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?