Bullfit

I had productive Twitscussions today with Zen (@DoctorZen) and Cedar (@crienrer) about the ubiquitous “tell us how you think you would fit with our department” question. I accept this as a “have you looked at our web site” test. Fine. However, I really think this puts applicants in an unfair position if they are supposed to make a positive argument about  their particular desire to work in your department.

As I pointed out, from the applicant’s point of view, the way I “fit” is that you advertised a tenure track position that I would potentially like to have. So did 39 other schools. I am one of 100s, you are one of 10s [correction: if we are talking interviews, you are 1 of 1 or 2 or 3 in most cases] . In applying, I provided documents – a cover letter and research/teaching statements – that are designed to tell you what I am interested in doing, academically, if you hire me. You have medium- or short-listed me based on this. Aren’t we on the same page with “fit” then?

So, either the fit question is disingenuous (did you look at our web site) or it is redundant (do you want to work here). (Although now I’m told that in reality many people DO apply for jobs they don’t want. I can’t quite wrap my head around this, so I’m tabling it.)

Then, a third possibility. This is a question to get you to talk. To get a glimmer of who you are, your priorities, whatever. To sell yourself as a faculty member in THAT deparment at THAT school. To show your enthusiasm for becoming THESE people’s colleagues. I see the utility of that from the SC’s perspective. However, I think it’s deeply unfair. You are asking applicants to dissemble. SC’s have the luxury of choices (but listen to them complain about how many applications they have to look through), applicants generally do not. The power relations here are stark. To expect each applicant – who you KNOW has applied to many jobs – to tap dance to convince you that you are exactly what they’re looking for is uninformative. You are selecting for tap dancers. So, I tap danced. I can convincingly recite attributes of your department and institution as if they’re from my childhood dreams. Whatever.

In real life, I do not GET to honestly say to myself: I want a SLAC with a strong UG research program, or I want R1 with little teaching, or a med school, or an institute, or a big city, or a focused department, or a broad interdisciplinary department, or somewhere I can have a weekend hobby farm, or – god forbid the nuclear fucking bomb — somewhere my spouse and I can both have careers.

So: fuck it. I won’t make those choices. I applied for the jobs where we can imagine the possibility of a future for us. The only way to live through this kind of 2-career anxiety is to take the job specifics out of your future happiness equation.

But yes, for each one, I will pretend they are exactly what I’m looking for, like every other candidate will. But I don’t love your department or your university, and I don’t know you yet… you’re just a place, some strangers, a job, one of many possible futures. It is debasing that I should be expected to have pinned my hopes on one kind of department or school or career path when I have so little control over the small probability of any one of those possibilities working out. And it is debasing to SC’s to let themselves use this kind of gamesmanship as an indicator of what kind of colleague, teacher, or scientist you are.

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23 Comments on “Bullfit”

  1. Jeramia says:

    I don’t have any answers, and this post reminds me why I try to be cautious with my advice on twitter. I don’t know you, what drives you, or what you want. I do, however, recognize the fury. The helpless, maddening, what the hell are we going to do fury. It was my fury, 9 years ago. It is too easy for those of us in the TT to forget how maddening it is not to have control over your career.

    I won’t patronize and say it will all work out. I will say: been there. It sucks.

    DrLabRatOry

  2. rxnm says:

    Thanks. I get pretty pissed for a while then cruise back to sanguine. But I do think its a form of K3rnism to expect applicants to be special-in-love with your dept or position. Was also just talking to a colleague who says “fit” has a notorious history, along with its older sibling “collegiality,” in being a smoke screen for discrimination, mostly sexism.

  3. namnezia says:

    I think you are reading way too much into the significance and importance of the question. Departments want to get a sense of what possible collaborations you see yourself establishing once you are there and want to see your ability to connect the dots beyond your own research program. It is not some sort of search for affirmation to have you prove to them that you love them. Plus its a way for the committee to see your enthusiasm for the department. Whenever I’ve been in a search committee, we often find that many if not most of our top job candidates have multiple offers and it’s hard to get a sense if they really are interested in taking the job when they might go somewhere else, so in some cases this question is used to gauge real interest.

  4. rxnm says:

    Probably. I’ve read way too much into every other aspect of the job search. Why stop now?

