What Inside Candidates Persist in Doing Wrong

Today’s post looks directly at the question of the inside candidate.

It goes without saying that most people on the job market fiercely resent the inside candidate, assuming that he or she has endless advantages over external applicants.

I am here to say that in my experience, this is not true. Indeed, I have more often seen the opposite. I see insider candidates NOT getting the job more often than not, and then being subjected to particularly dreadful, awkward, painful interactions with the department for months or years as they continue on in a temporary or adjunct contract while the tenure track search and hire proceeds in front of them.

The reason that insider candidates tend to do poorly, in my observation, is that they misunderstand the difference between an adjunct and a tenure track search.

Adjunct hiring is often decided based on personal relationships, but tenure track hiring almost never is. Tenure track hiring is absolutely cutthroat, and is dominated by an ethos of “desire for the unattainable.” This means that the unknown, who promises seemingly limitless possibility for achievement and contribution, will almost always prevail over the known.

The only way that the known can compete with the unknown is to present themselves IDENTICALLY to the unknown candidates. That is, by submitting materials that make little or no reference to pre-existing relationships in the department,and articulate a scholarly profile completely independent of the department.

I have had three insider candidates come through the doors of The Professor Is In this fall, and all three made the identical mistake—they wrote letter drafts that were entirely relationship-based. The letters were hyper-emotional, mind-bogglingly pandering, and depended on a completely unprofessional second person pronoun (you). The word that I found myself thinking, as I read them, was “smarmy.”

It goes without saying, smarmy does not get tenure track jobs.

Here are some examples of this kind of writing (these are made-up examples inspired by actual letters, but with details changed)

“It has been an enormous pleasure and privilege to teach at your department and I would be honored to continue on in a permanent capacity.”

“I have been deeply impressed by your commitment to student mentoring and have striven to improve my own mentoring skills during my past year here.”

“As you know, my course on Whitman was very popular! I of course benefited from the Whitman resources that we are fortunate to have at our library.”

“I was honored to be given the duty of directing our Undergraduate Major Association and in that capacity I organized pizza and movie nights, which our students told me were the highlight of the semester.”

I’ll be blunt. It is hard for me overstate my distaste for verbiage such as this. Really, people. Have some dignity. Some self-respect.

It is not coincidental that all of these clients were women.

Women are particularly prone to this kind of relationship-talk, and to assuming that their “niceness,” teaching, and service efforts will win friends and influence people.

What niceness, teaching and service do, for an adjunct, is ensure that you are a perpetual adjunct.

The tenure-track candidate, by contrast, sells herself on her profile as a scholar. Even at a teaching-oriented school, the tenure-track hire is a scholarly hire—that scholar will simply spend relatively more time teaching.

And scholarship is not warm and fuzzy. Scholarship is rigorous. It is done at a high level of expertise, and it is, by its very nature, not easily accessible to people outside the field. The proper ethos of a scholar applying for a tenure track job will always rest on an aura of expertise that is NOT “nice” but maintains a certain professional distance and dignity. That does not mean behaving like an entitled asshole. It does mean remembering that they want you for what they DON’T see, but respect nevertheless, which is your expertise and authority in the field, or your particular niche in the field.

In short, the tenure track search is about making THEM want YOU. If you pander to them, cater to them, overtly appeal to them, and try to play off of pre-existing personal relationships and your ethos of “giving” to the department, you are defining yourself as, fundamentally, NOT TENURE TRACK MATERIAL.

I won’t say men never do this, but if there was ever a pitfall that women are particularly prone to, this is it.

So, insider candidates: everything that I write in my posts about how to write a cover letter, and a teaching statement, and tailor a letter, and articulate a second project (this one in particular!!!), and how to handle an interview, and not act like a grad student, etc., you must do in spades. Your professional identity must be infallible.

In short, boiled down to its core, the message to the inside candidate for the tenure track job search is: play hard to get.

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What Inside Candidates Persist in Doing Wrong — 24 Comments

  1. I’m curious about how this might play for postdocs rather than adjuncts. I can imagine concerns about whether the former postdoc will be independent of their current mentors. In general it seems harder to downplay some of the connections when presenting yourself as a scholar (e.g. you can’t just leave off their names from relevant research projects). How would you advise an “insider” candidate applying to a department where they have a history (or are currently) a research postdoc to present themselves? For example this is my situation: I am faculty but on the market and a great position was recently advertised where I previously did a postdoc (just under 3 years ago). I still work with some of the people there (although I have my own research program) and am attracted to the place in part because it would bring me back to a strong community of collaborators (former mentors but others as well). Do I downplay or highlight those connections, or some mix of this?

