Saturday, December 11, 2010

Rocking the Passive Voice II

I just got a nice PFO, which reads:

Dear applicant,

The [...] search committee has narrowed down the finalists. We received over one hundred applications for this position. The selection process was very competitive. Unfortunately, your application was not among them.

We wish you the best in your academic endeavors,


[some guy]

This is truly wonderful. My application was not among them. What was it not among? The competitive selection process? That doesn't make sense. The one hundred applications? No, it was; otherwise I wouldn't be receiving this PFO. The finalists. Yes. So you have to go three sentences back to find the antecedent for this pronoun. Nice writing.

And, naturally, this situation is something that has just happened to us. They didn't do anything, or anything. They were just sitting around, looking at the piles, and they noticed that my application was not among the finalists. And this is something they regard as unfortunate. That's good, at least.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

I second your call for an end to badly written politesse. I'd much prefer:

Dear You,

You lost.

Us, the better ones

On second thought, I might end up Madoffing myself if I ever did receive such a letter. Now, that is truly in bad taste.

- The Unkind One

Anonymous said...

The first sentence also strikes me as a bit odd. Isn't narrowing down the finalists what they do after the interviews?

Anonymous said...

Ah, just like the grad school PFOs. A nice, full circle.

Anonymous said...

They didn't do anything, or anything

What do you mean? They did something. The committee "narrowed down the finalists". You were not among them.

Anonymous said...

I received a PFO (from a Canadian university, I seem to remember) last year that actually completely failed to say explicitly that I hadn't made it.As I recall, it went something like -

Dear You,

Thank for for applying to Position X. The committee has now drawn up a list of finalists. There were many hundreds of highly-qualified applicants, and the process was extremely difficult.

We wish you all the best in your future endeavors.



It was obvious, of course, and anyway it was one of those late, late letters that comes through in April for a job you applied to in late October, and had long since forgotten about (those late little jabs, after you've already given up hope, to remind you that you once had some). But still, that's taking concern for feelings to a hilarious extreme.

Anonymous said...

In any case, you don't "narrow down the finalists." You narrow down TO the finalists.

BunnyHugger said...

I got that same PFO, and it came at 3 a.m. Eastern time. I was up, so when I saw it I thought I'd go put a note on the wiki -- and to my surprise someone had beat me there by a few minutes. I guess I'm not the only night owl among philosophers.

I'm down to only five unaccounted for jobs.

Anonymous said...

Do you all feel marginally better about yourselves for being able to pick out tiny mistakes in a letter probably written up by the administrative assistant (or student worker) of the department that you weren't good enough for?

Mr. Zero said...

Hi anon 11:57,

Yeah, it makes me feel marginally better. Why shouldn't it?

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:57,

I do feel marginally better that I'm not you.

Thank you for your interest in this thread. I know posting to this thread takes time and energy, and I wish you luck in your future endeavors.

- The Unkind One

Fulci said...

11:57, if I was douchey enough to write what you did, I would not be able to live with myself. How do you do it?

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:57

You clearly have no idea what the point of this blog is. To remind you, and anyone else similarly confused:

The philosophy job market sucks, and being in it after years of income free grad school is about as horrible and painful an experience as one can have (given the bleak looking future, the deep regret, the time potentially lost, and the lottery tickets of application). The blog is here as a venue to vent some of that anger and frustration and pain. It might even help a few of us not to kill the next driver who cuts us off. Poking fun at poorly written PFOs helps in that regard. Keep in mind that these letters represent the same folks who have passed us up because they didn't like this or that about our applications--sometimes (often, perhaps) for reasons at least as insignificant. We agonize over applications--we've earned the right to be critical of whatever we get back for our efforts (and money spent).

So yeah, it makes us feel better. A fuck load load better. And if it doesn't help you, then you are in the wrong place pal. And you can PFO.

Welcome to the Smoker (oh, and btw, shitty beers are $11 in here--be warned).

Anonymous said...

Actually, I'm a finalist for that job, and let me tell you, it hurt like hell getting narrowed down by that search committee.

Anonymous said...

