Tips for job applicants: why we don’t agree on the top candidates

Here are the steps we take in choosing whom to interview, in case you are just tuning in. First, each person on the search committee read about a third of the applicants. Two people read each applicant. Then each reader turned in the names in their top ten percent. This narrowed the pool of over 200 to about 40, or the top 20 percent overall. There were a lot of people only one of the two readers chose, so we are not doing anything like methodically choosing the single most excellent person. Later I’ll say why this variation that at first horrified me is actually a good thing.

We then took those 40 or so and all the people on the search committee read them. The goal of this reading was to get to the top ten percent for all, around 20. After we read them, we discussed them in person. We did this in a lively two hour meeting. Some issues that came up included potential for the future, independence from the adviser, collegiality, teaching promise, and importance of the ideas. Again we did not entirely agree, but we reduced 40 by about half, to around 20 wonderful people. It is very daunting to think that we need to cut the 20 into half twice more, to get to 4 or 5 to interview.

Right now we are trying to cut 20 to 10. Per my request as head of the committee, at this time as at the others, we categorize and don’t rank. We now choose the top five and the next five.  We have opened the pool up to the entire faculty, sorted into top twenty and everyone else. We gave them two weeks to give us feedback. We want everyone to own the eventual success of this search, if they want to.

At every stage we have fewer people to learn about, so we can read about them and read their work in ever more detail. The thing is, evolutionary biology is not violin. There is much less agreement on who is the best. There is a subtle rating we can’t even articulate ourselves. Some rate excitement more. Others rate collegiality more. Some pay more attention to the letters. Some pay more attention to the number of published papers. Some pay more attention to importance of ideas. Even people paying attention only to ideas do not agree on what is most exciting. Some pay more attention to techniques or approaches. It is impossible to do this in a standard way.

This may sound horrifying to those of you trying to find a job. But there is a good side to it. It means for us that we have some chance of getting one of our top people, because other universities will have different ideas as to who is best. That same thing can work for you. You may be just what we want. You may have attributes that others do not recognize. We may be a match for all time. After all, aren’t you glad that the one you love most is not the one everyone loves most?

In sum, we are doing our best. At no time do we all agree. I tabulate the results and leave unknown to the rest of the committee who chose whom, only sharing which applicants got how many points. I remind everyone often to remember we are all biased and we need to consciously overcome that. I remind everyone that we are choosing for all time, for all the department, not just for us. I think we will do a great job. I hope our top choices are not the same as the other universities. There are so many talented applicants out there. I just hope you understand we are trying to do our best, but we are not perfect at it. Even recognizing we want to rank merit in the ways we measure it (smart, scholarly, creative, collegial, productive) will not always end up with the same choices.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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2 Responses to Tips for job applicants: why we don’t agree on the top candidates

  1. Pingback: The Job Search Paradox | Thoughts For Breakfast

  2. Pingback: How do you get an academic job in biology? | Sociobiology

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