  5. Bashir says:

    It’s a strange process interviewing for jobs. The search committee, and a lot of advice I’ve read, seems to assume the applicant has multiple offers. Choices. That is a very different scenario than I am currently in, which involves a small amount of desperation. So when the department head for a place I am so-so about basically asks “what do you think”. Well what can I say? I certainly can’t be too blunt if I want a chance at landing the job.

    Interviewing has mostly been a interesting experience. But there are moments where the situation, the power differential between the candidate and the search committee, really come into focus. For a minute it feels a bit like a circus.

  6. Having just recently asked this question in phone interviews I can tell you it is informative. Like Nam says, it gives the SC a chance to see where you see your research program heading and who you might interact with. We know what you’ve done, be we’re interested in where you see yourself going. It also makes it easier to tailor the meeting schedule for the campus interview if the SC knows the people you see yourself interacting with.

    But, you would also be amazed at the number of candidates who can’t even be bothered to look at the website and see if there IS anyone there they might want to talk with. To an SC that’s a clear signal that you don’t give a shit about the position, although it usually rings loud and clear through the rest of the interview too. If the SC is phone interviewing 8-12 candidates and can only bring in 3-4, they want 3-4 people who actually want to consider the position.

  7. rxnm says:

    Yes, and anyone who does a little preparation can say some of the right things here. So I think you might have learned something about the people with no answer here: they did not get good advice about preparing for the interview. I don’t think you learned what kind of colleague or scientist they are or would be. But for the people who do have good answers, you really didn’t learn anything, and for most of them, you listened to bullshit. Because what applicants want is a chance SOMEWHERE, and they did not prepare their answer by thinking about their future scientific goals or personal aspirations or allowing themselves to imagine actually getting a job…they did what I and everyone else on the job market does: spend 20 minutes on the web site trying to guess what you want to hear.

  8. […] is high this time of year, as examplified by Reaction Norm's posts on phone interviews and some of the questions. It's a tense time and I remember it well – sitting in the kitchen with my very pregnant wife […]

  9. Cedar Riener says:

    I’m glad that you found our limited conversation productive. I wanted to echo what Jeremia said, and I agree that “collegiality” and “fit” have a sordid history, as well as pretty much anything similarly vague and subjective. And I sympathize with you that the deck is stacked against you, and there are certain aspects of the process that are unfair, and don’t recognize the position that the applicants are in. For example, on my job search there were certain things that came up in the interview (or even the phone interview) that I thought were more appropriate when addressed after the offer. The college wanted to “negotiate” before I had any power. Of course I am going to say the salary is fine and startup is reasonable before you officially offer me the job. The time to negotiate those things is when you actually offer me the job.
    I want to resist the urge to say it will all work out, as Jeremia says above it is patronizing and as your tone illustrates, the process is often infuriating. But I do want to offer a few more points, which you are free to ignore (or call bull again).
    I think you’d be surprised at what you can tell from the answers to these kinds of questions. For example, coming from graduate school, I knew I wanted to go to an institution where teaching was primary. When I got the question of fit, I could say, I applied to 30 or so colleges, a couple of master’s places, but no R1 with doctoral programs. A teaching postdoc or 1 year teaching position was plan B for me. I had planned for that starting in year 4 of a Ph.D. that took me 7 years. I wasn’t just tap dancing, I had made my mind up that I wanted a place that emphasized teaching, but that I could also conduct research with undergraduates, but wouldn’t have the extreme pressure to publish and get external funding. In other words, part of what helped me was that I was willing to put some eggs in fewer baskets, and limit my search. This was a luxury I had, and a risk I was willing to take.
    It is absolutely unfair, but an applicant has to be more enthusiastic about the position than the people currently holding it, at exactly the time when it is very hardest to be enthusiastic, since it seems like such a potshot, and the system seems rigged. Whether or not the SC has the right to do this or not, people inflate any negativity. It seems silly that enthusiasm would be a tie-breaker, but many on the search committee experience the many reasons to be unenthusiastic about their own job, and to get through those moments to do the job effectively, you have to love at least some part of it. One way of interpreting this could be “tap dance your idealism to me,” but another could be “show me something that you love and describe how you’ll be able to do here.” It is unfair to ask people to have a pure and noble calling (then you don’t have to pay them! Bonus!) but at the same time it is also natural and human to prefer to work with someone who likes their job.
    So ultimately I think the best strategy on any of these questions is to find something that you can get excited about, even if you haven’t totally decided one way or the other. With the question of fit, I think it is totally fine to say “I applied to many colleges like yours and I would happily work at any of them. I love my science, I love my teaching, and I could get paid to do it? Awesome. But what I found particularly exciting here was ….” This may be exactly what you are referring to as “tap dancing” or “reciting info about the department.” But I think you might be surprised at how much you can read into what you might think are a bunch of equivalent bs responses. Some of them reflect more knowledge and more interest in colleges and departments of that type. This might require not just some familiarity with that college’s website, but a familiarity with other college that are similar. Everyone advertises their travel program, but Kalamazoo has a legitimately amazing and unique one. Everyone advertises their summer research program, but ours is far more robust than similar ones that I have seen.

