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I recently applied to the CERN prestigious Fellowship program (Programme des Boursiers). A few words on my background: I am a PostDoc in Algorithms/TCS/Network Systems. I have > 10 papers and 2 years of PostDoc experience and I really thought I am a very good fit for that position. I was asked to provide 3 recommendation letters and my advisors where very happy to provide them. I provided a detailed letter on why I consider my expertise fit for the purpose of CERN.

I received a message "After very careful consideration of your application, we regret to inform you that we are not able to offer you a position at the present time."

The rejection e-mail did not include absolutely no evaluation information, in the form of a score or text, as to why my application and my file were rejected. After sending an e-mail to the Recruitment Service, I received the unclear answer that “we don’t have any personal feedback to give, but this decision in no way reflects your abilities.” At this point, I kindly protested to this very vague answer for the following reasons:

  • This is a job description for highly qualified candidates. It is a common practice, even in private companies, to give a small personal feedback. This serves many purposes, for example to consider the possibility to apply again or not, and also on a personal level so the candidate does not feel completely ignored. Given the profile and the importance of the job, I would have hoped some short explanation based on some evaluation criteria, but absolutely nothing was given to me.
  • I still do not know if this is a matter of fitting in the needs of CERN, or that my qualifications were considered low, with respect to the other candidates, or both, or any other reason. I have absolutely no clue regarding whether or not I should considered re-applying to this position in the future.

After that, the Recruitment Service hinted that my profile was not as good as the other candidates, and that “Fellowship positions cover a wide spectrum of projects and scientific domains for which there are different suitable profiles so the selection criteria can vary depending on the project. Not being selected doesn’t necessarily mean that your qualifications aren’t suitable for CERN but that the projects currently available require different profiles so I encourage you to reapply in the future if you wish to do so.” At this point, it is natural to ask, which are these mentioned project? Why they were not mentioned in the job description page so I can judge in a better way if I am a good fit or not (and so that the professors that provided the letters and a better clue on what to write to support my application). I asked to provide a complete list of these projects but, unfortunately, the recruitment service decided to completely ignore my request.

  • At a relevant point, it is not known to me who is the “Selection Committee” that decided to reject my application. I have no idea on which are these members (and also which are their criteria of acceptance a file).

Given that this is a job offer from a public founded institution, I expect that claims and hints that “The number of post-doctoral applicants exceeds by far the number mentioned in your email and most of them come from distinguished universities around the world with very high qualifications”, that directly hints that my qualifications are low with respect to other candidates, to be supported by concrete evidence, otherwise this directly raises an issue of transparency, which is of the utmost importance in such public institutions.

Still, I have no clue (among other things) on how I compare with the selected candidates both in fitting and in qualifications.

The Recruitment Service wrote that “ Transparency is a value highly appreciated at CERN so if you have any more questions don’t hesitate to come back to me.” After I raised my particular and above mentioned issues, my queries were completely ignored, so this statement made by your service is completely worthless.

  • A more serious issue is that the 3 professors that provided me recommendation letters ask me why I was not selected and I do not have any answer to give them. I invested a respectable amount of obligation by asking these people to support my application so I assume that they deserve an answer for the decision. By not giving any feedback, either on the personal or on the professional level, these people will hesitate to provide again the same letters for a potential future application for obvious reasons.

  • The Recruitment Service politely encouraged me to re-apply “if I wish to do so”. I wonder, how it would be possible a rejected candidate to re-apply when crucial information is hidden from that candidate. How can I convince the professors that provided the recommendation letters to re-write them, when they have absolutely no clue on the criteria imposed by the selection committee and on the particular projects (that the committee decided that I am not a good fit for)? How could I improve my file and my CV so I can increase my chances? This is crucial and important information that your Organization decided, deliberately or not, to hide from me.

Unfortunately, 3 or more weeks after the rejection letter I was in complete dark as to why my application was rejected and which are the criteria of acceptance/rejection of the application (among other issues raised above). By just sending extremely vague and multi-purpose messages, that seemed completely automated to me, the service thought that they fulfilled their obligation. But given the profile of the job and the nature of the organization, I am afraid that these practices are not in due course with what is expected from an International Public Founded Organization.

Personally, I consider these issues extremely important for me, on a personal development level, as well as for CERN.

