To Interview or Not to Interview

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

November 08, 2012

In a few weeks, faculty members will be hip-deep in applications to their graduate programs and will face a recurrent question: Should they interview the applicants?

Their answers will have little to do with the height of the application pile or the applicants' relative strengths. Instead, the decision will hinge greatly on the type of department to which the candidate has applied. Faculty members are more likely to do interviews in some disciplines than in others.

For two years, I have been studying graduate admissions at three universities, specifically in 11 highly selective Ph.D. programs in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. After observing more than 20 hours of admissions committee meetings and conducting 80 interviews with faculty members, I learned that their attitudes on interviewing applicants have much to do with their discipline's intellectual and practical priorities.

For example, the economists I spoke with reject interviewing because they doubt the usefulness of information gained from it—a position that is consistent with their discipline's focus on utility. Interviewing, as the chair of an admissions committee in an economics department put it, "is the last thing you want to do. The characteristics that dazzle interviewers are not the ones correlated with success." Skeptical that selection interviews will highlight relevant strengths among generally qualified applicants, that department saves face-to-face contact for a recruitment weekend described by one as a dog-and-pony show.

Sociologists, meanwhile, use their scholarly interests in social equity and organizational efficiency to defend their position on interviewing applicants. Sociologists argue that informal interviewing before applications are submitted not only unfairly privileges higher-income candidates and those who live nearby, but also, more pragmatically, wastes scarce faculty time.

As one sociologist argued, "More than 90 percent of them are going to get rejected. If the person doesn't have the grades and the GRE's, we don't want to spend a lot of time meeting with them to talk about, you know, how happy we'd be to work with them."

Attitudes in the humanities toward interviewing applicants reflect that discipline's sensitivity to subjectivity. Some faculty members I spoke with could hardly imagine the admissions process without interviews, while others don't trust them at all.

A senior scholar of ancient literature deferred to Malcolm Gladwell and his book Blink in making the case that a full application review could just as well be replaced with a five-minute, Blink-style interview, in which an experienced faculty member might quickly and accurately discern a student's prospects for success. However, in that book, Gladwell himself hedges on the trustworthiness of intuition in hiring situations, citing the election of Warren Harding as an example of confusing a presidential look with presidential leadership.

Indeed, the chairman of another humanities department told me his program would never use in-person interviews because the faculty might make unfair inferences from perceived attractiveness and other physical traits. Faculty members may not believe that someone's intellect or personality can be inferred from appearance, but they are, nonetheless, sensitive to our natural tendency to absorb such impressions in interview settings.

On the whole, few academics in any discipline would disagree that the admissions process involves a lot of interpretation, but humanists are much more explicit about that than scholars in other fields.

Professors in the physics and astrophysics programs I studied defend interviewing as the best assessment of a core competency they seek in contemporary scientists: the ability to translate science to outsiders. Doing science is simply not enough. How well can an applicant communicate the discipline to undergraduates in service courses? To the public? Or in the interest of science advocacy? The rising population of international applicants has, of course, made that competency an increasingly important concern.

Members of one physics department's admissions committee conduct Skype interviews with applicants on its shortlist. The committee members I interviewed claimed that they conducted those interviews to assess the applicants' proficiency in English and to discuss the big picture and technical details of the candidates' research interests.

In observing a few interviews and faculty debriefings, however, it was clear that the committee members were also judging students' personality, cultural capital (e.g., "not our most articulate, but she seemed quite poised"), and interest in the program. One professor admitted to me, "That's what you're going to tell them—that you're going to screen them for language. But frankly, we think a little broader."

Recognizing and questioning the preferences that your disciplinary point of view produces is a noble first step to more reflective practice. But, in the end, should you interview graduate-school applicants?

The answer depends, in part, on your department's goals. If you want to enroll the students who are likely to get the best grades, the economists are right. The behavioral economist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman found that information gleaned from interviews usually isn't associated with long-term success, because intuition often fails in environments like admissions, where uncertainty and unpredictability are high.

However, he and the psychologists Paul Meehl and Robyn Dawes do find value in a certain type of selection interviewing. Their work, outlined in Kahneman's bestseller, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is worth a closer look if you're leading your department's admissions committee.

The sociologists are also right that the inefficiency of early interviewing rises with a department's selectivity. Yet forthcoming research by Samuel Bersola, assistant vice provost at the University of California at Los Angeles, and some of his colleagues suggests that faculty contact is key to attracting and enrolling graduate students from underrepresented groups. If institutional diversity is an important goal for your program, then recruitment programs that focus on those populations may be a relatively efficient way to broaden the pool of minority applicants.

If your goal with admissions is to emphasize community building, interviewing surely helps the department assess personality and other aspects of fit. But be careful that your interviewing standards are clearly articulated and legal, and that you adhere to those standards rather than using them as cover for less savory considerations.

It is impossible to take the subjectivity out of interviewing, or out of admissions generally, but naming what you are being subjective about makes the criteria and the process a little less opaque to colleagues and prospective students alike.

Julie Renee Posselt is a doctoral candidate in higher education at the University of Michigan's Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education. She hopes to earn her Ph.D. in the spring of 2013.