How the Opaque Way We Hire Postdocs Contributes to Science’s Diversity Problem

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Despite decades of talk and years of occasionally substantial investments, academe has made relatively little progress in diversifying the faculty ranks in many science and engineering disciplines. And one of the key causes is something scientists aren’t doing much to resolve.

We have all sorts of detailed programs, policies, and procedures to guide us in equitable faculty hiring. Some departments may not always follow those best practices, but at least they are clearly established. Yet we rarely have any such things in place when it comes to recruiting postdocs and other early career scientists.

No accountability in postdoctoral hiring. At the undergraduate level, there is often strong representation of white women and people of color. They face a series of steps in the academic “pipeline” ahead but may also experience a filter that favors white men. As scientists advance through a “traditional” academic career — bachelor’s programs, graduate school, one or more postdocs, the tenure track, and beyond — academe becomes more and more exclusionary. And the lack of equitable hiring procedures at the postdoctoral level is a crucial bottleneck.

Black and Latino/a scientists do not receive the same advancement opportunities as their white peers, demonstrated yet again in a study released this month. The researchers asked 251 professors in physics and biology at eight research universities to rate the CV of a hypothetical graduate student seeking a postdoc. All of these CVs were identical, except for the name: Candidates with ethnic-sounding names (other than Asian) were viewed as less hireable and less competent, the study showed, than white and Asian applicants.

Postdoctoral research experiences are essential to land a faculty position in STEM. Yet there is usually no functional oversight over the hiring procedures for postdoctoral researchers. While funding agencies or universities may require that a position be advertised, it is broadly accepted that laboratory heads use their own informal methods to select their postdocs and then advertise the position as a mere formality.

One piece of advice from a high-profile scientist was circulated on Twitter as accepted wisdom: “Heard from an uber talented Ph.D. student today that they would only apply to advertisements/postings for p-doc positions, i.e., no unsolicited applications. To be clear … I am ALWAYS looking for talented trainees and never post these positions!” That statement reflects the cultural norm in many STEM fields.

Some professors will be quick to point out that they do properly recruit postdocs and prioritize equity. But there is no real accountability. They aren’t required to follow equitable hiring procedures, and plenty of labs do not demonstrate that level of responsibility. The only assurance we have that the hiring of postdocs is fair and equitable is based on the word of the individual faculty member who selects them.

I have heard many scientists defend this system of hiring postdocs as fit and proper. They maintain that, because many postdoctoral positions require a narrow expertise and skill set, they are aware of the full pool of qualified candidates. That might be true. But it’s equally possible that they overestimate how much the existing talent in their field is following in their own orbit.

Some principal investigators say they don’t consider their postdocs to be “employees,” yet those professors tend to use the word “hire” liberally when talking about postdocs.

I’ve also heard scientists argue that it’s OK to skip a proper search in hiring a postdoc because they believe that graduate students and new Ph.D.s already understand that networking is how postdocs get hired. It’s widely known that the status quo in seeking a postdoc is to leverage your professional network, and to send unsolicited CVs to principal investigators in your subfield who know your advisers. Every postdoc applicant should be doing that, the argument goes, which thus creates an even playing field.

But even if we assume that every graduate student has been advised well and understands how postdocs are hired, we still have zero accountability in the decision-making process.

Opacity is characteristic of graduate admissions, too. The lack of transparency and accountability aren’t just problems in postdoctoral hiring. Many observers are surprised to learn that, in some STEM fields, the graduate-admissions process is equally opaque and relies on the same type of informal networking.

Among scientists, we generally accept that being a doctoral student is a paying job. We do our training while being funded with a teaching assistantship, a research assistantship, and/or a fellowship. If being a Ph.D. student in STEM comes with the prospect of a five-year term of employment, shouldn’t we make sure that these employees are “hired” through a transparent and equitable process?

In theory, graduate-admissions committees are designed to be transparent and equitable. And they are in some STEM fields and departments. In other cases, however, graduate-admissions committees merely serve to validate the choices made by individual Ph.D. advisers. Their selection process is as haphazard, informal, and murky as the recruitment of postdocs.

One field that relies on individual networking in graduate admissions is my own, ecology and evolutionary biology. As an ecologist, I’m well acquainted with how the process works:

  • Prospective doctoral students identify the professor that they want to work with as their dissertation adviser. Students then contact the professors and ask if they are taking on new students for the next year, attaching a copy of their CVs and a brief explanation of their research interests. The success of getting into grad school rests on this inquiry email.
  • Of course, having a prior connection with the professor, or coming from a lab that is connected to the professor, increases the probability of a response. It’s common for students to never hear back from these inquiries. (Students of color are more likely to be ignored.)
  • Those who receive a positive response will correspond with their prospective adviser and may be invited to apply to the graduate program. In most programs, the odds of getting admitted without already having been invited to apply are close to nil.
  • There’s an odd chance that a candidate might be rescued from the application stack, but in general, faculty members find and choose doctoral students based on prior interactions — before the application is even submitted.
  • While admissions committees might choose to veto certain applicants on the basis of low scores or grades, the authorization of a single faculty member is often the one and only thing it takes to gain admission to a doctoral program.

The admissions process varies from department to department, and some have doctoral students do rotations among labs instead. But the model of professor-picks-students-based-on-informal-networking is the norm.

That method of graduate-student selection — just like the postdoc-hiring process — relies entirely on individual faculty members to make a well-informed decision based on a large and diverse applicant pool. Yet how can it be large or diverse if many professors don’t even advertise slots for doctoral students in their labs or seek out applicants — but just receive student inquires as they come?

Unfortunately, unlike the postdoc-hiring scenario, many undergraduates seeking admission to Ph.D. programs — in my field as well as other STEM disciplines — are entirely unaware that they are required to do this kind of networking in order for their application to be given due consideration. The only students who benefit are those who have access to individualized advising as they apply to graduate school.

Scientists tend to accept all of that as normal because it’s the system in which we were raised. As a community, we highly value a close fit between students and professors, with respect to their mutual research interests. Students want to work in labs capable of giving them the specific training they seek, and faculty members want to bring in someone who is enthused about working within their area of expertise. An informal networking process is often seen as the best and/or only way of getting that kind of tight fit.

I’ve grown to see how both the admissions and postdoc-hiring processes are problematic — and create barriers to equity in the sciences. Go to an ecology conference, for example, and you’ll see that nearly everybody there is white. The undergraduates and postdocs who are marginalized in the process have major concerns about that, but many of the professors who run these systems don’t seem motivated to increase transparency or accountability. Instead, individual professors commit to taking the selection process more seriously. But that may not result in the systemic reform that we need.

If you’re wondering why some fields have a diverse pool of undergraduates and a distinctly less diverse pool of graduate students and postdocs, the lack of accountability and transparency in these processes has to be part of the explanation.

Terry McGlynn is a professor of biology at California State University-Dominguez Hills and a research associate at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. His web site is Leafitter.org, his blog is Smallpondscience.com, and he is on Twitter @hormiga. Read his previous Chronicle columns here.

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