Skip navigation
Careers Café

Why great applicants get turned down

A rejection is not a comment on who you are as a person, or even on your ability to do the job.


I love Casey Fiesler’s post on the academic job search (“The Academic Job Search: It’s not you, it’s them”). It gives insight into why great applicants get turned down for academic jobs that are seemingly a good fit. Despite the elements that make the job search in academia different from the search in other fields, Dr. Fiesler’s post makes good reading for job seekers in any field.

Her advice not to compare your numbers (of applications, screening interviews, in-person interviews) against those of other people is perhaps even more applicable outside of academia. When you’re learning more about non-academic jobs that you’d like to break into, it doesn’t hurt to find out how common a certain type of job IS, so you know how much work you’ll likely need to put in to find an opportunity. This can be especially helpful if you need to counter popular mythology about the job market you’re breaking into. Your friends and loved ones may assume all tech jobs are plentiful, but software companies simply don’t employ as many product managers as software engineers.

Beyond the numbers, I want to emphasize what Dr. Fiesler says about fit – not just with the criteria on the job description, which may be standardized, but about the elements of fit that arise from the current environment, an organization’s needs in the moment, and the strengths and weaknesses of the people already working there:

“I can’t tell you how many conversations there are about how much we like someone but just can’t seriously consider them for X, Y, or Z reasons. All of which are despite how awesome that person is.”

This is not just a pep talk; it is true. A rejection is not a comment on who you are as a person, or even on your ability to do the job. It can be about very specific elements of fit that are difficult to advertise, or that don’t even become apparent to the hiring committee until they’ve met the applicants and have come to understand what strengths and gaps would be created by bringing each different applicant onto the team.

This is part of the reason why it pays to keep the door open when following up on hiring decisions. If you get bad news from a hiring committee, go ahead and reiterate how much you enjoyed meeting them, and how you hope you’ll have the chance to work with them at some point in the future. Not all fields work like academia, and not all organizations advertise a vacancy when they need to hire someone. They may first turn to a list of people they’ve interviewed in the past and wished they could have hired. Even in environments where internal candidates are favoured, hiring managers may hang onto the names of great external candidates. If they can’t fill a role internally, they can turn to a ready list of candidates they already trust.

Putting your best self forward and doing the hard work required of the job search seldom pay off as quickly as you’d hope. Thankfully, selection committees don’t want to drag out the search, either. If they’re impressed, but don’t have the right fit for you now, they may well keep you in mind so that their next search for an employee is a short one.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click to fill out a quick survey