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I have recently applied to a postdoctoral position, I reached the interview stage (which took place by video conferencing with the group leader and a postdoc), and was ultimately rejected.

I would like to ask for some brief feedback so that I might be able to improve my future applications, but the only email exchanges I have had were with the HR/recruitment people during the application process (it is a nameless 'recruitment' office that got back to me with the outcome of the application).

Which route would be best for asking for feedback: -

(i) email the HR/recruitment people to ask if the group leader would be willing to provide some brief feedback

(ii) email the group leader directly (as I have no previous email contact with them, I would need to find the email address from their website)

Some pitfalls I can see to asking the HR people are: (a) that they may just not pass on the message if they are busy; (b) it could be more work for the group leader if not done directly with them; (c) they could ask the group leader in person who then forgets; (d) I am also a little worried that the HR office may pass on the message in a not very kind way (e.g. "X candidate wants to know if you can send feedback" - rather than the more polite email I could send directly thanking them for their time); (e) if there is any policy of not allowing panels to provide feedback.

Some pitfalls I can see to asking the group leader directly are: (a) it may not be taken very well since there is an online system in place and a recruitment person who manages the application process; (b) they may be even more busy than usual and dislike the direct interruption; (c) as I don't have their email address I would have to find this online, which doesn't look very casual - I would prefer not to come across as someone angrily looking for an explanation for why they have been rejected, I am genuinely just trying to improve my future chances of finding a position.

I am sure there are many other factors I haven't considered.

Finally, please can someone suggest any tips they may have for writing a request for feedback? What format of email would be least irritating for an interviewer aside from just being brief? Does anyone have direct experience of this (from either side)? Even anecdotes of things you may have received in the past that were particularly good/bad may be helpful.

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    I was once told by someone extremely senior in our field that there is really no point in asking for feedback, not over email or in person. He found such requests awkward and would simply ignore them. More general, I don't think you will ever get an honest reply on why you didn't get the job. Very often it also has nothing to do with your application or performance at all, but they simple found a person that was slightly more suitable for the job. – dsfgsho Nov 24 '15 at 15:49
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    It depends on the person being asked for feedback, when we were recruiting undergraduates and junior graduate students to our lab, I had no problem telling candidates why we didn't select them, so that they knew exactly what the issues were... – daaxix Nov 25 '15 at 17:17
  • @dsfgsho: Wow, what a downer thing to hear from someone. I on the other hand would be happy to give feedback in most situations, contingent on some reasonable things being in place (most of all, that I have already spent time evaluating the application/candidate, which must be the case here). So it seems that some people are willing to give feedback and others aren't. Either way, I don't see the harm in asking: they've already not given you the job... – Pete L. Clark Nov 25 '15 at 18:20
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Asking for feedback on your application from someone who has turned you down is generally unlikely to yield useful information, and it may annoy them by making them choose between saying something unsatisfying or not replying. Here are some of the issues that have run through my mind when I've been asked for feedback (which is not common but happens every once in a while):

  1. I wonder whether I'm dealing with someone argumentative or difficult, who will try to dispute my explanation or change my mind, use the feedback as evidence in an accusation of misbehavior or dishonesty, or misquote me to others. Even a perfectly reasonable applicant might feel upset if they re-apply next year and get rejected again after having felt they addressed all the issues I raised.

  2. In most cases there's nothing objectively wrong with an application. All I can say is "your application was good but we liked someone else's better", which is not informative.

  3. Comparisons with other applications are crucial, particularly with the successful application, but all the details of other applications are confidential. It's difficult to explain why we liked someone else's application better without revealing anything that isn't already public knowledge. There won't be a simple quantitative explanation ("you should have published two more papers in high-prestige journals"), but rather a subtle qualitative comparison that is difficult to summarize in the abstract.

  4. Furthermore, letters of recommendation are one of the most important parts of an application, and their contents should not be revealed to the applicant. It's tough to give useful feedback without touching on the letter contents, especially because most concerns I might mention would at least make it clear that the letters didn't resolve these concerns.

  5. In some cases, I can identify a problem with an application that is not based on letters of recommendation or direct comparisons with other applicants. However, these problems are often not easily fixable (e.g., "we just didn't find your paper topics interesting"). Pointing them out feels like adding insult to injury. It might be useful for the applicant to hear that they never had a chance at this job, but I don't want to be the one to say so. The best case scenario is that the applicant always remembers me as the person who delivered this insulting news, and the worst case scenario is that I make the committee look foolish if we misjudged the applicant.

