Monday, June 25, 2012


Self-Fulfilling Cynicism

This piece in IHE was painful to read.  It’s about being a sacrificial lamb candidate for jobs for which the internal candidate has the inside track.  The author winds up asserting that there’s simply no point in applying for jobs when there’s an internal candidate, since the fix is presumably in.

As a factual matter, the assertion is just false.  Internal candidates often lose.  But I get the emotional appeal of the argument, even as it leads to self-defeating behavior.

As a veteran on both sides of the search committee table, I can attest that anyone who claims the ability to read the mind of a committee is lying.  I’ve had committees that report to me send me lists that left me scratching my head.  And I’ve walked out of committee meetings with my mouth open, wondering just how the discussion veered from candidate A to candidate B.

The core of the essay, aside from a palpable bitterness that seems to stem from a sense of betrayal, is an assumption that there’s a single list of qualifications against which every candidate can be ranked objectively against every other.  If there’s a Great Chain of Being, then either you hire the highest person on the chain that you can, or you’re corrupt.  A or B.

But that’s just not true.  And despite the more conspiratorially minded fulminations of the interwebs, “fit” isn’t just a euphemism for bias.  

Sometimes, the “best” hire is the one whose speciality is the most immediately useful.  Quick, who’s the better historian: an Americanist or a Europeanist?  Out of context, it’s a nonsense question.  But in a department with ample coverage of the U.S. and nothing outside of it, the Europeanist is the more desirable hire.  A math department that fights over the few sections of calculus, and grudgingly teaches basic arithmetic, is probably better off hiring the gifted algebra teacher than the next great theorist of knots.  (Seriously, mathematicians get all excited about knots.  Don’t ask me.)  

Sometimes it comes down to hiring for the future.  If you have a department with a chronic leadership vacuum because nobody ever wants to step up, the candidate with some administrative facility becomes attractive.  “Diversity” hiring may seem offensive when viewed through a purely individualist lens, but if you look at hiring as something like casting, some roles need to be filled.  You wouldn’t hire Meryl Streep to play the action hero, no matter how well she does accents.  

Internal candidates have the advantage, and the curse, of being more fully known.  External candidates come with experience, but without baggage.  Sometimes that amounts to buying a pig in a poke, but sometimes it means getting someone whose talents weren’t entirely welcome in their previous role.  

If you read blogs by adjuncts, you’d think that internal candidates never get hired.  If you read this IHE piece, you’d think external candidates never get hired.  Those can’t both be right, because some people are actually getting hired.

The IHE piece advises candidates not to apply for jobs for which there are internal candidates.  I know bitterness when I see it, but that’s terrible, terrible advice.  I’ve defeated internal candidates personally, and I’ve hired both internal and external candidates at different times.  It can happen.  The better advice, I think, is to focus on what you can actually control.  You don’t control who else applies, and you don’t control what a committee or a hiring manager will think.  You don’t control the market, the economy, or the legislature.  But you do control your own responses.  

The most effective candidates -- both faculty and administrative -- are those who present believable versions of themselves as actual people.  Yes, there’s some element of polishing that goes into an interview -- that’s understood -- but the basic truth of who you are as a professional should come through.  If that turns out to be what the college needs, not only will you get the job, but you’ll have a good chance of being successful in it.  If you get the job under false pretenses -- which is pretty rare in my experience -- you’re setting yourself up to fail.  

And unless you’re a certified superstar, accept the fact that you’re going to collect a staggering amount of rejections.  That sucks, but it’s par for the course.  Rather than retreating into bitterness and conspiracy theories, just take it as how the game is played.  (If that’s too difficult, there’s always the option of leaving the field and playing another game.  I don’t mean to put that lightly, but it’s true.)  I’ve endured my share of rejections, and I’ve had to deliver rejections to some perfectly wonderful people whose only mistake was being in the same pool with someone who fit the college’s needs even better than they did.  But rejecting yourself, and then taking your continued unemployment as evidence that the fix is in, is just self-fulfilling cynicism.

I doubt there are many places where being an insider candidate is a slam-dunk. I just looked over the list of the last dozen tenure-track faculty members hired in my department. It looks like seven had prior in-house experience as adjuncts or subs and five came from outside.
What I find revealing in the cited piece from IHE is the author's assumption that the choice was always simply between himself and one internal candidate. I have chaired and served upon many search committees, and we have pretty much always interviewed multiple (3-4) candidates for a job. After all, FT TT posts don't come along that often, and they represent the single biggest investment in the future that any department makes, so you don't limit things to an either/or choice.

Indeed, this the whole point: hiring is too important for fixed processes to be the norm. We always look for the best candidate, and we always do national (indeed, where I am located in Australia, international) searches. We can't afford not to. And sometime we hire the internal candidate (which we pretty much always have), and sometimes we don't. In the end, it is a matter of the best fit.

I don't dispute that the author of the original article clearly had some bad experiences, but many of them seem to me more the product of rudeness, discourtesy and disorganisation on the part of his hosts, rather than obvious evidence of outright dishonesty.
I agree with you, DD, that piece was pretty sad. While I agree with you that many rejections are forthcoming for almost all academics, sometimes there is a reason to take note of the selections. We had one candidate recently for a position who was, quite simply, a person who was so unpleasant during his interview that we knew before the first day ended that we would not hire him. He has identified for himself, and for us, the many reasons he had not gotten prior jobs, but after our interview, I would guess he got it wrong. It is a shame no one will ever tell him some of the reasons we ditched him was his negative attitude, dismissive and domineering approach to the hosting staff, and his inability to focus on anything beyond himself. Perhaps the IHE author should look at his own performance. If he swaggered in, bloated by his own resume and "clear qualifications that put him head and shoulders above the others," he might have done himself a disservice.
this is a problem everywhere, not just in academics. i've gotten calls for interviews and told the person on the other line that i would be interested in the job, but i want to make sure i have a fair shot, and i'm not there to pad the numbers so HR can justify their hire (the person they wanted all along). i explain that the time off of work, gas money, and everything else in between means i'll lose at least $200 on the interview. most of the time, they'll be honest with you.

