We’re sorry. Something went wrong.
We are unable to fully display the content of this page.
If you continue to experience issues, contact us at 202-466-1032 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Reader, I failed. Lured by a lifelong desire to live in the UK, I allowed myself to ignore the classic signs of a potential internal hire. I talked with my children and parents about moving across an ocean, tense discussions punctuated by tantrums (from the children) and lectures (from the adults). A week after my own rejection, I saw the successful candidate’s Twitter post. My stomach clenched: an internal hire, again. Over and above the well-known sting of rejection, I felt used. Had the department seriously considered my candidacy, or was I simply there to satisfy the legal requirements of a fair search? Had the internal candidate perhaps attended my job talk? Did I flub the interview? The lack of closure still galls; the wounds left from these searches don’t scab over quite like other types of job-market rejection. Even today, I have the Nebraska hire on Twitter-mute to block painful memories.
Many academics are familiar with the unfortunate role of the external candidate. Everyone has encountered a colleague hissing under their breath about the injustice of losing out to an inside hire. But things are similarly unpleasant for the internal candidate — and for the hiring committee. National academic job searches conducted when a qualified internal candidate exists end up exploiting just about everyone involved.
Consider the internal candidate. This scholar — often a poorly-paid adjunct — suffers the slow-burn torture of having to work daily alongside the very people evaluating their candidacy. They labor under an uncanny sense of Panopticonesque surveillance, second-guessing the most mundane interactions. They spend nearly an entire academic year worrying that anything they do or don’t do, and anything they say or don’t say — at the water-cooler, while vying for a parking spot, while being asked to take on committee work — can and will be held against them in a court of academic appointments.
Simply passing friendly colleagues in the hallways becomes fraught — have they been seduced by someone newer, shinier?
Perhaps this sense of constant performance evaluation compels them to take on extra work to prove how much they can juggle. Perhaps the department chair suggests, implicitly or explicitly, that the next short-term contract might lead to a permanent position. This could be the year, they mutter to themselves as they struggle onward into another semester of precarity.
Should that permanent position ever arise, the internal candidate must then undergo seven months of wondering and waiting as their fate is decided by the people with whom they share buildings, printers, coffee pots, and probably department potlucks. Simply passing friendly colleagues in the hallways becomes fraught — have they decided your work is unworthy? Have they been seduced by someone newer, shinier? Do they know whether or not you’re about to be unemployed?
The double irony here is that the committees that are perhaps most committed to ethical treatment of current employees — those who recognize and value the work of their contingent colleagues — are nonetheless required to conduct a national search in order to do the ethical thing they are attempting: rewarding the labor of a contingent faculty member with a secure job. And, while academics can certainly be toxic, I’d wager that very few of us like to mislead people. These searches have always seemed to me a sort of enforced psychic violence upon the committee members themselves, who, if they are in fact committed to hiring their colleague (and possibly peer and friend), must nonetheless sit through hours of interviews with other stellar candidates. They must look straight into the eyes of these excellent and desperate scholars, all the while knowing that these interviews are little more than a bureaucratic obligation. The sheer waste of this labor is astonishing: hundreds and hundreds of hours spent reviewing applications, smiling warmly through Zoom interviews, and arranging costly campus visits — all so that, assuming the very best motives, the committee can go ahead and hire a colleague whose work they know intimately.
If hiring committees must conduct a full search, they should take steps to reduce wasted labor — applicants’ and their own. Why not ask for the bare minimum of application materials at the outset? A cover letter and CV provide more than enough information for a committee to make initial judgments. (They can always request additional materials from candidates under serious consideration.) Search committees might also include in the job ad language signaling that an internal candidate is a strong contender — something like: “internal applicants will be considered.” The phrase would likely satisfy the human-resources office while giving potential external applicants a heads-up, especially if departments train their graduate students to recognize the connotation of the phrase. Tweaks like these would shield potential applicants from wasted labor, spare internal applicants the agony of uncertainty, and rescue committee members from piles of needless paperwork.
The options I’ve outlined above would be good Band-Aids, but they don’t get at the core of the problem: the simple absence of a unified system of promotion that rewards labor and performance. In fact, it’s worse than that. We have developed a system that offers security and promotion for a lucky few while simultaneously marking others — who do the essentially the same work — ineligible for those rewards. Most other industries offer a range of paths for promotion from within, allowing organizations to retain talent and employees to gain new skills. Granted, not every secretarial job has a path to the position of chief financial officer, but the responsibilities of a secretary and a CFO are different. The duties of a lecturer, however, are nearly identical to those of an assistant professor. Until academe’s hiring practices reflect that basic truth, they will serve none of us well.