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As far as I know, many, if not most institutes in United States never send rejection letters for postdoc positions. As a result, applicants have to keep asking them to update the status. Is there a reason why they are not willing to send rejections but okay with replying to the inquiries?

If they are not sure whether someone will accept their offer, then they could simply send rejections to people outside of their shortlist.

I am from math community but feel free to share your experience/understanding from other communities.


Update: Please allow me to explain why asking for updates from job positions is NOT a "pointless thing to do": In mathematics, most applicants, who are not super-strong candidates on the market, who do not receive top offers from schools like Harvard/MIT/Princeton in their first round of searching, will likely get into the following situation: An applicant, say James, will probably receive an offer from institute A, which is less favorable and inferior to his ideal places, say B,C,D,E,F....(Many applicants on math job market may apply to dozens and even 100+ positions). But institute A only gives him two weeks to decide whether to accept the offer. What would you do if you were James in this situation? During the first week after James got his first offer, he probably could wait. But if in the second week he still heard no update from B,C,D,E,F, he would be very anxious really want to know if he could have a chance for B,C,D,E,F... which are better than A to him. At this point, the most common advice he could receive from his friends/adivsors/professors is to send emails to your favorite places and ask for updates from them.

For many early career mathematicians (especially those who work in small areas where postdoc/tenure-track positions are few), there could be another situation: they do not receive any offers at all in the first few weeks. Many of them want to consider applying for industrial jobs but still love math and hope they could have a chance to continue their career in academia. In such scenarios, it is especially important for them to get early response to estimate their survival chance in academia. It is turns out he could not survive in academia, then early rejections will help him transfer to industrial career earlier.

I thought this is the mental journey for most of the people on academic job market until I saw some comments and answers below.

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  • 4
    "As a result, applicants have to keep asking them to update the status" - not sure that's true. Another option would be to not ask for the status, and keep applying to or working other jobs.
    – Bryan Krause
    Feb 14 at 20:32
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    @NoOne I don't have experiences with math job applications. I am telling you that people who do not get the job do not need to keep sending emails to the department; they do not need to send any emails at all. They do not need updates. They should keep applying for jobs until they have an offer. Once they have an offer, it might make sense to reach out to other preferred options for an update so they can decide whether to accept that offer, or ask for more time to consider other offers, etc.
    – Bryan Krause
    Feb 14 at 20:42
  • 2
    @BryanKrause First of all I had a grammatical mistake in "sending emails to the department". Only ONE email for ONE department. I don't think any applicant dares to hassle the department where they want a position. Doing so only makes them less favored. But people do need updates for the jobs they applied to, no matter whether they already have an offer or not.
    – No One
    Feb 14 at 20:50
  • 12
    @BryanKrause: There’s both a marginal rational reason to want updates — your success-estimate for your current applications affects how much time it’s worth putting into further applications — and a big emotional reason — uncertainty adds to one’s general mental load, which for postdocs on job search is a huge stressor. When I was a postdoc on job search, I always wanted to know and was happier knowing; as a faculty member corresponding with applicants, they often (not all, but many) ask for status updates.
    – PLL
    Feb 15 at 7:40
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    I think the fact that rejection emails general ARE sent in many countries suggests that this is neither an impossible problem to solve, nor a where not sending emails is obviously the correct answer. Feb 15 at 17:28

5 Answers 5

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It takes almost zero effort [^1] to acknowledge every single application and to send a polite rejection letter to every single non-selected applicant once the process is complete. In between the first step and the last, it is even possible to send a letter along the lines of: "I regret to inform you that you have not been selected for a first-round interview. If you are selected for a second-round interview, we will let you know before [insert date]. If not, we will notify you when the selection process has come to an end." I know how trivial this is to do. It is the only way that my institution has ever done things.

Most academic authors would find totally unaccetble the idea that a journal editor could throw their submitted paper in the trash without actually informing the author that it had been rejected. Yet they seem unbothered by their own institution's abhorrent and demeaning treatment of postdocs.

The idea that "most applicants understand that the only time they will hear from a department [is] if they are being offered an interview or a job" might be true. However, I strongly believe that if it is true (and I'm unconvinced that this is the understanding of most postdocs) it is because they have been beaten into submission and have finally gotten used to being treated appallingly by selectors. In other words, the idea might be true, but that it started out as a self-serving lie by selection teams.

