Could the X Factor be a model for filling university jobs?

Might mass polls by live audiences actually be a better way to choose the right applicant?

March 8, 2016
Studio audience, The X Factor TV programme, London
Source: Rex
On song: the winner gave a ‘compelling, though non-dazzling’ performance

Would a vote by a studio audience be a better way to pick early career academics than simply leaving it to a traditional interview panel?

The idea may sound like the unlikely pitch for a hellish new reality TV show fronted by Simon Cowell, but a study by a Canadian medical school suggests that this format may actually be an equally valid way to choose who should get an academic job.

As part of a mock faculty search for a postdoctoral position at the University of Calgary's Cumming School of Medicine, three shortlisted candidates agreed to have their interviews live-streamed to an audience of 70 early career scientists.

Ninety per cent of audience members interviewed by researchers picked the same candidate for the post as the interview panel, suggesting that the method of selection may have some value.

In reality, the exercise, the results of which were published in the journal Academic Medicine last month, was designed to help early career scientists in the crowd to reflect on their own interview skills.

“The mock faculty competition was an opportunity to…encourage advanced trainees to nail their job talks more tightly, even when they have solid research and teaching portfolios on paper,” the paper’s lead author Rita Isabel Henderson, adjunct assistant professor at Calgary’s department of family medicine, told Times Higher Education.

Many early career academics understood how important presentation and interview skills were to securing an academic post, but it was often difficult to hone them, said Dr Henderson.

“Knowing how to showcase those skills and how to do so strategically is seldom taught in a practical manner [so that] trainees become self-critical and aware of gaps in their own presentation to hiring committees,” she said.

The winning candidate showed “clear expertise…which was communicated in a compelling, though non-dazzling fashion”, she added.

“The interview was solid, all questions answered professionally and without too much pause,” she said, saying they also “demonstrated knowledge of [the] host institution and confidence in direction for growth”.

The competition also allowed early career scientists to see how interview panels operate, with 70 per cent of audience members saying that they had no previous idea of how the selection panel worked. Eighty-two per cent of those interviewed by researchers said that they found the process of watching the interview "nerve-racking".

Introducing the format more widely at other institutions may also help teach early career scholars how to present to a scientific or non-expert audience that is unfamiliar with their precise area of expertise, Dr Henderson added.

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Print headline: Hiring scholars, X Factor-style

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