Today I was very saddened to read a graphical account by a blogger writing under the name of Zinemin, of an interview for an academic post she really wanted that had gone horribly wrong. Her experience sounded appalling, and quite unlike any academic interview I have ever participated in (as interviewer or interviewee). Was she spectacularly unlucky, or was there something deeply unattractive about the institution that was considering her application (she does not specify where, or even in which country) and she was lucky not to be successful at the end of the day? Was her gender relevant to her experience? Could she have been better prepared? I’d like to try to deconstruct what happened to her a little, in the hopes that it might provide both an antidote and some fodder for reflection for others considering applying for posts. Of course, I can only really describe the UK situation (my interview experience in the US was so long ago, it can hardly be deemed relevant, although at least one commenter on the Zinemin post made the assumption her experience had been in the US).
Zinemin describes a situation where she was interviewed by around 25 scientists, all but one of whom were male. I have never come across a panel that size; a number of 6-8 would, at least in the UK, be far more typical. Such an excessively large panel would strike me as unwieldy, and in danger of leading to heated debate amongst themselves rather than a fruitful interview of the applicant. (Of course, if Zinemin could have instigated such internal wrangling, maybe she’d have fared better!) It also strikes me as designed to intimidate. If an organisation wants to choose a candidate who isn’t fazed by such a crowd, good luck to them. However, it is hard to see that such skill is likely to be straightforwardly correlated with either academic brilliance or an exceptional teaching style, both of which would seem to be more important criteria for an academic position. A department that wants to daunt their candidates by sheer physical mass seems to me to be a good one to avoid.
My own experience suggests that panels are likely, on the contrary, to worry about how to reduce intimidation levels: by the lay-out of the room, making sure there is fresh water available and introducing all panel members at the outset so that the applicant knows who are the experts and who the generalists, whether there are students present (I’ve come across this in some institutions) and who is there to take the minutes. The intention is, in my experience, to permit the candidate to do themselves justice, not lose confidence in the face of a horde of unwelcoming faces and so underperform. Of course, people can get nervous and their minds may go blank under pressure, but usually only temporarily and such momentary lapses should not be taken as a fundamental flaw.
In many fields it would be anticipated that there would be unlikely to be more than one or two women present simply based on the proportion of available female faculty, but it would be nice to think that that in itself that shouldn’t necessarily mean hostility (overt or otherwise) towards a female candidate. However, there is absolutely no doubt that unconscious bias may lurk even beneath an apparently welcoming exterior. That, as the recent PNAS study revealed (something I discussed further here), may be as true of women as men. I believe it is incumbent on every senior academic not only to familiarise themselves with the fact of unconscious bias, but to do their best to spread the word to less enlightened colleagues who may be completely unaware how easy it is to underscore individuals on the basis of extraneous facts, including gender and skin-colour. Reality unfortunately tells me that we have still a long way to go in even the best-arranged organisations for unconscious bias to have been eradicated.
Aside This situation also seems to tie in with comments made by BB and LL on my last post, where a lack of respect for the individual (female in both cases) seems evident (in these cases not where a job interview is concerned, but grants and fellowships). Is all this straight-forwardly gender related? It is impossible to tell simply from these anecdotes, but it would appear a woman’s credibility as an independent researcher, as someone not tied to a present or past collaborator’s or PI’s apron strings, is being questioned in ways that perhaps would not have occurred if a male had been concerned. It is tricky because that first step to independence is a crucial one, and one that not all experienced postdocs genuinely are well-placed to make (perhaps I will write a separate post about this transition one day). Nevertheless if men and women really are being systematically judged differently on this front still, we undoubtedly have an ongoing serious problem on our hands. I hope that the more this is talked about, the less it will accidentally happen. So, keep talking about it!
It is of course bound to be the case that a significant proportion of the audience will not be experts. Pitching the talk appropriately is crucial, but it is unforgivable in a panel member to shake their head as if visibly disagreeing with the content. Zinemin struck very unlucky that her panel was so unmannerly. I have occasionally been bored stiff by presentations from job applicants, I am sorry to have to admit; people who are so insular that they cannot step back far enough from their research to present a coherent story within an appropriate context. Nevertheless, even when bored stiff I hope I have managed to keep a vaguely intelligent and interested look on my face. It really shouldn’t be difficult to do this for a 15 minute presentation (although distinctly harder if drawn out over a full hour; with luck, in that case the lights will be down in a lecture theatre, so that faces can’t be read).
I can’t recall ever sitting on a panel where I have felt boredom and hostility were obviously collectively oozing out to engulf the candidate, even when it has been obvious that someone is not in fact going to be a strong contender for a position. I suppose, if a candidate were really confident they could challenge any panel member shaking their head: ‘Professor X, do you disagree with my conclusions and could you explain why?’ – but that might be both a risky strategy and require a great deal of nerve to carry out. However, possibly that was what this particularly unwelcoming group of people wanted. Beyond a certain point maybe there is nothing left to lose, except one’s own self-respect. And that at least might do better for a little more forcefulness in the face of antipathy.
The Q+A session
This ought to be a moment for clarifying points of confusion and for broadening the discussion, not a moment for the panel to convey contempt or a patronising attitude. One can prepare to a certain extent for more general questions such as ‘why is your method superior to Smith’s?’, or ‘why do you think this is a fertile line of enquiry for the future?’. I do think it is reasonable for a panel to ask general and big questions, even if a bit removed from the specifics of the seminar. I am not sure this necessarily implies – as Zinemin’s post suggested – a lack of respect for her. A department wants to know a colleague has an open mind, is well-rounded in an appreciation of the field, and can think on their feet. However, it equally should be OK for any candidate to take a few moments to think about any such broader question.
If this is the way an interview goes, take control; think about politicians who often repeat a question to gain time and perhaps to check that something that sounds a bit whacky really is the question being posed. It is reasonable not to rush in with a hurried answer and also to check that there isn’t some misunderstanding underlying the question. With a multi-disciplinary panel such a failure in comprehension may be all too probable. Of course, if the whole tenor of the interview has been unfriendly, it is inevitable by this point that a rattled candidate will see further negatives in the questions being asked. Again, it may be wise to challenge the questioner in a low-key sort of way, perhaps by suggesting the question isn’t relevant, or that the methodology is well accepted. But it ought to be possible to explain where the work is going, why what one is doing has some added benefit that others may have overlooked and if necessary politely explain why the questioner has got hold of the wrong end of the stick.
Unfortunately, if an interview has been sticky from its very first minute, taking control and challenging an awkward cuss who looks like they are attempting to patronise you will be a hard thing to do. A clear example of stereotype threat, breathing deeply and counting to 10 may be completely inadequate to rescue the situation. Nevertheless, there may be attractions in using the inevitable opportunity offered by ‘and have you any questions for us?’ moment to let rip, since by this point perhaps there is nothing left to lose (and such action could also provide ammunition for anyone representing HR in the room wanting to take the panel to task subsequently). An answer along the lines of ‘Yes. Why did you invite me along in order to belittle my work and visibly express your contempt for my field of research as well as me personally? Nothing would induce me to come and work with a bunch of bastards like you have proved yourself to be’ could just restore a little dignity, although making a fast and graceful exit after that could prove tricky. Mercifully, I have never been on a panel where I feel a candidate could remotely justify taking such a line. Clearly Zinemin was less fortunate.