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11/05/2020

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Former SC member

Two years ago I had the experience of being on both sides of the job market. I chaired a search committee at the university where I then held a TT position and I was simultaneously looking for - and successfully obtained - my current TT position. (I left for geographical reasons. My partner’s career was stagnating where we were; we had no family or friends, we needed a specific location. My university and I were otherwise very happy with each other, I think.)

I am grateful for much of the advice I got here and elsewhere and I want to add two comments I hope will make the philosophy job search a little less mysterious, and hopefully less stressful.

(1) There is no Platonic search committee nor is there a Platonic application. Our committee had four philosophers, including me. Each of us is quite different, but our main goal was to find the best candidate that our university would let us hire, and meet the needs of our department. I stress that there are no perfect applications because, and you can judge us for this, but this is reality: we each had our own method of evaluating candidates. One committee member was fanatical about evaluating candidates based on how closely their application fit the advertised job description. He evaluated each candidate against how well they conformed to the AOS, AOC, and teaching needs we explicitly stated. Period. (The job description, mind you, was made by a committee that included university administrators, with radically different interests than ours.) Another committee member was very concerned with just about everything from the candidates’ teaching evaluations to the reputation of the candidate’s school to the care the letter writers put in to advocating for the student, to the colloquium talks they gave. A third committee member essentially counted the candidates publications and the courses the candidate taught solo; that’s it. I suspect he did not read any of the material. The fourth committee member was a bit holistic and vague about how she evaluated each candidate, but she took the cover letter and teaching statement very seriously.

We each respected each others’ methods, instincts, and decisions. There was a bit of discussion about each candidate, with one or another of us advocating a bit for or against the aggregate ranking I calculated for a particular candidate. But we did not have serious methodological discussions about the process. Ultimately we passed a short list of the highest ranking candidates on to the dean, who made his own choice and hired a candidate without further input from us.

Each of our decisions were influenced by whatever it is that motivated us about the candidate, to include what we knew of the candidate’s work itself, what our friends told us about the candidates, and idiosyncratic psychological facts we do not understand.

There is no one way that something in an application looks to a committee. A committee does not see an application. Committee members see applications and each member evaluates them according to her own priorities and prejudices. Some of us value teaching experience, some scholarship. We pointed out things we liked to one another and things we did not. A candidate cannot know in advance what kind of person they are trying to convince to hire them. You can only present the best version of yourself to be in synch with people who want you as a colleague. Committees are made of people who each have their quirks, personalities, prejudices, biases, agendas, and most importantly, reasons for rating their candidates as they do.

(2) The interview questions that a committee asks you are, in part, assessing your personality. But more importantly, they have a short amount of time to see if you are the person who will solve their problems. If they ask about assessment, it is likely that they are dealing with an administration that is focused on that. If they ask about committee work, student mentoring, writing, media appearances, whatever, it is because they have an unfulfilled need, or the previous person was not doing it or not doing it right, or no one else wants to do it. But the person they hire will be doing it and needs to respond as if that is something they are familiar with or are eager to learn. In an on campus interview I was asked about assessment, and after giving a brief answer I followed up with a slew of questions that revealed that I understand the issue and also told me why they were asking the question. They have a very pedagogy focused dean. For historical reasons, our philosophy department carries a significant share of the university’s critical thinking and writing requirements. We asked about it to see if a candidate is scared of or unwilling to teach that.

Experiences differ, but I suspect that most candidates would be well advised not to forget that they are trying to convince people to hire them, not idealized members of committees. Some of these are people who may not have published since tenure and just want a friendly colleague, people who think publishing and conference presentations are the only thing that matter, someone who has a foodness for the underlaborers who write book reviews, people who think a young fresh great teacher is just what the department needs to attract students, etc.

In short do not count on a committee member to be a certain way. You are likely not to know the personalities of the members and there is no right answer to any of their questions and no right way to present yourself. Committee members have some sway over one another’s ranking. More importantly, given the large number of candidates, they often all have veto power over most anyone. Put your best foot forward, be honest, do your homework, and make the committee know that you are someone who can do the job they need done.

Hildy

Former SC member, you say "Ultimately we passed a short list of the highest ranking candidates on to the dean, who made his own choice and hired a candidate without further input from us." I'm really surprised to hear this! Isn't this out-of-the-ordinary? How did the SC feel about the dean making the choice without asking the SC for a recommended top candidate?

Former SC Member

Hildy: I am not sure how other departments might feel, but very often deans and their interests are able to blackmail search committees. They say that they want someone who meets their (perhaps demographic) needs and if they don't get that kind of person, they will cancel the search. So the SC gives a list of people, at least one of whom matches the administration's needs, and all of whom, in theory, are minimally acceptable to the SC.
The department is then grateful that they were able to hire someone at all. It is not ideal, but I suspect that a version of this game is played by many many search committees.

D.

I have been involved in maybe 4 or 5 search committees in the past few years. Below my answers to your questions:

Do you read applications before the deadline?

Often yes.

If so, do you think it matters whether candidates apply early?

It depends. If the job ad has a deadline, then no. All applications received before the deadline will be considered. If the job ad says "review of applications will start immediately and continue until the position is filled", or something to that effect, then it is important to apply early, as applications received later might not be considered.

In what order do you read documents? Why?

CV, CL, research & Teaching statements, writing samples, letters of reference.

What do you look for in different parts of the application (e.g. the CV, research statement, teaching dossier, diversity statements, etc.)? I read the CV to get a general idea of the candidate, particularly in terms of research and teaching experience, and to see is s/he is the right candidate for the job. If s/he is not, then I don’t really bother with the rest of the documents. The CL gives a sense of how the candidate presents her/himself, and I look for a letter that is tailored to our job/our department. If the CL is very generic, i.e. it’s a letter that the candidate is likely to send unchanged for all her/his applications, I won’t be favourably impressed. In the research statement I look for a solid and coherent research project, and whether that can be carried out successfully at our university. The teaching statement must convey enthusiasm for teaching and show that the candidate's teaching philosophy can be successfully put into practice with our students.

How large of a role do recommendation letters play?
Not large. I think it’s a given that letters of reference are flattering and possibly inflated. A letter of reference might make a difference in the case of a very hard choice between two candidates.

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