Potential Difference

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Recruitment is also about screening for potential, and not just for finding finished products.

There’s a tendency when advertising open positions to describe not just an ideal candidate, but an idealised one (“The preferred applicant should have…”).

But people or places which bang on about how world class they are and how amazing they are and how unbelievably scarily talented their desired applicants are should perhaps ask themselves if they’re missing the point: wouldn’t it be better to broadcast how good they are at turning people into great scientists, instead of badass slogans suggesting that great scientists are the only people they’re interested in recruiting?

Such behaviour can often betray a lack of assurance on the part of the recruiter – younger and less confident people or institutions, anxious to prove themselves, overcompensate by insisting they’ve got tough, world-class standards, instead of signalling that they’re on the lookout for promising raw material. But even established places with all the benefits that the Matthew Effect can bring are guilty of making the same appeals to some kind of supernatural competence that’s going to select more for confidence than for aptitude. They may as well flash a big sign saying “humble people and anyone with imposter syndrome need not apply”.

You can be selective without scaring the shit out of prospective applicants – you just have to be clear (to yourself, and to the wider world) what it is that you’re looking for.

Anybody with experience of supervision can quickly identify what marks out promising candidates. Curiosity. Clarity of thought. The ability to take pleasure in the minutiae of data generation and protocol optimisation. Perseverance and determination. Intellectual rigour. Creativity. The capability to ask questions, and not accept facile answers.  A capacity for critical thinking. And an ability to engage imaginatively with theoretical concepts.

Very few students will have had the opportunity to demonstrate all those things, but some will stand out regardless of their educational circumstances. And none of those skills relies on an ironclad self-belief in one’s own “excellence” – confidence is definitely something that’s better gained from experience, rather than being innate. Any mentor can affirm that the best people to supervise are ones who are better than they think they are, rather than those who think they’re better than they actually are.

It is obviously desirable if people/employers are using metrics and grading applicants by categories instead of relying on intuition – the latter produces far too much subconscious bias, and tends to reinforce privilege. But badly-designed metrics (woolly superlatives like “excellence” being the classic example) also carry the risk of creating a veneer of impartial respectability to selection processes that are simply breeding spaces for outgroup discrimination.

You should be using metrics that will guide you to the right candidates, but these should be the candidates with the most potential, and not simply the ones who are most like you or the institution you’re in.

Repeatedly promoting from within stifles diversity. People who have come through a similar system are known quantities, and will therefore feel like less of a risk – but this may reflect a lack of self-awareness as to what qualities are actually being promoted or sought after. Groups and institutions need the plurality that recruiting from outside brings. Otherwise, they’re just creating philosophical echo chambers in which assumptions are seldom challenged.

Recruiting in this way isn’t easy – it’s far simpler to fall back on lazy assumptions of worth and fill places with a bunch of androids that have all come off the same assembly line. And identifying potential means thinking of ways to screen for aptitude that don’t suffer from generalisations of the type alluded to above. Integration might initially be less straightforward too.

But all that hassle is worth it. It’s the means to creating an intellectually diverse, lively, and welcoming environment in which people with perhaps radically different backgrounds can be bound together by their shared academic capabilities, and inspire, stimulate, and synergise one another.

The best advert for a place’s culture is to say “Don’t think of our reputation as showing what we expect of you, but rather what we can do for you.” That’s the real difference.

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