luck more than I do, given how they run their dept.

  12. Blogger Luca
    5/03/2006 03:06:00 PM

    The purpose of the post was to tell the story of the "negative number of job offers," which I thought was funny and timely. And it is funnier if one takes the (clearly incorrect) perspective that allocations of limited resources imply a value judgement. Note that the joke in the Dilbert strip is purely the taking of this perspective to an extreme. (And it is funny, at least to me.)

    If one takes the post at face value, then its content is "sometimes you don't get what you want, but later you do," which is either trivial or false depending how you define your terms.

    If I were to write a serious essay, which is not my style, I would probably echo the points that Oded makes. I would also add that getting used to not getting the things we want is part of adulthood, and, at the same time, not having the things we want is what keeps us alive.

    I can't imagine the state of existential despair I would get into if I could instantly have anything I desire. I mean, it would be fun for a while, but the existential despair would eventually kick in.

  13. Anonymous Anonymous
    5/07/2006 06:01:00 PM

    Thank you for that lovely story. I laughed my head off at the preemptive rejection letter story. Very funny!

  14. Anonymous Anonymous
    5/08/2006 11:39:00 AM

    I withdrew my app early in the process, because I got a "job offer I couldn't refuse" in Europe...

    I think that almost every single university still sent me a form rejection letter, despite most of them explicitly responding to my withdrawal.

    For what it's worth...


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