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Asking for feedback on job applications: attitudes and practices

Image: Feedback © Alan Levine CC BY 2.0

This post is jointly written by Steve Heard and Jacquelyn Gill, and appears in addition on Stephen’s blog Scientist Sees Squirrel.

Early this summer, we asked for your experience and your attitudes about the practice of candidates asking for feedback on their (unsuccessful) job applications (with respect to university/college academic jobs). We polled both job candidates and search committee members, and here we’ll report the results and give you some of our thoughts. We also hope you’ll leave your own thoughts and share your experiences in the Replies.

(1) It’s hard to write a poll

The first thing we realized is that it’s hard to write a poll. Yes, I can hear every social scientist ever born rolling their eyes; of course it is, they’re saying with exasperated sighs. Some of our questions were straightforward, but some were less so and we didn’t anticipate all possible answers*. More importantly, we didn’t think hard enough at the outset about the universe we wanted to sample from. In particular: were we asking about university jobs only? “Academic” or “research” jobs in government and at NGOs? (And are “academic” and “research” jobs the same thing?) Jobs in North America or jobs worldwide? (North American and UK searches, for instance, tend to follow very different procedures.) After some quick but belated thinking, we edited the post to define our interests as “university/college academic job market,” without limiting it by region. This doesn’t mean that we value jobs outside universities and colleges any less — we simply had to limit our sampling somehow, and those are the job searches we know best (and that inspired this post). Whether we got this circumscription right is arguable; after all, the North America/UK axis may explain as much or more variation as the university/NGO axis. (Thanks to Alex Bond for pushing us on this one). We’d love to hear, for example, if cultural norms differ by region or among industries — please feel free to make that point in the Replies!

(2) Asking for feedback is quite common

44% of responding candidates have asked for feedback after a job application, and 59% of search committee members have been asked. Steve was somewhat surprised to see just how common asking for feedback is. Jacquelyn, in contrast, wasn’t surprised, having been advised that it’s good to get feedback (in fact, she’s asked for feedback on several applications herself, and has also given it as a member of a search committee).

(3) People are more likely to ask someone they already know

Candidates are much more likely to ask for feedback from someone they already know. This isnít immediately obvious from the poll data, because those just report the number of asks:

Since the average candidate (left-hand plot) is likely to know only a small fraction of the academics who staff search committees, the 45% who asked at least one person they knew is presumably far above the rate expected at random. We donít know how to quantify this effect, though.

We’re not sure how to interpret the higher rate of familiarity when gauged from the search committee side (61%; right-hand plot), although amusingly, this is consistent with candidates forgetting that they’ve already met the search committee members they’re interacting with. Steve an embarrassing story along these lines, which he has told elsewhere. More likely, but less amusingly, it’s just the small sample size.

A bias towards asking for feedback inside pre-existing relationships might be read as implying candidates are being sneaky about it, but we don’t think that’s the case. We suspect it’s more of a comfort thing (Jacquelyn’s personal anecdata support this). Most candidates ask either the Chair of the search committee or the Chair of the department, which is completely consistent with an above-board communication strategy:

(4) Asking for feedback works — a little bit.

To Steve’s considerable surprise, most candidates who ask for feedback get some. Over 80% of respondents who were asked for feedback provided some — although the bulk of those gave what they categorized as ‘limited’ feedback:

What we don’t know, and should have asked, is whether the asking candidates were satisfied with this limited feedback. We think it’s quite likely that they weren’t. In Steve’s experience, candidates given a small bit of feedback have nearly always asked for more, with the cycle repeating longer than was comfortable. (He’s not blaming the candidates; this was his own inclination when he was on the job market, too). We also don’t know what the ‘limited’ information might have been — if it’s only “There were X candidates; we interviewed Y of them and the one we hired was the one we felt had the best fit,” then it’s probably not much better than no information at all.

