Feedback on job applications

My partner and I applied separately for a number of Assistant Professor positions last year. We both had varying degrees of success at different institutions that really showed us where we stood in terms of what kinds of institutions were interested in us and also relative to other applicants. One thing that really solidified our understanding of our competitiveness was valuable feedback we each got from one person on a search committee.

Let me start by saying that, at least in this field, it is exceedingly rare to get feedback on your job applications. The couple of times before this I have gotten to any stage in the application process where I can communicate with people on the search committee, i.e. phone or video interview, I asked for feedback when I heard I didn’t get the position/interview, but never heard back on that request. So for each of us to have actually received feedback is amazing.

For me, the feedback came from a thoughtful search/department chair who knew how rare it was to receive feedback in the harrowing and opaque job search process, and made a point to reach out to tell me what happened with the search. In short, I was in the top four candidates after the phone interview, but they later ruled me out because my research methods overlapped more with existing faculty in the department than did other top candidates. This was such a relief for me to hear because it told me that it was essentially beyond my control* and that another similar position/department at another time could very likely lead to a good match, as I was one of the top candidates here.

That information, combined with my phone/video interviews and other non-offers told me that 1) My paper application is good overall – good enough to get phone interviews; 2) My interview skills are probably fine – good enough to potentially get me an offer; 3) It will need to be the right place at the right time, and since I’m picky about geography, it might not happen in a given year; and 4) This is all true for small liberal arts colleges – I didn’t get anywhere with the state schools or a couple more research-focused positions I applied to**.

The feedback my partner got was potentially even more valuable, in that it was thorough constructive criticism. This came from someone on the search committee at a place Partner did not get an interview offer, but the person was a friend and colleague of mine who has always been an amazing resource, going above and beyond to help. Unsolicited, she related some of the concerns that were raised about Partner’s research program and what was missing from a critical recommendation letter. She made the point that these issues may not be concerns at all at other institutions*, but it is still really valuable to know and consider that for future applications. She also noted the huge number of qualified candidates that applied for the job, which is always bittersweet to hear.

So we are both extremely grateful for the candid feedback and advice we received and can take into consideration for the future… and in the meantime, I have already paid it forward, giving feedback to applicants for a position in my lab. I am hopeful that more people will help each other out like this in the future – I know I will whenever I am in the position to do so!


*Although it is important to consider how your research fits in with existing research in the department, it is usually impossible to know exactly what the department is seeking. Typically small departments want a diverse array of research programs, especially if undergraduate research opportunities are an emphasis, while larger departments with a graduate program might be more interested in strengthening existing areas of research with more similar but complementary topics/techniques. It is possible to tailor research plans to fit one of these ideas, but you can’t know for sure which is more appealing for any given department/reviewer, so I usually try to keep my research plan with what I really want to do that fits that institution.

**This is because my experience makes me a good match for a small liberal arts college, not because, as some believe, it is a lower tier than a research-focused university, etc. Each type of position/institution is different, looks for different qualities in candidates, and one shouldn’t be thought of as a ‘backup’ if you can’t land your first choice.


7 responses so far

  • wally says:

    I think this is invaluable - and I'm glad you both got feedback! Would you be willing to share - perhaps in a diff post - what *should* be in a letter of rec? I have to draft my own, and given that I have very low exposure to LOR for my current level (postdoc) and hopefully future level (job search for faculty positions) - I worry that I don't know what should be included.

    • sweetscience says:

      Great idea! I will discuss this issue in a future post. For now, in addition to finding advice online, I wonder if you have some kind of postdoc advisor at your institution (office of postdoctoral affairs, etc.) who can advise you and/or bring in an expert for an informational session, since many junior people have to do this and don't know how.

  • Katie says:

    in the spirit of feedback - I enjoy reading your articles, however, the asterisk-side notes make the whole experience annoyingly difficult. You have to scroll down, read the side note, scroll back up, find the right paragraph again, sometimes four or five times in a post. Reading all the side notes at the end doesn't work, either.
    Can you work with different fonts, instead?

    • sweetscience says:

      Thanks for the feedback - I have felt that way reading others' posts, so why do I do it myself? I different font or some kind of inset might be a good idea - thanks again!

  • enginoob says:

    On your point * -> Yes! I served on a search committee this year and it was eye opening how much it mattered who else applied and other preferences of the committee/dept/dean the applicant has no control over. A late application pushed someone we liked a lot on the phone off the campus visit list. I'll say, it can be roller coaster on both sides. Good luck in your search.

  • When I applied, my first year on the market, I had two interviews but did not get an offer. I emailed both search committee chairs, thanked them for their time, and asked them if they had any advice on how I could improve as a candidate. Both of them asked me to call them, and gave me great feedback on things I should do or not do. My second year on the market, I got several offers and moved to ProdigalU.

    The other thing I took away is something enginoob said that was only reinforced by my experiences on search committees: as in everything else in life, there is a lot of "right place, right time" luck involved. I tell my students that it is their job to make themselves qualified for whatever they want next, and that after that there is always luck involved.

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