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This is the third 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. Part 2 considered the writing sample. In this post, Wood addresses other facets of the job dossier, including letters of recommendation, the research statement, teaching credentials, and publications.
by Allen Wood
Letters of Recommendation
Second only to the writing sample, these are the most important part of any job dossier. There should be at least three recommendations in any dossier, perhaps more if the candidate has been at different places and has recommendations from several of those places. But after the number of letters gets too large, diminishing returns set in. Lots of letters make you look desperate. If some recommendations are conspicuously weaker than others or exhibit conspicuously less acquaintance with your work, then they begin to hurt more than they help. Job candidates should solicit as many recommendations as they think might help them, but they should then have their dissertation advisor, their job placement officer, or some other person of experience and good judgment who has access to the letters advise them about which letters to include in their dossier.
It is not uncommon to find that a dissertation advisor, or sometimes a minor member of a dissertation committee, has explained more clearly what the candidate is up to than the candidate has done him- or herself. This sets up an argument that cuts both ways. If your teachers can communicate your position better than you can, that doesn’t make you look good. But if they provide a clear and forceful account of what you are doing and why it is important, then I will take your project more seriously and I may give your writing sample another look.
The Research Statement
Candidates who are several years past the Ph.D. stage would be wise to include a statement of current and future research. A search committee at a research university is looking for someone who is professionally active and constantly working and developing. You need to provide evidence of this. But like everything else in your dossier, it has to be clear, forceful, and above all, brief. A two-page statement has a decent chance of being read; a ten-page statement is apt to be ignored.
It is hard to evaluate teaching, but in recent years there is increasing emphasis on teaching ability in hiring decisions, even at research universities. A specific “teaching letter” among the recommendations is often helpful. Evidence of teaching excellence—for instance, awards for teaching—should be presented in the CV in a way that jumps out at a reader. I have to confess that I seldom get anything out of statements of a candidate’s “teaching philosophy” and seldom even read them. Data regarding teaching is helpful if it is succinctly and perspicuously presented. Page after tedious page of student evaluations probably won’t be read at all. If sample syllabi are for courses it’s clear you’ve never actually taught, I probably won’t take them seriously; but evidence of a successfully designed and successfully taught course counts for something.
People from privileged universities where less teaching is required during their Ph.D. work (places like Yale and Stanford) are at an advantage when it comes to completing their Ph.D. promptly (unless it has taken them conspicuously too long to complete it!). But people from places where Ph.D. students have to teach a lot are often at a big advantage when it comes to teaching credentials. Many Indiana Ph.D.s have already become excellent teachers well before they get their degree. This is much rarer at the so-called “elite” research universities.
It used to be that newly minted Ph.D.s seldom or never had any publications when they went on the job market. I myself had only a few short book reviews when I got my first job. But times have changed dramatically. Many writing samples are offprints of already-published articles. If you are going on the job market for the first time, you will almost certainly be competing with some people who have several publications, sometimes in prestigious journals. Of course, people who publish too much too soon often publish things whose mediocrity or immaturity weighs them down more than the weight of their having publications helps them.
“Peer reviewed”: I myself do not care where an article is published. Someone I know at a major research university pays no attention to whether publications have been “peer reviewed” because, as he puts it, “I think I can judge papers better than most of the referees they get for these journals.” That may sound arrogant, but I confess I feel exactly the same way. I even think that caring about whether papers have been peer reviewed is an admission that you are incompetent to judge writing samples yourself, hence incompetent to be conducting the search at all. (I feel exactly the same way about emphasis on “peer reviewed” articles at the tenure-decision stage. Those who care about whether things are peer reviewed thereby disqualify themselves to make tenure decisions; that includes nearly all deans and tenure committees at all research universities.) However, about this issue, I am in the minority. Peer reviewed publications should always be noted as such on your CV.
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.