On Hiring… the subjectivity of it all.

On my recent post on hiring, written in response to MsPhD’s survey- MsPhD left the following comment. I find it sufficiently interesting that I’ll reply point by point… (I’m gearing up for grant-re-writing, can you tell?)…

MsPhD said:

Great post! Mostly what I suspected.

But do you see my point? How SUBJECTIVE it is? If every person on a hiring committee has a different ranking system for assigning points and cutting people from the list?

I say-  Actually, I don’t know how this works elsewhere- but you would probably be surprised by how quite overlapping the faculty search committee members short lists are (let’s say the top 10 candidates or something) when we actually get around to comparing them and deciding who to invite.  However, yes- there are people that fall from the list here and there, and not everyone uses the same reasoning and people can get caught up in their own agenda, that’s for sure. There’s usually a pretty healthy discussion in my experience about the candidates and who should be invited to interview. And finally- I don’t assign points to a particular attribute when I’m ranking the candidates- you don’t get 5 points per science paper and just 2 points for a JBC paper, etc. There is some subjectivity for lots of reasons that are fairly unavoidable- because candidates are not cut-outs that followed the same path from point A to point B,  and faculty members are not cut-outs that all the same agenda. Furthermore- hiring a faculty member is about hiring a colleague that you want to be around for the long term- just because someone has 10 science papers doesn’t mean they can’t simultaneously be a rotten human being.

Then MsPhD said:

Although we might agree on some of the main criteria being important, the weighting of those is different depending on the person doing the ranking and on the position that happens to be open.

It’s hard for me to see how, as a scientist, I’m supposed to be okay with a very un-systematic system. Different rules for different people, and changing all the time? That smacks of a breeding ground for bias, if you ask me.

To which I say- Again- actually you would be surprised about how much we are in agreement about what the major important factors in a hire are… papers, grants etc.- because if a candidate’s got it, they’ve GOT it and it’s pretty hard to argue that they don’t (at least on paper).  I should say this is coming from the perspective of an extremely competitive job market this year. The hard part comes in the more subjective- who ‘fits’ and what area do we want to emphasize as a department, etc.- and all the politics around that which really depend on the makeup of the hiring group. And as for that bit about whether we make different rules for different people and the ground is shifty, and your discomfort with the ‘un-systematic’ nature of the system- I think for the most part we are as systematic as we can be- but we are talking about a working situation with human beings, there are relationships involved, there are egos, there are different priorities, etc. etc.- I don’t think one could ever completely quantify this process.


I also think it’s quite interesting that you ignore the teaching statement, although I know this is the norm in the R1 schools. To me, the TS is usually QUITE revealing about a person’s attitude toward mentoring and science philosophy, so even if there wasn’t a large teaching load, I would look at these carefully for signs of a standout thinker with some real creativity… or a standoffish snot. Or someone just doing everything for show- typing in some plagiarized list of cliches for a teaching statement… that person might also be ethically bankrupt enough to do the same with their science.

I say:  Well, I don’t totally ignore it- but I don’t make any decisions based on what is in it because it is pretty low down on my list of factors that are going to get a person tenure. We can discuss the political correctness of this point some other time, but it is what it is. And as for the mentoring- you can write whatever you want on a teaching statement and it doesn’t say anything about how you are going to be as a mentor- I actually think that the letters of rec are more revealing for this- if a candidate has already had teaching/mentoring/rotation student guiding experience as a student or postdoc.


You get a gold star for one part- I particularly liked the part where you said if you found someone good who didn’t fit with what your department needed right then, but you could hook them up, you would do that. I would love to think that all search committee members are willing to put in the extra minute it takes to do that. But I suspect you’re in the minority there.

I say:  I suck as a matchmaker in the romantic sense- but I’ve been successful at this kind of matchmaking when it comes to hiring. I don’t know how common it is for people to do this kind of thing. But- I do know that when I myself was applying, I had at least one place pass my application on to a different department that they thought would be a better fit (at least one that I know about).

Finally- MsPhD said:

A final minority point- I would be curious to know how many WOMEN have been able to declare a conflict of interest with their advisors and still get faculty positions. With only a single exception I can think of (and she was from an older generation), all the success stories I’ve heard of postdocs who managed to estrange themselves from interfering advisors were men.

My impression is that the women who find themselves in this kind of situation often end up leaving science altogether, or going to industry where conflict of interest with the current boss is more the norm than the exception (job searches are often confidential from the current employer, etc.).

I’ve got no idea about this one. I think you mean women who don’t want to ask their advisor for a letter, because the have had a conflict in the past? (That’s not typically what I think of when I hear the phrase ‘conflict of interest’, but nevertheless). I’ve not seen many cases like this that I recall- I know of one specifically but the applicant was a man.


23 thoughts on “On Hiring… the subjectivity of it all.

  1. Regarding the teaching statement, teaching matters to us; tenure requires competence in teaching and we have a 1/1 load with either some teaching lab supervision or a extra lecture every third or fourth semester. Anyway, teaching statements generally only weed people out. If we are having trouble deciding between people — which is common as you’re trying to pick the optimal 1-2% of applicants for interviews — then if one of their teaching sucks, well, that makes the decision easier.

