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Opinion: Using Data to Hire High-Impact Faculty

Selecting researchers who will drive research agendas forward requires a more quantitative approach to interviewing.

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Georges Belfort

Georges Belfort holds the endowed Institute Chair at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He got a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Cape Town in South Africa and graduate...

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During these days of a hopefully declining pandemic, hiring new faculty has recently begun in earnest for many research universities. Hence, considering the most effective criteria for selecting new faculty is important, with long-term implications. So, what are the best criteria?

In his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize–winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman contends that statistical analysis of data is an equal or even better measure of quality than intuitive judgments based on off-the-cuff interviews. These data can come from applicants’ CVs—for example, college ranking, number of peer-reviewed publications, impact factor of journals, and the h-index of both the candidates and their mentors. They can also come from the job interview, according to Kahneman, who suggests that hiring committees ask candidates a few questions about each of six independent traits deemed to be prerequisites for success, then rank the answers on a scale from, say, 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent). To avoid systematic bias being carried over from one set of answers to another (called the halo effect), recruiters should collect the scores for each trait before moving on to the next trait, Kahneman suggests.

There are also qualitative considerations: the quality of the interview seminar and future research plans, interest in the faculty and their research, technical expertise to fit a presumed need, an engaging personality, and letters of recommendation from well-regarded references. Kahneman acknowledges these, and suggests that employers add up all the scores based on the interview and combine these with collegial discussion and intuition (called “delayed holistic judgment” by Kahneman and his coauthors in the 2021 book Noise). The candidate with both the highest final score and agreed intuition is the one for the job. 

Every seven years, I have spent sabbatical leave at top-ranked US universities: Yale, Caltech, the University of California, Berkeley, and MIT. I have often wondered: What distinguishes faculty at such august institutions from the rest? Do the faculty at top universities have special insight in hiring new faculty that others do not? Or is it that they have the funds to recruit or to raid other universities and companies for proven superstars? The latter clearly helps, but there must be more to the story.

Considering the most effective criteria for selecting new faculty is important, with long-term implications.

Highly ranked universities offer superior infrastructure, including major computers, large and expensive analytical equipment, and specialized core facilities. They also provide an exciting and supportive environment with low teaching loads, quality faculty and students, and frequent visits from renowned scientists. These features attract more-exceptional academics, who garner more funding, supporting the institution’s growth and reputation. When a researcher is hired by a highly ranked department, there is a clear expectation that the new hire will perform well or will not get tenure. Having colleagues who are standouts in their respective fields can be intimidating, but they can provide critical advice, encouragement, and support whereby a rising tide lifts all boats.

A critical and sometimes overlooked issue for prospective faculty is their choice of research focus. Does a faculty candidate swim in the mainstream of their respective discipline or not? Does she select a topic that is challenging or go with a safe bet? Does he work on an easy problem or rather on a problem that is riskier and demands real exploration? I have found that the key difference between faculty at top universities and those at other institutions is not necessarily smarts or intellect, but the courage to work on consequential problems.

To lift a department’s ranking, the faculty need to work on research problems that matter to society. And to embark upon an important line of research, one needs confidence in one’s abilities and to be ready to pivot when things aren’t going as planned. Maybe then, when interviewing a faculty candidate, hiring committees should use Kahneman’s approach and assess traits that concern self-esteem, resilience, and the ability to accept failure. A psychologist could help formulate a few factual questions and a framework for scoring the responses.  

Analyzing these types of data may help identify the best candidate during the faculty interview process: someone with substantial academic, social, and financial support plus a decent helping of confidence. With the Biden administration and bipartisan US Congress’s efforts, substantial research funds are becoming available in the US and will address the financial piece of this puzzle. Additional focus on the selection of important research problems will be needed to improve the quality of the research enterprise, bolster the standing of individual institutions, and allow the US to continue competing internationally in various fields.

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