Wednesday, June 09, 2010

 

"Can You Tell Me Why I Didn't Get the Job?"

The short answer is no.

The longer answer is complicated.

Over the last year, I've had more candidates ask me this than I had in the previous several years combined. I suspect it's a function of the abruptly-worse job market, in which people who might have been shoo-ins in the past unexpectedly fall short. I've heard it asked out of apparently sincere bafflement, in an I'm-trying-to-trip-you-up tone, and in indignant anger. I can't answer any of them.

I hate the question, because it's one of those times when the ethical impulse and the legal impulse conflict. As much as I'd like to answer the question in some cases, there's nothing to be gained for the college by doing it, and potentially a lot to lose. So I fall back on something like "it was a very strong pool," which is true but not revealing (or helpful).

Ideally, I'd be able to say things like "your answer to x suggested that you're settling for this job, and other candidates seemed actually to want it," or "you didn't really answer question x." But it's hard to know where an answer will go once it's given. Someone who is honestly looking for tips to improve might decide later that the reason given sounded discriminatory, and will use those words against the college. Or, she might try to argue the points, and you don't want to get sucked into that conversation. (I learned in my teen years that you can't argue your way out of "dumped.") Every statement you elaborate can, and may, be used against you in court.

Although there have been times when I wished I could have shared some pointers, at the end of the day the question is lawsuit bait. "The committee thought another candidate had more range." Well, was the range desired indicated in the ad? If not, is it a pretext? "We went with an internal candidate." So the search was never really valid in the first place? "It really came down to fit." So you don't hire my kind? "One member of the committee hated you." So much for confidentiality...

I could try to dodge any sinister readings by simply piling on the negativity, but there's such a thing as adding insult to injury. And much of the time, it wouldn't be true. Typically, everyone who makes it to the finalist stage is strong, and I have to admit that many cases come down to degrees of excellence or who better complements the department as it's currently composed. Losing doesn't mean you're a loser.

Then there's the epistemological issue. Decisions made by committee can be hard to pin down to clear reasons. Why did the 3-2 vote go the way it did? Legal scholars make careers trying to suss out the real reasons behind 5-4 Supreme Court decisions, and they at least have the advantage of having written opinions to parse. I can theorize as to why someone on a committee voted the way she did, but if pushed, I'd have to admit that it's mostly speculation. And anyone who has served on a contentious committee can attest that the results of votes can be surprising. Committee deliberations can go in unanticipated directions, and group dynamics take on lives of their own. Attributing a committee decision to a single post-hoc reason is usually reductive at best, if not simply arrogant. And getting sued over a speculative post-hoc statement that wasn't even accurate is a colossal waste of resources.

None of this is terribly helpful to spurned candidates; I get that. Making it to the finalist stage, and then getting shot down without a reason given, can be frustrating. (I've been there.) But most of the time, it's the least-bad response to a difficult situation.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen (or received) an answer that actually helped?

Comments:
One of my mentors advised me to follow up a search with a question to someone on the search committee with whom I connected, asking "What would you advise I do to strengthen my application for another position?" I've asked this question myself and gotten some useful feedback on how I talked about my research agenda; I also used the framework of this question to respond to someone who applied for, interviewed for, but didn't get hired for a staff position in my current office. The question moves the issue off the central question of why did the search committee make its decision, and onto the issue of what can a candidate make of the experiences and strengths on the cv.

It is tricky territory, though (all the more so with an internal candidate asking the questions).
 
I asked the question once (via e-mail), and got an answer that was very specific and helpful: some committee members thought that my job talk was too narrowly focused on my particular research area and they had some doubts about whether this approach was suitable for what was essentially a generalist teaching position. Based on this advice, I reworked my job talk, and got the next job I interviewed for.

Ironically, had the department chair run his reply by university counsel, he would never have sent it. My research focus is in an identity-based area of the humanities, and a more litigious applicant might have read this helpful (and, I think, well-intentioned) advice as "We didn't hire you because you were too ethnic."
 
It seems no better outside academia (see Andrew Sullivan, “The View From Your Recession”, The Daily Dish 07 Jun 2010 03:22 pm).
 
Our search has just completed and some were internal candidates that I supervise. I have given job and interview advice to all of them in the past. I hate that I can't help them now when I really do know how they can improve their chances at a job. I am also glad that I have a legal reason not to have some difficult conversations.
 
I too really wish I could answer this question. In a recent hiring process at my university, a couple of the candidates I interviewed who seemed like strong candidates on paper flubbed the interview (from my perspective) by not answering the questions. They tended to answer with something tangential, and to go on for too long. Those tangential and rambling answers did not address what I was trying to draw out. Rephrasing the questions did not make any difference.

I still don't think they were poor candidates for the job--they just interviewed poorly. Since I can't tell them directly why they didn't get the job, I will just have to tell it to the blogosphere: listen to the interview questions and answer the interview questions!
 
