Archive for the 'academic etiquette' category

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

Going in for the Kill

Nov 09 2011 Published by under academic etiquette

A reader wonders (original e-mail shortened/edited):

I am interested on your take on the etiquette of Q&A sessions during talks: who, if anyone, should ask critical questions? By critical I mean any question with a clear orientation of "I don't buy your results much, if at all, and I'm going to ask about a deficiency in your work to see if you will give in and agree with me."

I've seen undergrads ask these types of questions (direct quote: "I don't understand the overall point of your research") and it be considered a major gaffe, in part because the critique was unsophisticated; I've seen post docs hone in on a methodological weakness and be perceived as too aggressive and outspoken for doing so in a direct manner; and I've seen senior, tenured faculty really go in for the jugular and everyone just thinks they are being mean like always but no one really tries to call them on it or rein them in.

At a talk yesterday, there was a potentially major flaw to the results presented. The speaker did not come across as credible, and at the end of the talk a senior faculty member went right in for the kill.

The thing is, I agreed with him, but as a 2nd year Ph.D. student I don't feel like I could phrase a question so directly. This made me wonder how I COULD phrase it if I wanted to politely but directly inquire. My question is, how would you phrase this type of pointed, critical question and do you think it's appropriate for a graduate student to do so (considering they have more on the line than tenured faculty).

As a spectator at a talk, I enjoy a well-posed killer question, no matter who delivers it, but I think that everyone, from first-year students to ancient professors, can be most effective at asking these questions if the questions are simple and polite. These questions are most satisfying if delivered to a worthy recipient -- that is, someone who enjoys questions, who isn't vulnerable (e.g., an interviewee), and who might be able to provide an interesting response.

It's not so great seeing someone destroyed in an aggressive way by piranhas in the audience.

I want to mention here that I think it is great when students and postdocs ask questions after a talk (or during, if that is the culture of a department), so the question is not whether early-career academic people should ask questions, it's specifically about how to ask killer questions.

Although I don't think I have an inflated view of the awesome brilliance and cosmic knowledge of professors relative to students, I think the person who wrote the letter is right to wonder whether it is somehow different for students than for others to ask these questions.

I admit that I am bothered if a student asks an apparently rude or aggressive question that seems to be based on the assumption that the student has the necessary knowledge to tell someone their work is pointless or flawed. Maybe they do (in which case, I am less bothered), but if they clearly don't, they come off as jerks.

Of course, faculty can be jerks as well, particularly if the faculty member doesn't know much (or anything) about the research they are attacking. I am not so bothered if someone (professor, student, postdoc, anyone) with relevant expertise is a bit aggressive and asks a really good, probing question. The best questions of this sort, though, are politely and simply expressed.

You don't have to bend over backwards to be polite. I also find it annoying when someone has a really long, self-deprecating preface to try to soften the blow of what might be a killer question. You can briefly say "Maybe I missed your explanation of this, but..", but then go for it. Or just ask your question, but focus on the material, not your opinion of it.

I understand that, even though some visitors to departments are told that they will be speaking to a general audience that includes students and people from a variety of sub-fields, some speakers make no effort to provide the necessary information for most people in the audience to understand the talk. It's fine to call them on this, and students should ask what questions they want to ask (politely).

If, however, a student's intent is to be aggressive and tear down someone's work, rather than their presentation style, they should be quite sure that they know what they are talking about.

Is there a polite way for anyone to say "I don't understand the overall point of your research"? Perhaps. First of all, it might be better to phrase it as a question (but not "What is the point of your research?"). What did the student mean by that statement? That they were confused or that they thought the research was pointless? It's not clear.

For example, if the student was trying to say that the speaker did a lousy job of explaining the context of the research and wants to know why the research was done, it's perfectly reasonable to ask "Could you take a step back and explain the overall motivation for this work?" (or ask for specific questions being addressed, or ask if this work has anything to do with [something you think is relevant and more interesting, without saying that]).

If, however, the purpose of the question was to say "I think your research is not worth doing", then, as I said, the asker of that question should be quite sure that they know what they are talking about.

If one of my advisees asked what I thought was a rude question, I would talk to them to see if they knew how their question sounded. Some apparently rude questions are asked without any intention of being rude, and it's just a matter of some friendly, constructive advice to fix the problem.

Does this post have a point? Maybe, maybe not, but I hope others will leave comments and weigh in on the topic.

25 responses so far