Anon 2:14: Agreed, The Philosophy Smoker is cheap therapy so long as you avoid drinking the beer (and the kool-aid)!

Bunnyhugger: Being a night owl is one of the last joys of working as a low-paid philosophy instructor. Come winter break, I turn my schedule upside-down and sleep from 7:am to to 3:pm!

Anonymous said...

Properly speaking, it's not until the interview that the narrowing down takes place. Once the narrowing down is complete, the finalists --all of whom are by this point no more than two inches in height-- are placed on the suite's coffee table for an epic battle cage match. The SC members gather around and cheer for their preferred candidate.

Xenophon said...

I love it. Philosophy Deathmatch. Do we turn into claymation as well?

Anonymous said...

An oldie but goodie, offered by someone who's been dere, done dat and knows all too well the angst of this blog, having survived by getting just one interview in my entire career, and by dumb luck and being just smart enough also getting the opportunity to do what I love--though I suspect the smart part of all that was supervenient on the dumb part:

This PHD

(Sung to "This Diamond Ring" by Gary Lewis and the Playboys)

Who wants to hire a PHD?

Especially the one I have--in philosophy?


This PHD won't get jobs for you anymore,
and this PHD doesn't mean what it did before--
and if you want to get tenure-tracked in college,
it takes more than knowledge!

Time was that learning made you
the finest of the fine--
but now it just marks you as
the smartest in the jobless line!

(chorus here)

This PHD only gives me another name
and this PHD is as useless as its frame--
and if you want to get tenure-tracked in college,
it takes more than knowledge!

(chorus and repeat)

My best wishes, Smokers.

Anonymous said...

I think we could do better than the average PFO by copying the lyrics from random songs. Let's see:

Dear Candidate,

Our first date was our last date. You’re the kinda guy that I love to hate. I got to let you know that you have to let me go. I thought you were the one, but you’re no fun and you’re not the one. You’re damaged goods so I don’t even care. I got your number, there’s the door. There’s something missing in your head. But baby, you’re no fun and you’re not the one.

Donna Search Committee

Anonymous said...

When I was a new prof, I objected to the treatment and letters that we sent out to the candidates. They were ridiculous. The problem is that most people don't want to make people feel bad. Every email or letter is an opportunity to do that. I tried to tell them that news is appreciated whether it is good or bad. Just let people know in a simple, clear way.

The PFO letters should read:

"Dear Philosopher:

Thank you for your application to X. You have not made our short list for interviews at the APA. We had X number of applications for the position. Good luck with your job search.

Not Your New Colleagues"

That's how you tell someone to PFO.

Anonymous said...

Should I ever be in a position to write a PFO, I'd say something like this:

Dear You,

After consideration of over 200 (or whatever) applications, we have agreed on a list of finalists. We are sorry, but you are not among those finalists. Please note, however, that our deliberations take into account a variety of considerations, including who's work may dovetail well with other people's work in the department, prior teaching experience, etc., and these considerations are not infrequently about something over which you have no control. We also recognize that, given all of the applications and our limited resources, there is a degree of arbitrariness to every search committee's selection process, and so you should by no means take this as an evaluation of your ability to be a professional philosopher; at this point we can only make our best guesses.

Best of luck to you,

me (or Search committee, or whatever)

It's a direct, respectful, and honest letter. It's not coddling people, it's owning up to making a decision to not include you in the list of finalists, and it's telling you not to lose hope just b/c they didn't choose you. And it's not exactly hard to write.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that sometimes it is about you and your abilities. Sometimes the candidates is bad. Some of you have to be in the bottom 20%

I once got a letter that told me I made the cut to the top 20, but not top 12, which they were interviewing at the APA. That keep me in the game a while, and I got a job.

There are some of you, and I am sorry to tell you this, who don't deserve jobs, and you aren't going to get them. That's just the way it is.

Anonymous said...

The letter you describe was not as bad as a mass mail one I received a few years ago via email, telling me (and a couple of hundred others) that I was "not a serious candidate for the position." It was followed up by an apology made on behalf of the search committee - from the department secretary.

Asstro said...


Yowch. I think that's being overly harsh, don't you?

