An anonymous reader writes in:
With decisions pending on who to interview for jobs this season, I’d urge members of search committees to bear in mind the following things:
1. At many top departments, it is part of the job description of faculty (officially or unofficially) to pull out all stops to get their supervisees jobs. There is often considerable pressure on them to do so (enforced by the chair, dean, and others). If they fail, this is a strike against them, professionaly. If they succeed, they are lauded (or, at the least, esteemed). Moreover, having forged relationships with their supervisees for 5+ years, they have often come to sympathise greatly with the cause of these particular individuals (a cause that is, naturally enough, in their minds, imperilled by the especially dire job market). As a result, it may be wise to take their phone calls, urging emails, or glowing letters of reference with a grain of salt. (The same, of course, often applies to many letter writers from non-top departments.)
2. Given the number of places available in top ten grad programs, and the number of applicants, who got into which program in the first place was largely a matter of luck. So, it isn’t as though applicants from top ten programs are more likely to be “natural born geniuses” (if anything, they’re likely to be “natural born hard workers & effective networkers”). There are plenty of super smart people distributed throughout the entire top fifty programs. Keep in mind that many of those who got into top ten programs did so because they happened to be applying from prestigious undergrad programs, and/or have been mentored by famous philosophers, who (sometimes out of personal concern or pressure from department chairs) wrote them glowing letters or sent urging emails.
3. While it may be true that interviewing or hiring a top ten-program applicant will help your faculty, or you personally, build professional bridges with their famous advisers, this is—how shall I put this—an objectionable motivation to give someone an interview or hire them. And even if it will please your dean should you manage to hire someone from, say, Stanford, you and your department will be better off in the long-run hiring someone from a less well-known university who is a better philosopher. Also, if you really are purely self-interested, just think how grateful this person will be for your having given them a job (or a chance at a job) based on the quality of their work, rather than (consciously or unconsciously) their links with famous philosophers.
4. While publication success is surely some indication of philosophical ability, many referees for the top journals work at, or are closely connected to, the very institutions that many of these top ten applicants are coming out of (many are even supervisors, or friends of supervisors, of these applicants). Many, therefore, know the identities of grad students whose papers they are reviewing, and may already know the paper quite well (or even have helped shape it, through comments at seminars, email correspondences, etc.). Referees rarely disclose such connections, and when they do, journal editors often ask them to review the paper anyway, “trying their best to stay impartial”. It is, of course, extremely hard to stay impartial under these circumstances.
What’s the upshot? Obviously, I’m not suggesting one shouldn’t interview applicants from top ten programs. There are many brilliant young philosophers at these institutions. I’m merely saying: please bear in mind the above. And please read writing samples (!). And read them (as best you can) as if you didn't know who the author is, where they are applying from, and who they are connected with.
The future of philosophy is in your hands. Happy hunting!
Employed But Concerned.