Saturday, October 20, 2007

Things I learned watching The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Tryouts

Yes, CMT has this reality show where they follow the auditions.

Yes, I'm watching it.

Yes, I'm working with the tv on in the background.

It inspires me to do science, unlike the Renuzit commercial they keep running where one woman posits a scientific hypothesis for how the Renuzit pearls work, and her friend says "I think they're pretty."

Score one for reverse psychology, and one for Renuzit for having a woman with a scientific hypothesis, but minus one for the dippy friend.

It's fascinating because out of 1000 girls in the first audition group, they've narrowed it down to about 40 on the episode I'm watching now.

While I'm watching this, much as I'm disgusted by them telling girls with 16% body fat that they need to lose weight (!!!), in some ways it seems a lot more sane than the way we currently choose faculty in the academic sciences.

Yes, I am making an analogy here, however far-fetched it may sound to compare these two, bear with me for a moment.

Imagine, if you will, what auditions for faculty positions would look like.

Candidates would give talks, serve on fake committees, edit manuscripts, advise fake students, draft aims for grants under time limitations, etc.

Instead of making decisions based on a resume and a 1-2 day interview, or two, imagine if there were a month or two of tryouts. A kind of faculty position bootcamp, if you will.

Imagine if there were no tenure, and existing faculty had to try out again every few years to show they can still compete with the younger candidates.

Imagine if search committees put as much time into choosing new faculty as these people put into choosing new cheerleaders.

Imagine if they actually gave feedback along the way and then gave candidates time to try to address any deficiencies!

Admittedly there's probably more money in football than there is in healthcare research in this country.

Just think about that for a minute. I could be wrong, of course, and if you have numbers feel free to write in with them. But when you think about it, some of the schools in the US have more money in football than most third world countries have for their entire healthcare budget.

Maybe that's why these cheerleaders seem to put such an emphasis on high standards, while academic science pretends like it's not all that important who gets hired.

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At 9:28 AM, Blogger EcoGeoFemme said...

For the cost of that kind of audition, they could afford another salary line.

I don't blame you for watching that show. I got hooked on The Search for the Next Pussycat Doll last year. In the first episode I saw, the contestants all got a stomach virus and were puking all over the place. They actually showed these girls barfing into landscaping. I couldn't resist after that.

At 1:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have so much contempt for a process that, I can assume, you've never seen from the inside. This is similar to things you've said about grant review panels.

You can not have any idea how mich time ans thought people who do these things put into it. And you know, we don't get paid extra for being on a search comittee. We try to do it well because we're chosing a colleague who we may have for the rest of our lives.

Just because you don't like the results does not mean that the people involved, ALL of us, are doing it wrong. Last I checked, science is going along just fine.

If you'd like to pretend that it is all random decisions by people who don't give a rat's ass about anything, that the people who pick cheerleaders put more thought into this than we do, go ahead and think that. And prepare your application packages and grant proposals accordingly.

Alternatively, you could actually learn how these things work. Then you might have a chance at success, or at least an understanding of why you aren't successful, and make life decisions accordingly.

At 9:04 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

FYI, Anonymous, I had lots of people look at my applications who have served on search committees.

BY THEIR OWN ADMISSION, they usually spend 10 minutes or less per application.

Some spend as little as 30 seconds, which is devoted solely to reading the publication list.

Put that in your pipe and suck on it for a minute.

Now imagine you're in my shoes, hearing these things.

How does that feel? Hmm?

Maybe these people are the exception, but I doubt it. I'm sure there are some inconsistencies to how they're distributed in the scientific population, but they're there. They exist, and some of them wield a tremendous amount of power in choosing the next generation.

I appreciate that you may not be one of these people. I ALWAYS assume it's a spectrum, like everything is . I take aim at the average and the worst.

Too bad that you're so fucking defensive that you can't see that.

