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Lately, I have given a couple of interviews for Integrated Ph.D. programs in Physical Science. On some I was selected, while on others I was rejected. But I find only trifling differences between these interviews. Whenever I gave answers, they'd say, good and so on. I gave all of the questions asked a similar response. I don't quite understand how they actually selected the candidate then?

The ones where I'm not selected are the important ones for me, I have another chance and I don't want a similar case as before. If they give a similar response, I have no way of knowing what's going on?

So is it all right if I mail them and ask why they didn't select me? Is it appropriate to ask something like that? I just want to improve my chances, that's all.

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  • 41
    A lot of our successes in life, and a lot of our failures, are due to little more than pure chance. You may be looking for a causal explanation where there simply isn’t any. Related video.
    – Dan Romik
    Jul 3 at 5:39
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    It could happen that two places have exactly the same opinion of you, but one has another stronger candidate and the other doesn't. Or it could happen that one selection committee has a member who particularly liked your answer to a certain question, but another committee has a member who particularly disliked the same answer. So, as @DanRomik said, there's a lot of randomness involved. Jul 3 at 13:41
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    Good interviewers know that giving "instant feedback" during an interview is a bad strategy to discover what the interviewee is really like. They will "say 'good' and go on" even if your answer was complete nonsense.
    – alephzero
    Jul 3 at 18:18
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    Interviews aren't typically to see how many questions you get "correct", they are about making a comparison between different applicants.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 3 at 21:38
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    An interview isn't a test or exam - it's a competition. If you are not successful, it's because someone else was. It's not that you did anything wrong, necessarily - only that there was someone else who did things better, or at least made a better impression on the interviewers.
    – J...
    Jul 6 at 11:43
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As mentioned in this answer, you can say:

Do you have any suggestions for how I could be a stronger candidate in the future?

I think it is unlikely you will get a useful answer, but you might.

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    Just one data point, but: I've asked this once, and I did get a useful answer.
    – gerrit
    Jul 5 at 12:49
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    @gerrit You came in that rare likely cases. As for me, I even didn't get a reply. Jul 5 at 15:11
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You should not ask. It is extremely unlikely to produce anything useful, but will probably make the interviewer uncomfortable. Instead, try to arrange for a mock interview with a mentor who is familiar with your background, and get feedback from them.

Many potential weaknesses would require long-term actions for improvement or are even unchangeable, and thus feedback there isn't going to be actually actionable for you. Better grades in your previous studies, more research experience, etc.

The most useful information for you would be situations where you've failed to bring your existing strengths across. Learning of this is immediately actionable for your next interview. But an interviewer cannot identify these situations, because by definition they remain unaware of the relevant strength. Keep in mind that PhD admission interviewers are trying to determine whether you are a good fit for their PhD programme, not whether you interview well. So if they can isolate a pure interview mistake, they'll probably attempt to correct for that anyway.

Besides the issue that discussing someones failure is awkward anyway, interviewers might also be worried that you want to hear the reasons for rejection not in order to improve yourself, but in order to either argue with them about the decision or to appeal it. Given this risk, and given the difficulties in providing useful feedback, I suppose that you'll hear some variation of "Unfortunate we cannot provide detailed feedback to unsuccessful candidates. We wish you all the best in your future endeavours" if you ask.

(I would expect my answer to be broadly applicable, but my concrete experience with this is UK-based.)

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    Is this India-specific experience? I believe in UK-based universities, any interview decision comes with an offer for feedback (tho as many answers here point out, it might be very vague and not useful). However, one of my best interview experiences (unsuccessful unfortunately; in the Netherlands) not only encouraged me, the candidate, to schedule a call with the head of the interview panel for feedback, but the head of the panel actually provided very useful, direct, and on-point feedback (gotta love the dear, direct Dutch).
    – penelope
    Jul 4 at 11:25
  • @penelope No, my experience is actually at UK universities.
    – Arno
    Jul 4 at 12:54
  • Interesting. As I said, all my UK interviews came with offers for feedback (mentioned before the interview itself I think). Nothing as direct as "we will highlight the areas where you were lacking" (which would be a bit inappropriate to ask I think), but asking if you could "the panel/chair has any feedback about your interview" would be completely normal and acceptable. Acceptable to ask that is; to which degree it will get answered depends... on many things.
    – penelope
    Jul 4 at 12:58
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    While not quite the same I have interviewed many employees for industry positions. The few times they asked why they weren't selected my answer was always "We had a stronger candidate apply." Which was always the truth and an answer which could not be used against us in a lawsuit, but also always probably distinctly unhelpful for them. Jul 4 at 18:22
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    I believe specifically for UK based interviews, you have the right under GDPR legislation to request feedback as to why you were rejected for a position.
    – Paddy
    Jul 5 at 11:42
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It is quite OK to ask for feedback after an unsuccessful interview. Ask the lead academic who asked the questions - not the HR administration. Yes, academics are overworked and get too many emails, but most of them recognise that if they've turned someone down for an important position they at least owe the unsuccessful candidate a couple of minutes to write a quick email.