[^1] Automated proforma emails are an amazing invention but knowledge of their existence has not penetrated all corners of the known world ... nor all parts of the academic domain.

Issues raised by comments

  1. "It is standard-practice not to notify post-doctoral applicants that their applications for a position were unsuccessful , and it is therefore meet and proper to behave this way." David Hume articulated this issue as the "is-ought problem" in moral philosophy. It is unnecessary to say more.

  2. "What country are you [i.e., am I] in?". I suspect that this question is to lay the ground for an argument that my country is different from your country and in my country the behavior is standard. Not so. Suffice to say that most institutions in my country behave in exactly the way described; that is, it is "standard" not to notify postdoctoral applicants who were unsuccessful. See point (1)

  3. "It is not useful to you to ask about the progress of your application because it would provide you with no useful information. You should be pursuing all possible avenues." Translated, I read this as, I know better than you do what is in your best interests. This argument is egregiously self-serving. I think that a more honest statement would be along the lines of: "It is not useful to my institution to tell you about the progress of your application. The cost of sending out emails [as I have suggested earlier in the body of this answer] is close to zero but nonetheless positive and non-zero. And we would gain no benefit from that cost."

  4. "I and my academic-staff colleagues are not responsible for this behavior. My hands are tied. It is institutonal policy and it is put into effect by the administration and administrative staff." Yes, I accept that it is possible to think this way.

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    This answer reads as if this situation is up to the academic staff (especially the currently third paragraph). This doesn’t match at all what I am used to from several European universities - the formalities of applications are largely handled by administrative staff. The hard facts (who is actually out, if and when a new round starts, etc.) aren’t transparent upfront for academic staff either, and they may not even be allowed to share their knowledge unofficially. Feb 15 at 6:06
  • 1
    @MisterMiyagi point taken. I have inserted a single word ... "insitution's". I have also reordered the paragraphs so MisterMiyagi's reference to the "third paragraph" should now be taken to apply to the 2nd Feb 15 at 6:33
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    A weakness of that comparison is that there is a rather significant difference between job applications and paper submissions in how "dual submissions" are perceived. Were applicants not supposed/allowed to apply to another job until they receive a final response, there would presumably be a lot more pressure to change how they are treated.
    – Anyon
    Feb 15 at 12:56
  • I'm not sure if the OP was asking about the US, but he certainly is asking from that perspective. Could you please tell us the country your institution is in, or otherwise somehow indicate a rough location? What is possible, and what is common practice, seem to vary based on the locale
    – penelope
    Feb 15 at 13:10
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    Your footnote about how automated systems aren't universal really buries the lede. It's not about the amount of effort it takes for an automated system to send a rejection email it's about the effort it takes to setup an automated system. And the employer's have zero reason to undertake that effort. Developer's time is expensive and a justification would have to be made to use it to add automated rejection letters to the workflow when an open position is closed. If an institution is having trouble filling positions, then I could see benefits to the rejection letter but it's not the case. Feb 16 at 16:11
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Your assumption that "applicants have to keep asking them to update the status" is false. While it is true that some applicants ask for updates, that is a pointless thing to do, and most applicants understand that the only time they will hear from a department if they are being offered an interview or a job, and that if they ask for an update, the only thing a department will be able to tell them is "we are currently considering all job applications, and we will contact you to let you know if we want to discuss your application further."

From the department's point of view, there is nothing to "update" a job candidate about until the department wants to discuss offering the candidate a job or an interview, or until all positions have been filled and the search is closed. (Even then, in many cases the search is never officially "closed" since departments may hope to be able to opportunistically hire additional people later, e.g., if more funding becomes available.)

This state of affairs is perhaps frustrating for job candidates, but it is a fairly standard feature of the job market and far from unique to academia.

Edit: I see a discussion in the comments about whether not sending rejection letters is rude or not. Clearly it is perceived as rude by some people.

Here is my perspective: I was a department chair and heavily involved in hiring for a few years. I always did my best to handle the touchy and anxiety-inducing aspects of the hiring process as kindly and tactfully as possible, and felt strongly that job candidates deserve to be treated with respect and civility.

Despite this, my department back when I was chair, and still today as far as I am aware, does not send out rejection letters to job candidates unless they were interviewed (and when people contacted me for "status updates", I replied politely but I suspect most of them didn't think I was being very helpful because I didn't give then the sort of information they were hoping to get).

