Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Rah Rah Rah

In a semi-recent conversation with a colleague from another university, I asked him about the results of a search that was conducted in his department. He told me the names of the candidates who were interviewed, and I was very impressed with the list. How did his department choose between Awesome Person X and Awesome Person Z, for example?

My colleague admitted that, at that point, the decision got a bit random because the department liked everyone they interviewed. But, alas, their Dean did not think that they should hire everyone that they interviewed, so they had to make some difficult decisions. This is a far better outcome for a department than a failed search, but is of course painful in other ways for those involved.

[Some might wonder whether such a deep pool puts the Selected One at a disadvantage in negotiating for start-up etc., but it does not seem to have done so in this case. The candidate ultimately chosen accepted the job and got a rather nice start-up package, not to mention a tenure-track position in a department that is very enthusiastic about their new colleague.]

One thing that struck me about my colleague's response to my question about How They Chose is the extent to which "passion for research" seems to have been involved in the decision. I am all for Passion For Research (PFR), but using this as a decisive factor semi-worried me for at least two reasons:

(1) One of the interviewees not selected happens to be very passionate about research; in fact, every much so, in the best sense of the term. And yet, my colleague told me that this candidate's PFR did not come through as well as it did for some of the other interviewees -- perhaps the ones who were less nervous? There is no point in discussing whether that is fair or not; clearly this department had to decide among an excellent group, and other than drawing names from a bucket, how are you going to decide? But still, are those who are less nervous at an interview necessarily 'better' -- more poised, more likely to be successful researchers (in the long term), more likely to be better teachers? Maybe, but I would guess/hope that the real answer is 'no'.

(2) Perceptions of PFR can also be used to select those who display this trait in a different way than the majority of those making the decision. That is, a group of men might use this to prefer male candidates over female candidates, but not in any obvious way. This struck me as a possible example of 'unconscious bias'. In fact, the job went to a man, and the apparent runner-up was also male. Why didn't the female candidates score as high on PFR?

How do you display a strong and convincing PFR during an interview anyway? I don't think it is enough to say, "Research is my Life", even if you say it many times. I don't think it is even enough to talk about how you think about Research every waking moment, including while flossing your teeth. That would unconvincing (and weird, and disturbing).

It is more likely something that is conveyed by how you speak about your research, in both formal and informal settings during an interview -- your tone of voice, the words you use, your body language, your apparent level of enthusiasm in discussing your past, present, and future research. For some people who are particularly nervous, shy, awkward, and/or reticent, this type of evidence of PFR could become quite subtle, particularly if others are more obviously cheerleadery about their research passions.

So, I'm not saying that my colleague's department should have done anything different -- in fact, they made a great hire -- but I think it is something that faculty and administrators need to be careful about during the hiring process.

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