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I recently applied for a postdoc position at a research institute in the UK via their job portal. I didn't contact the PI in advance because the job advert was already posted. However, after 3 weeks, I still didn't hear back from them & when I checked my status though the job portal, the status was indicated as "closed". I emailed the HR yesterday and was informed that I was not shortlisted as they felt I do not have the skills or experience for the position. Technically, I would say that my skills are probably around 70% of what was required for the position as the field is quite different (viral immunology in PhD VS cancer immunology in job application) but I'm really interested in the potential projects in the lab and I want to learn the new methods to be introduced there. My question is:

  1. Should I have contacted the PI before submitting my application?
  2. In such research institutions, how involved is the PI in screening applicants? Or does the HR first pre-screen the applicants before passing them to the PI?
  3. Should I email the PI now to inquire if he/she is open to discussing my application?
  4. Additionally, would a higher expected salary affect my application? I was required to input the expected salary in their online form, and I stated quite a higher range than what they offered but indicated it as negotiable

Thank you.

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    Please try to limit the question to one single issue, otherwise it might get closed due to being to broad.
    – Sursula
    Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 13:28
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    I expect that what was communicated to you by HR is actually feedback from the PI or at least a boilerplate text based on the PI's decision. I also assume that contacting the PI before submitting the application would not have helped. (But I'm extrapolating from my experience as a PI at a German research institute.)
    – user9482
    Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 13:35
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    Regarding 4): Salaries in UK universities are set on a fixed scale. It's possible to negotiate within the given "spine point" or range that is stated, but usually not for anything higher, especially not significantly higher. Remember that healthcare in the UK is free, which (perhaps) justifies slightly lower salaries. Besides, salary negotiation is usually best left til you have the job offer in hand. Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 15:38
  • "but I'm really interested in the potential projects in the lab and I want to learn the new methods to be introduced there" Those are reasons why you would benefit from having your applications reconsidered. You would need to give them reasons why they should reconsider it. Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 11:27
  • One other point on UK hiring rules is that in many cases they are very prescriptive. I'm not sure if it's universal, but at our institute once a post is advertised we are not allowed to recruit someone who doesn't fully meet all the required criteria - even if the candidate is 'close' or there's other compensating factors. And this can be very prescriptive, down to e.g. enumerating months of 'research experience' if you specify a particular level of experience. So if there was a required criteria you didn't clearly satisfy, that might have led to an automatic rejection. Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 12:15

3 Answers 3

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This is based on my experience as a former physics postdoc in the US and Germany, and advice I got from my advisors.

Should I have contacted the PI before submitting my application?

Probably not. There are some cases where it makes sense for you talk to a PI before submitting an application -- for example, if you or your advisor are collaborators with the PI, you might mention you are applying for the position. However, in general, you don't need to send emails to PIs when you submit an application, and PIs aren't expecting to get personalized emails from everyone who applies.

Your advisor probably has more sway here anyway. I mean that in two senses -- (a) their advice will be better than generic internet advice, and (b) them contacting the PI will probably mean more than you contacting the PI, in the cases where it makes sense for either of you to do so.

In such research institutions, how involved is the PI in screening applicants? Or does the HR first pre-screen the applicants before passing them to the PI?

What I have heard from professors is that they go through all of the postdoc applications by themselves. There is usually a first "minimum cut" to weed out applications that are obviously irrelevant. Maybe in some cases that minimum cut is easy enough that it can be farmed out to an HR person, but I doubt it since there is usually some nuance in what is most relevant for each position.

Should I email the PI now to inquire if he/she is open to discussing my application?

No. If you've been rejected for the position, then that's the end of the story. Sending an email to the PI is at best awkward, but could be seen as unprofessional or like you are harassing them.

Additionally, would a higher expected salary affect my application? I was required to input the expected salary in their online form, and I stated quite a higher range than what they offered but indicated it as negotiable

Almost always a postdoc salary is limited by available funds, so you normally only have a very limited range where it's possible to negotiate a postdoc salary, if at all.

