Friday, April 19, 2024

Poll results on sending thank you notes after a campus interview for a faculty position (plus a brief navel-gazing postscript on the influence of this blog)

EcologyPoll results on sending thank you notes after a campus interview for a faculty position (plus a brief navel-gazing postscript on the influence of this blog)

Recently, we polled y’all on sending thank you notes after a campus interview for a faculty position. Perhaps because this is not a very important issue in the grand scheme of things, it seems to attract a lot of anxious discussion among faculty job seekers. (Have a browse through if you don’t believe me…) Faculty job seekers understandably are very keen to do everything right when it comes to campus interviews. But when it comes to whether or not to send thank you notes after a campus interview, it’s not obvious that there even is a “right” thing to do. Not even if you operationalize “right thing to do” as “whatever most other people do.” Thank you notes are a matter of custom and etiquette. Custom and etiquette are infamously arbitrary and variable.

A poll obviously can’t tell you what you should do, regarding thank you notes or anything else. But it can tell you something about what other people do, and why they do it. It can also tell you something about how others (in this case, search committee members) perceive what you do. When you send post-interview thank you notes (or not), what message are search committee members receiving? Is it the same one you thought you were sending?

tl;dr: I have bad news for you if you just want to follow standard practice, or if you’ve been advising others to follow (what you think is) standard practice. Turns out there is no standard practice.

Sample size and demographics

We got 84 respondents–thanks everyone who responded! Not an especially large sample size, though probably larger than you’d get if you just asked around your department, or your preferred social media network. So I think it’s worth talking about.

Respondents mostly were postdocs (25%), profs for 6 years or less (28%), or profs for >6 years (37%). 5% grad students, 4% “other”, and one retired prof.

Respondents were heavily skewed towards North America (84%; vs. only ~60% of our pageviews that come from North America). 13% from Europe, a couple of respondents from elsewhere. As you’ll see below, the heavy skew of responses towards North America may reflect the fact that sending post-interview thank you notes seems to be mostly a North American thing…

I was curious whether there’ve been changes over time in the practice of sending thank you notes after a campus interview, so I asked a question related to that. We had a pretty balanced mix of respondents in terms of when they last interviewed on campus for a faculty position (or last had an interview that would’ve been on campus, if not for the pandemic). Here’s the figure:

I don’t know if our North American respondents are a statistically unbiased sample of the population of academic ecologists in North America, with respect to their thank you note-related experiences and opinions. I don’t see any reason to think they’re a hugely biased sample. I mean, why would this blog’s readers tend to be especially pro- (or anti-) thank you note, compared to the broader population of North American ecologists? But I suppose there might be some reason why reading this blog would correlate with your thank you note-related experiences and opinions. One could say the same of any other non-random sample of opinion of course (e.g., opinion on, on your preferred social media platform, on your lab’s Slack channel…)

Results and discussion

The poll asked whether you always, sometimes, or never send thank you notes after a campus interview (or whether you will, might, or won’t send them if you haven’t yet had a campus interview). “Yes, I always send, or will send, thank you notes” was the most common response, but it didn’t quite get a majority. And people who never send (or will never send) thank you notes comprised 30% of respondents–a minority, but a sizeable one. So here’s the first take-home message, which I’m confident is robust to the modest sample size and possible sampling biases: there is no “standard practice” when it comes to sending thank you notes after campus interviews. Here’s the figure:

The second take-home message, which might be a small-sample blip but I don’t think so, is that post-interview thank you notes are mostly a North American thing, although far from universal even within North America. We had 14 respondents from outside North America, none of whom always send (or plan to send) post-interview thank you notes. That’s as compared to 54% of North American respondents who always send, or plan to always send, thank you notes.

