Thursday, December 15, 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.



34 comments:

Morgan Price said...

"Passion for research" could be a euphemism for "has no family responsibilities"? But, I'm not sure why it's in the hiring department's interest to worry about that...

Canadian_Brain said...

I definitely think about research when flossing. Actually, most bathroom activities (particularly showering) are conducive to impromptu brainstorming....

Anonymous said...

The passion-for-research thing is far less interesting to me than how the department was able to narrow its search down to a handful of people in the first place. I have several friends and colleagues applying for university positions; each opening seems garner 200-600 applications! A friend of mine is tenured at a small, no-named school and served on their recent search committee; they received over 1,000 applications for that single position! How does a search committee handle that many applications?

As far as I can tell, the R1 schools will only look at applicants from Stanford, Harvard, MIT, CalTech, Princeton, Berkeley, and their ilk. My husband's department, for example, is unabashed about doing this. If you're not in a Top 5-10 program, you don't even have a shot at a tenure-track position, no matter what your research record. They won't even glance at your CV.

Anonymous said...

Oh. Is it weird and disturbing to think about research while flossing your teeth, or just weird to TALK about doing so?

I'm curious because I was just flossing and thinking about my research...

Stephanie said...

In my ideal world being obsessed with research would be a negative for your hiring, not a positive. I want to make room in academic science for normal people who don't eat, sleep, breath and floss science. This post again pushes the same ideal of a scientist as someone who is wholly dedicated to science, often to the detriment of a full life outside of science.

This is why many women don't stay in academic science. As my researcher friend says "we are too smart to want that". Yes, the women who do want that should have equal chance of getting that as the men who want that, but I really don't think we are going to plug the leaky pipeline with this solution.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I would be concerned about unconscious bias entering here too. My philosophy is, given a final applicant pool who are equally qualified for which there is no good (and by good, I mean reasonably objective) method of choosing between, one should go for the hire that increases the diversity of the department... but maybe that's just me.

Anonymous said...

I am biased against candidates who tell me they have passion for research, and it is not unconscious at all.

Anonymous said...

As far as I can tell, the R1 schools will only look at applicants from Stanford, Harvard, MIT, CalTech, Princeton, Berkeley, and their ilk.

A few years back someone collected statistics on this for the top fifteen computer science departments.

The results were rather interesting: the top four departments routinely hired the odd superstar from a lesser known institution while departments 5-15 showed a marked bias towards hiring only graduates from the top ten CS departments.

Anonymous said...

In our hiring process last year, there was definitely some concern that one of the candidates was not as passionate about (her) research as the other (male) candidates. I attributed that to shyness, a characteristic I share and definitely feel has disadvantaged me at interviews. I don't think it was the only reason she didn't get the offer, but it certainly didn't help.

MathTT said...

I'm at an R1 (though not of the caliber of the ones you listed, an R1 nonetheless). We did a (successful) search last year and have another underway now.

We get about 700+ applicants, but in fact every application gets read by someone. The first filter is most definitely publication list (how many, what frequency, which journals) and most certainly not graduate or postdoc institution. In fact, a couple of people were discounted because they were postdocs at top-name places and somehow didn't seem as much better as they should have been, given the opportunities they had. Or something like that.

Anyway, our initial cut is something like 700+ to about 60, and that is surprisingly not hard at all. Most of those applicants are simply not anywhere near the caliber of the top folks. Those folks get phone interviews, then a handful get campus interviews. (How that cut happens is a mystery to me, since I'm not on the hiring committee.) To decide on who to hire... well, that seems to involve a lot of long meetings and occasional yelling.

It was my first time through the process last year. I'm interested to see what happens this time around.

Anonymous said...

It would be weird to specifically exclude thinking about research from the allowed things to think about while flossing.

"Passion for Research" given simply like this is impossible parse. As everyone stated, the specific criteria matter far more. We certainly try to use PFR as a criterion for graduate admissions.

Anonymous said...

