For the first time, this winter I observed the job market as a member of a search committee. Here are some things I wish someone had told me when I was a job candidate, or even better, when I was a beginning graduate student. Of course, they must be taken with a grain of salt: every search committee operates slightly differently.
- Unless you are already in the final list of candidates for a job, your writing sample will rarely be read. Few people have the time, expertise, and confidence to judge the quality of your work on their own. Instead, they will rely on other sources of information (see below).
- The rank of your institution and department counts more than you might think. Examples: “Princeton” evokes the warmest feelings because both the university and the department are good. “University of Pittsburgh” impresses philosophers because the department is good, though non-philosophers and administrators will be less moved. Even though Harvard hasn’t had one of the best philosophy departments for a while, “Harvard” is so engrained in the brains of American academics that it commands people’s attention. Conversely, if your program is not highly ranked, that counts against you regardless of whether you’ve published in J. Phil.
- Virtually no one will read your published work, so they will judge it by where it’s published. J. Phil., Phil. Review, and other good journals attract people’s favorable attention. Conversely, publishing in obscure journals counts against you in any research-oriented department. Mutatis mutandis for journals in between. You should learn early on the ranking of philosophy journals and submit accordingly.
- If you haven’t published anything and you still aspire to a job in a research institution, you should be from Princeton or Harvard or have extremely strong letters of recommendation from famous people.
- The fame of your advisor and letter writers count for more than your might think. The bigger the name, the more meaningful the letter is assumed to be.
- Letters from people outside your institution help, though not a lot.
- Having more than the required three letters of recommendation helps, though not a lot.
- Presenting at conferences (especially selective ones, like the APA and PSA) helps a bit more, though still not a lot.
- Your cover letter doesn’t count in your favor if it’s good, but it can count against you if it’s sloppy. You should address all job requirements and say something about why you want that particular job.
- The rest of your CV (honors, service, courses taken, teaching experience, etc.) counts against you if it’s lacking, but does almost nothing positive for you, at least at research institutions. (E.g., no teaching experience is usually a negative.)
- When you are interviewed at the APA, you are not judged on a par with the other interviewees. Search committees arrive at the APA with a more or less firmly established ranking of candidates. This ranking is based on the above considerations plus the needs of the department and the inclinations of the committee members. The best you can do in your interview, and the most likely outcome, is to confirm your place in the existing ranking. In exceptional cases, you might move upwards slightly (mostly because someone above you in the ranking did really bad). Of course, if you make a really bad impression, you will move downwards, but it’s unlikely. Mostly, interviews confirm the existing ranking of candidates. So it’s perfectly normal to do splendidly at your interviews but not be considered any further, simply because everyone else above you did about as well.
- If you want to be competitive for jobs in teaching institutions, the rules are reversed. You shouldn’t come from a highly ranked program and you shouldn’t publish before hitting the job market. Otherwise, people will think you are too research–oriented for them. Given how many philosophers go on the job market each year, this leads to the paradox that some job candidates are not considered good enough by research institutions but are considered too good by teaching institutions. As a result, they don’t get a job. Obviously, they shouldn’t give up: they should fine tune their CV and try again next year.
Update [3/5/06]: I wrote a follow-up here.