Thursday, August 29, 2013

Job market conspiracy theories

With a couple of weeks before this year's job market kicks into high gear, I thought I'd tackle the bogey-man know as the "inside candidate." If you've spent any time on the academic job wikis, you've seen this come up over and over: "I heard there's an inside candidate for this job. Does anyone know if that's true???"

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?


Anonymous said...

Posting anonymously so as not to reveal confidential information. My department created a t-t position that we really hoped a non-t-t lecturer would get. S/he flubbed the interview, possibly because s/he thought the search was a sham and thus didn't prepare, and the offer went to someone else.

Anonymous said...

Also anon, same reason: very similar situation that also fell apart at the interview, although we didn't tailor the ad to the lecturer.

I know of one upfront example of tailoring an ad to a specific job candidate, at an R1 which had an adjunct who had done a stellar job of building a program from scratch.

Doctor Cleveland said...

I can think of two non-real searches I've known about. Both came from universities botching a faculty member's immigration paperwork, so that the person who actually had the job was forced to compete in a national search to keep it. That is, of course, unfair to other job-seekers, but they're not getting the worst of it.

I've known "inside" candidates who were not viable candidates for the permanent job. (In one case, I think the job ad listed a salary range much, much higher than what the "inside" candidate made, which should have been a hint.) I've known inside candidates that schools badly wanted to retain and couldn't keep. I've seen job ads exquisitely tailored for visitors who went on to more attractive jobs.

Bardiac said...

Good post! My sense is that you're broadly correct; I think successful inside candidates are rarer than some job seekers think.

The exception is that straight married folks, in my experience, get very special treatment in searches. That may be different in other places, though.

EngLitProf said...

My experience and observation converge with yours. Job candidates need to distinguish not only between reliable and unreliable information, but also between useful and useless information. I’ve searched my brain, and I can’t think of a single instance when information about an “inside candidate” has been useful to anyone. (Fortunately, my years on the junior job market preceded the wikis.)

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I've seen two searches where the inside candidate did not get the job. In one case, the school (not my current place) seemed to think it could get the best of both worlds by hiring the outsider and keeping the insider as a lecturer. The lecturer stayed, but I'm not sure if she's still there. It was a majorly awkward situation while I was there, though, and everyone felt bad about it.

The second case was a matter of the outsider being a much, much better performer in the classroom. Both candidates (we only campus interview two) were qualified, obviously. One just had tons more charisma. I miss the insider, though. She was cool.

That latter job ad was a bit suspicious to me, though. There were only 9 applicants, if you can believe that, because the ad was so specific. It turned out that the outside candidate had known my dept. chair for about 10 years, so I am pretty sure that the chair wrote the ad with the charismatic guy in mind.

The moral of the story -- sometimes there's an "inside-outside" candidate.

Anonymous said...

Whenever I applied to jobs, I always went back to see who they hired and a certain number of times, I went back and saw that they hired the person I'd noticed was already listed on their webpage as a VAP or lecturer. So maybe that person knocked the interview out of the park or whatever but it's hard not to feel like you never had a chance.

That probably happened less than 50% of the time but it was more then 0%. I think that contributes the the speculation ahead of time.

Also, can I just say that a non-tt lecturer that you know and who has already done a good job screws up the interview and s/he is out? Entirely? The strength of hir work so far completely sold out by one bad performance?

That's putting a lot of stock by an interview.

Susan said...

Totally meshes with my experience. The one time we had an inside candidate who got the job (a VAP) it was a real search. I'd also echo Fie on the "outside-inside" candidate. And the reason the interview performance matters is legal. We're given lectures on the importance of treating everyone the same way. If we know one person well, we try to put that aside to be fair to the other applicants. The last thing anyone wants is a legal complaint about the search.

Flavia said...

Re: the insider (VAP or lecturer) who gets an interview--meaning, presumably, s/he's a viable candidate whom the department wants to or is open to keeping--but isn't given an offer: I appreciate your all weighing in on this. I think it's hard for there not to be bad feelings on both sides, as all my commenters are suggesting, though I suspect that "having the best of both worlds" isn't generally the motive, even if it's the effect (assuming the "insider" doesn't get a job elsewhere, and that his/her position isn't time-limited).