I would guess that in all likelihood, the professor reading your application didn't consider salary when making a decision, and was more interested in whether you would make a good fit for their research group. If you asked for a truly outrageous sum, there's a chance the professor rejected you based on that, but I suspect that if they really liked you for the position they would at least talk to you to see how firm your salary expectations were.

I doubt it was a deciding factor.

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    On salary, I think it probably depends on the number and quality of applications. I doubt any PI is going to toss the one suitable application they get over salary concerns, but on the other hand, if they have 6 candidates that seem like a good fit, and one of them has an unreasonable salary expectation, I bet most would focus on the other 5, especially if they had a past hiring experience where they spent time on an applicant only to have them reject the job over salary demands that the PI may not even have authority to negotiate.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 21:59
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    @BryanKrause That's a good point. I guess it seems so strange to me that a postdoc application would even ask about salary expectations, that I was assuming that this must be a boilerplate question tacked on to every job application for this institution, which the PI might just ignore when reviewing applications. But I certainly agree that a postdoc usually does not have room to negotiate for a salary outside a narrow range.
    – Andrew
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 0:19
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Should I have contacted the PI before submitting my application?

There is no reason to believe that preliminary contact would have made you any more qualified for this position. The PI will typically try to stay at "arms length" from applicants prior to the actual assessment of applications, so it is unlikely they would give you any additional information of assistance. At best they might have been willing to let you know in advance that you do not appear to meet the qualifications (though usually they would be reluctant to do even this).

In such research institutions, how involved is the PI in screening applicants? Or does the HR first pre-screen the applicants before passing them to the PI?

This depends on the institution and may even vary by department. In cases where there are a large number of applications there might be a pre-screening before it gets to the PI. In cases where the number of applicants is small then the PI might review all applications from the start of the process.

Should I email the PI now to inquire if he/she is open to discussing my application?

Since you have been rejected, you should not seek any discussion re-assessing your application. If you were rejected by a pre-screening prior to getting to the PI then this means that you are a weak applicant compared to the ones that went through pre-screening. (If there was pre-screening, this exists for a reason; the PI is not going to want to review applicants that did not get through this phase of the process.)

If you would like more information on the weaknesses in your application, you could ask for more feedback on this, but it is unlikely to involve an actual discussion. At best they might elaborate a bit on your rejection, but even this is unlikely. (Modern HR systems are quite averse to giving much feedback on failed applicants, in case they say something that is open to challenge.) In any case, you seem to already have a reasonable understanding of areas in which you did not meet the selection criteria, so this is probably not going to be helpful.

Additionally, would a higher expected salary affect my application? I was required to input the expected salary in their online form, and I stated quite a higher range than what they offered but indicated it as negotiable.

Yes, this would be a factor. If you ask for a salary above the stated range then they would be expecting a high-quality applicant, and even then, it might not be possible for them to expand their budget for the position.

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The term "research institute" spans a lot of possibilities: if this is a glorified research group within a university, then the usual considerations about getting a fixed-term postdoc in academia will apply - see Andrew's answer (mostly).

However the process for a PSRE or industrial facility will be very different: e.g. commercial organisations will not be keen to discuss ongoing and future projects and funding. There are still outposts of the Civil Service where any direct a priori contact with individual candidates will be seen as improper.

I would be very surprised if the hiring manager within any large organisation actually got an unfiltered pile of CVs, just because of the number to wade through. You should assume that a generic HR person will sanity check all applications, with variable results (I've heard of people being invited by the PI to apply, but their CV never getting through the system!).

If a salary band is indicated in the advert, specifying a higher number implies that you're not really interested in the job as advertised which is exactly the excuse the front-line staff will have for a rejection. In my experience, getting any sort of feedback at all is doing well - 75% of my applications (through portals in response to posted vacancies) never got any reply. Unis and state institutes are generally better.

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