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Mark Wilson

If it is not absolutely crystal clear within a few pages what the thesis statement of the paper is, it is game over as far as I am concerned. I have 300 of these things to read, and I am not interested in the plot twist that may or may not await on page 35.

Bill Vanderburgh

This is the most difficult-to-answer prompt in this series, I think. Part of the difficulty is that so much will depend on the kind of hiring department (teaching-focused, research-focused, and every combination of the two; large vs small; already has someone in the AOS or not; etc.). There is also, I think, a great deal of variability in what individual committee members do and think. This, in turn, means that inevitably the "wisdom" (lol) of crowds comes into what gets voted up or down. Among the factors in committee deliberations are department politics, variously perceived and negotiated departmental and university priorities, different kinds and amounts of experience with the AOS, different tastes with regard to topics and style, etc. Another source of difficulty in answering this prompt is that the writing sample is typically just one part of the "gestalt" of evaluating a candidate, and for some files it weighs more than others: There won't be a single standard or practice even for the same search in the same department.

Given all that, the best I can offer is to describe what my department has done in recent searches, as a possible indication of how similar departments might do things.

I am in a research-interested department in a large state teaching-focused university. In our recent searches, we've been hiring in AOSs that are outside our existing faculty members' areas. That means most of us haven't taken courses in the topics of the applicants' writing samples since grad school, if ever.

In the first round, every file (including writing samples) is read by at least two committee members. For candidates that get two "yes" or two "no" votes, there's usually not much discussion. For candidates with mixed votes, we get into various parts of the file (including writing samples). If any of us has an especially strong opinion, we generally defer to them and move on with the rest of the meeting. In other cases, we may talk ourselves into or out of advancing a file to the next round. In the second (Zoom) round, we assign one of us to take point on doing a deep dive on each writing sample to prepare a series of questions about it; the rest of us read (or at least look at) them, too. For campus visits, all of us have read the writing sample carefully.

This may sound like not enough attention to writing samples, but this method works well for us given our situation and constraints: A small (though now, after these hires, medium-sized) department, no specialists in the areas being hired, heavy teaching and service loads, hundreds of applicants, and the university's lack of interest in research. Essentially, we look at writing samples to ensure fit for the AOS, as a probe of philosophical acumen, and as part of judging whether a candidate is likely to do enough research at a high enough level to earn tenure. Since the latter is not a terribly high bar at our university (though all of our current members have or will greatly exceed the requirements!), "due diligence" is met by our method. There's little additional value we would gain by doing more.

What can candidates glean from all this? The main thing is that committees are trying to quickly swallow and digest a mountain of data, so try to make sure they don't choke on your writing sample (or any other part of your file). Writing samples that are too long, too technical, too narrowly focused on a very small point, baffling to non-specialists, read too much like a literature review, haven't gone through a lot of revision to make them as clear and readable as possible, and so on, may get passed over. Don't expect committee members to do the work to draw out what is good or interesting about your research. I think I speak for at least the majority of my department when I say that if someone's writing in their specialty isn't clear, interesting and persuasive, we tend to suspect that they will be no good at communicating philosophy to undergrads, too.

Now look for a post from an R1 that tells a completely different story!


Asking mainly for R1 jobs…How important is it for the writing sample to submit work in the advertized area, as opposed to one's best work?

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