April 1993 Issue 07
The art of natural selection
These closing pages of the Journal are usually devoted to the activities of the RCA/V&A Course and its current students. On this occasion, fresh from the selection procedure for students for next academic year, I propose to talk instead about students who have yet to arrive or students who might have been.
The closing date for applications each year is the end of January, often extended to mid-February. Candidates are then selected for interview on the basis of written applications and references. This constitutes Part 1 of the Entrance Examination and is relatively straightforward. As a small-sized course, we can interview almost everyone who makes a competent written application. There is little anguish involved for staff in rejecting careless, inappropriate or ill-considered applications and the only questionable demand made of potential students is the College's £30 application fee.
By contrast, the week or so in March which is devoted to inter-views, Part 2 of the Entrance Examination, is unquestionably the most exhausting part of the academic year. I suppose the lion's share of any sympathy available must go to the victims of the process (the candidates). True, we have chosen not to adopt any standardised test of manual skills. We do not (for the moment) oblige shaking hands to build paper models or draw the perfect free-hand circle. However, the prospective student must provide a portfolio illustrating practical prowess, take a Munsell 100 Hue colour vision test and visit the relevant conservation section as an appetiser for the interview itself. This and the occasional twenty minute wait is usually sufficient to induce the traditional state of nervous apprehension.
At the interview itself, candidates are confronted by at least four members of staff, occasionally five or six. A current student also sits on the Board to ensure fair play but does not ask questions. The Section Head or Senior Conservator - a different person for each discipline -occupies the most important fifteen or twenty minutes of a forty-five minute slot. Besides asking questions about the portfolio, conservation experience and relevant practical skills, he or she presents an object to the candidate and asks for comments on condition, materials and techniques, date, origins and possible conservation measures. Other members of the Board ask questions about previous education and work experience, conservation ethics, professional awareness and science.
The experience is undoubtedly gruelling for interviewees but the reader should spare a thought for members of the Board. After all, each candidate must endure only one interview. Some of us must survive four or five days of interrogation, albeit from the secure side of the table.
The point I wish to make strongly here is that the interview is ideally not the principal part of the selection procedure but the end of a process which may - indeed ought to - have begun months before with the first enquiry. Having described the end of the process, let us return to the beginning....
I have not actually counted the letters, faxes and telephone enquiries from prospective candidates since last March but I suspect they amount to about three hundred. Not all of these are about opportunities for formal postgraduate training or research for a higher degree. At one extreme is the request for advice from the mother of a fourteen year old as to the most appropriate GCSE's for her daughter's intended career in conservation (to begin in the year 2000).
At the other is the mid-career conservator from overseas wishing to spend a few weeks at the College or Museum as part of a sabbatical year study tour (to begin next week!). In between there are many who meet our expectations as regards 'entry profile' and who want what the Course can best offer - a two or three year pro-gramme of training or research in a relevant specialist discipline.
From three hundred enquiries, perhaps a hundred are easily put aside because the Course is clearly not what the enquirer is looking for or vice versa. Another hundred are less straightforward. For example, they may be from people interested in the right disciplines but in the wrong year or in the right disciplines but absolutely dependent on funding for which they are not eligible. Of the people we send information, perhaps a hundred express a serious interest which we can definitely encourage for the forthcoming academic year. This number yields about sixty or seventy people who, having read the general information available about the Course, get back to us with further enquiries about specific disciplines, syllabi, Course structure, funding and so on.
There is an ethical dilemma about how to deal with these 'hardy' enquirers. One approach would be to keep the supply of information about the selection procedure to a minimum and try to ensure that all potential candidates know equally little. This would be convenient and fair but not very productive. In fact we do precisely the opposite as we wish all candidates to be as fully informed as possible about the Course itself, the staff and facilities and the method of selection before they apply and certainly before interview. Candidates are encouraged to make advance visits to the Department, to see the workplace, to meet staff and students in the proposed discipline and discuss the practical side of the Course. They may even use the Departmental Library, by arrangement, to pre-pare better for interview. This is not a one-way process.-We prefer to have met candidates and formed opinions about them before the moment they enter the interview room. We are aware that it is dangerous to have too many preconceptions. It is even more dangerous to base a very important decision on a short meeting in a stressful, non-studio situation.
This process of mutual education manages to convince more than half of our sixty or so 'serious' candidates to apply. Conversely it puts almost half off altogether. In effect, the selection procedure has begun long before the application deadline, as we would wish, and about twenty-five candidates choose at this stage to reject the Course. While this is not good for our application ratio - a statistic beloved of education management - it makes perfect sense. Why encourage people to apply when they would not really be able to face the academic workload or living in London on a grant or working in that terribly cramped space with that person at the V&A!
In the end we received forty applications this year. With four days available for interview, this meant rejecting only seven or eight applications outright. Those we chose to reject were almost all people who had failed to contact us in the first place. In some cases the applicants seemed not to have even read the Course literature. The candidates we chose to interview were, almost to a person, people who had talked to staff at length by telephone and/or had visited the College and/or Conservation Department prior to application - people with whom a dialogue had been established.
So much for enquiry, application and interview. What are the odds of getting a place? There is no straight answer for this question because each disapline is different but the odds are not extreme. Having provided many people with sound reasons not to apply, we are generally interviewing only a few competent, well-informed candidates for each place. For most popular practical disciplines, the ration might be four or five to one, occationally eight to one. For more specialised practical options and research places we might interview only two candidates per place or even one. In these cases, however, we are not under any obligation to take anyone on if no suitable candidate is available.
This year we have offered nine places. Most of the nine successful candidates have been 'in touch' in one way or another for a long time and know precisely what they are getting themselves into. The majority would of those rejected would also be very worthy of a place if only we had room. Some of the decisions were painfully difficult and we have a very good reserve for every practical conservation places.
When appointed as course leader i naively assumed that there would be a consistently large number of applications from the first year. This has not been the case for a variety of reasons which cannot be concidered here. We are now, however, consistently receieving a very large number of enquires. Our aim is to distil these to a manageable number of quantity applications each year from people who are increasingly successful. One of this year's best candidates, when asked towards the end of an excellent interview if she had any questions about the course, replied 'No. I think i have found out everything already' QED.