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Finding the fit

November 4, 2011, 5:47 pm

It is hiring time again, and I am right in the thick of it. I am on one external search committee (senior hire), we are hiring in our department, and I am serving as a reference for several colleagues. All of this has me thinking about the concept of the “fit” between a department and a candidate/new hire.

Back in July, ProfHacker did a post asking people to define “fit.” One thing was clear: the concept of fit was nebulous. Some people used it to discuss whether a new hire fit with the established department, whereas others discussed which potential institution would be the best fit from the perspective of someone on the market. Others discussed fit as the balance between the two perspectives. Many commenters discussed how a department’s concept of a new hire as a poor fit was (a) the product of small departmental minds and (b) another way to discuss a lack of collegiality, perhaps on both sides. I am choosing to focus on fit as it applies to the person seeking employment or the new hire being successful and happy in the new department. (To operationalize further, successful is defined in terms of one’s success as a teacher and scholar–determined both by the faculty member and his or her peers, whereas happy is being construed as the faculty member enjoying his or her life.)

One issue with fit is that people on the job market may not know what they want and/or need to be successful and/or happy. For example, those of us who graduated from big, R1 graduate programs were brainwashed socialized into thinking we HAVE to be at another R1, which bring many resources to support research and higher expectations. That said, not everyone who graduated from an R1 will be happy or successful at such a school. One of the challenges for advisors is that few faculty at an R1 can really tell their students the benefits and drawbacks of working at other kinds of schools. Similarly, Ivy breeds Ivy, regional breeds regional, HBCU breeds HBCU, and so on, with people more likely to move down in prestige and resources and increased teaching load. So, when confronting a job search that includes many different kinds of institutions, how do new doctoral students (and even established faculty looking to move) know what kind of school would be a good fit?

Candidates also have to determine what kind of university/departmental mission and culture appeals to them. I have always been interested in public schools (likely because that is all I know, but I like the idea of serving the interests of the people in the state and local community). However, the story on the new community-focused approach of Syracuse got me thinking that the new Syracuse might be a private school that would be a good fit for me. I also look for schools that have a strong tradition of (real) shared governance and women in leadership positions, because I have found that these schools work better for me as a strong woman and faculty advocate.

One problem with understanding the fit between one’s self and the university/department is sussing out the difference between an accurate description of the institution and the hype that they use to describe who they wish they were and not who they really are. I have friends at several schools that aspire to raise their research profile but refuse to deploy their resources and rewards to make that possible. Those schools are a nightmare, because it is extremely difficult for new faculty to thrive in this kind of confused setting. While folks on the market should know that we are all putting forward our best faces for the interview, there better be some truth in the description to new candidates trying to decide their futures. I have found asking colleagues, mentors, and friends about the backstory on a department or university can yield some good information. On campus interviews, I also ask faculty for examples of how they see the mission/description playing out and not really playing out.

Then you have to add into the concept of fit applicants’ concerns regarding other elements of quality of life, like the geographic area, urban/rural/college town location, demographic composition,  whether it is close to or far from family and friends, and so on. It is unlikely that a candidate will be able to meet all of his or her needs and interests in this area, but securing a few makes the fit better in terms of happiness and sometimes productivity.

Honestly, it is unlikely that new hires, especially those looking for their first tenure-track position, will get all of their fit concerns (university, department, setting, etc.) addressed, especially in this economic climate. Most folks will find themselves in the position I was in when I was on the market the first two times. My goal at that time was getting a job anywhere, so I took positions in areas that didn’t suit me in terms of university focus and departmental culture (job 1) and geography and university culture (job 2). In these and subsequent jobs, I learned more about what I wanted and needed in a location, a university, a department, and even the student body. In my most recent job search, because I have more to offer potential employers as a senior hire, I was able to tailor my search more narrowly. So far, it feels like a good fit. Is it perfect? No. But I can see ways both to leverage my strengths and to work to change the local culture where I can.

Similarly, on several of my recent search committees, we have talked about issues of fit. Do the candidate’s research areas match well with our needs? Are there people in the department or the larger university who might be interested in partnering with this candidate, since most funded research is collaborative? Can the candidate teach in the areas where we have weaknesses, and will his or her approach to teaching fit with the overall department ethos? (For example, all of the courses at my former program were taught using a highly interactive approach; if you didn’t use these methods, you would bomb in the classroom and your evaluations would be terrible.) Candidates’ more specific personality traits sometimes are discussed by committee members as well in discussions of fit. This can be a problem, especially as it can reflect hidden biases of the committee members. But I would be remiss if I didn’t say that candidates who are rude, who are very negative or critical of colleagues and students, or who seem to lack basic empathy will never be recommended for the job when I am on the committee.

Prioritizing one’s interests, being open to seeing the opportunities in different locations and different kinds of institutions, and embracing a willingness to think of the job as a “first job” will improve one’s chances of finding an institution that will fit…if only for a little while. And, after a few years, you can reassess and determine whether the fit is good or bad enough to go back on the market.

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