Selection Processes

Wasn’t this whole school set up in order to find and train the best possible commanders? The Earthside testing did pretty well — there were no real dolts among the students. But the system had overlooked one crucial factor: How were the teachers chosen?
They were career military, all of them. Proven officers with real ability. But in the military you don’t get trusted positions just because of your ability. You also have to attract the notice of superior officers. You have to be liked. You have to fit in with the system. You have to look like what the officers above you think that officers should look like. You have to think in ways that they are comfortable with.
The result was that you ended up with a command structure that was top-heavy with guys who looked good in uniform and talked right and did well enough not to embarrass themselves, while the really good ones quietly did all the serious work and bailed out their superiors and got blamed for errors they had advised against until they eventually got out.
That was the military. These teachers were all the kind of people who thrived in that environment. And they were selecting their favorite students based on precisely that same screwed-up sense of priorities.
“Ender’s Shadow” by Orson Scott Card

Looking at the ways people either advance in their careers or not, I was reminded of the quotation above. I think there is a lot of truth to that quotation — not only in a fictional science-fiction setting, but actually in a lot of disciplines in the real world. There are books who point out to this issue in the work setting in general (e.g., dress and acquire status symbols like the position you like to attain), but I think it’s also true in Academia.

There are people who manage to achieve the same level of performance as others, yet, they are overlooked, because they do not ‘fit’ in the system. On the one hand you could say that this is well and good, because they should know how to adapt to be successful, but on the other hand you could also argue that it makes no sense that superficial characteristics of little to none diagnostic value determine success.

But I still think that no matter how “objective” science claims to be, there is a lot of ‘bad’ thinking going on when it comes to organizing the work, selecting people, helping them advance, and the like. Sure, the number one criteria is still the amount of publications you have — it is and will remain the main currency in science. But they also ask for the things they need, set clear boundaries, call bullshit respectfully, and — at least in my impression — dress and act more like the next level than their current level. In short, they are game players, not rule makers.

But still, I don’t think that this is the only or best way to assess potential. Personally, it hurts me to see potential wasted — especially by people working in bad working environments where they cannot show what they are capable of. And perhaps even worse, bad working environments seem to propagate in some cases — some scientists learn to be obsequious to the top and exploitative to the bottom. After all, it did work for their supervisors and it might just work for them.

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