Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How to Assemble a Tenure-Track Job Application

Interesting discussion going on at NewAPPS about how to put together a dossier that will make the first cut. Mohan Matthen asks search committee members how they make the first cut here, and discusses the results of the discussion here.

Important things that applicants can control include cover letters, the research statement, and teaching materials including evals, sample syllabuses, and a letter from someone who has seen you teach.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

The problem I have with any such advice is that, from what I can tell, so many people are inconsistent. That is, some of the faculty interviewed may have claimed one practice for the interview, but then really judge by different criteria in an actual search. I know someone who routinely tells his graduate students that the cover letter is where one should stand out sell oneself, but then doesn't actually read cover letters when he sits on a search committee. (He reads the CV, and then if the candidate makes the first cut, he reads the letter.)

I give this kind of survey the same weight I give to surveys asking television viewers what programs they watch. It's quite common for people to claim to watch the news and educational programming, when in reality they have "Jersey Shore" on.

I'm sure that many of the people interviewed have good intentions, but how many would admit to only considering applications from top programs, not bothering to read all the application materials, or a bias against candidates who have been on the market for several years?

Rebecca said...

Well, anon, you can't change the program you are in or how many years you are out, and you can't control how much of your application people read. So even if you are right, your examples seem ill-chosen, since the discussion is about what to do about the stuff you can control.

I have been on many search committees. I certainly do not rule out people who aren't from top programs. though of course, duh, it's somewhat in your favor if you are from a top program. And no, I am not going to read all your application materials if I am convinced early on that I am not interested. And yeah, my eyebrows do go up if you've been kicking around for a while without a job, but this isn't a deal breaker on its own. So you can put me in the "I admit to that, suitably tempered" category. But none of this seems relevant to the advice being offered.

Anonymous said...

Moreover, even if everyone who does speak up is telling the truth, that still leaves huge room for sample bias. This shit's more noise than interviews.

Anonymous said...

Don't misspell the name of the city in which the institution is located. Having sat on search committees for an institution in a city with a difficult to spell name, I know that this can be a deal breaker. It seems ridiculous and petty, but committee members will take it as a sign of disinterest or inattention to detail. Any excuse to eliminate a candidate, especially one who is not your friend or relative.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how such admissions would be helpful, even if they were made. By the time someone is submitting a dossier, being from a top program is no longer within the applicant's control, and neither is how many years they've been on the market. Neither is it within the control of the applicant whether her application gets read.

I think the focus on controllable factors is good, because it's the only advice we could possibly take action in response to.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone notice the stupid procedure for submitting letters to Northwestern? Don't they know what continent they are in.

Anonymous said...

Cover letters? Seriously, I think they should simply be form letters, and short and sweet, unless the dept itself requests that you address specific issues. They do not get read. At least they did not get much attention on the committee I was on. The really long ones even got some derisive comments. With all the other stuff to attend to, I don't think search committee members have time to bother with your cover letters.

The CV: isn't this obvious? Do not pad your CV. Committees don't care about every little grad conference you've presented at. Do put enough there, however, to demonstrate that you are professionally active. Isn't this a no brainer at this level? If you don't know what to put on a CV, you're not ready to go on the job market.

Teaching statement: keep it specific and simply explain your style of teaching and why you teach that way. Illustrate your method of teaching with examples. Give examples of problems and how you deal with them. Do combine all of your teaching information into one document with a table of contents, beginning with a summary of your teaching scores. TOs are long and hard to get through without guidelines. Plus committee members do not have the time to wade through every single set of messed up data sheets. Do have at least one teaching letter.

Get your letters vetted by placement officers, if possible. Some people who think very highly of you still may not be able to write letters very well. Letters are one of the most important aspects. Try to get outside evaluations, but if you can't, it's no disaster. Do not send more than six. We had one candidate send ten and it was laughed about.

Research Statement: Give a short blurb on any themes of your work. Summarize your finished work. Move on to current work and then more speculative projects. Give as much detail as you can within 3-4 pages. You don't want to come off as bullshit artist here.

