A Tool to Reduce Inequities in Faculty Hiring and Training

Jan. 20, 2021

STEM Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) student groups and their allies advocate for academic institutions to counter the systemic inequities they face in class and in the laboratory, and these requests have been amplified with the 2020 protests against racial and social injustice. These students want more inclusive and equitable practices, including more transparent hiring and selection processes, and better representation in faculty so that they have access to role models and mentors. The institutional response will influence these students’ decision to pursue scientific and academic careers. 

This article covers a new tool that both aspiring faculty and hiring faculty can use to increase equity, as well as practical tips that hiring faculty can use to mitigate implicit bias during the hiring process.

A Tool to Help Diversify the Faculty Body

Addressing the systemic barriers faced by historically excluded aspiring faculty is not going to happen overnight, but the Academic Career Readiness Assessment (ACRA) is one tool that can help both aspiring faculty and hiring faculty move toward this goal. The ACRA provides a model for mitigating potential biases in the training and hiring of aspiring faculty by bringing transparency — one key tenet of inclusivity — to the hiring process. Transparency is particularly important because faculty diversity is most likely to improve by addressing the transition between graduate school and the faculty stage

Developed with funding from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the recipient of the First Prize of the 2019 Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) Innovations in Research and Research Education Award, the ACRA is the result of a 2-year, qualitative study to identify the hiring criteria used to select faculty candidates in the U.S. A larger scale study is currently underway. The findings provide aspiring faculty information to make strategic career decisions, and current faculty a tool to mitigate their biases in faculty hiring.

For Aspiring Faculty: Mitigating Inequities in Training 

The ACRA was built on the most common questions that graduate and postdoctoral (GP) trainees ask graduate career (GC) advisors at their institution. For example: 
  • Am I on the right track to becoming faculty? 
  • How can I choose the right postdoc? 
  • Should I be getting undergraduate teaching experience or submitting a K99 grant this semester? 
  • Is it too early to apply to a faculty position? 
  • Do I need to propose a research program that stands out from PI’s in my faculty application? 
  • What information should I provide in a diversity statement?
The fact that trainees seek this advice from GC advisors points to systemic issues with the mentor role of the principal investigator (PI), a lack of transparency with training goals and insufficient feedback on how to better prepare for a faculty career. These issues together create the perfect growing medium for inequities. First, the heavy reliance on faculty to advise their trainees puts many groups at a disadvantage because of well-known biases in research mentor advising and hiring. Second, a number of late-stage GP trainee scholars aren’t aware of their strengths, while others are unaware of the professional development activities that could make them competitive. Without the support of a career development office, these candidates may never get to the faculty stage. 

This is where the ACRA comes in. As an open-access tool available to all trainees, it can be used by aspiring faculty to assess their readiness for 3 types of life science institutions: research-intensive (R), teaching-only (T) and research and teaching institutions (RT). It lists 14 qualifications and describes 4 levels of competency for each. It also shows the minimal competency levels required for each type of institution.
By describing faculty hiring expectations in detail, the ACRA tool allows trainees to backward design training activities, assess readiness for a position, request feedback from faculty on  progress toward career goals and structure informational interviews around hiring requirements. GC educators can also use ACRA to strategically design faculty career development curriculum. A team of Graduate Career Consortium collaborators is currently planning a rubric for careers beyond academia.
Backward design career steps for different career goals.
Backward design career steps for different career goals.

For Life Science Faculty: Mitigating Inequities in Hiring

The ACRA also helps mitigate biases at the faculty hiring stage. Hiring biases perpetuate inequities and they can lead to missing the best candidate for a given position. Because there is little evidence that implicit bias training results in significant behavioral changes, my colleagues and I have been working with aspiring and current faculty on practical ways to mitigate their implicit biases when making hiring decisions. 

One important step is to decide on evaluation criteria beforehand, a process also referred to as “discretion elimination” by Dr. Anthony Greenwald. The ACRA can help you with that.

First, ask yourself before you design your job description (or if it’s too late, before you start reading applications): “What criteria will I be using to select candidates for the first interview?” Will you first select candidates who use inclusive teaching and mentoring practices? Or will you start by assessing the number and impact of their publications? The hiring committee can use the ACRA qualifications to set criteria identifying how they will rank or weigh qualifications.

The second step is to organize the application material, review process, the interview questions and the interview activities to assess these criteria. For example, if you are prioritizing a candidate’s support of diversity, you will need to start with reading diversity statements. If you are first assessing a candidate’s vision, you will start with their research statement.

The third step is to clearly identify your “cut-off” for each qualification by creating 2- or 3-point competency scales. Is there a level at which candidates may have the right type of qualification, but may not demonstrate the right level of experience or mastery? For example, will you require that candidates to have a Cell, Nature or Science publication, or are you looking for a candidate whose publications have contributed significantly to the field without necessarily publishing in these journals? Specifically defining your cut-off will avoid a “slide” in your minimum requirements between candidates.

The ACRA can be used to develop these scales, but because its rubric reflects current practices, not ideal practices, it is best to modify its language to meet your goals (email us for an editable ACRA document). In particular, it is important to use qualifications and descriptions that do not perpetuate inequities. For example, many faculty use “fit” as a qualification, including “cultural fit” as shown in the ACRA study, a practice that without specific, unbiased language will perpetuate the status quo.  

Over time, hiring rubrics can be shared, reused and adapted, making the time investment worth it in the long run, and the hiring process more consistent and transparent. If you use these inclusive practices, or take other actions to make your process more equitable, consider disclosing it to candidates early on. Your position might be attractive to a more diverse pool of brilliant candidates who are applying to institutions that already demonstrate efforts to change culture. And then, make sure your tenure process is just as transparent and unbiased as your hiring process, so you can ensure these promising scientists can succeed and stay around.

Author: Laurence Clement, Ph.D.

Laurence Clement, Ph.D.
Laurence Clement directs the Academic Career Development Program at the Office of Career and Professional Development at the University of California, San Francisco.