I have served on many search committees and have made a lot of hiring decisions over the years. I have hired some great people and some that didn’t work out. I have even been involved in searches where we didn’t hire anyone. This last outcome may seem odd, but it happens more often than you think. It is especially common in academia, but I also regularly hear from business people that they just can’t find the right people to fill their job openings.
One of the ironies about being an applicant is that sometimes your greatest competitor for a job isn’t the other people in the pool with you. It is the unknown applicant. That person hasn’t applied, but the decision-makers believe his or her application is just around the corner. What makes the unknown applicant so formidable is that he or she has all of the qualities the decision-makers want, even when the decision-makers themselves don’t really agree on those qualities. In short, they are perfect for the job.
You on the other hand, have issues. This is because as my father once told me (his greatest insight really) everybody’s got issues: You are too experienced or too ambitious, or too quiet, or too risky, or too dynamic, or too straight-forward, or too much like the last guy (who they grew tired of) and made some decisions some people somewhere didn’t like –yep, it is a potentially long list.
So, how do you beat the unknown applicant?
Realize that competition with the unknown applicant isn’t about you: it is about the people hiring you. The unknown applicant enters the compettion when the hiring committee can’t agree on the most important tasks (three, not forty) that need to be done and the qualities necessary to perform them. So if during an interview people are telling you very different things about what the job entails or offer only vague responses to your questions about the most salient challenges and expectations, take this as an opportunity to tell them what you think needs to be done based on your prior experiences and why you are the right person to accomplish those tasks. This may seem presumptious, but if you can lay out your vision for the job in clear and confident manner you can ground the hiring committee in reality and beat the unknown applicant. That candidate, by the way, doesn’t get to address the selection committee in this manner.—it is a huge advantage to you.
If you take this strategy and don’t get the job don’t fret, chances are they didn’t hire the other candidate either. And you should be happy because until they can agree on what they need, that unknown applicant isn’t going to win the position either -it can’t be won.