Yes. Yes you can ask for feedback after a rejection.
While I don’t recommend you do this indiscriminately to all jobs to which you applied, if you were invited to a campus visit, then yes, it is in my opinion appropriate to respond to a rejection with a very brief and unemotional email to either the Department Head or the Search Committee Chair something along these lines:
I want to thank you again for hosting me at your department. I understand the position was offered to another candidate. I am writing now to inquire if you have any feedback that I might take from the visit to improve my candidacy as I move ahead in my job search. I would be most appreciative of your honest constructive critique if you see elements of my candidacy that could be improved.
Thank you for your time,
Now, to be truthful, I suspect that the norm here is that you will not get a response. I think that faculty members may well feel awkward, embarrassed, ashamed, annoyed, or just plain too busy to respond to this honest request for help.
In addition, the issues may well have little to do with the candidate personally, and more to do with “fit.” But sometimes there really is feedback that can be offered, without damaging the integrity of the search, which a candidate can take away and learn from. “Your job talk was poorly organized and needs work”; “You seemed unprepared to answer questions about basic courses that you’d teach”; “You’ll want to get better at showing an interest in the job itself and the people with whom you’re talking”; etc.
If I had *ever* been asked for this kind of feedback from an unsuccessful job candidate, I would most definitely have responded. Indeed, I longed to be able to offer feedback to many of the particularly clueless job candidates who lurched through our doors. But it is a thing that cannot be offered gratuitously.
The important thing here is not to sound needy or resentful or emotional in any way. You cannot express disappointment and resentment or personalize the rejection (“I really don’t see where I could have gone wrong”; “I don’t understand why the other candidate was better qualified than me”; etc.). A firm neutrality that you may be far from actually feeling is the key to an effective approach here.
I will reiterate that sometimes the answer is “You were great; in the end our decision revolved around the best fit for the department.” That may seem unhelpful, but it does require you to ask yourself if you really did, in reality, express your potential fit as well as you could have. Be your own harshest critic in these things. Take the step to find out who did get the job, and think about their profile and whether it has strengths that yours lacks. And take steps to fill any gaps.
The job search process is, for most, about learning from rejections. As painful as it is, assume that there is something concrete to learn from every rejection and make every job application that you send out better and more focused than the one that preceded it.
I think this is very true. When I served on hiring committees rarely did candidates do something so egregious that it warranted a “not hire” but rather, the selected person just fit better than someone else.
Scott Gerard Prinster says
I wonder whether search committee members might also be reluctant to respond for fear of incurring any liability on behalf of the committee’s choice — I can imagine feedback that might prompt a candidate to voice a grievance about the decision.
Yes, I think that would be the greatest potential obstacle. And it will also hinge on the personalities involved, and the nature and warmth of the connection the candidate made with the person he’s asking.
As a job candidate I have only done this once – the search chair was really friendly and open so I felt comfortable asking. It was really valuable. He did discuss that fit was a primary reason but also offered helpful advice that I was able to apply to my next interview and it help solidify a connection with the search chair. I feel like he’s part of my ‘network’ now in a way other previous search chairs aren’t, that may lead to nothing but at least when I see him at meetings I don’t think it’ll be awkward. So you may not always get a response but at least in some cases it seems quite worth it to ask – my 2-cents.
Since searches in my field may attract as many as 400 applicants, most often people do not remember anything about you if you do not get to at least the first round of interviews.
Strangely enough, a few schools where I was in the top two or three candidates were the ones that never sent me any notification that I had been eliminated. I believe that when they have the office staff send out 390 rejections, they forget they aren’t finished when they eliminate 2 more a month later after the campus visits. At one school that I had one interview with, I called after several weeks and inquired as to the status of the search. It had been fruitless because the person they chose declined. They like that I stuck with it diplomatically and was going to hire me into a lecturer position instead, but unfortunately the funding for this did not go through. I still didn’t get a job, but it was very encouraging.
In many cases though, it was obvious. I had a fantastic interview with a school well known for its abroad program, so it was no surprise when I googled the new hire and saw that he had lived and earned his advanced degree in Europe.
Karen Nakamura says
I agree with Scott that many search comms would be worried about liability in terms of saying why you weren’t hired. Getting anything in writing would be tough.
But it’s a good question to ask non-search comm members, several months later, over drinks at a conference. It’s also one way to find if one of your reccomendersmis torpedoing you with a nasty letter.
Some of the candidates I’ve seen give job talks were astoundingly bad, and I’ve wished I could give them feedback. One candidate I saw was so off-base that it actually generated the post-visit comment that during lunch, the committee members had to work hard to pretend the candidate was still a candidate. (And that candidate was tenured elsewhere.)
If asked, I would have articulated that as, “Since you were applying from an allied field, it would have been helpful for you to more clearly articulate how your current or future research relates to our disciplinary focus. That would probably have been a better use of your preparation time than the work you did reviewing the individual research interests of our doc students and junior faculty.”
It’s a curious fact that senior people often make a worse showing as candidates than junior people. It’s not like anyone under the age of 50 at this point coasted into a job or didn’t have to ultra-perform to get on the tenure track, so I find it somewhat bewildering why they seem to be so vastly unprepared to re-enter the market.
I guess it’s probably reflective of the changing attitudes toward professionalization.
Anyway, the lunch/dinner in which you know the candidate is no longer under consideration is painful indeed.
Liz M says
My department just hosted three job candidates, and I, as someone who will be on the market in a few years, was scrutinizing every detail. I must say, that – perhaps because our candidates were narrowed down to three from 15 via skype interviews beforehand- the three who earned campus visits had their routine down, and presented impeccably (in the parts that I saw). They all fielded questions calmly and thoughtfully, and their projects were all really impressive. If I were the one from whom feedback was requested I’d have to say that none did anything wrong- that it’ll come down to gut feelings about each of the three people. Their work doesn’t overlap with mine at all, so for me it could have gone in any direction. It actually made me more frightened of the market.
Profess Moravec says
I was quite surprised that during my job search I received two personal communications from members of search committees after I was not selected. Both were lovely and wanted to let me know how much they enjoyed meeting me. I have no idea what that meant in terms of my failure to get the job, but it was nice to be reminded that there are humane peeps out there in academia
A lot of the comments here discuss the importance of a good fit, and I have to say that I’m not always certain it is apparent from point of view of the applicant. Some departments I do know to be good fits or bad fits, and there is a consensus on that interpretation by the members of the department too. But I have applied to departments I thought were great fits only to be entirely ignored. Also I have applied to departments that seemed mediocre or poor fits where I was wined and dined.
I know this is an older post and you may no longer be responding to comments, but I’m curious what your thoughts on this question are when the rejection comes by telephone? Is it appropriate to ask for feedback during the call, or would this be putting the person on the spot in an uncomfortable way?