There are probably some people on the market who have gotten their PhDs and thus passed muster with their departments, but who are not as good as they should be, or are not living up to expectations, but I suspect that almost everyone who has done the work of finishing a PhD in philosophy is _at least_ deserving of a job in philosophy. Maybe not at a great school; maybe those few people have a lot of work to do to improve their thinking and/or writing; but I take extraordinary exception to the idea that somehow these doctorates are not "deserving" of a job in philosophy.

Fact is, there are just not enough jobs in philosophy, so many very well qualified people will have to leave the academy. That's unfortunate, and maybe someone will some day do something to create jobs in philosophy, but the reason they're not getting jobs has little to do with desert; it has to do with the supply of jobs.

Mr. Zero said...

hi anon 3:12,

Maybe you don't understand what the complaint is. The complaint is not that the letters are too direct. The complaint is they tend to be so indirect that they are either rude, incoherent, or both.

I'm glad that a search committee took the time to send you an encouraging letter, which "kept you in the game" long enough to eventually get a job. Good for you. It's too bad the experience didn't teach you any kindness.

A couple of things jumped out at me in your last paragraph. One is that you do not seem especially sorry to say it.

Another is that it seems to me that even if a candidate is in the bottom 20%, this might nevertheless be a temporary condition. So it might not be right to discourage him/her. It might be right to encourage him/her to keep working, to keep publishing, to keep getting better, so that in a few years, with a lot of work, this candidate might be in the top 12 somewhere. As you know, a little encouragement can be wonderful.

Finally, although it is undoubtedly true that not everyone deserves a job, it would be inhuman for a search committee to send out letters to this effect. The kind of person who would send a rejection letter like that--you're not good enough, you don't deserve a job, and you're not going to get one--is the kind of person who enjoys kicking dogs. I don't want to know a person like that.

Anonymous said...

3:36a: Interesting. That's exactly how Toronto rejected applicants to its PhD program last year.

Anonymous said...

You're right Zero.

I didn't indicate that letters should tell people to quit. Really, I think the letters should be clear and to the point and prompt. And if they can be encouraging FOR A REASON, then great.

Some of you should get out of the game b/c there aren't enough jobs. If you go three years with no interviews, then that's a real indication that you aren't competitive on the market.

I really didn't mean to come off as rude. But the point is that some dossiers are at the bottom (of necessity), and believe it or not, these jobs aren't worth 15 years of suffering to have.

I apologize for coming off as rude or insensitive. I have been where most of you are. It's very stressful. Good luck.

zombie said...

Lost in Translation is on TV right now.

Scarlett Johanssen in the bar, telling Bill Murray she just graduated with a degree in philosophy. And Bill says "There's a good buck in that racket."

Anonymous said...

This year my department (2nd rate LAC) had two retirements and one TT AP who left for a more promising TT job at a state U. Guess what, the school is not, and has no plans for, replacing them with TT hires. Adjuncts or 1 year renewable appointments is what the deanery loves, what it is addicted to by now.
So, as far as I can see, the job market is not going to get better. I bet (depressing as it sounds) that it only will get worse. The only way it will improve (even marginally) is when the hordes of long-suffering un- and underemployed PhDs will finally decide to get a life outside academia, and the smart and diligent undergraduates will avoid graduate school like STD.

Anonymous said...

ctrl+F seems to show that I'm the first to point out that no sentence in the quoted letter is actually in the passive voice.

(capcha text: inglys)

BunnyHugger said...


Thanks, I needed that (and probably so did a few others).

Fulci said...

Anon 3:12/4:30, when I contemplate the prospect of never working in academia, what comforts me most is that I can be free from people like you-- those so insecure that, despite having a TT job, they troll blogs for aspiring philosophers just to make themselves feel superior. Oh I know, you tried to rollback your comments at 4:30, but the fact is you were monstrous enough at 3:12 to say it. Please pause now and reflect on that remarkable event... Thank you. About now, you should be saying to yourself, "Wow, I really AM a total bunshaft. My groveling at 4:30 does nothing to cover-up that part of my character. For, had I not been a bunshaft, I would never have said those things in the first place."

