Monday, November 19, 2007

Applying For A Philosophy Job: Getting To The APA

Recently, there has been a flurry of discussion about the process of applying for a faculty position in a philosophy department. Indeed, there is now a blog going by the title A Philosophy Job Market Blog. A particular post there was commented on at length at The Leiter Reports Blog and has even inspired extensive comments.

Having served on numerous hiring committees, both in philosophy and in another discipline, I have a few words of advice for people who are going on the market. I will share these thoughts here. At some point in the future, I will have some suggestions for people about the notorious APA interviewing process. Before beginning though, let me add a couple of caveats. First, I succeeded in getting a tenure-track position my first year on the market. As this was during one of the tougher phases in the market, I may know a thing or two about how to succeed, as I was not graduating from an especially fancy school, however this does not mean that I am an expert on these matters. Second, I can only offer advice based upon my own experiences, as a member of a hiring committee. The views of others should also be consulted. Finally, it is also probably worth noting that what is said here may also apply to other academic areas -- just substitute your subject area's 'hiring fair' for 'APA', etc., if you are not a philosopher.

1) It is a profound mistake, though a common one, to think that the academic hiring process is a rational one. As philosophers, we have an inordinate affection for rationality. This affection can blind us to the fact that even philosophers are human and, as such, are subject to all sorts of foibles. Although a veneer of rationality is maintained during the hiring process, it is nothing more than a veneer. There are all sorts of preferences and prejudices that show themselves when committees are meeting and trying to make sensible choices. I will support this claim with just two examples. In one case, a file that I thought had some merit was rejected simply on the basis that the candidate described themselves as coming from 'The Commonwealth of Virginia'. To this day, I have no idea why this was viewed as being problematic, or even relevant to employment as a philosopher, but both other members of the committee would not permit this application to move forward once this had been noticed. In another case, a candidate who had reasonable publications and areas of specialization and competence that would have made them a very good fit for the position was rejected because the chair of the committee had met this individual and believed that they were "an arsehole". No amount of argument could persuade him/her to put this person onto the APA interview list. The point here is that the hiring process is not rational.

2) If you want to have a chance of getting onto the APA shortlist, publications really matter. There seem to be two views on publications in grad school. One view is that one should try and publish and publish as much as possible. The other view is that one should just get on and finish the dissertation. While it is true that being ABD and being nowhere near finished is certainly a deal breaker, I at least think that publications matter. One reason for this is that publishing is not an entirely straightforward matter. It is important to know where to send your work. It is also the case that it is worth getting used to the fact that it can take months, or years between submitting a manuscript and getting a final answer on the disposition of the paper. One also generally has to learn to handle the occasional referee who wants changes that make no sense. Learning how to navigate the world of academic publishing can take some time. Thus, a person who has some publications will be better equipped for life on the tenure-track, than a person who has no publications.

Another reason why publications matter is due to the fact that in most cases, past performance is the best predictor of future performance. When a file is being looked at for a tenure-track position, one of the questions that the committee members are probably asking themselves (or at least they should be) is whether they are looking at the file of a person who can make tenure, or not. Many freshly minted Ph.Ds appear to have 'potential'. Unfortunately, the vagaries of life in general and the academic game in particular, means that not everyone will actualize their full potential. Thus, a person who is on the way to having a tenure file that is well stocked will appear much more attractive (and thus, a much better candidate for an APA interview) than someone with mere potential. These then are the reasons why publications really matter.

There is one final thing to mention here though. Sometimes having publications can count against you too! Some departments have an internal tension between faculty members who are productive researchers and faculty members who are not (they usually see their role primarily as being that of a teacher). In such cases, the 'teachers' may see too many publications as a sign that a candidate will naturally gravitate to the other camp. Thus, although it makes very little sense, in such a case, publications can actually count against you.