It's only in rare cases that I have genuinely useful feedback, something fixable that I can ethically reveal to the applicant and that might make a real difference in the future. (This usually indicates that either the applicant's advisor is negligent or the applicant is not listening to advice.) I've never had someone ask for feedback in this situation, although it might happen someday. In a few cases I've tried to communicate this information through a backchannel, such as one of the applicant's letter writers.

In your case, there's almost certainly nothing seriously wrong with your application on paper, or you wouldn't have been interviewed. Assuming you didn't do anything dreadful during the interview, you presumably fall into the second case above (your application was good but another was even better), and I doubt anyone will be able to give you satisfying or useful feedback.

If you decide to ask for feedback, I'd recommend indicating that you are aware there might be little or nothing to say. For example, you could send a thank you e-mail and include something along the lines of "I realize that you may have no constructive feedback to offer beyond that another candidate was an even better fit for the position. However, should you happen to have any advice for how I can strengthen future applications, I would greatly appreciate it." This relieves the pressure by giving them an easy way to decline to say anything substantive, while bringing up the topic just in case. I don't think there's any need to do this, or that it is likely to result in useful feedback, but it can't hurt.

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Contrary to @dsfgsho's comment, I think you have everything to gain and nothing to lose by reaching out for feedback. It's admirable that you wish to improve yourself.

As for your reservations regarding this course of action,

  1. Had you been chosen, you would be working under this faculty person. You would be in some working relationship where daily communication would take place, and that person would be approachable to you. No number of sieves or layers between you in the recruitment process will diminish that fact.
  2. While true that faculty members are busy people, supervising their group members should be a large part of what they do. Obviously, one of the most influential phases in training a group member is choosing that person, and deserves a fair share of their valuable time. That said, you should allow a reasonable amount of time if you expect a reply. Depending on the time of the academic year, that could be as long as a number of weeks!
  3. Faculty members' e-mails are clearly published on the department website. There's good reason for that.

I believe that politely stating your aim and apprehensions, as you've expressed in your OP, are more than enough to warrant a courteous and informative response. I also believe that any person who mistreats prospective students who act as you do is not fulfilling their role as educators.

  • Down-voting without even a comment to explain why? not nice... – Inon Nov 25 '15 at 0:02
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    I largely agree with this answer, but the ending "any person who mistreats prospective students [...] is not fulfilling their role as educators" has more than a little hype in it. The role of a professor "as an educator" is precisely to educate students at his/her institution, nothing more or less. It is unreasonable to expect that responsibility to extend to "educating" anybody who comes asking no matter what question. So yes, it's okay to ask politely, and maybe they will reply, but the lack of an answer would not be any sort of mistreatment, nor an abdication of some sacred duty. – Dan Romik Nov 25 '15 at 3:17
  • (Disclaimer: I didn't downvote your answer :)) I am not convinced that being invited for a job interview comes even remotely close to a "working relation". In fact, most candidates are chosen solely based on their CV and research statement. It is not until the committee actually interviews you that they get some sense of who you are as a person, and what you might bring to the table for the open position. Being asked to interview for a job does not in any way imply any form of relation or responsibility from the hiring committee towards the candidates. – dsfgsho Nov 25 '15 at 14:54
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I imagine it might be less awkward if the interview hadn't been over Skype.

Maybe it would reduce the awkwardness a bit if you tested the waters a bit by writing an email to the group leader more or less along these lines:

Dear Prof. So-and-so,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to have my interview via Skype. As I/my spouse had just had a baby the week before, I really appreciated your flexibility, as it was really not a good time to be traveling.

I enjoyed hearing about the research program you have at X University. I will be attending such-and-so conference in April. Maybe I'll see you there!

If you get an answer, the tone of the answer would hopefully give you more of a feeling whether a request for feedback would be okay.

If you don't get any reply at all -- at least there's no harm done with a simple email of this type.

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    I doubt that such an email would give you a useful response, if any at all. – silvado Nov 25 '15 at 13:26
  • @silvado - this is intended as the preliminary step, not the actual request for feedback. Over skype things are so limited compared to an in-person visit, which might include a tour, some lunch, maybe some coffee later. My idea is that if the group leader sends a short friendly response to the feeler email, then the OP would feel more comfortable asking for feedback. – aparente001 Nov 25 '15 at 19:37

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