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This is the second in a series of posts on how a job candidate in philosophy should put together a dossier and apply for academic jobs. In Part 1, Wood addressed other aspects of the job dossier, including AOCs/AOSs, the letter of application, the CV, and his approach to this series. In future posts, Wood will address other aspects of the dossier, job interviews, campus visits, job offers, and reflections. In this post, he addresses the writing sample.
by Allen Wood
The Writing Sample
After I read the CV, I turn either to the writing sample or to the letters of recommendation. If the candidate is recommended by someone I know and whose judgment I trust, I may read the recommendations first. Otherwise (the default case), I read the writing sample first.
About why I do this, I’ll be blunt: the writing sample is the quickest way of eliminating most applicants. But at least for jobs at research universities, it is also the writing sample that gives them the best chance of not being eliminated right away. You remain in consideration only if your writing sample engages my interest, convinces me that you have something new and important to say, and that you are in command of your subject matter—in short, that you are something special, not like all those other job candidates I am eliminating as quickly as possible. You do not have many sentences, or even many words, in which to accomplish this difficult task.
When I have to read fifty or more dossiers at a time, self-preservation dictates that I pick up each writing sample with the firm intent of eliminating the candidate from consideration as quickly as I can. I may take any excuse to stop reading your writing sample and eliminate you. I tell my students who are preparing to be job candidates that the most important page of their writing sample is the first page; the most important paragraph on the first page is the first paragraph; the most important sentence in the first paragraph is the first sentence.
Some people consider sending more than one writing sample, and in a few cases this can be a good idea, especially if it makes you fit better the AOS and AOCs advertised. But if one sample is clearly more original or more polished than the other, then the second sample could hurt you more than it helps you. If the topic of Sample B interests me more than that of Sample A, I may read only it, and if the impression of you given by Sample B is weaker, I may eliminate you without even reading Sample A. Get advice from your dissertation committee about what to send as a writing sample or samples.
Dissertations are usually expected to begin by setting up your topic: rehearsing the standard positions, expounding material you intend to criticize, and the like—in other words, saying things that are old hat and tedious, things that any minimally competent graduate student could say. If your writing sample begins this way, then you would be lucky if I did as I generally try to do with such samples: skip ahead (impatient and already annoyed at you) looking for “the meat”: something new and worthwhile. You’d be even luckier if I happened to find it. More likely I will eliminate you from consideration before I do. I tell my students never to send a writing sample that is more than 25 pages long.
Some then say, “But this is taken from my first chapter, which is 40 pages long; I just can’t cut it down any further.” To this, I reply, “All right, but in that case don’t place anything after page 25 that you want the search committee to read. If the crucial argument in your paper is on page 27, the search committee will probably never see it.” Arranging your writing sample so that the new and interesting stuff is up front is your problem to solve. The search committee won’t help you with it.
On the contrary, a boring first five pages will give them what they most want—a good reason to eliminate you right away. I must also be brutally honest at this point. Many years spent reading philosophy of all kinds has given me the ability (or at least the belief that I have the ability) to spot a sharp, talented, well-trained philosophical mind rather quickly. If a writing sample, or even its first five pages, is a self-evident exhibition of less than this, then it would be a waste of my time to read the rest of the dossier.
It is fortunate for us doing job searches that most applicants betray quite early in their writing sample that they are not outstanding, not competitive. That saves us a lot of time. If this makes those of us who read dossiers sound like jerks, try to think of us instead as limited human beings with limited time to do the onerous work of vetting many, many dossiers.
Please see below for other posts in Wood’s series:
- Part 1 – Introduction, AOCs/AOSs, the Letter of Application, and the CV
- Part 2 – The Writing Sample
- Part 3 – Letters of Recommendation, The Research Statement, Teaching Credentials, and Publications
- Part 4 – The Interview
- Part 5 – Campus Visits, Job Talks, and the Teaching Demo
- Part 6 – The Offer and Reflections
Allen Wood is the Ruth Norman Halls Professor of Philosophy at Indiana University Bloomington. He is also the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, where he teaches short courses and participates on Ph.D. dissertation committees. Find out more about Wood here.