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While it's clear that having a sterling CV with lots of high profile papers will be beneficial to getting hired, I often hear from other faculty that, when hiring, they are looking for someone who "fits in", "could be a friend", and overall is "nice". These, to me, are ways of saying the person is charismatic, or at least quite pleasant to be around. It is unclear to me how much this is actually true, or said in retrospect to talk up the newly hired person. Here are my questions:

  1. Have you ever been part of a hiring committee (or just hiring a postdoc for your group) when you and/or the committee chose someone who was "friendlier" over someone who had a better CV and/or gave a better talk?

  2. Why did you ultimately make this choice?

  3. In hindsight, do you feel it was the correct choice to make?

  4. Alternatively, if the most credentialed (but possibly less friendly/charismatic) candidate was chosen, what was the discussion about this? Did the relative charisma of the candidates come up when making the decision?

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    Great question! – Bitwise Oct 17 '14 at 0:30
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    I often hear from other faculty that, when hiring, they are looking for someone who "fits in", "could be a friend", and overall is "nice". — Really? Shudder. – JeffE Oct 17 '14 at 0:37
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    Many students consider friendliness very important when choosing potential supervisors (arguably with good reason). A very unfriendly faculty member could be less successful in attracting brilliant graduate students (consider if this is the only faculty member working in a given field, and interest in him or her is make or break for prospective students interested in that field), and supporting them during graduate school when they risk failing. In this sense, the two concerns are not completely independent. – Superbest Oct 17 '14 at 1:57
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    Generally speaking, charisma seems to be one of the most valuable characteristics that someone can have for anything in life. (I, unfortunately, was not born with this quality.) – James Oct 17 '14 at 2:48
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    This is true of any job hunt. You have to be a good fit for the organization and organizational culture. In hiring many teachers I've come across plenty who are great on paper but can't communicate in the classroom or can't get along with other employees. And when I've worked in the private sector, exact same problem. Some people have sterling resumes but can't seem to get the job done or get along with co-workers. Don't think there's much more to it than that. – Dave Kanter Oct 17 '14 at 21:17
30

The final pre-offer stage of most academic hiring processes is the "on-campus interview". This is when the candidates come, one at a time, spend a day on campus, give talks, speak with faculty, etc.

By and large, every candidate who receives an on-campus interview is qualified for the job. Therefore, at this point of the process, it is no longer useful to try to sort candidates by the strength of their CV alone. That has already been done at earlier stages of the process, and the candidates who received an on-campus interview already made it through that process.

Therefore, it should not be surprising that, from time to time, someone with at "worse" CV gets an offer before someone with a "better" CV. There are so many factors that the department takes into account, and the CV is just one. That does not mean that having a better CV is irrelevant at the end - it is very relevant! But it is just one piece of evidence among many at the end of the process.

There is a lot of controversy about "fit". In the worst case, it can be a way to act on hidden biases, which is a valid cause for concern. You can read about all sides of this debate on in the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed.

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    By and large, every candidate who receives an on-campus interview is qualified for the job. — [citation needed] – JeffE Oct 17 '14 at 0:38
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    Perhaps it's not your experience, but it's mine. Our typical job search has a ratio of (applicants) to (on-campus interviews) around 100 to 1, and nobody makes it that far if they aren't qualified for the position. Really, I'd be surprised if many schools have the cash to fly in candidates for on-campus interviews, without thinking the candidates are among the most qualified applicants. @JeffE – Oswald Veblen Oct 17 '14 at 0:42
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    My department sees roughly the same ratio. Nevertheless, some candidates reveal themselves to be considerably less qualified in person than they appear on paper, which is arguably the entire point of the interview. – JeffE Oct 17 '14 at 0:44
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    I thought that might be what you meant. I am talking about "qualified" here in terms of the CV, ignoring all the other variables that come out in an on-campus interview. That is indeed the reason why just having a "better" CV doesn't always make someone the best candidate. – Oswald Veblen Oct 17 '14 at 0:48
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    A lot of the discussion here seems to be assuming that we're talking about a fancy research institution. My experience is that when we interview 6 candidates, all with PhDs, for a full-time community college position, roughly half demonstrate a lack of basic competence during their interview. I'd be surprised if many schools have the cash to fly in candidates for on-campus interviews, without thinking the candidates are among the most qualified applicants. Community colleges don't pay for applicants to fly in. – Ben Crowell Oct 18 '14 at 18:43
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It's not so much about "niceness" as it is about the interpersonal skills necessary for a well-functioning group. Every research organization, whether of an individual professor or an entire department, has a lot of things that need to be accomplished that can't be done by individuals in isolation. Not only is there all of the administration, but people typically want to be able to effectively collaborate with others in their group, write joint grant proposals, help one another in battles with the administration, etc.

