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A.P. Taylor

I also find it bewildering that many committees overtly limit the number of reference letters to three. But here is how I determine which three to include (ymmv): (i) the most important letter is the one from my dissertation chair, this is, obviously, the person who knows me, and my work, best (in my case also because we've co-authored a few articles together), (ii) the next most important letter is the one from the philosophy program director at the school where I am currently working as a full-time lecturer which addresses teaching, because I have been told by my PD that (a) it would look strange not to have a letter from my current post, and (b) everyone should have a letter that addresses teaching, and (iii) my third letter depends on the type of job being applied to, I do both metaphysics and ethics, so for metaphysics jobs, I go with a diss committee member with whom I also took many metaphysics courses, and for ethics jobs I go with a professor at my grad dept. with whom I took many ethics courses.

I figure this approach lets me tailor, to some degree, the materials in order to fit the position. Granted, I hate doing this, and I only do it if there is an overt limitation. At any rate, for such applications, I have to leave off letters I have from 2 rockstar professors. Which I think must do some damage to my prospects, which is appalling. It seems to me that the 3 rec rule will always bias searches in favor of PhDs from prestigious schools, since their letters will invariably be from rockstars and thus those folks will not have any hard choices to make.


"It seems a bit strange to me to limit the evidence that a candidate might submit on their own behalf in favor of their candidacy."

Two points. First, most places limit the writing samples to one. But this doesn't seem strange to me. Second, I think that the the limit is potentially a good thing. Not everyone comes from big departments or from major metropolitan areas where potential letter writers are in abundance. So by limiting the letters to three, people from small or isolated programs don't have to worry as much about New York or Boston grad students submitting so many letters.


Regarding 1: One great service that Placement Directors can perform (if you have one), is to read your letters and advise you on which to use. If you don't have an official Placement Director, it might be worth "appointing one for yourself" to help you out here. With respect to a limit on the the number of letters, I doubt this will hurt you. My sense (only anecdotal from being on committees and talking with peers), is that the only people who really care much about who writes your letters are folks at top research program.

Regarding 2: Just, like, my opinion man, but I doubt applying early is worth any extra effort. Most people are too busy to look at applications as they're coming in, and neurotics like myself who do only glance at them.

Regarding 3: I think it's advisable to provide a writing sample in the designated AOS. If the committee wants a scholar of X, they want to see your scholarship in X. Direct their attention to your great paper in area Y as a secondary on your website.


I have a job-search question. There seems to be quite a bit of disagreement about the use of letterhead for academic job cover letters. People seem split into three groups:

1) Always use the letterhead from your current department, no matter what status you currently have (grad student, VAP, adjunct, tenured, etc).

2) Only use letterhead if you are a grad student. If you are trying to leave your current institution, then it is in poor taste to use their letterhead.

3) Never use letterhead, since your application is not the business of your current institution.

The practices of different disciplines may vary, but most I have talked to (or read) go with number 1. In fact, someone I know who just served on a committee (in English) said nearly every cover letter was on letterhead. I have read others who are quite bothered by this practice (for a variety of reasons, including the claim that this presupposes theft). It has not been my practice in the past to use letterhead. Should I (I am a VAP at the moment)?

Marcus Arvan

Peter: I've always been told that one *should* use letterhead, and I'm a bit puzzled by your suggestion that it is in poor taste or presupposes theft if you use letterhead from your present institution.

I've never come across either of these worries before, and the way I understand it, if you're an academic employee of a university, you have every right to use their letterhead. You are a member of the university, and so are fully entitled to represent yourself as such.

Alex Guerrero

Quick answers, based on my own experience serving on hiring committees for various things.

(2) Is there any sort of advantage/disadvantage to applying early?

There is a small advantage to applying early, if there are people (like me) who probably look more closely at files when there are only a few to look at, and grow overwhelmed quickly as the number swells. I would look closely at the same X, Y, and Z for each candidate, but if your file came in early, I might well have also looked at U, V, and W. Whether this helps you or not depends on whether it was good for your candidacy for someone to look at those things... This is all for the early-stage cut. For later stages, after the long short list has been created, I doubt it makes any difference at all. Still, as you suggest, little downside.

(3) If you have an AOS in two areas (say, Ethics & Political Philosophy) and you're applying to a job in one of those areas (e.g. an Ethics job), are you at at a disadvantage if your writing sample is a piece of work from your other AOS (your best piece of published work so far is in political)?

Yes. If your writing sample is not in the AOS for the job, you are at a disadvantage. You should send a writing sample that is in the AOS for the job. There will be 100+ people who do have a writing sample in the AOS. Be one of those people. To defend this practice a bit: if your writing sample is not in the AOS, then I don't know how you fit in the AOS, I worry you might not really want to be in the AOS (teach or research in the AOS), and I can't get to know your work in the AOS just by reading your writing sample. This should be job market 101. In general, think about how people are looking for reasons to EXCLUDE excellent applications, not about how people might charitably INCLUDE excellent applications. There are far, far too many excellent applications for every position out there.


Marcus, I don't deny that people's views on this are puzzling. In any case, some of my concern comes from comments made here: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/hacking-the-academic-job-cover-letter/43522

Here are some examples:

Use of one's current employer’s paper letterhead in a job application signals to committees I’ve served on that the applicant is a thief, someone who has no compunction about plundering office supplies -- including eventually yours should you decide to hire him/her.

A different author:

A cover letter represents *you*, not your current university. I have been on many search committees over the years, and cover letters on letterhead are almost always viewed as a breach of basic etiquette, at best. Some consider using letterhead for personal business to be unethical. Job seekers: tread very carefully here.


I think the confusion within this thread stems from not specifying whether we're talking about grad students using their department's letterhead & envelopes (usually okay) and current faculty looking to leave their post for elsewhere, using the resources of the institution they're leaving to aid in their defection (not always okay).

Marcus Arvan

Peter: Thanks for the follow-up, and for the link. I have to confess that I am flabberghasted by this. I've never come across such concerns before, and am dismayed that someone might consider me a thief, or guilty of some impropriety, for doing. But I guess I'll have to change my ways, as I certainly don't want to appear that way. :/


Peter: I always used the letterhead of the university I was at when I was on the market, whether it was my grad institution, my first or my second lecturer position.

That said, one professor at my grad institution used to complain about this practice. He didn't think lecturers or grad students should use department letterhead. He thought it amounted to a kind of fraud--pretending to be something you're not. The rest of the department (12 or so professors) told him they didn't care, and to leave us alone. My dissertation director instructed me to always use letterhead.

I've now served on four search committees. I do not care one bit whether you use letterhead or not. It makes absolutely no difference to me.


Some schools have asked for "evidence of teaching qualification/effectiveness." What exactly are they asking for here: teaching statement? student evals? course syllabi? all of the above? some of the above?

the real grad


I think it's pretty open-ended, but what you list is standard. Include whatever you feel would count as evidence, while at the same time being appropriate for an application.



What TRG said seems right to me. It's also helpful to get one of your profs (or a colleague for lecturers out there) to watch you teach a class or two and write something up for your file.


(2) advantages to applying early?

I don't look at any applications until our deadline passes. I then go through them alphabetically. I've gotten the impression (but it is just an impression) that most of my colleagues don't look at files before the deadline either. I don't know how they sort them when they do look at them.

(3) sending writing sample outside of requested AOS?

I agree with Alex that it wouldn't be wise. For me the biggest issue would be the questions it would raise about the candidate's interest in the AOS long-term. At my school, we each teach a couple of classes in our AOS for our majors. We aren't a research university, but we are expected to stay active in our fields.

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