Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

I’m an Internal Candidate. So Why Wasn’t I Interviewed?

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If I am an adjunct at the hiring institution and was not offered an interview for a full-time job, is it appropriate to ask the department head why?

First let me take this opportunity to briefly discuss the status of inside candidates, and direct readers who already have a foot in the door to a post on my blog about what they often do wrong. In that post I describe sample language in the cover letters of internal candidates -- similar to what I’ve seen in actual letters -- that falls into the all-too-common “smarmy trap.” I’m referring to the widespread and completely erroneous belief that insiders can and should trade on their personal relationships and should talk about their department with breathless sincerity and slavish devotion, in order to prove their selfless commitment to, and passionate investment in, the permanent position advertised. Resist the urge to fawn (“it has been an enormous pleasure and privilege to teach at your department”) or to brag (“as you know, my course on Whitman was very popular!”).

I was reminded of the dangers of the smarmy trap last week, when another inside candidate came to me for advice. This person’s cover letter overflowed with passion, dedication, eagerness, and obsequiousness. When I pointed that out, the client got quite upset.

Ignore this advice at your peril: Tenure-track hiring is virtually always conducted with an aspirational ethos. In other words, the department wants what its faculty members secretly believe they can never have. It’s rather like dating. By contrast, adjunct and temporary hiring is conducted on a situational ethos: Who is around? And how much labor can we extract from them based on their emotional over-investment?

If an inside candidate attempts to leverage personal relationships and feelings to make her case, she is presenting herself as adjunct, not tenure-track material. In contrast, an effective tenure-track application will focus on the relatively impersonal facts of the record: how the candidate’s research and teaching shows a general command of the discipline, rather than a desperate and wheedling enmeshment with particular courses or students. Of course you want to appear collegial -- but in a dignified and faintly inaccessible way that makes the department want to chase you. Remember: This is like dating.

Now, because so many applications from insiders are so uniformly wretched in this one particular way, it is quite difficult for hiring departments to give objective feedback about the reasons for rejection. The problem is often not the content but the approach. Your record may actually be strong. But if you bury it in hyper-emotionalized language that rests on feelings and relationships, the department head has little scope to offer you helpful feedback. And here’s the thing: He definitely won’t tell you what I’ve just written here. Not because he’s being secretive or evasive, but rather because most faculty don’t think systematically about the unspoken rhetorical rules of job-application documents the way I do.

If that is part of your problem (and I have no way of knowing), the department chair will have an acutely uncomfortable sense that you weren’t “right,” but won’t necessarily have the language to explain why. He might fall back on tired and infuriating language about “fit,” which seems to say nothing, while actually referencing a very profound truth indeed.

So I’d urge you to go back and examine your application materials for any signs of the smarmy trap. If you find them, you have your reasons. If you don’t, then there may indeed be substantive reasons why you didn’t get an interview, and I would urge you to seek feedback from the department head.

I know you recommend a two-page cover letter. But what if the ad doesn’t ask for a teaching statement or a research statement? Should I write a longer letter then?

People are always looking for good reasons to write longer letters, but there aren’t any.

A two-page letter does everything a letter needs to, whether or not it’s accompanied by other documents. In other words, if the cover letter is part of a three-document package, the two-page version succinctly introduces the highlights of your record, which can then be elaborated in the accompanying documents. If the cover letter stands alone, meanwhile, a well-crafted two pages can beautifully summarize the highlights of your record to the level necessary for an initial review. No additional verbiage is needed, and once you’ve made the initial cut, more information will be requested.

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