There’s a hint in the data that the practice of sending post-interview thank you notes has increased in the past ten years, though remaining far from universal. But it’s hard to say for sure if there’s a trend over time. It’s a small sample, and the date of respondents’ last campus interview is partially confounded with whether or not they’re based in North America. Among the 13 respondents whose last campus interview was >10 years ago, respondents who always send thank you notes only outnumbered respondents who never send them 5:4. Among the 41 respondents whose last interview was 2-10 years ago, those who always send thank you notes outnumber those who never send them 18:12, and it goes up to 18:8 if you restrict attention to North American respondents. Among the 18 respondents who interviewed on campus within the past year, respondents who always send thank you notes outnumber those who never send them 12:4. Again, the sample sizes here are small. I’m not even sure this is a real trend. I definitely wouldn’t infer that sending thank you notes suddenly became way more common in the past year, or that it’s on track to becoming a universal practice in the next few years.

The next question asked respondents who send, or plan to send, thank you notes: to whom do you send or plan to send them? Respondents were provided various options and told to check all that apply. Here are the results, which provide our third clear take-home message: post-interview thank you notes almost always go to the search committee chair, but often go to various other recipients too. The identity of those other recipients varies a lot among senders.

(Aside: I was surprised how many people send post-interview thank you notes to people other than the search committee chair and other search committee members. I wouldn’t put much stock in the exact numbers. But I expected the numbers to be vanishingly small for all recipients besides the search committee chair and other search committee members. You learn something new every day!)

Looking through the individual responses, I didn’t notice any obvious patterns in the identity of thank you note recipients. Or any obvious association between identity of thank you note recipients and responses to other poll questions.

The next poll question asked respondents who send, or plan to send, thank you notes, why they do so. Respondents were provided various options and told to check all that apply. Which leads to the next clear take-home result: By far the most common reason people send post-interview thank you notes is to be polite/kind. Although many senders have various other reasons too. Here’s the figure:

Looking through individual responses, 37% of respondents who send, or plan to send, thank you notes only do so to be polite/kind. Most of the other respondents send them for various reasons that include politeness/kindness.

The next question was solely for the respondents who’ve sat on a faculty search committee. They were asked if they expect to receive thank you notes (and so are at least slightly disappointed or surprised not to), like to receive them but don’t expect to, no preference, or prefer not to receive them. As you can see from the figure below, the majority of search committee members don’t care whether or not they receive post-interview thank you notes. Only a small minority expect to receive them, and a roughly equally-small minority would rather not receive them. Given the sample size (57 respondents), I wouldn’t worry much about the exact numbers. But I think it’s clear enough that “no preference” is by far the largest group, and that “I expect thank you notes” and “I’d rather not receive thank you notes” are both small minority views.

Here’s a bit of advice for search committee members, based on the poll results to this point: as a search committee member, you shouldn’t expect to receive post-interview thank you notes from applicants. And please don’t read anything into anyone failing to send you a thank you note. I’m sorry, I get why you might expect to receive a thank you note after every campus interview. But the practice of sending post-interview thank you notes is just too far from universal for that to be a reasonable expectation. Expecting a post-interview thank you note after every campus interview is like waiting tables at a casual restaurant in North America and expecting a 25% tip from every customer. And if you see lack of thank you notes as even slightly informative about a job applicant: with respect, you’re making a mistake. I know that search committees want to know how collegial applicants are, and how interested applicants are in the position (and with good reason!) And I agree that applicants ought to demonstrate their collegiality and interest in the position. It’s just that sending post-interview thank you notes isn’t how many applicants demonstrate those things. You need to think about base rates. Odds are that the reason candidate X didn’t send everyone on the search committee a post-interview thank you note is that candidate X is one of the substantial minority of people who just never sends them, or never sends them to anyone besides the search committee chair. Failure of someone to send a post-interview thank you note doesn’t imply, or even vaguely hint, that they’re impolite, or uncollegial, or unprepared to be a prof, or uninterested in the position, or whatever. Treating lack of thank you notes as a sign of lack of collegiality, or lack of interest in the position, or etc., is going to give you many more false positives than true positives when it comes to detecting uncollegial or uninterested candidates. This is still true even if lack of a thank you note appears to corroborate other lines of evidence about the candidate.

