Our hiring season has concluded: we've made an offer, had it accepted, and are already thinking ahead to our requests for next year. We got lucky: the three candidates we had to campus were almost equally strong and none of them took themselves out of the running. I don't know whether any of them had other offers, but each felt like someone we had every likelihood of being able to hire and someone with every likelihood of being a great colleague.
On the one hand, this is a fantastic feeling. It's great to feel that any one of the finalists could come, could hit the ground running, and really add something to our department. It's also nice--let's face it--to feel that all the candidates took their visit seriously and were sincerely interested in us. On the other hand, having a wealth of strong options means at least mild regrets about what might have been.
I've felt this before about candidates we've lost--there have been plenty of searches where, for one reason or another, I've gotten really invested in some candidate who ultimately took another offer, and sometimes I've even made grumbling comparisons between The One Who Got Away and whoever we eventually hired. (As soon as the hire actually joins us, however, I forget all that. I couldn't even tell you the names of the people whom I fleetingly regarded as Candidates Who Got Away. An actual colleague, working in our department week in and week out, building a research profile and contributing thoughtfully to our curriculum, is always better than some fantasy about someone I never got to see in action.)
But I've never had occasion to feel this about candidates whom we let go. This year, partly because we had such strong candidates, partly because their strengths were so varied, and partly because I was on the search committee, I felt differently. I'm simultaneously thrilled with the person we hired and rather sad about the people we didn't hire. I liked them. I invested a certain amount of energy in imagining them here.
My regret is, of course, nothing compared with the regret of any job candidates who might be reading this, who necessarily invest more energy in the departments that court them than vice-versa. It's hard not to feel let down or even misled when a department has wooed you hard only to choose someone else in the end. But when all the choices are good ones, the deciding factor is often about "fit." (Or it's about something almost entirely arbitrary: a slightly better teaching demo, a publication in a slightly better journal, a tangent in the job talk that really floated one particular faculty member's boat.)
I don't know if it helps to know that hiring departments get emotionally invested in their job candidates, including the ones they don't hire and may never meet again. But for what it's worth, many of us do.