My cred: I've been shortlisted A LOT. Still no TT, but I am hoping that one of these days I will get lucky.

ps: do get a google website and install tracking software. Visits to your website from depts to which you applied indicate that at least your dossier is getting some attention and that you are on the right track. All the calls I got this past year also were not surprises, so it can prepare you in advance to be able to handle those calls gracefully.

Popkin said...

Quite a few questions about research statements in the comments, so I'm going to repeat the question I attached to an older post here:

Does anyone know where I might find examples on-line of research statements written by philosophers for their job applications?

Asstro said...

Yeah, well, wait a second. What are you going to do to your CV that will really sell you? By the time you're pulling together your CV, you've got a list of things that are pretty static about yourself. The cover letter does the work of tying all of your accomplishments together.

In other words, a good cover letter won't rescue a bad CV, but a bad cover letter may well sink a decent CV. Since you can't do much to control the CV, focus on the cover letter.

Anonymous said...

7:38 here. To respond to Rebecca:

1. No, by the one you hit the market, you can't change your program. This is something people need to think about when they apply. If someone wants a job in Philosophy, that person should see which schools do the best job in placing graduates in TT positions. Apply to those schools. If you don't get in, and choose to go to a school with a worse placement record, you need to know that such a choice can cost you down the road. Now, when you say "of course" you favor applicants from top programs, this needs to be told to anyone applying to graduate school.

2. Why should your eyebrows go up if someone has been kicking around for a while? What does it suggest to you that it immediately flags the application, even if it isn't a dealbreaker on its own?

Prof. Kate said...

I'm the first commenter on Mohan's post; although I have only served on search committees at my SLAC, I don't know anyone on any of my search committees, including me, who only long-listed candidates from "top" programs.

Why even read our earnest testimonies based on years of experience if you're just going to assume we're "in reality" doing the opposite of what we say, she added irritably?

Anonymous said...

Asstro is correct. A bad cover letter--too long, too short, too vague, erroneous usage, etc.--can torpedo a candidate. Please do yourself a favor and make yourself sound like an intelligent and decent human being interested in a specific job. A good cover letter is a work of art--not an afterthought. This is from my experience of 30 years of serving on many hiring committees in philosophy and other disciplines (math, geography, physics, music, theater, etc.) as well.

zombie said...

There are some useful examples here:

I don't think the rules for a philosophy research statement are different than they are for other disciplines. In fact, I think that when I was writing mine, the only examples I could find were from the sciences. Your goal is to explain what your research focus is, why the issues you explore are significant, why you're interested in and enthusiastic about this subject. If you think there is potential for grant funding, say why. (This matters for some jobs.) IMO, a page is sufficient (although if you really need more, use it, judiciously). It needs to be long enough to accomplish the above, show that you know what you're talking about, and show that you're not BS-ing. Mine was a succinct but informative 282 words, and got me a job at a research university where I am expected to do a significant amount of research and generate grant money. (The one I used to get a research fellowship was even shorter.)

I think of the research statement as akin to a longish abstract, rather than a short paper.

Mr. Zero said...

The problem I have with any such advice is that, from what I can tell, so many people are inconsistent. ... I know someone who routinely tells his graduate students that the cover letter is where one should stand out sell oneself, but then doesn't actually read cover letters when he sits on a search committee.

That's not inconsistent advice. Your friend's advice to his students, if it's any good, will reflect more than just his own views and practices about the behavior of search committees. Even if your friend doesn't read cover letters, and even if he knows that lots of people are like him in this respect, he probably knows that a lot of people do them. And his advice probably reflects that fact, if it's any good.

Christopher Hitchcock said...

This is just one data point, but I rarely give a cover letter more than a cursory glance. The exception is if there is something unusual about an application. E.g. if someone already has a very good TT job, I might look to see if there is an explanation why s/he is interested in relocating to Southern California (e.g. to co-locate with a spouse). If there are temporal gaps on the CV, I might look to the cover letter for an explanation. (Took time off to care for a family member.) If someone looks very strong but is in the completely wrong area, I might look (they have been working on a book manuscript in the AOS). But if someone who is finishing her Ph.D. is applying to a job in her AOS, I will skip straight to the CV.