  2. I find it ironic that it is exactly the sorts of institutions that Young Female Scientist insists are the only possible places she would ever consider for faculty positions that don’t give a single flying fuck about teaching statements.

  3. I find it ironic that YFS appears to believe that the hiring process is the only part of science that contains a subjective component.

  4. Furthermore- hiring a faculty member is about hiring a colleague that you want to be around for the long term- just because someone has 10 science papers doesn’t mean they can’t simultaneously be a rotten human being.

    Right. I think this is often the dominant feature of the second phase of hiring – the c.v. (and maybe letters etc.) get you to interview, but the actual hire is (generalising, of course) then made on the basis of your talk(s), 1-1 discussion, whether you treat the grad students as worthwhile, and so on.

    Is there a bias here? Well, I suppose in favour of collegial people, yes. But that seems perfectly appropriate to me – I know that regardless of whether I am hiring a postdoc, a lab tech, or a faculty colleague, I want someone with whom I expect to have a pleasant, collaborative and collegial relationship. If they hide in their lab, abuse the staff, flout ethical rules and produce 10 Science papers, why would that be a reason for me to wish to hire them?

    [I know for a fact in at least a couple of cases that offers came in part because of the c.v. but the clincher – which is what I tried to express above – was that people liked my talk(s) and thought I was someone they could see talking science with. I would guess that this is normal.]

  5. Ewan, this is an interesting point. Currently in this country we have a governmental funding system that evaluates all university academic staff, with strong emphasis on publications and the grading linked to funding. So one could suspect a bias by hiring departments towards those with strong publication records, regardless of their bastard rating, as these individuals will automatically bring more funding into the dept. A bit of a dilemma. .

  6. I’m not sure that a teaching statement matters that much at an undergraduate institution, and I say that as somebody who got hired into an undergraduate department where the teaching bar for tenure is higher than the research bar.

    The reality is that unless you’ve been teaching for a while, your teaching statement probably has a lot of high-minded ideas that sound great but may have little to do with the direction you’ll actually take in the classroom. I had done quite a bit of adjunct work, but most of it was rather specialized, despite all of it I was still pretty inexperienced, and looking back at what I wrote I find my teaching statement kind of embarrassing.

    From discussions with people who have been on search committees, it sounds like what an undergraduate department really wants to see is that you’ve done actual teaching (no, TA doesn’t count, it’s a totally different game when it’s your class), that you enjoy it, and that you have some evidence of success (e.g. letter of recommendation from a supervisor or colleague, course evaluations, objective measures of student learning, teaching award). Keep the teaching statement concrete rather than high-minded, focus on what you actually do and what has worked for you, and make it clear how much you enjoy it. That’s more important than trying to be eloquent and high-minded.

    In my case, I had a letter of recommendation from a colleague that I’d done some curriculum development projects with (we redesigned an experiment) and I had some course materials that had been adopted by other instructors. My teaching statement had some passionate and high-minded things in it, but it also had concrete statements consistent with my recommendation letter and the experience noted on the CV.

  7. I’m commenting over at my blog, the comment got far too long for here! Broadly, though, hiring a new person is about creating a relationship – so of course it won’t be entirely based on objective numbers. I suspect we’ve all met people who would be ‘perfect for us’ on paper but left us cold, and had fulfilling relationships with people who are substantially unlike that imagined ‘ideal’.

  8. BP- The importance of classroom teaching ability varies widely, and in my experience depends in large part on what kind and how much teaching responsibility the hiring department has. My department doesn’t have much. Also note that no where did I say that teaching ABILITY is not important- but I think teaching statements are not all that important. I can learn more about a person’s teaching ability by watching their seminar, their chalk talk etc.- nothing like a live demo.

    C PP- I suppose you have more experience with YFS than I do…

    Neuro-conservative- RIGHT, so RIGHT- subjectivity is EVERYWHERE in this job. God, maybe I’ll have to write a post on that sometime.

    Ewan- I know people who got hired on their science and they ended up having criminal records.

    Alex- You make an important point, I think teaching statements are sort of silly- but if there is a heavy teaching load, some actual teaching experience- and being good at teaching is probably more important.

  9. The people who complain about subjectivity in science and seem to think they’ve expressed a profound gotcha! with respect to the supposed objectivity of the scientific process crack me up. What supposed objective process for reviewing papers or grants or job candidates do they propose? Oh that’s right, they never do, they just whine about so-called subjectivity..

  10. You got it Bikemonkey! And the hilarious thing is that in the UK–where they are implementing a supposedly “objective” process for assessing scientists–everyone’s in a fucking uproar that it is TOTES UNFAIRZ!!!!!!!!!!

  11. Oh, and I should add that it seems that YFS’s problem isn’t whether the hiring process is objective or subjective. She complains about both aspects as unfair, as either aspect seems to lead to her not getting the job she deserves. From an objective standpoint–quality first author publications–she admits that she is deficient, and complains that counting papers doesn’t identify good PIs. From a subjective standpoint–the old boys’ network–she is not getting any love, and complains that those who are are going to suck as PIs.

