'What' Advantage? A Few Reality Checks for Internal Candidates

Full vitae internal candidates

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By Ryan Gibboney

Anyone who has been through the arduous tenure-track hiring process — with its committees, presentations, and daylong interview schedules — knows firsthand how stressful it is. But if you’re an inside candidate, you’re supposed to have an advantage, right?

Not quite. A year ago, I was an internal candidate for a new tenure-track position that replaced a contingent job that I had occupied for several years. When the "permanent" post was created, I eagerly applied and experienced the added intensity of being an inside candidate — something that is affecting more and more academics due to the growing ranks of fixed-term and contingent faculty members who apply for tenure-track openings.

Throughout the search process I learned a few things about being "the insider." Here are my five suggestions for anyone applying for a tenure-track position in a department where they already work on a part-time or contractual basis:

You are not applying for the job you have. You are applying for a new job that just resembles the one you have.

The ad for a tenure-track opening describes a superhuman who will change the trajectory of the department, the college, the university, and the discipline itself. Suddenly everything you have done in the department in the past few years start to look pretty minor in the rearview.

Maybe that is true for all candidates in a search, but it seems especially so for the internal ones. The achievements that made you seem particularly competitive for the job start to fade in the face of an enticing list of outside candidates.

With tenure involved, departments members have different (and sometimes conflicting) wishes for the chosen finalist. Of course you will never meet all their needs in one interview. Instead, be clear about what you will do when you have a chance to spread your wings on the tenure track.

You will have to look outside the department for references. If you were applying elsewhere, your current chair and your colleagues could serve as references. But as an internal candidate, you may not be able to ask for letters of reference or personal recommendations from colleagues you’ve been working with for several years.

I applied for a new position in a small department. My faculty colleagues and mentors in the department were now on the search committee, so I could hardly ask them to write letters of recommendation for me.

I had to revert to references from more than four years ago, when I was a graduate teaching assistant. My previous academic mentors did not necessarily know my current teaching and research agendas well enough to write about them in a compelling way.

You will have to put up walls. The same peers you have leaned on in recent years when things got tough may no longer be there at one of the most stressful professional moments of your life.

When challenged to convince the department of your worthiness, you lose access to the very people from whom you would otherwise seek counsel. You are also trying to revert to professional distance with people who may have become friends, may have fed your dog while you were away, may have helped you celebrate a key milestone.

You must maintain distance, and consider that an imaginary glass wall has come between you and your peers. Put it there for the good of the search.

Avoid appealing to your students for support. Your students’ perspectives about you and about the department are incomplete — and you probably shouldn’t engage to correct them.

In my case, because I taught small classes, I had created powerful mentoring relationships with students. I knew them well and they knew me. For them to see me having to interview for a job — to, in their words, "jump through hoops" to compete for a job I "already had" was stressful. Some became emotional. Others shared their frustration with the administration.

Several students thought the new position meant the department was getting a new professor and visited my office with excitement. I had to explain that I, too, was in the running for the job.

As their mentor, I was left in a difficult place, maintaining greater distance than I otherwise would have at a key time of the semester. I still wonder how that may have affected their learning.

One way or the other, you will need to move on. Internal candidates for a tenure-track job live in professional purgatory. You are in the department, and yet you’re not. To give away the ending: I got the tenure-track job. I prevailed in what people have assured me was a very competitive process, and I am thankful — I wanted very much to be at the college where I applied.

But I also faced reality and took a lesson from it. When I realized that other strong candidates had visited for interviews, I spent the final weeks of the search accepting that the process might not end in my favor.

One thought kept me going: I gave it my all. I did my homework preparing for every meeting, I engaged each student I met, and I made eye contact with each person at my research presentation. I chose active engagement as my method to land the position.

If all of that wasn’t enough, then, I figured, it wasn’t meant to be. I would learn whether what I did was valued at this place, knowing full well that I might find out it wasn’t and that what I did might matter more someplace else. If I didn’t get the tenure-track job, I would move on. And if I did, I decided I would move on in a different way — by taking on a new role on the campus.

The hiring process is full of ups and downs, along with long-term — and sometimes devastating — impacts on you and your family that are mostly out of your control. Ultimately, a national hire is a business decision. With or without you, the institution will move on. And so will you.

Ryan Gibboney is an assistant professor of art and graphic design at Juniata College

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