Psychos, charlatans and the just plain lucky

November 26, 2004

Interviews are a nail-biting experience, for the interviewer that is, says Kevin Fong.

I hate interviews. However, when the time finally came for me to make the transition from interviewee to interviewer, I was disappointed to find that being the man with the questions was no more comfortable than being the rabbit in the headlights without the answers.

As a junior interviewer you share many of the woes of the interviewee. You want to look and sound convincing, even if in reality this is far from the truth. You also suffer from having far too much empathy with the quarry, the trauma of the same experience still relatively fresh in your mind. But beyond that there are the serious concerns you have about whether or not you are choosing the right people. It is clearly up to you, the interviewer, to get the most out of the interviewee, but that fleeting, conversational snapshot and the flimsy Universities and Colleges Admissions Service form seem woefully inadequate.

How do you begin to decide what a candidate is genuinely like in everyday life? And if you think you can pull that one off, how on earth do you work out what they'll look like after five years of metropolitan character reshaping? If it's hard for us in the medical school, then I wonder how the other faculties go about it? We all think we know what makes a good doctor, but what makes a good astrophysicist, archaeologist or historian of art?

My last experience as an interviewer involved ten-minute cycles of verbal thrust and parry followed by brief periods of intense internal conflict spent trying to come to a decision. "Was that candidate really as impressive as she appeared, or have I just witnessed 600 seconds of top-notch performance art? Was it nervousness that made that bloke seem quite so odd, or a borderline psychopathic personality?"

Unfortunately, the personal statements often provide little in the way of further guidance. In the bad old days, spelling, calligraphic flourishes and grammatical precision spoke volumes. And though they were pretty much as arbitrary as any other selection criteria, they gave comfort nevertheless. But in this brave new world of word processors, with their automatic spellcheckers and dodgy grammar radar, this tool has been prised from the university interviewer's grasp.

So what do we look to now, or should we simply pull names from a hat? Well, at my most recent round of interviewer training, the Biomedical Admissions Test was unveiled. News of this addition to the selector's arsenal passed me by when it was first mentioned in the wider press some months ago, but if you're not getting the information you need from A-level results and interviews, then an objectively scored entrance exam, testing skills specific to the vocation, seems to me a pretty good idea.

At the very least it has to be better than what we had before and a lot better than the way my friend Scott goes about his recruitment. He works for a hard-nosed financial company in the city. He once found himself drowning in a small ocean of application forms from school-leavers, all of whom wanted to work for him, but all of whom looked pretty much identical on paper. Unsure of how to narrow the field, he called on the help of a colleague more experienced in recruiting, who simply advised him not to shortlist anybody who was unlucky. When Scott asked how he should go about identifying those, his colleague sighed, divided the applications into two piles of equal size, threw one pile in the bin and said: "Those guys."

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts.

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