Monday 5 May 2014

Academic discrimination audits

Profs in fields where the opportunity cost of time are more valuable use tighter filters in deciding whether to reply to an email; that filter may have discriminatory effect.

Milkman et al run a field experiment sending academics in a pile of fields the following email:
Dear Professor [Surname of Professor Inserted Here],

I am writing you because I am a prospective doctoral student with considerable interest in your research. My plan is to apply to doctoral programs this coming fall, and I am eager to learn as much as I can about research opportunities in the meantime.

I will be on campus today/[next Monday], and although I know it is short notice, I was
wondering if you might have 10 minutes when you would be willing to meet with me to briefly talk about your work and any possible opportunities for me to get involved in your research. Any time that would be convenient for you would be fine with me, as meeting with you is my first priority during this campus visit.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.

[Student’s Full Name Inserted Here] 
If you're an academic, you're probably getting pretty frequent form-letter-style emails from students wishing graduate supervision. You're probably also getting a billion other emails - you need a way to triage. 

I'm not particularly proud of it, but there's one tranche that just gets the delete button: emails sent that are clearly form letters of the following type:
Dear Professor (name in different font)",
I am writing seeking supervision in [field in different font, or named field far different from anything I research] at [University name in different font]. 
[Describes work experience tangentially related to proposed field of study, or a research project coming from his/her undergraduate study. Or suggests willingness to write a thesis in anything, if I have scholarship money. Generally reveals no understanding of what I'm interested in, no particular interest in Canterbury over other places, and provides no expectation that an answer's really expected - zero investment in this application over others. It's clearly a mass-broadcast distribution.]
There are many many potential students in many countries who seem more interested in getting a student visa out than really in pursuing a thesis. My replying would waste everyone's time, as, until recently, I had no potential funding for graduate students, and none of these students could go anywhere without funding.

I don't get dozens of these emails a day; more likely a dozen or more a month. I imagine that if I were at a top US school, I'd be getting rather more of them. I'd definitely reply to a letter like the one they sent out, because very few of the academic spam emails I get ever suggest a personal meeting: if a potential student would take the time to get to Christchurch, why wouldn't I at least reply?

But then I imagine what it would be like if I were in a city of several million people, with loads of internationals students in town seeking extensions of their undergraduate student visas. Signing up at grad school extends the visa: the prof needs some way of distinguishing emails from people who are actually interested in pursuing study, and those for whom it's just a way of extending the visa.

Anybody who really had come all the way to my town and wanted desperately to meet with me would find some way of signalling that in the intro email. Like "I liked your work on [fill in the appropriate blank] and want to extend it [proposes some relevant extension]." Not "I have considerable interest in your research."

Based ONLY on time constraints and visa-seeking behaviour, I would expect the following:

  • The greater the number of these solicitations received, by field, the more likely there'll be no reply;
  • Fields more likely to have scholarship money or RA work will get more such solicitations;
  • Profs in fields getting more of these kinds of solicitations will use tighter filters in deciding what to delete;
  • One not-nice but non-crazy filter is to downweight emails from foreign-sounding names where the correspondent reveals zero real knowledge of the prof's work or field. The slightest signal that this indicates actual interest in the prof's work would go a long way. Otherwise, a Bayesian reckons the person sending the email either doesn't know enough to signal an actual knowledge of the prof's work (a bad signal in itself), or really is more interested in something other than the prof's work - like a visa. We should expect then no particular gender effects, no particular difference between Caucasian and Black names, but a difference between those and ones that have a higher probability of being a student on international visa. 
Here's what the paper finds:
Here is the rank order of the gap, on average across all disciplines:
  • Chinese female at Private School: -29%
  • Indian Male, Private School: -21%
  • Indian Female, Private School: -19%
  • Hispanic Male, Private School: -18%
  • Chinese Female, Public School: -17%
  • Black Female, Private School: -16%
  • Black Male, Private School: -14%
  • Indian Male, Public School: -13%
  • Chinese Male, Private School: -11%
  • Chinese Male, Public School -10%
All others below 10%. 

If all that were going on were filtering based on "weed out students who have indicated no interest in my research and who are more likely to be international", I'd have expected Chinese males to have fared worse than Blacks or Hispanics; I doubt that my story is all that's going on. I do expect that it's an important part of what's going on, but only part of it. In particular, I can't see how this story explains within-race gender gaps. But I do note that the only substantial discrimination among those at public universities was against foreign-sounding names. 

I wonder what would have happened if the field experimenters had spent a couple minutes, when getting the contact and other details for each prof in the study, also getting the abstract from that prof's most recent paper and saying something about it in the letter. If my story's explaining part of what's here going on, then the gap between foreign-sounding and domestic-sounding names should drop. 

Finally, I always wonder about these kinds of studies and whether race is the only thing signalled. Would the results have been the same if one of the white-sounding names were Cleetus?


  1. Akld Commercial lawyerMon May 05, 12:11:00 pm GMT+12

    Perhaps because it appealed to some of my biases, I enjoyed Stephen's comment with your supplementary. I was sorry to see your earlier note about the ongoing uncertainties in your Dept. Being of an age where I know others who have had to face similar processes - I hope that they are resolved quickly and in a manner that sees you and your family remaining committed to NZ.

  2. Thanks. I put pretty low odds on our leaving New Zealand, regardless of what happens at Canterbury. We love it here.

  3. Or alternatively, the bars could have coordinated with WoW to have the event occur on a non-proscribed day. I know this sounds pretty intense, but I'm pretty sure it might be possible.. somehow..

  4. If I receive a form letter I send a form letter that explains Vic's new admissions rules, and gives direct advice about how to approach staff "if you plan to email people, I strongly suggest you include evidence that you have read and understood at least three of their relevant research papers before contacting anyone."

    If their form letter lacks basic grammar and spelling. I sent a shorter note that begins "looking at your email, I am doubtful you have the preparation to successfully complete a PhD"

    And I do think about Paul Buchanan when I write my replies.