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This year I went on the job market early (one year before the end of my postdoc). I applied selectively but to about 30-40 positions across a few countries. I had one campus interview. After the campus interview, I asked for feedback and the only information I got from the hiring committee chair was vague praise and that the department just chose someone else.

Is there a better way for me to try to obtain feedback about what happened while I was on the market or about my file? I feel lost on how I can possibly make my file better without a second set of eyes.

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    What type of feedback are you looking for? For the position with an on-campus interview, they clearly felt you were a potential hire. But, what distinguishes the final choice from the interviewees can be hard to quantify in a way that is actionable by those not hired. – Jon Custer Mar 6 '18 at 18:42
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    Did you apply to places where you know people? Potentially they can tell you something like "so-and-so's letter was not so great" or "I tried to get you an interview, but others felt your research is not focused enough". – Thomas Mar 6 '18 at 18:47
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    On top of what @JonCuster said, some departments have a "no-feedback policy" for different reasons, but mostly because 1) nobody on the search committee is willing to spend time writing detailed feedback emails to rejected applicants, and 2) the simple fact that you got an interview is already very encouraging (it is the most difficult step, in terms of the ratio of number of applicants versus number of interview invitations) so their feedback would probably just be something like "keep trying". – Guillaume Mar 6 '18 at 18:49
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    I'm probably getting to close to the "American way of thinking positively no matter what", but there is no such thing as a failed tenure-track job search: it was just a first attempt, and hopefully you learned a lot from it. Your future applications will be better, you will be more apt to identify where and how to apply, you are more organized, etc. – Clément Mar 6 '18 at 19:17
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    This is more of a future advise and does not answer your question: for the next round, knock on the door of all the faculty of your current school. Asked them if they have ever been on a search committee, and if they are willing to take a look at your application and give you honest feedback on the weaknesses of your application. Most people do, even those you haven't talked to before. You can also ask for general suggestion for applying strategies and networking that would help your application. – stochastic Mar 6 '18 at 20:51
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I think I have basically three advices (and I feel like you already know them):

  1. Don't overthink it. There are millions of reasons why you may not have been a good fit for the position you applied to, and only a small fraction of them depends on you. Internal politics and unspoken needs play sometimes more than the content of your application. Don't blame yourself, that's the best way to get discouraged without being able to take action.

  2. If possible, get inside feedback. If you knew someone in the department where you applied before applying, you may ask them (preferably in a clever way, i.e., not "Why didn't you hire me?" but "Do you have any suggestions for how I could be a stronger candidate in the future?", as pointed by Kimball). You may not get a honest feedback, you may get a disappointing answer ("Well, actually, the chair wanted to hire the lecturer from the beginning"), but it doesn't hurt to ask.

  3. Look for fresh eyes. If you have a friend or a close colleague in the field, ask him / her to review your application (resume, cover letter, statements), your job talk, your teaching presentation (if there was one), and the list of places where you applied. That's the best kind of feedback you can obtain.

If the search committee answered your cold email with a "generic answer", don't insist. You'll never get more details, except, maybe, in a decade or two, at a conference, in a negligent way, by someone who work there.

Also, you may want to look in a couple of months at the listing of the department: you may spot who actually got the job, and compare your profiles. This information may or may not be useful, but it may to some extend satisfy your curiosity

  • spot who actually got the job, and compare your profiles What if their decision seems puzzling? – Thomas Mar 7 '18 at 1:31
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    @Thomas : then you'll definitely know that you weren't told everything about the position, or that they had particular needs, and / or weird criteria. But you'll know for sure that it wasn't your profile that wasn't "strong enough", you just was not the best fit. – Clément Mar 7 '18 at 15:10
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    Regarding the last point, while it's a good thing to do in general, it may or may not have anything to do with how a candidate is selected once the interview stage is reached. – Kimball Mar 10 '18 at 18:25
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First off, comiserations on the unsuccessful job search. I'm still going through my own job search.

I can tell you how I have had some very limited success in getting feedback:

  1. Apply to departments where you know people, even if you don't think there's a chance of getting a job there. That way people you know and trust get to see your application, which crucially includes the recommendation letters. Seeing your whole application means they can give you helpful feedback. In particular, if one of your letters is so-so, they can tell you. Of course, they won't tell you too much due to confidentiality, but they can tell you if some letter was a bit bland or if your application on the whole seemed too narrow or something like that.
  2. After an interview, ask for feedback from the person you know best in the department. Don't ask the department head or search chair -- they are too busy to give meaningful feedback, too senior to sympathize with you, and too smart to risk getting in trouble by leaking confidential information. Ask someone who you know that doesn't have an official role in the hiring decision.

Don't expect much in terms of helpful feedback, but anything you get is valuable.

(I've been interviewing in computer science departments, so the story may be a bit different for math.)

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The fact that you've gotten to the interview stage but no further might also be because of your job talk.

I think you might want to get someone of sound judgement in your current institution to look at your presentation.

I say this because I have seen more than one promising candidate flush their chances right down the drain with an ill-planned talk. In the current hyper-competitive environment, even one mistake might be one too many.

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    Op had only 1 campus invitation, so I guessed (s)he gave only 1 job talk, so I'm afraid something is flawed with your premises. On top of it, I don't see how you can tell that the job talk decides everything: refusing to teach certain classes, interacting poorly with the people you meet, being too nervous during lunch… There are multiple ways to "miss" a campus visit. And, as I wrote, not getting the job doesn't mean that you "missed" your visit, it just means that someone else was a better fit, and the reasons for that could be numerous, and independent from the quality of your visit. – Clément Mar 10 '18 at 18:28
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    @Clément, your points are valid, but it is also the case that a clumsy job-talk can be fatal... – paul garrett Mar 10 '18 at 18:33
  • @Clément I have modified my answer slightly, but the basic point stands. – user_of_math Mar 10 '18 at 18:36

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