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Well, I didn’t get the job. I thought the campus visit was great, but in the end the offer went to someone else. Can I contact the department to find out why?
If you made it to the campus-visit stage, then yes, in my opinion, you can contact the search-committee chair or department chair and ask for some feedback on your candidacy.
But there’s a caveat: You have to stick to general, non-desperate sorts of questions. Questions like: “I would like to ask if you can provide any feedback on my materials or visit that would provide insight as I move forward in my job search.”
I’ll be honest here. I believe that most recipients of such emails probably will not respond at all. Or if they do write back, they’ll refrain from providing any substantive feedback. There are two reasons for this. The first is the embarrassment and awkwardness that many faculty feel in the face of unsuccessful candidates for their positions. They would just as soon you quietly disappear. And then, for those willing to talk, it is likely that HR or affirmative-action rules will prevent them from sharing anything very specific.
But even vague feedback can be enormously helpful. I want to encourage job seekers to request it, and search-committee or department chairs to provide it. If a phone call is more comfortable than an email trail, do it that way.
When I was a search chair, and even more when I was a department head, I used to long for certain candidates to contact me afterward so I could alert them to their major bloopers. I didn’t go into great detail. But I was able to share a few general points that the candidates really, desperately needed to know about basic serious errors in their approaches. It is vital not to be “nice.” Be honest, within the limits of appropriateness: “Your job talk was not well organized, and you seemed unprepared for many of the questions.” “You did not relate your research very clearly to the stated foci of the job ad.” “You didn’t seem to have given much thought to new classes in the area we’re trying to develop.” “It was difficult to determine your publication trajectory.”
Nothing mean or aggressive or gratuitous is necessary here. Just make some factual observations about the outcomes of the visit. I personally think it is an ethical obligation for department or search chairs to provide this kind of feedback to an unsuccessful candidate seeking information.
To candidates, I say: If you’ve made it to the campus-visit stage, ask for this feedback. (If you’ve not made it to this stage, though, you should refrain.) Ask without emotionalism that would put the recipient in an awkward position—remember, she will usually feel really, really awful about the people the committee has had to reject. And stay focused not on your own grief and regret about The Job That Got Away (as difficult as that is, I know), but on the things you can do moving forward.
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