On Seinfeld, George Costanza once tried to decide if he should tell a girlfriend that he loved her, which would be the first time he had uttered that phrase. When he discussed the situation with friends, Jerry warned him that it was a huge risk: the unreturned “I love you.” As he phrased it, “That’s a pretty big matzo ball hanging out there.”
The internal candidate in a genuine national job search faces the same conundrum. If you apply, you risk having your colleagues on the search committee fail to return your metaphorical love, which can lead to hard feelings. Members of a search committee cannot (or at least should not) reveal their private discussions, and when internal candidates are not selected, it can lead to all sorts of prognostications and even rumors.
I have been an internal candidate for several positions that involved national searches, and it was always awkward and a source of anxiety as the process rolled forward. I have learned that I must trust the process to honor all factors, including those that I may not know. Sometimes the search ends up with an internal candidate because continuity is desired; in other cases, an external candidate gets the nod because he or she may bring in new ideas that are deemed promising. Ideally the decision will be made for professional, not personal, reasons.
I was passed over in one such search early in my career, and was utterly crestfallen. It took me a long time to get over the disappointment. I now warn potential internal candidates not to get too excited and to be careful not to signal a sense that they are a “lock” or that someone on the inside has promised them the position. In the end, however, being an internal candidate may be a risk worth taking.
What advice would you offer to colleagues who are considering being an internal candidate for a campus position?