Go away from this place; abuse your undergraduates to inflate your self-esteem. That's why you teach. "You", here, is not the editorial you; it means YOU. That's why YOU teach.

Anonymous said...

Anon 4:30, you're not being rude or insensitive, just operating under the false assumption that merit is the operative principle in the current job market. It is a complete lottery! Survivor syndrome drives you to justify your own survival (success?) in the "competitive" job market by belittling others who were not so lucky (successful? meritorious?). Just be honest with yourself and admit that you got lucky and won the lottery!

Anonymous said...

The anonymous poster on December 11, 2010 at 2:14pm says:

"The philosophy job market sucks, and being in it after years of income free grad school is about as horrible and painful an experience as one can have..."

Would you tell that to someone dying of cancer in an ICU, or to someone whose four-year-old child has just been murdered? The job market is on many levels a difficult experience, but there are far worse tragedies in life than not getting a job in philosophy.

Remind yourself of what more than a billion people will have to do today just to survive. Doing so will make you more grateful for whatever job you end up with, even if that job isn't viewed highly by 'the guild'.

Anonymous said...

Possessing a PhD is NOT a sufficient condition for being qualified to get an academic job. There are a lot of graduate programs (in the US specifically) that are just outright terrible--they don't mentor their students, they are not rigorous and/or fail to meet obvious, objective criteria for providing their graduate students the skills/knowledge a newly minted PhD should possess, and so forth. There are far too many schools that are using their PhD programs as a way of getting cheap teaching labor. Granting someone a PhD is one way of getting rid of the student once they have more than enough cheap, graduate teachers. This is part of the problem.

Anyone who has been on a search committee can tell you that there are always a significant number of applications (especially in the last 5-10 years) that you look at and just shake your head, wondering how did this person receive a PhD and what is this graduate program doing. I am certain that all of these people are perfectly nice and I am even willing to go so far as to say that their being unprepared and unfit to work in an academic institution is due to no fault of their own. But this does not mean that I want that person working at my institution or as one of my colleagues.

zombie said...

Anon 9:29, you said "Anyone who has been on a search committee can tell you that there are always a significant number of applications (especially in the last 5-10 years) that you look at and just shake your head, wondering how did this person receive a PhD and what is this graduate program doing."

I'm genuinely curious about what you would see in an application that would prompt this response. Bad writing? Bad reasoning? I can see how a bad writing sample MIGHT cause one to think a PhD is poorly qualified, but what else? (And I'm not completely certain that being qualified to teach philosophy correlates completely with being able to write a publishable paper, but for programs where publishing is a requirement, it is certainly relevant.)

Anonymous said...

Why is every second comment over at the wiki: "How did they contact you?" I don't get it.

If they contacted by phone, and are going to phone you, they'll phone you. And if they can't get in touch, they will email you, and leave a few more phone messages.

Are folks seriously worried that someone tried to contact them but failed?

List people, once a department makes a choice they will work hard to contact you. VERY hard. The selection process is hard. And though it seems like a lottery, it's no the case that if you don't claim your prize in five minutes it will go to someone else.

They WILL get in contact with you. Relax.

Or is there a reason I'm not seeing?

zombie said...

Not a terrible PFO:

Dear applicant,

Thank you very much for applying for the position of assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Delaware. I am sorry to have to tell you that we are only able to interview twelve of the four hundred candidates who applied and you were not among those selected.

I hope you will excuse the impersonal nature of this email and accept our best wishes for success in your search of a suitable position.
Search Committee Chair

At least they apologized for calling me "applicant."

Four hundred applications! I'm doomed.

Anonymous said...


The concern is not that we have somehow missed an attempt at contacting us. Rather, it is trying to assess how long the process is taking, what are the chances that I'm on the "to-be-contacted" list, but they haven't gotten to me yet, etc.

Anonymous said...

I agree with 9:29. The bottom of the pool is very bad. And to 10:27. Remember that a colleague in a university department, in my case, mixed with another discipline, there are lots of things you have to do that have nothing to do with your ability to explain the categorical imperative to uninterested 18 year olds.

