Like it or not, psychometric testing for academic posts is here to stay. Phil Baty looks at its effectiveness
They may earn three or four times your salary, but in terms of their responsibilities and skills boardroom chiefs are pretty close to academics.
This is the verdict of John Rust, director of Cambridge University's Psychometrics Centre, the UK's first professor of psychometrics and an expert in workplace psychology.
"If you think of it, academic jobs are much like top jobs in companies in terms of the level of independence and decision-making, the level of creativity and initiative required for the job," he said.
The multitasking and different talents involved in teaching students, applying for research grants, managing research grants and research teams, conforming to ever more bureaucratic demands from above, carrying out consultancy - all the while finding time for cutting-edge innovative thinking - are certainly not to be sniffed at.
"The closest thing to this outside academe is the board-level corporate job," Professor Rust said.
And in the corporate world the use of personality-testing - psychometrics - is widespread. Some 80 per cent of the FTSE top 100 companies now use at least some form of psychometric testing for recruitment and promotion.
Professor Rust, who is also a member of Cambridge University's faculty of political and social sciences, pointed out that academics hate the concept of having their personalities measured or defined in any way.
"You can see the reason why," he said. "People value individuality in universities, and most academics want to be led by someone who is brilliant in their field, not someone who passes a personality test."
But as an expert who straddles both the academic and corporate worlds, he insisted that there was value in the testing techniques in higher education.
"There are cases where managers do need particular types of people to fit in, and there are some people getting promoted who have serious personality failings that are missed," he said.
Professor Rust cited the stereotype of the brilliant mathematician with no social skills and a "borderline personality disorder" who cannot motivate a team or even get on with colleagues.
"Psychometric tests can be an appropriate tool," he insisted. Besides, he added, they are on the increase, whether academics like it or not.
"Human resources management has moved on so much in the past 20 years, and universities have been left a bit isolated.
"Clearly there is an issue here, but HR departments have a real job in even getting academic colleagues to discuss psychometric testing. What concerns me is that by not talking about its use, academics are handing control to the very people they don't trust - the administrators."
For Adrian Banks, a psychology lecturer at Surrey University, psychometric testing has its limitations in selecting academics for jobs, but he said it was already proving useful in helping academics with their general professional and personal development.
"The current recruitment system, which typically involves a CV, presentation and interview, has some strengths," he said. "For research, the reliance on peer- reviewed journals from the CV gives a more reliable indicator of research track record than you would probably get from a questionnaire.
"A bigger role for testing could be in the development of academic staff - Jnot only in career development but in personal development too. An awareness of strengths and weaknesses and style, for example when under stress, can be helpful in learning to be more effective."
Dr Banks said he benefited personally by using the tests to improve his teaching style.
"Some theories suggest that different people learn in different ways, and students do not necessarily learn in the same way as their lecturer. But there can be a temptation for lecturers to design instruction as they prefer to learn, which is what I did, rather than as their students might favour.
"As I developed awareness of my own style I was able to assess more objectively whether it was really the best approach."
Clive Bloom, emeritus professor at Middlesex University and former head of its School of Humanities, was subject to a number of psychometric tests as part of his management training. "In terms of teaching managers to manage, psychometric testing has already come in in a big way without people really noticing," he said.
He put himself through a series of tests as part of a postgraduate certificate in higher education management. "While I was extremely reluctant at first, in the end I enjoyed it," he said, stressing that the tests were good at confirming what most people already knew - their strengths - and in helping subjects understand themselves better.
"But on the whole it was quite crude and ineffective because you can work out what is expected of you from the questions, if you are clever enough.
They have questionable validity and questionable reliability," Professor Bloom said. "It is a confirmation tool. It would be very dangerous when used to predict future behaviour."
When De Montfort University senior lecturer and Times Higher columnist Gary Day was up for a head of department job two years ago he was subjected to a personality test. Like Professor Bloom, he doubted its validity.
"It struck me that anyone with their wits about them could see what was required," he said. "The same questions, repeated in different ways, were designed to elicit certain personality types.
"Once you worked out which was the type desired, you could manipulate your answers accordingly." But the more sophisticated tests factor in such second-guessing by including hundreds of questions, some deliberately obscure and requiring answers very quickly, experts say.
Sheila Gupta, director of human resources at Edinburgh University, said: "The tests are quite sophisticated. A lot of the ones used by the academic sector will be researched and validated robustly. They are useful up to a point, but they are not a panacea. They are helpful if viewed as part of a process, but not as the whole process. You have to retain a sense of their limitations."
PERSONALITY TYPES: WHICH ONE ARE YOU?
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI®) is a widely used personality questionnaire. It is used in marriage counselling and workplace development, but not recruitment. The indicator's 16 personality types are based on individual preferences in four "dimensions", as explained by Oxford-based business psychology company OPP, which administers the MBTI tests across Europe:
Prefers to draw energy from the outer world of activity, people and things or
Prefers to draw energy from the inner world of reflections, feelings and ideas
Prefers to focus on information gained from the senses and on practical applications or
Prefers to focus on patterns, connections and possible meanings
Prefers to base decisions on logic and objective analysis or
Prefers to base decisions on a valuing process, on what is important to people
Likes a planned, organised approach to life or
Likes a flexible, spontaneous approach and prefers to keep options open.
Quiet, serious, earn success by thoroughness and dependability. Practical, matter-of-fact, realistic and responsible. Decide logically what should be done and work towards it steadily, regardless of distractions. Take pleasure in making everything orderly and organised - their work, their home, their life. Value traditions and loyalty.