If you have a candidate who is excellent in isolation but lacks the interpersonal skills necessary to interact effectively, they may be more burden than they are worth. If they are actively problematic in their interactions, that can poison an organization for years. For a tenure-track position, I have even heard people compare hiring a new professor to getting married since you potentially are committing to live with that person as a close collaborator for decades (though I think that analogy is a little overly intimate myself).

Of course, it's hard to judge long-term compatibility in the short period of an interview. But given all of these long-term considerations, it is no surprise that people will give a lot of weight to their impressions of the feelings they have when interacting with a candidate.

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    Splitting hairs but this is true of any "organization," period. Not just research organizations. – Dave Kanter Oct 17 '14 at 21:19
6

I have rewritten this a few times trying to find the right approach to this; forgive me if something ends up mangled in the process (and the length, of course). As non-faculty holder of a recent terminal degree, I wanted to weigh in from the student side of things.

  1. there are a lot of intersections between things we perceive to be part of a person's "personality" (charismatic, nice, frank, honest, mean, personable, distant, etc.) and their ability to work effectively with students
  2. it's a big concern to me if a hiring committee is picking someone they'd like to have a drink or a dinner-party with over someone who would make, you know, a good member of the faculty; I want to have faith that these decisions are being made with the theoretical student's best-interests in mind, because we the theoretical students may need you to have our backs.

I'll do this backwards and start with the second point: as students, we don't have a lot of leverage regarding who is and isn't faculty, and if serious concerns with another faculty membercome up, it's important that, as students, we know these concerns won't be dismissed because everyone pals around with them and can't see their flaws. This is a balance, of course; I enjoy faculty who get along, and I've learned a lot by being mentored by more than one faculty who are good friends.

To the first point: While I was a graduate student we were asked to attend talks by the three candidates given on-campus interviews and give feedback on the candidates. We debated the tradeoffs between which candidate we felt produced the best work and which candidate did the best job of actually talking about that work in a way that (we hoped) would make them better in the classroom and as mentors.

I recused myself when car trouble popped up and kept me from attending the third talk, but of the two I did see, the more charismatic candidate won the position over a candidate who appeared more insightful, kind and levelheaded but had trouble communicating the excitement and importance of his own work. This was a problem when going up against someone well-known in his field. How much faith can I put in a professor who is uninteresting even with the agency to choose topics and incentive to shine (compare to: when he is teaching something he doesn't want to teach to students he doesn't think he has time for)? At the time, this decision satisfied me, though there were certainly others in the program who thought the decision was terrible.

In retrospect, the candidate hired is a charismatic person who is very successful in his field and isn't afraid to give feedback that we as students may need to hear, but which most professors are too nice to give. He can also be a boor, sexist, bully, and drunk. He clearly played favorites with attractive female students, gave unattractive female students a hard time, while being much more even-handed with the male students (with a notable exception regarding a student interested in the same female student he was...). I won't be surprised if I hear certain kinds of news about him in the future.

I've had nice, friendly charismatic professors who are good at guiding students, mediating conflict, treating everyone fairly and encouraging us to succeed. I've had harsh but charismatic professors who never run out of brutal honesty drive us all the harder to succeed. I never had a professor wow me into being a better student by the weight of their accomplishments. I've also discussed a charismatic professor whose extracurriculars were a distraction to our ability to learn what he's capable of teaching. None of these factors will generally stand out on a CV, and some of them will obviously prove elusive even after a thorough campus interview.

