Entry into the Arcanum (or: on admissions committees and faculty searches)

There have been some interesting articles about graduate school admissions and faculty hiring committees lately.

First, Julie Posselt is publishing a book that takes a sociological look at grad schools admissions. She watched six different departments at three universities review graduate applicants. It is in turns expected and horrifying:

For instance, those whose programs were not at the very top of the rankings frequently talked about not wanting to offer a spot to someone they believed would go to a higher-ranked program. They didn’t want their department to be the graduate equivalent of what high school students applying to college term a safety school. In this sense many of these departments turned down superior candidates, some of whom might have enrolled. Many of the professors sound insecure about their programs even though they are among the very best.

… Committee members also seemed to generalize from the experience of past graduate students who failed, wanting to avoid anyone like them in the future. They spoke of “being spooked” by seeing such applicants. The admissions committee members generally assumed applicants were getting Ph.D.s for careers like theirs — faculty jobs at research universities. So they were looking for signs of research potential. And they were also unabashed elitists. “This is an elite university and a lot of the people at the university are elitists,” one professor said with a laugh. “So they make a lot of inferences about the quality of someone’s work and their ability based on where they come from.”

…The applicant, to a linguistics Ph.D. program, was a student at a small religious college unknown to some committee members but whose values were questioned by others. “Right-wing religious fundamentalists,” one committee member said of the college, while another said, to much laughter, that the college was “supported by the Koch brothers.” The committee then spent more time discussing details of the applicant’s GRE scores and background — high GRE scores, homeschooled — than it did with some other candidates. The chair of the committee said, “I would like to beat that college out of her,” and, to laughter from committee members asked, “You don’t think she’s a nutcase?” Other committee members defended her, but didn’t challenge the assumptions made by skeptics.

Next, Yevgenia Kozorovitskiy has an article about being a mother in science. It is all worth a read, but this part is germane to their (neuroscience at Northwestern University) faculty search:

On average, this group – both men and women – defended their PhDs a little before 2008. That means that now at the close of 2015, the bulk of our applicants have lingered in postdoctoral limbo for more than half a decade. A postdoc position used to be an optional step toward independence in my field of neuroscience. Eventually, a year or two of research experience after receiving a doctoral degree and before winding up in a faculty job became expected. But now, seeing strong candidates with less than five years of high profile post-PhD work is rare.

Finally, Cryptogenomicon discusses how their faculty search (at Harvard) has gone so far:

Apparently people self-select pretty strongly. Too strongly, in fact. I’m worried about how much self-selection is going on, in two different respects. One is that our applicant pool starts out biased: it’s only 21% female, and it’s only 5% underrepresented minority. The other is that it’s striking how many applicants are either at Harvard already, or have past Harvard training. I think both observations are telling us the same thing: that there are highly qualified people who don’t think they’ll be comfortable or welcome here.

First thing I look for is what the research question is. I write a one-line summary for myself, to force myself to extract the relevant info. If, after due effort, I can’t get it, then I’m worried about clarity and focus — either mine (if I’m tired and it’s time for a break), or the candidate’s. Second I’m looking at publication history. I’m looking for evidence of substantial, original, creative work, and a trajectory that I can understand that leads up to the research proposal. I also check the titles and abstracts of the 1-3 papers/manuscripts that are submitted in the application package, so make sure that what the candidate identifies as their major contributions agrees with what I got from the CV, and I’ll dip into those papers to see if I get the points. Third, I skim reference letters, where (hidden amongst the superlatives) I’m looking for evidence that the candidate developed original ideas. Fourth, I’m looking for other rigorous selections that the candidate has passed before – graduation with honors as an undergrad, competitive postdoc fellowships, substantive research awards. No one thing is disqualifying by itself, especially because I’m on the lookout for unconventional people with unique superpowers, who are going to open up totally new niches. What I’m not concerned with: journal titles, H-index, citation counts, or impact factors.(ed – not explicitly, at least)

Happy hunting


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