The Ask

Here is an interesting question from a reader:

I was wondering, how to ask the faculty search chair, "why was I not invited for an interview?" and if this is a reasonable thing to ask ?

First, the second question: Is this a reasonable question to ask? My first reaction is: sure, go ahead and ask. It is not an unreasonable question in the sense of being unprofessional, strange, or obnoxious; it is a perfectly natural question, and I don't think search chairs will be annoyed by being asked this.

Correct me if I am wrong, search chairs of the world. Certainly no one would want to get 300 of these questions, but most applicants don't ask, so it doesn't seem like a problem to me if a few do ask.

In terms of how to ask, just do it, and keep it simple, without any long, sad explanations about why you want to know. That is, just a "I was wondering if you could give me any information.." kind of question; concise and polite.

In my opinion, however, the real question is whether you are going to get any useful information from this query. In fact, I rather doubt it. Some searches involve so many applications, even if every one is given due consideration, the search chair might not be able to give you an answer. Then there is the issue of what a search chair can say, not to mention will say.

I tried to think of all the possible answers I might give someone if I were asked this question. Note that I have never been asked this question by an applicant who was not interviewed, so I am just imagining what I might say. I have been asked a similar question by unsuccessful interviewees, wondering why they were not offered the job, but that situation is only semi-analogous.

We can classify possible answers into categories: reasons you might actually be told, and reasons you are unlikely to be told.

In the likely category, I think you might well get the vague answer "We had many excellent applicants and could only invite n to interview, so we had to make some tough choices." That could well be a completely honest answer, and it might make you feel better, if you believe it. If, however, you are looking for some magic answer to help you improve your application, it's not so useful.

It is very unlikely that a search committee chair is going to say something specific like "You might want to ditch Professor X as a reference; you will never get an interview with a letter like that" or "We are all still laughing about your absurd and pathetic research statement" (or a more polite equivalent of that comment).

It is also unlikely that you are going be told something specific like "We all hated the fact that you mentioned that your favorite hobby is fishing. We think that is a boring and anti-intellectual hobby, and we would never consider hiring anyone who considers fishing an acceptable leisure pursuit."

Likely or unlikely?: Would a search committee chair tell you that you don't have enough publications (in top-tier journals) or you don't have as much postdoctoral/teaching/whatever experience compared to other candidates? Maybe, but these seem like obvious things you should know or infer about your record compared to your peers. These are questions you could ask an advisor or mentor before asking a search committee chair. Maybe you can find out the interview slate and the identity of the person offered the job and compare your record to theirs; then you will know the answer to some basic questions about how your record stacks up.

Keep in mind, though, that it's not always something obvious, like number of papers. You might have more publications than someone who was interviewed, but perhaps there was something about that other person's research and/or teaching or ideas for future research and/or teaching, that caught the interest of the committee/department. That can be hard to explain, much less infer from a list of interviewees.

If you are wondering about technical aspects of your application -- i.e., whether your application needs a bit of technical fine-tuning in terms of how you constructed your CV, statements, cover letter etc -- these are things to ask mentors or friends who have successfully navigated a job-search, not search committee chairs.

What are some other possible answers to the question of why someone was not interviewed, whether likely or unlikely to be uttered by the search chair to an applicant? Perhaps the committee/department decided to interview only people with a particular research focus or approach (different from yours), but only decided this once the applications were in? That is within the realm of possible explanations you might be told, but it is also something you could figure out by knowing the identity of the interviewees.

I am sure I am missing some possibilities here. If you are a search committee chair and have been asked this question by a non-interviewed applicant, I hope you will leave a comment based on your experience: What did you say, if anything? Similarly, if you are/were a non-interviewed applicant who asked this question, did you get a response, and if so, what was it and was it useful?


20 responses so far

  • Anon says:

    A good friend of mine applied for a position in my department. I am not on the search committee, so I gave him some candid feedback on a rough draft of his application package. He made some fixes, but he was not selected as a finalist. I went to a member of the committee and asked for some candid, off-the-record feedback on my friend's application. The committee member's comments on the final draft almost exactly matched my comments on the rough draft. I gently communicated that feedback to my friend.

    Interestingly, the committee member is in my friend's subfield and I am not. The lesson I draw from this is that you don't need to go to search committee members or even people in your subfield in order to get useful feedback on why your application didn't float to the top. Experienced people who are in your general field but outside your subfield will be able to give useful feedback.

  • John Vidale says:

    Great and difficult topic. It has similarities to wondering why one didn't get admitted to a grad program, or didn't get a post-doc.

    I think it is hard to answer, as most applications are NOT judged on just one or two details. People like to think they were chosen or not because of something they could easily have done differently, but I don't think that generally is the case. Letters, the job talk, the written statement of plans, the interviews, word of mouth from friends in the field, (appearance, academic lineage, gender, political leanings) - all could play a role, and different aspects may be important for different people doing the evaluating.

