Our books

Become a Fan

« Should grad programs and the APA do more to help philosophers secure non-academic jobs? | Main | Is JAPA satisfying its Editorial Statement so far? »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Clarification please

Please clarify the last paragraph. What was "dead wrong"? The grammar of the sentence makes it unclear.


Although it will be very interesting to read notes from search committees, unless enough submissions appear and some psychological/statistical analaysis done, there will be little value for job applicants.

I'd be willing to help do this later if enough submissions appear.

Shen-yi Liao

It seems that this committee member does not think there is not much information in cover letters. Yet, this committee member seems to make a lot of judgments based on, to me, fairly arbitrary preferences: misspelling a university is forgivable but mentioning a name is gimmicky. (The job market advice are so varied that I personally find it difficult to penalize, i.e. disfavor, any candidate on such basis.) So, why not just skip reading the cover letters altogether?

I agree with this committee member that there is so much stochasticity in the interview selection process. However, I think there's just as much stochasticity in the journal refereeing process. So, I'm not sure so much weight should be placed on that. Indeed, given the few number of referees involved, I would even question whether it'd qualify as an instance of Wisdom of Crowds.

Marcus Arvan

Clarification please: I cannot speak for the author, but it seems to me that meaning of the sentence you asked your question about is clear.

The author writes, "We have, in the past, declined to interview candidates who subsequently got jobs at much better places...I assumed that everything was by the numbers, that grades, acceptances and rejections, rankings and other ‘objective’ measures, were absolutely correct—and that I should never aim higher than what the numbers told me. Speaking from the Other Side...I can now assure people on the job market, that this is dead wrong."

This says that [A] in the past, the author's committee decided not to interview people on the basis of "objective" measures [e.g. publications], [B] many of the people they decided not to interview on these grounds ended up having fantastic careers, [C] she wishes they had interviewed them, so [D] It is a mistake for candidates not to apply to jobs that are "above" them.

Thus clarified [if my interpretation is correct], there is, I think, something a bit odd about the line of reasoning. The person is saying, in essence, that [1] "objective" measures shouldn't determine where a person decides to apply, because she learned there are plenty of candidates without good objective measures that went on to have awesome careers, but [2] nonetheless, her search committee didn't interview many of those candidates. This seems a bit odd, at least to me, as it is saying that objective measures of candidate quality "shouldn't matter"--but evidently those very measures did matter to their own search committee!

Marcus Arvan

postdoc: I agree with part of what you said. I do think it would be good to gather a bunch of these, and see whether any distinct trends emerge. If you'd like to do that, I'm all for it. My own hope is to do so at a more informal level.

At the same time, I don't agree that mere anecdata have little value on their own. Even without clear trends, such stories can show just how differently different search committee members think about candidate files. That, or so I think, would have some value to job-seekers in its own right.

Marcus Arvan

Shen-yi: I think you are right to point out that some of the search committee member's preferences appear arbitrary--but perhaps this what a series like this is good for: to show some of the ways in which search committee members' approaches to things have [seemingly] arbitrary and non-arbitrary features.


Marcus says,

'At the same time, I don't agree that mere anecdata have little value on their own. Even without clear trends, such stories can show just how differently different search committee members think about candidate files. That, or so I think, would have some value to job-seekers in its own right.'

I believe they have value in so far as shedding light on just how arbitrary the whole process is. But I'm not sure how much that will do to help job candidates. It might cause them, though, to be less anxious about their cover letters. So, that would be good. I don't mean to discourage the project. I think it's a good one. But if we get enough of these, it would be good to see if any trends appear. That would be very useful to know indeed.

Clarification please

Your own reconstruction of the last paragraph:

"This seems a bit odd, at least to me, as it is saying that objective measures of candidate quality "shouldn't matter"--but evidently those very measures did matter to their own search committee!"

seems to underscore my point. The passage needs to be clarified by the person who wrote it. As it stands, it is open to many (odd) interpretations.


I appreciate the SC member sharing these thoughts. One suggestion in return, though, about the woman who made the "big mistake" of including a photo in her cover letter. In some parts of Europe and East Asia, this is standard practice, or even *required* with job applications. So, if this was an international application, the inclusion of the photo may not say anything at all about the person's individual traits.

Kate Norlock

I hope applicants do not take the MLAC professor's post to be a view representative of search committee members at undergraduate programs. I have been on many search committees at two undergrad institutions now, and the finalists have always had teaching materials of value: syllabi, sample assignments, reflective stuff in addition to course evaluations, and in short everything interesting that falls under the set of things the MLAC prof completely ignored. It is worth including, and I hope applicants aren't disheartened at reading above; some of us are reading and appreciating what you send!
Relatedly, it is jaw-dropping to read in the same paragraph that the author disdains expressions of commitment to undergraduate teaching, and in the next sentence says that liking a location suggested a lack of commitment. (Likely the applicants are merely hoping to assure readers they're not a flight risk and are happy to live where the job is.) At times, the post is remarkably uncharitable as to what the applicants might have been thinking. I am glad that my own statement of dedication to undergraduate teaching in my first application cycle wasn't held against me when I was a candidate (well, perhaps it was by someone like this). (But holding the true statement of one's teaching priorities against an applicant is weird.)

Despite my shock at some of the less kind sentiments, I find it helpful to think about this post, because the variation in reception is partly owing to the unstated expectations of search committees. I think it is bad to have a system in which applications can vary so much and search committee members' responses can be so wildly different. Philosophers could work harder to avoid this. Maybe job ads ought to request all and only required materials, explicitly clarifying that non-requested materials will be ignored. Maybe search committees should have to agree not to review materials other than those requested. A lot of what turned this MLAC prof off were affective and aspirational elements.