I know one well-qualified VAP who lost out to an outsider, but got hired that year by a good but less prestigious institution. S/he has dramatically outperformed the person who got the job, though, publishing much more, in more prestigious venues, and becoming a real player in the field as well as (apparently) a great teacher. It can be hard to predict either way--who you'll regret losing or who you'll regret hiring.


One of these days I'll write a post on partner hiring, which I think is more complicated than an ordinary "inside hire" (since some are actually external hires, and since people use the term to describe a whole range of unlike things--sometimes people just mean creating a non-TT job for the partner of a TT hire, rather than hiring into a TT line).

But, basically I agree that inside hires who are spouses or partners are more likely than inside hires who aren't. However, this varies tremendously by institution and by circumstance.

Many people who have been given a non-TT job at the same institution as their TT partner are considered by their department to be uncompetitive for a TT line that might open up. Sometimes this is reasonable and sometimes it's grossly unfair--but an applicant who goes to a department web page and sees a lecturer with the same last name and degree institution (or whatever) as a TT faculty member should not automatically assume that he or she is a strong inside candidate. The same skepticism should apply as for any apparent inside candidate.


Thanks for explaining the legal issues involved. Officially, nothing one knows about a candidate aside from the application materials & interviews can be considered. Unofficially, this is hard, if someone knows the candidate already (whether as a VAP or through a shared grad institution or professional society).

Anonymous said...

Excellent points, Flavia and others, which I'm happy to second. The great majority of academic job searches are real searches, even when there's an internal candidate in the mix. Yes, every search involves factors that an individual candidate doesn't know and can't control, but from this it does not follow that "the fix was in," "it's a crapshoot," or "meritocracy is a myth," all of which you regularly hear on jobseekers' wikis and elsewhere.

The same goes, as far as I've seen, for upper administration searches as well. Our university is currently conducting one of those, and a member of our faculty is in the mix. But the position is by no means "his to lose;" the committee will weigh him against the external candidates as carefully as it can, and his inside status works for him in some ways, against him in others.

And yes, Flavia, when you get a chance, do a post on the doctrine and discipline of spousal hiring.

Cheers, TG

Anonymous said...

I have been burned by 2 of these alleged "searches" where an inside person got the job. One dragged on for months, it was very un-professional. Personally I think this happens quite a bit.

Anonymous said...

It is not only in cases of improperly done immigration paperwork that positions have to be re-advertised for international hires. There is a federal requirement to "test the labor market" after a certain number (I believe 5) of years. The search is meant to be a real search; the occupant of the position has to prove s/he is still the best person for the job. Accordingly, such job ads are often VERY narrowly written. Now, whether the department actually treats the search as real may vary.

Flavia said...

Anon 11.22:

if you were a finalist with a fly-back for both those jobs, I'm very sorry. It's hard to come that close and not make it, regardless of who ends up with the job. But the place that took months to hire someone probably didn't consider the inside candidate a shoo-in, or else it wouldn't have taken so long! Either the department was divided, or they offered it to someone else first (or there was a problem with funding, or something). They may have been unprofessional in their dealings with you, but that and the fact they hired someone internally are (probably) unrelated.

Anon 12.05:

Thanks for this info--not something I knew!

Medievalist said...

Thanks for this. I was cast on the wiki as an inside candidate for a job at a department where I was a VAP; I was interviewed but was not a finalist, and it rankled a bit to hear the folks on the wiki suggesting that I was shutting them out. In my case, my spouse was TT in another department; I think the department that was running the search resented any real or implied pressure from outside to hire me, and my status as the 'inside candidate' was eventually neutral-to-detrimental for my candidacy. Ironically, in that same year I was hired to another TT job where I displaced another unsuccessful internal candidate--the lecturer who had been hired on short notice to fill in for the TT prof who left for another job.

Generally, I've seen at least as many cases where the internal candidate was -not- hired; even when some members of the department are pushing hard for the internal candidate, they may fail to persuade other members, or raise complicated issues around longstanding personal conflicts, previous searches, and institutional politics-- usually no one, even within the department, can say for sure how the search will turn out.

squadratomagico said...

I know of two situations where someone was hired who was the pre-existing target of the committee; and one where the target was *not* hired.

#1: A line had been promised to a program; an adjunct person was hired to fill in before the TT FTE was funded; ultimately, that adjunct was hired when the FTE was funded and advertised. This was a fairly insider-y situation: clearly, the adjunct was always the target. On the other hand, it was a tiny, tiny field and the person was a great fit with the goals of the program.