And here’s a piece of advice for candidates: if you’re sending post-interview thank you notes at least in part because you figure it might help you get the job and couldn’t hurt your chances, you should rethink that reasoning. First, because sending thank you notes is unlikely to make any difference to your chances at all (see below for data on that). Second, because as best one can tell from this admittedly small sample, sending a thank you note is at least as likely to hurt your chances as to help. Yes, there’s some tiny possibility that sending a thank you note might slightly help your chances, because a small fraction of search committee members expect to receive post-interview thank you notes. But there’s also some tiny possibility that sending a thank you note will slightly hurt your chances, because a small fraction of search committee members would rather not receive thank you notes. Obviously, I wouldn’t put too much stock in the exact numbers in the poll–all one can say with confidence is that both sorts of search committee members are rare. But both sorts do exist. So don’t send thank you notes based solely on the assumption that literally nobody could possibly find them slightly off-putting. Of course, if you’re like most people who send post-interview thank you notes, you have various reasons for sending them. You should feel free to continue to send them for other reasons!

The last poll question asked search committee members if or how often thank you notes, or the lack thereof, affect the outcome of a search, based their own experience serving on search committees. A large majority (66%) said that there was no effect, a minority (33%) said there was possibly a small effect in rare cases, and one respondent said there was some larger and/or more frequent effect. I deliberately phrased that second option (“possibly a small effect in rare cases”) in such a way as to try to capture even very small and very rare effects on search outcomes. I also phrased that second option to capture even perceived small/rare effects that might not actually exist. After all, it’s difficult even for a search committee member to say for sure if a given search would’ve come out differently if only applicant X had, or hadn’t, sent a thank you note. Finally, it’s worth noting that some poll respondents may well have interpreted “outcome of the search” more broadly than “which candidate gets the offer.” For instance, one could imagine that thank you notes, or the lack thereof, might sometimes slightly alter how candidates are perceived by the search committee, without changing who gets the offer. So while making due allowance for the small sample size and the possible fallibility of search committee member judgments here, I think it’s safe to conclude that sending, or not sending, thank you notes hardly ever changes the outcome of a search, in the judgement of search committee members.

Comments from the respondents

The poll gave respondents the opportunity to comment anonymously. The comments expressed a range of perspectives, as you’d expect on a topic on which the poll found such wide variation.

Here are some comments from job candidates. A couple of these comments made me wish I’d asked respondents their gender and where they grew up…

Generic thank you notes have always seemed a little pointless, but in many cases it’s not hard to customize the note to make it feel a little more personal. I only send them to the people indicated above if I can do this.

For ‘other’ selection above, I grew up being told it was something I was supposed to do for every job interview, no matter what the job was (grew up in the US Midwest).

I was once told from a non committee member that my thank you note after meeting with them was a negative thing and made me a less desirable candidate, while others said it was standard practice and appreciated them. It’s all preference. I did it because it’s polite, and I did not make my notes generic, as they were tailored to each person.

I wouldn’t contact the search committee, not because I thought a thank-you letter might influence them one way or another, but because I wouldn’t want them to think that I was trying to do so.

Most of the advice [I’ve received] is to send a thank you note to the search committee chair, and to any faculty that you are really keen to collaborate with regardless of the outcome of the hiring process…The thinking that I’ve heard is “It’s good to follow up so that people remember who you are and can pick you out from the group of interviewees.” …I recently had to decide whether to go through with a Zoom interview and how much to prepare, and I got some advice from a senior colleague. He said that the search committee are still people in my field with whom I might professionally intersect in the future, so I might as well make a good impression on them. And writing thank you notes feel like it falls generally into this bucket of “make sure you make a good impression.”