And if you think science is 'going along just fine', you need to take your blinders off. The fact that you read this blog makes me wonder if YFS is to you as the Daily Show is for people who can't get the news any other way. The fact that it's a little bit over the top with hyperbole attracts a larger audience, but some people just don't get it.

At 7:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't worry, I don't read it that often. I have a lot of work to do.

I guess the reason I read it is because I feel like it gives me a glimpse of what my life would have been like had I kept believing, as I once did, that the system was stacked against me, that it was impossibly unfair, that there was no logic to it, and that no matter what I did, I would never succeed because other people were holding me back. A wise senior colleague once told me that that degree of cynicism would sink me. I'm glad I listened to him and changed my tune. Besides, I was getting to be a bore.

Sorry-what was that part about defensive? About "taking [my] blinders off? I kept hearing something about pots and kettles.

I don't suck pipes.

And anyway, while I usually spend a little more than ten minutes per application, pray tell what it is I would be missing if I cut it down to ten. A while back you had a post, cynical and defensive as I recall, where you trashed some of the guidelines that Burroughs-Wellcome provided for putting a CV together. Those are great guidelines. The probably assume that the faculty search committee member has not gone through training with the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader Selection Team. So they encourage you to get all the important stuff up front so that we see it in the first ten minutes.

Yeah, publications count. A lot. Get over it. But I’m guessing that if you gotten as fat as you have, you’re probably OK in that area. So maybe it’s the packaging.

You know, back when I wrote my first NIH grant proposal, it came back scored OK, but not in the funding range. As I was reading the comments, I saw that one reviewer totally misunderstood one of the aims, and criticized the proposal based on that misunderstanding. I was angry and raging about the unfairness of life, bla bla bla, and another wise senior colleague told me "I understand you're upset-this really is infuriating. But just remember, if the reviewers don't get your proposal, it's your fault". Didn't sound very nice, but that's the reality on the ground. So I wrote the revisions with that in mind. Nothing changed-hardly any new data, no new papers (I was an assistant professor with a lab full of first year grad students and a new baby), I just wrote the proposal differently, making use of the advice I was given, even though I did not like it very much. And got the grant.

Natural selection is simple. Adapt or die. Your choice.

At 7:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry-major typo. I mean that "you have gotten as far (not fat) as you have".

At 12:11 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Typo apology accepted.

I agree that if the readers don't understand what you're proposing, it's on you to fix it.

I don't agree that adaptation is better than, or should be used in place of, discussions about improving the system.

My point about the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders is that, ironically, they put a lot of time into the process of choosing based on more than just appearances, when in fact you might expect the opposite.

And the great irony is that, when it comes right down to it, even science judges (at least the first cut) on appearances alone, too.

Dear Mom,

If you thought I'd be sheltered from shallow judgments on appearances by going into science, you were wrong.



If all the Cheerleaders looked at were appearances, they would be done in 30 seconds, too.

But they set a great example. They make their hiring decisions by also evaluating aptitude (which I've blogged about before) and work ethic (which I've also blogged about before).

Amazingly, the Cheerleaders are actually doing the experiment. They bring in the people they're going to hire and actually check to see if they're going to be able to do the job before they give them a position.

They've very thorough and very logical. They know what criteria actually matter. And they know when, within a certain range, improvements are possible when the right feedback is given in a timely manner.

The current academic search process does not allow for the possibility of improvements to be made based on direct feedback from the powers that be. And the notion that appearances represent performance is appalling and inaccurate.

In response to your comparison, let me reiterate that grants are different. A grant is not a colleague.

For hiring, people love to make all these arguments about how important it is to choose a colleague, but if that's really the case, then where's the documentation? Why don't we even have, for example, good statistics on how many women or minorities apply every year vs. get invited for interviews vs. get hired?

This is just like the postdoc nightmare. Everyone loves to hide behind the lack of statistics, but they should be ashamed of themselves for being so unscientific about it in the first place.

