Monday, December 22, 2008

What do you want from us!?!

This is more of a question for members of search committees than those who successfully landed interviews. The reason I'm less interested in hearing from those who successfully landed interviews is that there's a good chance that the reason you landed interviews won't ever be a reason that I'll land an interview or others might land interviews. Most of us who want jobs don't come from Leiterriffic departments. So, what can we do to compensate for that? Something? Nothing?

I'm guessing that your answer will depend on the sort of department you work for. I thought that if you could beef up your teaching portfolio, this would impress the SLAC. If you get some pubs, that would impress research departments. As you might have guessed, none of this has brought me any luck and I'm now starting to fear that for most people the answer is 'Nothing'. But, I could be wrong. So, if there is something that can be done to overcome the lack of pedigree, we want to know what it is and who this sort of thing might work on. If some of you really wouldn't hire those of us from departments that aren't Leiterriffic it would be good to know. Some of us could give up and grad students could make some informed decisions.

Fwiw, this isn't a good thread for fighting and arguing. We just need some honest answers. Also, don't take the '!?!' as a sign of bitterness or frustration. My year wasn't as bad as it has been for many. I feel pretty okay about things at the moment.


missamerica said...

First, to clarify: where are you drawing the line between leiteriffic and non-leiterrific?

Second, this doesn't answer the original question, but I do think it's worth bearing in mind in discussions of this nature. There's at least anecdotal evidence that some, perhaps many, departments simply are not interviewing as many candidates as they normally would. And it's also being reported that some of last year's ABD's who succeeded in getting interviews are now getting either fewer or no interviews despite having defended.

Combine those considerations with the fact that there seem to be fewer jobs this year, not to mention more canceled searches than is typical.

Assuming all of this is true, it adds up to an atypical situation wherein what used to work for students from not-so-leiterrific departments is no longer sufficient, or at least just isn't sufficient this year.

Anonymous said...

Good question, missamerica.

I'm sure that wherever I'd draw the line that distinguishes the Leiterriffic from the not, I'm below it by a safe enough margin for me to say that I'm below it. But, I'll let people decide on their own what constitutes Leiterriffic and they might be kind enough to say about where they draw the line.

I'd like to think that departments are interviewing fewer candidates this year because it makes me feel better about the interviews I do have and about missing out on the ones that I didn't land. But, last year was a big 0 for me so even when it is a good year for the market it tends to be a bad year for some of us. If anything can be done about this after graduating from a program that is lower in the caste system, let's hear what it is.

Anyway, good luck with the search.


Anonymous said...

Okay, I'll bite. Here's a brief run down of MY experience, so far, as first-time, junior-level member of a search committee at a SLAC. The search is for a junior tt position. Some caveats to start. I doubt my impressions and practices are generalizable. Moreover, I am not interested in defending the practices I've employed. I think many of them aren't defensible, despite my belief that they were hard to avoid given time constraints. So...well... take it for what it's worth.

Sorting through and trying to rank 150+ applications is a slog. I ended up with the following procedure.

I start with the CV, looking to answer the following questions: When did the person receive their Ph.D? (In other words, how long have they been out of graduate school and what should I expect in terms of their professional output?) Does their AOS and AOC fit not only what we advertised in the JFP, but the needs and existing strengths of our department?

Next, have they published? Where have they published? It's worth noting while all (or most) SLAC care about teaching excellence, some put a greater emphasis on a strong research profile than others. At my school, you have to publish and assemble strong external letters. So we are looking for applicants who we think will likely make it through the tenure process. Quantity of publications matters less, a lot less, than journal quality. Conference presentations at the APA didn't make a bit of difference to me.

Next, I look at letters. Letters were the most important part of the applicant's file, BY FAR. I quickly began to get a feel for the difference between "strong" letters and letters that glow. Strong letters convey something along these lines: "Wow, this candidate is great, likable, talented; you won't be sorry you hired her." Unfortunately, the candidate probably wouldn't have ended up in graduate school if that weren't true. On the other hand, glowing letters, in very different ways, left me wanting to meet the applicant. Having lurked around on the various job market blogs and discussion boards, I've come to suspect that many bitter, angry applicants don't realize that their letters are just "strong".

Two additional aspects of the application file were connected to the letters: Teaching ability and pedigree. I was surprised how little I cared about academic pedigree. Honestly, I thought it would carry more weight than it did. HOWEVER, pedigree had an effect on me that I didn't expect. The letters from elite institutions were stronger; but this was not, I believe, the result of a bias in favor of more "famous" letter-writers. Instead, it struck me that these individuals had a great deal more experience writing letters and promoting their students. The result was a level of professional polish that was very compelling. I suspect that students from institutions higher on the Leiter list benefit in many ways from the professionalism of their mentors. (Probably not everyone on the SC committee shared my attitudes towards pedigree. Some of my favorite candidates--from unranked schools--were nixed by members of the committee, and I suspect it may have been connected to pedigree.)

