Inspired by Dave L Renfro's answer here and Interpreting the statement "We received an extremely strong pool of applications this year." in US grad school decision letters

If I apply for a postdoc (or tenure-track, etc.) position, fail to get the position, and am told I was the 2nd-choice candidate, can I reasonably assume that I am indeed the second choice, or is that something departments do to soften the blow of getting declined?

  • 4
    Most of us learned at an early age that lying is bad. Lying to a candidate in a formal hiring process that’s fraught with legal liability seems an even worse idea. So, basically: no, that’s not something any person with common sense would do.
    – Dan Romik
    Commented May 27, 2023 at 2:12
  • 3
    Why the downvotes? This seems a legit on-topic question to me. Commented May 27, 2023 at 14:40
  • 3
    The ethics of lying aside, it would be very strange if the hiring committee was so heavily invested in flattering the candidates and protecting their egos that they would actually make up a specific false statement rather than just throwing a vague encouraging phrase in their direction. I'm guessing virtually no sane person cares that much about making candidates feel good about themselves. Commented May 27, 2023 at 14:48
  • 4
    @Allure yes, but that’s almost always true for highly ranked graduate programs, so it’s true in a vacuous sort of way. That’s why they say “extremely strong” and not “stronger than in any of the last 20 years” or some other formulation that actually carries useful information… (See the answer I just posted for additional thoughts.)
    – Dan Romik
    Commented May 27, 2023 at 15:29
  • 3
    @Allure I think you're comparing apples and oranges here. The scenario you're asking is not at all like throwing a vague encouraging phrase in the direction of a student or applicant. The scenario you are asking about is more like telling a specific student in your class in private that they had the second highest score in that class, when in fact they didn't. Ethics aside, that would just be a really, really weird thing to do, don't you think? Commented May 27, 2023 at 15:32

4 Answers 4


Competent people involved in faculty hiring in some official capacity (say as department chair or a member of the hiring committee) will never outright lie to a job candidate, even for well-intentioned reasons. If they want to hide certain awkward truths they will instead use vague or diplomatic language. It is then up to job candidates to interpret what the vague language means (there are many questions on this site giving examples of this). But the general rule is that such vague statements usually do not contain more information than their literal meaning - they are crafted precisely to have that quality. So yes, if you are told that you were the second-ranked candidate, I’d say there is a high chance that that factual statement is in fact true.

Two caveats to keep in mind are:

  1. It’s still not a guarantee that the statement is correct. There are incompetent people who deviate from normally advisable ways of doing things, so it’s certainly possible that a chair will lie to a candidate, and probably happens every once in a while. (This would probably be correlated with other weird or alarming things the candidate might have noticed about the chair’s behavior.)

  2. If the candidate heard that they were the second-ranked candidate not through a formal channel but through some informal gossip, say through a friend on the faculty who isn’t an administrator or on tbe hiring committee, the possibility for lying (especially a “white lie” told out of a misguided desire to protect someone’s feelings) seems more likely. Telling such a lie is still a stupid thing to do in my opinion, and still creates many possibilities for real harm as well as legal liability for the university, but professors do not always have common sense about such things, especially when they are not themselves administrators and are not sensitive to some of the legal issues related to hiring.


For a tenure track candidate for a position at a large university that uses typical recruiting practices, if you haven't been invited for an interview, you're probably not the second choice, even if you were told you were. This probably includes distance interviews these days.

Beyond that, it can be really tough to say.


As other people have said, they should definitely not lie about something like this.

However, as far as I know it is not normal to tell someone they were second choice in the first place. So this is an unusual situation and I wouldn't be too confident that the usual norms apply.

The exception would be if there is a good reason for giving out this information. For example, I have heard of people being told "you are the second choice, and the first choice has not yet decided whether to accept". This seems like helpful information to give (if true), and there is no good reason to lie about it, so I would be inclined to take it at face value. The probability of subsequently being offered the position is perhaps not high, but I have heard of it happening.


Lying to a candidate is in no way helpful to them, so telling them "to soften the blow" is totally misguided.

You tell them they came second if they actually did, and if you had been willing to hire them if the first candidate hadn't been there, to keep a possibility open to hire them if (a) the first candidate rejects the offer, or (b) you suddenly get more budget and can hire two people, or (c) you want to pass their name on to someone else who is hiring.

And you tell them they were good enough to get the job, but one (or two) people were better, if that is actually the case.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .