Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Look Up?

If you are in a job that involves the perusal of applications -- such as applications for graduate admission, for postdocs, for faculty positions etc. -- do you use Google (or similar) to try to find out more about applicants in whom you have a particular interest?

For example, if you are a professor who advises graduate students, do you Google (or whatever) some or all of the applicants who mention an interest in working with you? If you are on a search committee, do you Google (or whatever) applicants, or, at least, those on the short list? And so on.

I have never done this, but I know that some people do it routinely. So I wonder: Does such searching ever turn up information that is relevant to the decision-making process?

This same question can of course be turned around to ask applicants if they have Googled potential advisors etc. as part of their decision-making process about their education and careers. In fact, I have encouraged something similar in a post a few months ago: that prospective graduate students should look up our advising records, publication records, grant records etc. In that case, however, I was proposing using citation databases, department webpages etc. That's a bit different from encouraging a broader search, although I have nothing against such searching; I just wonder if it is useful.

Hence my question to readers today: Has anyone found out anything via a Google-like search that influenced a decision about an applicant (or potential advisor, colleague etc.), for or against? Can you give examples? Can anyone explain why it might be good to do these searches on a routine basis, other than just out of curiosity to see what someone's time was in a 10k fun-run or to see a photo of someone amidst a drunken revel in college?

43 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have used Google scholar to see the citation counts of papers written by postdoc candidates. I also sometimes use Google as a shortcut for looking up the CV/publications of postdoc or faculty candidates, but this is because most PhD students in my field tend to have webpages with their publications and CVs on it.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the question is about that kind of search (Google Scholar).

John Vidale said...

Googling is useful for everything from buying pencils (just ordered this one yesterday after an hour of googling - http://davesmechanicalpencils.blogspot.com/2010/10/mitsubishi-pure-malt-pencil-review.html ), seeing who is on a conference call (which I did for a dozen bureaucratic people in DC on Friday), to checking whose number is in the missed call list, to scouting faculty and grad applicants.

Of course useful information turns up. Specifically, a fair fraction of grad applicants turn out to also be talented musicians, artists, athletes and thespians. It is useful to scout their undergrad departments to get a sense of their background. One can place letter writers and see if there were more logical choices. One can check claims about clubs and accomplishments.

Googling does tend to suppress enthusiasm for applicants from places that are hard to access and assess, such as China and Korea. I consider the most negative result of a search to be finding little trace of a person.

Anonymous said...

I have used it to check out candidates. In one case the drunken photo plus associated chat was sufficiently spectacular that the candidate acquired a nickname amongst the interviewing panel that made it almost impossible for us to refrain from cracking up mid interview. I don't think it influenced our professional decisions, although we did end up questioning his judgement a bit.

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine caring about any of that -- not the drunken photos or the hobbies of applicants for anything. Good for them if they have artistic or other talents, but if it's not relevant and not mentioned in the application, I don't care. And so what if someone got drunk and there's a photo of that? I use Google for all sorts of searches in my personal and professional life, but tracking down extra bits of info about students and others is not one of those things.

Anonymous said...

Yes I google people and expect them to google me. Finding nothing much on a student is not surprising, but finding only an out-of-date dept website does not impress me for faculty.

mOOm said...

Yes, the first thing I do is check how many citations they have...

michiexile said...

When I applied for my doctoral studies, my then future advisor googled me, found all my blogs and read everything he could get his hands on.

And then framed part of my interview after what he had read of my thoughts on the whole application process and my hopes and plans. In particular, my private employer was encouraging me, very strongly, to do my PhD on half-time while still working for them — and my advisor needed to make sure I understood that my doctoral studies were going to be a full-time undertaking.

Once they DID hire me, he made a point of not reading anything I posted online though.

Anonymous said...

There's a social networking site called academia.edu that lets you know when someone has googled you and where they are in the world (if you have a profile on the site). When I was applying for jobs, I could see that a few days after applying for a job in a particularly country, there would be searches on google of my name and university. Very interesting and highly addictive to monitor!

Anonymous said...

We had a candidate with a strong cv that hit some red flags from some of the longer-term search committee members. So one of them used Google to try to remember who the guy was. Turns out they had interviewed him before and he was a sociopath.

studyzone said...

On a recent job interview, the faculty members who picked me up at the airport said they Googled me to see what I looked like (I have a very uncommon surname). Google Images has only a few photos of me - all from my grad lab's website. When I interviewed for postdocs, my now-postdoc advisor Googled me and learned all about my favorite (wholesome) hobby (about which I have several websites). It didn't really bother me, because they were all upfront about it, and because my presence in Google is restricted to my science career and favorite hobby.

Anonymous said...

