Monday, September 2, 2013

Advice to search committees

September marks the beginning of the academic year in most universities, and soon the cycle of postdoc and faculty recruitment will start.  Search committees will be formed, candidates recruited, short lists formed, candidates interviewed, and hiring decisions made.  If you are involved in this process, now is a good time to educate oneself about best practices for recruiting the individuals most likely to succeed.

Much attention has been devoted to implicit bias, for good reason: science faculty systematically rate male students as more competent and hireable than female students who are identical aside from the name (Moss-Racusin et al, 2012).  Both male and female faculty exhibit the same bias.  Thus, the efficacy of combating gender bias by adding women to a search committee is dubious.  Also, if there are few women on the committee, they may be concerned about appearing biased toward other women and may therefore not advocate for them, an effect called favoritism threat (Duguid et al, 2012).

For these reasons it is helpful to train search committees on implicit bias and other factors that can lead to suboptimal results, and to ask all committee members, and especially the chair, to evaluate all candidates equally and to question subtle or not-so-subtle assumptions.  At my university, training of search committee members is becoming increasingly common, and there are many good reference materials available for help.  My favorite sources are AWIS (the Association for Women in Science, which has worked with the AAS on procedures for awards committees which are also applicable to search committees), the Michigan STRIDE workshops, and WISELI (Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison).

While there is no shortage of good advice available, there is not enough time for committee members to review and master everything.  Therefore, I recommend giving committee members a 30-minute overview, and asking them to view the AWIS videos, which feature AAS President-Elect Meg Urry.

In addition to implicit bias, it is important to recruit broadly, ideally via open searches that do not too-narrowly define the scope of the position; to become aware of implicit bias in letters of recommendation; to specify selection criteria before decisions are made (ideally, objective criteria!); and to conduct interviews with equity and respect.

The WISELI top-10 tips for search committees provides an excellent guide to best practices:
  1. Build rapport among committee members by setting a tone of collegiality, dedication, and open-mindedness.
  2. Run efficient meetings and empower all committee members.
  3. Make sure committee members know what is expected of them and establish ground rules for such items as attendance, decision-making, treatment of candidates, etc.
  4. Assign tasks and hold committee members accountable.
  5. Air views about diversity and other controversial issues.
  6. Identify people and places who can refer you to potential candidates.
  7. Search broadly and inclusively, save sifting and winnowing for later.
  8. Recruit aggressively and make personal contact with potential candidates.
  9. Discuss research on assumptions and biases and consciously strive to minimize their influence on your evaluation of candidates.
  10. Ensure that every candidate interviewed on campus—whether hired or not—is respected and treated well during their visit.

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