One last thought based on this “likeability” angle: I would not be surprised if sending thank you notes is more common among women and other minoritized groups. (I’m a woman)

I feel that by sending notes, my primary motivation would be to manipulate people into giving me a job by playing to their reptile brain rather than on the merits. It feels icky. I do somewhat feel grateful, but I mostly feel like it’s a job interview and I’m pretty stressed out by it all and would gladly bypass the process if I could.

As an applicant, I actually received a thank you note from the chairperson of the search committee, to which I politely replied.

Gen X here, and female (gender might affect your results, maybe add to poll?), and I was raised to always send thank you notes to hosts or for gifts. To me the paucity of thank you notes recently seems to be a fading nicety of the more recent generations.

(Aside: to the person who left that last comment: good news! As far as one can tell from this small sample, post-interview thank you notes are becoming a bit more common. So perhaps you’ve just been unlucky, and will start receiving more thank you notes in future.)

And here are some comments from search committee members (some of whom also left comments about their experiences as job candidates). Several search committee members commented about the rare circumstances in which a thank you note, or lack thereof, might have had a small effect on the search committee’s deliberations:

I teach at a PUI in a very functional department. A thank you note from a good candidate reinforces my decision that the individual will fit into our altruistic departmental culture. It’s like doing all your homework on the department/school prior to the interview.

On a search committee, I respond to thank you notes and say it was nice talking to them, but they’ve never determined the outcome of the search.

I prefer not to get thank you notes as they have a possibility of ending up in a grey area of “communication that maybe, in someone’s interpretation needed to be documented.” It’s one more thing that could make a search go sideways that can be easily avoided when the potential positive impact of a note is so vanishingly small.

To me, thank you notes are a symbol of collegiality. In a small or tight knit unit, like I’m in, we don’t want to upset the apple cart with a jerk. A thank you note doesn’t preclude that, but it might be seen as an indicator of collegiality and thoughtfulness. Search committees are a huge time sink, lot’s of new applicants don’t realize that, but the expression of gratitude doesn’t hurt. (Possibly more helpful with older faculty or more traditional unis. Tip: If you hear in-state students use Sir and Ma’am, then maybe a thank you note would be good. Students say Sir to me all the time in my Southern R1 university. As a Yankee it drives me nuts, but it is what it is )

I also received a thank you email from a third candidate that negatively impacted my take on them…because it was clearly a “form” note thanking me for our meeting AND I did NOT ever meet with them!

I don’t see any problem with responding to a thank you note from a job applicant, and I always respond to them myself. Just a simple ‘thanks for coming to our university; it was nice to meet you’ should not give the applicant any reason to think they are affecting your decision. We are trying to recruit people after all, so don’t want to be rude

I’ve never seen thank you notes meaningfully influence a search, but they can be taken as an indicator that the candidate is serious about the position.

In a recent search we had a candidate who was generally quiet during the interview and it was unclear if it was just their personality or if they became less and less interested in the job throughout the interview and the lack of thank you note was mentioned as potentially supporting their lack of interest in the position. We ultimately did make an offer to the person anyway…

I’ve seen thank-you notes cited as one piece of evidence, among others, that a candidate continues to be interested in the position.

The bottom line: should faculty job candidates send post-interview thank you notes?

I don’t know! Personally, I think they should do whatever they want! This is a very low-stakes issue, on which different people do, and prefer, different things. That’s just life, it would be boring if we were all the same, etc.

Navel-gazing postscript

I got a chuckle out of this comment someone left on the poll:

With a great blog with great readership comes great responsibility. Please exercise extreme caution when analyzing and presenting these results. I have a fear of this blog changing the way that people do things.

To which: I’d like to think I’m always appropriately cautious when interpreting our poll results, though of course I would say that. 🙂 And the next time a post on this blog has a detectable field-wide effect on the views or behavior of ecologists will be the first time. 🙂

I drafted a long postscript explaining why I wrote that last sentence, then deleted it because I doubt anyone cares. Ask in the comments if you really want me to say more about this. Or just go read this recent post.

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