Sort of tangentially related- I regularly google our weekly seminar speaker, and if I'm at a conference, the speakers who are giving interesting talks. The former is to see if they're someone worth getting to know better (overlapping research interests, on powerful committees, etc.) by going to dinner with them after their talk, and the latter in case it seems like they have papers with ideas that might be relevant to my work that I might have otherwise missed.

Anonymous said...

As far as job candidates go, my understanding from our human resources folks is that this is illegal and could be the basis for a lawsuit if a candidate so chose to do such a thing.

so if you look, be aware that you shouldn't be and be careful.

As far a prospective students, I have no idea about the law. But given that our students put way too much info on the web, I do it.

SocSciProf said...

As a current academic job-seeker, I have to admit that I'm a little peeved when a search committee *hasn't* googled me. I am a reasonably well-known (in my field) science blogger and passionate about outreach, and I want to find a job where that's valued. When someone hasn't taken the time to check out my public persona, I wonder about my fit in that department.

Google isn't just about stalking someone and finding their drunken pictures. It's about finding out how an academic chooses to portray herself/himself in public. We can no longer pretend that Facebook and other social networking sites are private. And we can no longer pretend that we can do research (and teaching) behind closed doors all the time. There is a growing public dimension to academia that I for one am trying to embrace.

It works both ways. One of the criteria I look for when choosing where to apply for jobs is whether or not the department has a good web presence (read: links to faculty pages with CVs, info about the aims of the department, news and press releases, etc.). If the department has little to no public dimension, I wonder what that says about their commitment to teaching and research.

In short, yes, you should google a PhD or job candidate. And you should google a department you're applying to for a PhD or a job.

Anonymous said...

John Vidale has pointed out exactly why you should NOT use google. How exactly does one judge the appropriateness of the letter writers from the department website? One could have argued that my not having a letter from one prof was odd, except I never had a chance to take a class with hir due to hir sabbatical and low teaching load...not things mentioned on a website.

As for finding no trace of someone, well some of us do that intentionally so you CAN'T find us online. I block my facebook to anyone who is not a friend and never post anything I wouldn't mind a search committee to see.

Anonymous said...

In this application year I discovered by googling a graduate applicant that he is eligible for a certain fellowship at our university, but he had not provided the relevant information on his application. If he is eligible for independent funding, it increases his likelihood of acceptance.

Anonymous said...

I googled someone I might be interested in working with and found a letter to the editor he'd written where he refused on some sort of bizarre principle to take his university's sexual harassment policy training. He came across as a real jerk. Yikes, steer clear. (His argument was along the lines of "they're indoctrinating us.")

Laura said...

I wonder if there may be a difference in the usefulness of a Google search on applicants, depending on what they're applying for. I don't think think that Google searches about grad applicants would be useful--like Anon 3:43, I don't really care about their extracurricular talents, nor do I care about their drunken revels, as long as they don't affect their work in the lab. However, I think if I were on a search committee, I would definitely Google shortlisted applicants to see what kind of web presence they have, and I would be much more put off by (recent) ill-advised photos. I guess for me, it comes down to the nature of the commitment: grad students and postdocs will be in the program for a few years, but colleagues will potentially be in your dept. for life--and will have a say on important issues--so you'd better darn well be able to trust their judgment.

Anonymous said...

As the chair of our program's search committee, I did this just the other day. Not on every candidate (who has that kind of time?) but on one candidate whose file was compelling but had several big holes (a foreign-born student who claimed to be living in the US but gave no information about what they were doing here). Unfortunately that search did not turn up any useful information.

Tor Bertin said...

I find Google to be useful in graduate school searches, if not just because individual labs often have websites associated with them, making it easier to learn about their research interests, publication history, etc. in more detail than would be the case with a simple Google Scholar search.

I highly recommend it.

Cloud said...

I am a hiring manager in industry. I ALWAYS check my LinkedIn network for candidates I might interview. If I know someone who knows the candidate- that is incredibly helpful. I am almost always hiring someone into a position that will require them to learn a lot of new things, and I want to find out if they are going to be able to do that.

I don't usually do general Google searches. However, one of the reasons I don't blog under my real name is that I don't want a potential hiring manager googling me and finding my blog with a bunch of posts about how I managed to work through the sleep deprivation induced fog of early motherhood (surprisingly well, in retrospect!) and other things that are irrelevant to my ability to do a job now but that small-minded people might hold against me.

John Vidale said...

Trying to read between the lines, there seem to be two issues with Googling applicants - is it an effective use of time? and does it invade privacy?

Both are evolving issues as searches get more effective, and people become more conscious of their web visibility and use the web in new ways.

I don't buy that there is nothing relevant on the web beyond the self-promotion in the application packet and the kudos of the chosen letter writers. Looking at the 50 grad applications in my specialty that landed on my computer last week, there are many gaps and colorings in the submitted materials.

Jay said...

