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."
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.