When faculty positions come open, sometimes there is someone already doing the job in a temporary capacity. Sometimes there is a resident finishing who would be qualified to fill it. The internal candidate is someone whom the people at the institution already know and have worked with in a capacity similar to the open position. If they are doing a good job, you would think they would be a shoe-in for the position. They’ve already demonstrated they can do it, why WOULDN’T they get the job? Unfortunately, the situation is not so simple.
To understand why, it’s important to look from the perspective of the hiring manager and the rest of the team. The internal candidate has shown they are competent at doing the job well. An external hire is a bit of a gamble. On the one hand, they may not do as well as the internal candidate. On the other, they may do even better than the internal candidate. I believe it is this potential for even better performance that entices hiring managers to choose external candidates over internal ones.
I think this is an extension of the “grass is always greener” phenomenon. This happens when people become accustomed to the ‘good’ things in a situation and don’t realize how good they have it. The negatives may start to become noticed more and more. This happens in long-term romantic relationships, and any working situation is a relationship. So I suspect hiring managers think, “This person we have is good, but this other person we could get is even better!”
Being the internal candidate can also be awkward. What if you apply and don’t get an interview? Does that mean they think you’re not doing a good job currently? How do you interact with your peers- who presumably had influence into the interview process- while maintaining your dignity? What if they give you a “courtesy interview”, which is an interview given just to avoid that awkwardness, when they have no intention of hiring you? Is that better or worse than not getting an interview at all? You will never actually know if you get a “courtesy interview” offer versus a competitive interview, so my advice is to proceed as if they actually want you for the position.
My advice for the internal candidate is the same for everyone: apply for multiple positions so you have some choice. Don’t assume you will get hired for the position you are currently doing temporarily. It’s risky to put all your hopes into getting a single position, and feelings may be hurt. Instead, cast a wide net and apply anywhere you could be happy. The best-case scenario is that you get an offer from where you are (presumably you want to stay) as well as an offer from somewhere you would be happy to go to. Now you can negotiate from a position of strength.
As an internal candidate, don’t assume you will get the job, or even get an interview. Maybe you will, but being the internal candidate doesn’t always play in your favor, and sometimes may actually play against you.