Before starting out, I should note that telling people this just as interview season starts is pretty heartless. Plenty of time for recriminations later--why amp up the pressure now when there is plenty of pressure? Still, the post raises important issues that I want to address.
The poster, going by the randomly assigned name of Dottie, starts with the work. If you didn't get a call or got rejected, it is because of your work. That what your work is not up to par--that your CV is uninteresting, that your paper was lame (if they read it), your execution was "terrible" and so on. Of course, this ignores the obvious reality--your work may be excellent but not as super-special as three or five or ten other people. Given today's market, it is not hard to be really quite good but not quite there.
Dottie suggests that if pedigree is responsible, then it is your fault for going to a school with a lousy pedigree. Sure, not helpful, but sure if you buy the power of the pedigree. I am of mixed views on this, as I know that pedigree does matter, but I have also seen plenty of people with "lesser" degrees succeed.
If you didn't make it past the phone interview, Dottie suggests your personality may suck. Again, a bit too negative--the other competitors may have been just slightly more charismatic OR may have made it clearer how better they fit the job or just gave elements of the committee just a bit more fodder, one more justification, than you did. So, yes, maybe you did not come off well, but maybe somebody just came off better and again better can mean all kinds of things.
If you got the flyout, Dottie says you were not good enough to close the deal. Well, again, maybe. But maybe the folks who make the interview decisions and the folks who make the hiring decisions are not identical, so that the IR folks liked you but the Americanists get to vote on the hire and they liked the more quantitative/formal/whatever person. These are group decisions with group dynamics (more below), so one can get different coalitions to form for you or against you based on stuff that is about you and often stuff that has nothing to do with you (see further below).
Dottie seems to anticipate my criticism: "Not getting the offer means one of those groups could point to massive problems with you (work, attitude, future promise, ability to cover courses)." Except no, much of this is not about massive problems but slight advantages. Sometimes job searches are easily resolved where one candidate is great and the others implode. Sometimes there is not so much of clear ranking, and that is where politics and persuasion have a role. And someone's agenda may have nothing to do with you. I remember one search at a previous job where I switched my vote not so much because of the candidates but because I was infuriated by the stance of one of my colleagues. I believe that swung the decision.
The key is this: yes, there is much in your control but so much out of it. Part of it is about your record, how interesting your stuff is and so on, but much of it depends on dynamics within each committee and department. Obviously, having more pubs, better recommendations and all the rest help. But if you don't get the interview, it may be because you don't fit, others have stronger records, and so on.
What Dottie ignores is Arrow's Paradox (if I remember correctly): that when multiple alternatives exist and multiple voters exist, you can get very different outcomes depending on framing, voting rules and the rest. So, yeah, political science might just suggest that who wins may not be so clearly "best", especially when considering something as multidimensional as a job search. These search committees and department decisions have all kinds of dynamics that may not have anything to do with you.
Rather than talking about other candidates, let me review many (not all--my memory is not great) of my interviews and how I understood the outcome (red means my fault, blue means it was their dynamics, pink is uncertain or a mix, green is a win):
- My first interview was one where I lost to none of the above--they did not hire anyone that year. What did I do wrong? Perhaps fit, but mostly I think I was not ready. So, that was on me.
- I got a visiting job at Vermont, and they had two open jobs (which is why I took the teaching job). I gave a mediocre job talk, but that turned out to be irrelevant. One guy there hated anyone from UCSD because of conflicts he had with my department's Americanists. A few others did not want to hire a VAP for a tenure track line because of a battle five years earlier. And so on. So, I might have had a chance if I did better in the talk but probably not.
- My other talk my second year on the market was at a place that had not done a search in over two decades. The department of four cranky old guys was very dysfunctional--the proof was that the university had grown several times over the years but Poli Sci remained the same size (once they retired, the place apparently quadrupled). They wanted me to give a talk to an American politics class despite the position being an IR one. So, I adapted my dissertation to apply to American politics, and then when I finally got a hold of them (they never contacted me to tell me I didn't get the job), they said that I talked too much about my dissertation during the job talk. So, yeah, I think that one is on them.
- The next year, I had two interviews and got one offer. So, I must have been more special than the other guys. Except not so much, as Paul Hensel and I both made such good impressions that they were able to get a second line to hire us both. Except Paul went elsewhere. Why I didn't get the other job? Don't know.
- After a couple of years at TTU, I tried to get out. I had one of the best interviews of my life at Maryland, but they didn't hire me because I was too junior and was not quant enough. I had just started working with the Minorities at Risk dataset, but had no results thus far. I know the interview went well because I developed multiple excellent relationships/networks out of it. So, they hired no one that year. So, was it about me? Yeah, but not because of me falling short in any way I could control at that moment.
- I also interviewed in that time frame at another school, where instead of picking the two slightly worn but productive folks, they hired someone fresh out of grad school because, as I was told later, the senior faculty wanted new folks to mentor, rather than folks less pliable. So, was that about me or about the flaws of someone who is quite well known now? Or the nature of the place? The latter.
- I blew a job talk in New York (not Columbia or NYU) as I kept asking about people's commutes and it became clear during the talk that I had somehow antagonized the chair. Good times.
- I didn't do well at a liberal arts college, one of the very few I have ever interviewed at. Trying to foster discussion in a new venue is hard enough and definitely not a strength but the room was a former church with the students in pews and me on a pulpit. So, oy.
- I interviewed at a place where friends said I should have presented my numbers stuff more clearly, but I lost to someone who was entirely qualititative, so I am not sure the quant presentation mattered all that much. I did get to play ultimate while I was there. And the person they picked has not really published much since. So, hmmm.
- I interviewed at a policy school, and they ended up hiring someone more senior with admin experience.
- I interviewed at McGill, and got the job over a friend with a very similar record. They would have made a good choice if they had chosen my friend. As it turns out, one of my advocates in that search, as I have been told, became ... less of a Steve fan, so there is no telling.
- I interviewed a few years ago in a search that was discussed much at the old political science rumor mill, where I competed against two very sharp and well published scholars. They picked of the other guys who eventually said no. Why not me? Too old? Not quant enough? I think the other guy simply was a very strong candidate.
- I had a great interview experience where a department was going to compete with other departments over a slot, and the Politics department wanted me. The head of the university killed the positions the day before the committee was going to meet.
- I blew an interview bigtime--choked. Very frustrating as it was a really, really cool job. I might not have gotten anyway, but I sure made it easy for them to say no thanks.
- I gave interviews in consecutive years at different departments/campuses of the same school. Lost to one guy who had more admin experience. Lost at the other spot to someone who had more policy experience and who did terrorism stuff. Given the job description, I understood why it went that way.
- I interviewed at Carleton and got the job. Woot!
Of course, there are the many applications where I did not get an interview (phone interviews were far more rare in the olden days). I know that my lack of pubs early on did not help. I know that in one year, all of the new issues interviews went to the environmentalists rather than the ethnic conflict dude. It has turned out ok although there was a heap of stress along the way. I am sure glad that when I was a vulnerable ABD and then junior prof there was no site telling me it was all my fault. Believe me, I knew that much of it was due to my choices, but also do to some strange dynamics out of my control. Ultimately, I have realized that I am pretty lucky. The academic job market is a tough place, more so now but even way back when. It does much work and creativity to do well, and even then the fickle hand of fortune can matter more than folks suggest. Having served on many search committees and seen the discussions in a few departments, I have come to understand that it is sometimes about the candidate and sometimes not so much.