  • After that, I sent an official complaint to the HR department of CERN. I told them that I am willing to publish my experience with CERN so that everybody knows the treatment that I have received from such an international and public institution that takes pride from it's scientific discoveries.

3 weeks after sending the letter, I received an e-mail from an HR responsible person saying "After reviewing your application in detail and bringing your concerns to the attention of the Chair of the Fellows committee, I am able to inform you that the major weakness in your application was in its motivation. I stress that you were applying for a programme and not for a specific position. There is a huge amount of information about CERN, its activities, and the kinds of projects we do available on the CERN web site. We consider it essential that a candidate has informed themselves, and can show how their research is linked to the research at CERN. Unfortunately, you did not demonstrate that you had tried to inform yourself of our mission and activities and did not explain how your proposed research in applied mathematics could be relevant."

Right...

My Question: Is the behaviour of CERN normal? Is it OK (from a transparency point of view) that I have no clue who the Committee was, even after many mails exchanging? Is it normal that even after requested a list of successful candidates, I still have no info about it, so I can personally compare myself to the profiles of those they are accepted? Is it normal that still I have absolutely no clue about their selection criteria (besides the "motivation" part, which seems just like a poor excuse to me)?

EDIT most of the people confuse this situation with the admission system in US Universities. The situation is slightly more different in EU. For all public calls and openings, there should be a record of who applied, what are the criteria, how individuals scored under these well defined and known criteria and who was selected. This is true in virtually ALL European countries. I (apparently wrongly) assumed that I should be given at least a minimal feedback and information (that should be nevertheless available) on how I scored and which are the criteria, so that I could see if I could apply or not, on next round. The answer that I have received (after some mail exchanged and after stating that I would publicize my experience) does not satisfy me the slightest and seems just an arbitrary excuse to "get rid" of me. It saddens me that these practices are going to go unaffected and people at CERN can continue their, seemingly, arbitrary hiring process, not being accountable to anybody.

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    You are clearly upset. But, you have received feedback. Did it help you? You seem to believe it did not. What level of feedback are you expecting? A long detailed letter? I have had to go through a hundred applications for one position - it is a long slog with decisions made pretty quickly. – Jon Custer Jun 4 '16 at 17:42
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    Frankly, the demanding tone of above question would raise a red flag with an employer if it shone through during the feedback request (of course, the OP may just be venting here on SE). I know of cases where an applicant rejected in the first round was accepted at a later advertisement round, or cases where the rejected applicant later collaborated from outside with the group that rejected him; however, I would have thought it unlikely that this would have happened if the applicant would have radiated a sense of entitlement during the procedure, even if technically being in the right. – Captain Emacs Jun 4 '16 at 17:52
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    It is absolitely not common practice to give "small personal feedback" when interviewing in industry. I failed to get into Goldman Sachs about 2 or 3 times. In no case did I receive official feedback, only through a friend at GS. Had a I berserked after any of these rejections though like you appear to have, I wouldn't even have gotten one second chance. Also, we (my firm) did not provide helpful feedback either. It's a litigation risk, if nothing else. Asking for constructive feedback once is fine ("Anything I can do better?"), but you take whatever comes back, and shut up. – gnometorule Jun 4 '16 at 18:11
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    @PsySp Many here at SE have been in your position. Many here have applied to positions at some point and often not even heard back, not even so much as a short rejection. Even not from publicly funded institutions. The fact that your references ask you about your application shows they care about you - but this may have also created undue pressure on you to justify not being taken. There are a lot of highly talented people out there, with supportive mentors. I am sorry for your position, but it's more typical than not. If you are as talented as you imply, you will find something good soon. – Captain Emacs Jun 4 '16 at 19:03
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    From the same side: I've been rejected from literally hundreds of academic jobs in my life (mainly in the US, many public). None has offered any feedback whatsoever. I'd have been really grateful to have as much information as you got in the email you did receive - it's a bit harsh, but it points out a weakness they perceived in your application, which you evidently didn't notice yourself. You may feel you are entitled to more information, but the fact is that the standards of the academic community don't agree. – Nate Eldredge Jun 4 '16 at 20:49
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Yes, as someone who is a professor and university department chair (in the U.S.) and who is directly involved with recruitment processes, I can tell you that it is normal and, at least according to currently accepted norms, ethical. I can't address your complaints in detail, but you seem to be very misguided about many of your beliefs concerning academic recruitment processes, how they are and should be carried out, and how you as a job candidate should be treated. A few points that I think need to be clarified are the following:

  • Academic employers are not required to, and often have strong legal incentives not to, provide any feedback to applicants about their applications.