now, organizations are getting smart, and are doing one of two things: over-generalizing job postings, or making them overly-specific. if you over-generalize, no one knows what you're looking for (and doesn't know how to tailor their answers/resumes), and you can feed the correct responses to your pre-desired hire. if you make them extremely specific, you can justify the fact that no one else other than your pre-desired hire can qualify.

academics are unique in that anyone with 3 letters after their name are going to get a lot of preference, whether they are worthy or not. the private sector doesn't care too much about that.
I think most of us would be happier if a position was "going" to an internal candidate that it was only posted internally. Don't give the outside world a shot if they don't really have it in the first place. We have the choice to post either internally or externally for almost all positions. What is more interesting is the jobs that are never posted and magically appear filled from inside and the ones that are only posted for a day to satisfy HR regs and then taken down.
Excellent and too true!
"Seriously, mathematicians get all excited about knots. Don’t ask me."

Of course, you'd scoff at someone who said "seriously, literature people get all excited about Joyce. Don't ask me." But of course, you fall in lockstep with the rest of the liberal arts crowd.

You know what? Math doesn't suck, you do.
Yeah, that part was too dismissive to be funny. There is a "their tribe likes those things and it apparently works for them" joke in there, but it fell flat in this case.

jas is right, I just decided not to apply for a job that had such a closely written and specific job ad that I'm pretty sure I know the actual (internal) person it is meant for. Mine is a tight field so I kind of appreciated that they did this so that I'm not wasting my time applying.
Anonymous at 8:02, thanks for the hilarious link. Made my day.

WV: 26 isharsh

No kidding!
It's called "teasing," folks.

Touchy, touchy.
Seriously, Foucault scholars get excited about shitting all over disciplines of which they know nothing. Don't ask me.
I can identify with the IHE author. I had a pretty solid line on 3 good FT/TT jobs in the last 10 years and 2 of them went to inside people. For one, I had an interview at Big Huge Conference and the other was a search that was handled very badly, and eventually went to a lecturer in the department. (I was a finalist for another but it went to a true star in the field who is still there) I truly believe there are many academic searches that are "fixed" in this manner. Hiring someone is a huge, expensive risk. I think most search committees do their jobs very well and I have served on several of them. But some administrators want to minimize that risk and hire the known quantity, even if they are in an outside field (as happened in one of the searches in which I was a finalist). I realize my conclusions are subjective. My only advice is to keep searching and keep up a positive attitude. #CCprof
DD, again, I got what the joke was; it just wasn't a funny version of it.
I do feel for him. His anecdotes about giving presentations with 2 people in the room ring true.

I'm administrative staff now, but when I worked for an academic department, I could always easily tell which candidates had a real shot at a tenure track job, even at my far remove from faculty meetings. The desirable candidates would see their itineraries fill up quickly, their talks would be well-attended, and the most popular faculty members would clamour to take them to dinner.

As for the other folks? It would be quite a burden to fill their days, and we would sometimes have to really work to round up people to talk to these poor candidates. We had presentations packed with grad students more often than I care to remember.

But it was actually rare that the job would go to an internal candidate instead. Maybe this is simply more typical in the author's field...or maybe he comes across, in interviews, as bitter and sarcastic as he is in this piece. Or both.

Anyway, I do agree that we shouldn't have interviewed people who were never going to get the job. A number of times, we would do it because the person had a superstar or respected friend as an advisor or champion. Dr. Smith would be offended if we don't at least offer his star student an interview, and Dr. Smith is a bigshot, so the guy gets an interview. Or we would just happen to interview The World's Best Candidate on Tuesday, then everyone would lose interest in the Thursday candidate, convinced that we were done.

What the author of this piece can't know is who was offered the job *first.* We had great candidates say no to us becuase another school made them an offer, or because of family committments that prevent a big move - in situations like that, an internal candidate might be an easy #2 on the list, because he's already there.
First, knots have gone from abstract to applied math, since knot theory is now used to help characterize protein structure. They should be part of your Liberal Arts education!

Now to the topic at hand, which is yet another example where an article written from an R1 or R2 perspective has no relevance at all from a CC perspective.

When I first read it, I found the authors lack of critical thinking amusingly tragic. My spin on the problem is as follows: The author appears to be a tenured Assoc Prof at a university in the West (odds are in favor of California) applying for a wide range of jobs, from starting Asst Prof to Dean, on the East coast. Since the entire pitch is to "move east", I consider it likely that this person is likely applying at schools from a lower tier than where ze is at now. So is it surprising that they might think they can't afford to hire an Assoc Prof (perhaps with tenure) rather than a newbie PhD for that Asst Prof job? Or that they might look for a Dean who has extensive experience in the region (and probably institution type) where they are hiring? Not at all.

My experience, both as a participant and an observer, is that R1 schools do not treat inside candidates any differently. If anything, getting hired from the inside is usually a true hotshot postdoc. (This is in physics.) An R2 doesn't have any of those, and generally hires from the middling R1 postdoc pool. You tend to get a job at least one step below where you got the PhD.

At my CC, I'd guess that more than half come from outside the college, but most of them were adjuncts at some other CC. I recall one memorable year where we effectively "traded" adjuncts with another CC. We have always benefited from getting new profs who attended different universities or worked in a slightly different college environment. They bring in new ideas.

More importantly, I have seen zero evidence that senior adjuncts have any advantage in the process.
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