Without getting into identifiable details, here’s what’s happening so far in a search I’m co-chairing for the Harvard FAS Center for Systems Biology, together with Sharad Ramanathan, with some thoughts on how this process works.

We got 182 applications. The applicants are remarkably strong, which is great. I thought that in an open application process we’d get more of a range of qualifications. Apparently people self-select pretty strongly.

Too strongly, in fact. I’m worried about how much self-selection is going on, in two different respects. One is that our applicant pool starts out biased: it’s only 21% female, and it’s only 5% underrepresented minority. The other is that it’s striking how many applicants are either at Harvard already, or have past Harvard training. I think both observations are telling us the same thing: that there are highly qualified people who don’t think they’ll be comfortable or welcome here. These are hardly novel observations about seeking fairness in faculty recruitment. It’s not just about how we treat our applications once we get them, or how we treat our faculty once they’re here; it’s also about getting qualified people to apply in the first place. I’m looking for ways to do better next time.

One thing I’m skeptical about now is whether it’s a good idea for me to advertise positions on Twitter. My Twitter followers are over 80% male. (I think this is an interesting and damning statistic. It’s not like I control who follows me, so where is the bias coming from? I follow about 50/50 female/male, myself.)

The first step is affectionately, brutally dubbed “triage”. Every application gets read, albeit quickly, by three of us. I spend about 10 minutes on each application. (You can do the math: it works out to about 30 hours, total.) First thing I look for is what the research question is. I write a one-line summary for myself, to force myself to extract the relevant info. If, after due effort, I can’t get it, then I’m worried about clarity and focus — either mine (if I’m tired and it’s time for a break), or the candidate’s.  Second I’m looking at publication history. I’m looking for evidence of substantial, original, creative work, and a trajectory that I can understand that leads up to the research proposal. I also check the titles and abstracts of the 1-3 papers/manuscripts that are submitted in the application package, so make sure that what the candidate identifies as their major contributions agrees with what I got from the CV, and I’ll dip into those papers to see if I get the points. Third, I skim reference letters, where (hidden amongst the superlatives) I’m looking for evidence that the candidate developed original ideas. Fourth, I’m looking for other rigorous selections that the candidate has passed before – graduation with honors as an undergrad, competitive postdoc fellowships, substantive research awards. No one thing is disqualifying by itself, especially because I’m on the lookout for unconventional people with unique superpowers, who are going to open up totally new niches.

What I’m not concerned with: journal titles, H-index, citation counts, or impact factors. I think a lot of the angsty gnashing of teeth about needing Nature/Science/Cell papers is self-inflicted by the candidates. I can only speak for myself, not how other searches work — yes, I know, I have been told that some universities do require you to list impact factors and citation counts and whatnot. But it sure seems to me that it’s more often the applicants themselves who are emphasizing names of journals, H-indexes, and impact factors, even as search committees like ours are trying (and are explicitly instructed) to read past all that crap. When I see someone saying “submitted to Science” on their CV, I’m thinking this person is maybe too concerned with playing the game. And if that submitted manuscript is on the CV but wasn’t provided to us as one of the papers we can actually read and evaluate, then I’m especially cross that you seem to think we’re more swayed by surface than substance.

We want to identify the most highly qualified candidates. The literature (from Jo Handelsman, Mahzarin Banaji, and others) is unequivocal: equally qualified candidates will be disadvantaged in selection processes when a person doesn’t fit my implicit internal template for what a successful scientist looks like. I used to think that I don’t have such biases. My wife is a scientist, I have two daughters, some of my best friends are… you’ve heard it, all the usual stuff people say in their own defense. Now I know I have implicit biases, because I’ve taken (unsuccessfully fought against) Banaji’s implicit bias tests. Now I take conscious steps to doublecheck my initial judgements. When I’m recommending people for seminars or talks, or nominating for prizes, I stop and make myself think of female or minority candidates, and then think whether they’re just as qualified as the first people who came to my mind. And often they are. So at all stages of our process, we read and rank the female and underrepresented minority applications separately; then we interleave our rankings as objectively as possible, forcing ourselves to be conscious to judge people on substantive grounds. I also track statistics on our pool, not because of quotas, but because it’s one way to keep an eye on whether the process is inadvertently falling prey to implicit bias.  My thinking about diversity totally changed when I realized this is not about quotas at all. It’s about the fact that my implicit bias works against equally qualified candidates, and I must work consciously against that bias.

This isn’t to say that all this striving is sufficient, either. There’s still plenty of questions about whether our academic culture is comfortable, supportive, and welcoming for all. Harvard’s child care options for faculty aren’t all that great, by all reports, and that’s a problem for scientists with children. And though I’m male and white, I come from a rural and non-affluent background, and even I sometimes feel like an uncomfortable outsider in Harvard’s pomp and circumstance, and I can only imagine what it’s like for others.

After triage, we assign each application to be read carefully by three randomly chosen search committee members. At this stage, we’re reading the research statement closely, and we’re also reading publications to some depth. Of course, it’s a compromise between the time we have versus the depth we desire. I aim to spend about an hour or so on each application. It’s not enough time to decide whether the papers are correct, but it is enough time to see how the candidate frames a question, what sort of approaches they take, and whether their writing is clear, engaging, and well-organized. I impose a discipline on myself, making sure I’ve read for substance: I write down a concise summary of the candidate’s major accomplishments and research aims.

Again, I don’t care where a paper was published, so long as it’s in a reasonably reputable place. Reputable, for me, includes the arXiv, PLOS ONE, and suchlike. I would rather see a substantive complete story in an excellent journal, as opposed to an overly telegraphic letter in Nature. I don’t want to get into specific examples that might become identifiable, but: yes, I do want to read your first-author arXiv paper, more than I want to read a hundred-authored consortium advertisement in Nature. The committee has instructions to pay attention to substance, to read your research summary and your publications in as much depth as time allows.

We have little illusion about how objective this process is — it’s just not. A lot of it comes down to intangibles, like whether people in the department get excited about a candidate’s research question.  When I applied for faculty positions, it was hard to deal with all the rejection letters. I took them all super personally, some more than others. (Looking at you, University of Vermont.) Now rejection letters will be going out on my watch, including letters to some of the candidates that I liked the best but couldn’t sway the rest of the committee, and of course I won’t say that.  Damn, we have a lot of superb applicants who we’re not going to invite. We’re going to look like dummies when they go off and be successful somewhere else. So it goes.

We’ll be making our six invitations for interviews in the coming week or so.

Nature has also written a summary of how people are responding and reacting to this post.