my terrible yet charismatic former classmate is interested in my boss’s job — Ask a Manager

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

I realized something when you put out the call for updates that you answered one of my letters about five years ago, and the two letters have a connection point… So buckle up for a long update:

To begin, my most recent letter: I was able to avoid recommending my grad school classmate by stating that I was unfamiliar with her work relevant to my industry or the specifics of the role, so I wouldn’t feel comfortable referring her, effectively skirting the fact that she didn’t have any relevant experience and making it about my familiarity with her specific work. It was obvious to me, knowing the role she has been in since we graduated and knowing my industry that she isn’t qualified, but I didn’t have to bring it up.

Also, I’m about to say a lot of unflattering things about this classmate, so I will preface with this: having made the transition from academia to my industry, it took me a while, as I was applying for roles to feel out the level of experience wanted for the role that translated to my own experience. I knew that I was overqualified for entry level roles, but I didn’t know, for instance senior vs. lead vs. principal vs. director. I definitely applied to roles that, in hindsight, required more experience than I had. So I don’t necessarily think that her applying for a director level role was necessarily deliberately trying to get away with something or doing anything wrong. But I do think that once she realized she didn’t have the relevant experience, rather than admitting it, she would try to make up for what she lacked in charm, which seems to work well for her.

I didn’t mention it in the comments, but by the time your letter published, my old boss had left, thus I was not able to say anything to her about my former classmate’s interest in the role. By that point in time, they were interviewing candidates, and while I was not involved in the interview process, it became very clear that there were many people with a lot of highly relevant experience and industry connections, so I was slightly less worried about classmate getting invited to interview. In the end, I don’t know if she applied or not, but they hired someone with an extensive background in our field, who has been a delight to work with.

I did want to address something that came up quite a bit in the commentariat. There were some people who thought I was overreacting at the idea that my classmate would definitely get hired if she were interviewed. In hindsight, I probably was catastrophizing a little, getting the message from her definitely brought back memories of her charming her way into fellowships and research positions when we were in grad school when there were people who had more experience in the area in question and research experience that was a better fit. I never personally lost out to her on anything, but I had my own run-ins with her (more on that later!), and the idea of working for her was genuinely terrifying. Plus, having watched her behavior in grad school, the idea of her just kind of jumping into a position that I would likely need another decade of experience to be qualified for really brought all of that back up. So, I admit, I was probably overstating the likelihood of her getting the role in my panic about the thought of having to work for her.

That said, I do think that a full dismissal of the concern was also not appropriate—this is a person who is good at charming her way into getting what she wants, I’ve seen it happen multiple times and so I think the idea that it would never happen is also off base.

Overall, I do think your addressing it and some of the commenters support helped to assuage my nerves, even if it was a little too late to directly take your advice.

Now for the fun part: Five years ago, I also wrote you about a problem I was having with a grad school classmate and a freelance job that I had been offered over the summer (#5 at the link). You can probably guess who that classmate was… Honestly, it hadn’t crossed my mind when I wrote my more recent letter that I had written in about her in the past because I was so panicked by the contact, but after the letter ran, I remembered. Obviously, everything in my update to the second letter is kind of an update on this, regarding my relationship with that classmate. But specifically about this scenario, it just kind of fizzled. I did my freelance work over the summer, covered my expenses, and while I don’t think she fully got over it, I think she realized that she could only whine about it so much without people getting a bad impression of her. This was sort of the beginning of the end—before that point, I had considered her a friend, I even referred to her as such in my letter. After that point, I started to notice how literally everything she did was for her own gain. Obviously, in a PhD program, you have to work toward advancing yourself, but the way she went about it was not collegial, and so I spent the rest of my time in the program steering clear of her whenever possible.

Hopefully, the next time I encounter her, it doesn’t warrant a letter to AAM. I’m not trying to present this as a neat little karmic arc or anything, I don’t think my referral or lack thereof was what made the difference with this recent instance, but it amused me when I remembered I had written in about her before.

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