To the Inside Candidate Who Did Not Get the Job

Brian Taylor

April 03, 2012

Our job search is over, and now it begins—that awkward interval while you're still working in a department that chose someone else over you for the full-time job. Just a year ago it was you we invited to be the visiting fellow, and now we seem quick to cast you aside.

It's a wound, raw and painful, but you must keep telling yourself it won't likely prove fatal to your career. What you're experiencing here is more common in academe than you might think. In fact, I was in your shoes some years ago. The specific circumstances were different, but some of what I learned then might be useful to you now, or at least provide some perspective on what you're going through.

I was sitting in a drafty cubicle one January, when I got word by e-mail—even though the search-committee chair sat in an office just one floor away—that I was not a finalist. We're sorry, the message said, but we're sure you'll be successful somewhere else.

That offhand assurance of my great chances elsewhere was the worst part of it. Easy for them to be chipper and upbeat, but my actual prospects at that moment weren't so promising. I had applied for plenty of jobs, and had initial interviews at conferences and on the phone, but nothing more to vouch for my eventual success. I had felt most marketable at the place that knew my work as a visiting professor, but suddenly I had failed there, too.

Finishing out the year as a visiting professor came with myriad difficulties. I was there when my department began bringing in the finalists for the full-time job. A casual trip I took to the department photocopier turned traumatic when one of the finalists passed through the office gabbing away with the department chair. Subsequently I holed up in my cubicle on interview days.

"Don't worry, Dr. Lemuel. You don't have any competition," said students of mine who had sat through all of the candidates' classroom presentations. Their comments obliged me to don a brave face and explain that, actually, I was no longer in the running, and one of my noncompetitors would have the job next year.

Nowadays I'm a tenured professor on the other side of the hiring table, and I'm writing this as I watch you, our visiting faculty member, struggle with your disappointment. You were a finalist for the full-time job, so you actually had a better run than I did at my old institution. It was clear you were nervous during the teaching demonstration, but most impressive was how you rolled through a few flubs and miscues without losing your poise. Having interview experience under such trying conditions won't hurt you next time around.

Now you have to let go and end the replay loop in your head. You won't have a chance to correct your mistakes here, and even if you did, it wouldn't have affected the outcome anyway. What matters now is that you're more seasoned for the next interview. You've been through this and can do it again.

But first, you have to finish teaching here this semester. And no one can prevent the moments of awkwardness you are bound to face in our department. You are practicing grace under pressure every time you feign indifference or resist the bitter temptation to vent spleen.

We know you're a hit with our students, too. Probably they tell you the same kinds of things that my students back then told me, expanding on the other candidates' flaws to boost your spirits and soothe your ego. Take their support as a compliment, but don't put more stock in it than that. Surely you understand, as I had to, that students don't make hiring decisions for good reason. Remember, you've had a year to win them over, but not all of them were sold after your first lecture, either.

Fortunately your positive student evaluations are a portable record of your classroom accomplishments here. Use them to get in the next door. And despite your fears to the contrary, another door may yet open for you somewhere. Some just take longer to unlock than others.

In my own case, after I was passed over, I recall waiting all spring, growing more desperate with each passing week. With an itchy trigger finger, I applied at anything that moved. New phone interviews came in April, and I landed a campus interview during finals week. I had scheduled two other campus interviews when I got a job offer. Reckoning the odds were against me, I accepted the offer and backed out of the other searches. What surprised me was that further possibilities did open up for me. The wide net I had cast brought late returns as searches continued long past the point I expected to hear back.

It probably won't be a seamless transition for you from our institution to the tenure track. Possibly the next move you make will feel like a step backward. But every position offers you opportunities to shine. Do interesting things, rack up experience and recommendations, and see where your path leads.

The hire we choose instead of you won out because of experience and position. You were a good second baseman, but we needed a center fielder. A hard reality—one that becomes more clear once you're on the hiring side—is that a decent player in the right position makes a better hire than a star in the wrong one.

As you finish your time here as a visiting faculty member, view it as the next layer of validation, on top of graduate school. The end you hoped for was not to be, but it can be a means to another end.

In my own case, after word of my rejection had spread, I got an invitation for coffee with a colleague I didn't know very well. He empathized with my predicament and shared his own experience of rejection from a plum job, which, he had been told initially, was his to lose.

His advice surprised me. I was still in a graduate-student frame of mind, so I thought in terms of proving myself to my betters. I cherished some hope that my colleagues might realize their mistake and hire me in a future search. When I hinted as much, my coffee colleague shook his head: "I would say to you, don't look back." The only way to prove yourself is to move on and do well, he explained.

Even if I had been hired back, he said, I would have come in on unequal terms, without the benefit of the doubt and allowances reserved for brand new hires. The only place to get that is from somewhere else. I didn't believe him about that at first. But several years later, I was teaching at a different college where I had won approval of curricular changes that made my new job far better than my old one. By then I was a valued team member among vibrant new colleagues, which made my former colleagues seem pale and stiff by comparison. It was hard to feel that I had lost all that much. As Heraclitus said, you cannot set foot in the same river twice.

At the time of my rejection, hearing words of consolation like "you're still young" grated on my soul. You're probably hearing them now and feeling the same way. Graduate school was a gamble, and you're ready for it to pay off. But youth is house money. You can afford to let it ride through a loss or two. That's harder to grasp now than it will be later on. But at this early point in your career, it's far too soon for talk of giving up altogether.

I hope my words here don't come across as glib and thoughtless, as did the assurances I received of my future success in that e-mail all those years ago. I can see now, however, that the members of that hiring committee were probably being honest. I think they truly did believe in my future success—just not at their institution.

We feel the same about you. We believe you're going to do well somewhere. We couldn't provide the outlet for it in our department, but I for one would put money on your eventual success.

John Lemuel is the pseudonym of an associate professor in the social sciences at a small liberal-arts college in the Midwest.