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Making the decision

In this step we discuss techniques and pitfalls when selecting the right candidate for a PhD position.
© Cytonn Photography via Unsplash

Now that you gathered as much information as you could on your potential candidates, how can you make sure that you select the best one? In this step we provide you with some recommendations.

  • Carry out a careful analysis. Do the candidates have the competences, the skills, the attitude, and the motivation that it takes to be successful throughout the PhD trajectory?
  • In the absence of a formal selection procedure, or if you are the only one in charge of selecting the candidate, feel free to consult others before making the final decision. You can discuss your views with colleagues, with the PhD coordinator, or the HR advisor.
  • If you still have doubts, don’t go for it! Making the wrong decision will cost you, and the student, time, money and will result in delays and frustration.

Be aware of your own unconscious bias!

In evaluating a candidate, it is important to become aware of your own bias, as this might hinder you from making the right decision. Unconscious bias is an automatic, non-intentional inclination to prefer an individual or group over the other.

Below are some examples of types of bias that might be affecting the PhD selection process.

“Like me” or “mini-me” bias – Are you favouring a candidate that presents similar qualities and exhibits similar skills as yourself? And are you basing this on their appearance and wording? Selecting a PhD that replicates us is often not the best choice.

Halo (or horn) effect – Is one single strength (or weakness) of the candidate overshadowing the overall picture? Try to see the overall picture of the person you are selecting.

Groupthink – is your opinion being excessively guided by the other interviewers and by your need to agree with their opinion? Keep evaluating the candidate critically, even if this results in disagreement with the other members of the selection committee. Write down your assessment of the candidate before consulting others, so as not to be influenced by them.

First impression error – It is in our nature to form our opinion of another person in the first few seconds of interaction. Yet this opinion is a bad predictor of the effective competence or motivation of the candidate. Give the candidate a second and third chance by staying open throughout the interview and seeing the candidate in several situations.

Social bias – Making a judgement based on gender, cultural background, race, sexuality, etc. due to preconceived notions that you have about that group.

We all have unconscious bias, it is a human cognitive mechanism, as succinctly explained in this short video of the Royal Society.

We humans tend to judge and evaluate others based on the preconceived notion that we have of the group they belong to – their social class, their cultural background, their gender, race, etc. We can’t eradicate unconscious bias, because it is the result of how our brain is wired. But we can become aware of it and address it, so that we can make better decisions during the selection process and beyond.

So, how can we avoid our biases leading us to make the wrong decision when selecting a candidate? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Prepare well. Develop and prioritise evaluation criteria prior to evaluating candidates. This will help make the decision more objective.
  2. Slow down the decision making. As the video of the Royal Society suggests, unconscious bias is strongest when the time to make a decision is short, so slowing down the process might help.
  3. Take time to evaluate the entire application of each candidate after the interview. Reflect and reconsider the reasons for the decision of a candidate or the other, and make an effort to make the decision as “objective” and competence-based as you can, using the techniques we have described above.
  4. Strive to increase the representation of women and minorities first of all in the selection committee, and then also in your applicant pool. You can do so by making sure you share it broadly, including beyond your own network, and checking the language of your advertisement. A useful tool for this is Gender Decoder.
  5. Make sure that women and minorities are fully represented in the selection committee (not just the usual suspects or just one token minority member). As committee members you are all responsible for playing the ‘diversity card’. Do not make that the responsibility of the person who belongs to a minority group.
  6. Discuss upfront who is going to be allies in that realm. Which 2 people will be increasingly aware of inclusive behaviour, language, and mechanisms in the procedure?
  7. Ask yourself (and the rest of the selection committee) :
  • Are women and minority candidates subject to different expectations or standards in order to be considered as qualified as majority men?
  • Are assumptions about possible family responsibilities negatively influencing the evaluation of the candidate’s merit, despite evidence?
  • Are negative assumptions about whether women or minority candidates will “fit in” to the existing environment influencing their evaluation?

Many universities have Diversity, Equity and Inclusion officers, and many institutions offer training to help employees recognise and address unconscious biases. Yet a one off training is not going to fix it. We need to accept and embrace that bias serves goals, but these are manifesting differently in highly socialised environments like interview processes. Do regular maintenance, especially if you are more often part of a selection committee. Check in with members you have worked with before, and ask them where they feel you could grow in overcoming implicit associations.

Does your institution have a D,E & I officer? Is such training offered? Do you have further tips? Please share them below.


© University of Groningen
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