You Were Too Good for Us

June 23, 2006

A friend of mine on the academic job market recently lamented that he had been turned down for a "perfect job that was a perfect fit."

I asserted that there were so many random factors in hiring that it was hard to say why someone failed or succeeded in any particular application. But in considering his CV and the profile of faculty members in the department, I sensed a possible explanation for his rejection: He was too perfect for them.

On the surface, that would seem an unlikely scenario. After all, academe is surely the one area in which it is impossible to be overqualified. Don't colleges and universities want to hire the best and brightest for any given position?

The realpolitik answer is no.

In my own experiences -- applying for jobs, judging job applicants, and talking to friends and colleagues on the market or on hiring committees -- I have learned the sad but true lesson that being good, or being just right for a position, sometimes is not enough, and that being outstanding sometimes is too much. Here are some reasons why you may not have been hired because -- although no letter of notification would state it outright -- members of the search committee thought "You were too good for us."

They are envious. In theory, an exceptional new junior or senior colleague should be an attractive prospect to faculty members in any department. In practice, academics, as much as anyone, are prone to being envious and resentful of a new luminary's achievements. The simplest way to avoid being reminded daily of their own inadequacy is sabotage, instigating a vote against the newcomer, using other reasons and rationales, of course, besides "I just don't want somebody that good around here."

They don't want the competition. Faculty members voting on your candidacy may see their unit as a zero-sum equation. Hiring you is a threat to them because they perceive that you will require disproportionate resources and thus nibble at their slices of the departmental pie.

Indeed, you frighten people who assume that your strong publishing record would raise the bar for their future tenure, promotion, and annual reports. Looking at you, they wonder whether their department head would one day say to them, "Why can't you be more like her?"

They doubt you will stay. Members of the department may be so impressed by you that they wonder why you have chosen their college, which they realistically may not think of as the best. They assume that, if hired, you would not hang around for long, that their home would just be a waystation on your voyage to glory at some higher-ranked institution.

They don't think you will work well with them. The hiring faculty may take your glowing record as a sign that you would be unlikely to be a true colleague. Would you, for example, be on the campus consistently, or would you spend all your time traveling, giving lectures, or going off on grant projects? Would you take up the grunt work of academe -- the committee work, the intro and skills classes that everyone is supposed to share -- or would you dump those duties on your lesser colleagues?

You have already made enemies there. Because of your extensive writing or accomplishments in your discipline, you have consequently made enemies, people whose theories you have challenged or whose work you have criticized.

Perhaps you have gotten in ideological fights with other scholars? Or administrative squabbles in national organizations in the field?

In any case, your possible future colleagues may be angry at you because of some perceived injury you have committed against one of their allies, or even, unknown to you, against one of them.

You come off as a prima donna. You are indeed impressive, but you are too conscious of it, and in your application letter, site visit, and interviews -- and even in the supporting materials -- you appear arrogant. Because of your terrific CV, and your evident awareness of it, people wonder whether you are expecting them to bow as you swagger down the hallway.

One colleague I know described voting against the best candidate for a job at his department because, "The guy knew he was a big fish, and when he came to interview treated us all like guppies. Who needs that?"

You don't live up to the hype. Your reputation as a faculty star set high expectations for your job interview and guest lecture that you did not live up to. The message sent by your performance: You did not care enough to prepare well. The implication: You might be an underperformer once hired.

So what can you do about being "too good"?

First you have to decide what exactly you want. If you are far enough along in the profession and you really desire to be treated as a demigod, there are probably chaired positions out there that might fulfill your fantasies. God knows that academe, like opera, is full of successful egomaniacs and arrogant superstars.

But if you want to fit in as a regular faculty member, pursuing excellence while being a good colleague and friend, then I think it is a question of positioning strategy. Don't come off sounding too boastful or vainglorious. Your letter and your CV, for example, can certainly list your achievements but should not dwell on how wonderful they (and you) are.

You might ask those who write letters of recommendation for you to emphasize that, "Despite her many accomplishments, she is a genial colleague who looks forward to participating in the daily work of a school."

At your interview, self-deprecating humor and a degree of humility can go a long way toward lowering any red flags.

In the end, it is almost impossible to overcome true feelings of resentment, envy, jealousy, or suspicion. If a department's faculty members do not want to vote for you because you are too good, nothing can stop them. In such cases, take a rejection letter as a compliment, since being among such petty and insecure folk would probably not be conducive to your long-term happiness.

Starting in July, David D. Perlmutter will be a professor and associate dean for graduate studies and research at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas.