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A big relief as you grow older is that you are more often on the right side of the interview table. In fact there are now occasions when I even find myself as the chairman of an interview committee!

 I’ve already discovered that being a chairman is even easier than being a committee member. As a committee member you still have to think up new questions to ask; the chairman can get away by just exchanging the initial pleasantries and then inviting “my more eminent colleagues to take over”.

 Many of us are often critical of the candidates’ performance at interviews. But how well do we, as committee members, perform ourselves?

 I’m not sure we fare too well ourselves. We often turn up completely unprepared. I know of many chairmen (and count me in too) who search for the candidate’s application papers after the candidate has (nervously) entered. We then proceed to rather carelessly read out the candidate’s name (“You are Mr Rajesh Kumar Barnwal? … or is it Barnala?”) and qualifications … and actually spend almost 2-3 minutes reading all these details through … while the candidate gets increasingly fidgety. Immediately thereafter we make an arrogant show of our authority: “you will only get five minutes to make your presentation!”

 Rajesh is now even more flustered; his carefully rehearsed 10-minute opening statement goes awry. And even as he struggles to cope with the changed situation, the chairman suddenly decides to leave his seat, or chooses to lean across to exchange some salacious gossip with his neighbour even as poor Rajesh is talking.

 As the interview progresses, it is customary for all committee members to ask questions one by one. These questions are often uncoordinated, poorly posed and occasionally even irrelevant (I must confess that I don’t know answers to many of the questions posed by my colleagues). Sometimes you sense that the candidate is getting somewhere, but isn’t allowed to open up because his answer is at variance with the ‘expected answer’. At other times, the candidate is abruptly, and cruelly, cut short. Then there are times when committee members are actually showing off to one another, completely oblivious of the poor candidate’s presence.

 Indeed, a major concern for the candidate is the very heterogeneous ‘mix’ of the selection committee. The chairman must almost always be an ‘elder’ (a retired director of a national lab, or an aged professor are the most popular choices). Then there are ‘nominees’ to represent minority community candidates or lady candidates; they are present more to protect their constituencies than to evaluate the candidate. Finally there are experts who seem to think that the best way to flaunt their expertise is to ask some obscure theoretical question (usually a question from an exam paper they answered 30 years ago!) and then loudly lament at the falling academic ‘standards’.

 The marking strategy too can be quite inconsistent. There are usually two approaches adopted: one is to simply invite every member to give marks and then do the totals; the other is to eliminate the obviously poor candidates and then attempt a consensus ranking among those who seemingly make it past the first post. The final verdict often involves manipulating these marks with a convoluted formula and then pushing away these files for the sacrosanct signature of a hallowed someone.

 All this makes you worry. Are these committees equipped to find the right candidates? As a bewildered Rajesh walks away, little does he realise that he leaves behind an even greater puzzle.

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