The psychology of academic hiring committees (II) Attribute substitution

Substitution occurs in difficult judgments for which there is no direct access to the target attribute to be evaluated. This is typically the case of permanently hiring a young scientist: one wants to know whether the scientist will have a successful career, but the outcome is uncertain and especially difficult to assess if you do not know the scientist's field. In such situations, the target attribute is replaced by some other more available attribute. An obvious one would be: the number of publications of the candidate.

To some extent, committees know that the decision is difficult and that they have to use indirect criteria. So they agree in advance on a list of criteria that are made public. An example from the neurophysiology section: scientific excellence, quality and originality of the scientific production, mobility (i.e., whether the candidate did a postdoc abroad), a good scientific project, a good oral presentation and interview.

Establishing a list of indirect criteria is not irrational in such a difficult situation, since the target attribute (future career) is not directly accessible. But what you might notice in this list is that, to the exception of one criterion (mobility), all criteria are still fairly vague and difficult to evaluate. What is “scientific excellence” and how can someone outside the field evaluate it? How can someone who is not in the field of the candidate know if the research is original? This is where attribute substitution occurs. From what I have heard by discussing with many committee members from different disciplines, here are some of the criteria that turned out to be actually used in their decisions, which I have categorized as a function of the question that is substituted for the actual question:

Substituted question: what is the experience of the candidate?

- The number of publications; in particular, there is often an unofficial threshold for that number.

- The age of the candidate (older is better, but not too old).

- Whether the candidate did a postdoc abroad (rather than in the same country, which would be bad).

- In teaching positions (not CNRS), whether the candidate has already taught quite a bit.

Substituted question: how much does the candidate/lab/field need the position?

- The number of times the candidate has previously applied.

- Whether another candidate is applying for the same lab (which would be bad).

- Whether the lab had a successful candidate the previous year.

- Whether the sub-discipline has not had a successful candidate for some time (which would be good).

- For more senior positions (a separate competition), whether the candidate already has a (junior) position in France (bad).

And a few other criteria I will talk about later, because they are not so much about attribute substitution:

- Whether one committee member knows the candidate (good).

- Whether one committee member knows a person who recommended the candidate (good).

- Whether the candidate “made a good impression” during the oral presentation.

- Publications in sexy journals such as Nature and Science.

There are also other criteria that have more to do with politics than with psychology, such as committee members pushing their former students, or candidates for their own labs. I will not comment them. I will comment a few of the unofficial criteria listed above. To fully understand, bear in mind that the application of a candidate is generally read in full detail by a single member of the committee, who is the referee.

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