The Inside Can(didate)

The MLA JIL just published its first round of job ads, so it’s more or less officially job season for people seeking to be professors of English Literature. I’ve watched and thought about the job market for more than a decade of my life — and I know I’m not the only person who has, so I don’t say this to sound like I’m special. My view is a relatively long one and one that entails detached observation, not-detached, personal experience applying for jobs in the post ’08 market, and experience working in a department long enough to have been involved in a job search in it. I’m not a spring chicken, but nor am I, like so many faculty with my rank, immune from the forces that have made the job market shittier than it used to be when I first got my job.

I don’t like academic advice articles. They usually fill me with rage that probably isn’t warranted and definitely isn’t productive in a good way. I understand the unavoidability of useless rage and I understand the feelings of indignation and impotence that fuel useless rage. So, while I can say “don’t put too much stock in anybody’s advice” (because people pretend to speak to academia broadly but don’t know what’s what at your institution or what’s relevant for your career), it would be hypocritical of me to say “don’t get uselessly enraged by things related to the academic job market!” People usually do, despite their own good intentions not to. I am one of those people.

All of that said, if there is anything not to be needlessly enraged about, it is the prospect of the “inside” candidate. Every year somebody starts fueling rumors that a job ad isn’t real, that a department has already chosen their new colleague before an ad got posted, and that the search is a sham.

It is odd to me why this particular narrative is so worth articulating on the wiki and on twitter and probably other places too. But it seems to genuinely make some people feel better to announce there’s an inside candidate and that it’s a “fake” search.

I’m not sure what people are to take from that commentary other than “Do you see this whole enterprise is fucked and we’re all fucked?” Which in and of itself may be a satisfying thing to say and it feels true a lot of the time even if you, as I do, already have a tenure-track job. Aside from that, inside candidates also seem to be a thing that represents peak-injustice in the market: somebody else is getting undue priority in the discussions of the committee and other job-seekers’ time and labor are being disrespected.

on the Wiki in my field right now…

What does a person mean when they announce the obviously-an-inside candidate declaration? Don’t bother applying? On the wiki for my field right now, somebody is positing that a search is fake but that people should go ahead and apply to “make it hard for them,” the search committee, that is. This kind of comment seems to be uttered in defiance, with a desire to punish a group of people for their sins, but the form of punishment recommended actually entails convincing the same people that you want to work with them. It seems like an odd way of stickin’ it to the imaginary search committee. The comments on the wiki also suggest that having a full applicant pool will possibly help alert somebody outside the department, administrators of some sort, that real people are applying for this job in addition to the golden inside candidate and this way they can expose the bad faith. Somebody else commented that the admin surely knows the whole search is bad faith; the department wouldn’t be able to run a search that the admin didn’t already have a hand in. Then somebody else stepped in right after this moment and tried to stop the speculation, essentially calling it nonsense.

This very pattern of comments happened last year and the year before; it’s a yearly-basis kind of conversation. It suggests to me that many people do not get hysterical about the possibility of an inside candidate, and perhaps that only a few people do…but those few who do somehow feel equipped to say with certainty that they know a fix is in. And while those few may be speaking from experience in a department job search from the committee side, most of the time I get the impression they have no idea what they’re talking about.

I can only speak to my post-college institutional experiences (3 universities including the one where I work and the two I attended for graduate school), so it’s a small sample size. But here are two facets of my experience that may be of interest to anybody who might be worrying about inside candidates. The first one is that when I interviewed on campus for my job, I was pretty certain that I was involved in a sham search, that I had been chosen because I made the search look like a real one, but I was not going to get this job in the end. I didn’t think this because I was certain that there was an inside candidate; I didn’t really care if there was. Mostly I felt like I was not a real candidate because, while my visit went fine, I felt like I wasn’t treated particularly well. I wasn’t given an itinerary, or told how long my talk should be; I wasn’t given breakfast, though picked up in the morning, and at one point, I was left in the chair’s office for a fair amount of time by myself (without being told when somebody would return).