From my distance, I can only hope our faculty and administrators weren't picking a friend, and will be capable of sober reflection and thoughtful advocacy for student interests should a student come to them in need.

  • What would you say about a candidate who starts making political/social comments during a meal that, while not wrong or offensive in any sense, make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up? – user2379888 Oct 17 '14 at 2:47
  • I'm not clear on what you mean without a rough analogue. I am personally a little skeptical of people who are political in circumstances where most wouldn't be. Is there some example you can give? – abathur Oct 17 '14 at 3:49
  • user2379888 that could be a great thing if you're an organization that thrives on that kind of dynamic and a terrible thing if you're not. Depends on the goals, needs, and interests of the group. – Dave Kanter Oct 17 '14 at 21:22
4

Just a few thoughts. One, you mention "charisma" and "giving a better talk" as different alternatives, but in fact charisma is part of giving a good talk. When people evaluate a candidate's "job talk", they are inevitably evaluating the presentation as well as the content, and the presentation will benefit if the person is charismatic.

More generally charisma goes beyond just being "nice". There are many ways in which a person may or may not "fit in" with a department. A person may be perfectly nice and even fun to hang out with, but still somehow have a personality that doesn't jibe with a department.

I have been on a hiring committee where various sorts of interpersonal factors played a role in the decision. It wasn't a matter of a "nicer" person was chosen over someone with better research chops, though (nor vice versa). However, there was one candidate who, during a meeting with graduate students, made some remarks which stunned them, and made it seem as if he held fringe positions on basic moral/ethical issues. (Imagine someone unjokingly saying something like "Armed robbery, you know, it's not as bad as some people think." That wasn't what he said, but it had a similar effect.) This candidate did not get the job, although this incident was of course only one factor in the decision.

I mention this just to note that, aside from charisma or research credentials, it's possible for someone to raise a giant red flag simply by their interpersonal behavior. What's especially important is that doing something like this can make it so that faculty and students in the department would actually feel uncomfortable being around you. That's an important way that "charisma", loosely defined, can matter. If a candidate behaves in a way that makes people in the department uncomfortable or not trust him, he may not have a productive career in that department (even if he could have one somewhere else), simply because that social tension will prevent him from working well in that environment.

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    I like the first paragraph, so +1. But the armed robbery anecdote seems a little off to me. It sounds like the person intentionally made a provocative statement or questioned people's unquestioned assumptions, possibly in an attempt to start a philosophical debate. That's a good thing. I wonder how Socrates would have done in your interview process. – Ben Crowell Oct 18 '14 at 20:42
  • @BenCrowell: Well, we didn't make any of the candidates drink hemlock :-). In a sense you may be right that there could be benefits to that sort of behavior, but that only reinforces the point that how the person comes across personality-wise is separate from any such logical considerations. For instance, a candidate who has an in-your-face attitude and makes claims such as "Such-and-such research is horrible and bad and wrong for reasons X, Y, and Z!" may not be a fit personality wise, even if those are valid reasons to question that research. – BrenBarn Oct 18 '14 at 20:46
3

As part of a hiring panel at a Fortune 500 company where I once worked, we were trained in what to look for in applicants. (The company was acquired so I no longer work there.)

A sobering fact is the average adult American spends two to three times the amount of waking hours with coworkers than they do with immediate family.

We held the motto "Hire for character; train for skill." Simply put, CV qualifications are much easier and more likely to change over time than someone's abilities to work well with, mentor, inspire, and support others.

In general, the abilities of communicating effectively and being charismatic are intrinsic to one's effectiveness. All other things being equal, someone that won't fit into a and organization well can be a disruptive influence that lowers the efficiency and moral of an entire organization, including their peers, subordinates, and especially their superiors who wind up refereeing disputes.

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    This is an interesting answer but not necessarily applicable to academia. In particular, institutions of higher education really do not "train" their faculty, particularly not in terms of research. – Nate Eldredge Oct 18 '14 at 1:58
  • I offer my answer because it is "generally applicable" to workgroups. The "faculty" is by definition the "teaching staff" and not some set of disparate researchers. Presumably those on the interview panel are selected the hopes that they'll select someone like themselves or can work well with. – IAmNaN Oct 18 '14 at 9:57

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