Skip to main content

Careers intelligence: how to respond to unsuccessful applicants

Written by: Jack Grove
Published on: 22 Feb 2021

Skater falls on the ice

Source: Getty

For every joyous jobseeker offered a faculty position, there will inevitably be a handful of runners-up left dejected by another knock-back. Some might not want to revisit their latest disappointment, but others want to learn where they went wrong, and many expect useful tips on how to improve for next time. So how should interview panels give constructive feedback to unsuccessful applicants?

Time constraints will be a significant factor in the level of detail in such comments, which is why most panels will confine their remarks to interviewees only. But others have started to take a different approach.

John McKendrick, professor of social justice at Glasgow Caledonian University, decided to provide feedback to all of those who applied for two part-time research development posts in his poverty research unit. That entailed more than a day’s work because 69 people applied, explained Professor McKendrick.

“It didn’t really make sense if you viewed it strictly in terms of time efficiency, but we purport to be a university for the common good, so this commitment to help aspiring researchers was important for us,” he said.

“We wanted to let people know where they did well, so they didn’t throw everything out and start again if they applied to a similar position again. If we’re serious as a sector about opening up research careers to people of all backgrounds, we need to do more of this because the rules of the game are not immediately apparent to everyone,” he added.

Even those applicants who were told they were not strong contenders for the roles said they appreciated the feedback they received, said Professor McKendrick. He added that he believed that the input received by those rejected before interview was in many ways more helpful than the one-to-one chats that he held with the three interviewees not appointed. “They were not surprised by what I said, but I think they went away feeling better because they’d been taken seriously throughout the entire process,” Professor McKendrick said.

However, taking time to provide this kind of feedback is not always practicable, despite the desire to treat every applicant with respect, said Robert MacIntosh, head of the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.

“For academic roles these days, it isn’t unusual to get a very large number of applications. In my experience, feedback to those who don’t make the interview shortlist is usually generic and takes the form of noting that there were other strong candidates and that there was a gap in relation to the…[job] criteria which meant they didn’t make the cut,” said Professor MacIntosh, who added that while this “isn’t particularly courteous, [it] is a reflection of the time pressures involved”.

That said, he went on, it was vital to provide “constructive, honest and defensible feedback” to unsuccessful interviewees. “My preference is to do this in a short call as quickly as practicable after the appointment process completes. Done well, it says something about the integrity of both the individuals and the institution, and you should aspire to treat disappointed individuals in the way that you’d like to be treated yourself,” Professor MacIntosh said.

Some recent examples of interview feedback he has given included pointing out that a candidate had significantly overrun with the opening minute presentation despite being told several times that the time limit had been exceeded, and noting an applicant’s lack of research into the role, such as not knowing which programmes and courses they might contribute to even though such information was available on the website and in the candidate pack. Other examples included not showing sufficient experience of something the university was looking for, such as improving the student experience, or failing to demonstrate this, he said.

Conversations with unsuccessful applicants are not always easy, particularly when candidates refuse to accept some of the points being made, admitted Professor MacIntosh. “My worst experience was having an unsuccessful candidate saying that they would come and work for free for the next three months to prove that they would do a better job than the successful candidate (who they didn’t know).”

Jessica Seeliger, associate professor in the department of pharmacological sciences at Stony Brook University in New York, said she believed the practice was less common in the US, although she “had heard of this happening, albeit rarely”.

“But I could see myself doing it for someone I thought was really promising, but who I felt had done themselves a disservice in some way or did not appear to be navigating the system effectively,” said Dr Seeliger, who added that she and her colleagues would happily provide advice in these circumstances because they “derive real pleasure from seeing capable people succeed and have the opportunity to contribute to the research and academic communities”.

“It hurts to see someone do poorly for spurious reasons, and there are very often many avoidable reasons that candidates do not do as well as they could, just because the academic search and evaluation process is, in my opinion, needlessly opaque,” she said, adding that the lack of a how-to guide on the faculty search process was largely “because once people get jobs they are too busy to write it”.

“So the next best thing − although far less impactful − is to give feedback to individual candidates,” said Dr Seeliger, who hoped such advice could help an unsuccessful candidate do better next time.

“Ultimately, it will also say something about the candidate as to how they take that feedback and use it − one excels in academia through constant self-examination and self-improvement, and that applies at every level, including faculty and faculty-in-waiting.”