    Anyways, sorry for the lecture. I hope you can find something useful in there.

  10. Alex says:

    To a large extent, the “why is this job a good fit for you?” question is just a basic IQ test to see if you’ve done your homework and can make some plausible case for being able to take advantage of local resources and opportunities. But, yes, it is a bit silly the way they phrase it, given the math of the job market as you laid it out.

    Also, be aware that, contrary to what the folks above said (most of them apparently from research institutions), undergraduate-oriented schools all consider themselves to be the most unique snowflakes, utterly convinced that most job candidates are don’t understand “what we do here.” I teach at an undergraduate-oriented place, and “what we do here” is we teach a lot, and we try to do a certain amount of research and involve undergrads in it. (Or at least some of us do.) Figuring this out is not nuclear rocket surgery. There are literally hundreds of undergraduate-oriented “comprehensive” state schools in the US alone. And a few hundred liberal arts colleges and “comprehensive” private schools. We’re not talking snowflake uniqueness. If you really like teaching, and you’d be satisfied in a job that involves more teaching than research (but still has some research) consider us as an option.

    The problem is that too many people in “a place like this” (a common phrase in undergraduate-oriented institutions) are aghast at the thought that somebody might be applying for more than one type of job. Once over lunch, in the midst of a search year, I mused “I wonder if any of our finalists will be interviewing at [nearby R1 advertising a job in the same subfield that we were advertising in].” One of my colleagues was all “If they are, I want to know, because I don’t think they’d be a good fit here.” Seriously? You’d fault somebody for being flexible enough to consider more than one type of job in a tight market? What kind of idiot are you? (Oh, wait, I know what kind of idiot they are. I withdraw the question.)

    Most of the people who talk like that feel threatened by the current influx of productive researchers who are willing to consider jobs with substantial teaching components. I think it’s great, because I love doing research with undergrads, and my group has been able to do some pretty exciting stuff. But some people are threatened by it. You should be aware of them, and do your best to project undying love for teaching and undergraduate mentoring as TEH ONLY THING YOU COULD EVAR DO when interviewing at “a place like this”, but know that we do still hire good researchers, and don’t feel _too_ threatened. If you show that you can teach, and you have good projects that you could do with modest resources, we’ll give you fair consideration

  11. Cedar Riener says:

    I don’t think you’re exactly wrong, Alex, but I think you are overstating and overgeneralizing what SLAC’s think. I think there are good reasons to consider whether someone is a productive researcher who doesn’t mind doing more teaching than research, or a productive researcher who is going to feel ground down by too many lab reports to grade, or teaching too many intro or non-majors classes.
    SC’s want the best teacher/researcher they can get, and they want to avoid someone who is going to turn them down now, leave in two years, or be a bitter colleague who wishes he/she were somewhere else. We all have moments when we wish we were somewhere else, or wish our institution were totally different, but many of us have also seen how toxic an attitude that can be when actually trying to make the incremental improvements that are possible.
    I don’t see what is wrong with considering that under the broad consideration of fit. If someone is flexible enough to consider more than one type of job, they are also flexible enough to prefer another type of job. I know the math seems crazy that there would be 3 people that could turn down a job, but this does happen. Turnover also happens. Isn’t it just human to want to prevent those outcomes? This isn’t necessarily a fault, but it is a dimension of comparison.
    On the SC’s I’ve been on, there have been different perspectives and preferences offered on this point, but I don’t think the “teaching” side deserves the disdain you are heaping on it here. We don’t want people coming who would be a)disappointed they are not somewhere else and/or b) think of us as a place where it is a bummer that you have to teach 7 classes a year, but at least you aren’t required to get a grant and publish 10 papers to get tenure, so you can relax a bit.
    But I agree with your final point. If you have good teaching credentials, you kill the job talk in terms of showing how great a teacher you are, and you do great (affordable) research, you will get job offers at SLAC’s, regardless of whether you have applied or are considering R1 places or even industry/other research jobs. And a certain amount of ambivalence about research vs. teaching tracks is acceptable, especially if you demonstrate both research and teaching excellence.