    I've asked and been asked, and generally it is awkward and not very helpful.

  • Notorious Ph.D. says:

    My institution forbids us from discussing these things with candidates -- yet another instance where policy is made, not out of any logic, but to prevent hypothetical lawsuits. On the other hand, I suppose it could happen.

    So, my answer to the original poster would be: Go ahead and ask -- politely. But don't expect an answer.

  • mihos says:

    As an aside, if you *do* ask for more information, and the person on the committee takes the time to write back and give you more feedback, it's generally considered polite to at least write back a quick "thank you for letting me know" even if you don't like the answer.

  • I have chaired a number of faculty search committees over the years, and on the few occasions upon which non-invited candidates asked me *as chair of the committee* why they weren't invited, I did find it irritating and a complete waste of my time. The only answer I have ever given anyone who has asked is "we had a very large number of outstanding applications, and the committee considered the few that we invited to have a better fit for our needs". This obviously is completely uninformative for the applicant, as "fit" could mean anything from "your publication record is shitte" to "we wanted someone working on the left ventricle, and you work on the right ventricle".

    As exemplified in one of the comments above, the *only* way to get real feedback on your application is from a personal contact within the department who either is already privy to, or can get access to, the real story. And unless you were one of the very top uninvited candidates, there isn't any "story" to hear, as your application may have been discarded with only fifteen seconds rapid glance, and no one who looked at it will even remember why they passed it by.

    Asking a search committee or department chair in their capacity as such--and not because you have a personal connection with them--about your non-invited application has absolutely zero chance of gaining you any useful information, and a substantial chance of annoying the person. So don't do it.

  • rs says:

    Agreed with PhysioProf on this one. Never got any useful reply whenever I asked other than "we found a candidate with a better fit to our announced position", so it is completely useless to ask officially.

  • Mark P says:

    I would say "Don't ask"!! We often get more than one hundred applications. Can you imagine if even a fraction of those asked what they were not interviewed? It would not lead to warm feelings on the part of the person who had to respond.

    The answers would fall generally into two categories:

    1) Folks who were not nearly as well qualified in terms of publications/productivity or who were way off topic

    2) Folks who made the medium list (10-30 folks) because they were a reasonable fit and had the productivity. From then on its a matter of taste--which areas the search committee found most interesting or the best fit for the Department.

    In the first case, how would you say that politely to a candidate? In the second case, its not that useful to hear this feedback.

  • profguy says:

    Agree, usually a fruitless question, with the one exception that sometimes, there is a real preference for some particular subfield which is not entirely clear from the ad. In some cases that is at least part of the reason for picking some candidates over others, and I might say that to un-invited candidates if asked, and it might make them feel better. Of course I might say that also even if it's not the real reason, to make them feel better.

    I've experienced one other major exception, about the similar but not quite same situation of not getting the job after an interview. A candidate who was invited, but didn't get the job, called me to ask why they didn't get it. This person had been on many interviews and been 100% unsuccessful, despite pretty good track record and pedigree, publications, good letters from top people etc. I was evasive at first but this person (whom I knew personally to some extent; not closest of colleagues nor personal friends but we had had a few conversations at conferences, I knew their mentors etc.) was quite persistent in making it clear that a) they were sure they were doing something wrong but didn't know what it was and b) they knew they were asking me a special favor by requesting my frank opinion on this and weren't going to get upset about my response or sue me. So I eventually gave my (more or less) honest answer which was indeed about bad interview and talk-giving technique. So it is possible to get real feedback in some cases, just not easy.

  • John Vidale says:

    In the way of advice, I'd recommend asking about one's strengths and weaknesses explicitly separating it from how one did in the search.

    I think people are much more likely to say what they like and don't like about an essay, a CV, a talk, or even one's reputation in the field when it doesn't carry the freight of discussing why it led to rejection.

    And one SHOULD gather feedback on all these aspects. I remain amazed how many people have never or rarely watched a tape of themselves speaking, for example. It can be painful, but if one regularly subjects people to watching it, one only gets second-hand and diplomatic feedback, it is relatively easy to tweak, and it matters a great deal, shouldn't one invest an hour every now and then?

  • anon says:

    What prof guy said. I think it is more informative to ask why you did not get an offer (after an interview) rather than why you didn't get an interview. My grad student, who has an excellent record, was turned down for a post-doc position. I emailed the PI and asked whether he would be willing to provide candid feedback on why he chose not to take on the student (I assured him that I would not reveal the source to the student). He did provide very useful feedback, which I don't think he would have done directly to the student. In many cases, I think the mentor has a responsibility to step in and at least get feedback on behalf of their student or post-doc in the interest of making sure that they succeed in the next round of interviews.

  • MZ says:

    Yes, as a mentor I have done this on behalf of a postdoc of mine, who was applying for a faculty position someplace where I knew a member of the search committee. The search committee member gave me some useful advice that (I think) helped the postdoc prepare future applications. But I wouldn't do it unless I did have a personal connection, and I wouldn't have the candidate do it him or herself.

