Home > Academic Job Market > The Media Studies Job Market, 5: “Inside” Hires

The Media Studies Job Market, 5: “Inside” Hires

August 31st, 2010 | Jonathan Gray

Few things seem to get candidates more irate than the suspicion of an “inside hire.” Nobody likes to be invited to a try out for something, then realize the competition was over before it begun. But because inside hire paranoia seems to eat away at so many people’s spleens and kidneys, I thought I’d dedicate a separate post to discussing them.

More after the fold…

Do they happen? Yes. But they don’t happen anywhere nearly as often or unproblematically as some suggest. It is natural to assume that if a department has a tenure-track search, and if they have a non-tenure-track department member who likes the place, that non-tenure-track member will apply. But it’s a very big leap to assume that they’ll get the job (remember, in other words, that Russell Crowe got his Oscar for Gladiator, not The Insider).

Here’s some of the ways that the “inside” candidate may be screwed. First, departments often draw a stark line between their tenure-track faculty and their short-term faculty. This line is institutionalized in many ways. An entire department is needed to hire the former, whereas usually the Chair or a lone faculty member handles the latter. The latter are rarely invited to department meetings or to sit on other committees (not always out of rudeness, but when you’re not paying someone to do service work, it’s not fair to expect them to do any). And the latter change, so it can be hard to keep up, especially for those profs who are somewhat checked out during any given semester. Short-term faculty often come in, teach their classes, then go. The students see them and may love them; the TAs may know and love them too; but they might elude the tenured or tenure-track department as a whole. None of which helps them especially when they’re applying for a job.

If anything, being “inside” in a situation such as the one described above might actively work against one. Faculty might forget the reasons why the inside candidate didn’t attend meetings, and note, “hmmm…I never see him/her around,” and feel the insider was pretty insignificant. They’ve likely only seen the inside hire as a teacher, not as an active researcher, or as someone on “their” side of the tenure-track / short-term line, which may make it hard to now see them that way. Indeed, it’s important to note structurally how someone gets “inside.” An insider is in a non-tenured job applying for a tenure-track job. Sometimes a dept got the former when they asked for a t-t line and got the non-t-t job as consolation; sometimes they simply have a short-term staffing shortage that needs rectifying (my own dept, for instance, uses grad students for many undergrad classes. Some years we have more grads in the system, some less, and when it’s less than we need, we apply for a Visiting Asst. Prof position to cover the remaining courses). In either situation, the dept tends to hire later on in the year, and since it’s not t-t, these two factors combine to provide them a less rich pool of applicants. So, automatically, an insider may not be seen as the best the dept could get, and the dept may be biding its time for the full t-t search. Of the two situations noted above, moreover, when it’s a short-term hire, these are often made quite separately from t-t discussions, and with different criteria (“can this person teach the courses on the books?” is the key consideration for non-t-t work, whereas many places will start to ask “what new things can this person bring to the table, and do we want that?” for a t-t job). Once again, then, a dept may see their non-t-t hire as an apple while they’re focusing on the orange.

An “inside” candidate also likely has a crappy teaching load. They might teach 4-4 while everyone else is 3-3, or 3-3 while everyone else is 2-2. They probably teach large lecture classes. They’re probably recently minted Ph.Ds, or not-yet-minted, no less, and thus they might have less experience teaching, meaning in turn that they’re putting long hard hours into their teaching. All that time might be coming at the expense of research productivity, and thus when one compares them to a tenure-track assistant prof elsewhere, they may compare unfavorably in terms of publications.

Inside hires are publicly despised, and many departments know this. Even if they set out wanting to hire the person in question, they may have second thoughts, and start thinking that what they’re doing is wrong. Importantly, too, as discussed in an earlier post, no search committee is a single-cell organism, and thus in a group of five or so people, chances are that at least one is uncomfortable with it. Chances are higher in the department as a whole. That one person might chip away at the others enough to make the rehire non-viable or awkward.

On the other hand, yes, they have certain advantages. They likely have a much better idea of what’s wanted, not just the two or three buzzwords in the job posting, but a sense of which classes need filling. They may have taught those classes, and in all sorts of other ways they’ll hit the ground running where a new hire will take time to get up to speed. They might not fit the description I give above: they might have good, solid connections; they might attend the occasional meeting; they might otherwise participate in things that let the department see them as a researcher, not just a teacher. And they might be in a program that really values teaching and loves their evaluation scores.

Indeed, sometimes an inside hire is a great one. They might be someone who has utterly proven themselves, to the point that you can’t imagine anything better, or at least to the point that you realize you’d be rolling the dice and risking too much to try and find something better. They may’ve come to the job with great gusto, thrown themselves into the position and done everything possible to justify being kept around. To devalue all of that is silly. Sometimes it makes perfect sense, just as many other professions hire from within.