At 2:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

first time caller, not all that long time reader

"And the great irony is that, when it comes right down to it, even science judges (at least the first cut) on appearances alone, too."

Your publication record isn't your appearance. The record is an important description of your scientific contributions.

At 10:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is said that Sir Winston Churchill hired people based on interviews not longer than 15 minutes. It is said he hired them not on the basis of their accomplishments on paper but brains shown during the interview. It is also said that he did it during the most difficult period in the history of England: WW2. I have hired scientists who appeared entirely unqualified on paper, and yet were brilliant in everything they did. I also had the misfortune of paying too much attention to the magnificent paperwork, and ending up with wood that showed signs of putrefaction on the first day of work. The moral: use your brain, not “the process.” Choose people who bring something new and fascinating to your department, and not “colleagues” with whom you will share the cubicle for years to come. The former may be uncomfortable, may even force you to revitalize and evolve faster. The latter are nothing but comfortable representations of yourself, and this surely is not necessarily the equivalent of progress. Who knows, you may not be the best model the future.

The world just got a little too complex for the classical process of blinkered deliberation, and, had Winnie applied this model, England would, most likely, speak German today. The wish to expand your department’s intellectual horizons, to “be the agent of change” (if we may apply this horrifying banality here) should be part of your academic vigour, not a curse accepted merely because it looks “proper” on your own CV. Seen in that context, the Anonymous is dull, and the Young unrealistic. Is dullness the sign of age then, and unrealism the sign of youth? To both a word of cautionary advice: abandon the comfort of “process” but do not use a horse show as a substitute. The first rejects a vast number of highly talented and badly needed people deeming them “unqualified,” the latter fails to select those who can truly run. Instead, try to identify clearly what is really needed, where you want to be in 5 years, in 10, or in 25, what kind of people you wish your department to send out into the “new, brave world,” and do all that without hiding behind the barrier of currently en vogue verbiage and inconsequential nonsense. Trends change, but intellectual prowess and true knowledge do not. Then choose, choose wisely, and select the ablest, not the ones you like most because they appeal to your own proclivities. Your coffee pals should stay outside the doors of your department. Inside, you want to be surrounded by the most inspiring brains.

Oh, and as an aside, on the peer review process: being a journal editor, I wish I had more peers who review other people’s papers on the basis of merit, and with intention to help in their publication, rather than dazzling the authors with own (often not pertinent) knowledge, suggestions of what should be done (then why have they not done it themselves?), and, too often. an absolutely amazing lack of elementary manners and civility. Thus, to the scions of the peer review process: to review the work of others happens to be, actually, an honourable deed. It is not about showing one’s own intellectual prowess or brusqueness (read : rudeness) of often not-quite-recognized genius, but to help one’s own “brother or sister in arms” to get better, to avoid errors, and to attain the highest level of scholarship possible. It is to guide, not shatter. I am fortunate in knowing a number of Nobel Prize winners, all the kindest of people, and helpful beyond expectation, especially to those of the younger generation. Maybe the “stalwarts of the academy,” some of whom make one shudder at the very notion of having them as one’s own peers, ought to pay more attention to this phenomenon. True greatness is not the same as the insistence on being the cock of the hill.

At 10:28 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Dear Hirerer,

Fantastic comment, thank you.

You say I sound unrealistic- did I actually sound as if I meant this as a serious suggestion?

Actually I think you're right, except again there is no suggestion of how to put this into practice. So in a way your suggestion is no more realistic than mine.

Young scientists can't afford to fly to all the places they would like to interview, and schools can't afford to fly them all out for 15 minute visits with the hirers like yourself.

In some fields I know that in-person interviews of the sort you describe happen at a centralized meeting once a year. Perhaps this is the only way to get in the 15 minutes that I think most of us, at a minimum, deserve?

But there again, not everyone can be like Winston Churchill, and most departments are not benevolent dictatorships.