There are assessment reports to write for both general education and the major (if you have one). You have to be able to apply for tenure and make yourself look good. You have to be able to articulate why philosophy should be part of the curriculum. There are so many things you have to do that have absolutely nothing to do with philosophy that you would be shocked.

Some of the applications are so bad you wouldn't believe it. Not enough info on the CV to actually tell what they can do. Letters that are so bad that you wondered why they applied.

There are some programs that are so bad at getting their grad ready for the market, that I wouldn't expect anyone from those programs to know what to do when they got on campus.

As 9:29 wrote: A Ph.D. isn't sufficient for getting an academic job. Not even close.

I worked as a lecturer at a place for a few years before I got my job. I told the grad students there. You don't have to be better than your peers here (not a ranked program), you have to be better than the lecturers who don't have jobs yet. If you cannot do that. You're done.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why people are getting upset that we're making snarky comments about these letters. Sure, there are many people worse off than us, but "hooray! I am not dying of an incurable disease, nor do I live in a war zone!" is small consolation.

It's not like we're stopping homeless people in the streets and telling them how much we envy them, or writing snotty letters back to the departments that reject us. This is a space for a bunch of people in the same situation to commiserate one another. Anonymous grumbling amongst ourselves about rejection letters is, perhaps, about proportional to the amount of ill-fortune we're faced with.

Incidentally, is the consensus now that "if you haven't been contacted yet, you won't be," at least as regards APA interviews? I know there are still plenty that are showing green over on the jobs wiki, but they may just not have been updated. I'd kind of like to be able to give up officially, rather than sitting by my phone anxiously for the next few days.

Anonymous said...

12:36- I think you have a bit more anxious phone-sitting ahead of you. Last year, I was contacted around the 15th for an interview, and this year, one school that contacted me for additional materials indicated that they wouldn't contact about the APA until around the 15th. I've also seen confirmation letters sent the 1st week of December that indicated that the review of apps was just beginning, and that decisions would take "a couple weeks."

Anonymous said...

Thanks, 12.58! I guess more waiting is, on balance, better than being completely out of the running already...

Anonymous said...

Part of the reason why I like to know how people have been contacted for interviews is that in the past some schools have called my office phone even though I state in my cover letter to reach me on my cell. I'm only in my office 2-3 times a week and I would prefer not to obsessively check my office phone for messages. If I know others were contacted by phone, then I'll go ahead and check my office voicemail.

zombie said...

It's not time to give up yet. I got an interview notification just today. And a couple of years ago, I got one on Dec 22. So, no, your days of fretting are not over yet.

Then there are the places that skip APA altogether. Those can surprise you with a call in February.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:29 here:

I can confirm what Anon 12:34 and what s/he mentioned were many of the things that I was thinking about.

While it is a minority of applicants that fall into this category, it is a significant enough number to be startling. The vast majority of applicants simply don't meet the AOS/AOC criteria. Usually 2/3rds or so can be eliminated on that basis alone.

It seems to me that a better way to conduct things would be for all job candidates to upload their information to a public database and self-identify themselves with certain AOS/AOCs. Search committees could then just go to the database and browse all of the applicants (with certain filters), see who they thought would be a good fit, and then contact them and see if they're interested in being interviewed. It would cut down on costs and wasted time (both on the end of the SCs and the applicants). The drawback is that people couldn't apply to positions in secret, but I don't like it when people do that anyway.

Anonymous said...

@2:06: Why do you list a phone number you don't often check on your CV at all?

@4:24: This is absolutely the way things should be. (Or at the very least a searchable job database already!) Couldn't the database you mention also allow for secretive applications? You just mark any school you don't want to see your materials.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:29/4:24 here (I should just create an identity to avoid having to do this).

A searchable job database would obviously be a step up from what we have now, but the database I am proposing here would go well beyond that. This would be a searchable candidate database, almost like a free agent pool in professional sports. You'd know who's out there, whose contract is expiring, etc. It'd save lots of time and money. It'll probably never happen, but it'd be an amazing step in the right direction if it did.

