Academics who interview graduate school applicants systematically favour thinner candidates, according to a US study.
By following the progress of 954 applications to postgraduate courses made by about 100 students, researchers at Bowling Green State University in Ohio found that when face-to-face interviews are conducted, those with a higher body mass index are less likely to be offered a place.
However, there is no significant difference in overweight candidates’ success rates when applications are carried out by telephone interview only or when credentials are assessed remotely.
Jacob Burmeister, one of the authors of “Weight Bias in Graduate School Admissions” and a doctoral candidate in Bowling Green State’s department of psychology, said the findings suggested a bias on the part of those who meet potential postgraduates during recruitment.
“There are two explanations. One is that there is some sort of conscious or unconscious prejudice on the part of those carrying out the interviews,” he told Times Higher Education, based on their thinking that overweight candidates lack self-control or the capacity for hard work.
Alternatively, “it could be that when applicants with obesity are put into a face-to-face interview and are aware of some of these stereotypes, it negatively affects their performance”, he added.
Weight bias is particularly pronounced in the assessment of women, according to the study, which was published in the May edition of the Obesity journal.
“This might be something to do with the stigma of obesity being felt more strongly among women,” Mr Burmeister said.
Last year, a University of Westminster study showed members of the public pictures of women with various body sizes and asked them to choose who they would be most and least likely to select for a place at university.
It found evidence of a link in people’s minds between BMI and a lack of academic ability.
“We found that participants were most likely to select underweight and normal weight women, with the emaciated and the obese figures… least likely to be selected,” said Viren Swami, reader in psychology and lead author of “Weight Bias Against Women in a University Acceptance Scenario”.
“I’m not surprised by [Mr Burmeister’s] findings,” he added. “People who are deemed to be physically attractive are often perceived to have positive qualities, so those who are underweight and normal weight might be perceived as more clever…more sociable and perhaps more suitable for university.”
Meanwhile, Geoffrey Miller, associate professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico, awaits the findings of an internal inquiry into a tweet he sent claiming that obese PhD applicants lack the “willpower” for dissertations.
Mr Burmeister said that Professor Miller’s choice of words was “unfortunate”, but added that his tweet had brought the issue of weight bias in universities to the fore.
“Most people carry these biases, so the fact that they are expressed every once in a while isn’t terribly surprising,” he said.
“The paradox of Professor Miller’s tweet is that some good might come of it. It might be that it raises the issue of weight bias and promotes some discussion of it.”