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.
by Allen Wood
This is the first of a series of six posts on how a job candidate in philosophy should put together a dossier and apply for academic jobs. I am not sure I am in any better position to give such advice than a lot of other people. My experience has all been at research universities: Cornell, Yale, Stanford, and Indiana. I have had experience advising my own Ph.D. students who are job candidates. I’ve also served (a couple of times) as job placement officer in Ph.D. programs (at Yale and Stanford) and served on many search committees at Cornell, Yale, Stanford, and Indiana. At Stanford and Indiana, I have also been involved in, or have myself conducted, a number of searches for postdoctoral fellowship positions, including the Ruth Norman Halls Postdoctoral Fellowship in the History of Philosophy at Indiana University, which has now been awarded to four different people over the last five years. I will approach the subject by describing what I do when I am doing a search or am part of a search committee. But I will look at this from the standpoint of a job candidate, suggesting what candidates ought to be trying to do to improve their chances. Those who are applying for jobs at community colleges would be wise to consult Robert Muhlnickel’s post, which is much better informed about that than mine.
In the post below, I address the job dossier, including AOCs/AOSs, letters of application, and CVs. In future posts, I will address the writing sample, research statement, letters of recommendation, teaching credentials, publications, job interviews, campus visits, job offers, and reflections on the process.
The Job Dossier
Academic job searches these days are fundamentally conditioned by the hard fact that virtually every advertised position has many, many applicants. The first task of anyone doing a job search has to be to eliminate as many candidates as possible from consideration as quickly as possible. Consequently, if you are a job candidate, your first task has to be to minimize the chance that your dossier will be one of the vast majority that is eliminated the first time through. Another hard fact is that your chances of surviving the first cut are often proportional to the prestige of the institution and department where you got your Ph.D., and to the reputation of your recommenders. A candidate from a lesser-known school would benefit from getting a letter of recommendation from a well-known philosopher from a bigger name school. Some can do this and some can’t. If all this seems unfair, then that’s because it is unfair. But search committee members have limited time to do their work, and they are also fallible human beings. They are going to use whatever factors they can to winnow out, as fast as possible, from dozens or even hundreds of applications, the very few candidates who will be given serious consideration. If you are a candidate from a lesser known institution, your chief hope of being taken seriously rests on the chance that your writing sample will be so immediately engaging and impressive that it can overcome the disadvantage weighing you down. There would be at least this much fairness in the process if every writing sample were read carefully the first time through. But that is hard and time-consuming work. I try to do it, but can understand it if not all search committee members feel able.
AOS and AOC
Another way in which the whole hiring process in philosophy (and in academia more generally) is both unreasonable and unfair is this: Jobs generally are listed in terms of specialties—Area of Specialization (AOS) and Areas of Concentration (AOC) that have been shaped by a cookie-cutter. AOSs/AOCs include: metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language, action theory, ethics, bioethics, aesthetics, political philosophy, ancient Greek philosophy, medieval, early modern, Kant, German idealism, “continental” philosophy, feminism, gender studies, experimental philosophy, cogsci philosophy, etc. The list could be extended indefinitely, but no matter how many items you add, these categories are no way to think about what real philosophers are interested in or what is interesting about their work. From the reasonable human point of view of a young philosopher, it is offensive to be required to package yourself as a commodity and put a brand on yourself, expanding or lopping off your philosophical interests to make them fit these Procrustean categories. But looking at things from an instrumentally rational, institutional point of view, this is how deans and hiring departments have to frame their searches. So a job candidate who seeks a professional academic career has to put a brand on him or herself. This process should have begun well before you start your dissertation and should have played a role in your selection of a dissertation topic. If you can brand yourself differently for different positions, you ought to do that, since it improves your chances.
If you are applying for a position for which the advertised AOS and AOC are clearly different from yours, then you should realize that no matter how good you are at what you do, your application is very likely to be eliminated right away solely on the ground that you are not suited to the advertised position. You should always try to present your credentials in a way that shows how you do fit the advertised position. If you can’t do that, you probably should not waste your time applying. Panic may make it seem like a good idea to adopt the “shotgun” or “carpet bombing” tactic of applying to every position advertised in philosophy, regardless of the mismatch between your qualifications and the advertised areas. But that is a sad, desperate illusion.