And while I agree in principle on what the peer review process should be, without enough editors of integrity there is currently no way to filter out the reviewers who lack the ability to be constructive. Sadly, I work mostly with PIs who set a bad example, and churn out many a young successful postdoc who thinks that is the way they should behave.

As an aspirant to the 'inpsiring brain' title, who is not fortunate enough to know a number of kind, helpful Nobel Prize winners, it's hard to make the leap from the working class.

At 11:27 AM, Blogger Drugmonkey said...

"Perhaps this is the only way to get in the 15 minutes that I think most of us, at a minimum, deserve? "

Another reason your disdain for poster presentations is counterproductive...

At 1:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Then, let’s be realistic. I hired people from the other side of the world without ever laying my eye on them. Telephone is a wonderful medium, providing one knows how to use it, and providing one does not start with “Dear Dr X, I am here together with Drs. Y,Z,A,B,C,D who will be listening to our conversation.” If one ever wanted to start from a “Holy Inquisition setting,” with a flock in hoods judging every single word uttered by the candidate, this is about as perfect as it goes. The art of learning something about people is not to gallop them through a series of meetings with “faces,” all asking similar, often idiotic, questions, then flog them into a dinner, and force to answer another set of trivial inquiries, but to relax them, ask simple and unambiguous questions, and listen. With other listeners in the room, make certain they all participate in a way that a conversation, not an inquiry, develops. Do you have to ask profession-related questions in order to elucidate the level of professional knowledge? No. The interviewer should be able to lead the candidate into relaxed, spontaneous confessions of credo, rather than either drag things out by sheer force, or get a rattle of platitudes clad in politically correct language, all gleaned from the web site of the interviewing institution. The “interview halls” you suggest are just that: market places, serving no purpose but getting cheapest labour possible at the fastest rate that can be found. Results are dismal at best, at worst there are simply no results.

There is, of course, the issue of the initial screen. That one is very simple: the more inflation in the candidate’s CV, the smaller chance of getting the phone call. People who have something to say are typically embarrassed by advertising trivia. However, achievement is also the function of seniority, and the CV of a freshly baked PhD needs to be looked differently than that of an internationally recognized master. If you do it often enough, you will rapidly see that what you get is predominantly mediocre, with either brilliant or dismal outliers. Depending on what you want, you either go for the brilliance (and be prepared for frequently awkward personality associated with it) or the average, in which case you select those who appear to be the most creative and original. Then you call them. The prerequisite to the process is a search committee consisting of wise, experienced people who do not view the work (substantial) associated with finding appropriate people as drudgery (unpaid – see “Anonymous”) or the positively viewed “academic service” but as an essential contribution to the institution, hence – its students, or, in grander terms, humanity as well (after all, those we produce work within and for that humanity one way or another.) Ultimately, it all boils down to the institutional culture, and its level of preoccupation with empty form or, what some view as “academic purity.” Typically (but not always), the better the university, the less insistence on the latter, and more on the true prowess. This being said, the bar will also be significantly higher at more renowned institutions, and it is up to the candidate to choose the level of comfort. The subsequent effort will be judged using identical measures, and the better the university, the more insistence on the true content than the superficial form.

In short, it really can be done, and it is not at all either so time-consuming or difficult. When we sub statute intellectual flexibility with the rigours of “process” everything halts, and we get more and more into the “all halted” mode.

As to the peer review system? It should be the job of the editors to make sure poor reviewers, no matter their professional reputation, are not invited to serve. It should be the job of editors to review the review, and, if necessary, make comment to the reviewer. It is necessary that the editor goes beyond recommendations on a “tick-the-box” form and uses own judgment. It is necessary the editor acts as the editor rather than provides an easily recognizable name on the front page of the journal. Editorship is, indeed, an honour. It is also hard work, imposed upon many other academic duties. Work that is volountary, to which one is not forced, and work that involves major responsibility for shaping science, since journal-published thought is accepted more readily than thought disseminated in any other form. I had some superb editors in my life, and learned from them a lot, and some I’d willingly strangle. I also learned from those. For those who still miss the boat of civility and manner, there are plenty of books on these subjects. All readily available, and in a bad need of intense perusal by countless “scholars.” Plus a reminder: military schools, colleges, and academies abandoned the system of “hazing” as not really helpful. Maybe civilians ought to adopt the same attitude?