Other comments (most relevant to applications at research universities):

1. The longer it has been since your bachelors degree, the more important it is to have publications. If someone is finishing her Ph.D. in 5 years, I don't expect publications (although they are a plus). If you have been in grad school for 8 years, or it has been several years since the Ph.D., it's more important to show that you have been productive.

2. If you are in a program that is not as strong, or one that is not strong in your AOS, it becomes more important to have letters from people outside of your own department.

3. Have a good research statement. Make sure it is accessible to someone who is not a specialist in your area. Don't just explain your own views, but also why the problem is important, how your work is an advance on the current state of the art, and what is original about it.

4. Do not list submissions under the heading 'publications' on your CV. This makes it obvious you are stretching. It is OK to have a separate section on your CV listing papers in draft form, submissions, etc.

5. It is OK to communicate with your letter writers about the content of their letters. E.g., it is OK to suggest: 'I was hoping that you could comment on my competence (AOC) in X'. Different letter-writers will be making different parts of your case, but this might not be immediately apparent to them.

Anonymous said...

We had one candidate send ten and it was laughed about.

You're a fucking asshole.

Asstro said...

Christopher, it's definitely one data point. I sit on search committees, just as does one of the other people here. We both read the cover letters. Don't blow it off. It's important.

You know what I don't read? The teaching statement. I have zero interest in that. But I betcha there are some people who do have an interest in that, and it would be foolish advice to suggest that one ought not to concentrate on it.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:01pm:

I didn't say I laughed about it. But 10 letters truly is ridiculous. I've been told by many people that even six is pushing it. Sorry bud, just being honest. Would you like me lie and sugar coat shit? I thought philosophers were a bit beyond that kind of coddling.

Popkin said...

Thanks very much to Zombie for the link and the advice about research statements.

Without having access to research statements written by philosophers, I still have some pretty basic questions (and maybe someone here can help me):

A. Given that I've moved on from my dissertation to a different question within the same field, is it essential that I discuss the topic/arguments of my dissertation and the publications that have resulted? Will committee members expect this document to start with some blurb about my dissertation? Or, can I simply launch in to explaining the question that is the focus of my present research?

B. How specific should I be about the position that I defend in my present work? Do I roughly indicate the kind of view I defend (e.g. I intend to develop a version of view X that can handle some of X's often-noted shortcomings)? Or should I try to explain the specific arguments I present in defence of the relevant view (e.g. I will defend view X against standard objection Y by arguing such-and-such)?

C. Should I be sure to include citations to specific works of specific authors? Or should I simply talk more generally about certain groups of authors (e.g. externalists, materialists, and the like)?

Dr. Killjoy said...

Presumably there are cases which warrant including a comparatively large number of rec letters. For example, should one's specialty be Moral Psychology (or some such Cog-Sci, Ethics, Evolutionary Psychology amalgam), having a detailed, exemplary letter of recommendation from a few big names in each respective field seems prudent rather than overkill--at least insofar as they speak to the candidate's qualifications, competency, and ability to make significant contributions to what are actually pretty disparate fields (e.g., Derek Parfit trumpeting Sally's keen insights into Cognitive Science means about as much as Zenon Pylyshyn declaring her work meta-ethically revolutionary).

That said, all it takes is one poison pill to kill the bunch--in the blurry haze of a dozen rec letters, the likely stand-out will be the worst of the bunch, which if sufficiently shitty can easily drag the good ones down screaming along side it.

Christopher Hitchcock said...

Popkin: This is just one person's opinion (based on many many junior searches).

A. There are different ways of organizing your research statement, and no one is uniquely right. If you think of yourself as working on one big project, you can organize it that way. Some candidates are working on several distinct projects, and have separate sections corresponding to each. It is usually a good idea to demonstrate ambitions of moving beyond the topic of the dissertation, especially if you have already completed the Ph.D.