  12. Yes, and anyone who does a little preparation can say some of the right things here. So I think you might have learned something about the people with no answer here: they did not get good advice about preparing for the interview. I don’t think you learned what kind of colleague or scientist they are or would be. But for the people who do have good answers, you really didn’t learn anything, and for most of them, you listened to bullshit.

    There is no way that in less than 30 minutes an SC can learn much about a candidate. What they can learn is whether or not the person gives a shit. If they don’t give a shit then an SC is not going to fly them in. Period.

    SCs have already combed through CVs, LoRs and statements to try and get a feel for what kind of person or scientist they are dealing with. To think that they are going to learn a whole lot more in a brief phone interview is ridiculous. They want to know if you care enough about THIS position for a full interview.

    In most situations the list is already formally or informally ranked before the phone interviews. While it is hard to move up, it is much easier than I expected to move down. By coming off as unprepared (and does one REALLY need to be told to prepare for an interview? That’s not a lack of good advice, I’m sorry) you can easily end up on the DNI list.

  13. Alex says:

    Cedar,

    First, I don’t teach in a SLAC. I teach in a “comprehensive” state university that is primarily undergraduate. But, much like in a SLAC, we consider ourselves the most special snowflake on the face of the earth. You see, your school is private, whereas we are public, which means that you are just serving elite, traditional* students, whereas we are here to save the broken, the beaten, and the damned. This means that “what we do here” is completely different. I’ll just slide past the fact that when I go to conferences and share stories “from the trenches” with my colleagues at other places, the experiences and challenges seem to have a great many things in common, whether at a state comprehensive, an R1, a SLAC, or wherever else.

    Second, I don’t have any disdain for the teaching side of things. I find it tremendously fulfilling, and it has provided me at least as much intellectual stimulation as research, and teaching a wide range of classes has done a lot of my intellectual flexibility (there’s that word again!). Indeed, teaching some subjects outside of my main research focus has taken me in new directions and actually made me wish I could teach a graduate course in one of those subjects. Strange as it may seem, if I should ever leave for an R1, it will be (in part) because I want to continue to develop in new directions as a teacher. My disdain is for those who embrace the false dichotomy between teaching and research. Ok, you can’t (usually) publish 10 papers a year in a teaching-heavy position, but you can make meaningful and exciting contributions to your field, and you can do it while mentoring undergrads, and do it in a way that actually enhances your teaching. I built an entire class around “What is the most amazing thing to happen in my field this year, and what are the foundational topics that we need to get through to understand how it is possible?”

    *I actually know nothing about your school, so maybe my statement is full of crap, but in the faculty lounge the conventional wisdom is that private schools only serve utterly traditional and privileged students. Whereas we not only serve the disadvantaged, we serve students even more disadvantaged than any of the other state university campuses. That last part is not actually true (I could show you the stats on some other schools in the state university system) but I will not let any “facts” get in the way of faculty lounge folklore!

  14. Cedar Riener says:

    Sure, heaps of disdain for supporters of false dichotomy between teaching and research. And also for people at your place (or any) who insinuate that a productive research program is to be mistrusted on its own, as if it naturally detracted from teaching. What I (awkwardly) was trying to say is that people on committees who have misgivings about fit might not just be jealous fragile people who only want to hire younger, happier versions of themselves, but might be basing their apprehension on past experience or legitimate considerations of risk.
    I won’t deny that the student profile at my school might be different than many publics, but it probably isn’t as different as most people think. We don’t get as many older, non-traditional students, but among the traditional aged students, there is far more diversity (race and class, at least, if not regional) than most people would guess. I have gotten to look at some of my advisees admissions folders, and the parental occupations don’t seem to be reflective of the privileged bunch that many detractors would have you believe.
    Sounds like a cool class, that “It happened this year.”