I answer this question for students all the time because we have about 200 applications for a program where we accept 30 people. I don't give specific answers unless there is something glaringly specific about their application that is a problem (you got a C in 3 of the 4 required prerequisites - that hurt you) Sometimes, I'll identify for them the area of their application that was the weakest in terms of their ranking score (you placed below average on the interview or your essay got a below average score.)

Generally speaking, I try to identify one strength and one weakness of each application and talk to them about that. If it really was a personality conflict, I will dodge and talk to them about the characteristics of a successful candidate (GPA, interests, skills etc.) and let them determine if they meet them or not. I never argue and I always emphasize the competitive nature of the pool - our average GPA for the applicant pool has been rising about 0.1 each semester.

I also keep kleenex in my office. It sucks to crush the hopes and dreams of people.
 
I've asked but never been given an answer. I'd like one because I would actually try to improve whatever I was lacking in. I have gone ahead to look up whoever got the job to see how s/he is different than me. Sometimes it's easy to tell (immediate experience in X, they hired internally and already knew who they wanted) other times there's still no good answer. I realize the legal issues, but a little help would be nice too.
 
I think the chair's goal here is to answer an unsuccessful applicant's questions in a congenial way that won't tempt him or her to question the school's decision further. One problem with working up an answer that will both help the applicant in future interviews, and not put the school in jeopardy, is that the responder can never be sure that his or her advice will be of any help the applicant in the first place. The chance that it could, indeed, be useless to the applicant, and result in a problem for the school to boot, is too high to risk any but a collegial thank you, followed by a referral to the school's HR department
 
Many years ago (25?) I was part of group interviewing candidates for an administrative assistant job. One of the people in the department was deaf (totally) and the AA would be making phone calls for that person. One candidate was very bright, had good experience, looked professional... and had a Joisey accent that would have landed her a role on The Sopranos. When I told the deaf guy about that, he vetoed her immediately, since her voice would be his representative. I SO wanted to tell her, because it's an easy fix for her, but I couldn't. I still feel bad.
 
In Canada, one can sometimes get feedback because lawsuits is both more difficult and less lucrative than in the US. (Also, I think a lawsuit, even in the US, does substantial reputation damage to everyone involved unless there was some kind of extraordinary problem).

As an interviewee, I've never asked for feedback but recently a friend said that she asks for it and gets feedback. Maybe I should try! The reason I want feedback is this: How else do I find out how to improve and do better?
 
Sometimes the reason is legally questionable. We need a minority to round out this white department. After all, we should mirror the diversity of our student body.

I have actually been given this reason.
 
I think it would be helpful to candidates to phrase the question as "What can I do to improve my application?"

I have been told do more presentations. Check.
I have been told to get more publications. Check.
I have been told to teach online classes. Check.
I have been told I was too old. Er, face lift?

Sometimes I know I flubbed something in an interview. Is one flub enough to lose a position? I would assume so, since we are supposed to be at our best.
 
Regarding teaching positions: For what's it's worth, when I was on the market, 15 years or so ago, each time I was a finalist but not the "winner" of a position, as disappointing as it was, I knew deep down that I was not the right person for the position. I always had doubts of my own.

In other words, a "fix" for one failed interview, might not fix anything in the next, because it's a different job, different colleagues, different set of expectations.

I don't think it appropriate to ask committee members for reasons, any more than it is appropriate for applicants to ask for specific reasons they were not admitted to a program. For the latter, my fallback position is "we had a very strong applicant pool and had to make difficult decisions."
 
This is another thing that I find appalling about academic job hunting. Outside of academia it is considered appropriate to ask the question, What can I do to make myself a stronger applicant for another position in this field? Not taking the time to answer this question, when asked appropriately is irresponsible. If you want to mentor the next generation professors and administrators the applicants, especially the finalists, need this kind of advice.


I like Susan's approach and the question she asked of the former committee member. I think its great that the person took the time to give that advice. Same thing with Mickey's experience. If academia is really "collegial" and you made it to the top three, then you should be able to ask for some feedback.

By and large I respect Dean Dad's arguments on most things, even if I do not agree with them. But frankly, I think expressions of concern like confidentiality, or we might get sued are excuses. I think the real answer is:

No, I can't tell you why you didn't get the job, and I don't have to. Its an employers job market and will be for the conceivable future. There are 100 applicants for every position and more of you coming every year. We don't do explanations because its a waste of our time to deal with people as insignificant as yourself.
 
Anon@2:48--I can state unequivocally that the reasons DD states are NOT "excuses." Read the comments from people doing the hiring--we all want to give helpful feedback and feel crappy that we can't. Someone who has reached the interview stage has invested time and money, and absolutely deserves some feedback. But I've been explicitly told I can't give it. No "excuse" there--just a fact of our process. I do offer to talk at a later date about interviewing in general; rarely am I taken up on that. When I am, I can usually slip in some relevant suggestions without directly tying them to the person's interview.
 
The problem with asking for such feedback is that it can hurt future applications. One SC reached a particular conclusion about your candidacy, but you can't assume that a different SC will reach that same conclusion.

