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The Job Search: It’s So Not Personal

“Sarah” was a midcareer administrator who had landed an interview at a strong institution. She would be positioned to take advantage of her own strengths and could gain significant experiences toward further promotion. Her excitement was intense as she prepared for her visit.

The on-campus interview went well in the morning, but at lunch the senior administrator to whom she would report failed to appear. When the time came to meet with that administrator in the afternoon, a two-hour slot, she was notified that it was canceled, and that the interview process would end early. After an awkward final conversation with the search committee, she was dropped off at the airport, where, dumbfounded, she called a mentor: “I guess I really botched this interview but I don’t understand what happened!”

The mentor asked her to review the morning’s events, and nothing stood out. Finally he said, “Look, don’t beat yourself up over this. You were prepared, and you are not aware that you did anything wrong. They flew you in and spent time and money on you. Even if you completely messed up, they would have at least gone through the motions of the rest of the interview. For them to eliminate portions of the interview probably means that something beyond your control had happened. Maybe an emergency or something like that. The main thing, though, is that you not take this personally. I really don’t think this has anything to do with you.”

As it turned out, the next day it was announced that the senior administrator had been fired on the morning of Sarah’s interview. It really was nothing personal; it was circumstances.

One of the most important lessons job seekers can learn: It is very easy to take everything personally. Because the search process is so high-stakes, emotions can run high for applicants. But there are so many complicating factors: budgets, internal politics, personnel crises, and health crises, among others.

Applicants have no control over most of those factors, and it is a waste of time and energy to become too emotionally involved in searches that do not produce offers. Avoiding such involvement is difficult but, in the long run, worthwhile.

What advice might you offer to applicants who are tempted to take matters personally?

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