3) Show the committee that you understand the profession and that you can read! This may seem like silly advice, but it is not. There is always a temptation to apply for the job that does not really sound like you, but which you think you might be able to do, in a pinch. Please, DO NOT DO THIS!!! It is a waste of paper, a waste of stamps and a waste of your time and ours.

Sitting down in front of a huge stack of application files is a long and tedious job. The job is made much worse by applicants who clearly are not suitable for the position, but thought that they would send in an application 'on the off chance'. On one famous occasion, I was sitting on a hiring committee for a position in a rather new and quite technical area. As I was going through the files, I came across two files that just made me angry. One was from an engineer, with no philosophical training, who thought that he/she could do the job, because they wanted to. The second file was even stranger. It came from an individual who was actually quite strong in their own historical area, but had no apparent skills in our area of interest. The explanation for the application appeared in the letter of application. The applicant informed us that as nobody really knew too much about the new technical area we were hiring in, they were perfectly qualified for the position! I leave it to the reader to try and figure out the missing parts of the argument here.

One final thing on this point, it is always a good idea to proof read your application letters! When an applicant appears to be applying to the wrong department, or in the wrong area, they seldom get offered an APA interview. So, it pays to check your application letter before putting it in the mail.

4) Make sure you put a telephone number where you can be reached somewhere easy to find in your application materials. This may again sound obvious, but is important. On no less than two occasions we have wanted to meet with candidates at the APA, only to discover that we cannot get in touch with them. I recommend numbers on the first page of the Vitae and in the application letter. It is also a good idea to put alternative numbers too. Many people do not check their office telephones over the break. Sometimes, people travel for the holidays. If some place wants to talk to you at the APA, they want to hear a human voice, not just a message. This is because scheduling interviews is often quite tricky. Leaving a message and sending an e-mail and then not hearing back within twenty-four hours is a pretty sure method to lose your chance of that all important first APA meeting.

5) In your application materials, try and avoid saying things which are too obvious. After a day or two of digging through files, reading for the umpteenth time that a person has an 'important' research program, or that they 'love to teach' does not impress too much. One thing to ask yourself about claims that you are going to make is 'how would the opposite claim sound?' It is pretty obvious that nobody is ever going to claim that their research program is 'profoundly irrelevant', or that they 'hate to teach'. However, this fact alone makes such optimistic assertions of dubious merit.

If you want to impress people with your research, try giving a concrete example of why your work matters. Just saying that 'my dissertation research has implications for metaphysics and epistemology' is not going to cut it. Pointing out how some of the research has been accepted into print, is much more effective. Another effective strategy is to make the case that your work should be able to attract grant funding. However, here you need to give specifics. Saying 'I expect to attract big grants' cuts very little ice. However saying, 'I intend to explore funding from the Whatever-Foundation, under their Really-Important-Philosophy-Stuff program' will be much more effective.

Similar points apply with teaching. As students, we have all probably had professors who made it clear that they think that they are quite brilliant and gifted teachers, when in fact they were no much good at all. So, in the case of teaching, explain what you do that makes your classes so exceptionally good. The thing to keep in mind in all these cases is that evidence always beats rhetoric.

6) Be modest about your exceptional skills. Some candidate are tempted to make themselves sound more interesting in their applications by emphasizing their skills outside philosophy. You may have a black belt in origami, play concert violin, cook world class cookies, or whatever. Unfortunately, none of this is relevant to an application for a philosophy job. Leave mentioning this kind of thing to your letter writers. You might be a brilliant Celtic musician, but the committee is not interested in this, they want to know about your philosophy skills. Indeed, this kind of thing can worry committee members. After all, if you really are that good at 'whatever', then how much time and energy will you have left over to do the job you hope to get hired for? However, if a referee says in a letter something like "X is nice to have around, as they can play the Y wonderfully/can cook the best cookies in the world/is fabulous at 'whatever'", then it becomes a bonus, not a liability.

