Some wiki users have taken to ridiculing these queries; last year, one poster announced a new drinking game that involved doing a shot every time someone invoked the inside candidate theory. But I get where the paranoia comes from. The job market is so bad, and so out of a candidate's control, that it's not unreasonable to worry that everyone else knows something you don't--that there's some edge you ought to have or some secret to how the game is played. And since gossip is a kind of professional currency, rumors are perpetually presented as fact. ("Oh, you didn't know? Cornell has been trying to hire so-and-so for years. That isn't a real job listing; they're just dangling him another offer.")
But speculation about inside candidates isn't just pointless; it's also based on a misunderstanding of how searches work, what departments prioritize, and even what it means to be an inside candidate. So let me tell you what I've seen--and I'd be grateful to any readers who wanted to share their own experiences.
1. First off, yes: sometimes job ads are indeed written with one specific person in mind.
But here's the big caveat: most of the time this happens at the tenured level: a department is trying to recruit one specific, high-profile scholar, usually to advise doctoral students.
2. At the junior level the search is pretty much always a "real search"--even if the department is hoping to be able to hire a specific person.
If the department wants the line, they want the line for real, curricular reasons. Most departments are not so flush with cash that they just dreamed up a line for one specific person--and will cancel the search if she isn't available.
Relatedly, mounting a national search costs thousands of dollars and untold hours of a search committee's time. If they could hire a specific person through some other mechanism (and were sure she'd accept), they would.
3. People who look like inside candidates are not necessarily so. I've seen people on the wikis getting feverish about the presence of a VAP or lecturer in the relevant subfield when that individual is probably not competitive for that particular job in a national search. (Don't hate, I'm just breaking it down: if alllll the TT faculty have degrees from top-20 programs, the lecturer with a degree from the underfunded local uni is probably not someone they requested a line specifically to keep.)
4. A real inside candidate may still not be offered the job: maybe not everyone is equally sold on her, or maybe the department is divided about what sub-specialization it prefers. Or maybe another candidate just blows her out of the water.
5. A real inside candidate is almost certainly mounting her own national search. She may get a better offer. . . or she may not love the department that's trying to keep her as much as it loves her.
6. Finally, if there are far fewer inside candidates than scrutinizing a department's webpage or listening to gossip would have you believe, there are also inside candidates you don't and can't know about. There's no way for an applicant in romance languages to know that the university has made retaining a star faculty member in anthropology a priority--and his spouse is a French scholar. And there are plenty of candidates who aren't "inside" in any meaningful way, but who are for some reason already on the radar screen of the hiring committee and have some degree of advantage.
In almost a decade, I've only seen or heard of ONE junior-level search that "wasn't a real search." (Without going into too much detail, it was an ad for a job that someone was already holding: a catastrophic administrative failure had put an assistant professor's contract renewal in legal jeopardy, and to ensure the line the job had to be listed as if it were open.) In all other cases, even when there's a real inside candidate, the job goes to her much less than 50% of the time. And the department is almost always sincerely committed to finding the best person for the position.
So yes: if you have credible information that there's an inside candidate, it makes sense not to set your heart on a given job. But that's always good advice: even in the best-case scenario, where you're one of three equally talented and appealing candidates to get a flyback, your odds are still just 1 in 3.
Readers: will you back me up--or does your experience diverge from mine?