Feedback is everywhere in academia – but more feedback is needed

John McKendrick has recently concluded that we are letting down unsuccessful job applicants by not providing full and constructive feedback

February 27, 2021
We must give more feedback to academic job applicants
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We are a sector that understands the value of feedback. Seminar and conference presentations comprising fledgling ideas are delivered in the expectation of peer appraisal. Fully formed propositions are presented as prospective journal papers and book proposals to be peer-reviewed, and rarely progress to publication without revision. Likewise for grant proposals and funding. And academic seasons end with a tidal wave of feedback − that we give for student coursework and examinations, we take from end-of-module student appraisals and we give and take as part of the marking moderation and external examining process. 

One-quarter of the National Student Survey (NSS) – itself feedback on how well our students think we do − is given over to appraising the feedback we provide to students on their work (four questions) and on how well we respond to their views and opinions (three questions). More than a responsibility or an obligation, feedback is viewed as collective endeavour, at best serving the common good of the sector, at least providing accountability desired by those beyond. There is certainly no shortage of feedback circulating within the academy. 

However, not all is well with feedback. According to the latest NSS, approaching half of our full-time students did not agree that their feedback on the course had been acted upon (43 per cent), and one-third did not agree that feedback on their work had been timely (34 per cent).

We might also have reasonable suspicion that some manifestations of our academic feedback culture come with ulterior motives or Machiavellian intent (staff surveys to prove that management listens to staff?). Perhaps we need to improve on existing feedback. Then again, perhaps we need to question whether all feedback is serving useful ends.

Giving and taking feedback is routine practice for academics. With much else to do, obliging ourselves to give detailed and constructive feedback when none is usually given – such as to unsuccessful job applicants – might be viewed as akin to the academic turkey that votes for Christmas.

Although an ardent opponent of the petty administrative bureaucracies that have continually extended their reach during my 30 years as an academic, I have recently come to the conclusion that we are doing a disservice to unsuccessful job applicants by not providing full and constructive feedback.

Every year, the Scottish Poverty and Inequality Research Unit at Glasgow Caledonian University provides a development opportunity to two pre-career researchers. Envisaged as an opportunity for current postgraduate students who have not yet progressed to PhD, these posts aim to develop next-generation researchers.

Contracted as Grade 5 researchers at 0.2 FTE for 12 months, they contribute to the core work of the unit and ongoing research projects. This year, there were 69 applicants, from which five were interviewed and two appointed.

Any thoughts of feeling sorry for myself for having to wade through 669 pages of CVs, cover letters and application forms was quickly dispelled with the realisation that we would not be able to interview a great many able and suitable candidates who had clearly invested a considerable amount of time and energy in applying for the post.

Perhaps it was the nature of the post, perhaps it was a tug of conscience being from an institution that stakes claim to be “for the common good”, but the conclusion was drawn that a functional communication from HR advising unsuccessful candidates that they had not been selected for interview was tantamount to dereliction of duty.

Like everyone else in academia, I was not short of things to do. Already overcommitted and without administrative resources to draw upon, the additional work that providing this feedback generated extended the working day, no doubt depriving me of the pleasures that would otherwise have been provided by Antiques Roadshow and Money for Nothing

THE Campus resource: Instant messaging for improving instructor feedback in distance learning

Sixty-four personalised emails were drafted – the burden eased a little with the assistance of mail merge software – with general advice offered on what applicants selected for interview were able to offer and bespoke advice provided to each of the unsuccessful candidates.

Ironically, feedback confirmed that this was the right thing to do. More than a dozen responded to their feedback, all expressing gratitude and offering more insight besides. The following are typical of the sentiments expressed: “I have been applying for jobs since I graduated in August 2019 and I have struggled to get feedback even after an interview, never mind after an unsuccessful application,” or “In future [I will] make sure to highlight my quantitative experience (university modules and data linkage as a research assistant) as I seem to have not adequately explained my experience, which is really useful to know”.

If we believe in personal development, if we believe in best practice, if we believe there is more to our sector than self-interest, if we believe in feedback, we should find time to offer full and constructive advice to unsuccessful job applicants.

John McKendrick is co-director of the Scottish poverty and inequality research unit at Glasgow Caledonian University. He has a love of teaching, research, scholarship and developing talent, and an equally strong dislike of administration.

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Reader's comments (2)

Telling: "Already overcommitted and without administrative resources to draw upon, the additional work that providing this feedback generated extended the working day, no doubt depriving me of the pleasures that would otherwise have been provided by Antiques Roadshow and Money for Nothing."
No point wasting time on feedback for unsuccessful applicants, once we start on that road we will be spending time giving students feedback on their unsuccessful applications...... it is never ending.


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