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I had a tenure track interview at an R1 university a few weeks ago, and today the department chair wrote to me that

We were impressed with your candidacy and still have the possibility of making an offer of a position, but you were not identified as our top candidate.

Firstly, in your experience either as someone in the search committee or as an applicant, do they send this kind of email to any person who isn't the first choice (all other short-listed candidates), or only to the second person?

Secondly, in STEM fields, (more specifically physics) how probable is it that the offer can go to the second person? With my limited experience in the US system (I moved here less than two years ago), my understanding has been so far that getting an in-person interview is so tough, getting an offer is tougher, so it's not very probable that people get more than one offer and decline the other one. Is this a correct statement?

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    The department chair was unprofessional. Telling someone you're not their first choice and then offering them a job is not an encouraging way to hire. Feb 2, 2022 at 1:14
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    Yes, traditionally this has not been done, but actually I think being transparent is a good practice. Suppose you weren't told anything and then got an offer 4 weeks later. The only possibilities for the delay are that you are the second choice, or the university has very slow hiring processes. I wouldn't care about being the second choice, but I would be concerned if the university has bad bureaucratic processes. Feb 2, 2022 at 1:39
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    @AnonymousPhysicist He gave information, what might be unvaluably important for the OP. My first insight is not about the professionality/unprofessionality scale, my first insight is that the Prof was very, very helpful to the OP by giving him information about the decision mechanism (and its result). Of course, only if the feedback was not a politeness formula, but the reality.
    – peterh
    Feb 2, 2022 at 9:03
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    I had the same experience, and I much preferred it to the endless silence I got from most of my applications. I don’t know why people think it would be so offensive to hear that you weren’t the top choice; I think most of us understand that faculty hiring decisions are complicated negotiations among many people involving many factors, and that it’s not a judgement of personal value to put you second. (Anyway, I learned this about three different jobs I’d applied for, was eventually offered two of them, and found out that the same person had been first choice at both of those.)
    – Henry
    Feb 2, 2022 at 13:53
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    As far as the comments that telling someone they aren't first choice is insulting, nearly all searches will end in one of two outcomes: the posting attracted more hire-worthy candidates than open positions, or there are fewer hire-worthy candidates than open positions (the other outcome being that the numbers match exactly which is rare). The former case is far more complementary to the runners-up than the second case.
    – Ben Voigt
    Feb 2, 2022 at 16:35

6 Answers 6

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I have never heard of anyone sending an email to a candidate telling them they like someone else better but if that other candidate turns them down, they might hire them as a second choice. (Who wants to be told they were a second choice? It strikes me as a pretty odd recruiting scheme.)

But I can tell you that top candidates get lots of offers and they can only accept one. So, even top 10 R1 departments (like the one I was in at Michigan) routinely strike out on many of their offers and have to work down their list or accept that they just couldn't hire the people they wanted.

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    Thanks so much for the answer. I'm not sure this is common to send such emails or not, this is also my first experience. Feb 2, 2022 at 1:30
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    The formulation in the OP was a bit weird, but in general I don't think it's that rare to tell a candidate that they're a second-choice. Something along the lines of "You are our second-choice, and we have sent an offer to our first-choice. If they decline our offer of fail to reply within a week, then we'll offer you the position.". It's an honest answer. Better than not informing the candidate at all, and making them wait an extra week before telling them they don't get the job.
    – Stef
    Feb 2, 2022 at 13:25
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    In Germany it quite usual that one knows if one is hired as second or third on the list. Maybe even the norm...
    – Dirk
    Feb 2, 2022 at 21:32
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    "Who wants to be told they were a second choice?" Well I would not mind hearing that from an R1 university. Why should the applicant expect to be told that he is the super-best, especially given the scale of the competition for STEM academic positions? Feb 3, 2022 at 18:42
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    @КряжевАрсений Okay, but at Michigan, when they decided to make an offer, they generally asked at a dept faculty meeting that anyone with time should reach out to candidate to express unbridled enthusiasm. (They still lost out a lot of the time.) Apparently, the practice of telling candidates they're a second choice is more common than I had imagined. At Michigan, to the best of my knowledge, they never did that and instead just stalled the second choice, e.g., by telling them decisions weren't yet final. Feb 3, 2022 at 20:01
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My experience (in physics) is that:

  • such an email is unusual, or at least unusually blunt. Typically it’s not necessarily hard to figure out who’s shortlisted if units keep a public list of seminars. Candidates can often figure out for themselves the relative rankings from the time it takes the unit to get in touch with candidates, but it is rare for this information to be volunteered so explicitly in an email.
  • It is not that rare for selection committees to miss out in their preferred candidates, especially these days. Top tier candidates will statistically get multiple offers as they will be at the top of many lists. Offers are declined for multiple legitimate reasons, including incompatible deadlines, startup, start dates etc.