I hope that these suggestions are helpful to those who are in the process of putting themselves forward for philosophy positions this year. We have all been there. We know how tough the process can be. We really do hope that you succeed. However, by writing this, I hope that you can gain a little insight into what it is like to be on the other side of the process. You have your dissertation to finish, papers to send to journals and probably a huge pile of grading to boot. Although we do not have the mill stone of the dissertation, we too have the papers to get out and probably an even larger stack of grading. Instead of the dissertation, we have a huge pile of files from applicants desperate to secure our position. Thus, we are in parallel binds. Good luck!

The CP

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It would be helpful if you could let your readers know what portions of the job market your experience speaks to. In particular, whether you have had experience on hiring committees only at research-oriented schools, teaching-oriented schools, or both. If both, it would be helpful if you could let your readers know whether there is a difference in what is expected between the two markets.

12:06 PM  
Blogger The Combat Philosopher said...

Anon.,
Your question is entirely reasonable. Unfortunately, it is a little difficult to answer. There are two reasons for this: (1) I rather value the anonymity of this blog, so I have to constrain what I say so as to not reveal too many details. This is one of the reasons that I have made no clear references to research areas. (2) My experiences are at a single institution, but across two distinct programs. One, at least in theory, is far more research oriented than the other.

However, the situation is really more complicated than this. Indeed, this is a matter I was going to address in a later post on this topic.

In theory, the program I have mostly been involved in has both a research and a teaching component. In practice though, some folks think that the teaching component is the most crucial, while others view research as being primary. It is also the case, that over time, different conceptions of the relevant program have managed to get the primary emphasis.

Historically speaking, the strong research hires have almost always been pretty strong teachers too. Unfortunately, fears of not being able to make a hire at all have been used by other factions to make hires with minimal research credentials. Even in these cases, the teaching credentials are far from clear and unambiguous. However, research profiles have seldom improved over time.

So, although your question is sensible, the actual situation is such that a simple answer cannot be given. For my own part, I am deeply committed to the primacy of research. I believe that it is a necessary condition for a well-rounded faculty member at an institution of our rank. Apparently, this is not a view that is widely held. I believe that this is both a shame and a mistake.

I hope by making explicit some of the tensions that underlie the whole process of hiring a tenure-track faculty member, job candidates will gain a better appreciation for why institutions sometimes make such apparently strange choices. Sometimes, that old adage about a Camel being a Horse, designed by a committee, has more than a little truth behind it.

The CP

8:42 PM  
Blogger Bobcat said...

The CP wrote:

"If you want to impress people with your research, try giving a concrete example of why your work matters. Just saying that 'my dissertation research has implications for metaphysics and epistemology' is not going to cut it. Pointing out how some of the research has been accepted into print, is much more effective. Another effective strategy is to make the case that your work should be able to attract grant funding."

Some questions:

1. When you say why your work matters, should you say this in your cover letter or in a separate research statement?

2. If you think you're supposed to say it in your cover letter, how long do you think this cover letter should be?

3. Regardless of where you're supposed to say it, what stuff can you say to convince people of this? E.g., if you do mental causation, should you tell a story about why your research matters for elucidating the nature of causation in general?

4. You say that pointing out how some of your research has been accepted into print is one way of showing that your research matters. But while this shows that some people think your work is good enough for publication, I'm not sure I would say that counts as showing that your research 'mattered'; in some sense of 'matters', I think almost no philosophy 'matters', but I love doing it, which is why I do it. I guess that's not a question.

5. Do many people actually talk about how they can get grants? In philosophy? If so, this is a world I never knew existed.

10:43 PM  
Blogger The Combat Philosopher said...

Bobcat, Thanks for the questions. Here are some attempts at replies.

'Bobcat' [no associated blog] asked: 1. When you say why your work matters, should you say this in your cover letter or in a separate research statement?

I would suggest both. The cover letter should just be the high points. Research statements are usually read after cover letters. Give the details in the statement. Get people to read the statement by putting 'teasers' in the cover letter.