This is interesting. I hadn't thought about this being a problem for women. When I was looking for a job as an FSP, I was told on many occasions how enthusiastic I seemd about my research and that this indicated that I would be a great teacher. I think it was an asset in many cases but I know in others, people used it as an excuse to take me less seriously. I didn't worry about that because if I didn't want to be in a department where I couldn't be myself or spend my time with a group of curmudgeons who were jaded and bitter.

Alex said...

In my ideal world being obsessed with research would be a negative for your hiring, not a positive.

How would departments select candidates in your ideal world? Would they ask questions about family and hobbies and work hours, and select against the person who doesn't have sufficient commitment to family, community activities, or hobbies and creative outlets?

In the end, you have to pick the best person based on documented accomplishments and a face-value reading of their open statements in interviews. I agree with FSP that attempting a Vulcan mind-meld with candidates to infer their innermost desires leaves room for all sorts of mischief. Frankly, I think that Stephanie's attitude, if it were implemented as a hiring policy, would also open up room for all sorts of mischief.

"Why doesn't she have kids yet? Doesn't she want a life outside academia?" is the sort of thing that should only be said by judgmental in-laws at Christmas dinner, not by hiring committees.

Anonymous said...

In my dept the code is "energy". and yes, usually it means that you are american-born, most likely blue-eyed, male, and have an affiliation with Harvard/MIT and the likes.
Once they have decided that you're "the one" they will look for some kind of metric to justify the decision. In the absence of such, they will say that you were better "overall".

Anonymous said...

Working at a large corporation in high tech, we don't compare candidates at all. We decide whether to offer after each interview. Either the person could be a valuable team member or not.

It turns out this decreases discrimination based on characteristics not realated to the job. We have had great results with this.

Female Science Professor said...

Re. flossing, I specified that the issue was telling people during an interview that you think about research while flossing, not just that you do such thinking. I always find such revelations during an interview strange. Some people will insert it as an aside, like "Actually, this particular idea came to me while I was in the shower." Some search committees may not want to know that.

Female Science Professor said...

And I do not think that 'passion for research' is mutually exclusive with having a so-called normal life, with family and friends and hobbies. It's more about perception than reality.

Anonymous said...

"As far as I can tell, the R1 schools will only look at applicants from Stanford, Harvard, MIT, CalTech, Princeton, Berkeley, and their ilk. My husband's department, for example, is unabashed about doing this. If you're not in a Top 5-10 program, you don't even have a shot at a tenure-track position, no matter what your research record. They won't even glance at your CV."

This is certainly not the case in my Department which is at a top five State University. We DO look at the CV--pubs and the story they tell is the critical feature. I think that while many believe that who you know is the key feature, rather than what you did, most of us on search committees at good places think otherwise. It's true that we have hired folks from some of the places listed, but not because of their pedigree but because of their accomplishments. Two of our three Department HHMI Investigators did postdocs at places not on the usual top ten list, and the third did his graduate work at a place like that.

With regard to Passion for Research, the intangibles are often what we use to try and distinguish the top three folks in a strong search. In reality we could probably flip a coin, but we need to make a decision. However, in the end, if we can get a colleague whose both a great scientist and who also will be fun to interact with, why not go that direction.

Mark P.

Anonymous said...

I'm at an R1 and we hire from the 'top' programs in each subfield. This doesn't necessarily correspond to any national ranking of the institution as a whole, or even, in more rare cases, the department or program as a whole.

Anonymous said...

PFR sounds like a euphemism for something. Something that has little or nothing to do with the qualifications of the candidate and mostly to do with who the powerful people on the search committee and in the department happen to just like better. Thus, option 2 falls well within the use of this euphemism or "code."

I also agree that having one's life totally revolve around science, such as is the historical model for men with stay-at-home wives, is not the best model for a professor. (And if SAHW sounds perjorative, I mean it to be perjorative of those who think that's the only thing women should do.)

Diversity of thought makes for better science, which is why we need people who don't view PFR the same way as the establishment.

Anonymous said...