  • I am not aware of, and have never even heard of, any academic employer who uses an "evaluation matrix" or anything similar for a recruitment to an academic position at the postdoc level or higher. Evaluation for these positions doing very specialized kinds of research is highly subjective, with different applicants often being completely incomparable to each other in almost any imaginable parameter, and often members of the search committee and other academics participating in the search may disagree strongly about the ranking of applicants. Somehow, a decision is eventually reached, but there is a lot of arbitrariness in the process, which is something that (as I have witnessed on many occasions) is often hard for the people on the other end of the process to accept.

  • Even if the evaluation was less subjective and arbitrary and truly meaningful feedback could in theory be provided, in many cases the sheer number of applicants can make it completely impractical to respond to each one individually with this kind of feedback. Imagine being an overworked search committee chair having to review something like 700-800 application files (each one containing 30-40 pages of materials) to fill 3-5 positions, and you may start seeing what I mean. That is why many search committees will not even send rejected applicants an email notification to tell them they were not selected.

  • There is absolutely no reason for you to feel humiliated or embarrassed by not having feedback to relay to your letter-writers. If they are experienced academics, they must know that this is how the system works and will not be expecting any such information, or even if they are then surely they will understand that you cannot be blamed for not receiving such information to relay to them.

To conclude, I should add that there is nonetheless a kernel of philosophical, and perhaps legal, truth in your complaint and frustration. It is true that it is regrettable that employers can't offer job applicants useful feedback that helps them calibrate their approach and perhaps do better in the future, and having been in similar situations myself in the past, I certainly empathize, but that's how things currently stand. It is also true that having such a low level of accountability creates an opening for abuse of various sorts, which I'm sure does in fact exist in some places. Legally speaking, in some countries job applicants may have certain rights to demand disclosure of at least some of the information you ask for, either through filing a request or, in an extreme situation where they feel they have been gravely wronged, by filing a lawsuit. Even when the information is not provided, employers will often keep on record some information of this type for use in the event that they are called upon to defend their hiring decisions. My university certainly does. You may want to look into what legal rights you have and see if you have in fact treated in accordance with the law in your jurisdiction. At the same time, I think you need to understand that your current views about how much feedback you should be entitled to get are misguided and, frankly speaking, mostly wrong. In any case, good luck and I hope you have more success with future applications.

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    Thank you for your message. I would also like to add that prior my CERN application, I was probably "spoiled" in the sense that I was rejected by 1 PostDoc positions and 2 industry ones (both as research scientists on big corporations as Yahoo) and in all these 3 cases I have received actual feedback on why my application was unsuccessful, which actually helped me in my future steps. I was wrongly expecting something similar from a public institution, and this "magnified" my surprise on their behaviour – PsySp Jun 4 '16 at 22:19
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    @PsySp: Based on what you write, you currently hold a postdoc position and are/were applying for another one...and you have only been rejected from one other postdoc position? I am flabbergasted by this. In my experience, people apply for postdocs 20-100 or so at a time...of course because there is such a high rejection rate. Have you really not applied for any other postdocs at public institutions? – Pete L. Clark Jun 5 '16 at 17:23
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    The situation outside the US might be quite different. In Spain, for instance, all academic positions are awarded after a formally appointed commission scores the applications according to purportedly objective criteria. In most cases who the candidates are is published officially, the candidate rankings and scores are published, and the candidate evaluations are usually available upon formal request or formal protest. Similar systems are in place in much of Europe. Someone coming from such a system could find a typical US job application process opaque. – Dan Fox Jun 6 '16 at 7:55
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    @DanFox: that was exactly my point! This was what I expected and asked for and what I did NOT get (not even mildly). Thus my question. People judged my question based, mostly, on the US system of admission. – PsySp Jun 6 '16 at 8:30
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    @PsySp In short: please don't make this into a USA vs non-USA issue. I have worked in both North America and the UK and am aware of some differences. This, in my view is not one of them, and -- let me completely blunt -- I find the sense of entitlement in your whole post quite striking, regardless of whether you were fairly or unfairly treated by those to whom you applied. – Yemon Choi Jun 6 '16 at 22:47
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Yes, this is considered both normal and ethical.