#2: A position with tenure is opened as a replacement for a retirement. A leading, highly celebrated scholar in the field happens to be married to someone who already works in this same department: they have had a long-distance marriage for some time. The spouse is a great fit for the department, and gives and interview and a talk that are miles beyond the nearest competitor. The spouse, who had been of interest since the beginning, is hired and everyone is elated because it s/he is exactly what the department needs. I was on this committee and I can attest that it was conducted with complete integrity.

#3: Failed case of the target *not* being hired, for a tenured, full position. I was on this committee as well, and was personally appalled at how the search was run. (Indeed, these two cases show how each search and each committee is so different!) The committee head attempted to run this search as a textbook Old-Boys'-Network hire, and I blocked it. I submitted a minority report, disagreeing with the recommendation of the Old Boys on the committee. And I won the vote on this by a wide margin, ending the hire of a much more interesting scholar without the Old Boys cred.

My takeaway largely supports Flavia: the insider cases are mostly for tenured folks, but in both my cases #2 and #3, I believe the "right" candidate was hired. In the end, the larger social regulating mechanisms of the department worked to identify the best candidates, whether they accorded with initial plans (#2) or not (#3).

Anonymous said...

Also going anonymous to protect privacy, etc.

I know of a situation where the VAP assumed ze was an inside candidate and was sorely disappointed when ze did not even get an MLA interview. The reason why ze did not get an interview is because ze didn't really work in the field that was advertised, but was filling in for a retiree who last held the TT line. (And the VAP position was hurriedly requested and filled to fill that gap.) But over time, with some rumination and deliberation, the department decided that their curricular needs had changed and advertised for someone in a related, but slightly different field. (Let me make something up to illustrate. Imagine that the retiree was a British modernist and so was the VAP hired quickly to fill the gap. But then the department realized they neeeded an American modernist, too, but they'd never be granted lines for both. So they searched for -- and found -- someone who did transatlantic modernism. It was something like that.) So I can imagined someone looking at the dept's web site thinking that the dept had an "inside candidate" in the larger field, but I hope that good readers also saw that the ad was looking for someone who did something a little different.

Clearly I'm in English, but my spouse is in a social science. He says he knows of departments who do searches as a matter of course when someone goes up for tenure, and write a search that sounds *exactly* like the tenure candidate. (These would be the departments that you probably DON'T want to work for, no matter how prestigious, unless you're a masochist and prestige is everything to you.) In those cases, unless the candidate is denied, I think you can say it's not a "real" search. Go ahead and apply for it, but don't set your heart on it. I have never heard of such a thing in English, even at the same institutions my spouse mentioned, so this might be done only in his field.

Anonymous said...

More interesting comments & good points. Just an addendum re networks, prompted by squadrato's case #3, above: everybody has a professional network, whether it's populated by boys or girls, old or young. And all search committee members can be expected to draw upon their networks to get extra info about job candidates, at least at the finalist stage if not before. This becomes a problem only when someone assumes that their network trumps other networks, and on that assumption tries to short-circuit the process. This does happen (it's natural even for well-meaning people to over-value the opinions of those we know and trust) but when it does colleagues can intervene, as squadrato did successfully in her case #3. Sure, individuals on the hiring side can be short-sighted, self-interested, and clubby, but departments, not individuals, make hires (with extra layers of oversight from administrators above the dept level) and the group dynamics work against those tendencies more often than not.


Flavia said...

Thanks for all these stories and insights, folks--keep 'em coming!


I really appreciate your story, which illustrates multiple reasons why an inside candidate might not get the job. On average, those inside candidates who are competitive in a national search (a key caveat) are surely helped more than they're hurt by their insideriness, but it's not straightforward. Sometimes knowing a candidate plays into existing faculty members' fears (about how he/she might vote on a future curricular matter; about which of that faculty member's enemies he/she might align with; whatever). And some people are just dissatisfied with any bird in the hand. So yes, it can work against you.

I suspect that the more prestigious an institution is (or thinks it is, or wishes to be), the less likely it is to hire a VAP, lecturer, or adjunct for a TT job.

