At the beginning of each academic school year, the Reed College Reactor begins its tenuous duty of finding reactor operators. This pool starts at anywhere from eighty to just north of a hundred applicants and is whittled down to the first thirty and then fifteen individuals. After hearing concerns about the process from a trainee, the Quest interviewed a few current reactor operators and trainees, as well as someone rejected from the trainee program.
Factors in favor of the current system are broadly efficiency-based. From the perspective of the hiring managers, having an obtuse system, more on that system later, for information dissemination and testing ensures that only excitable and thoughtful candidates trudge through the selection process. This winnows the pool and brings actual hiring from a pool of perhaps ninety in recent years down to approximately thirty, of whom fifteen are taken on. Now, whether any set of fifteen from that body of thirty is better or worse than any possible other sets of fifteen is anyone’s guess. One interview, remarking on the complex celerity they had to show in training, indicated the position could be “as much as twenty hours a week, like an extra class worth of unpaid work” during the training period, that is to say the whole first semester of time with the program at least.
The only issue with this perspective is that, in fact, the current hiring system at the reactor is highly inefficient. Without slogging through industrial engineering and dense jargon about what makes good candidate selection pools, here are the basics of hiring at the reactor. Candidates fulfill weekly “check-offs” or oral quizzes with members of staff. These quizzes are prepared using slides and notes stored in a large google drive that everyone involved has mutual access to. Neither the quizzes nor the notes are especially tabulated. There is not anything like a regular number of questions or amount of data to be recreated in each test, a basic principle of education. Testing can take “anywhere from ten minutes to a few hours”, in locales varying from the canyon to someone’s dorm to a sub-basement of the chem building. Testers are paid for their time interacting with trainees. As trainees are befriending not only their superiors but potential future coworkers they are the only unpaid people in the relationships, as time outside the reactor helping a trainee prepare for the reactor is billable. In fact, candidates informed us that a substantial period of their strategizing and studying went into picking who would test them for which topic. We were informed that this process “created friendships,” but that it also created large friction between those “selected” and those culled from the process as it developed. Candidates were highly encouraged to befriend their training supervisors, the people who oversee hiring, to ensure they could gain employment. The expectation was, none of this articulated in hiring paperwork but felt and understood socially, that applicants would entertain their hiring supervisors even at the detriment of their other social bonds.
One particular story that stands out from interviewers was of an applicant who had a supervisor sit down with them and insist that the “conversation at a dinner table with the applicant’s friends circulate entirely technical aspects of operations.” This excluded the applicant’s friends until they had to leave, and the applicant wanted to prevent this, but the supervisor insisted on the avenue.
Many applicants stated that the stress of the reactor ought to have disqualified them from the psychiatric evaluation they had to undertake as part of their federal licensing requirements, but that they felt driven to lie by the stress culture at the institution. The case against this system is that it creates interpersonal bias, depending on your social ability. Being able to socially fit in with the people who will decide the future of your employment and then, if selected, serve as your supervisors throughout your first semester within the program. For applicants who find difficulty with the often blurred lines between professional and personal relationships that occur during and after the hiring process, they can be kept at a disadvantage.
One applicant said that they would often face ostracisation for not being a STEM major despite the field of study not being a cited criteria in the application. This same applicant said they felt that their lack of heavy social involvement in extracurricular social events excluded them from being hired. This applicant felt that these events were pertinent to the selection process but not advertised as such, and ranged from watching movies to buying dinner for supervisors.
One idea interviewees suggested was a “standardized educational practice, with slideshows of a specific length and a standard number of questions asked within a specific timeframe by each questioner.” Another they had was to focus on removing social aspects of hiring, or at least to make them official if they were going to be so important.