I left thinking I’d take the job if offered, but also that it would not be offered. It was, though. I may have been the sham candidate and ended up impressing them; or I may have just been paranoid, as all job candidates are (useless rage and paranoia are the hallmarks of unavoidable feelings academics have I guess). Or more likely, I wasn’t everybody’s first choice but the votes went my way at some point. Inside candidate or outside candidate, there’s a vote and the outcome is probably not any more predetermined than any vote. Committee members fight and compromise, and there’s not a uniform trajectory for either of those activities.

The second thing I will say, captain obvious here, is that there’s sometimes an inside candidate. But I’m not sure we all know what we mean by that phrase. I’ve had a friend here and there on search committees for jobs I’ve applied for before, but I didn’t consider myself an inside candidate — and, whether I was or not, I didn’t get those jobs. Having a single person who has been nice to you at conferences may give you an edge over other candidates at some point, but committees are not comprised of one person. Anyway, my department had what was probably a clearer case of an inside candidate in a search we tried to run a few years ago. This person had worked in the department for over a decade but did so on contingent contracts. Let me pause for a second here and say that Job seekers seem to get very angry at the idea of an inside candidate; they also get mad that search committees seem to not value their status as adjuncts or VAPs. Being mad about both of those things is in many ways understandable, but it’s also basically true that the search committee who does the right thing vis a vis the latter is going offend for the former and vice versa. In our case, at least, some members of the search committee and the personnel committee who voted in the search were trying very hard to value the work of somebody who was working in the department but not as a tenure-track member. But to say that they valued it over all other things is probably not true; and to say that all members shared this effort to value a contingent person’s work is definitely not true.

Votes for job searches in my department start with a search committee, a small group, and then end with a larger personnel committee vote. Only people who have attended all job search events/talks can vote. This further disperses the kind of uniformity of opinion that “Insider-Gaters” seem to imagine, since the most devoted advocates for one person must still attend the other candidates’ talks and make a compelling case for their choices after putting in the time for each one. Even though our vote did end up favoring the “inside” person after many meetings, it was not a unanimous vote by any stretch and even people who might have known how they’d vote early on could not alone determine the outcome of the vote. While everybody is working towards getting the best person, there is rarely agreement on any committee of what the “best” of anything is. Nobody even agrees on the best book, after all; why would we all have the same perceptions of what the best candidate is for a job?

But then things are even more complicated than this. After our hire had been approved at at least 2 administrative levels outside the department, the top admin pulled the search and cited budgetary reasons. This cancelation happened after the dean approval stage and therefore after we had made our offer to the candidate. If this had not been an “inside candidate,” we would have possibly gotten an “outside” person to move to a very expensive city only to tell them we had no job for them. At least when we broke the news to our “inside” candidate this person had already lived and worked here for more than a decade, and had known their previous job with us wasn’t permanent.

There’s also some debate as to whether the admin would have cut our line had we not voted to hire our inside candidate, which may seem to support the wiki commenter’s theory that the admin intervened to stop the shenanigans. From what I hear, somebody on the committee was told by somebody in administration that our search was compromised because of the person we voted to hire. But none of that was relayed in writing. Moreover, there’s absolutely no concrete evidence that a) the personnel committee members did anything wrong in tabulating votes for candidates, nor that b) the hire would have been approved had the vote favored somebody else. Our department does not know this with certainty, so somebody on a wiki who has never been on a search committee can not know this with certainty. The budget would have been a problem either way, and anything more is speculation without evidence — if our search truly was compromised, the administration had no proof, and because we were not provided with a formal response beyond notification of a hiring freeze, we have no proof that anybody in the administration had any specific problems with our choice.

It’s true enough to imagine that no university president wants to have a job search that defies equal opportunity laws, but there wasn’t anything in the department’s search that went against those laws. And it was no more biased towards the “insider” than any other search where people’s professional values — ivy degree, published in x journal, student of y scholar or z school of thought, amount of teaching experience — inform their choices. It’s also worth noting that many people who have themselves been “inside” candidates have talked about how difficult it is to be that person, how there’s everything to lose in every interaction at the copier or in meetings, how they can never say no to anything because they are interviewing for the job they have temporarily every single day.