I have come to believe that this internal ranking does not matter much.
My observations are that these rankings are often “political”; committee members may support one rather than another candidate for a number of irrational reasons. Also, offering to person A over person B does not guarantee that person A will do better, no more than being drafted in the second round means a player will do less well than another drafter in round 1. It all depends on the individual.

Unless a unit is truly desperate, they will not offer a job to an inferior candidate: after all the University is about to invest in someone that could work there for 30+ years, so it’s usually better to cancel the search than hire a dud if you cannot find someone that will fit the job.

Thus: the competition is so intense these days that if you get an offer you are very much likely deserving of the position, irrespective of the original ranking.

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In physics it would be very rare for a postdoc seeking their first professorship to have two offers at the same time. Offers can be turned down because the university does not offer enough money, either for salary or research. This is rare. The only case I'm personally familiar with was not technically a physicist.

People who already are permanent professors and seek a position at another university always have two offers: they can choose to keep their current job. That's when they occasionally turn down job offers.

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    In math years ago we had a first choice turn us down. We were clearly a relatively likely "yes" for him - when we made the offer we suspected he might turn us down in favor of a better offer. That said, the job market is much tighter now. Feb 2, 2022 at 1:40
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    At Michigan in the CSE (computer science and engineering) department where I worked, they constantly lost out to other schools fighting over new AI PhDs from Stanford, the one school they thought was better than Michigan. Other schools apparently also thought AI PhDs from Stanford were the cat's meow. Feb 2, 2022 at 1:45
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    I’m very surprised, in math most people who get a TT job have multiple offers. Feb 2, 2022 at 14:21
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    @NicoleHamilton The job market for AI PhDs is completely different from the job market for physiccs PhDs. Feb 2, 2022 at 15:36
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    It is not that rare. See this rumour mill site (archived to last year to show who was offered and the outcomes): particle.physics.ucdavis.edu/rumor/doku.php?id=archive:2021. You can browse previous years. Admittedly this does not comprehensive covers universities, positions or fields, and the candidates shortlisted are pretty much all stellar, but clearly the top candidates at one place will not so rarely be ranked at the top elsewhere, and as mentioned elsewhere these top tier candidates can only accept one position. Feb 3, 2022 at 1:11
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As I read the question, you were a final round candidate. The message means that (a) you are not being given an offer at this time, and (b) if enough other final round candidates decline, you will be given an offer. Note that there are usually only 2-4 (and most frequently 3) final round candidates for a single position, so "enough" is rarely more than 3.

(Note I think it's much better to give candidates this information rather than the other usual alternative, which is to tell candidates in this position no information at all for a few weeks.)

As far as how likely it is that the candidates preferred to you all decline, this very highly depends on how many other positions with similar hiring preferences there are, and how attractive the offer is. Even when there are many more applicants in the market than jobs, it can frequently happen that several jobs want the same candidate, because they happen to all be looking for similar things in candidates, in which case their evaluations of candidates are quite likely to coincide. Then it comes down to how likely that position is to be the candidate's first choice. We have had searches here where all our final round candidates declined our offer one after another, and we had to reopen the final round. (In fact, that's how I was hired.) The market is tighter now, but that also means people who might not have applied for our job 10 years ago would apply now, and we are still probably close to the last choice among our most attractive applicants. (For one thing, we typically are only able to offer about 80% of the salary many competitors can offer.)

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(In Sweden) If the university is funded by tax payers, all notes, rankings and evaluations must be available to public. This is to ensure there's no corruption. Hence, making the rank public is not strange from that perspective.

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  • is this before or after the competition is closed? Feb 4, 2022 at 3:37
  • good point - I suppose it is only required to be available after. Feb 4, 2022 at 7:23
  • In Canada we certainly have to destroy our personal notes, although I think a digest/summary of the unattributed comments is kept for the records. Feb 4, 2022 at 18:36
  • @ZeroTheHero: Sure, in Sweden also, there are two different principles involved; GDPR, for protecting the individuals privacy, but also a principle that all information which underlies government decisions must be made public. But it all gets complicated when international relations are at stake: apnews.com/article/f3219da7e5b9ee74e7002746255dc9a6 Feb 4, 2022 at 19:14
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I have seen many of these instances even for my personal applications. First, they really like your application, which includes CV, research, personality, and many other things. For sure, they have given the offer to someone else but have seen some degree of uncertainty with that person due to many factors such as asking for a higher salary, spouse hiring, a larger startup, a higher rank if the position is an open-rank one and so many other behind-the-scenes variables. At the same time, they also don't want to lose you! So, they just wanted to avoid a situation where you accept an offer from somewhere else if the first candidate does not accept the offer. They may think that you will not accept their offer in that case and are just trying to buy some time.

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