Jacquelyn, as both a giver and a receiver of job-market feedback, stresses that some things, like “fit,” are real but difficult to take advantage of in reshaping your approach to future applications. Other things, such as “we would like to see more first-author papers this far out of your PhD,” or “you didn’t have a good sense of your future research directions, so we didn’t feel like you were read for a tenure track position,” are more specific and actionable.

(5) Candidates and search committee members who avoid feedback agree on why

For both candidates who donít ask for feedback and search-committee members who donít answer when asked, by far the most common reason was thinking such discussions are inappropriate. Relatively few respondents took the stronger position that such discussions were not allowed. A few candidates didnít want to know, while a fair number of search committee members wanted to avoid the awkwardness of saying, which we think is conflict avoidance seen from both ends.

On this point, Steve has learned something. It is true that at some institutions, HR policies forbid the giving of feedback to candidates**. However, at many institutions there is no such proscription. Some organizations even require the provision of feedback to unsuccessful candidates who ask for it (for instance, the Canadian federal government); others require the provision of feedback whether candidates ask for it not (for instance, Norwegian state-funded universities***). Steve will hereby back down from “don’t ask for feedback” as categorical advice, although he’s still firmly in the camp that prefers not to offer it (for reasons discussed in the original post). Jacquelyn, in contrast, was happy to see that her support for asking for (and giving) feedback was not an outlier perspective —  when constructive, it can be a useful piece of information as we work on revising and refining our job market performance.

However, Steve doesn’t think candidates should take this as carte blanche to ask away. A large fraction of search committee members (and of candidates) think asking for, or offering, feedback is inappropriate. Given that, Steve suggests candidates should balance the (perhaps limited) value of receiving the feedback against the costs of taking an action search committees may find inappropriate. This is, though, a much more nuanced position that he took in the original post! And Jacquelyn thinks that the benefits will usually outweigh the risks — they’ve already turned you down for a job, after all. You may not get meaningful feedback, or even a response, but if you do learn something useful, that could make all the difference for future applications. If you’re that concerned, she recommends reaching out to someone you know in the department (even if you’re not on the search committee).

Steve and Jacquelyn agree on one thing: if you do ask, be gracious, and consider phrasing your question in a way that gives the person you’re asking an out: “Thank you so much for the opportunity to meet with your department. If you have any feedback on my performance (e.g., job talk, teaching seminar), that would be really helpful ñ though no worries if you aren’t allowed to or would rather not.”

Concluding thoughts

Perhaps the best summary of all this is that attitudes about job-market feedback are quite mixed, with asking for or giving feedback widely, but far from universally, suspected of being inappropriate (and Jacquelyn hypothesizes that this may be generational — another data point we didn’t get!). Despite this, the practice of asking for feedback (and giving at least limited feedback) is not uncommon. Whether it’s helpful or not, we leave to the discussion.

Like a lot of things, it’s easy to jump to an opinion on job-market feedback and not realize there are other viewpoints. Steve seems to have done this with respect to the supposed inappropriateness of asking for feedback. He suspects job applicants have done the same, thinking about feedback as something due to them. Some commenters on Twitter, for example, suggested things like “applying for jobs is a lot of work, so applicants deserve some feedback” — but this doesn’t seem to acknowledge the search-committee side of things. As someone who has been recently on both sides of the interviewing table, Jacquelyn wants to stress that search committees are a lot of work, too (and by the way, being on a search committee in grad school was far more valuable than any job search feedback she’s been given). Feedback on practice job talks, materials, and teaching is something you should aim to get at all stages of the process — not just after the interview.

We hope that the (admittedly unscientific) data we’ve gathered help both candidates and search-committee members understand the variety of viewpoints out there. The job-search process is full of awkwardness and stress and angst; we’d be very pleased if our data can reduce this, even a little.

© Stephen Heard and Jacquelyn Gill September 6, 2017

Thanks to all who voted and commented!

Categories: Academia Professional Development Tips & Tricks

Tagged as: blogging culture of science job polls

Jacquelyn Gill

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