Too many people seem to think that men have PFR but women don't (as much), because women are so much more 'balanced' and care more about families. With a few (old) exceptions, my male colleagues are just as interested in having a good family life as my female colleagues. I see no difference along gender lines for more or less PFR.

FrauTech said...

In engineering the women are not as "hands on" as the men. I've had this ascribed to women who had been mechanics prior to becoming engineers and had to correct the mis-perception. But so often there's probably no one there to correct the perception. A woman might be promoted based on being "well organized" or good at project management, but no matter her actual qualifications is never as "technical" as her male peers. I assume technical, like PFR, is nice and broad in that it's a category you can fit whoever you want in it or not in it.

Anonymous said...

Men are assertive; women are aggressive.

Men are articulate; women are glib.

Men are leaders; women are nice.

Anonymous said...

In my department, there seems to be a slightly different variant to PFR, namely the "fire in the belly," which to me adds an aggressive tone to the description. Many seem to find this a desirable quality in a candidate, but the term makes me gag, for some of the reasons mentioned already.

EliRabett said...

There is a large element of performance art in being a faculty. You have to "sell" your research, your results your teaching to varied audiences.

Anonymous said...

Is it weird and disturbing that I get some of my best thinking done while feeding/nursing my infant daughter? True story. Having to sit quietly with my hands occupied for quite a bit of time (often in the middle of the night) has been in fact quite intellectually productive!

Ann said...

To avoid bias in searches, its better to have more quantifiable and objective categories to grade applicants on, such as quantity and quality of publications, research impact, research fit to department, teaching ability...

Vaguer and more subjective criteria such as "leadership" and "passion" give more scope for implicit and unrecognized bias to creep in.

Anonymous said...

At an interview for a non-academic position, I was required to give a 15-minute presentation on my thesis work.

The first comment? "You clearly love your research and probably do not want to work here."

Which I can sort of appreciate, but exactly how boring was I supposed to make it sound in order to get the job?

Alex said...

Anon at 4:03 pm reminds me of stories I've heard of committees deciding that a candidate was "too good" and "would never come here."

I sort of get that on one level. If the candidate's statement of teaching and research goals reads like something that would make more sense at a different sort of institution, with different resources and facilities, fine. But if the candidate's background, plans, and answers in interviews are a perfect fit, and the only "red flag" is that they've done everything expected only more and better, you sort of have to (1) take them that their word that they want to work at your institution and (2) thank whatever gods you believe in for the shining opportunity in front of you.

Anonymous said...

you sort of have to (1) take them that their word that they want to work at your institution and (2) thank whatever gods you believe in for the shining opportunity in front of you.

This is naive. You make an offer, wait weeks and weeks until they say no, which they almost invariably do and by then all other good candidates are taken.

Anonymous said...

To anon at 12/17/2011 06:21:00 AM

This is naive. You make an offer, wait weeks and weeks until they say no, which they almost invariably do and by then all other good candidates are taken.

You can make an offer, give them a deadline for deciding, and if they don't decide by the deadline, rescind the offer and offer the job to someone else.

If your department can't set the boundaries and then you suffer for it, that's on you.

sheesh.

Anonymous said...

To anon 12/17/2011 10:18:00 PM:

You missed point, departments do set deadlines, but even those are different. It is naive to think that one should give the same amount of time to both types of candidates.

Alex said...

In the case I'm thinking of, there were several factors that made this candidate a uniquely good fit for the institution in question: The institution has an unusual facility that is a perfect match to his research interests, and the candidate has a teaching and mentoring track record that is a unique fit to certain aspects of the institution in question, aspects not shared by come competitor schools. He was a perfect fit. The only "problem" is that he was an insanely accomplished perfect fit. They were fools to turn him down.

(And, for the record, I'm not the one who was applying for that job, I'm just the one who got to listen to a friend lament a committee passing over somebody who's "too good.")

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, if you really want to know how passionate someone is about their research you should talk to his/her colleagues past and present, mentors and the people who have worked with him/her. That's what references on the CV are for.