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« Job market do's and don'ts: Zoom interviews | Main | Job market do's and don'ts: research 'job talks' »

08/30/2022

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Bill Vanderburgh

I'm so sorry this happened.

I have never seen this sort of thing mentioned in candidate materials in the seven or eight searches I've been part of, though like Marcus I have seen a couple of cases where family duties or illness were mentioned to explain a longer fallow period.

In this case, though, I don't see the need to explain the gap, mostly because it won't really be visible as a gap to committees. Six months without a new entry on the cv, while presumably moving cities and starting a new position/project, seems well within what might be expected for anyone. As long as the other parts of the record are good (they must be, since the OP won a postdoc), this blip shouldn't be a problem. The postdoc itself is an additional prestigious credential that most candidates don't have.

To be clear, I am not suggesting hiding the event and its fallout because of shame, there is none, it is simply nobody's business and not relevant to the candidate's application.

If the candidate wants to disclose it, that is also fine in my opinion. Perhaps one way to do that would be in the supervisor's letter with a brief paragraph to the effect, "In addition to her obvious intellectual qualities, X showed remarkable fortitude near the end of her PhD when she was violently assaulted. She was able to finish and defend her thesis despite having to deal with the physical, emotional, and legal fallout. She has now emerged from the shadow of this event and is doing excellent work with New Supervisor on New Subject." Or something like that.

Good luck to the OP in continued recovery and on the job market.

angry at the world

Hi, I am really sorry that this happened to you. I was also sexually assaulted in graduate school, though relatively early on, and it was a horrifically difficult experience.

I think I would personally not disclose this myself, and if I had a letter writer address it (which I don't think is a bad idea), I might ask them to keep it vague rather than getting specific. However, I think these kinds of things are personal decisions. If you do decide to disclose it yourself, I think it *may* slightly scare some committees (why is this candidate disclosing this "deeply personal" (air quotes for a reason, I think there are strong political reasons for rejecting this kind of thinking) issue, does it mean they will be dramatic, etc.), but I also think you might not want a job where people think that way. Others might see it as brave and be interested in the ways it might shape your future academic, service, and teaching work, and those may be better fits for you anyway. I am a super private person, but I do sometimes wish I had colleagues I felt more comfortable knowing basic facts about me and my life, most of which I have kept hidden because an awful lot of them are things like this. If you're a person who knows that would be a bad work environment for you, I say that it makes sense for *you* to disclose this--you are telling them important facts about who you are and who you are as a colleague.

I think the "safer" thing to do is have just one of your letter writers who you trust to talk about it in a thoughtful way and not damage you (maybe ask if they will have your other writers review just that part of their letter), but maximizing your chances everywhere is not, I think, a good strateegy for future happiness in your job. So I think it's really about you evaluating what is most important to you and what is most central to your identity as a scholar and person and deciding how you want to think about these tradeoffs.

One thing, though, is that I do think things like this can occasionally hurt candidates where there is a committee where it really turns one member of the committee against the candidate, but that member of the committee is e.g. older, near retirement, not actually super powerful in the department, etc. I think having just one member of a search committee be really against you can sink your chances in a department that you might actually end up finding quite supportive, be happy in, etc.--I can actually imagine this happening in a number of cases. So that might be a reason to lean towards having one of your letter writers say something about it in the context of describing e.g. your resilience and potential and ability to work post-major-life-upheaval.

Another strategy you could consider is saying something very matter-of-fact about it only in, e.g., a diversity statement, where it makes sense to talk about both future work related to this and future service work related to this. (E.g. "As a survivor of sexual assault, I am particularly interested in advocating for...".) I think that would read less (unfairly! to be clear!) like "I'm going to be a dramatic member of the department" and doesn't run the risk of people (sigh) thinking you are "making excuses" for yourself, which I think can be really harmful to candidates, than if you mentioned it in a cover letter and talked about its negative impact on your work.

Mostly, I just want to wish you really good luck on the job market, whatever you choose to do. I suspect you will be an especially good, powerful presence in a department, university, and the profession.

search committee member

First of all, I'm extremely sorry that this happened to you.

I've served on multiple search committees. I am a woman. I survived sexual violence. I dealt with harrowing sexual harassment during my PhD.

My advice is: do not disclose it, at all, anywhere in your written applications. Do not ask your letter writers to disclose it. Do not hint at it. Do not do it. (Although, if necessary, your letter writers might mention a "personal difficulty" or that you were the victim of crime, but I advise against them disclosing the crime was a sex crime.) At some point, you may choose to disclose to people whom you trust. But I would do that on a case by case basis, verbally, and never in widely circulated documents.

I wish I didn't have to give you this advice. I wish this field were different. But I'm speaking from experience. The level of misogyny that I have seen in this field is staggering and should not be underestimated.

Again, I'm very sorry to have to give you this advice.

Prof L

I don’t know if it’s misogyny, but pity isn’t really the attitude you want to engender in committee members. And it is a shocking thing, it will stick out in the minds of the committee … not “the person who works on X” or “the one who had that cool dissertation title” etc. but “the one who was raped”.

Generally speaking, I think it makes sense that you don’t want that to be one of the first things that potential colleagues learn about you.

If I did want to mention something, I would keep it in letters, and keep it vague and mostly positive … “displayed remarkable resilience in the midst of deep personal hardship”, something like that.

OP here, Anonymous postdoc

Thanks for your thoughtful responses, and thanks to Marcus for handling the discussion in a respectful way (the quick notes for guiding the discussion). You have given me a lot to think about, I will forward this discussion to a few close mentors to help me decide how I will handle this. I may ask my PhD supervisor to write a very vague statement that doesn't mention the sexual aspect of the event in her letter, as some of you suggested.

angry at the world

Just one suggestion. If you do have a letter writer address it, and it is someone you can micromanage a bit about language/how they discuss it, I think it might be better for them to actually avoid the "personal hardship" or "personal difficulty" language--which can too easily be read as something you are (at least) causally responsible for. I would encourage them to use language instead that communicates that, through absolutely no fault of your own, something horrific happened to you (I mean, I wouldn't suggest they put it that way, but I think you see what I mean--make sure that the language that is used locates the problematic force in the situation outside you instead of within you--not that there is anything wrong with undergoing these things, but you probably don't want people thinking that the problem was, e.g., a mental health crisis or an addiction problem, or something that they, the department, will have to deal with future iterations of. (Again, I'm not endorsing this kind of thinking, but I have seen it in action!) So: while it's good to be vague, it's also good to be specific enough that people aren't left wondering if the problems are "internal" to you and will keep coming back up.

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