Advice for Applying for Academic Jobs in Philosophy: Indiana University Bloomington (Part 2)

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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 matterin 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 likein 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 wanta 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:  

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.  

 

5 thoughts on “Advice for Applying for Academic Jobs in Philosophy: Indiana University Bloomington (Part 2)

  1. “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.”

    Looking for ways to eliminate candidates does not make you seem like a jerk. The smug certainty you convey about your ability to do so does.

    You cannot consistently use your human limitations as an excuse for your behavior immediately after making claims like these:

    “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.
    ….
    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. ”

    Nor do those attitudes easily fit with your claim in Part 1,
    “I admire all who devote their youth to the study of philosophy, and I wish there were more academic jobs for them.”

    Why would you wish more academic jobs for the majority of applicants who, by your lights, do not possess “sharp, talented, well-trained philosophical mind[s]”?

  2. Derek, didn’t my parenthetical “(or at least the belief that I have the ability”) clue you in to the admission of self-doubt that goes with doing this kind of task — to the fact that none of us can ever be sure we have such an ability? But if, even after many years of doing it, we don’t approach writing samples with the assumption that we have such an ability, we could never do the job that a search committee has to do. If we could not judge samples fairly quickly and efficiently, no search these days would go anywhere. Perhaps none of us ever really acquires the ability quickly to tell a superior writing sample from one that is not (and of course I mean ‘superior’ not absolutely — whatever that would mean — but by comparison to the others now before us in this search). The hypothesis that none of us really has such an ability would explain why so many job searches result in bad or unfair outcomes. And of course I can and do wish there were jobs even for those who are not at the very top of the competition, especially when there are so many candidates and so few jobs.

  3. Allen,

    Thanks for the reply. You seem unaware of the attitude your words seem to convey when you say you think you can “spot a sharp, talented, well-trained philosophical mind rather quickly.” The implication of this claim – even asserted only under the “I believe” operator – is not that you’re doing the best you can under trying conditions that make it impossible to fully evaluate the philosophical strengths of all candidates. Rather, it is that the candidates that you eliminate during this stage, by and large, do not have “sharp, talented, well-trained” minds. If that were really true, it’s hard to see why you would wish for jobs for such a large group of apparent mediocrities.

    Having observed the patterns of success and failure – both of getting interviews and of getting jobs – of numerous highly qualified friends and colleagues, I have no doubts that search committees are able to identify a number of highly qualified candidates from among a large pool of high quality candidates. It seems like this would be enough for members of search committees to believe about their own abilities; why must you also believe that you haven’t failed to identify any number of additional excellent candidates whose promise and ability you might have been able to discover if only the conditions of the search allowed more careful attention to each candidate?

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