The 'Fit' Puzzle

Deciding whether a candidate is right for a faculty job should be based not on intuition but on evidence, writes Elizabeth H. Simmons.

November 23, 2011

Over the past five years, my college has conducted many searches for new tenure-stream faculty.  We have worked to create an inclusive search process that helps us recruit candidates from diverse backgrounds and identify those with the best potential to flourish in our college and contribute the most to our academic community.  

In discussing best practices for academic searches, one topic that invariably arises is the notion of “fit."  This word is often used quite vaguely to denote a person’s intuition as to whether a given candidate is appropriate for the position. Used in that way, it can obscure many unintentional biases that may be impacting someone’s judgment. Authoritative articles and presentations on inclusive searches rightly discourage allowing “intuitive fit” to infiltrate the selection process.  

Yet, as anyone who has recently been part of a search can attest, the word “fit” continues to creep into discussions, even among well-intentioned individuals at institutions where inclusion is prized. Rather than simply trying to eradicate the word “fit” from the search lexicon, we should recognize that there is a valid underlying question to be addressed: Will the new colleague be successful and improve the unit she or he is joining?

In this article, I show how using an alternative model of “evidence-based fit” can focus the committee’s attention on that pertinent question. Shifting the discussion in this way gets to the core of how a unit achieves excellence through faculty diversity.

A Jigsaw Metaphor:

Suppose you are partway through assembling a jigsaw puzzle of a pastoral landscape. You pick up an unattached piece and consider where it might go. What would you actually do?

  • You might glance at the image on the new piece to make sure it was part of the same overall picture. That is, if it showed a fragment of skyscraper, you would probably set it aside.
  • You would spend time checking where the piece might be added to the existing assemblage, increasing the area of coverage and strengthening the emerging picture.  Specifically, you would compare the profile of the piece for lobes or hollows complementary to those of the larger group, and also see how the surface images matched in detail.
  • You would certainly not look to see whether the new piece was a clone of any of the previously joined pieces. That would be irrelevant and futile.

I think that an effective faculty search follows this jigsaw metaphor fairly closely: looking in detail at the relevant evidence to assess whether a candidate will be successful in the advertised job and will simultaneously make the unit more successful by joining it.

Inclusive Searches:

While a jigsaw puzzle comes with a factory-printed reference image on the box, a search does not.  In fact, the search committee’s first duty is to create the guiding image it will use: the position description. An ad containing a clear delineation of what the new faculty member will be expected to accomplish, the qualifications required to meet initial expectations, and the institutional context of the position will be an invaluable reference throughout the process.

As a first stage of review, a “destination check” (Intending to fly to Detroit today?) can assess whether applications address the position as advertised. Do they have the requisite educational background? Have they presented evidence of their interest in and aptitude for all aspects of the job? If the position is in a research-intensive department, information about scholarly productivity, intellectual independence, and research impact will be crucial. If the advertisement calls for a teacher-scholar, an application lacking the requested teaching portfolio would not meet the minimum requirements. Neither the department nor the candidate would be well served by hiring someone whose academic mission is orthogonal to that of the unit as a whole.

Most of the work of the search committee involves a detailed comparison of candidate and departmental profiles: examining each aspect of the portfolio to assess the quality and relevance of the person’s credentials, accomplishments, and experience.  One wants to add faculty who will broaden the reach of the existing cohort because they can teach additional topics, extend research into exciting areas, or add new leadership capabilities to the mix. 

Someone from a different background or offering an alternative perspective might be just what is needed to help the unit make progress on its own longstanding plans for improvement. Someone with interdisciplinary interests might help the department form new collaborations with other units, allowing new minors, new graduate seminars, or large-scale multi-investigator research proposals to emerge. Note that this way of assessing applications focuses on reasons to keep a candidate in the pool (rather than reasons to exclude them); such an approach has been shown to make search processes more inclusive.

It would not make sense for a committee to seek applicants who are clones (intellectual or otherwise) of existing members of the faculty. That would not only be irrelevant to projecting a candidate’s future job performance but would be actively detrimental, since the college would lose the opportunity to improve itself by adding someone with new expertise or capabilities.

By focusing on evidence of fit between candidate qualifications and job requirements, committees can avoid being sidetracked by vague, intuitive pronouncements about whether a person “seemed right” for the position. By following the jigsaw metaphor, discussions would naturally focus on concrete data about the individual’s ability to perform the advertised job, as gleaned from the application, reference letters, and campus visit. 

For instance: Was the candidate’s professed commitment to active learning reflected in his or her on-campus teaching demonstration? Could candidates answer questions about research methods at their departmental seminars? Have they worked with students from under-served communities, whose academic needs resemble those of our majors?

Of course, departments and colleges have more than two dimensions. Being a theoretical physicist, I’ll venture to suggest that an enhanced metaphor might portray the existing faculty cohort as a multi-dimensional jigsaw puzzle and each candidate as a handful of new pieces that could potentially match onto various edges of the current assemblage. This image stresses that one evaluates many aspects of each candidate and many ways in which they could contribute to the institution – a hallmark of inclusive best practice.

Moreover, departments are seldom static. And one certainly hopes that new faculty will exhibit substantial professional growth over their time at an institution. A final extension of the metaphor could make the jigsaw puzzle dynamic, changing over time – and thereby remind the search committee to consider how the candidate and department might influence one another’s development over the years.

To summarize: Vague, intuitive notions of fit do not belong in academic searches. But an evidence-based evaluation of fit, along the lines of our jigsaw metaphor, can make a faculty search process inherently inclusive and thereby more successful for all concerned.


Elizabeth H. Simmons is dean of Lyman Briggs College and professor of physics and astronomy at Michigan State University.

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