B. I would lean toward less specifics, but again, you could go different ways here. Think of this as an advertisement for your writing sample(s). Your research description should pique my curiosity and make me want to read the writing sample. It shouldn't make my eyes glaze over.

C. I don't think citations to specific authors are necessary, unless there really is one or two papers/books that are a central focus of your discussion. (E.g. it would be a bit strained to refer to 20th Century philosophers who reject the analytic/synthetic distinction without mentioning Quine specifically.)

Anonymous said...

Some advice on cover letters. As a former SC chair, I pay attention to letters, and have heard the same from other SC chairs. So, some of us do read them and pay attention to them.

What I really want to know from your letter is whether or not you actually understand, and can handle, the position to which you are applying. I also want to know whether or not I am going to waste my time dealing with problems you cause if I hire you.

1. Get the name of the institution right throughout the letter. If it is a coordinate campus of a state system, for example, do not mistake the coordinate campus for the flagship. If it is an institution with a name similar to that of another, don't get the details just that little bit wrong. Get them right. I vetoed many applicants for doing things like this. They obviously did not want to be at my school.

2. Read what the department says about itself on its website and show the committee members that you understand, and can contribute to, the department's mission. If the website says e.g. that the department values teaching the history of philosophy, explain why you value this and why this makes you a good fit. If they say that they spend much of their time teaching service courses, explain how and why you would be good at doing that. If the job ad says the department requires someone who can teach e.g. philosophy of social science, do not bother to apply if you can't show me that you can teach it - we did not put it in the job ad just for kicks. I have vetoed numerous applicants for sending me a generic letter that tells me nothing about their specific interest in, and ability to contribute to, my specific department and its specific needs.

3. Try to convey that you would be the kind of person I would be able to trust to teach that awkward big 100 level course effectively, to develop enthusiasm in students for studying philosophy, to do committee work efficiently and without too much grumbling, and to enjoy talking philosophy with.

4. Do not give me reason to think that you would be a giant pain in the ass to work with. In particular, avoid sounding arrogant or obsequious, and avoid lengthy dissertations on how the world has victimized you (you would not believe what some people write in cover letters).

zombie said...

Popkin, if your current research is a development of your diss, or branches off from it, then you can devote a few sentences to describing the general theme of your diss and how it segues into your current research. I put the abstract of my diss on my CV, but in my research statement, I only pointed to how my current research (on a different area and topic) had some questions/concerns in common with my diss topic. But if you're not ABD, and you're producing post-diss research, you want to be highlighting that in your research statement to show you have some breadth. (But I had one interview in which the chair just wanted to talk about my diss and not my current research. I had to do some digging in the neural file cabinets for that interview.)

You want enough detail to demonstrate that it's interesting, and to explain what you're up to. You're going to submit a writing sample -- don't make the research statement another writing sample.

This philosopher has his research statement posted. I think it's quite long, but it obviously worked for him.

Another here (also an employed philosopher):

I googled this phrase and came up with a few:
"research interests statement philosopher"

Anonymous said...

I think it's quite long, but it obviously worked for him.

Umm... David Hills is, to say the least, an exception. Not many of us can get a job 31 years before the completion of our PhD.

Not to say that statement couldn't be helpful, but "obviously worked for him" is, to say the least, an overstatement.

Anonymous said...

I vetoed many applicants for doing things like this. They obviously did not want to be at my school.

I wonder if anyone really believes this. You don't think, "I bet she spent 7 hours putting together the cover letters for these applications and understandably she was getting tired. This one that she sent us must have been one of the last ones she wrote." You think, "Oh, she doesn't really want to work here."
I do, honestly, think that is a very stupid inference. And I don't really believe that's what's going on. I think some SC members get their feelings hurt very easily, and some let the power rush go to their heads.

Of course, my hypothesis yields the same advice that Anon 3:30 gave, so maybe it doesn't matter.

zombie said...

I thought it was an understatement.