Wesley Buckwalter

Tacky to identify a way in which you might meaningfully collaborate with someone? Come on, philosophy.


So if I write in my cover letter that the location of your school is appealing to me because my family lives nearby, to you that signals desperation and lack of commitment? Please, lose my dossier.

Marcus Arvan

Clarification please: I'll try to get the author of the post to clarify the passage themselves.

Lady Professor

Well, for whatever it is worth, I've been on a number of search committees, and I read files in a completely different way than the OP. When making the first and second cuts, I *only* read CVs and letters. So, if you took the OP's advice and wrote a short, generic cover letter, you'd be pretty screwed if I were your assessor. I read the other materials when making the third cut.

I do pay some attention to attempts at personalizing the cover letter with details about my program and the people who work in it because these personalizations telegraph seriousness and care. While expressions of candidates' geographical preferences don't count for a lot, sometimes they can tip the scales in favor of the applicant.

It is probably helpful for candidates to know that everyone has a different method for reading files; there is no recipe for success, and people should not take failure personally. While there is often convergence around maybe five of the hundreds of applicants, luck ends up playing a huge role in determining who will fill the remaining interview slots.


"A few applicants made a point of mentioning department members (including me) by name and noting the areas in which they would like to work with us. I think the idea was (1) that this showed they had enough interest in the job to research the department and (2) that this would be flattering to people who were named. I found this tacky and was completely turned off. My advice to applicants: don’t do it! We know your interests because we have your dossiers; we know that you know we know your interests; and so we know that you’re just trying to flatter us and suck up." That is really really dispiriting if it's true. Impersonally for the obvious reasons and personally because I spent good money on a job consultant who was adamant you ought to do that kind of thing. (And she was hardly the only one who gives that advice.)
Is that really so bad? Is this committee member idiosyncratic here? Honestly, if I were on a committee I'd take the "Why I want to work here stuff" seriously. I mean yes of course I wrote that bit for every school, but it always came off a lot better when I actually was excited about the place. Having applied for jobs outside academia between my undergrad and grad education I can assure you that that sort of thing is absolutely expected outside academia even if it's a paper shuffling job no one in their right mind would want if they could find something better. If it didn't smack of desperation to someone hiring an office worker in the corporate world I'm not sure why it's so terrible for a philosopher.


For what it's worth I actually respect the committee's member's preference against applicants who talk about why they want to work there. It's a silly thing to have in a cover letter, regardless of whether it helps or not. Any search committee member who's not deluded knows that the applicant probably writes that section for all of the 50 universities they've applied to. So, the material is just fluff. Better to use the space to talk about your credentials. That's what I do. Of course, I haven't gotten an interview yet this year... haha!


(1) I did not mean to suggest that hiring decisions are arbitrary—just that once you get above a certain cut there is no clear way of ranking candidates or making further cuts. First, there are a number of different variables and there’s no clear way to weight the different factors. Secondly, even if we just looked at one factor, e.g. publications—how does one article in Prestigious Journal #1 compare with two in slightly less Prestigious Journals #3 and #6? How, for that matter, are journals ranked? And even if there were an ordinal scale for journals, it still wouldn’t solve the weighting problem. After making two cuts, and still being left with far more applicants than we could interview, I tried a bubble sort. But there was still a cycle—and epicycles. At that point all one can do is look for work in areas that interests one.

(2) To repeat, I counted on the Wisdom of Crowds: I wasn’t interested in teaching; everyone else was. Others had their own particular interests, and that averaged things out.

(3) Cover letters. If the cover letter was minimal—fine. I looked for the info elsewhere. I was put off by gimmickry, but didn’t zap anyone for it. And by the time I'd got to the stuff I was looking for—the vita and the account of dissertation, I’d forgotten about the covering. As for mentioning names I’m not the only person who finds this tacky. It’s like transactions with customer service reps and the like who make a point of calling customers by name, typically first name. Some people apparently like this, else customer service personnel wouldn’t be trained to do it; others find it irritating and tacky. So my suggestion is that it’s best to be careful and to avoid anything of the sort a ‘job consultant’ might recommend. I’d play it safe and keep the covering letter formal and impersonal—either a one paragraph generic letter or an account of one’s work. Not effusions about personal commitments or enthusiasms.

(4) Finally, to clarify my last remarks, I was talking about my own folly. I always assumed that other people’s rankings and evaluations of me were absolutely, strictly, objectively correct in every detail, and that to question these assessments was self-deception. When I had a paper rejected, I threw it away. Now, from long experience on the Other Side I can see that these assessments are just rough and ready estimates, and that I shouldn’t have taken them as seriously as I did. My intention was just to urge job candidates not to make the mistakes I made and to take heart and hang in.


People on our search committee thought highly of candidates who mention specific things about our university, including who they would like to work with in our department. It showed the candidate did their homework, putting in the effort to know who we are, what we do, and what our university is about.

Clarification please and thank you

Thanks for the clarification (Point 4, in your last message). I wouldn't have got that from your original post.
I hope you kept back-up files of all those old rejected papers. You can now inundate the journals with submissions (that is a joke ...)
Like you, I am surprised what people put in their letters, c.v.s, etc. People should be supporting the claims they make in the letters. For example, the best way to illustrate that you have a research program with some momentum, is to mention a series (a few) publications on the topic.
One of the things that sets me off is when people list where they have papers under review (sometimes even under the heading PUBLICATIONS on their c.v.). The fact that you have a paper under review with JPhil counts for nothing. I assume about 500 people have one under review each year. In one respect it shows bad judgment, unless there is something else in your vitae to suggest otherwise (like a stellar writing sample).

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

Job-market reporting thread

Current Job-Market Discussion Thread

Job ads crowdsourcing thread

Philosophers in Industry Directory