I find it disturbing to hear that career decisions can be influenced by the fact that people have grown up and gone to school in China or Korea and therefore Google searches won't show much.

Someone works her butt off to achieve academic success and is willing to travel thousands of miles and live away from her family in order to move forward in her career, and you're going to be "less enthusiastic" about her because she grew up under a repressive government? That's just - wrong.

Anonymous said...

I routinely look for professional webpages of postdoc applicants. These are quite informative, and give a better sense of the person as a person, as a professional, and they can even give a better sense of their work and scientific interests.
While I don't think I ever found out anything that affected my original ranking of the candidates, I wouldn't say that that can't happen. It is definitely part of data set that I use to decide on offers. If someone doesn't have a website, that is definitely a negative brownie point, but definitely not a deal breaker.

I've never googled students, however. But in our program, students apply to the program and not to the research advisor.

Anonymous said...

I once googled a (grad school) applicant and found that their facebook page listed their likes/hobbies (things like "hiking" and "doing science") as well as what 'groups' they belonged to (Sierra Club, as well as a major scientific society). Now, maybe they 'planted' the pro-science stuff there to fool me, but, it made a good impression on me that they really were excited about science. I didn't and wouldn't base any decisions on that info, but, I do routinely google applicants (especially if they get to the interview stage).

Anonymous said...

During our university's HR training for search committees, we are instructed not to use a Google search for candidates. The university says this opens us up for accusations that we used something inappropriate to make a decision. Candidates can tell who and when someone has searched for them and accessed their sites. For example, what if you viewed something that indicated religious preference during your google-stalking? Then the candidate claimed you used that to make your decision. Our HR department does not want the university to have that risk...

Anonymous said...

In the last year I have googled potential post-doc advisors, but it was usually in order to find their lab websites, which aren't always well-advertised on the department webpages.

Through this method, I did randomly find out that one potential mentor was a convicted felon for a lab-related offense. So, yes, it did negatively affect my decision to apply there.

I feel weird, however, when I find websites with personal photos (of vacations, etc.) of potential mentors. I feel like it crosses some line.

Anonymous said...

Typically I do search the web to verify their list of publications (depending on the number, not all only few of the key ones). While I haven't used any "personal" pursuits as part of my judgement criteria I know from a friend of mine who works in the scientific writing field that their HR director does perform an extensive internet search on candidates. The results have not influenced getting the person in for an interview but did play a role in the final decision.

Anonymous said...

I have a fairly common name, and at the start of my postdoc application year when I googled myself I was on page 3. Unfortunately one of the first hits was www.romance.com, which site requires you to be over 18 to enter and read the erotic fiction (I had to check). A lot of people did google me that year, if only as a shortcut to find my CV etc, since by the time I graduated I was the first hit. Maybe the erotic fiction writer got some new fans too.

Female Science Professor said...

I'm not convinced by most of these examples, although the extreme examples are pretty compelling (and the discussion is interesting). Note that I am not talking about looking up professional things (citations, activity of a research group etc.); that is important and useful to do. We should all have a professional web-presence, with relevant information about our work. However, I still don't see why I would want to know about someone's (legal) leisure activities when making decisions about graduate admissions etc.

John Vidale said...

I guess everyone has their own method of checking who to hire and admit, and sense of propriety.

I find tinfoil-hat the idea that lawyers will come after me. Maybe if I took wholly inappropriate criteria as a basis for bad decisions and publicly blogged it, and the would-be students or faculty could prove that denial of entree to my program shipwrecked their career, which seems unlikely.

If I lived in fear of lawyers, there are worse nightmares I face - earthquake prediction debunking (see L'Aquila), the debates about central US earthquake risk, statements on how risky are urban faults, not to mention potential issues with earthquake early warning misfires.

More intrusive than Googling, I've been known to call references and check with recent graduates of programs to get another perspective on candidates. Some mention much more personal details than just the citation count and years since degree, and I can't feel too guilty about that either.

John Vidale has pointed out exactly why you should NOT use google. How exactly does one judge the appropriateness of the letter writers from the department website? Give Googlers a little more credit for being able to realistically interpret what they see. Use your imagination.

As for finding no trace of someone, well some of us do that intentionally so you CAN'T find us online. Fine, but that is not the kind of student nor faculty I'm looking for. I'd like to see visible accomplishment.

I also find misplaced the outrage from Jay@11:46 that difficulty assessing applications from culturally different countries such as Japan and Korea inhibits their admission. In addition to difficulty Googling, the grading systems are different, the advisors are often unknown, and even the hierarchy of their labs is less familiar than those here in the US, the authenticity of essays and scores can be unclear, not to mention non-resident tuition.

