The aim of this series is to provide APA members with some insights into the hiring process from a variety of sources and perspectives. If you would like to submit a contribution, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us via the submission form here.
This is the fifth of Allen Wood’s contributions on how a job candidate in philosophy should put together a dossier and apply for academic jobs. In Part 1, Wood addresses aspects of the job dossier, including AOCs/AOSs, the letter of application, the CV, and his approach to the series. Part 2 considers the writing sample. In Part 3, Wood discusses letters of recommendation, the research statement, teaching credentials, and publications. Part 4 addresses the interview. In this post, Wood discusses campus visits, job talks, and the teaching demo. In the next post, Wood will address job offers. He will also offer reflections on the process.
by Allen Wood
Campus Visits and Job Talks
Campus visits, at the hiring institution’s expense, usually go to three or four finalist applicants, only one (at most) of whom will be given the first offer. So even if you get a campus visit, your chances of a job offer are still well below 50%. The campus visit is not nearly as nasty—nor is it as unreliable a gauge of the suitability of a candidate—as the interview. People get a chance to interact in more situations, for longer periods of time, and under less pressure. You can, to a greater extent, be your natural self, and you don’t have to pretend all the time (as you do at the APA or in a Skype interview) that a brief, abnormal, and excruciating ordeal is a healthy human encounter. But the pressure is still there to continue being brilliant and self-confident while also being human and lovable.
To get a job offer, you need to give a terrific job talk. Some people can get by using their writing sample. After all, only a tiny minority of the audience will have read it. But of course, the ones who have read it are likely to be your strongest supporters, and you don’t want to bore or disappoint them. So many people devise a job talk distinct from their writing sample, thinking it will put them at an advantage. But some candidates have this advantage and still fail, while others succeed even without it. If your job talk is less well prepared than your writing sample, it may be a big letdown to your audience. For this reason, the rule is never to give as a job talk something you know is a “work in progress.” An established philosopher not up for a job has little to lose if his or her talk is not a hit. As I know from several of my own experiences, when the paper is torn to pieces in discussion, it can be what the Indiana University football team likes to think of on most Monday mornings as a “learning experience.”
If there is no job at stake, you can afford to treat your paper-in-progress as the gaggle of penguins treat the first penguin shoved off the iceberg—the one whose fate tells the other penguins whether there are predatory seals lurking in the water. If the penguin survives, it gets the first fish. But all things considered, the other possibility reduces the value of that temporary advantage to less than zero. For a job candidate, however, it is never a good idea to be the first penguin off the iceberg. There is bound to be a hungry seal—or a whole gang of them—lurking somewhere down there in the ice-water of your audience. What’s best is to have two distinct but equally terrific pieces of writing—a writing sample that is awesome, and then a job talk that absolutely knocks their socks off. But unless you have that, play it safe with your writing sample if that’s all you have. Hope instead that one of your competitors for the job chose to be the first penguin.
You may be introduced to administrators while you are on campus. You may need to pay close attention and take notes, because they may give you facts and figures about the position that you need to understand regarding any possible offer. You need to act as if you care and be ready to ask them the right questions to get the essential information. You may even, without realizing it, be entering into oral agreements with administrators to which they will hold you after you are hired. They may tell you things about the financial condition of the institution or the condition of the department, things which matter a lot to them. Maybe they should matter to you too, if you took them in, since they would convince you not to take the job if it is offered. This is the phase of the campus visit for which I myself am totally unsuited. I can’t bring myself to care about the financial situation of any university (no matter how much the administrator may care about it), or concern myself with any practical details, even those that most directly affect my own self-interest. I’d forget to take notes, or lose them before I got back home. In discussions with administrators, my mind would wander—I’d imagine possible objections to my job talk and how I would answer them. Maybe you are not like me in this respect. I have to hope so—unless (uh-oh!) eventually you are doomed to leave philosophy and become an administrator yourself. Please, for my sake, let’s leave the administrator’s office and move on to other aspects of your campus visit.
You will probably have meetings with different faculty members individually. It would benefit you to get a sense for who the important “players” are and how you should deal with them. Disgusting sycophancy often seems the prudent stance, but that is not always true, since you need them to respect you. What works with one self-conceited oddball academic won’t work with another. Just before I was offered my first job, a famous philosopher (now long dead) invited me to come the following day and visit him at the institute he had just founded on campus. I thought about my next day’s schedule and said (thinking out loud), “Yes, I think I can make that.” He replied, “Well (ahem), you’d better make it!” This was a piece of raw, arrogant intimidation, but also completely true. The next day, I visited his institute, showed sincere admiration for it, and got the job. I tell this story because it ended happily. But I should also tell you about the time I was pursued relentlessly after my job talk by a senior faculty member with his endless and really stupid questions. I knew I had to be nice to him, and I really tried, but after dinner I could no longer help betraying my true thoughts in body language. I never got a job offer from that place.
The Teaching Demo
At institutions that emphasize teaching rather than research, you sometimes don’t give a job talk at all. Instead, you are put before a class and expected to teach something. Don’t count on being able to choose what you teach. Sometimes you are just taking over somebody’s class. You are assigned a narrow topic outside your specialty and given no context to tell you what the students know and what they don’t. You have to come in cold and blow them away with your raw teaching ability. Faculty members are there, supposedly as observers, but sometimes they chime in with questions designed to show you up as ignorant of the literature in a field you never studied. It’s as if they put a violin in your hand and told you to play from memory all 24 of Paganini’s Caprices when you never even learned to play the violin. Fortunately, I have this report about what teaching demos are like only at second hand. Maybe that’s why my account makes it sound like a bad dream.
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.