Interview feedback is difficult to approach, both giving and receiving. As someone who has more often been on the receiving end, I’ve found directly helpful feedback to be the exception rather than the rule. So, this post is about how to interpret feedback which might not tell you as much as you want. For me, there are three phases to thinking about the interview after the event.
1. Be honest with yourself
When you come out of the interview, after you’ve taken a few deep breaths / had a shower / got home and had a stiff drink, think about how it went. Did the presentation go well? If not, why not? Were there questions in the panel interview that you think you didn’t answer well? If so, make a note of them and be sure to prepare a better answer for your next interview. Assess your performance honestly, trying to leave aside any feelings of self-doubt, (entirely natural) nerves about the interview, or relief that it’s over. Do you think that you’d have given yourself the job if you had been on the interview panel?
2. Official feedback
You might get ‘the call’ any time from the same afternoon, to the next morning, to a couple of weeks afterwards. If the search is international, it may well be longer than that as institutions sometimes fly in other candidates (though this is becoming rarer in the age of Skype). It’s fair to say, I think, that the longer it is until you hear, the less likely it is you’ve been appointed (or that you were the committee’s first choice), although this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule.
As for the feedback itself, it can range dramatically in quality and quantity, depending on how good and conscientious an academic citizen the person delivering the feedback is. Often, if your interview went reasonably well, the feedback will simply be something along the lines of ‘you were good, someone else was better’, or that there were ‘marginal differences’. Sometimes feedback intended to be helpful will prove contradictory (play it safer / be a bit more ‘off-the-wall’). Sometimes you will get egregious examples, such as the head of a Russell Group university telling you, only a couple of days after the interview, that they had thrown away their notes and couldn’t really remember specifics. That was both dispiriting and unhelpful – please, readers on the wielding end of the appointment stick, do better than that.
So, how do you deal with this range of advice (or lack of it)? Well, firstly you need to remember that decisions are often made on the basis of things that the person offering feedback can’t tell you. This might be innocuous: it might just be that someone else gave an interview that wowed. It might also just be that there were further tacit unadvertised requirements of the post: who can do those lectures on that survey course we have? Who can help cover for that person whose research leave just came through? This is partly why it’s always useful to email the named contact (usually the head of school or subject leader) in advance and inquire whether there are any specific teaching and administrative duties attached to the post. There might even have been requirements that the panel weren’t thinking of until they saw them in someone at the interview.
Sometimes even your best interview won’t get you the job, as you can’t control what other candidates are doing. Conversely, some days you might be a bit off-colour and still get appointed.
3. Soft feedback
By this, I mean discreetly and politely looking for explanations outside of the official feedback process. Do you know someone at the institution, or who went to the presentation, or does your supervisor? Why not ask them if they’re allowed to tell you who was appointed? It can help you rationalise and understand not getting the job if you discover that it went to someone with more experience, more publications, or who was a more direct fit for the post.
Finally: seek advice from those around you. Ask more experienced friends and colleagues to look at your application materials, to give you mock interviews, to help you prepare effectively. Do you have a head of department / former head of department who has made a lot of appointments? Ask them for help. Particularly ask people with recent experience of interviewing and being on interview panels; the profession has changed markedly in the last decade. The best advice I’ve had was to focus on core research interests, and not to stretch too far to fit the interview brief. Be yourself: trust what you do is good enough. By the time you get to the interview stage the committee has a good sense of what you do, having read your CV, application, and anything else they’ve asked you to send. They think you’re appointable. So stick to your guns, give the best performance you can, and know that you’ve then done everything within your power.