    I think her basic complaint is that no one is willing to look at her, ignore both the objective and subjective reality, and somehow agree with her assertion that because she is really good with the undergrads in the lab and because her ideas are brilliant and creative, she is going to be TEH AWESUM PI.

  12. I just wanted to make one small contribution. I’m also not totally sure what YFS meant by her last point about conflict of interest, but in case this is what she meant here’s a story. One of my mentors (a very successful lady full prof in my field which is dominated probably 97% by men), was told flat out by her advisor that he didn’t think she would make it at a research university. I’m not sure how much she relied on him (a very famous man) for letters but she sure showed him. She’s very well respected and at a Very Famous R1 University.

    Now that I am on the subject, I am reminded of the Myth of the Meritocracy, which I will post about soon, too long for here.

  13. The subjectivity vs objectivity issue is a conundrum. The uproar in the UK is justified imho, because the metrics have not been considered well at all, and Britain is in no place to risk losing any more competent researchers overseas than she already has (but that’s been discussed elsewhere already). Besides, it’s hard not to agree with DrDra that personality and goodness of fit must be guidelines in recruiting in addition to competency and productivity. It is everywhere else (outside of science as well as in) because at the end of the day productivity is always to some extent contingent on one’s relationship with one’s colleagues.

    On the flip side, and as PhizzleDrizzle alludes to above, on-paper metrics place a firmer emphasis on the meritocratic aspect of recruitment and should attenuate the Old Boy cronyism that tends to form the main barrier to women and minorities (assuming that discrimination hasn’t already hurt their competitiveness). I think that was partly the intent in the UK, although it got lost in the general stupidity exercised in implementing this more objective policy (and the Blairite notion that increasing productivity is as easy as setting the bar as high as you can). The challenge is coming up with suitable, one-size fits all metrics that best reflect the complexities of the collaborative scientific enterprise. A possibly impossible challenge.

  14. DSKS- I guess I don’t know if on-paper metrics will help the meritrocratic aspect if the old boys are still evaluating the applications- this only works if there is some accountability- and for search committees there really isn’t…. and how would that work (search committees being accountable to someone, anyone,?) ??

  15. Phizzle, fine post chica.
    I love that statement about being qualified to contribute to the diversity of the department. Too bad the pasty asswipes won’t take their heads out of their asses to care about the benefits of diversity.

    The part I disagree with you is the “fit” category. Why should I have to “fit” their criteria beyond the basic job posting? I’m qualified to do the job (research, teaching, mentoring, service). The whole point of diversity is *not* to be another fucking round peg for another fucking round hole. So if a department is looking for fit, then I’m fucked for a job at that place. I refuse to fit in their stupid predefined hole. I want to be the diversity (as in NOT fit their hole), which means be myself. Otherwise, they hire the “token female” who they hope will be seen and not heard.

  16. I think you might be misinterpreting what “fit” means in the context of an academic job search. It always refers to the subject matter expertise of the applicant–in relation to research and/or teaching–and how it relates to the expertise that already exists in the department.

  17. “this only works if there is some accountability- and for search committees there really isn’t”

    Granted. Attempts in the UK to hold search committees accountable (or rather, manipulate them to satisfy the institutions simplistic metric demands) have neither been effective nor popular by most accounts. Micromanaging search committees is probably not a good way to go; even if those same groups are potentially facilitating hiring discrepancies across gender and race, they are nevertheless the best qualified to make hiring decisions. Certainly better than a pen-pusher with a list of numerically presented “standards” to satisfy.

    I suppose the question is whether the diversification of search committees is beginning to overcome some of the inherent biases present, or whether female members still find themselves fighting hard to give female applicants a fair hearing at meetings. What’s the scoop on that, for the uninitiated?

  18. Quite right C PP- By ‘fit’ I mean what research interests does a candidate have and do they complement or overlap existing research interests in the department. Some departments, like mine for example, have a few areas of emphasis- we have two such strong areas of emphasis. People with research interests too much outside these two areas (with no overlapping subject) would not ‘fit’ and would not be likely to thrive and find colleagues whose expertise they could benefit from and vice versa.

  19. I was going by what Phizzle talked about with “fit/likeability” and “wiggle room.” I took this to mean that a candidate meets the criteria for the job, will be shortlisted, but then “fit” is what takes over for who to hire. If a search then focuses on fit, they are looking for someone to mesh with THEIR ideas, not bring diversity to the table, as in a square peg “wiggling” into a round hole by being likeable (as in like them).

  20. jc – I know what you mean – that’s what I meant to the two sides, there’s the insidious side, i.e. keeping the department excessively homogenous, and then there’s the more appropriate side, i.e. keeping out the assholes. Since I personally dislike working with assholes (and have not experienced searching for an academic job yet so maybe I’m still naive), I currently lean towards leaving the wiggle room in order to keep out toxic douchebags.

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