So why not send rejection letters? There are many reasons, but ultimately I would say it comes down to efficiency and practicality. Those saying it's easy simply do not understand what a typical day in the life of a department chair looks like, and the sheer number of "easy" things the chair and other administrators have to deal with. They also do not understand what kind of complicated considerations a chair (in a US-based, large R1 university department at least) needs to factor in to any decision they make about even seemingly innocuous interactions.

I think the complainers also don't understand something else that's a bit counter-intuitive, which is that job candidates often want to know things that aren't necessarily helpful for them to know. From the job candidate's side you always think you want maximal transparency; from the perspective of an employer who watches the process play out many times and sees its effects on the well-being of the candidates themselves and all kinds of mental traps and pitfalls they tend to fall into, you learn that sometimes silence conveys the most useful information, despite the risk that it may be perceived as rude. (See some related thoughts of mine here.) Note that this is a general principle and does not necessarily apply to rejection letters as much as it does to other things. But I think it's relevant in connection with more fine-grained updates, such as telling candidates "I regret to inform you that you have not been selected for a first-round interview" as advocated for in @CrimsonDark's answer.

Sorry if this sounds patronizing (or "rude"), I expect that some people will still disagree with what I wrote and will insist that not sending rejection letters is an abominable practice, but that's my perspective for what it's worth.

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  • This is effectively the right answer to my mind. I'll comment, however, that this isn't just how postdoc applications work. It's all applications, including tenure track!
    – user176372
    Feb 14 at 21:23
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    As standard as the practice of not sending rejection letters is, does not take away from the fact how rude this practice is.
    – TimRias
    Feb 14 at 23:53
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    The second paragraph is a very flimsy excuse for the standard. In my experience, 19 times out of 20 a dept has clear transitions from “all applications are under consideration” to “we are inviting a shortlist to interview” to “we have now filled the position(s)” (sometimes without the middle step). The department certainly has something to update the rejected candidates on. If the rejection isn’t absolutely final, this can be reflected in the wording — “We do not expect to hire any further candidates from this search” — and it is still very helpful for candidates to be informed.
    – PLL
    Feb 15 at 7:29
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    @TimRias I wonder, do people really care about getting a form "you have not been selected" letter? I have applied to many positions, for some I (eventually) got notified that I have not been selected and oftentimes I simply never heard back from them. I can't say that I feel any different about either of these cases. If you get notified, it's always at a time when it is already 100% clear that I was not selected (1+ year after submission).
    – xLeitix
    Feb 15 at 8:54
  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – cag51
    Feb 20 at 3:41
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Same reason why most employers don't send rejection letters. It's more of a hassle to send the rejections than it is to deal with the inquiries from applicants.

Remember, you might get as many as 100+ applicants per position. That's 99 rejection emails you have to send, a number that's likely larger than the number of responses to inquiries that you have to compose.

From the perspective of the applicant, it's better to get rejection letters, but from the perspective of the institution, it's more convenient to not send them. You can see this effect everywhere: it's why a large number of job postings say "We regret that only shortlisted candidates will be notified".

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    This answer makes no sense. Rejection emails can be sent in bulk by mail merge. On the other hand, enquiry emails have to be read and responded to manually. Which is objectively more work.
    – MJeffryes
    Feb 15 at 11:46
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    @MJeffryes - Mail merge is great if the application system (generally on-line now I presume) allows it. I'm certainly not going to go back and trawl through 100 resumes to copy/paste the email address. And the interface at my institution is frankly horrible, requiring if anything even more work to have it 'automatically' send notifications. A personal response to a job application has not been standard for the nearly 50 years that I've been applying for jobs.
    – Jon Custer
    Feb 15 at 14:22
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    @JonCuster yes, obviously I am assuming here that you have all the candidates email addresses, which I perhaps wrongly assumed would be normal in 2024. A mail merge is not a 'personal' response, it is by definition the opposite.
    – MJeffryes
    Feb 15 at 15:26
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    @MJeffryes: Unfortunately, I can confirm JonCuster’s experience — often job searches are handled through badly-designed software portals, which may not offer any good way to send form rejection letters or export applicants’ details in a tractable format. So as an individual member of a search committee, sending these isn’t as easy as it should be. But of course, that’s not a good excuse for the standard — it means we need to push back and get the software improved.
    – PLL
    Feb 15 at 16:50
  • Ghosting unsuccessful job applicants (even after multiple interviews) is standard practice these days, inside or outside academia. It's abhorrent, but it's literally what HR people are trained to do.
    – Flounderer
    Feb 16 at 2:17
1

In this answer I address OP's additional questions posted after their original question. (Posting this as a separate answer because my first answer is already quite long, and these thoughts are only tangentially related to what I wrote there.)

