If you are anything like me, you’d heard the phrase “student affairs is such a small world” approximately three million times. Many of us have sat in the waiting areas of TPE or other job placement centers and realized that the person sitting next to you could be your co-worker, a new connection, or *gasp* your competition for a position. The field gets even smaller when you stick around past entry-level positions. It narrows even further when a mid-level position opens up in your department. The world for me shrunk even further when a close friend and trusted colleague decided to apply for this position. And after much discernment, I decided to apply as well. What does an internal job search look like when your best friend is your “competition,” or your potential supervisor?
Gayle and I had been great colleagues for two years and had really developed our friendship within the past year when the position of Associate Director became available in our department. This was a long-awaited position and had been proposed to the Provost nearly every year for the past decade, so there was a lot of excitement and buzz in the air about the possibilities the position could provide for the department. Both of us had five years of professional experience, wanted to stay in California, and thought we were qualified for the position, so we both applied. This is when it got weird.
Interestingly, it wasn’t weird between the two of us, but it really freaked out our colleagues. I can’t tell you how many co-workers approached both Gayle and I separately and tried to gauge how we felt about our competition. And by “competition,” they meant the person who has served as a trusted confidant and good friend for several years. Gayle and I continually chatted with each other about how bizarre it was that there was an implied threat to each other just because we had applied for the same job. When I said I would be happy if she got the job, I meant it. When she said the same about me, I believed her.
I thought it was extremely interesting the pressure that outside coworkers put on this process just because Gayle and I had a pre-existing relationship. Is it really so hard to believe that we wanted what was best not just for the department, but also for each other? I also couldn’t help but reflect on the gender dynamics at play when two women are “pitted” against each other in a professional setting. Would the same reaction occur if two professionals who identified as men were in the same position? I’m not convinced they would receive the same treatment Gayle and I experienced.
Since this was an internal search on a tight timeline, we skipped any phone or Skype interviews and leap-frogged directly to the on-campus interview. Gayle knew when my interview was and I knew when hers was scheduled. She sent me supportive messages, texts, and emojis and I did the same for her because we were both committed to maintaining our friendship throughout this stressful job search process. We were also able to debrief our individual interview days because she was one of the only people who really knew what I was going through. At the end of the day, having a friend who went through the process served to be more of an asset than a liability.
If you find yourself in this situation- and I believe it is not a matter of if, but when this happens in your career– the level of awkwardness is completely up to you. Be upfront with the person you have a prior relationship with and communicate your fears or concerns about how the job search process may impact your relationship. Get in touch with what is important to you, how you process, and what it will look like if one of you does get the job and responsibilities may shift. Do what you can to nip any outside forces from getting into your head. Understand how identity politics may impact what people expect of how you frame “competition” from other candidates. And most important, it will be as awkward as you make it.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Danny Malave on New Professional Retrospective on the Job Search