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1:56pm on Saturday, 21st February, 2015:

Their Future, Our Hands


I was in York yesterday to interview prospective PhD candidates.

So, the Doctoral Training Centre I'm part of, IGGI ("Intelligent Games, Game Intelligence") comprises groups from the universities of Essex, York and Goldsmiths (part of the University of London). Each year, across IGGI, we have something like 10 PhD studentships to award. These are unusual because not only do they cover students' fees, they also come with a stipend (that is, a salary). This makes them highly sought-after. Last year, we didn't have much time to advertise them so most applicants were local to the universities concerned. This year, we did have time to advertise them...

We had something like 60 applications, of which perhaps 50 were credible. We had to turn down some good international candidates because IGGI-wide we only get one non-EU student per year so the good lost out to the utterly outstanding. Each university individually interviewed the remaining students who had applied to them directly, or who had not been specific in their application but who looked a good fit (hint: if you want to apply to IGGI next year, select a particular university rather than not specify, because paradoxically you'll have a better chance of being interviewed that way).

As a result of the local interviews, each university created a shortlist. At Essex, ours was 9 candidates long: these were people whom we thought were definite PhD material, would fit in with the IGGI and other research groups at Essex, and deserved to make it to the final round of interviews in York (which is why I was there yesterday). The problem was, although we'd been working to a shortlist length of 6-8 (yeah, I know 9 is bigger than 8, but they were good candidates!), the practicalities of doing panel interviews meant we all had to limit our shortlists to 6. We had to decide which of 3 perfectly capable students were, through no real fault of their own, not going to make the cut; York and Goldsmiths had similar painful choices. I hope some re-apply next year, but I wouldn't blame them for holding a grudge and going elsewhere instead.

This left us with 18 candidates at the interviews. Although IGGI is a 3-university doctoral training centre, we don't take their target university into account when allocating students (modulo some financial jiggery-pokery we have to do which requires that no single university can award more non-UK EU studentships than it awards UK studentships in a given year). This means we take each student on their own merits, and it's theoretically possible that one university could have all 6 on its shortlist accepted and another have none. We were looking to take at least 9 students IGGI-wide in total, probably 10, and conceivably 11 if strings could be pulled with university high-ups. Our unenviable task was therefore to rank the applicants relative to each other and then take the top 9 or 10. I say unenviable, because the corollary is that we would not be able to take the bottom 8 or 9, even though in absolute terms they were "top" students merely for having got that far.

Apart from numbers, we had to operate under two other constraints to do with financing non-UK students and with choosing between students who were proposing projects too similar to each other, but as it happened those didn't really come into play on the day. Personality issues did when we were unable to separate students on purely academic issues alone (so if we thought one person would get along better with our existing cohort of students, they'd have an edge of the other). This may sound a little iffy, but actually it's incumbent upon us because we got our funding in part because of the "research community" aspect of IGGI we pitched. Other than that, we only ranked students based on academic-related grounds; we'd have done this anyway, but both positive and negative discrimination are illegal in the UK for age, gender, race, disability, sexuality, religion and probably a slew of other things too, so we were always going to be scrupulous in that regard anyway.

So it was that I found myself on a panel of three, alongside IGGI academics from York and Goldsmiths, interviewing 6 prospective candidates one at a time for 45 minutes each, knowing that anything between 0 and 6 of them would be accepted (and the rest rejected). Two other panels did likewise, covering all 18 students by mid-afternoon.

The panels were constructed to ensure that no candidate was interviewed by someone who was up for supervising them; if possible, no panel member should have previously interviewed the candidates, either. This is because the subjective interviewing was done at individual university level; this final stage was to be more objective. It's easy for an academic to enthuse wildly about a candidate whom they want to supervise and can see doing wondrous things; it's not the supervisor who is getting the grant, though, it's the student. The rankings have to be objective, with as much bias eliminated as possible.

Personally, I felt that this approach worked really well. It negated any intra-university political pressures to favour particular candidates, it gave the students a fair chance to show what they were made of, and it gave we interviewers a good idea of overall student quality. It's very hard to make comparisons between candidates bringing wildly differing things to the table, though. Things that always matter — willingless to learn, intelligence, creativity — were shared by all candidates, otherwise they wouldn't have got this far. Other factors are variable or even opposites between individuals: sometimes flair is good, sometimes bad; sometimes a vague vision is bad, sometimes good; sometimes undergraduate achievement matters, sometimes it doesn't; sometimes boasting is bad, sometimes good; sometimes enthusiasm is good, sometimes bad; sometimes ignorance is bad, sometimes good; sometimes over-scoping is good, sometimes bad. It really depends on the combination present in each individual, and what that individual wants to do for their PhD. Add in factors such as nerves and the waters are muddied further still...

Every candidate we interviewed had faults and foibles; sometimes these worked against them, sometimes for them. They all had skills and ability, too. Ultimately, it comes down to the overall balance. For some candidates, the balance was a better fit with IGGI than for others. The former will be getting letters next week inviting them to take up an IGGI place; the latter will get ones telling them they're not. They may later get an offer if someone drops out (which actually happened last year), but most won't. I think we'll also be explaining (at least in some cases) why they didn't get an offer, so they can do something about it and re-apply next year if they're still looking to do a PhD.

Having seen the ranked list, obviously I know who's getting an offer and who's not, but I can't comment on that yet as the individual candidates haven't themselves been told (plus there are some technical hurdles to leap — filling in forms for the funding bodies, that kind of thing). I can say that although the candidates were ranked as individuals, the share across the three institutions didn't work out "unfair" on any of them, which suggests that we're getting a good spread of quality applicants.

I know that there'll be a bunch of happy people we interviewed by the end of next week. That's great, but it's not what I'll be thinking about. I'll be thinking instead about the ones that missed out, even though they were top notch. They were pretty well victims of circumstance.


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