Update: Please allow me to explain why asking for updates from job positions is NOT a "pointless thing to do":

In mathematics, most applicants, who are not super-strong candidates on the market, who do not receive top offers from schools like Harvard/MIT/Princeton in their first round of searching, will likely get into the following situation: An applicant, say James, will probably receive an offer from institute A, which is less favorable and inferior to his ideal places, say B,C,D,E,F....(Many applicants on math job market may apply to dozens and even 100+ positions). But institute A only gives him two weeks to decide whether to accept the offer. What would you do if you were James in this situation?

In this situation I might indeed contact other institutions where I applied. It's not 100% pointless and could provide some benefit, particularly in situations where I already have reason to believe those institutions may be interested in me, where I have friendly contacts, and/or where I have reason to believe that the knowledge that I have a pending offer with a deadline may prompt those institutions to either speed up their decision-making process (unlikely) or to at least provide me some information about their timeline for making a decision.

In the end however, it is extremely unlikely that such emails will lead anyone at the receiving end to tell you anything about "your chances" or get them to officially tell you that you were "rejected". If that is the sort of "status update" you are hoping to get, then the email is indeed pointless. The simple truth is that the situation facing James in your example is unpleasant, and quite common, and most people in that situation will simply be forced to accept that that is how things are and try to make the best decision they can given the information they have.

For many early career mathematicians (especially those who work in small areas where postdoc/tenure-track positions are few), there could be another situation: they do not receive any offers at all in the first few weeks. Many of them want to consider applying for industrial jobs but still love math and hope they could have a chance to continue their career in academia. In such scenarios, it is especially important for them to get early response to estimate their survival chance in academia. It is turns out he could not survive in academia, then early rejections will help him transfer to industrial career earlier.

It may be that the knowledge that you were rejected can indeed be helpful to you in some situations. However, we can't always get what we want in life. I think when you say that asking for updates is not a pointless thing to do, you really mean that you wish it wasn't pointless. But, for better or for worse, it (for the most part) is.

As I said in my other answer, I recognize this is a frustrating state of affairs for many people. But in my opinion it is better to recognize that this is how things work and focus one's energies on finding effective strategies to deal with this type of situation, rather than to blame institutions for being heartless and rude.

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  • Having had nearly the experience detailed in the last section (interrupted by a fairly late TT interview and job offer): I was already gathering and about to send off my industry application packets. Unless you're so in-demand that you've been flown out multiple times by January, you really should starting pivoting in late January (US).
    – user176372
    Feb 20 at 23:49
-1

Yes, this is indeed the case. I'm a PhD student, and I have seen many of my seniors —from various countries and across disciplines— apply for postdoc positions and then wait for months and months, sometimes more than a year, and even then not receive any updates despite well-timed polite queries from the students. So this phenomenon is not specific to the US universities alone, at least to the best of my knowledge. I'd also like to note that this has been my experience while I was applying for PhD positions as well; however, in my case, it's been some of the European universities that have ceased communication with me after I had submitted the applications. While there were certainly delays and lack of communications from American universities as well, they by and large seemed more responsive, especially when contacted directly.

There was an especially egregious case where I had applied for a position in a lab whose PI was a friend of my then supervisor, and I myself had interviewed and built a decent rapport with the PI, was told that I was an excellent fit, and that the application was but a formality. After I had put in my application, which even included a very detailed research proposal, the university and the lab basically went AWOL on me. Despite numerous attempts to reach out and communicate with them, I never got any responses. What's worse, because I was basically guaranteed the position, I didn't look for positions elsewhere, and instead focused on my work. Big mistake. After more than 6 months, I was able to get in touch with one of the members from that lab, and was then informed by them that the position was filled by the supervisor with a different student. Till date, I don't know what had gone on behind the scenes, and why I wasn't even told about the lack of offer, either by the university or the lab. The frustrating thing was that this was much later after the application deadlines for most universities worldwide. So I basically had to wait for the next application cycle, thereby losing an entire year. The maddening aspect of this whole affair, and also a slew of other experiences in academia, is the usual nonchalant way that professors, supervisors, PIs, chairs etc., expect the students to just accept it and move on. There's always the usual drivel of "oh, we also had to go through it back in our days", but I'm not entirely sure if the scale and scope of the experiences can be compared, given how much more competitive and opaque the academic selection processes have become over the decades. The whole thing has the same energy as boomers complaining about 'these darn lazy kids' of this generation who're unable to find jobs and buy homes. I'm sorry if this response doesn't strictly adhere to the standards of the academia stack-exchange answering guidelines, but I believe it is necessary to speak out more about these things, or otherwise a majority of student researchers will never realize that they're not alone in their experiences. Heck, I thought I was crazy when I started applying for PhD positions. No one tells you these things, at least not in the polite company of other academics; everything is so hush-hush.