Perhaps the most salient reason is that hiring/admissions decisions are based on direct comparisons between applicants, and application materials are strictly confidential. If my department doesn't hire you, we are forbidden to tell you that it's because we thought X, Y, and Z were better fits for the position — although that might very well be the precise reason — because we are forbidden to reveal who applied for the position. Of course, you might eventually notice that we eventually hired Y, but we are forbidden reveal Y's application materials, especially their reference letters, which we can't even reveal to Y.

(I'm deliberately using "better fit" to encapsulate all the metrics that people use to make hiring/admission decisions: GPA, standardized test scores, research statements, recommendation letters, teaching experience, publication and citation records, awards, specific research interests/skills/results, "pedigree", constraints imposed by funding agencies or university bureaucrats, demonstrated familiarity with the institution, behavior at the interview, and so on. Ultimately, every academic hiring decision is a judgement call; there isn't and can't be a hiring algorithm.)

We could legally say "Other applications were a better fit for the position than yours", but that's a rather obvious conclusion from the fact that we didn't hire you, and we're legally forbidden to provide evidence to back up that reasoning. If you don't find that explanation satisfying, there's really nothing we can do.

Another reason is that direct criticism in this context is just considered rude. The academic job market is highly competitive; for almost all applicants, most applications end in rejection. Unlike publications, where brutally honest feedback on the work is a necessary part of the process, critical feedback on your application is really about you, or at least your professional persona. Direct personal criticism, no matter how accurate, is much more likely to lead to hurt feelings (as demonstrated by your post) and possibly even lawsuits than criticism of any specific piece of work. (This argument is sometimes oversimplified as "CYA".)

The right people to give you direct critical feedback on your application are your advisor and/or close senior colleagues, not your prospective employers.

A more serious issue is that the 3 professors that provided me recommendation letters ask me why I was not selected and I do not have any answer to give them.

Actually, you have at least two reasonable answers:

  • "I don't know."
  • "What? Why are you asking me? You know these people better than I do!"

How could I improve my file and my CV so I can increase my chances?

Do better research. Publish better papers. Give better talks. Apply to more positions. Get brutally honest feedback on your application from your advisor and other experienced colleagues, and take that criticism seriously. Contact colleagues at your target institutions in advance to get a clearer picture of their needs, goals, and culture.

Accept that you will not, and cannot, have complete information about hiring criteria at any particular institution; you can only increase your chances on average across the field. Accept that neither you nor anyone else deserves any particular position.

Unfortunately, you did not demonstrate that you had tried to inform yourself of our mission and activities and did not explain how your proposed research in applied mathematics could be relevant.

Your response ("Right.") suggests that you don't find this explanation credible. That is a very serious mistake.

[I am the recruiting committee chair at a highly-ranked computer science department, at a public university in the U.S. Our hiring processes are scrutinized to ensure compliance with state and federal employment laws, in particular: (1) that we have a fair, consistent, and internally well-documented decision process, and (2) that applications are strictly confidential.]

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    "we're legally forbidden to provide evidence to back up that reasoning": in certain countries (mine, for instance) an applicant can formally ask to review the proceedings of a public selection process, which should contain the assessments of the candidates as given by the committee. Sometimes, this is the first step toward an appeal against the committee's decision. However, as I stated in a comment above, even if this were possible in the OP's case, I would advise against such a request. – Massimo Ortolano Jun 4 '16 at 20:53
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    Additional possible answer to the references: "I don't know. Do you have time to review my application to see if you have any ideas?" – Patricia Shanahan Jun 4 '16 at 21:45
  • @Patricia Shanaha. I was in fact encouraged by my references to ask for feedback, if any of course. My file seemed "technically sound". – PsySp Jun 4 '16 at 21:56
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    @PatriciaShanahan I don't consider tht a reasonable answer, because of course OP already asked for that feedback before applying. – JeffE Jun 4 '16 at 22:50
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    Hopefully you tailored your actual application, and not just your cover letter. But in any case, how much effort and time you put into the application Does Not Matter; all that matters is whether they were convinced. Their reply is probably polite-code for "We were not convinced by your explanation of how your proposed research is relevant." or more simply, "We don't think your proposed research is relevant." – JeffE Jun 5 '16 at 12:54

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