February 26, 2019

Got the job but were not the first choice?

A guest post by medical education leader Lois Margaret Nora, MD, JD, MBA

A difficult phone call

I recently got to know a young physician-scientist.  She is brilliant, incredibly skilled and full of promise, so it was no surprise when I learned that she’d gotten the job offer of her dreams as an assistant professor at a research-intensive, highly prestigious academic health center.  We were both thrilled about her success.

When I heard from her again after a few weeks, her happiness had evaporated.  She had learned she was not the search committee’s first choice for the role.  The position had first been offered to another candidate who ultimately turned down the offer.  She now felt like a consolation prize, certain that her future colleagues were disappointed that she would be the one sitting in her new office.  She felt her achievement had been diminished, her success tarnished.  The experience tapped into her insecurities and furthered the imposter syndrome that plagues so many of us.

She felt really bad.  I could relate because I have been there, too.

I answered a phone call in May of 2002 expecting to be offered the presidency of a medical college.  Instead, the board chair explained that while the board “really liked me,” they were not yet ready to offer me the job.

I hung up realizing I was not their first choice for the position.  I likely wasn’t going to get the job, and if eventually the offer did come, it would come because someone they preferred turned them down.  It was a rough day.  Still, eventually the offer did come, and I happily accepted when it did.  I remember being glad that I had remained cordial and professional on the first call, because if I had not, I certainly would have never been offered the position.

Six months into the new role, an angry subordinate revealed that I was, in fact, the third person to be offered the position, not the second as I had concluded.  My sense that the committee had searched high and low for an alternative to me was disheartening.  But I refused to let it define me, my relationship with others or my plans for the institution.

A common problem

Learning you are the second, third or fourth choice for a job can be painful.  The fact that people often don’t know where they were on a hiring list coupled with a tendency to keep these experiences quiet hide this fact: jobs often go to individuals who got the second, third or fourth offer.  It’s particularly common in work like higher education, where positions are few and high-quality candidates are many.  The current “glut” of doctoral-level degrees in the U.S. relative to a small number of tenure-track positions means competition is especially fierce.

But this knowledge doesn’t necessarily assuage feelings of sadness or inadequacy.  Here’s what I shared with my physician-scientist friend, insights that I have also subsequently applied when in a search and when I have charged search committees.

There is no perfect first choice

The more time I have spent in higher education, the clearer it has become to me that there is rarely a single perfect first choice.  More commonly, there are three or four excellent choices, all of whom are acceptable to the search committee and each of whom is preferred by more than one member of the search committee.

First offers often go to the “safest” candidate, which generally means the candidate with whom people most relate and resonate.  For people who are underrepresented in a given field (oftentimes women and members of minority groups) or who come from a different type of institution (large public vs. small liberal arts), this can make receiving a first offer less likely.  (And it also speaks to why educating search committees about unconscious bias is so important!)

Hence, while making a short list of candidates says a great deal about a person’s quality and potential for success, the position on that short list says much less.  Landing second, third or fourth on that list is indeed something of which to be proud.

The first offer and the best offer aren’t necessarily the same

A hiring match requires that an offer be enthusiastically made and enthusiastically accepted.  Both parts need to happen.  No search committee should rank a person unless they are excited about the opportunity to have this person as a colleague and are convinced that the person will be successful.  And no matter how strong a candidate is or when s/he was offered the job, if s/he doesn’t want to be in the position (and bravo to candidates who are willing to say “no” when they realize the fit is wrong), then the search committee really doesn’t want that candidate in the role either.  No matter what they may have thought initially.  Instead of focusing on first offer, we should focus on the best choice.

The best-choice candidate should meet two criteria: the committee concludes that the candidate is a good fit – academically, geographically, etc. — for the position, and the candidate concludes the same thing.  There is a match, and a scenario that should be everyone’s first choice.

Success and happiness as the second, third or fourth choice

Many people who were recipients of second and third offers for their jobs go on to be wildly successful.  In fact, some of the most talented leaders in any field can recall one or more circumstances when they didn’t get the job they desired and/or weren’t the first choice.

Knowing all this, it may still be difficult to find out that you did not receive the first offer for a job you now hold or are considering.  There are steps you can take to facilitate your success even as you work through these feelings.  As hard as it may be, compartmentalize that knowledge.  Find one or two safe people with whom you can process your feelings, but don’t broadcast your angst widely.  Think back to your initial reaction to being hired and ground your response to inquiries about your new position in that enthusiasm for your new institution and upcoming opportunity.

Stephen R. Covey reminded us in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People that we often cannot control what happens to us, but we can control our reaction.  Turn any negative reactivity to the news into a proactive posture toward your work.  You have new responsibilities to deliver on and an institution relying on you.  You cannot thrive if you are plagued by feelings of inadequacy.  Focus on doing the work and becoming an indispensable member of your department.  Understand that no matter what your position on the offer list, if you were ultimately hired, they chose you.  Focus on showing what a great choice they made.

That’s what I tried to do.  And it worked.  Midway through my presidency, a board member approached me and told me (as if I didn’t know!) that I wasn’t at the top of the hiring list.  This person also told me, “I wasn’t your biggest supporter, but I was wrong.  You have been great for the institution.”

I smiled and said, “I know I wasn’t your first choice, but I’m glad you agree I was your best choice.”

Make the fact that you didn’t get the first offer their mistake.  And make the fact that you were their best choice a happy conclusion for all and a part of your success!

Has this happened to you?

If so, how did you manage your feelings?  Please share in the comments!

Last updated February 26, 2019