The answer may well be unhelpful:"You were OK but another candidate was better" or "We were looking for someone with a deeper theoretical background" (or perhaps "a more practical background"). But there is a small but nonzero chance of getting some useful information, about your CV or your interview style, and if that happens it will be really valuable.

What you must absolutely not do is argue with their advice if they give it. It won't be pleasant and it may seem to you that they've misjudged you ("How can they say I don't have a theoretical background when I got 95% on QM345! Didn't they read my CV?") Don't argue, just thank them and move on.

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    On your last point: when the feedback seems off the mark, this might be an occasion to think about communication style. Interviewers want to find good candidates; if you're strong in a relevant area and they couldn't see that strength, perhaps you need to be a little clearer in highlighting it. Jul 3 at 23:08
  • +1. I know it's not academia, but in our provincial government (Ontario, Canada), we offer a debrief to candidates that request one. This helps candidates understand where they could improve and what skills/experience to work on. They have been very helpful for me.
    – Nova
    Jul 6 at 1:31
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You can ask, but I doubt that you will learn anything that would make you a better candidate in future. The reason is that there are probably a limited number of slots and some competition for all of them, especially at the margins. My best guess is that they just thought more highly of someone else. They might say that much, but would probably be restrained from saying anything more. In particular, they won't discuss any comparisons with the person(s) who end up being accepted.

Very few institutions can accept all applicants and you probably wouldn't want to go there if they did.

The differences between candidates can be very subtle, and depend on the individual views and preferences of interviewers and others in the process. So, it isn't that you are "bad" in some way, probably quite good or you wouldn't get an interview at all. But someone else was judged better, perhaps on somewhat intangible criteria. In some places the competition is very steep.

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Other people have given some great answers. I know which place you got rejected from and why it matters a lot. I also got rejected from there and I would like to tell you certain things I have found out since then:

  1. The interview committee you get matters more than you think. I have heard that very experienced professors may underestimate the knowledge of their undergrad interviewees, and their grade tends to be inflated. Young professors on the other hand make things too stringent sometimes. Let me give you an example: I talked to a friend who got selected and (s)he gave me a list of questions (s)he had been asked:

a) What is the partition function? b) Calculate mean energy of this system from the partition function. Also calculate Cv c) Random walk problem in one dimension. d) Solve the SE for a particle in a bound state of a finite potential barrier, what is transmission probability. e) Problem on blackbody radiation considering Stefan's law.

I forget the rest.

What was asked of me?

a) Where do electrons reside in any element, say silicon? b) If I take a piece of silicon and shed light of a constant intensity on it with a potential applied around it, draw graph of frequency vs current. c) (Dis)Prove that there will always be a bound state in a potential well of arbitrary shape. d) Draw the ground state wavefunction for an arbitrary potential well. e) Why do we keep using the momentum eigenfunctions in calculations when they are non-normalizable. (The answer was not just that for simplicity, a wavepacket with a good spike can be approximated to be a plane wave) e) Question completely unrelated to physics, related only to logic, mathematics and calculus, which took me around 3-4 minutes to grasp completely.

Now I could be totally biased, and I am sure to a certain degree I am. But I think the second set of questions was considerably harder than the first one. In no way do I claim that my knowledge is more/less than my friend. That is irrelevant. But interview committee really matters.

  1. Your score in the qualifying exam carries a weightage. Even if you were the best during the interviews, a low score in the qualifying exam hampers your chances of acceptance.

  2. Online interviews, personally for me can turn out counterproductive. I was solving things on shared screen, and most people were solving things on pen and paper and only showing results. If you get stuck on a shared screen, that has a way of sending a bad message to the committee. Stuck on paper, who knows?

I hope this answer helped you.

Of course there is the fact that you and I were just not competent enough for the place, but that is not the only thing we should be thinking of while analyzing rejections in academia.

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  • Do I know from somewhere? Jul 5 at 11:37
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    you from somewhere?
    – Sarthak
    Jul 5 at 12:35
  • Do I know, Why did you said, I know which place you got rejected from and why it matters a lot. I also got rejected from there and I would like to tell you certain things I have found out since then. Jul 5 at 13:10
  • Oh actually integrated PhD and mattering a lot lead you to only one place in India if you like physics :)
    – Sarthak
    Jul 5 at 13:38
  • And What that is? Jul 5 at 14:08

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