But your comment raises another issue, which is the way a presumed "inside candidate" gets used as an excuse for one's own failure to advance in the interview process. I wouldn't blame anyone who got a fly-back for a job that wound up going to an inside candidate for feeling that the game was rigged, even though, as the comments here indicate, that's rarely exactly what happened.

But I don't have a lot of patience for people who only got a conference interview--or didn't even get a conference interview--who want to claim that they were done in by the presence of an inside candidate. There was one inside candidate. There were three flybacks and 12-15 conference interviews. What about those other spots?

Flavia said...

Anon 1.36:

Sorry--your comment got caught in the spam filter for some reason.

I think the first scenario is not uncommon; often a pinch-hitter is only generally in the relevant field (say, pre-1800). But hopefully usually all parties understand that someone who's valuable as a sabbatical replacement or as a one-year stopgap isn't necessarily the right fit, in terms of specialty, for the TT line that later opens up.

And actually, I do know two stories rather like your husband's, from humanities fields: one for a job at the associate and another at the full level. One was much like what your husband describes, while the other, bizarrely, involves an ad tailored almost exactly to the expertise of the spouse of a former faculty member--who had left BECAUSE the department had (in a previous year) interviewed and then refused to hire his/her spouse. Since another excellent uni had already hired them both, I'm really not clear what the original department thought it was doing.

Interestingly, the same institution is responsible for both ads. And no, I wouldn't want to work there.

Anonymous said...

There was an inside candidate for MY job (obviously not me) and the institution ended up deciding to hire both of us, partly because they were looking ahead to a retirement that was set to happen a few years down the road so hiring us both eliminated the costs of a future search and partly because converting my colleague to TT from his lecturer position ultimately didn't cost the institution much more money than they were already paying him. Now, did they intend to hire two folks out of that search? No. And if I hadn't done an exceptional job interviewing, I really don't believe that they would have done so. But all of this is to say that even if there is an inside candidate, it doesn't necessarily put other candidates out of the running.

(Going anonymous on this one because it's a weird enough situation that I feel like I shouldn't attach it to my bloggy name)

Susan said...

It occurs to me that we may have made *some* progress. Back 30 years ago what I heard was "I didn't get the job because they had to hire a woman." Maybe we always need conspiracy theories when we're on the job market?

squadratomagico said...

Susan, I was hearing that one 20 years ago, too! Bet it's still out there...

Anonymous said...

I was, in a way, the inside candidate, who ultimately did not get the job. I am American; the job was in Canada. I was "unofficially" offered the job, because the hiring institution realized that had not properly posted the job to satisfy the immigration authorities.

So they posted the job. Found another candidate, a Canadian, and hired her instead.

In other words, just apply for the damn job, no matter how much a sham it may seem, because you never know.

i said...

I've been in the biz shorter than many of you here, but all the cases of VAP as potential "inside candidate" I've seen or know of personally, that person did not get the position. These were often really wonderful people, who deserved the job in every way, and had already contributed to the departments in question. So if anything, the bias was working against them. I have these in my mind every time I see those kinds of comments on a wiki or on the Chronicle... I think it's easier to imagine you didn't get a particular job because the system is rigged than that you just weren't that interesting to that particular committee, or you didn't interview as well, etc. etc.

Flavia said...

Susan & i:

Yes, I think it's psychologically useful to many people to have what seems like a clear-cut "reason" they didn't get the job. (Whether it's good for the profession, though, is another matter. But moving away from the woman theory is at least one kind of progress!)

Anon 2.30:

Thanks for your story--I've heard of other cases like yours (not with an inside candidate, but where a department that listed just a single job wound up loving two of their candidates, who met very different needs, and got approval for the second line). Further proof that as a candidate you really never know what's going on in a given search: what the department's priorities are, what latitude they have, etc.

Anon 12.55:

Amen. Words to live by!

Anonymous said...

I wish this were all true but nobody can deny that sometimes the ad just looks explicitly fake; Wesleyan this year has a French position that's so specifically designed for the VAP that they could hardly make it more obvious. And even if that person "is doing her own search" or "doesn't like them as much as they like her", the fact that they announce a timeline with campus visits in November just cannot give her much choice. With a deadline on Oct. 9th, and campus visits planned in November, does anybody really think this isn't a fake search? How on earth could they: read the hundred of applications, rank them, interview a dozen candidates, and then decide on finalists, in the space of two or three weeks? But I do hope the article is right and that things are more flexible than they look.