Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Common job mistakes

I don't have any interviews yet and I'm starting to wonder whether I made some mistakes in my application materials, or whether it's all about where I got my degree. Given the standard ad asking for a cover letter, letters of recommendation, a cv, and a writing sample, I included all these along with a 2 page dissertation abstract. My cover letter explained where I got my Ph.D. (unranked program that I continue to believe is really very good), where I am now working (VAP at a SLAC), what my dissertation was about, and some stuff about teaching tailored to the job ad. I kept most of the letters to a single page. I have two good publications and (I am led to believe) very strong letters of recommendation, but no bites so far. Did I make a mistake in my application materials, or does pedigree trump all?

More generally, what are the sorts of mistakes that applicants make, so that we can avoid these next year? Comments from members of SC's would be most appreciated.


wpff said...

Pedigree trumps nearly all else--at least in my experience; a publication in Mind or Phil Studies notwithstanding.

Anonymous said...

I doubt you made any mistakes. Looking at the PMJB entries from last year, things didn't really start moving on the wiki until after Dec. 13th. So I wouldn't fret just yet; it's still a bit early.

After next week with no interviews, however, we can all start freaking out appropriately.

an ominous moderator said...

I'd like to believe that if you publish a good article in Mind, some decent department would take a chance on you, no matter where you got your degree. Do we have examples of actual people with pubs in Mind, Phil Review, or JP, but degrees from lackluster departments, who have failed to get decent jobs? For that matter, are there examples of people from lackluster depts publishing in those really prestigious venues at all? (I'm talking top 3 journals here--Phil Studies is good, but at least a couple steps down.)

Anonymous said...

I also looked back at old PJMB entries, and found a link to a thread on the Chronicle forum about mistakes that job candidates made.

The hands-down winner: the candidate who slept with a 17-year-old high-school-in-college student who attended the interview dinner—and made a video of it that the kid posted on MySpace!

So whatever mistakes you may have made, at least you didn't do that. (Did you?)

Anonymous said...

I think your description of your submissions looks good. One problem we have is with candidates whose cover letters are either a) so generic as to be useless or b) so minimnal as to be useless. Taking the time to address the particular job/institution is always good, particularl for slacs which are likely to be less concerned with pedigree.
Along the same lines, I strongly suggest that applicants think about the interests of the schools to which they are applying: if it is a teaching-oriented slac, going on and on about your dissertation and research plans and saying little or nothing about teaching is a very bad move.

Anonymous said...

Here's a worry about the cover letters. In the threads I've seen discussing cover letters, a significant number of people seemed to think that they were a waste of time. Maybe they aren't, but as it is pretty much common knowledge that this is a common attitude, shouldn't everyone's reaction to the insubstantial cover letter be relatively neutral? Now, if the information you had hoped to find isn't found in the subject's dossier, that's a worry. But, what could you hope to get in a cover letter? Assurances that you can teach the courses you're supposed to teach? What good are those? The dossier should contain evidence that the applicant can teach those courses that should render the letter otiose and if that evidence is missing the cover letter should count for squat.


I actually did take the time this year to tailor cover letters. I worked up a pretty substantial teaching portfolio. I have teaching awards, a goodly number of publications, a slew of letters, and I have one interview to show for it. My hypothesis: crap pedigree. No nibbles from an SLAC so far. I'm sorry, but I have a hard time thinking that an ABD grad student from a Leiterrific department can make a convincing case that they are better at teaching than I did in my application. So, I think I'm screwed.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 7:14:

Obviously, I can only speak for departments [including an R1] in which I have worked.
Think about it from the readers' perspective - especially those at slacs who know that many current job seekers all want to end up at Big U. We get 100-150 applications. We read the rec letters and the applicant's teaching statement, research statement, writing sample [once over], syllabi, and other materials. We try to decipher anything we get about teaching, even when folks send us numbers without explanations and student comments without the questions posed. A fair number of applicants are sending us all this even though nothing in our ad suggests a need in their area; still, we search through everything to read between the lines.
A good cover letter can tell us several things: 1) you actually may have some interest in our position; 2) where to find matters of specific interest to us in your materials; 3) you have the good sense to realize that the readers get worn out, too, and may fail to see whatever wonderful secrets are hiding in your packet; 4) you can write a coherent letter as well as a fine piece of philosophical analysis.
Do not underestimate the importance of appearing to be a professional who will become a good colleague.

Anonymous said...


I did think about it from the readers' perspective--that's why I wrote the cover letters.

Look, if departments were holding bad/thin cover letters against people I'd probably be doing better than I am right now. I also think that the readers should think about it from the writers' perspective. So, let me say something on the part of those who didn't put a lot of thought into the cover letters.

If you are on a hiring committee, your life is probably going pretty well. You probably have a modicum of financial security and a relatively light teaching load. The people writing the letters don't. Some teach 4+ courses or work second jobs. They probably are applying to upwards of 50 jobs. If you think that it's reasonable to expect such people to tailor letters for each of these jobs, that's mental. They've probably read that people don't actually bother to read the letters and may have actually been advised not to put anything into an application that isn't explicitly asked for. (I was given that advise as a graduate student by a committee member who said that he hated when applicants included materials not specifically asked for in the job ad. Yes, he held lengthy cover letters against people. He thought that these applicants were wasting his precious time.) Some departments do ask that you address certain issues in a cover letter, but most don't.

Having thought about things from both perspectives, I think it's sort of silly for readers to hold it against applicants that they didn't put much thought into cover letters. I did it anyway, fwiw, because I think lots of folks on hiring committees are deeply irrational. I have to say that it was wasted effort. Not much appreciation from hiring committees this year. I have only one interview.

Anonymous said...

Pedigree matters...a lot.

Recall the saying in business: "No one ever got fired for buying from IBM." The same is true in academia in which SCs are taking a big gamble with every hire (at least a $250,000 investment: $50k salary over 5 years on the tenure track). Thus, hiring from a top-20 department goes a long way in CYA. If the hire doesn't work out...who knew?

predicatelogic said...

There is no doubt that pedigree is important, but by the time you are applying, that's water under the bridge.

"There are things you can control, and things you can't" and all that.

Re: cover letters. I'd err on the side of including a more detailed cover letter, especially if you are applying to SLAC.

Here is the rationale. I served on a TT search at my SLAC. I was of the view that CL were more or less fluff. I didn't weight them much. But my colleague, the chair, thought they were absolutely central. If you wrote a crap cover letter, short and formulaic, you were not going to make it into his short list. I kid you not.

Many SLAC professors are very wary of research heads, a candidate who 'just doesn't get' the liberal arts missions. A brisk formulaic cover letter reinforces that worry and increases the probability that you'll get cut.

My hunch is that a short CL is much more likely to hurt you than a long CL, at a SLAC. Long here means not over 2 single spaced pages.

My comments here are all for SLAC's. Someone else will have to talk about R1 I am not at one.