Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Job stats, etc.

(Apologies to readers who aren't interested in this, but it's become a consuming interest for me, and I hope some of what I say will actually be helpful to people looking for jobs in philosophy.)

Two things have been bothering me since yesterday. One is Matt Pianalto's question about how much conference presentations count in a job application, and the other is where to draw the line between candidates who are "too good" for us and those who aren't. Partly I'm bothered because it's just so hard to know how to rate or rank candidates. But far more than that I'm worried about being unfair or part of a cruel system. It's so hard to know who the best candidate is that it seems almost impossible that we will succeed in hiring that person. (No offence to whoever we end up hiring!) On the other hand, if we play it safe it seems as though we can hardly go wrong. That is, we might not get the best person, but I'm very confident we'll get a really good person. Anyway, here are the facts.

I believe I have now seen every application file. We got a total of 156 applications. Only two of these that I can recall are not really qualified for the position. Of those who are qualified, about (I might have miscounted) 62 don't yet have their PhD and 58 have no publications yet.

If we automatically rule out people who don't yet have the PhD (which we haven't done, but I have been encouraged to downgrade their status) then we will miss out on some great candidates. On the other hand, we aren't exactly short of great candidates. So one way to make a first cut would be to do this. I don't think we will do it, but other schools might, and most of the people we interview will, I am sure, already have their PhDs.

Much the same goes for publications. What we really want in this regard is someone who will publish enough to get tenure, if the position becomes tenure-track. So promise is the really important thing. But people who have already published surely show more promise of publishing in future than those who never have so far. Especially if their publications are many and good.

Some people will probably be cut because their publishing record is too good or, more accurately, because they are being marketed as researchers rather than teachers-who-also-do-research. This includes people who have no publications yet. Having stellar publications is one thing that suggests a candidate belongs in this category, but the main things that do so are letters focusing solely on the candidate's research (with perhaps the occasional reference to teaching, apparently as an afterthought) and the absence of much teaching-related material in the application. I am aware that terrible injustices could be done here. There are people who very clearly ought to get jobs who might not do so because schools like mine see them as belonging to a different league but schools in that league see them as not quite good enough for them. But I've sounded this note before.

The most important thing is teaching, but this is also one of the hardest things to assess. One or more letters saying that the candidate is great in the classroom help, but don't prove much. Student evaluations also don't always provide a reliable picture of who is good and who isn't. But, just as you have to publish to get tenure (even if you are Socrates or Wittgenstein), you also have to appear to students to be a good teacher. So good evaluations from students are a very big plus. Candidates whose evaluations seem relatively weak might well be cut. So might those who simply don't provide such information. This won't happen automatically at our school, but candidates who have provided very favorable student evaluations will be at an advantage.

What about relevant expertise? Since pretty much all our courses are introductory, almost anyone with a PhD in philosophy should be OK to teach them. Anyone who looks doubtful in this regard will be at a disadvantage, but almost no one is in that position. Personally I care more about whether the candidate's work sounds interesting. If you work on Wittgenstein, Heidegger, virtue ethics, or military ethics, this will probably help. But we want someone to teach a philosophy of mind course, so that's a good strength to have too. We have even had applicants who work on several of these.

Having said all that, let me finish with a few important points:

  1. No one has been eliminated from consideration yet  
  2. I haven't read any of the applications very thoroughly yet
  3. At least one person that (at this preliminary stage) I think we should interview does not fit the profile outlined above 
  4. I honestly don't know how much say I will have in choosing who we interview, let alone to whom we will make an offer 
I hope this doesn't plunge anyone into despair. As I've mentioned before, I'm happy to answer questions. I'm also interested in hearing suggestions as to how best (most fairly and most prudently) to draw up a shortlist. Otherwise, I think I'd probably better leave the topic here before I either put my foot in it or get too boring. 

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