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Hi Marcus,

I both was hired by a research school and have served on multiple search committees at that school--but I do think things are different even among research schools, so I don't think I speak for everyone here.

--Yes, letters are (typically) uniformly extremely positive. Still, every time we've done a search, there are (depending on how broad the search is) 1-5ish candidates whose letters are overwhelmingly stronger than everyone else's. I'm not sure how this happens; but it's very noticeable (this probably also helps explain--presumably, in conjunction with excellent writing samples--why certain people who might not seem like their c.v.s are the world's greatest get lots of fancy offers).

In my department, we take letters very seriously, but they would never trump a writing sample that we didn't like. Sometimes hints of negativity can hurt a candidate, but if we otherwise like the candidate we will attempt to dig deeper, and if it is only in one letter we will sometimes discount it given that it might just be that that candidate didn't have access to having her letters vetted, someone just had a personal issue with her, etc.

I know people say letters are useless because they are so over the top. Part of me thinks that is true, but then, whenever I am on a search committee, they end up being super useful to me. They often are better at communicating what is interesting or important or novel about the candidate's research than the candidate's own materials are. They help paint a fuller picture of a candidate as a philosopher than the candidate could on her own. And despite the fact that they are nearly uniformly over-the-top positive, there are ways of differentiating between them.

I think one of the most important things for research schools is having an outside letter writer who thinks extremely highly of you, especially if that person has their own PhD students who are competing with you for jobs. There is very little pressure on such a person to write you an over the top letter. If they do, I take that as strong evidence. If they write you a stronger letter than they do their own students (rare but happens), I take that as very strong evidence.

Also, I think that yes, there is all sorts of room for bias introduction here. But from the perspective of the hiring department, some of that bias is reasonable (if we know and trust a letter writer, we have more solid evidence about the candidate. If we can contact a letter writer, we have even more solid evidence...).


p.s. My best guess is that only a handful of my colleagues ever look at teaching letters. I look at them because I think it matters whether we have good teachers in our department, and I also think there is often evidence of other important things (e.g. will this person gladly do service?) in them. But I don't remember a single person ever discussing the content of any of them in a hiring meeting. (Also, some people don't submit them to us.)


Anonymous, from what I understand, it is not just that research schools do not take teaching letters seriously, but also that they do not take teaching seriously, correct? Please correct me if I'm wrong. I got the impression almost no time went to discussing a potential hire's teaching abilities. (There might be an exception if the program really wants to start say, a certificate in Law, and so needs someone to teach a lot of philosophy of Law) I do think that *some* individual search committee members, like yourself, care about teaching and that might influence who they recommend for an interview. But it does not follow that teaching is ever discussed as a group.

Marcus, what about letters that discuss both teaching and research? I think 3 out of my 8 letters did that. (And no I did not use all 8 at each place...at least not most of the time. I did at a few places.)


Regarding outside letters and research schools: If you're in a small field with a few prolific letter-writers (niche areas of history come to mind), don't be surprised if almost all interviewed candidates have letters from the same 2-3 faculty. (I was explicitly told this on a fly-out, and I've also heard it from others.)

Two take-aways from this: First, you often do need that outside letter to get in the door. Second, once you get in the door, the school may have a letter which may directly compare you to several of the other candidates, so it's all the more important to be professional with your outside letter-writer, do your best to give them a sense of your research, etc.


Amanda, I think it varies. We've discussed teaching before, but rarely. I do think that most of us at least look at a teaching statement and glance through teaching evaluations. There has been one time that one of the candidates we were considering had very low teaching evaluation scores and his teaching statement was weird (in a bad way), and we decided not to interview him basically for this reason. But I do think at least at my university, the conventional research-school wisdom (teaching statements and letters can only hurt and not help you, teaching scores and evaluations don't really matter unless they hurt you) is mostly true. Evidence of bad teaching can hurt you, but evidence of good teaching does basically nothing.

But I have friends who have been interviewed at R1s who got a lot of teaching questions/discussion of their teaching, which seems to indicate that those departments actively care about teaching when hiring.


Thanks anonymous. Yeah, I wonder whether the questions about teaching I got at research schools were just for show. I would think if they cared much they would have a teaching demo. But it is heartening to know terrible teaching can take you out of the running.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Anonymous: Thanks for sharing - that's all very helpful!

I haven't had the experience of 1-5 candidates having far better letters than everyone else. I wonder whether this might be unique to R1 jobs, where it seems likely that each season there will be a few Rock-Star Researchers who stand out head and shoulders above everyone else (and who might therefore only apply to R1 jobs).

Anyway, I wonder if this is what is going on. My own experience hiring at a very different type of institution has been that very few research letters stand out--in which case as a search committee member one really has to make up one's own mind reading candidates' other materials. But again, this is just my experience, and could well be idiosyncratic.


Just a practical question: Many places these days only allow you to upload 3-4 letters. So, Marcus, are you saying that, for instance, if you apply to a teaching school, and can only upload 3 letters, that 2 of those should be teaching letters? At my program, we're instructed that we only need 1 teaching letter. Would you recommend getting two people to write about our teaching, then?


I am confused by this whole teaching/research letter thing? Can't a single letter address both research and teaching?

Marcus Arvan

Hi SM: Good questions. I'm not entirely sure, but I suspect one teaching letter will suffice - as it only takes one really well-written letter to give committee members a clear picture of what you are actually like as a teacher. I only used one teaching letter and I did just fine on the market - and as Amanda's comment notes, other letter writers can comment on your teaching as well.

Amanda: Yes, of course, a single letter can address teaching and research. But a lot of letters that do both focus much more on research than teaching. So, I think it's important to have one very thoughtful letter written only on teaching - preferably by a faculty member who cares about teaching and has sat in on some of one's classes.

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