What is "fit"?

Mar 01 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers], LifeTrajectories

"Fit". That term can be the bane of existence for those applying for faculty jobs (like the one Dr. Becca just got, go congratulate her!). It can mean everything and nothing at the same time, but is intangible. If I had to write a definition it would be something along the lines of "the feel a department gets from you as to whether they want to deal with you everyday for the next 20 years."

Having been through a couple of searches on this side of the fence now, I can tell you that it is a major component of the search. As frustrating as it is to define, there is no question that you can sit through an interview with someone and be impressed by them, but have no interest in hiring them. It's kinda like test driving a car, sometimes they just don't feel right, even if you like all the features.

What is a candidate supposed to do to improve their chances on this front? Unfortunately, nothing. All you can do is be yourself* and hope that is what the department is looking for. I have been on both sides of a "fit" decision, so the reaction of one department to you could be completely different than another and it is entirely out of your control. In some respects there is a component of luck involved, realizing also that there are certain things that will turn your interviewers off entirely, no matter what they think of your work.

So, for those of you starting to hear back after interviews and getting bad news, don't get too frustrated. Realize that you may be an excellent candidate but just not be right for that particular department. Use the experience to refine your next interview and continue to build your CV for the next open spot that is perfect for you. With the benefit of a little time and space you may even realize that the position you land is a better fit for YOU than previous ones you interviewed for. I know I did.

*Assuming no one has ever described you as "axe-murderer-chic".

14 responses so far

  • Pascale says:

    The problem with such a diffuse concept is that it is often used to justify subliminal sexism, racism, and other isms. The "I just didn't feel as comfortable with that _____ candidate."
    If you are on the job seeking end, there isn't a lot you can do about it. If you are on the hiring end, ask yourself if this might be the issue. Please.

  • Jen says:

    After my recent round of interviews, I loathe the word "fit". I was gently turned down by my first-choice school - the search comm. chair was quick to point out that I had done nothing wrong, and had in fact excelled in certain facets of the interview, but that my area of expertise overlapped too much with a current faculty. I knew going into the interview that the overlap would be a concern, and tried my best to highlight the uniqueness of my teaching/research interests. I totally understand how important it is for depts. (especially at smaller PUIs) to have a balanced faculty, but it is still disheartening (especially given how well I felt the fit was with the dept. otherwise). [On the other hand, I just want to say how much I appreciated that the search committee chair even called to let me know I hadn't gotten the position, and gave very concrete and helpful feedback about how my interview went. I have yet to hear from my other campus interview site, even though I know through a mutual friend that their first-choice accepted their offer several weeks ago.]

  • Materialist says:

    For the skeezy side of "fit" this post from today is educational: http://careersintheory.wordpress.com/2011/03/01/questionable-decisions/
    Apart from that, there really is a need for fit - the past few years in particular one can see how prominently it has figured into sports team roster decisions.

  • yolio says:

    I am suspicious whenever decisions hinge on "fit." It is
    BS. If it is so important, then frickin define it. Leaving your
    values nebulous is just lazy. More importantly, it provides cover
    for less than noble judgements---racism, sexism, *ism, as well as
    other just being lame or an asshole judgements.

  • GMP says:

    Sorry to hear that... But the issue of territorial senior faculty is pretty common. A few years back, we didn't give an offer to a stellar candidate bacause one of the BigBucksBringing guys felt his turf was being threatened. The candidate would have been a great asset, I am sorry he went elsewhere and is becoming a star there and not here. Fingers crossed with the rest of your search.

  • Anonymous says:

    What Pascale said. Really. WHAT PASCALE SAID!!!

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Excellent point. There's no question that "fit" can be a euphemism for any number of shady circumstance, conscious or not. Certainly people doing the hiring should evaluate whether their comfort level is based on simple cultural differences.

    That said, even comparisons between two candidates of the same background can be differentiated by fit. Often several people will feel the same way, but put different words to it.

  • MZ says:

    Yep, again, "what Pascale said." I used to have a partial admin appointment in faculty equity and diversity, and one of the slides in my presentation to search committees said "Avoid the Supreme Court pornography approach to hiring". Namely, don't fall back on I-can't-define-it-but-will-know-it-when-I-see-it.

    That is different than saying that after interviewing someone you feel that their research area won't be best for the dept, and that someone else's area would be more likely to result in collaborations or whatever they are looking for.

  • ecologist says:

    One tactic that helps to avoid the misuse of criteria like "fit" is to decide, at the outset, to explicitly compare ALL candidates on every criterion used on any candidate. So if lack of fit refers to possibility for collaboration, make sure that a list of potential collaborators is generated for every candidate. If lack of fit refers to ability to fulfill some needed teaching, make sure that every candidate is explicitly evaluated on the basis of what courses they might potentially teach. And so on.

    It sounds simple, but it helps to keep decisions from being influenced by conscious or subconscious biases.

  • gerty-z says:

    I can agree with Pascale that "fit" can be used to advance any number of 'isms. BUT, especially in a faculty search, I don't think it is possible to not consider "fit" in some way. In my experience, there are going to be MANY candidates that have all the necessary credentials (and then some). In my field, the interview process is used to find the best candidate. Now, on paper, these candidates are impossible to rank relative to each other. In the interview, the candidates are judged on their ability to talk about their research and interact with others both one-on-one and in a group setting. This is a very subjective process. I don't think there can ever be a list of criteria, as suggested by ecologist. It is very much a question of "can I see myself interacting with this person regularly over the next at least 5-10 years?"

    As a PS, I think "fit" is also used to let some candidates down easy. If they did not perform so well on an interview, it is much easier for someone to be told that they were just "not a great fit" than "you really didn't handle yourself well in answering questions after your talk" or "you sort of acted like an arse when speaking to our female faculty". Maybe it would be good to communicate these things to the candidates but it is just harder. I could be wrong here (as I have never made these calls to candidates), but I definitely get the sense that this happens.

  • CoR says:

    I thought this was going to be about working out, and possibly a new definition of 'fit' for overworked junior faculty who are also parenting young 'uns. 🙁

  • fcs says:

    Definitely what Pascale said. If you have n candidates who have similar credentials and are both friendly, well-adjusted, non-axe-murder types, then you need to ask yourself why Person A "fits" better than the others. Particularly if Person A is a white man.

  • I agree with both Pascale and Gerty-Z--I think "fit" is sometimes used to excuse -isms sometimes, and I also think that "fit" is used to make the call to unsuccessful candidates easier. People are often very reluctant (or not allowed to) discuss the candidates' actual performance, so "fit" provides a good out.

    That said, I also think "fit" is unavoidable as a criteria in some respects. At National Lab, we had a case of a candidate with serious personality and/or boundary issues. Several people who had interacted with this candidate were flat out unwilling to work with this person, which would seriously impact the research group. It isn't like personality has no bearing on interview success, but I do think we need to be careful as to why people are "uncomfortable" with someone. In this case, people could point out inappropriate remarks, which made it clear than it was the behavior and not the identity of the candidate that was causing the bad "fit". If there is nothing specific, just a feeling of bad "fit", I think that is more problematic.

  • [...] March - "Fit". That term can be the bane of existence for those applying for faculty jobs (like the one Dr. Becca just got, go congratulate her!). [...]

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