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Post Doc Interviews in the Life Sciences May Promote Bias

Researchers that by identifying disparities in postdoc interviews, they can start a discussion among biologists that will lead to more standardized and equitable interviews for postdoctoral positions

by Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology
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Newswise — Post doc interviews in the life sciences are relatively unregulated compared to interviews for faculty positions. To find out if this lack of regulation promotes biases in post doc interviews, Dr. Nicholas Burnett and Dr. Stacey Combes of the Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior Department at U.C. Davis surveyed post docs in the life sciences at universities across the United States. They then analyzed responses from the 342 post docs who completed their surveys and tested how the interviews differed between post docs. 

As to the impetus of their study, Burnett noted, "I was inspired to start this study after reading a paper about the faculty hiring process, written by Özlelm Sensoy and Robin DiAngleo, that said if we are truly committed to increasing diversity in academia, we must be willing to do everything differently. As a recently hired post doc, I realized there was relatively little institutional attention given to interviews for post docs, so I began wondering about the content and structure of post doc interviews, how interviews affect post doc diversity, and what we can do to change interviews for the better." 

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The data showed that the content and structure of interviews varied drastically between post docs, and that these differences were associated with race, ethnicity, and gender of the post docs, as well as other circumstances of the interviews. For example, a post doc's demographic background was linked to the interview length and whether they demonstrated a technical skill or gave a presentation during their interview, but these interview components were also associated with whether the post doc already knew the interviewer and whether the interview was held in person versus over the phone or internet. 

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When asked about results they may not have expected, Burnett had this to offer. "One of our surprising results was the disparity in interview length—minority females experienced shorter interviews than other demographic groups—and it has been shown in academic literature that lengthening interviews can help reduce implicit biases. One way of reducing barriers to post doc positions for scientists from under-represented groups could be to lengthen interviews, especially when interviewing multiple candidates for a single position." 

"We hope that by identifying disparities in postdoc interviews, we can start a discussion among biologists that will lead to more standardized and equitable interviews for postdoctoral positions," Burnett said in regard to their goals for this study. 

With a post doc position being integral to those who desire a lengthy career in life sciences, their research could indeed help universities see a need for restructuring their post doc interview process. No doubt this data could have a ripple effect of changes in store for future life science interviewees and interviewers alike.