As an SLAC, we care a lot about teaching promise; both in terms of interest and talent. The strongest indicators for these characteristics also came from letters. It was relatively clear when applicants, even those from exceptionally research-oriented institutions, had encouraged their letter-writers to comment on teaching ability. This spoke to their willingness to join a SLAC faculty.

I didn't bother reading writing samples until after we had generated our list of APA interviewees. And additional "teaching materials"--syllabi, course evaluations--were nearly useless.

Some final thoughts. (1) I worked with a very friendly SC in generating our final APA list. Still, there was a lot of disagreement and as a result a lot of compromise. I watched applications I was keen on slip off the short list. We all did. (2) I have no doubt that there were candidates left off the list who are stronger philosophers and teachers than 70% of the people on the list. It's lousy, but application files, as a means for providing information about candidates, is wildly imperfect. We don't have the resources, physically and psychologically, to correct for these inefficiencies and give every application the attention that would be appropriately commensurate to the applicant's interests. I remember being on the job market and marveling that *the rest of my life* seemed to be treated as such small thing by hiring institutions.

Personally, I'm dreading interviewing candidates at the APA. I do not enjoy seeing people squirm uncomfortably. I take no pleasure in conditions that magnify people's insecurities and anxieties. I'm not looking forward to making my best effort to be friendly and put candidates at ease only to give up after three interviews, having discovered that my efforts are both prohibitively exhausting and mostly futile. I'm dreading the possibility of sitting by while while my colleagues ask awkward or strange questions; I'll need to don my best poker face since interdepartmental collegiality is important (to me). And I don't want to be sitting in a big room, crammed full of other interviews, the place reeking of sweat and fear and misery.

We, the SC, know that the process sucks, is random, skewed, and unfair. If you didn't already know that, I'm sorry.

This is an absurdly long post. I hope there is something of value here.

Anonymous said...

Very, very helpful.

You seem much less evil than people from your side of the matrix are supposed to be.


Anonymous said...

Here are a couple of quick thoughts from another search committee member at a SLAC. We got over 200 applications. We still had many people from non Leiterific schools on our first cut, but in narrowing things down to our interview list, most of them fell off. Why? I'm not entirely sure, but I think it is a confluence of factors. Some people on our SC do care about pedigree, so that's one factor. (Our dean also cares about pedigree, and we have to get our interview list approved.) Some of the writing samples were disappointing. But I think I would have to agree with what the previous anon said about the quality of letters. Letter writers at the Leiterrific schools really know how to write letters. They can really convey, in an interesting way, what someone's project is and why we should care about it.

To disgaree with something from the previous anonymous, we do care greatly about teaching materials. We pore over evals (quantitative summary). We hate seeing massaged numbers -- why not just give us a straight summary of the data. Also when a CV lists that you've taught 10 classes, and you only send us evals for 1 class, some on our SC assume that the rest are not presentable.

As for publishing, if you are coming from a non-Leiterrific dept, it's important that your first publication/s be in top quality places. To "overcome" your pedigree, the external validation of a top quality journal helps. We would much rather see one piece in a top journal (doesn't need to be Phil Review, but say a top 10 journal) than 3 pieces in middling journals. You don't want a middling journal to seem to confirm your middling pedigree.

In any case, I don't think ours is a SC that went into things thinking that we would only interview from Leiterific depts but that is where we ended up, more or less.

Good luck to all in Philly.

P.S. One thing I meant to say earlier. If you have been on the market for more than one year, it also is really important that your letter writers update your letters in a significant way. I think many people who go on the market several times might be hurt by the fact that their letters are largely just re-dated, with a sentence or two added about the fact that the dissertation is now finished and that they're teaching at X State U.

Anonymous said...

Well, for what it is worth here is my story. I am a white male who works in history at an unranked department (i.e., I am as uninteresting as it gets.) But I have 5 interviews in Philly. How? Well, probably because a prof here and I are coauthoring a book which has been accepted by a top press. I also have one article in a first rate journal. My interviews are at very good SLAC and low level research schools (nothing ranked). I think the key is to have something unique about you to help you stand out.

Nevertheless, I am a bit worried because I believe that I am probably at the bottom of the list for most of these places (one place told me as much when I talked to them)... but who knows. Number 15 on the list does get the job sometimes. Right? Neverthelss, I am actually looking forward to the APA (my first time) and am hoping to meet/talk to some famous people. Good luck everyone! Try to have a good time!

Anonymous said...

