The psychology of academic hiring committees (IV) Attribute susbtitution: how much does the candidate/lab/field need the position?

Even though experience is only a substitute for the attribute that is supposed to be evaluated in hiring decisions, there is at least some correlation between the two attributes, or at least in some cases (like number of publications). More troubling are the following criteria which have little to do with the target attribute:

- 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).

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

These criteria, which are used in actual rankings, answer an entirely different question: how much does the candidate or discipline or lab need the position? This has nothing to do with any of the official criteria.

The “queue”

In some disciplines, committee members will easily tell you that there is in effect a “queue”, because there are so many good candidates. You should not expect to get the position the first time, even if you are very good (although it certainly helps!).

First remark, in defence of the committees: the second time you apply, you should certainly have a better chance to get the position, since a number of people who were better ranked than you got the position and therefore will not be competing anymore. This is obvious, but it is not exactly what is meant by “there is a queue”. As I have understood it, what is meant is the following. Again as I wrote before, selecting young scientists is a very difficult task, especially for a committee with heterogeneous expertise. Committee members are therefore happy to use an easier substituted attribute. When two good applications are discussed, and one candidate applies for the first time while the other one applies for the third time, it is tempting for the committee to reason as follows: let us give the position to the older applicant, and the younger applicant will get it next time; implied: this way we actually pick the two applicants who are both good. This is of course a fallacy since no position is created in the process. Whichever applicant is chosen, it will mean that another applicant will not get the position. So the reasoning is illogical. The applicant that should be selected is the best one, not the one that has applied the most number of times. Since the number of positions granted each year is not going to be changed by the decision process, the result of such fallacious reasoning is only to artificially create a “queue” and increase the average hiring age.


Criteria based on discipline or lab quotas are not necessary irrational, although they have nothing to do with the individual's scientific quality. But there is a similarly irrational criterion, this time generally in more advanced positions, 1st class junior scientists (CR1 in administrative slang). In France, there are two types of junior positions: full-time researcher (e.g. in CNRS; 2nd class or 1st class) and assistant professor in a university, which is both research and teaching. In principle, you could apply to a full-time research position if you are a postdoc, or if you are an assistant professor and you want to do more research. Officially no distinction is made. However, in practice, any committee member will tell you that it is next to impossible for an assistant professor to get such a position. Why is that? Again this is a case of substitution: failing to clearly distinguish between good scientists on the basis of their expected scientific career, committees answer a different question: who needs the position most. So the reasoning (which I have heard explicitly many times) is as follows: 1) if the candidate already has a permanent position, then he/she needs the advertised position less than a candidate who is currently a postdoc; 2) if the candidate has a permanent position but abroad, then he should be favoured over the candidate who has a permanent position in France, because it increases the number of faculty positions in France by one.

Again this is a fallacy because no committee decision whatsoever can create or destroy a position, or has any effect on public budget. The only impact is on who gets the position. If an assistant professor in France gets the research position, then the budget corresponding to the former position is now freed and another assistant professor is hired instead. Whoever is selected by the committee, it will not increase or decrease the amount of public budget allocated to permanent academic hiring, which is an independent political decision.

The consequence of basing decisions on substituted attributes, or simply taking these irrelevant attributes into account, is logically obvious: it reduces the weight given to the target attribute in the final ranking, i.e., worse candidates are selected.

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