2. If you think you're supposed to say it in your cover letter, how long do you think this cover letter should be?

This is always a tough question. Generally speaking, I find the two line cover letter too short and the three page one too long. Remember, the committee has to read probably 100 of these, or so. Between one and a half pages and two pages seems about right. It is really important to make it tight though. A cover letter is not a place to blow smoke. That being said, not everyone even reads cover letters closely. I do. However, this could just be a foible of mine.

3. Regardless of where you're supposed to say it, what stuff can you say to convince people of this? E.g., if you do mental causation, should you tell a story about why your research matters for elucidating the nature of causation in general?

The case of mental causation is perhaps a bit tricky. However, if a persons work can provide an explanation of a systematic error that people make in causal reasoning, then that would be good.

A clearer example might be for someone working on environmental stuff who can make specific suggestions about how a particular strategy might benefit the planet and yet not be too expensive for business types. I guess the key here is to keep in mind that mandatory philosophy of science class we all had to take. Predictions are good. Falsification conditions are good too. The bottom line though is to make it concrete!

To briefly return to the mental causation case, if one bit of philosophy can provide an explanation of why engineers make causal errors in their reasoning (thereby leading to bridge collapses etc.), while another bit of philosophy does no such thing, then I know which of the two would get my vote.

4. You say that pointing out how some of your research has been accepted into print is one way of showing that your research matters. But while this shows that some people think your work is good enough for publication, I'm not sure I would say that counts as showing that your research 'mattered'; in some sense of 'matters', I think almost no philosophy 'matters', but I love doing it, which is why I do it. I guess that's not a question.

The 'matters' issue is an especially tricky one in philosophy. The virtue of getting stuff into print is that it is then available for consideration and critique. An individual who has solved, say, the problem of induction, but never gets it into print will never get tenure. Also, without putting ideas out there, one may really engaging in (possible) fiction writing. It does not matter.

However, the issue here is about getting that call for the APA inteview. If nobody thinks your stuff is good enough to publish, then it may not be much good -- who knows? I am certain that there are many brillaint solopsists out there.

5. Do many people actually talk about how they can get grants? In philosophy? If so, this is a world I never knew existed.

Much of this depends on your area. Some areas are better funded than others. However, doing a little research and finding out if there are any grants is really worth doing. Deans love that stuff. Money talks. It may take some digging, but that is a research activity. Being good at research impresses committees.

For what it is worth, I have pulled in some quite reasonable 'bucks'. To make the point another way, if you are the kind of person who may be able to bring the university more money than they pay you (along with prestige, etc.), then you are worth putting onto that APA shortlist. It is certainly one way to 'stand out' from the rest of the crowd. It beats the hell out of baking good cookies.

The CP

12:11 AM  
Blogger Canadian Pragmatist said...

What mandatory philosophy of science class are you refering to?

2:19 AM  
Blogger William Parkhurst said...

Thank you for setting aside the time to write this as a benefit to the philosophical community in general. I particularly enjoyed to your comments about the rationality of the process.

I'm going to post a link to your article on My blog PhilosoraptErs.

In one of my recent posts on issues for the profession, I brought up the issue that academic philosophy does not offer a very good way to dig oneself out from under one's pedigree as far a job applications go.
I was hoping The Combat Philosopher or others might post some possible solutions to these issues either in the comments or on their own blog. Please let me know about other issues which should be added to this list.

http://philosorapters.blogspot.com/2011/05/list-of-issueschanges-for-professional.html

These issues seem important to the profession and I believe that the blog sphere is the perfect place for brain storming.

Thanks again for the inside look at the hiring process.

9:48 AM  
Anonymous cheap viagra said...

This is something I've lived because I attempt to apply for it and the company which was hiring made me many tests in order to know if I had a mental illness, it is one of the most important steps that they took into account.

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