Quiet, friendly, responsible and conscientious. Committed and steady in meeting obligations. Thorough, painstaking and accurate. Loyal, considerate, notice and remember specifics about people who are important to them, concerned with how others feel. Strive to create an orderly and harmonious environment at work and at home.
Seek meaning and connection in ideas, relationships and material possessions. Want to understand what motivates people and are insightful about others. Conscientious and committed to their firm values. Develop a clear vision about how best to serve the common good. Organised and decisive in implementing their vision.
Have original minds and great drive for implementing their ideas and achieving their goals. Quickly see patterns in external events and develop long-range explanatory perspectives. When committed, organise a job and carry it through. Sceptical and independent, have high standards of competence and performance - for themselves and others.
Tolerant and flexible, quiet observers until a problem appears, then act quickly to find workable solutions. Analyse what makes things work and readily get through large amounts of data to isolate the core of practical problems. Interested in cause and effect, organise facts using logical principles, value efficiency.
Quiet, friendly, sensitive and kind. Enjoy the present moment, what's going on around them. Like to have own space and to work within own time frame. Loyal and committed to their values and to people who are important to them. Dislike disagreements and conflicts, do not force their opinions or values on others.
Idealistic, loyal to their values and to people who are important to them. Want an external life that is congruent with their values. Curious, quick to see possibilities, can be catalysts for implementing ideas. Seek to understand people and to help them fulfil their potential. Adaptable, flexible, and accepting unless a value is threatened.
Seek to develop logical explanations for everything that interests them. Theoretical and abstract, interested more in ideas than in social interaction. Quiet, contained, flexible and adaptable. Have unusual ability to focus in depth to solve problems in their area of interest. Sceptical, sometimes critical, always analytical.
Flexible and tolerant, they take a pragmatic approach focusing on immediate results. Theories and conceptual explanations bore them - they want to act energetically to solve the problem. Focus on the here and now, spontaneous, enjoy each moment that they can be active with others. Enjoy material comforts and style. Learn best through doing.
Outgoing, friendly and accepting. Exuberant lovers of life, people and material comforts. Enjoy working with others to make things happen. Bring common sense and a realistic approach to their work and make work fun. Flexible and spontaneous, adapt readily to new people and environments. Learn best by trying a new skill with other people.
Warmly enthusiastic and imaginative. See life as full of possibilities. Make connections between events and information very quickly, and confidently proceed based on the patterns they see. Want a lot of affirmation from others and readily give appreciation and support. Spontaneous and flexible, often rely on their ability to improvise and their verbal fluency.
Quick, ingenious, stimulating, alert and outspoken. Resourceful in solving new and challenging problems. Adept at generating conceptual possibilities and then analysing them strategically. Good at reading other people. Bored by routine, will seldom do the same thing the same way, apt to turn to one new interest after another.
Practical, realistic, matter-of-fact. Decisive, quickly move to implement decisions. Organise projects and people to get things done, focus on getting results in the most efficient way possible. Take care of routine details. Have a clear set of logical standards, systematically follow them and want others to also. Forceful in implementing their plans.
Warmhearted, conscientious and co-operative. Want harmony in their environment, work with determination to establish it. Like to work with others to complete tasks accurately and on time. Loyal, follow through even in small matters. Notice what others need in their day-by-day lives and try to provide it. Want to be appreciated for who they are and for what they contribute.
Warm, empathetic, responsive and responsible. Highly attuned to the emotions, needs and motivations of others. Find potential in everyone, want to help others fulfil their potential. May act as catalysts for individual and group growth. Loyal, responsive to praise and criticism. Sociable, facilitate others in a group and provide inspiring leadership.
Frank, decisive, assume leadership readily. Quickly see illogical and inefficient procedures and policies, develop and implement comprehensive systems to solve organisational problems. Enjoy long-term planning and goal setting. Usually well informed, well read, enjoy expanding their knowledge and passing it on to others. Forceful in presenting their ideas.
More information is available at www.cpp.com , where you will find the full range of Introduction to Type® titles. Reproduced with permission of the publisher, CPP, Inc., Mountain View, CA 94043 from Introduction to Type ® sixth edition by Isabel Briggs-Myers. Copyright 1998 by Peter B. Myers and Katharine D. Myers. All rights reserved. Further reproduction is prohibited without the publisher's written consent.
'In theory, testing could be useful for academic selection, but...'
For Mark Griffin, professor of work psychology at Sheffield University's Institute of Work Psychology, the role of psychometric testing is widely misunderstood.
"Often it is used to describe personality tests, which are a particular kind of psychometric test. In reality, psychometrics refers to tests that have three qualities:
* They are valid because they test what they intend to test. A verbal skills tests should assess how good someone is with words, not whether they would like a career in journalism
* They are reliable because they provide accurate and consistent assessments. For example, George Bernard Shaw would probably have scored higher than a journalist on a verbal skills test, no matter how many times they both did the test
* They provide meaningful points of comparison. For example, if a student scores low on the verbal skills test, test norms might indicate whether he should receive remedial help at school.
Any psychometric test that has the above qualities might be useful for selection. What determines usefulness is relevance to the job, but that is where things get tricky. If you don't know what you are looking for it is impossible to use a psychometric test effectively.
In theory, psychometric testing could be quite useful for academic selection. In practice, we often know too little about the specific qualities we are looking for to use these tests effectively."