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Career advice: how to choose the right candidate for the job

Written by: Jack Grove
Published on: 6 Apr 2017

    Young man picking up and carrying older man

    Choosing between two equally qualified candidates is one of the trickiest tasks in university hiring, so how do you decide? Here, senior academics and university administrators explain how they look beyond top-notch CVs and references to find the right applicant for the job.

    What matters most to me is do they share our values? Have they done some real research? How do they think they will fit with our culture? Have they thought about why they want to join us? 

    Values are critical. At Portsmouth, I would be disappointed if a candidate didn't mention students – they are at the heart of everything we do.

    I also like seeing someone who is self-aware and honest about their strengths and areas for development; people who challenge assumptions; and those who are thoughtful, who reflect.

    Alarm bells go off if they don't check the panel for signals and just keep talking – that's worrying.

    Rudi Balling
    Director of the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine, University of Luxembourg

    Everybody, of course, checks the CV and application for excellence, but while excellence is required, it is not sufficient.

    I always look for the sparkling eyes that show when somebody is talking passionately.

    Proactivity is also very important and people should be able to give concrete examples from their previous role.

    Above all, a key criterion is whether somebody is a team player. People often sell themselves pretty well, so I am always trying to figure out if somebody is willing to put their own ego behind the success of the group and if they can laugh about themselves. Having a good sense of humour is an important ingredient for team success.


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    Yusra Mouzughi
    Deputy vice-chancellor (academic affairs), Muscat University, Oman

    The most important thing is that the person appointed must fit into the existing team.

    There is no point recruiting someone who will struggle to gel, even though they may be very capable at their job – the downsides of that situation far outweigh the benefits.

    That said, a team should be a diverse group of personalities and characteristics; don’t try to clone people who are already in the team or there will be no spark.

    For academic positions, some obvious warning signals about candidates are gaps in CVs, multiple moves between institutions and publications that do not have a common theme, indicating that the person was not really involved in writing the papers.

    Alex Killick
    Director of people, Glasgow Caledonian University

    We all can fall victim to the "horns" and "halo" effect. You may have unconsciously made up your mind in the first 30 seconds of an interview, but you must spend the next 30 minutes or more testing this bias.

    So always structure the process to garner evidence against the criteria and remember it is a two-way process – be open to difference (appearance, ways of thinking as well as protected characteristics).

    We should create a recruitment experience that tries to catch people at their best rather than catch them out.

    If the internal experience fails to match the external promise then we will end up not getting the best from the individual or for the employer.

    Kevin O’Gorman
    Professor of management and business history and director of internationalisation, Heriot-Watt University’s School of Social Sciences

    If possible, mimic Pret a Manger and ask people to do the academic equivalent of a shift long before hiring them. A guest lecture, seminar or similar will give you the chance to see them in action.

    If you can’t make that happen, scan the academic equivalent of social media. If the candidate isn’t keeping their digital research profile up to date before you hire them, they’re unlikely to do so voluntarily when appointed.

    Once you are in an interview setting, beware of candidates who ask “how many days a week do I actually need to be here?” or appear to know nothing about your university. 

    To judge priorities and attitudes, a great question is: “What would you ideally like to teach, and what would you be willing to teach?” It tends to surface issues of collegiality and tests an awareness of the fact that there are some courses that nobody is particularly keen to teach but that are nonetheless important.

    Originally published on Times Higher Education, November 24, 2016.

    Pic credit: Rex