But why doesn’t the department just tell you? Believe me, I know this anguish. It was hurled at the heavens many evenings when I lost a job to an insider. But they may not know. Going into a situation in which an insider is applying for a job, very few departments know for sure that they will be hiring that person, if for no other reason than they’re aware that the person in question needs to go on the market and hence they might take a different, better job elsewhere. Or if “they” know, “they” might be a small faction of the committee or department, who scheme to get their person in (often a failing strategy, I find, by the way. Nobody on a committee likes being played and maneuvered), and so the department or committee as a whole might not know. Or even if they do all know, they can’t very well tell you, for fear of having hellfire rain down upon them from their Dean. Maybe they are turds, maybe not. Let it go.

If I bring up the issue of the “insider,” though, it’s not just to try and convince you to ease the build-up of bile in your spleen (though I’m sure whole libraries of books could be written with the lifeblood sapped from scholars while raging about inside hires). It’s also to remind you that in a year or two you might be the insider. In that case, you’d better believe your moral judgment of hiring insiders will change. But in that situation, you’d also be wise not to believe the hype that you’re a shoe-in. Go to dept meetings, be seen, be active. And meanwhile apply elsewhere widely, since you might get your Oscar from Gladiator … even if your performance in The Insider was excellent.

(And since we’re talking about conspiracy theories, let me offer my own in closing. When you read someone on the wiki claim that a hire is an inside one, you’d be wise to wonder whether maybe, just maybe, someone’s just trying to redirect your energies elsewhere to make their own chances better. Heck, maybe it’s the insider him or herself?).

Next up, the Open Rank hire, and why ABDs shouldn’t lose hope in applying for such positions.

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  1. August 31st, 2010 at 21:54 | #1

    Calling “shotgun” once again, let me add one additional dismal scenario to Jonathan’s excellent account of the stark realities of the inside hire, one that often favors the outsider:

    Often, especially in more isolated locales, a “long-term insider” is a local – perhaps a grad student who never wanted to leave town, or the spouse/partner of a more established faculty member (maybe even in the same department). And more often than not, such long-time insiders tend to be female, perhaps having sacrificed earlier options for parenting and/or prioritizing spousal careers.

    In these instances, the search committee will be given a choice: provide someone you know, and probably like, an opportunity to earn what they’re worth and be treated as a peer; or add something new to the department without subtracting anything, as the local insider will probably still be available to teach more classes at lower pay. And frequently, the second option is more rationally appealing to the search committee, even when it means disappointing a friend & colleague. In these situations, you need to think like the committee – is it more important to reward years of service and successful teaching, or expand the capacities of your department? It’s a really tough position for the committee to be in – and the administration (lacking that personal connection) may put pressure on taking the more economically expedient option.

    So remember if you’re the lucky outsider coming in to a position, look around to see if there’s a long-term insider who might be still standing by, underpaid and overworked, and think about what you’d do when you’re on the search committee…

  2. September 1st, 2010 at 05:13 | #2

    Honestly, as someone on the market this year (and whose seen first hand all kinds of folks benefit from it), I do not have a problem with inside hires–I’ve always stuck to the belief that, though they may not always conduct themselves well, in the end the department can hire whomever they want.
    But, as Jonathan points out, I wish academics would get together at SCMS, or wherever, and come up with an agreement on some kind of ethical practice for depts to announce that there is a “preferred candidate” in the search. Not that one person has automatically got it, but that they are at a bit of an advantage, and thus its up to everyone else to decide whether its worth their time and money to apply nonetheless, ie, they still feel they are a great fit, but go in with lowered expectations, or just save themselves the stress.
    Then again, sometimes the job descriptions are so ridiculously specific (I’m thinking of a couple in particular last year) that is obvious it was probably an inside hire.
    And, yes, the Wikis are as much about misinformation as information–but they do sometimes nail it.

  3. September 1st, 2010 at 08:26 | #3

    Jason (S., not M.), another way to sniff out an obvious attempt to rig the search is to look at the time between posting and due date — true stitch-ups will sometimes (if university policy allows it, which it sometimes doesn’t) come out on, say, Oct 1, and set an Oct 7 deadline.

    But note that if they’re not doing the above, it’s likely because the insider isn’t entirely guaranteed. I know of a committee where 3 of 5 members had a decisive favorite from the very beginning, and in the end that decisive favorite did not get the job (and not because of meddling from the other 2 committee members, either). I was on one, too, where we all agreed early on who we wanted and the candidate didn’t take the job. (Neither were “insiders” though). So “preference” is relative, and if you’ve ever seen academics try to write a sentence by committee, you’ll know that it can be hard to get academic to agree on anything :-)

  4. September 1st, 2010 at 10:56 | #4

    @Jason Mittell As someone who’d been adjuncting in a department for over a decade and applying for various tenure track and instructor positions along the way, I have to very much agree with Jonathan’s and your assessment. There’s a clear sense of adjuncts being inferior qualitatively and quite a few fallacies of ignorance where the unknown must be better than the known. (Plus all the free milk&buying cows thing :)

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