How do I select the best PhD candidate?
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Now that you have a clearer picture of what competences you are looking for, we will look at the tools that will help you make the selection process open, transparent, and unbiased. We will look at interviewing techniques that can help you get to know your candidates in the short time you have available so that you can select the best one for your PhD position.
The search committee
In most cases, you will not be the only one selecting the PhD candidate, but you will instead be part of a group. Committee dynamics are pivotal to the outcome of the selection, so it is important to take time and effort to choose the colleagues who will help you make the decision, and balance the dynamics. Characteristics you could consider when forming a committee are gender, age and specialism of each individual committee member, but also think about the hierarchical dynamics between its members. Who will chair the committee? How will you be dividing speaking time in meetings before and after the interviews? Who is the informal driver and why? Who asks which question? Why, and when? And will the committee always apply the format consistently? It is helpful to discuss this and other questions beforehand.
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It is a good idea to cast a wide net by sharing the information about the open position in your network. Having several candidates is a great advantage, but it can also add quite some work. If you have several applications, it is best to make a first selection to identify the candidates you will invite for the interview. Read carefully through the documentation – resumes, master thesis, references – already keeping in mind the competences you are searching for.
To further screen candidates, you can have a shorter phone or online interview first.
You can devise specific assignments to test the competences of the candidates. In this case, it is advisable to give the same assignment to all candidates, so as not to introduce any bias. For example, if you want to assess their presentation skills, you could ask them to prepare a presentation on a specific topic (or on their research). Asking them to write a short abstract of a paper might help assess their writing and analytical skills. You can also give them an exercise to assess a specific technical skill. In general, seeing them in action, and seeing the result of their work is an excellent way to assess their skills beyond the words they say and write about themselves.
The selection interview is an opportunity for you to assess the candidates and learn much more than you can infer from the resume and the other documentation. It is important to prepare for the interview well in advance. What questions will you ask to further assess if the candidate possesses the competences you have identified? Will there be other colleagues in the selection committee? If so, it is a good idea to agree beforehand on how the candidates will be assessed. You can define together the criteria and the weight assigned to each of the criteria, so that the decision is reached in the most objective way possible. A good idea is to divide up the competences so that each interviewer focuses on a specific aspect, and the overall picture is more nuanced.
Recommended steps for an interview.
- Plan sufficient time for the interview, and choose a location that makes the candidate feel welcome and gives them a good impression of the group. Check-in with the candidate what accommodations might be needed to facilitate the process of visiting the campus.
- Make the candidate feel at ease. It might be their first experience being interviewed, so they might be quite nervous. Introduce them to the committee, and make expectations clear from the start. Inform them about the exact steps of the interview process. Being explicit about this will avoid unnecessary stress for the candidate, and it is particularly important for neurodiverse candidates.
- Describe the research project, the group, the requirements. This is the time to let your candidate know the time-frame of the PhD trajectory, the general expectations, but also to make them feel enthusiastic about the project.
- Ask questions about the candidate’s background and assess their motivation for the position. It is good to be explicit about this.
- Ask questions related to the resume to assess their competences (knowledge, skills, and attitude) using the STARR method (see below).
- Leave enough time to let the candidate ask questions. The questions they ask can be good indicators of their motivation and attitude.
- Close the interview.
TIP! Let the candidate take 70-80% of the speaking time. Force yourself to ask questions, stay silent, and wait for the candidate to continue.
Find a way to see the candidate(s) in informal settings as well. You can give them a tour of your department or of the laboratory, take them out for lunch or dinner with their future colleagues. This will give you the opportunity to get to know aspects of their competences that you might not be able to test in a formal interview. When offering this option, make sure all candidates have the same opportunity to participate in such informal settings, as differences in treatment might lead to an unfair outcome. Most importantly, be explicit about the reason for such an informal setting, and make sure you ask about dietary preferences explicitly when making such arrangements.
A tool to assess competences – the STARR interview method
STARR (Jansen, 2019) is a proven interview method that allows you to accurately assess the effective competences of the candidates and see beyond the image that they might want to convey, or the projections and biases that you might have. Following this method, the interviewer asks questions aimed at ascertaining the concrete behaviours that the applicant has displayed in the past. This is a much more effective way to assess whether the candidate has the required competences than a straightforward answer of the candidate.
Here is how it goes: Ask the applicant to describe a Situation that in the past required a particular competence (knowledge, skill or attitude). What was the specific Task that the candidate had. What was the Action or specific activity that the candidate took. What was the Result of these actions? Lastly, how can the candidate Reflect on the whole situation? What did he learn, how would he act differently the next time? This is the most important aspect to assess, as this shows the capacity of the candidate to self-reflect, learn from experience and adjust in the future.
S – Situation in which candidate displayed competence
T – Task and responsibilities assigned to candidate
A – Action that candidate undertook (the behaviour)
R – Results of these actions
R – Reflection upon the situation, particularly as it pertains to its context
A STARR example
Let’s take the example of a project where collaborating with other PhDs, post-docs and technicians is key to success. In this case during the interview you want to ascertain the competence project collaboration Here is an example of specific STARR interview:
Situation – “I see from your CV that you worked in a collaborative project during your masters. What problem did you encounter in this collaboration? Could you describe the specific situation? How did you resolve the issue?” (let the candidate recall and explain the project. Ask further questions to understand the specific situation. Be open and curious).
Task – “What was your role? What was your responsibility? Not your team or your group.” (here delve further into the specifics of the candidate’s responsibility)
Action – “What did you do? Which steps did you take? How was it for you? What did you think, say, feel?”
Results – “What was the result of your action? What effect did your action have?”
Reflection – “If you faced the same situation in the future, what would you do differently next time? Why?”
To use the STARR method, ask questions starting with “Could you give an example of a situation in which you……” and then dig deeper into the exact role of the applicant. If the applicant answers with a sentence in the second person plural (e.g. “we analysed the data…”) ask them specifically about his/her role, his/her specific contribution, and what the result of it was. Don’t forget the Reflection question. This will help you assess the candidate’s capacity for self-reflection.
Questions to avoid
Even if you don’t strictly adhere to the STARR interview method, avoid asking suggestive, theoretical or leading questions. Avoid questions that start with “wouldn’t you agree…” or that ask the candidate to hypothesise a future scenario. Base instead your question on past, concrete experience and behaviours. Beware of leading the candidate to give you ideal answers. You run the risk of making them look very good in your eyes, but the question will fail at assessing the candidate’s effective competence or skill.
Do you have a good example of questions that you can ask PhD candidates using this STARR method? Share these in the comments.
Ritsert C. Jansen, Leading Your Research Team in Science, Cambridge University Press, 2019, pp. 31-32.
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