One rejection letter I received had the following words:

Careful consideration was given ... to the relationship of each applicant’s qualifications to the existing capabilities and needs in our program.

I take this to mean that the department was looking for someone whose areas of expertise were not already covered by other faculty members in the department.

Is it often the case that search committees are most interested in someone who can add to their department's research and teaching strong areas? Do I have a better chance of getting a position in a department whose strengths overlap only a little with mine?

  • 3
    At my old school, one senior faculty elaborated: "We hire the strongest candidate, and don't care about fields. If you do research we think is stupid, we believe you either come to, or we bring you to your senses." Apr 17, 2015 at 23:17
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    The answer to any question with the words "search committees" and "always" in it is usually "no".
    – Anonymous
    Apr 18, 2015 at 1:00
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    The answer to this question probably depends on what "existing capabilities and needs" means: it seems plausible that the department could have needs for which an ideal candidate's background overlaps with their existing efforts, doesn't overlap at all due to wanting to get into new areas, or somewhere in between.
    – Mad Jack
    Apr 18, 2015 at 1:27
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    The answer will also depend on the size of the department. In large departments that are strongly oriented towards research it would be quite normal to hire someone into an existing research group, perhaps to expand that group in a slightly new direction. In a much smaller department, it might be necessary to fill a hole in an important area where the department has no one else with that expertise. Imagine a department with 10-15 faculty members trying to cover all of mathematics and applied mathematics- they're not going to want unnecessary duplication. Apr 18, 2015 at 4:50
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    This is boilerplate rejection text. All it means is they decided not to hire you.
    – JeffE
    Apr 18, 2015 at 13:38

2 Answers 2


Not at all. I'd wager that a majority of hires are replacements to, or additions to, existing interest-groups.

In mathematics, anyway, there is a substantial scientific conservatism, in the sense of caution about change, as well as extreme uneasiness about "new things one is unable to expertly appraise". I guess the good side is that people are wary of being bamboozled, wary of semi-cranks, wary of flash-in-the-pan fads, ... but, also, it creates difficulties in hiring outside already-established expertise.

Another point would be that a hire outside existing areas would not add to any existing area's "turf", so only the altruistic entities would be in favor of it, barring some deal-sweetening arrangement. A similar mild negative would be that it would effectively reduce the weight of pre-existing turf-areas' "vote" in policy and other matters. Who would vote away the strength of their own vote? :)

And it is my observation that this sort of realpolitick would outweigh impulses to "get on the bandwagon", although perhaps not so hugely but that it could still happen.

But, then, if the "new" field is not a "hot new thing", and the given department has no one in that area, I'd bet that there's essentially zero motivation for them to make a hire in that direction. "Can't do everything." ???

So, probably the answer to the question is "no", in most operational situations.

  • If I take replacing or adding as complementing, wouldn't the answer be yes?
    – adipro
    Apr 17, 2015 at 23:31
  • If I understand your question as asking whether an area that does not overlap much with existing strengths, then I'd say "no". But if you somehow interpret "replacing/augmenting" as "complementing", ... which seems to me contrary to the sense of the words in English... then, ... ok. But that seems to me opposite to your question. Clarify? Apr 17, 2015 at 23:36
  • I have revised my question. I hope it is clearer.
    – adipro
    Apr 18, 2015 at 0:07

I take this to mean that the department was looking for someone whose areas of expertise were not already covered by other faculty members in the department.

Not so much that, I think, as that the department knew it had a need for something that someone else was especially strong in.

So you see, there's a great deal of luck involved in the job search.

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