    • Focus entirely on the research and scholarly collaborations. You may also briefly, in the teaching or final tailoring para, mention your familiarity with the student body. Keep it at the level of substantive research and teaching qualifications, with no playing on relationships or emotions.

  2. Thanks for this post! It was quite timely as I am currently an insider that has been shortlisted for a position. This was great advice and also helped to put my mind at ease. I currently have other opportunities available so when the phone interview was offered I did not feel the pressure many others may feel to pander to the department. However, it is good to know that my keeping a very purposeful distance from the department while adjuncting may have been a good move. Over the past year, I avoided all departmental social settings, student gatherings, and any situation where I could be perceived as the perfect “lifer” adjunct. In a sense, I did nothing above and beyond my teaching duties and instead focused all my extra attention on my own research agenda.

    Additionally, thanks to your blog I have quit talking like a graduate student (I graduated in May)! In my first phone interview post finding your advice–I took a no excuses approach to my work, my skills, my desired career path, and my research trajectory. I have to say it felt pretty good in the interview–but only time will tell if I will make it into the top round of interviews at the university. Thanks for all of the advice–and please keep it coming!

    • MJK, I am glad this was helpful.

      Now, I don’t want readers to take this too far in certain directions, however. This post was limited entirely to the issues of written documents. In terms of social interactions, chart a path between excessive neediness and over-involvement, and total distance. It is not ideal to skip ALL social events in a department, when you are an adjunct, and there is a chance for a tenure track line. Tenure track hiring does include the amorphous idea of “collegiality,” and you will need to show that you will be pleasant to talk to, and a dynamic and productive contributor in faculty meetings, aware of tension points among the faculty, etc.

      I realize this is a delicate dance that I am advocating, and indeed, the status of inside candidate is a very delicate position indeed.

  3. I was a temporary lecturer (equivalent, I think, to adjunct) and I agree with Karen: niceness doesn’t pay. I even went through the experience of not being short-listed, and seeing candidates with lower qualifications than mine in the short-list. With hindsight, I now realise that I missed all the chances to promote myself, and lost all the novelty value I had at the beginning.
    What I should have done (and this is my advice to all adjuncts/temporary academics) is to try to create a “buzz” around my research. From the very first day in your adjunct job, try to suss out who matters most in hiring decisions, and promote your research to them. Convince them that you have the potential to publish in respected outlets. Take advantage of your inside position to promote yourself with all senior staff, and especially with all colleagues in your field of expertise.

  4. Ugh. This post sums up my recent experience being the “inside candidate” for a position where I just found out that I did not get the job. While I was fortunate enough to receive great advice from my mentors regarding how to prepare my application materials and for my on-campus interview, my mentors also warned me about the perils of being the “known quantity” in a department and how that can work against you. As you say, the tendency is to dream about what another individual can bring to the program that no one has been able to do before (including the VAP or Postdoc).

    As a postdoc at a SLAC I worked hard to distinguish my research. I was able to add the requisite lines to my CV, developed a new research project and published on it/received grants for it, had lots of buzz concerning my research on the campus, developed new courses for the department, and contributed to college programs . Unfortunately, where I believe I could not compete was with the teaching element of my profile–as a research postdoc and only a year out of my degree I have a limited teaching portfolio. All of the other candidates brought in for an interview were already tenure track assistant professors and my competition already successfully demonstrated the ability to balance a rigorous research program with extensive teaching commitments. Many of my current colleagues have reached out to let me know that it was a very close decision and that they admire my accomplishments and will do anything to help me in the future.

    Yet the thought of returning for the semester to finish out my teaching and research is a little daunting especially since I have to work closely with a senior member of the department who called me “the minority candidate who is also smart to boot.” (Something tells me I didn’t get that vote…) I am thankful I have another offer for a job, so at least my mentors’ advice concerning my applications have paid off, just not for the job that I thought I had the best chance at.

    • PK—an illuminating tale. It shows that having an impeccable academic profile won’t necessarily solve the insider candidate conundrum. But it also shows that the impeccable academic profile may well get you other offers–where you’re an external candidate (potentially displacing some other poor insider!).

