Finding The Right Fit

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    Margaret Healy
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When beginning a job search, we typically have criteria by which we evaluate job postings. To meet those criteria, we search for the “right” job. Although our previous and current experiences provide considerable data, we can never be certain if a different institutional type or a change in organizational unit will be the right job.  Joan Hirt (2006) has helped us to understand that student affairs work cannot be defined with a single definition because the work you do is different based on institutional type.  Further, Hirt points out that graduate programs preparing student affairs professionals are largely housed at research or comprehensive universities. In contrast, less than a quarter of student affairs professionals work in research or comprehensive universities. When you begin to identify the criteria for your next job, you are likely looking at different types of institutions, resulting in a different examination of what the right job is. 

In the end, how do you know the job is right?  When we talk with one another, we may say “It felt right” or “I felt like I fit in”. Werbel and Gilliland (1999) provided a model for considering the concept of “fit” and human resource practices on a broader level. Their model helps define different kinds of fit to consider in seeking a new job. Of course, you want a job where you can do the work – what Werbel and Gilliland call Person-Job (P-J) fit, predicted by the knowledge, skills, and abilities of the candidate. But, you likely also want to work with a group of people where you fit in – being similar to group members in some ways but adding new skills and perspectives to the team as well, or Person-Group (P-G) fit, predicted by a candidate’s interpersonal attributes and broad-based proficiencies. Finally, as Hirt suggests, you are interested in being a part of an organization whose vision, mission and values align with your own, or Person-Organization (P-O) fit, predicted by the values, needs, and goals of the candidate. Werbel and Gilliland felt that all three types of fit were important in the selection process, with some variations in level of importance based on the position or organization.

The answer to questions around fit may differ depending on what role you have in the recruitment/selection process. If you are the candidate, the interview is an opportunity for the employer to gauge your predictors of fit for their institution. You will also be “interviewing” those potential colleagues in order to learn more about the position, the work group, and the organization. 

To illustrate how the components of fit are considered both by candidates and those on the hiring side, Kody Rother, a new professional with two years of professional experience, and Missy Burgess, a mid-career professional who supervises new professionals, talked about the following questions:

When you were looking for your first professional position, what was your definition of “fit”?   How has that definition changed as you think about future opportunities?

Kody: When I was searching for my current position I feel that I would have defined “fit” as that gut feeling saying, “Yeah, I could see myself working there.” Overall, I felt qualified for several types of entry-level positions.  Institution size, location, and position guided my search; however, the beliefs, values, and mission of the department and institution surprisingly impacted a few decisions as whether or not to apply for a position. While it took a bit, I learned to rely on my intuition and trust that my subconscious was picking up on something that may affect my happiness and success in a position. As I begin to think about my next step, I will look at fit in terms of whether a position will be professionally challenging and assist me in attaining my end career goal, whether my values align with the institution, and trusting that gut feeling I have throughout the interview process.

Missy: In my first professional search, I looked a lot at person-job fit. I felt qualified to be an entry-level hall director, and I focused my search in that area. When it came time to make a decision on whether or not to accept a position, though, I think I was driven by the fear that I might not get another offer and did not consider how much each area of fit mattered to my own success and happiness. As a result, I think my second position (when I did consider other factors) was a better fit for me. As I have made moves throughout my career, I think I have learned to take a broader look at fit- thinking about how a position will or will not challenge me, whether my colleagues will be supportive, and what the student culture at the institution looks like. Like Kody, I have learned to trust that innate feeling in my gut that I have on the on-campus interview, and I have learned that sometimes it is ok to pass on an opportunity than may not be the right fit.

Reflection Questions for the Reader:
What is the best/worst job you have ever held? Why was it the best/worst? Were there elements of fit that made it the best/worst job you had?

From the hiring side, you have multiple perspectives on what is a good fit. What do you look for in a new colleague? Does that change if you are the supervisor of the position?

Kody: When looking for a new colleague, a few characteristics rise to the top. The first is someone who is willing to pitch in and help others. There are times when it is literally “all hands on deck,” and it is something special when colleagues ask how they can help, even though they may be busy as well.  Another is someone who is willing to work hard in their position and is still able to take care of themselves at the end of the day. It is easy to get burnt out, especially in entry level positions, so balancing stress is important.  Finally, I look for someone who brings balance to the overall team or department. One of the most powerful questions I was asked was if I could imagine working with an entire staff that was just like me. It helped me realize that it is easy to like candidates similar to you, but it is important to bring balance to the overall team.

Missy: I have learned over time that a good search committee brings together people from a variety of different perspectives. The challenge is that this means everyone is looking for something a little different. I would add to Kody’s list in that I look for a colleague who “gets” what we do in student affairs. As I have come into a supervisory role, I place a strong emphasis on finding a team player, someone who is willing to pitch in when things get busy, even if it may not be “their job”. Finally, I look for someone who can strike a balance between bringing new ideas from their past but also seeks to understand what we do here and why we do it before proposing change. It is interesting that the things I look for are probably related more with person-organization and person-group fit, seeing person-job fit as a trainable factor- which is nearly the opposite of what I considered in my first search.