Significantly, my department’s narratives are not uniform about what happened with that search — different members of the committee will explain its unraveling in different ways. They will also offer different reasons for voting against hiring in the following year, when the admin apparently offered us a line if we were willing to run a search starting in March (with a hire date in April). That would have been a real search, but the timeline, set externally, would have made it a sham for some members of the department, so the personnel committee declined the opportunity to fill a line. And then worried we’d never be able to replace lines again.

After about 7 years without hiring anybody, the admin eventually allowed us to run a new search, but only if we combined two needs into a single position and searched for what no doubt sounded like a magical unicorn in our ad. When I saw a wiki commenter suggest the admin would have been “in on the fix” in a sham search, my first thought was “yes, but not in the direct way this person seems to think.” The admin is trying to get diverse classes covered without hiring more than one person. That feels like a fix when you have two very distinct fields to address and one single tenure track line. But is it a faux ad and a fake search? No, it is not. We hired somebody at the end of that search and it is indeed a real job. Well, really it’s two jobs and this single person we hired has a lot to do.

Of course there are some fucked up things about the academic job market — namely that there aren’t enough full-time lines granted to do the teaching that departments need. But it’s not really the crazy wild west where faculty can name a person they want and hire that person. There are way too many people involved, and none of them are crazy enough to believe that any one candidate would be perfect. Administrators are acting more or less rationally here — doing actions like approving the line, the ad, and the committee’s choice while adhering to a budget — and the department members are acting that way too — voting on what kind of person the line will be for, drafting an ad, getting the ad through department reviews. But very few people in these broad categories are working together in a concerted or coordinated effort towards the same goal. The department search committee is as close as it gets to people aiming for a specific resolution, hiring a good colleague who can teach specific courses, but again, at least in my department, these committee members have pretty distinct opinions and perspectives and desires. They don’t act with a single mind even in cases where I personally feel it would save time and be much less irritating if they did.

Does it suck to find out you applied for a job that you didn’t have a chance of getting? Sure it does. But I believe that one’s chances for faculty jobs are rarely ruined simply or only because there’s an insider applying. There are so many parts of the process and no single voice or desire can win out without a lot of other things happening from other directions. And there are many ways for people to discriminate in a way that’s more or less undetectable even when there’s no inside candidate. Sometimes it’s hard to even say a certain kind of unfairness is really all that unfair — I possibly didn’t get a lot of Assistant Prof jobs I applied for because I was an Associate Professor already. Is worrying about this prospect different from worrying there’s an inside candidate? In some ways, probably not. My suspicions were occasionally confirmed in relative terms: a person on one committee saw me at a conference and told me later they had agreed their obligation was to newer PhDs. But that doesn’t mean that all committees rejected me on the same grounds, or even that this person’s committee really “agreed” immediately. Probably some people agreed and others didn’t but the vote was based on other things. Who knows? It’s Roshomon to unravel it all.

Even having voted to hire somebody who had been in the department for while, I’d still say that the problem is that there are too few full time jobs, not that there are too many applicants with an inside track. I’d also say the real question to ask is not whether a search is real, but rather, how much time and energy you want to spend assuming a committee’s against you from the start. If you enjoy or are made miserable by the idea that some group of people you don’t know are mocking your earnest existence and taking you for a fool, you might want to think about why you’re imagining this scenario at all. I’ve been rejected for jobs all over the place, so I’m no expert on getting one, but I think a place of suspicion and hostility is probably the worst place from which to begin a job application for a job you really want.

If there’s real evidence to convince you the committee won’t pick you, don’t waste your time. But the person who’s trying to convince you there’s an inside candidate is also wasting your time, whether he/she/they mean(s) to or not. In insisting the game is rigged, they may sound like they’re on “your side” against some awful “them,” but they aren’t really giving you personally any more consideration than the most biased committee would. Like all academic advice, and like this post, it’s just what some dummy thinks! You can decide for yourself which dummies are offering information that you can actually use.

Don’t get me wrong here…Skepticism, cynicism, and realism are admirable and necessary in this process, up to a point. And they will come to be standard responses to things when you hold a position for long enough. But if you have not yet had a job as a faculty member, and those suspicions are all you can muster in the face of one ad, don’t apply for it. If it’s how you think about many or all of the ads you see, that’s a sign it’s possibly time to stop applying for faculty jobs altogether.