  5. I am currently an inside candidate (read, from the department) for a postdoc position at an R1. Would you still advise a candidate to use office letterhead? It seems that this just SCREAMS insider candidate. Also, should I mail my dossier (like outside candidates), or should I just walk my materials 30 feet down the hall? Your thoughts?

  6. Out of curiosity, what are your feelings on letters of recommendation from people in the department that are not on the committee. Is this pandering or appropriate?

  7. Do you think there is a way of mentioning that you are an insider, say a past adjunct, not expecting to bank on relationships but just to remind the committee that you previously taught there, that doesn’t do all these things you recommend not to do?

    • There is no good way to do this, except perhaps to describe one of THEIR classes as one of the example classes you mention in your teaching para.

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  11. What this article fails to point out is that many people with very good skills never get to the stage where they are in a position to apply for tenure track. After many years of being passed over for post-doctoral positions and adjunct positions in favour of insider candidates, they simply give up and leave academia.

  12. If you are an insider, how should you address your letter? It seems odd to use a first name (unprofessional) but using the search chair’s title when you are on a first name basis and work in the office across the hall also seems awkward.

  13. THIS, this 1000x. I have been on several search committees (t-t faculty lines, one Dean, and one Provost) and the packages (particularly the letters) have been so embarrassingly presumptuous from the “insider” candidates that they actually sink their own package. Cover letters are filled with statements like “I know you are familiar with my abilities so I won’t detail them here”, “You know my commitment to our students/institution”, etc., just come across so badly, and these folks are generally likable colleagues! But what really sinks them is having most or all of their reference letters come from folks at our institution. What that screams is that no one knows them outside of the institution, which is not good for t-t jobs nor administrative folks. We are all under a lot of pressure to raise the profile of the institution through our own national and international reputations. Insider candidates underestimate the advantage that outside candidates have in this specific point, especially if insiders have spent most of their time and energy within the institution. So my advice to insider adjuncts would be to get your butt to your professional society conferences and present there, organize sessions, get on some committees, and work on building your research collaborations with folks at other institutions. Build a list of folks outside of your institution who can write letters for you.

    “Adjunct hiring is often based on personal relationships…” YES. Especially at my institution. We are the major employer in an extremely rural place, and so we have a lot of “trailing spouses” (usually women) who are put into adjunct positions… which become permanent when they commit the errors you mention and I describe above (don’t build an outside reputation, all letters from within our institution, etc.). It is awkward and painful for everyone, because not only do we continue to work with the inside candidate (adjunct) who may make it to the interview stage but gets smoked by the outside candidates in the research talk, we also have to continue to work with their spouse.

  14. As somebody who just got a tenure track position as an “inside” candidate, I find your blog post to be pretty funny because it’s an accurate description what I did. I just didn’t want things to be awkward if I didn’t get it and ended up continuing in my old position. Consequently, I wrote up my application as if I was applying somewhere where I didn’t already work, and tried not to act too enthused on the few occasions when I discussed my application with somebody inside the department. Additionally, I also got involved in some departmental service activities that needed to be done and which were fairly visible, and I think that helped to get my name out to faculty members in the department who didn’t otherwise know me very well. I think that was time better spent than trying to directly talk to people about my application.

  15. I really started to think this article was credible until I came across such an alarmingly sexist statement about ‘women’ that I decided to read no further…

    “Women are particularly prone to this kind of relationship-talk, and to assuming that their “niceness,” teaching, and service efforts will win friends and influence people.”

    Is it me or this that just jaw-dropping in its outright sexism, as if ALL women of all kinds, from all cultures, of all ages, and sexual orientations are ‘prone’ to the ‘this kind of relationship talk’. Really?

    • That was absolutely my take-away as well. None of the verbiage quoted struck me as particularly “distasteful” so much as not the author’s cup of tea. I can respect that. However, the entire tangent about women being “particularly prone” to “relationship talk” comes off as just plain gross. I stopped reading. It genuinely calls into question the author’s judgment and attitudes especially as she she claims a level of universality to her impressions. I would tend to think (hope) that most academic departments do not view professionalism in such gendered terms.

      • You go on hoping, but in the meantime your performative male “feminism” allows gender systems from which you benefit to remain intact.

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