Reflection Question for the Reader:
When you are on the hiring side as a colleague or a supervisor, how important is each type of fit? 

What role does Person-Job fit play in making a decision about a new position? About evaluating a candidate?

Kody: When I accepted my current position, person-job fit was important when I began searching for the position.  It was looking for the balance of being able to do the job successfully without that drowning feeling, and I wanted to be challenged or learn something new professionally. Most of the positions I applied for, were in an area of student affairs where I had no direct experience. This impacts how I review potential candidates. When reviewing the person-job fit aspect, I find it more important to see if a candidate has transferable experiences rather than a direct experience. I feel a person can be trained on many aspects of a position, as long as they have certain skills or knowledge to assist their training.

Missy: Similar to Kody, for my own job search, person-job fit is a balance between finding a job that is a match for my knowledge, skills, and abilities while still offering a challenge that will keep me learning and engaged. As a professional who transitioned from residence life to student activities, I think it has made me more willing to look at a candidate’s knowledge, skills, and abilities, rather than just their directly-related past experiences. If I can train someone on the specific responsibilities of the position, their past range of experiences can be a little broader and may bring new and unique skills to my team.

Reflection Questions for the Reader:
How do you decide if someone is qualified for a position? Do they have to already have direct experience? Why or why not?

What role does Person-Group fit play in making a decision about a new position?  About evaluating a candidate?

Kody: For my current position, this was probably the biggest factor in deciding to accept the position.  Having that sense of being able to get along with my colleagues and supervisor, especially in an entry level position in a state in which I knew nobody, was a driving force. I feel that your direct colleagues can make or break an experience for you. If you dread working on projects with your colleagues, it can create an unhappy experience. When evaluating a candidate, P-G fit is the biggest factor during the on-campus interview.  In my current position, we often collaborate with our direct colleagues and being able to work with them is an important aspect.

Missy: One thing I learned early in my career when doing job searches on a late spring to fall timeline is that the people who interview you in the spring may not be the people who are there in the fall when you start - particularly for entry-level positions. It is important to have person-group fit beyond just one person.  Finding a good match with a supervisor has sometimes been a good gauge for person-group fit for me, as they often have more longevity than those at the entry level. As a supervisor, it is important for me to remember that I am hiring a candidate who is not only a fit for the team, but for the position and the institution; it is important for me to keep all three components of fit in mind, as my team of entry-level staff will not always look the same.

Reflection Questions for the Reader:
Think about your perfect coworker. What qualities do they possess? Think of a team you couldn't work with. What qualities were lacking or present that made it undesirable? 

What role does Person-Organization fit play in making a decision about a new position? About evaluating a candidate?

Kody: During my job search, this classification of fit assisted me if I was on the fence about a position.  However, when it came to accepting a position I don’t believe it was something that was on my mind. It was more important I had that gut feeling of comfort on-campus and that I would be successful in the position. When looking for my next position I feel it will play a larger factor in my decision making process; I’ve learned that the institutional and departmental mission, vision, and values have the potential to play a strong role in our interactions with students. When evaluating a new colleague, unless there was very clear values incongruence between the candidate and the department or institution I don’t believe this was a guiding factor for my decision if a person was a good fit.   To me it was more important that I could see that person fitting well with the current team, although I did appreciate if a candidate could speak as to why they felt our institution would be a good fit for them.

Missy: I think this was probably the type of fit I least understood in my first job search, but has become more important to me over time. I think as I have grown as a professional, I have been able to more clearly understand and articulate my own values, which makes identifying this type of fit a little easier. It is very possible for a candidate to successfully make a transition from one type of institution to another; as Hirt (2006) articulates, many of us do this in the transition from graduate school to our first professional position. However, I look for candidates who understand that there are differences at different types of institutions and who can articulate why making the transition will be a good fit for them.

Reflection Questions for the Reader:
What is your number one value? Would you be willing to work at an institution that did not support that value?  Why or why not?

Fit is a tricky thing. Hopefully our stories help you to put some context into that innate feeling in your gut as you job search. Spend time and think about what is the right fit. Good fit will pay off many times over if you are able to find the candidate/job with the “right fit”.


Hirt, J. B. (2006). Where you work matters: Student affairs administration at different types of institutions. Lanham, MD: University Press of America Inc.

Werbel, J. D., & Gilliland, S. W. (1999). Person-environment fit in the selection process. Research in Personnel and Human Resource Management, 17, 209-243.

Margaret Healy is a professor in the Educational Leadership department at the University of North Dakota.
Missy Burgess is the assistant director for student involvement at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
Kody Rother is the associate director of residence life and housing at Roanoke College.  

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