I will be among those 'conducting' interviews at Philly. I'm sorry to say that the Anon at 11:02 is correct: doing these interviews is miserable work. I say this even though we are a group of very nice people who will try to make everyone feel comfortable and will never use gotcha questions.
Having said that, let me assure you that we try really hard to study every application file as carefully as we can. True, we look first to see if the candidate will fit our needs. The applicant's cover letter and the cv are the starting point, but many applicants do not flag information that is important to us on their standard cv. So, we look further. We read the letters of support carefully, and we do our best to make sense of teaching evaluations. We especially appreciate people who send us copies of the forms, so we can make some sense of the student repsonses. Candidate composed 'sample responses' are never a good sign. Send us the full array. Statments of teaching perspective can be very helpful, as can syllabi [even 'proposed' ones].
Writing samples tend to be read last.
We do not care much about pedigree in the Leiteriffic sense. We know something about most of the grad programs, so we can make educated guesses about the candidate's background and outlook. But, we are at a SLAC and that you come from a program Prof Leiter thinks is wonderful is not terribly important to us. We want people who are smart, articulate, love teaching, and will be good colleagues (hard working and fun). Of course, tt folks have to do some publishing to get tenure, and we want intellectually lively and productive colleagues. But, on the whole, who you are and what you are probably going to do professionally in the long run is more important to us than your program's 'pedigree.'
Hope that helps.

Anonymous said...

P.S. I keep reading about 'PFO' letters or calls. Please do not think this way. We cannot hire everyone; we can't even interview everyone. When you receive a rejection letter, chances are very slim that the senders are thinking anything like 'FO.' Most likely, they are thinking, "What an interesting/smart/promising/... candidate. I wish s/he fit us better/showed a real interest in being at a slac/was closer to finishing/...." It is true that, wading through several hundred files, sc members can get a bit silly, even snide. Nonetheless, when all is done we are sorry we can't interview more people; we're REALLY sorry we can't hire everyone who seems deserving.

By the way, the worst rejection letter I ever got was very simple:
"We have composed a short list and your name is not on it. This is not necessarily a reflecton on your qualifications." I've never forgotten it, and I will never treat anyone else so coldly.
Good luck.

too blunt by far said...

I have to say I rather like the wording of the rejection letter that offends anon 11:12/11:20. No form rejection letter could really say more than that--at best it just dresses up the same content with language that almost, but not quite, suggests that the rejected candidate really was very well qualified and just wasn't a good fit. But they can't say that, or even implicate it, because a lot of the candidates were rejected because they really weren't qualified. So they say things that could allow the rejected candidate to spin her own fantasy about how they really did like her a whole lot but there was some unfortunate reason they couldn't interview her. The whole rigmarole seems really fake to me--far better to just say what's true, in an honest, straightforward way.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of rejection letters, I'm still laughing about the one I got from Fordham. After rejecting me, the author wished me luck in my search for "suitable" employment. What, I'm not suitable for Fordham? Kiss my ass.

ML said...

Another former search committee member here.

Over the past five years, three of which included searches, I've fallen into the following habits.

1. I look at research first. If that's up to snuff, I take a close look at teaching evidence. If the applicant doesn't volunteer sufficient teaching evidence--e.g., if she only includes selections of student evaluations--I usually toss the application out.

2. I agree with the above SC members: a publication in a top journal is a good way for a graduate of a non-Leiterrific program to prove that she deserves an interview. I'm open to non-Leiterrific candidates, and often nominate them. In fact, I make a point of seeking these people out. I may be unusual in this, but not that unusual.

3. It is also my experience that the dean cares more about institutional prestige than the SC does. If we end up interviewing an unpublished candidate from Penn rather than a candidate with six good publications from Southern Whatever U., at least some of this is because we doubt that the dean would support a bid to hire the latter candidate. I know. It sucks. Other departments that are less beholden to their deans may not have this problem.

3. When we're searching in a subfield that just doesn't get published in top journals (think medical ethics, non-Western philosophy, or borderline cognitive science), I tend to be more impressed by quantity. The reason is simple: I have no idea whether the journals that publish their stuff are any good, by the standards of their subfield. Being at a loss to judge quality, therefore, I look for quantity.

4. Only after the committee has drawn up a short list do I start reading writing samples. Yes, I know this is shitty. But there just isn't time.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand the advice here about teaching evaluations. Of course I'm selective, as I assume everyone who has any real teaching experience (i.e., more than a couple of summer courses) will be. I've taught two dozen courses, and including all my evaluations would make my dossier ridiculously inflated.

I have no interviews this year, mostly because I got a TT job last year and only applied to a few positions in better locations this go around. So I'm not worried. All the feedback I've ever got from people who've read my dossier is the same: keep publishing, get more (i.e., more well-known) letter writers, and keep trying. If a SC discounts you over missing teaching evaluations, you're probably better off somewhere else.

missamerica said...

Anonymous at 10:35, I suspect you're misinterpreting ML's comment about selectivity re: one's teaching evaluations. I don't think ML was implying someone with your portfolio should include the evaluations for all two dozen courses. Rather, I suspect ML was referring to candidates who cherry-pick from one or more sets of evaluations, presenting only the positive evidence and omitting the negative. (At least, I hope that's what ML meant).

In your case, I think it'd be sufficient to provide copies of all the evaluations for your two most recent courses and offer to provide more for those who request them.

Anonymous said...

Just a bit of clarification about course evaluations. I teach 4+ each semester. Do hiring committees really expect me to copy the comments from the 200+ students I deal with each semester or does a numerical breakdown of their evaluation scores suffice?

Also, unrelated question, but when people ask you to talk about some course in an interview, I have to admit that I'm not 100% certain what it is I'm supposed to say. I talk about the course structure, a kind of narrative that ties the readings together, and maybe a bit about how I assess the students. What do you hope to hear from people when you ask this question.


Anon 11:02 again said...

Obviously you cannot efficiently provide written comments from 200+ student evaluations in your application package. I'd recommend being selective in choosing a single course when providing written comments. Then, from other recent courses, one-page summaries of raw data should suffice. Don't overwhelm a SC with too much data. (When I say 'be selective' however, do *not* cherry pick positive student comments. I mean select a single course.)

In general, I think the trick is presentation and organization. Make the information extremely easy to digest. I like the idea of a "cover" page that is something like an annotated table of contents. Here, make it clear what sort of class it is and how the class fits in to the undergraduate curriculum. In other words, what is the average class size at the institution? 15-20 students? 50 students? a 100? How many students were enrolled in this particular course? Is the course aimed at majors? lower-division non-majors? All those sorts of things give readers a context for making sense of the data. Explain what the other contents of the package are. Are there summaries of data for additional courses?

On the summaries of data, I would literally insert typed notes into the document itself explaining what the numbers mean and what numbers to look at specifically. You could manage this just by photocopying the documents (and the attached notes) in creative ways.

Syllabi are essential, even if they are for courses you haven't taught. (Make this clear though.) I was impressed to see syllabi for projected courses in the AOS and AOC we listed in our job advertisement.

Regarding questions about teaching during interviews, I feel like I have less to offer. I can't help thinking that candidates who do well are candidates that effortlessly demonstrate that they're interested in teaching by the sorts of thoughts and ideas they have about teaching: Why do they use the readings and texts they do? How would they teach an advanced course in Topic X? Perhaps explain that you have more than one idea on how to teach such a course. I think any good teacher should have a number of ideas about how to put together an introductory Philosophy course. Creative ideas for how to teach students how to write and work through philosophical arguments and problems. And on and on and on. If you've spent free time thinking about this stuff over the course of three or four years, and you have some enthusiasm for the practice of teaching, it'll be apparent and it is attractive to SLAC and other teaching institutions. We want colleagues that will attract majors.

ML said...

Missamerica is right: what I meant by "selective evidence" of teaching effectiveness is cherry picked evidence. Just about anyone who has a track record can find a couple dozen student evaluations that give rave reviews. What I want to know is whether these evaluations are representative of your teaching overall, or at least your teaching of the past year or two.

Anon 11:02 describes an ideal or near-ideal teaching portfolio that accomplishes all of the above without overwhelming the reviewer with information. I'd stress that it's good to have the quantitative scores for all or almost all of the classes you've taught. But the qualitative results need only be from a couple of recent courses, so long as all of the qualitative results are included.

JA: I find your type of answer very helpful. A list of readings linked together by a narrative works very well. The narrative really sells the class.

Anonymous said...

Hey everyone,

I want to again thank everyone for their input. It's incredibly helpful for those of us cramming to get ready for the interviews. Hope that you all enjoy the rest of the holidays, I'm really looking forward to the Eastern.


Anonymous said...

Our department's been hiring this year so I've been pestering people on the committee about what sets some people apart from others. The answers I've gotten so far is that it's mostly letters and writing samples that get people noticed. Publications are good too but it seems that with candidates straight out of PhD programs, there isn't an expectation for publications.

So it seems to me that if you can't rely on the reputation of your department to get you a job (which I don't think even the "Leiteriffic" folks can), what you need to do is make contacts with someone well respected in the area you work in, convince them that you aren't an idiot, and get them to write you a sweet, sweet letter. Then you should learn how to write decently and write at least one thing that you think will impress people. If you do that, it seems (from what folks tell me) that you should be able to get a job somewhere.