At 3:23 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


JoelonSoftware agrees with you that phone interviews are the way to go:

I think this is an obviously simple, affordable step that more schools should take.

However I am 99% certain most will complain that it takes too much time to call 200 applicants every time they do a search, although I think that would be the best solution.

BTW the 'inquiry halls' of which I speak usually include only 1 person as an initial screener, not a whole panel of judges. But your point is well taken. I am definitely in favor of one-on-one as a way to get to know people.

From this last comment it sounds like you know how to spot the "brilliant" and "more creative" from among the mediocre based on the CV alone, and then call only those people? Is that what you do?

At 8:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Among other things this is, indeed, what I do. With practice, it is easy to spot bright people. They succumb less easily to “how to” advice: the density of “buzz words” is lower, and the sentences are more independent. Also, most of them present themselves as who and what they are, rather than what they want to be to a particular searching group, and their CV do indicate professional passion. The latter convinces me, although it may not convince others. Ultimately, a lot can be said between the lines, and one must learn to read that message as well.

While I select those who seem promising, and that does not always mean that they have the required expertise (intelligent people learn and learn fast!), I make a point of letting all others know they have not been selected, and do it as fast as possible. Common courtesy, I think, plus the message frees them to concentrate on other things instead of harbouring hopes that “maybe this one.” In several cases, I also let them know why they have not been selected. It can be helpful, just as a decent review of a paper that has been rejected. It often takes a lot of time, but I consider this the time invested in my own group and my own organization. My mentors taught me these rules, insisted on adherence to them, maintaining, correctly I think, that a scientist without civility is but a boor with aspirations to grandeur.

Phone interviews should be the norm, but telephone conversation is also an art, and many, both the interviewers and those interviewed, do not have it. Amazingly, the way a person handles an unquestionably stressful telephone conversation also indicates that person’s ease of establishing contact with others, and is a very useful tool for determining the “social fit” of the candidate. I find that those who know how to handle the phone are typically good and engaging public speakers, a talent of great importance for a scientist who wishes to disseminate own work in form of public lectures. Regrettably, most universities do not teach even the most elementary social skills. Since more and more academic search committee members (especially junior) are socially “heavy handed,” the interviews are unnecessarily intimidating or assume the form of a police interrogation where nothing is given but a lot is asked. Interviews conducted by businesss HR divisions operate, for the most part, on the principle of check-lists and the inherent “emotional imbecility” (despite highly touted tenets of emotional intelligence.) In either case, if not for the fact that a worthy candidate is frequently rejected, the results can be quite humorous more often than not. I’d suggest all read Northocott-Parkinson’s “Parkinson’s Law,” a book tragically forgotten (probably because its language, exquisite and witty as it were, might exceed the limited vocabulary of a modern reader) yet wondrously instructive for all those who are involved in personnel wizardry of any large organization.

At 8:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agree with the paper. Personally, prefer the "discussion" mode, rather than "how would you" appraoch. Bith work, and, to me, the suitability of either depends on the person one interviews. Actually, there were times when I asked people to write me a note on the subject of "how would you." Stereotypic vs. creative candidates become immediately identifiable. More work, but most rewarding approach, one that so far never failed.

At 2:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know how old this entry is, but I just wanted to mention that the cheerleaders only get paid $50 a game. There are 10 at home games that they get paid for, and all the rehearsal time they don't get one penny. If they make it into the "show group", then they have a chance for more appearances and more money. There is more money in football, but cheerleaders don't get very much. Crazy huh?! I agree with your blog entry, btw.


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