The Letter of Application
The first thing I always look at in a job dossier is the CV. I often read this in conjunction with the Letter of Application, if there is one. Given my practices, such letters should not be too long. It applies to the whole dossier that the easier you make things for the readers of the dossier, the better your chances. Less is often more when it comes to the length of things you write. Given the way I do things, if your application letter is more than a couple of paragraphs, it probably won’t be read carefully, at least the first time through. (And for most applications, there will be only one time through, because most will be eliminated on the first reading.) If you can make a case for your appropriateness to the advertised position, you might do that, but only if it can be done succinctly.
However, remember that what I’m doing here is describing my own practices. I’ve been told that for some readers of dossiers, especially not at research universities, the letter of application is the most important thing of all. If it is too short, the applicant has little chance with such readers. I suppose the moral of the story is that what will help you at one place will hurt you at another, and you often have no way of knowing which is which. (Welcome to the job market.)
I read the CV to find out where the applicant has been educated, where and when they’ve gotten, or precisely when they will get their Ph.D., where they’ve taught already, and what their AOSs and AOCs are. If you have publications, or have given public presentations at conferences, these should be listed. Any other qualifications of a more unusual nature should also be brought to the attention of the reader of the CV. All this information should be presented in as clear, brief, and accessible a manner as possible. The arrangement of information on the page is important. The facts must leap out at the reader. If the CV has to be read slowly and carefully to get the essential information, then it won’t get across to a reader who is in a hurry, as search committee members always are.
Most CVs offer a summary of the candidate’s dissertation. You have only a few precious sentences in which to get across what your dissertation is about. Some may think that a dissertation summary is a place to make an interesting philosophical case. But that is not possible. Save it for your writing sample. If a dissertation summary requires the reader to turn to a second page, then don’t count on the second page getting read. In fact, a dissertation summary that takes more than one short paragraph is likely to be merely skimmed rather than read in its entirety. That’s not what you should want.
Please keep in mind that these are only my opinions and impressions. Others who are at least as well informed as I am would surely disagree with some things I say. I emphasize also that my practices may not be everyone’s practices. I have only casual and fragmentary knowledge about how others do things. The way applications are read at research universities is somewhat different from the way they are read at liberal arts colleges or other institutions that emphasize teaching and care less about research. Along the way, I will try to add a few comments (based on reports of others) about the practices of institutions different from the ones where I’ve worked.
At points, I will express disapproval of the way the hiring process works. I will sometimes combine my disapproval with doubts about whether in our world there is anything that can be done to correct what I disapprove of. But the APA Board of Officers has created a committee: The Subcommittee on Best Practices for Interviewing.
Parts of the present document, especially its bitter or sarcastic tone, might easily be seen as disparaging or even despairing of what this Subcommittee is trying to do. I urge you not to read it that way. I do disapprove of the whole interview process, as I will say later. But as long as it goes on (which it will, no matter what I may say), it is important that it be done as well as possible. Instead, interpret what I am saying as making a case for what this Subcommittee is trying to do. They clearly understand the process of interviews, campus visits, and academic hiring better than I do, and from more sides than I can. They are trying to improve the process. I applaud their efforts, and though this is not the place to review the documents they have produced, I endorse much of what they recommend. The point is that here I am not interested in advising those who conduct interviews. I am trying to look at things as they presently are from the standpoint of job candidates, and help job candidates deal with the world as it presently is.
My remarks are intended to be sobering, but not demoralizing. I admire all who devote their youth to the study of philosophy, and I wish there were more academic jobs for them. I am angry at the system, and I’m on the side of the job candidates, even of those I describe myself as eliminating in a job search the first time I look at their dossiers. Job candidates should keep in mind that many now successful philosophers—probably some of those now reading your dossier or interviewing you—failed to get a job their first year on the market, or even their second. It is up to you to decide if and when to give up your hope for an academic career. Nobody else—especially not a search committee that has eliminated you (perhaps hastily and unfairly)—can do more than give you one fallible datum bearing on that decision.
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.