When I was doing the job search this year, I thought of a couple of points that would be worthwhile for job seekers going on the market to know. For various reasons I didn’t want to go into this in much detail while the search was ongoing, but it’s probably safe now. This advice might be a little late for people going on the job market this year, but current 3rd years might get some value out of it.
[UPDATE: As noted in the comments below, all I’m offering here are anecdotes about what matters at one place. There are plenty more anecdotes in the comments threads that should be given equal weight.]
There are really two points I want to stress. Both of these will probably be a little controversial, but I’d be prepared to make theoretical and empirical arguments in favour of each.
- Get outside letters of reference
As far as I could tell, at every stage of the search at Cornell, the proportion of people remaining in the field who had reference letters from someone who was not one of their grad school professors went up. The point is fairly simple, and is one that we use in evaluating testimony all the time – we put more trust in the word of someone who doesn’t have a vested interest in what kind of choice we make.
Now it isn’t entirely trivial to get reference letters from outside people. You can’t just send papers to famous people a couple of months before you go on the market and ask them to write for you. There are only three options you’ve got, and none of them are easy options.
First, if you are in a city or region where there are several philosophy departments, you’ll often be welcome at seminars at other departments. And by attending two or more seminars by Professor X, you’ll probably get to know X well enough to have them write a letter for you. Unfortunately this is a lot easier strategy to carry out at, say, UCLA than at, say, Michigan.
Second, if your department allows this, you can spend a semester or two as a visitor at a different department. (I did this – visiting ANU while a student at Monash.) This is probably the best approach, though often there are serious logistical issues.
Third, you can put a lot of work into hitting the conference/publication circuit early and often, and hope that your work gets noticed enough that you enter into correspondence/paper exchanges with more famous people. This is the riskiest strategy, but the most rewarding if you carry it off successfully.
(I don’t normally pay much attention to the length of someone’s publication list when they are applying for a junior job, or any other job for that matter, but publishing good papers and going to good conferences is probably the best thing you can do to get a job because of these kinds of side benefits.)
It matters less than you might think how famous/high-Leiter-ranked the outside referees are. Just having someone credible who doesn’t have anything to gain by flacking you vouch for your ability means a lot, and it is something newish grad students should think about. Note by the way that for these purposes people who left your department while you were there don’t really count as outside, unless the search committee doesn’t know that the person was originally at your department. (I made this mistake a couple of times, so it really happens.)
- Write a positive paper for your writing sample
Here’s a situation I bet hundreds of candidates find themselves in. They’ve got a positive suggestion for how to solve problem Y in their thesis. But it’s pretty rough around the edges, and there a couple of objections they don’t really have a good answer to. The thesis also has a chapter saying why X’s solution to problem Y is fatally flawed. And this chapter is just clearly successful – you’ve really shown X has got this one wrong.
At this stage it is tempting to send the perfect chapter on why X is wrong as the writing sample rather than the rough chapter on what the true solution to the problem is. Don’t fall for this temptation. I really can’t stress this strongly enough. Philosopher makes mistake is not news. We want to hire people who will surprise us, and finding that someone made a mistake is not surprising.
This strong view needs some qualifications.
If the positive view is really rough, then there’s not much you can do. But at that stage you really might think about whether you are ready to go on the job market that year, or whether waiting another year (if it is affordable, and I know from experience it often isn’t) is better.
The point isn’t that there is no philosophical value in showing that people are mistaken. The point is rather that all of your competitors in the job market can also do an excellent job of writing a paper on why X is wrong about Y, so you don’t stand out by this kind of paper.
The distinction between a critical paper and a positive paper is not as sharp as I might have suggested above, but we can easily place some papers in one category or another. A paper on why all physicalist theories are wrong is a lot more impressive than a paper on why X’s physicalist theory is wrong. And obviously a positive paper can include a section or two on why the rivals are wrong. But do put forward a positive suggestion.
Finally, this is not to say that there is no point to writing these negative papers. For one thing, as Russell said somewhere, it is good to get out of a rut by quickly writing up the mistakes in someone else’s work. For another, you can have a website where you put other papers other than your primary writing sample. (I wouldn’t recommend sending two or more papers in with the application, because people won’t read more than one and this way you don’t get a choice of what they read.) I can’t imagine why a candidate in this day and age wouldn’t have a website to support their candidacy, and this can be used to distribute secondary papers.
Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized