If you’ve ever looked at the ecoevojobs.net faculty jobs board, you’ve probably seen speculation that position X has an internal candidate, the implication being that others maybe shouldn’t bother applying because the internal candidate will have an edge or even be a shoo-in. Sometimes, the speculation is not merely that a strong internal candidate exists, but that the position is intended for the internal candidate, so that the entire search is a formality with a pre-determined outcome.
But internal candidates have factors working against them as well as for them. As illustrated by the fact that they don’t always get the job–even when they’re confident they will! For instance, see here, here, and here. Those are anecdotes, though, so it’s hard to say if they’re typical. How often are internal candidates hired for ecology faculty positions? And is there any reliable way for outsiders to identify positions for which internal candidates will be hired?
According to the data I’ve compiled, the answers to those questions are “hardly ever” and “no”.
As you know, this year I’m once again collecting publicly-available data on who was hired for tenure-track N. American asst. professor positions in ecology and allied fields advertised on the 2016-17 ecoevojobs.net jobs board. I’m just about done collecting data, having ID’d ecology hires for 173 positions. Only 4 or so of those 173 ecology positions were filled by internal candidates, defined as people who were employed in any capacity in the hiring department at the time they were hired (postdoc, visiting professor, research assistant professor, adjunct professor, etc.). I say “4 or so” because I skimmed my notes on those 173 hires quickly so maybe I missed one or two. But there’s no way I missed a bunch. And the data I compiled are a sample, not a census, but they’re a big sample. So it’s safe to say that only ~2-4% of N. American asst. professor positions in ecology and allied fields get filled by internal candidates. (Note that I can’t distinguish which if any of those positions were intended for internal candidates, as opposed to those that merely happened to go to an internal candidate but could have gone to an external candidate.)
Further, the few positions that ended up getting filled by internal candidates can’t be reliably identified in advance. I searched the 2016-17 ecoevojobs.net spreadsheet for all positions about which anyone speculated in any way about an “internal” or “insider” candidate. That gave me a total of 21 positions, not all of which were ecology positions (there was also one that hasn’t been filled yet; I ignored that one). I checked my notes, scanned departmental webpages, and did additional googling to identify who was hired for those 21 positions, if anyone. Only one definitely was filled by an internal candidate. Another one may have been (it’s unclear from publicly-available information if the adjunct prof in question was hired into the tenure-track position in question). 11 were filled by external candidates. For the remaining 8, I couldn’t tell who filled the position, if anyone. So speculation about internal candidates on ecoevojobs.net was borne out in only 2/21 cases at most, or at most 2/13 if you set aside the 8 positions for which I couldn’t tell who was hired. Also, note that ecoevojobs.net commenters failed to speculate about an internal candidate for at least two positions that were filled by internal candidates.
Here are the take-home messages from this little exercise:
- Hardly any ecology faculty positions get filled by internal candidates. I hope that this fact will be reassuring to those of you who are on the faculty job market and find speculation about insider candidates anxiety-inducing.
- Speculation on ecoevojobs.net about internal candidates is unreliable. Which makes sense. After all, internal hires are very rare, and it’s hard to predict rare events. Especially when there’s no reliable information on which to base predictions. For instance, it’s fairly common for departments to currently employ someone who works on something related to the area of the search. In part because many departments employ lots of people who work in lots of areas. They could hardly avoid searching in an area in which they don’t currently employ anyone! So you can’t reliably identify positions that will go to internal candidates just by checking if there are any potential internal candidates, because there are potential internal candidates for a substantial proportion of all faculty positions. They rarely end up getting hired. And in case it needs saying, no, you can’t reliably identify positions that are destined to go to internal candidates from “information” like the length of the application window, or the speed with which interview invitations went out, or whether all phone/skype interviews were scheduled for the same day, or how specific the job ad is, or etc. The length, speed, and scheduling of faculty job searches, and the specificity of job ads, varies tremendously for all sorts of reasons, none of which have anything to do with the existence or not of internal candidates.
- Don’t assume that just because an internal candidate got the job, you wouldn’t have gotten the job even if you’d applied. Yes, there are rare searches that are intended for an internal candidate, for which it would likely be a waste of time for anyone else to apply. But there are also searches for which an internal candidate is evaluated along with all the others on a level playing field.
- As a faculty job applicant, you can’t save yourself wasted time and effort by not bothering to apply for jobs for which you think there’s an internal candidate. And trying to do so could materially decrease your odds of obtaining a faculty position. Look, I know that preparing faculty job applications is a pain, especially if you’re heavily customizing each application or if you have to deal with a clunky application submission website (aside: don’t waste time heavily customizing all your applications). And I know that it would suck to put in effort applying for a position and then later discover that the position was one of the very rare ones that was intended for an internal candidate. But you know what would also suck? Not getting a position that you wanted, and might’ve gotten had you applied, because you didn’t bother applying. Because you mistakenly thought that there was an internal candidate who was a shoo-in. Frankly, the latter source of suckiness is at least as likely as the former. And the odds of the latter source of suckiness increase relative to the odds of the former as the number of positions for which you don’t apply increases. Are you really going to not apply for a bunch of faculty positions that you want, just to make absolutely sure you don’t bother applying for one of the very few positions that will end up going to an internal candidate? Heck, even if you had psychic powers, you couldn’t save yourself much time and effort on application prep by not applying for jobs that will go to internal candidates, because hardly any tenure-track faculty positions in ecology go to internal candidates. If last year you’d used your psychic powers to avoid applying to all and only those ecology faculty positions that went to internal candidates, you’d have saved yourself the time and effort involved in preparing approximately 4 applications at most. I know you’re busy, but is that really a big time savings in the grand scheme of things?
In conclusion, your ability to estimate your competitiveness for any given faculty position is very limited (sorry about that; I get why you might wish it were otherwise). And you can’t improve your estimate by trying to read tea leaves and figure out if there’s an internal candidate who’s a shoo-in for the job. So if you’re trying to maximize your odds of getting a faculty position (and I recognize that you might not be, which is fine, it’s your call), your optimal strategy is to apply for any faculty position that you might prefer to not getting a faculty position at all. Leave it to the search committee to decide how competitive your application is. The only reliable predictor of the number of interviews you’ll get is the number of positions for which you apply.
I’m curious as to whether this post will come as news to anyone. So I hope you’ll indulge my curiosity by completing a one-question poll:
p.s. Nothing in the post is intended as criticism of ecoevojobs.net commenters, or the ecoevojobs.net site. It’s great to have a centralized faculty jobs board for ecology. The goal of this post is just to provide some hopefully-useful context.
p.p.s. This post only applies to N. America. It may generalize to some other countries, but I wouldn’t venture to give a full list. I know it does not generalize to certain European and Latin American countries (e.g., Italy, Spain), where things are very different.
UPDATE: As discussed in the comments, you should not infer from the data in this post that internal applicants are discriminated against relative to external applicants. Leaving aside the very rare positions that are created for internal applicants, my experience and Brian’s is that internal and external applicants are evaluated on a level playing field.
UPDATE #2: As discussed in the comments, it’s also very rare for new asst. prof. hires in ecology at N. American colleges and universities to have done their PhD at the institution hiring them. That’s true even if you restrict attention to hires at PhD-granting institutions. It’s also rare for new hires to have close personal friends or collaborators in the hiring department at the time of their application. I know some of you may find this hard to believe, but ecology faculty hiring in N. America is hardly ever a matter of connected “insiders” getting hired.