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Why won't my department hire their own PhDs?

February 27, 2017

As a PhD student you may or may not already know this, but there is very little chance that you will be able to turn to your own academic program for a tenure track job when you finish your degree. This may lead to feelings that range from disappointment to pure panic for some students. Some common responses to this issue have included: 

  • Why would they refuse to hire me when they have had the last four (or more) years to learn what a qualified candidate I am? 

  • I decided to attend the PhD program in my local area because I am tied here due to family obligations - what if I can't move for a faculty job?

  • My program is only one of a small few that specialize in my research area. What other programs will be able to provide me with the resources and support I need for my research?

The truth is, hiring from one's own PhD student pool is often not a written policy for universities, colleges, schools, or departments. It is often implicit, which would allow discretion to hire internally if an opportunity arose. This may cause friction within an academic unit. I recall one case where a School with a large faculty struggled to recruit minority candidates, but their doctoral student body had significant diversity. Some faculty members fought to hire from within, though the upper administration ultimately ruled against it. 

 

There are other reasons that academic units might want to hire their own PhDs. Their doctoral students may have unique research areas that would further advance the goals of the unit. Some universities may be located in areas that are difficult to attract new faculty, making local candidates from their PhD program more likely to accept a position. When it comes down to the bottom line, shouldn't schools and departments hire the best candidate, even if that candidate is from their own PhD program?

 

However, there are a number of reasons that academic units give for not hiring their own PhD students. Here are some of those reasons to help understand this position better:

 

1. Your department wants to generate new ideas and approaches to learning and research. 

 

You may be a great candidate. However, you were trained and educated by the faculty who are already at Department X. Therefore, Department X might view you as a risk for creating a culture of incestuous ideas. They also might worry that this could lead to Group-think - too many like-minded scholars may make decisions and take approaches that have become embedded in the department's culture without critical thought or introduction of new ideas. Department X believes that hiring someone who received their PhD from another university will bring fresh ideas and perspectives that will help it progress and maintain competitiveness in higher education.  

 

2. There are challenges in moving from student (subordinate) status to peer. 

 

As a student, you are viewed by the faculty in your department as a "scholar in preparation." This puts you in a subordinate position, which often results in being assigned lower-level tasks on projects. For many graduating PhDs, it takes some time after starting their first tenure track position to make the transition from feeling like a subordinate to that of an independent scholar. For this reason, it is often assumed that PhD students who become tenure track faculty within the department they received their degree from will have a more difficult time making this transition because the rest of the faculty has viewed him or her as a doctoral student for the past several years. 

 

This situation may cause a number of problematic circumstances for the former PhD student, the rest of the faculty and the administration, including:

  • Too much service may be pushed upon the former PhD student, since others do not view him or her as an equal peer or colleague. 

  • There may be expectations of loyalty of the former PhD students toward faculty who had mentored him or her when they were still a student. 

  • The former PhD student may have challenges when applying for tenure because it may be too difficult to separate his or her work from that of their mentor, who is still in the same department. 

Knowing these potential problems, you may ask if getting the tenure track position in your own department is worth the future problems experienced as a junior faculty member. 

 

3. Your department does not want your PhD program to become a highly educated version of Survivor. 

 

Let's say that Department X decides that hiring from its own PhD pool is acceptable. Then, a tenure track line opens the same year that multiple PhD students are graduating. What happens if more than one of these students applies for the position? This could cause resentment among students and can be demoralizing if students become aware that some of their fellow classmates are more desirable than others. This is not good for the department's social environment. 

 

4. The challenges of conducting a faculty search with internal candidates. 

 

Faculty hiring is a strange dance. It's designed to be fairly transparent for those within the department and/or university, while also maintaining mystery and ambiguity among the external candidates who apply for the position. Even if the department makes an offer to a particular candidate, he or she may not take the offer so faculty search committees often play the game with their cards close to their chest.

 

That being said, what happens if Department X is conducting a search and an internal candidate (re: current PhD student in department x) applies? This opens up a number of problems. Some conundrums may include:

  • How does the search committee make sure that the internal candidate doesn't learn about information regarding the search that external candidates aren't privy to?

  • What happens if the internal candidate interacts with or attends events with external candidates who are on campus?

  • What if informal interactions between the internal candidate and faculty members or administration lead to misunderstandings about the candidates' status on the search?

  • What if one or more reference letters from the internal candidate come from faculty members from department X? Internal reference letters may create conflicts of interest.  

The Take Away. 

You may be disappointed to learn that you most likely will not be able to take a tenure track position at your own department when you graduate. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that you would never be considered for a faculty position there. Sometimes internal hires happen. If you are interested in being considered for a tenure track position in your department here is some advice:

  • First, revisit the information above and ask yourself again if the potential risks are worth the potential reward. You may change your mind. 

  • If you are still in your PhD program, ask faculty members how many years students are expected to work somewhere else before being considered for a position within their department. Often , this number ranges from 3 to 5+ years. 

  • If you see that a job is posted in your department and would like to apply, contact the search committee chair first and ask about his or her opinion about applying. The search chair should give you an honest answer ("Technically, you can apply, but your application won't be considered...") or discuss the issue with other faculty and administration. 

Best of luck! Want more job search advice? Make an appointment with Nicole today and learn about how to get ahead of other candidates!

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