  • Anon from 01:42 says:

    I should add that the greatest weakness in my good friend's application packet was that his research plan was not at all comprehensible to somebody outside his field. I told him this, and he made changes, but they weren't enough. A committee member who is in his field (but not in his specific area) said that even he had a hard time figuring out what the significance of the plan was and how this plan would fit with the resources available here. And not every committee member was in that field.

    That, I think is #1: Write a research plan that a person outside your field can get. You don't know if everybody on the committee will be in your area. In small departments, people from outside the field will almost certainly be on the committee. Even big departments might have somebody from outside the field on the committee for any number of reasons (e.g. to have a balanced cross-section of the department, or because the department has few people in your field and is hiring you so they can grow in that field, or because some people in the field are on sabbatical, or because the department chair is always on the committee at some schools). And even people in your field might not get the specific jargon of your narrow niche within the field. And even if they do get it, they're reading it at 11pm on the night before the committee meets and you've just given them a very dense document to get through. Not good.

    And, frankly, even if they do understand it perfectly, they are looking to hire a person who will teach people, who will train people, and who will submit grant proposals to panels that might have a wide range of backgrounds and expertise. If you produce a dense, jargon-laden document, you've just cast doubt on your ability to do the job.

  • profguy says:

    But a lot of committee members won't even read the research plans of many of the candidates - in my experience a lot of the first cut is done before even getting that far. Sure, you want to have a good research plan in the hope that your file will get considered long enough for people to read it. But in general I wouldn't assume that if someone didn't get invited for an interview it was because of a bad research plan.

  • MamaRox says:

    And then, of course, it's just plain awkward to get this sort of inquiry from someone who just isn't a good fit. It's fine if there are simple professional reasons to share (specialty, etc.), but what if it's something else?

    What if the whole search committee found you irritating? Or idiotic/clueless? Rude? Could you ever imagine saying that to someone?

    For example, there is someone who has applied for *every* position that comes open in our department for nearly a decade. The chair tells me that we will never hire Person X for anything because of some serious personality flaws/instabilities he has witnessed. X is local and has a job, but always drops by surprised to find out why there was no interview. I know the chair wants to say "stop applying!" but can't because of some connections X has to the department... and because X probably wouldn't take it so well.

    Does such a person, who has put *so much* effort into applying for many positions over many years, deserve more than a form letter? I think so, unfortunately in part because of these connections... but what to say?

  • But a lot of committee members won't even read the research plans of many of the candidates - in my experience a lot of the first cut is done before even getting that far.

    This is absolutely the case. In my experience, at least three-fourths of the applications to any given search can be discarded with less than one minute's skimming of the CV.

  • Anon from 01:42 says:

    Sure, if the CV isn't good enough nothing else matters. But by the time you're preparing the application, you can't really do anything about the CV. It is what it is, and nothing you do between the time you read the ad and the application deadline can change what happened (or didn't happen) over years and years of training and work experience. However, you do have some control over the research plan. How you write that can actually affect what happens. So write something that a non-expert can understand and appreciate.

  • John Vidale says:

    If we're talking about making the short list, and 50 people have applied to get on a 5 person short list, it's probably only 10 or 15 people who have a chance, no matter how well they have played their cards. The other 75% just didn't have the combination of number of papers, connections with people in the dept, and favorable specialty.

    I'd suggest those 10 or so on the margin should work on improving their CV, getting their papers submitted, getting their advisor and connections to promote them to the department, and exploring how their work fits synergistically with that in the target department. And if they don't make the short list, try to evaluate what didn't work, but don't except to find a simple fix that will work remarkably better next time.

  • Notorious Ph.D. says:

    If I may add one more brief comment, in favor of not asking: Job searches are like sausage -- you don't want to see what goes into the process, no matter how delicious the finished product. I know just enough about the behind-the-scenes of the search that resulted in my hire that I am 100% certain that I don't want to know any more.

  • SGL says:

    If a candidate asked me, I'd be comfortable telling them whether they were a serious contender or not. 2/3 of our pool is uncompetitive and the answer would be straightforward, yet there would be almost no chance the candidate could use such information to improve their prospects in a future search.

    The top 1/3 of the pool typically separates into the rarified air of ~5 candidates who walk on water and then turn it into wine, at least judging from the letters of recommendation from their (famous) advisers. Those folks quickly know who they are because they will have several interviews each and will hopefully focus on those rather than worrying about the searches at schools that passed them by.

    The tough place to be is in that tier 2 zone - credible candidates who will do well at the job, but don't jump off the page either. I would bet that such a candidate would be most likely to request feedback. Here again the answer will not be that comforting: it's a tough job market out there and you will hopefully find a department that sees you as a particularly strong fit for their needs. We saw strong points to your application but others were more compelling.

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