Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Advice to [and other information for] job candidates II

[Updates to the original post are in brackets. Thanks to Matthew Pianalto for spotting the need for some clarification.]

Too late for this year, no doubt, but perhaps this will help someone sometime. Having read over 100 application files now it's hard to resist saying something about what things make an application appealing to me and what has the opposite effect. It's important to distinguish, though, between what is merely likable (or irritating) and what actually helps (or hurts) an application. I'll get to the trivial stuff later.

What hurts?
  • No PhD yet. This won't hurt in every case, but some people don't finish when they expect to, and it can be hard to finish while working full-time. So having the PhD in hand is a definite plus. If you don't yet have your PhD but have reason to be very confident that you will by the end of the academic year, make this very clear in your letter. 
  • Little or no teaching experience (with sole responsibility for the course). 
  • No decent publications. By decent I don't mean top ten journals, just ones in journals I've heard of or think I should have heard of. An essay on pp. 131-132 of the Bulletin of the Duns Scotus Society (if there is such a thing) won't hurt you, but it won't help much either. Two is probably the ideal number of publications to have for a school like ours. It suggests that you will publish enough to get tenure but are not such a publishing machine that you will be unhappy at a school that puts teaching before research.  
  • Evidence that you are not a good fit for a teaching-oriented school, e.g. too many really impressive publications, letters that focus exclusively on your research (i.e. all your letters do this, not just some of them), references to how close you have come to landing a tenure track job at Big Name Research University.  This kind of thing doesn't make you seem too good so much as it suggests that you are likely to get a more attractive offer elsewhere and that you will try to leave if you ever do come here.
What helps?
  • Obviously having the PhD in hand, having taught several courses of your own (or several sections of the same one or two courses, perhaps), and having a couple of decent publications. 
  • Having won a teaching award.
  • Having student evaluations of your teaching in which you regularly score above 4.0 on a scale out of 5 for overall instructor effectiveness.
  • Having a detailed letter about what you do well as a teacher.
  • Having a record of attending teaching workshops or showing an interest in becoming a better teacher.
  • Doing research that sounds interesting. Obviously one person's interesting is another's boring, and different members of the same search committee might have different tastes, but I mention this because it seems to me to be a very big factor. I would guess that few hardcore analytic departments really want to hire a Continental philosopher, and vice versa, just to give one crude example. If all the ethicists in a department work on Kant and your dissertation is all about how badly misguided Kantian ethics is, they probably won't hire you.        
  • Letters of recommendation should be as recent as possible and should focus on your scholarship and your teaching. Three seems like enough letters to me. No one sends any fewer. Some people send two or three times as many as this, which doesn't hurt but doesn't do much good either.   
What else matters, albeit perhaps not as much as the above?
    • Our school is a military school, so having military experience or being from a similar school is a definite plus. This point won't generalize very well, but I suppose if you are Catholic and you're applying to a Catholic school, that would help in a similar way. 
    • Being someone who would add diversity to the faculty is, at least in my opinion, a plus. [Not that there is much you can do about this.] 
    • Evidence of service is good to see.
    • We have various programs that it would be nice if the person we hire could help with. For instance, we have a new program relating to poverty, so experience of teaching relevant courses is a plus. [If you have the time, it might be worth looking at each school's web site to see if you have experience or skills relevant to programs they might have that aren't mentioned in their ad. It probably doesn't matter enough for it to be worthwhile spending much time on this though.]
    • If you live nearby you will be cheaper for us to interview and are (possibly much) more likely to get an interview. [We are only doing on campus interviews.]
    What else does not matter but is either nice, irritating, or amusing?
    • Personally, I like cover letters that are one page long. For what it's worth (which is probably not much) I think they should briefly say what position is being applied for, highlight the best parts of the application package, and then say something about why you are a good fit for this job. It is common for people to be very precise about which job they are applying for, specifying the number assigned to it by the APA, for instance. This strikes me as unnecessary in most cases and should be cut out whenever it isn't needed, especially if you care about keeping your letter short and relevant.   
    • Our advert specifies that applications should be sent to "Search Committee." The people receiving the applications, rightly or wrongly, dislike seeing applications addressed to the department head, whose name is not mentioned in any of our ads. Especially when his name is misspelled. 
    • Don't try too hard to impress. If you're going to praise some characteristic of our students or the local geography, make sure it is a characteristic that is not imaginary. Come to think of it, perhaps all of the points in this list belong under the heading "Don't try too hard to impress." I made this mistake when I was on the market, so I understand why people do it. But it is a mistake.      
    Other advice:
    • Not everyone reads every writing sample (feel free to read between the lines) before the first cut is made. So your writing sample should probably come last in your application packet. Other materials placed after it might be overlooked otherwise, i.e. might be mistaken for part of the not-to-be-read sample. I have learned to double check, but other people reading your file might not learn fast enough.
    • In an attempt to treat everyone the same, and in order to save time, I have not been looking people up online. But occasionally there is a reason to make an exception to this rule. It's a good idea to try to ensure that what comes up when people Google your name is a professional-looking website and not lots of negative comments about you on ratemyprofessors.com. I don't trust that site, but who knows what others might think of it?  
    One final observation: almost exactly 10% of our applicants so far are women. That isn't very many. It could be the "military" in our name that puts off potential applicants who are women, but I suspect there just aren't that many women in the profession.

    More stats available upon request.


    1. All very helpful. I'm sending it to various people I know who are on the market. It might be worth adding--especially for the technologically disinclined--is that an easy enough way to manage your "web presence" is simply to set up an account on Academia.edu--these seem to hit pretty high in my experience (especially if people don't have faculty webpages).

      In terms of this being "advice," a few minor items might be re-framed in terms of what individual applicants can actually control (e.g. the point about diversity--something like: if there's a way of effectively but gracefully communicating that you would contribute to the diversity of the faculty, that would be good to mention). Similarly, the point about contributing to other programs: unless it's mentioned in the job ad, this is a place where applicants can show that they have "done their homework"--that is, if someone says, "I see VMI has a module on poverty and blah blah..." that shows that the person has taken an interest in the school and has made some effort to learn about it. I agree that looks good, as long as what's said (in the "blah blah") seems good and relevant and not like overreaching (or as you say, trying too hard to impress).

    2. Yes, Academia.edu is a good idea. I think I've seen some Google web pages too, which probably show up high in Google searches.

      You're right about the diversity issue. There isn't much you can do about this, after all.

      And right again on the other programs point. I know that if you're applying to lots of places it's hard to do much research on all of them. And it might take quite a bit of digging to find some things, which might not be worth the time involved. I just wanted to get it out there that there are things like this that can make a difference. I really don't think anything of this kind will make or break someone's application, but it could give you a helpful nudge.

    3. One more thing (question from a friend): you mention publications, but what about conferences? (There are lots of different sorts of conferences of course.)

    4. Conferences are good, yes. Beyond that I should stress that I'm really only talking for myself. But it seems to me that to get tenure these days you really need to have several publications in respectable journals (or a book), and the best indication (not the only one, of course) that this is likely to be no problem for you is to show a track record of publishing such work.

      I think that if I were on the market and read what I've posted here I'd be disheartened. If that's how your friend feels then I sympathize. The good news is that I don't think any single candidate really hits every single target, so the things I've listed as pluses are not necessary conditions. The bad news is that we might only interview somewhere between 3 and 6 people, and we have had some incredibly strong applications.