You could have all sorts of controls and filters on both ends. As a job seeker, for example, I could check that I was interested only in TT jobs; with a teaching load of 3/3 or less; in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington DC (or something like that). As a search committee member, I could plug in all of the relevant factors into their search (AOS, AOC, load, location, non-ABD, whatever) and all of the well-qualifed/matching candidates would pop up. It would all be very, very easy.

The real problem isn't setting up the system but having both parties use it. Practically, it would have to be centralized. The APA could do it (and a significant amount of the infrastructure is in place to do it), but I think it makes far too much money off of publishing the JFP, as this would eliminate the need for that. Also, I doubt many of us would trust the APA to do it.

Heck, I'd offer to organize it. It wouldn't take more than 10-20 hours of work to put it together. Being able to upload your file to the database would be free with membership, you could toggle accessibility on and off, it could be linked with PhilPapers for easy access to all of your articles, it would contain all of your relevant files. Although letters would still have to be sent, they could be requested from your writers directly. If one of your letter writers knows you're on the short list, they'd be happy to send the letter off for you (and, if not, then you need a new letter writer).

I'm sure that there are problems that I'm overlooking, but this seems it is quite a few orders of magnitude better than the current system.

Anonymous said...

Having a PhD is not sufficient...but it is necessary? Would they discriminate against a well-qualified ABD with a good publication record?

Anonymous said...

9:29/etc. here:

Yes, we discriminate if you do not have a PhD. We've hired people before without PhDs and they have failed to complete them... which presents a problem (obviously). In the past, if a candidate looked really good and had a letter from the advisor stating that the dissertation was basically done, we'd ask the candidate to send it to us after the interview (if we still liked him/her). Then we could judge for ourselves if it was almost done. But, especially in the last 5 years, we have our pick of a high number of really good candidates, there's little reason to take the risk.

Anonymous said...

To move to a related point - I've had PFOs from low-to-mid range institutions saying they've had three to four hundred applications for a single position. I know this amount is because of the particular state of the market right now and over the past couple of years - so there's a backlog of people who didn't get jobs waiting to get them. Even if the supply of jobs suddenly rocketed back up, there'd still be an above-average number of applicants for them, because of this backlog.

But I haven't been in this game long enough to know what a healthy job market would look like. Under "normal" circumstances (say, six or seven years ago?), what sort of numbers of applicants to positions would be expected? Would it be a hundred per post? Fifty? And how many more jobs would there be in in the big JFP editions? Twice, three, four times as many?

Anonymous said...


Presumably, one would leave a phone number *no matter what* in order to: (1) not look like someone who can't afford a dedicated phone number or isn't regularly available by phone;(2) make it convenient for the search committee to contact them, i.e., by any channel they want; (3) make it possible to interact with the department as personably as possible, and this means by human voice; (4) be able to confirm an interview time immediately, as compared to by email tag; and (5) leave open the possibility of enjoying one of life's finest moments--unexpectedly receiving good news over the phone--since rejections are not delivered over the phone.

But I suppose that (2), (3), and (4) aren't really dealbreakers for the search committee. But (4) is still a legitimate reason, if one likes to plan ahead for the interview. And (1) and (5) are still in play.

Anonymous said...

@8:19: The person I was asking this of says s/he lists the office phone in addition to the cell phone s/he has. That's what I was questioning. So your points are irrelevant.

Anonymous said...

To anon: December 14, 2010 5:43 AM

Yes, we would discriminate against the ABD in question. Two points: (1) There are a lot of people with Ph.D. in hand who are competent. (2) When you arrive at your new job, we the hiring faculty, need you to be focused on your *new* job. If you spend the majority of your time *finishing* your dissertation, you aren't giving us your full attention. And if the department is small, that just means that others will have to pick up the slack.

I wouldn't look at an ABD unless the letters said: defense date is set for X or the defense has happened. You can spot about 95% of the ABDs who aren't really close.

Our university has a new policy that you only get a year to finish if you get hired. We had people basically finishing their dissertation and then getting promoted to associate professor and getting tenure. This was a massive embarrassment. But faculty don't want to fire other faculty for two major reasons: (a) they usually are friends and (b) it would reflect poorly on one's decision to hire the person in the first place.

So get your dissertation done & have all those great publications and you might have a good shot at a job.