You May Not Be the Inside Candidate

But you can still be the top choice for the job, argues Kay Kimball Gruder, who offers advice for how to increase your odds.

September 16, 2019

“Why should I even bother going on the interview? I know that one of the other finalists already works there!” exclaimed my advisee.

While it is easy to get stuck on all the challenges of competing with an internal candidate and to feel that the interview will be an exercise in futility, consider employing a number of strategies to position yourself as a competitive external candidate. Instead of deciding that the internal candidate already has the job, take time to focus on what you can distinctly contribute as the external candidate. In addition, give thought to what the internal candidate possesses that you don’t, and take action steps where possible to strengthen your interviewing in those areas.

An Internal Candidate’s Potential Edge

The internal candidate has insider knowledge. A primary challenge when competing with an internal candidate is that the individual has insider knowledge. An external candidate will often learn about an organization by reviewing the department and institution’s website content. That is a first step in gaining information about history, key leadership and even strategic goals, but it only scratches the surface. With an internal candidate as your competition, you will want to conduct research through at least the period of time that the candidate has been at the institution. In other words, do your homework. Apply the research skills that you have been using all along in the pursuit of your degree.

Consider searching news articles to learn about key happenings and doing internet searches by using phrases like “(Name of Institution) Strategic Plan 2015” or (Name of Institution) College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Academic Plan 2016.” Sometimes the web pages of the president’s office or Board of Trustees also provide additional insight. Searching publications that focus on higher education issues and concerns, such as Inside Higher Ed, can help you acquire further information about campus changes, controversial happenings, new developments and ongoing challenges.

By conducting significant research, an outside candidate can attain a comprehensive understanding of what has occurred at an institution. I am not suggesting that this is the same as having worked within a particular college or university and having acquired information firsthand, but being an internal candidate does not guarantee the scope of what one knows, either. At a large public university, an inside candidate might have limited knowledge of happenings across the institution, while at a small private college, an internal candidate might be more aware of them.

No matter the competition, going into the interview with cognizance of key times of transition, strategic plans, challenges faced and so on will increase your overall understanding of what some of the people you encounter have experienced or are currently experiencing in their work environment. Maybe the institution or the department received a huge endowment a few years ago, which funded a new curriculum initiative. Knowledge of such things can inform your conversations. When people have to explain less, and you can reference more, you will seem like less of an outsider.

The internal candidate has friends and colleagues in the department. Knowing the internal candidate has established friends and colleagues at the institution can be daunting. In the case of my advisee, she knew someone in another department at the institution. Her actionable item was to share what she learned in researching the institution and to ask her contact if there was other information that would be valuable to know. She also planned to ask her contact if they knew anyone on the search committee or in the department to see if additional insight could be gathered. This is one example of what effectively engaging with your network looks like.

As an external candidate you can -- and must -- demonstrate how well you connect with other people. That means relating well with everyone you meet during your campus interviews, from the administrative assistant to the dean. If that is not something you naturally do well, you can practice asking questions that invite others to talk about themselves and their work. Often, when someone has had a chance to share their story, they will identify the person they’ve chatted with as approachable and a good conversationalist. By effectively connecting with people during your interviews, the hiring committee and everyone you encounter will feel like you are a natural fit.

The internal candidate is a known quantity. The internal candidate’s accomplishments are already known, and this means that, as the external candidate, you must explain the full extent of yours. This is not a time to gloss over a publication or a grant received, or to get lost in the “we” of your research. Take time during your interview preparation to get very clear on all of your accomplishments. Speak about impact, results, outcomes and novel approaches. The key is to consistently show your value and capacity to strengthen the department in the ways it seeks to develop and enhance its offerings.

If you are not naturally comfortable talking about your accomplishments, you need to get comfortable, because no one else will voice them but you! Many people practice talking about themselves inside their head, and while that is a starting point to increase one’s degree of comfort, it is only part of a successful approach. The other component is to talk aloud and to hear yourself say all those amazing things about you. When you can do that in front of a group of people, you are on your way to being able to convey your value.

In addition, read the entire job posting, reflecting on what the hiring committee seems to seek. Then, during the interview, talk about your accomplishments in ways that demonstrate how you possess all the skills, knowledge, experience and training to do the job well. Also, listen to the needs that those interviewing you express and think back to the strategic plans you researched during the preparation for your visit. Be sure to share and incorporate examples of what you bring to the institution, department or role that provides added value.

Your No. 1 Competitive Advantage

Your biggest advantage is that you are the external candidate and are interviewing because the hiring committee already values aspects of what you offer. Perhaps you are from a more prestigious institution and the university to which you are applying is interested in your training and academic network. You might be the link to new academic or industry research collaborations. Maybe your line of research is compelling because it relates to a curriculum initiative and the internal candidate is only able to offer what already exists, but you can teach a new course or help build a new major. Perhaps you use a piece of technology that was just acquired by the department or know how to complete complex analyses, and the department seeks your expertise.

Some of your competitive advantages might be apparent to you when you read the job description, other advantages might become clear when you do your interview preparation research and still others might emerge when you speak with people during the interview. Start your list of competitive advantages now, add to it during your campus visit and communicate those strengths throughout the process. While on the surface it might seem like the internal candidate is always the candidate of choice, you as the external candidate might actually be the top choice.


Kay Kimball Gruder is assistant director of graduate student career programs and services at the University of Connecticut and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


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