If all my years of dealing with American universities, or organizations in general, have taught me anything, it is that if you want to know what's going on or would like to get something done, you better meet the people in person, or second-best, call them and talk to them, then follow up that conversation with an email.

While I'd sympathize with the predicament of departments chairs, and more or less have always done so in my career, one thing I never really understood was why despite having massive administrations, the chairs and indeed upper-level faculty with access to administrative help are not able to delegate the peripheral tasks. I mean, it happens to some extent already, yet the excuse that somehow replying to applicants when they're not selected is too much to ask, doesn't seem quite reasonable. Remember, PhD applicants for almost all the US universities even have to pay for the privilege of being able to apply to those programs. And they're extremely strict about the various requirements and documents needed for the application. One small mistake, and the application is ignored or discarded, without so much as a courtesy call/email to the applicant, most of the time. I know this because I've had this experience with some US universities. Now I ask you, should this also be just par for the course for the applicants? Should the same universities, departments and the chairs at these places, who lecture us students about responsibility, accountability, rigor and transparency, be not held to better standards than the current ones, if not the same standards as they expect the students to follow?

I don't know how or when lack of accountability has become acceptable and fairly standard. Even if we were to assume that they're fairly standard, why isn't there more transparency about it? For an institution of society such as the academia, that supposedly prides itself on educating and opening the minds of students, why is its administration so closed even to the ones dealing with it directly? If you want to claim that it's not unique to academia, then at least have the courage to start increasing awareness about it in academic community. The usual cop-outs of "oh, it's common knowledge" or "just talk to others" don't work. For an institution that prides itself on rigor, why are the responsibilities of its administration so mushy and hand-wavy? I once again want to point out that they'd never accept even a fraction of this lax attitude from the students.

Experiences may vary, but at least in my life, I never had to wait for months on end to hear back from a job application in industry. It's always the universities that made me wait the longest, months or year(s). If we're talking about fairly standard expectations, this is what it would be: that the wait time to hear back from industry job applications are on average way shorter than academic applications. See, if it is just a matter of delay, I'd not be this annoyed; but it's the fact that academia makes you jump through hoops and asks you to follow these seemingly vague procedures that somehow all applicants are supposed to take extremely seriously and not get one single thing wrong while applying. There's this air of extreme haughtiness about them, and yet they fail miserably when even the smallest courtesy is expected of them. That's what frustrates me.

Anyway, in addition to the countless other reasons for the now-fast decline of the institution of academia, be it the falling standards, or the inevitable substitution of lecturers with AI, or the increasing academic fraud and a concomitant disillusionment of the public in academia as a whole, the mismanagement and the lack of competence of its administration just adds another unhappy flavor to its current state. The institution of academia as we know it, or at least the version we've seen so far, feels like it's about to go the way of the dodo bird; and to be honest I'm not exactly unhappy about it. Ciao!

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    Welcome to Academia.SE. This seems more like a rant than an answer. Moreover, the question was "why do they do it?" (as in: wouldn't it be better for the universities if they batch-informed all candidates rather than responding to a million mails), not "do they do it?".
    – cag51
    Feb 20 at 3:44
  • I've already mentioned in my answer as to why I thought a response like this is needed, even if it doesn't 100% adhere to the answering guidelines. Young researchers need the assurance that they're not alone in their bad experiences. I say this from rather painful experiences in my own career. Besides, my so-called rant here raises multiple reasons as to why this is the case. Just because they're 2 or 3 steps away from being directly connected to the problem, doesn't mean that they're not crucial. I just hope that I've let the OP know that he/she is not alone in their experience. Feb 20 at 6:16

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