Seems like people here are assuming a stationary target (in which case feedback might help), and too often in academe, that simply isn't the case.
 
I have been asked why someone "my age" would want this position. It is unfortunate that age discrimination laws are not as strong and clear as race discrimination laws.
 
I recently interviewed for a position at the CC where I have worked as an adjunct for four years. I thought I had a good shot at the job and wanted it very badly. However, I didn't make it past the second round. In what I thought to be a very kind gesture, the dean himself called me three days after my interview to tell me that I would not be going further in the process. I asked him, "is there anything I could do better in future interviews?" He explained that HR did not want him answering these questions but then went on in a roundabout way to point out some of the problems I had in my interview. I am so glad he did because they were things I never would have thought of. Now, I have another interview somewhere else and I am going to use the tips that he gave me. I am incredibly grateful for his feedback. He was very general and mild but at the same time, I definitely was able to get what he was saying. It would be lovely if other candidates could get that kind of feedback because it was so helfpul to me.
 
I hear you, Katherine. Having seen dozens of very qualified, excellent colleagues lose out on jobs or even on getting an interview in favor of younger faculty who have just arrived, and having had this happen to me as well, I just wish that it was possible to prove age discrimination.
 
This really hits home to me. For more than three years I had applied to jobs at universities and reached the finalist stage at several jobs that I deeply desired, but did not receive a job offer at any of them. This included at places like Stanford and Dartmouth plus a variety of other universities of all types. No matter what I did, I always was turned down as the second or third choice.

I asked them what I could do to improve my chances for similar jobs down the line, and they would say that I was a very strong candidate and that they were very impressed with me, but they simply decided to go with somebody else. People who knew me told me I was a good interviewer (we would even do mock interviews), and I clearly had the skills necessary, as my application materials repeatedly allowed me to reach the finalist stage.

After three years, I finally gave up and went into another line of work. It was clear that I was not welcome to work in the college environment, I was not going to figure out why, and I needed to focus my efforts toward a field where I was wanted.

It would have been so, so helpful if I could have received detailed feedback from the places I interviewed to help determine what I could have improved on. I know that everywhere is different, but if a trend became clear, I would then know what I needed to change. Instead all I received was frustration - having no idea what I needed to work on. People who know me well were at a complete loss as to why I could not get any of these jobs when my experiences were so top-notch. It was such a frustrating experience.

I did everything in my career up to that point (applying for full-time jobs) to create the absolute best resume possible, and I accomplished that goal. Little did I know at the time just how frustrating and maddening the interviewing process would be. I wish I had not spent so much of my time, energy and sanity to prepare myself for a stage where I would just be turned down time and again for unknown reasons that I will never figure out and that finally frustrated me so much I had to turn my back on all the work I had done to get to that point just to preserve my sanity.

If I wasn't good enough, I could understand and easily move on with my life. But being good enough that I had some top, well-respected people in the field know my work well and rave about me, yet still be unable to attain a job that remotely fit what I was looking for when other with much fewer credentials than myself were receiving those positions was maddening. I wish I knew why.
 
This really hits home to me. For more than three years I had applied to jobs at universities and reached the finalist stage at several jobs that I deeply desired, but did not receive a job offer at any of them. This included at places like Stanford and Dartmouth plus a variety of other universities of all types. No matter what I did, I always was turned down as the second or third choice.

I asked them what I could do to improve my chances for similar jobs down the line, and they would say that I was a very strong candidate and that they were very impressed with me, but they simply decided to go with somebody else. People who knew me told me I was a good interviewer (we would even do mock interviews), and I clearly had the skills necessary, as my application materials repeatedly allowed me to reach the finalist stage.

After three years, I finally gave up and went into another line of work. It was clear that I was not welcome to work in the college environment, I was not going to figure out why, and I needed to focus my efforts toward a field where I was wanted.

It would have been so, so helpful if I could have received detailed feedback from the places I interviewed to help determine what I could have improved on. I know that everywhere is different, but if a trend became clear, I would then know what I needed to change. Instead all I received was frustration - having no idea what I needed to work on. People who know me well were at a complete loss as to why I could not get any of these jobs when my experiences were so top-notch. It was such a frustrating experience.

I did everything in my career up to that point (applying for full-time jobs) to create the absolute best resume possible, and I accomplished that goal. Little did I know at the time just how frustrating and maddening the interviewing process would be. I wish I had not spent so much of my time, energy and sanity to prepare myself for a stage where I would just be turned down time and again for unknown reasons that I will never figure out and that finally frustrated me so much I had to turn my back on all the work I had done to get to that point just to preserve my sanity.

If I wasn't good enough, I could understand and easily move on with my life. But being good enough that I had some top, well-respected people in the field know my work well and rave about me, yet still be unable to attain a job that remotely fit what I was looking for when other with much fewer credentials than myself were receiving those positions was maddening. I wish I knew why.
 
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