Let the right one in: hiring academic staff

Recruitment processes at UK universities need an overhaul if we are to hire the best people, argues Thomas Harrison

August 21, 2014

Source: Elly Walton

I should like to imagine that those who interviewed me for my current post were inspired in their selection. I should like to think also that my appointment was a resounding success, or at least that I have done no significant damage in my decade of “leadership” of my subject area. My conscience tells me, though, that I probably fluked it all those years ago, and that, if I have indeed been a net bonus to my immediate colleagues, or to the broader university, it is probably, again, a matter of chance.

This is in no sense a reflection on the wise men and women who selected me long ago, or on my own university more than on any other (indeed, Liverpool has made significant strides with regard to recruitment). It is a matter of the process by which we all, by and large, go about choosing our colleagues.

First, the 15-minute presentation, with 15 minutes of questions, on the basis of which an audience of colleagues and postgraduates, sometimes impersonating advanced undergraduates, judges both the profundity of an individual’s research and their capacity to hold a student audience. Then, the 30-minute interview (often in practice shorter), with a schedule of interview questions so formulaic that I long ago knocked up a guide for my students and friends on how to prepare for them. (Ten years later, my list of questions is intact, except for an additional question on research impact.)

This pattern, of course, is by no means invariable. (My own interview ran to 35 minutes.) And I am sure also that it is not completely ineffective at weeding out the mad and bad. Because of its brevity and predictability, however, it is also perhaps a process that inadvertently advantages some candidates (those who look familiar, who are the most superficially confident, or who have worked within the same eccentric culture of recruitment) while disadvantaging others.

We need simply to give more time to the whole business. First, to reading candidates’ research. Notwithstanding the distorting effects of the research excellence framework (which render foreign candidates for posts blindfolded in a minefield, unless they are painstakingly prepared), panels still seem too rarely to read and form their own judgement on candidates’ work, relying instead on reputation or the weight of words. (Where newly appointed professors, for example, are promptly deemed unsubmittable to the REF, something has clearly gone wrong.)

We need, then, to give more time to presentations and interviews: to assess a candidate’s teaching in action, really to probe and explore their research, and to assure ourselves that their apparent strengths will not melt away after appointment. (By contrast, a suggestion made to me recently that a selection panel might include no relevant subject specialists – on the basis of an analogy with promotion committees – implies a worrying over-confidence in our ability to discern.)

We need more time also for candidates to assess us. An institutional buffet and the brute fact of a job will be enough to recruit somebody, but if we want to recruit the best we need to sell ourselves, not simply to sit back and wait.

My own experience of interviews certainly revealed some bizarre practices: being expected to sit in on other candidates’ presentations, for example, or lining up together in a corridor waiting for the anointed one to be called in. But I was never expected, as a PhD student of mine was recently (and this for a permanent post at a leading London college) to pay for my own travel and accommodation.

The suggestion that we should give more time to recruitment, that we should adopt a more American approach, will, of course, meet the inevitable objection: that time is one thing we do not have. To save time on recruitment, however, or to leave decisions to exclusively managerial judgement, is undoubtedly a false economy. When we hire in haste, too often we repent at leisure: small departments cannot afford even a single colleague unwilling or unable to pull their weight.

It is not only a matter of time, however. When the appointment process involves different elements, we need to be clearer about the distinct purposes that each serves: clear, for example, that a wooden presentation style on its own is never enough of a basis to deem any candidate unappointable.

And we need to have confidence in our own judgements – and in our own departments. Beneath the laissez-faire approach to recruitment, it is easy to suspect that some departments are in fact putting themselves down, fearing that the real stars would not come anyway, or that they would never stay. “Too posh for Liverpool”, a colleague of mine once judged in post-interview discussion, of a candidate whose only offence, it seemed, was to be unembarrassedly intellectual.

The judgement that a candidate would not “fit in” can come close at times to serving as a proxy for excluding on the basis of nationality or background. But it is also perhaps a symptom of an insecurity, or of a reluctance to be challenged.

Our successors will inevitably outstrip us, and we should delight in that. (Looking back at my earlier self, indeed, I marvel at my amateurism by comparison with candidates today.) Interview processes have doubtless improved also. But we still have a good way to go.

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