  15. rxnm says:

    I think we’re starting to confuse the utility of a phone interview with the “fit” question. I think the SC can get a more honest sense of “fit” by asking candidates to talk about their research and teaching goals generally. Isn’t that what you want to know? Would you ask a car salesman, “Should I buy this car?” or more detailed questions about mileage, safety, etc?

    And, at my university, I have heard the opposite example of what Alex describes… a faculty member speaking dismissively of postdocs applying for SLAC/PUI jobs. I imagine when this person is on an SC, he wants to hear someone tell him that this snowflake (or kind of institution) is the only thing in the world that will make them happy. Because I think applicants are more on guard against these kinds of assholes than not, there is enormous pressure to try to conform to perceived expectations rather than to be honest.

  16. Alex says:

    I’ve faced the snobbish commentary on people going for SLAC/PUI jobs. I got some of it when I was a postdoc (at a research institute that you’ve heard of) and I accepted my PUI job. Those people bought into the dichotomy just as much as certain colleagues of mine buy into it, only from the opposite end. The reality is that we all teach, we all do research, we just do these activities in varying ratios. I don’t publish as much as my R1 colleagues, but what I do publish goes into good journals, I get a few interesting invites here and there, and my students get to be involved in cutting-edge stuff at an early age.

  17. […] this time of year, as examplified by Reaction Norm’s posts on phone interviews and some of the questions. It’s a tense time and I remember it well – sitting in the kitchen with my very […]

  18. I really think too much is being made of this question in the context of the phone interview. In an on campus interview, the nebulous concept of “fit” is a completely different beast than what is under discussion here. You have 5 minutes to answer this question, at most. It is strictly a “have you taken some time to figure out how your plans mesh with the university and department” question. If the answer is yes, cool. If the answer is no, the SC is going to think you don’t care about the position. It really is that simple.

    At least the SC that I am involved with did not want fawning praise of the university or department (it was a detractor, for sure), but simply an indication that the candidate thought about it. Again, 5 minutes is nothing. The SC realizes this and so should you.

  19. rxnm says:

    PLS,what is with the pingbacks from your post at goodsolar.com?

  20. qaz says:

    Actually, as someone who’s been on a couple of search committees, I would point out that this is one of the most informative questions I can ask. It provides two important answers.

    First, there are a surprising number of people who are applying to our job as backup jobs. (I am at BigStateResearchU which is looked down upon by many who come from ArrogantPrivateU and who do not recognize that we are actually one of the top X departments in the country.) These people are absolutely unable to answer this question. They make it very very clear that they would rather be elsewhere, but will take this job if its the only one they get. We do not want to make an offer to these people.

    Second, a lot of people have thoughts of directions that they might like to go, thoughts that are not well worked out enough to put down in a research statement. This question gives them a chance to open up, casually (really, be yourself, it’s a job interview, but we’re looking for someone who we want down the hall from us for 30+ years), and think about what possibilities there are at our BigStateResearchU. So, for example, have you thought about how your work in field Y might impact research Z? Let’s chat about it. In 5 minutes, I can determine whether you have any interest in connecting with the work at our university or not.

    Don’t underestimate “fit”. A place that is a good fit for you is a wonderful thing. Our goal is not just to hire someone to fill a slot; our goal is to hire someone who is going to be a good colleague that we want to talk to, collaborate with, and do good science with for a very long time.

  21. rxnm says:

    qaz wrote: “I am at BigStateResearchU which is looked down upon by many who come from ArrogantPrivateU and who do not recognize that we are actually one of the top X departments in the country”

    This is what has surprised me in this discussion…the broad category of people who to some degree or another don’t want the job and seem not afraid to let you know it. I feel like if you are on the TT market right now and consider some places you’re applying as “backup” you are a fucking idiot. Of the places I’ve heard news from, 3 have said how many applications they received: approx 160, 230, >300. None of these were ArrogantPrivateUs.

    I accept this question as a good way to weed these people out.

    I am now trying to imagine the deluded pedigree postdocs who would consider a big state research U a backup plan. Then, I think of a few assholes I have met, and, yes, I can see it now.

  22. Kyle says:

    This post encapsulates so many of my thoughts. Just had to say that.

  23. […] think it went well. I previously complained at length about departments stressing some nebulous notion of “fit.” I am very happy that, on this […]


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