Of course they have a higher hurdle to clear for admissions, and difficulty Googling plays a vanishingly small role compared to the rest. Actually, 3 or 4 applicants from China have been trying to friend me on Facebook or LinkedIn this month - they're not all invisible nor web neophytes.

Physician Scientist said...

By googling, I found out that a potential technician had a $472,000 judgement against her from the US govt for running a "make money working from home" ponzi scheme in Connecticut.

Oh...and HR didn't figure this out so yah, I do google people.

Anonymous said...

I have done it sometimes for prospective grad students, and found it to be marginally useful. Not for real personal stuff (I have not found anything really juicy, perhaps because I haven't tried that hard, and would like to think I would ignore it if I did) but because even undergrads nowadays (at least in the USA) often have quasi-professional web pages - I have seen a few very elaborate ones - showing and telling what they're interested in, what they have done etc. Yes, some of that is in their applications, but it can be described in different ways on self-designed web pages and I think you get a more nuanced sense of the person from combining that with what's in the file. Could be good or bad...

If I could interview prospective students in person before admission, I would much rather do that; but that's usually not practical. Googling someone can, in some cases, give at least some of the impression one might get from an interview. If I take someone on as a Ph.D. student I'm probably going to be stuck with them for a long time so I want to make as well-informed a decision as I can. I have taken on some who turned out to be real problem children. With a couple of them their issues were not subtle- they were apparent within 5 minutes after meeting them in person. Although the problems were invisible (to me at least) in their application files, maybe there might have been some indication of them on their web pages if they had had them and I had looked.

Anonymous said...

FSP,

Let's say for a moment that you google a candidate and find their blog where they routinely and persistently insult other colleagues.

Would you consider that to be pertinent information?

nicoleandmaggie said...

I just hope they don't mix me up with the woman of the same name who lives in Florida.

Anonymous said...

I googled a potential postdoc advisor in order to see if this person was "family friendly" as I have kids and don't want to work with someone who doesn't understand the demands of juggling family and work. I found out he and his wife had two kids and his wife was a physician running her own private practice. This is personal information, but it helped me feel more like this advisor was someone who would be sympathetic to my day-to-day struggles. I've worked with people before who really don't get it, and its been really challenging.

Anonymous said...

@Anon 10:18, I wouldn't hire them not because of their attitude but because of their stupidity. How stupid can you be to have a google-able blog like that?

AK said...

I have googled potential graduate advisers, and I'm not sure why. It is somewhat an impulse to try to find out as much as possible about the person, but mostly just easier than looking at a CV.
Sometimes, searches turned up something like a video of a lecture or talk, which is helpful, and I wouldn't have gotten from a CV. I suppose I would also have noticed any "informal information" but I didn't see much. I don't think it would be very relevant but may bias my judgement.
Information people leave online may say something about personality. And, I think the question of personality affecting applying/hiring decisions is broader than an internet search.

B-Rate Prof said...

I've noticed when you google a current faculty member, ratemyprofessors.com is often one of the first things that pops up. I think most of us would agree that the samples there are usually small and biased, but I wonder how many times that site has affected a decision for a faculty hire.

Adjunctorium said...

I don't know the answer to your question from direct experience. However, I do know this:

A tenured friend of mine was short-listed for a dream job at an institution in the Northwest where she really wanted to go. It looked like she was going to get the offer until someone on the search committee went to Rate My Professors and read a (libelous) entry about her.

The complaint was false and misleading. She had never been informed by Rate My Professors that some former student had targeted her, and she was never given a chance to respond to it (or to call her lawyer).

Because of what was published at Rate My Professor, she was passed over for the job.

John Vidale said...

@Adjunctorium

The weaknesses of ratemyprof and the like are well known to anyone who googles much. A single or even a couple of negative posts should carry very little weight. The same goes for the official student reviews conducted by the university.

Either that search committee was singularly incompetent, or the candidate did not hear the real reason why she did not get the job. I don't know which it was, of course, but I do know that of the several cases for which I knew, the reason people "knew" that they did not get an offer was incorrect.

Anonymous said...

I have a professional website which also has some photos and videos of "fun science" related to my field, and this has provided much excitement and discussion for dinner conversation at interviews... plus, with statistics tracking, i know who's considering my application.

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

Indeed I did. I was looking up a publication of a candidate we had giving a talk for a search committee and went to his home page to see if he had it online.

Prominently on his home page he displayed the note:

"Classes are cancelled on ...day... due to illness."

...day... was today. So when we cozied up for a chat after the talk I asked him if he was feeling better now. He looked at me with a blank stare. I said "Oh, I just saw on your home page that you were sick."

My colleagues were livid because they liked the guy, but I didn't want to hire a liar. He ended up taking a position at another school in town (he told us he needed to come to SquareStateCapital for personal reasons). And he left there after another year for a different state.

Just goes to show you - he who lies once, will lie again. For personal reasons.