But anyway, the point was that the research statement of an established, TT philosopher is not necessarily an exemplar for how to write a research statement for a job dossier (hence the comment about the length). But since Popkin was looking for examples of philosophy research statements, the examples given were at least partially instructive.

Popkin said...

Yes, the examples were very helpful (particularly the 2nd one). Thanks to Zombie. And thanks to Christopher Hitchcock as well. I feel like I'm getting a general sense of how these statements are supposed to go.

Christopher Hitchcock said...

I think also that Mark Lance's advice has some merit. If a research statement that does not look like all the other ones gets you eliminated more quickly than you otherwise would have been at 50 schools, and gets you an interview you wouldn't otherwise have gotten at 5, you have turned a profit.

Anonymous said...

I think some SC members get their feelings hurt very easily, and some let the power rush go to their heads.

Tru dat.

Anonymous said...

6:10AM here:

About the bluntness of my post: the job market is more than tough. So I figured some bluntness was warranted.

Thanks to those who had input about the research statement. I guess mine may be kind of long, but it's as short as I could make it and still have it be a substantive report on what I've got going on since the diss. Rather important I think. I am behind pubs due to several personal disasters.

Anyway, didn't mean to offend and figured the advice would be helpful.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Asshole

Anonymous said...

Sept 23rd 9:01pm: thanks for giving me an online identity :)


Christopher Hitchcock said...

Let me follow up on one thread of this discussion where some unpleasantries were exchanged. Again, I am only drawing on my own experience conducting searches.

When I am involved in a search, I am genuinely interested in finding the best candidate for the position. That involves making as accurate an evaluation as possible of the candidate's research (actual and potential) and other qualities as a colleague. I do not think that it serves this purpose to treat the process like the compulsories of Olympic figure skating. (Oh, she wobbled on the landing, that's a .2 deduction. Oh, the candidate had parsley on her tooth, that's a .3 deduction.) I would be very surprised if most other don't proceed in the same way. (When I was on the job market in the 90's, one of my fellow job-seekers discovered that s/he had submitted a writing sample with "Freeedom" in the title. It did not seem to do any harm. One distinguished senior philosopher sent him/her a funny short essay on the importance of distinguishing true 'freeedom' from mere 'freedom'.)

That said, I think it would help all job seekers to have some sense of what it is like on the other side. Conducting a search is a full-time job for six weeks. Even with all of that, we can afford to read the writing samples of about 25% of the applicants. This means that we have to eliminate the majority of candidates before we even look at the writing samples. So we definitely read the files looking for reasons to throw them on the discard pile.

I have been involved in about 8 searches in past 10 years. During that time, I have read the work of a lot of young philosophers. There are many excellent philosophers whose work I first got to know through this process. I admire and respect them. Unfortunately, even among those whose work I admire and enjoy, the vast majority will not get job offers from us.

That was the lead up to a confession. When I and my colleagues are immersed in files, pretty much every waking moment spent sorting through the pile, it is as natural to talk about them as it is to, e.g. complain about the weather or the republicans in congress. Sometimes we say things that are disrespectful of the candidates or make jokes at their expense. I recognize that this is not ideal behavior, and I would be mortified if any of these got back to the candidates. But it is pretty much impossible to work that hard, become that immersed in the process, and always comport oneself with the utmost seriousness of purpose. (Many of you may be familiar with this from grading stacks of papers.) But I do make every effort not to let such joking affect our treatment of the candidates, or evaluation of their work.

Good luck to those of you applying for jobs, I wish you well.

Anonymous said...

Whether it's fair or not, things like typos might matter. One or two probably doesn't matter, but I remember one cover letter that was poorly written, full of typos, and pandering, all at once. The combination was enough for some of us, who were looking for a colleague who would have significant administrative duties in addition to teaching, to take a pass on that short-listed candidate. However, it was probably the combination of those things (and the type of typos probably matters--an extra "e" in "freedom" is obviously a typo, but continually misspelling the school's name, for example, looks like you just don't care enough to get it right).