Fit goes both ways


Let’s talk about “fit.” They say you get a faculty job offer because of “fit.” What does “fit” mean? In what ways do job candidates need to fit? How does “fit” work?

I usually see two angles to the conversation about fit. I’ll briefly discuss those two angles, and then try to connect them to build a triangle, that might make this concept of “fit” actually useful for everybody.

Angle 1: Conventional wisdom says you land an on-campus interview because your qualifications clear the bar, you have the expertise that is needed, your record suggests you have the capacity to succeed in the position, and there’s a good probability that you’ll “fit.” Then, in the on campus interview, the department sizes you up and decides if you “fit” the institution in a more qualitative fashion. Do you share the same priorities? Can you be a good colleague for a few decades? Is what you need to succeed leveraged by the resources that the institution has to offer?

Angle 2: Conventional wisdom also says that “fit” is an inequitable scheme perpetrated by search committees, that results in a committee hiring someone who most closely resembles themselves. “Fit” perpetuates a club of people with shared backgrounds. Picking candidates based on a vague vision of “fit” is why all of the big talk of diversity initiatives falls apart at the faculty stage of hiring in the academic pipeline (which should be dismantled).

So which piece of conventional wisdom is correct? The answer is both. These two ideas are not mutually exclusive.

I imagine this is obvious, but making sure you pick someone who will succeed is good, but working against diversity and inclusion is bad.

Seeing how “fit” is often used to exclude candidates who don’t conform to the current shape of a given department, I can understand why a lot of folks want to defenestrate the entire concept of “fit.” However, I think tossing “fit” into the hawthorn won’t help the situation. If we don’t hire candidates who fit the institution that they’re going to be working in, then those candidates won’t be able to succeed.

So, Angle 3:

The problem isn’t the concept of fit. The problem is when we place the full onus on the candidate to fit the institution. It’s the job of the institution to change their shape, so that they are capable of fitting the candidates that the institution needs. Fit goes both ways.

Consider the image above. It’s a schematic of an enzymatic reaction. Enzymes catalyze reactions to change the shape and function of other molecules. Take a look at the shape of the substrate connecting to the enzyme, and the shape of the enzyme — the need to fit one another. The shape of enzymes is not random, it is shaped by evolution to fit other molecules and perform a task. I don’t care how big your pool of candidates is, you still need to change your own shape to make sure that you hire a candidate that does the job you need them to do.

When you’re searching for a candidate, are you making sure that your institution is changing its shape to fit the person who you need?

This is why so many searches for diversity fail, or end up with candidates who end up driven out of an institution or recruited elsewhere. The institution doesn’t do the hard work of making sure that they fit and are providing the candidate what they need to succeed.

There are plenty of ways that a candidate needs to fit the job. They need to have the academic speciality the institution is looking for. They need to have the research and teaching chops. They need to be able to work with other people. If their research requires resources that the institution doesn’t have and can’t afford, then that’s a bad fit. If their teaching expertise doesn’t fit a need of the department, that’s a bad fit. I think, in terms of “Angle 1,” this is a non-problematic way that fit gets used in a job interview.

But how institutions assess this fit can get problematic in a hurry. Explicit and implicit biases against candidates can taint whether or not a person is perceived to fit departmental needs. For example, if a person says a candidate won’t be relate well to students because of their cultural background, or if they think the candidate’s pedigree is too different, or if their clothes weren’t right, or if they won’t fit into a faculty social scene, or if you think they’ll be too busy parenting, or if they won’t adjust to the social challenges of a particular location. Those are all very bad ways of thinking about fit.

What does your department need when you are hiring someone? Identify those needs. Make sure those needs are not filtering out anybody because of their identity in any kind of way. Then, make sure that your institution will change its shape so that it can fit the candidate that provides what you need. If your university needs to increase faculty diversity, then the university needs to fit these candidates so that they are included. There is plenty of scholarship out there to let you know what you need to do to support minoritized faculty, so study up.

So when I hear “fit” is a problem in job searches, I think, yeah, that’s true. But the problem is the department isn’t fitting the candidates that are best prepared to meet the needs of the department.



note: I should point out that this post was not prompted by anything going on in my professional situation now, or anything that I’m particularly aware of. This post has been in my queue of things I wanted to write about for a good long while, and it was prompted by a remark in a tweet that I felt at the time that I couldn’t respond to with the nuance it deserved, so I decided to elevate this concept from the queue and put it here. (In other words, this post isn’t a critique of any particular incident or set of people.) Oh and by the way the image in this post was created by TimVickers and is in the public domain.


2 thoughts on “Fit goes both ways

  1. It’s the job of the institution to change their shape, so that they are capable of fitting the candidates that the institution needs.

    This one phrase could probably replace many hours of ineffective “diversity training” for search and admissions committees. But it’s a shift in mindset that’s extremely radical in the sense that it goes to the root of why diversity initiatives fail.

  2. I love this, and I think it applies to the broader professional world, not just academia. Especially this: “It’s the job of the institution to change their shape, so that they are capable of fitting the candidates that the institution needs”. And we can tweak one sentence to fit corporate / professional areas as well: “If your organization needs to increase diversity, then the organization needs to fit these candidates so that they are included”. Believe it or not, there are lots of hard dollars and cents reasons that for-profit firms need to increase diversity of employees (besides the social and public policy reasons), but it is hard to change the culture so that individuals from different backgrounds (than those already employed by the firm) can succeed and help the firm succeed.

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