Job Seekers Advice

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.

16 Replies to “Job Seekers Advice”

  1. 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.

    Not true! Not all of your competitors can do such an excellent job. To take one glaring example (among very many) Gettier’s seminal ‘Is Justified True Belief Knowledge’ is entirely critical. And not only is it entirely critical, it is obviously new and surprising as well. To offer an example perhaps closer to home, it might be true that no one can counterexample analyses of vagueness quite as quickly as Weatherson. The next philosopher is not ready with the same criticisms. So I really wonder about this advice. Frankly it seems to me mistaken. A clear, keen, critical eye is not so run-of-the-mill among philosophers. What is run-of-the-mill is flabby, passing criticism.

  2. I rather doubt anyone would end up sending a paper like Gettier’s as a writing sample, and to be honest I’m not sure it would be good to send.

    In any case, as I said in the post criticisms of a broad tradition, like physicalism or like the JTB tradition are going to be of value. And it matters how important your target is. Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s Behaviourism would be a good writing sample, I’d imagine. So we wouldn’t want to take my advice to extreme. But I think a lot of candidates are making mistakes on this line, with candidates sending narrow papers, just counterexamples do a very particular view that don’t generalise to make interesting new points, rather than making new philosophical suggestions.

  3. I’m not sure that I would endorse efforts to get outside letters of reference as a general rule. Sure, it’s always a good idea to interact with folks who are not in your department. You will learn more that way. But in my experience letters of reference from outside folks tend to be relatively short and light. And that’s no surprise. It often takes time to develop a real sense for someone else’s philosophical talent. So unless you plan to spend a significant amount of time interacting with folks who aren’t in your department (e.g., by spending a year or more as a visitor), it doesn’t seem worth it to invest all that time and energy schmoozing merely in order to obtain an outside letter of reference that is likely to say little of substance. By all means, interact with others in order to learn. But don’t interact with others in order to get that extra bump from an external letter. You will be better served if you spend time and effort really wowing your internal letter-writers. In my experience, even a very nice posthumous letter from Gottlob himself won’t trump an internal letter that begins: “In all my 21 years of teaching at the graduate level, I have never met any graduate student approaching the philosophical caliber of ….”

  4. I took your observations about basically critical papers to be a generalization admitting some exceptions. I was trying to suggest that I find the generalization (that such papers are in general, though not always, papers your competitors could do as good a job on or papers that are not new or surprising) overstated. There are just so many basically critical papers that do not have these features. Gettier is the obvious example. But Kim’s ‘Causes and Counterfactuals’ (roughly 2 pages), WVO’s ‘Reference and Modality’ and so on and on. I’m not suggesting that your applicants are likely to submit comparable papers. Obviously unlikely. I am suggesting that very often basically critical papers (1) offer new or surprising results and (2) are such that not every competitor can do as well on them.

  5. I think candidates need to get good, critical feedback on their work from people who are not experts in the field. It is striking to me how often a job candidate giving a paper has not heard/thought of objections that come up in discussion. I think it comes from just operating within a certain mindset shared with their advisor or committee. Candidates need to get out more—get a broader range of reactions to their work. Candidates probably worry most about what experts will say about their views, but hiring departments are rather unlikely to have experts in that field, and are more likely to have thoughtful “external” objections. Committee members tend not to be terribly critical, but you can bet hiring departments will be quite critical.

  6. If you’re thinking of spending a semester or even a year of your graduate student career visiting another program in order to get outside letters, you should be aware that most faculty teach only one graduate seminar per year. I’m usually reluctant — even with students in my own program — to write letters for students who have taken only one seminar with me, and I wonder how effective such letters will typically be. (Of course, it’s always possible that you’ll really hit it off with such a teacher at the school you’re visiting & she thinks you’re terrific, etc. It just doesn’t seem to be a good bet, and it puts a lot of pressure on you to really make a great impression in a short time.) The most effective letters usually come from people who’ve been working with you on your dissertation, or perhaps with whom you’ve taken multiple seminars.

  7. Speaking of Gettier, I have a question that’s been bugging me for a long time, and it occured to me that maybe a philosopher who reads this blog would be able to answer it. Or at least tell me what’s wrong with the question, which is this: How does Gettier’s example differ from Russell’s from much earlier? My understanding is that Gettier’s example involves a justified true belief about someone owning a car, and Russell’s example involves a justified true belief about the time of day, but neither one counts as knowledge because, somehow, it’s incidental (and doesn’t follow from the justification) that the belief is true. In case this question makes me seem outrageously ignorant, I should say that I’m not a philosopher, and I haven’t read Russell’s paper (I don’t even know where this example appears), and I’d accept as a response: “You should just read Russell’s paper”.

  8. Russell actually has a couple of examples (if memory serves me right, at least two of them appear in Problems of Philosophy). There may be other technical differences between his examples and Gettier’s, but I think the biggest difference is merely this: Russell’s examples appeared at the wrong point in the dialectic… Poor boy was too far ahead of the game.

  9. I think the stopped clock is in “Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits”; I can’t find my copy right now. In “Problems” he gives a case (A man believes that the last Prime Minister’s last name begins with “B” but he is mistaken about who the last prime minister was) which (given a bit more specification) would be a counterexample to K=JTB, but he just uses it as a counterexample to K=TB.

    I think it would be interesting to do some systematic controlled studies about job market success. I’m rather skeptical of principles for job market success that aren’t based on such research. The reason is because smart people with equal experience going on the market or being on committees give contradictory advice. ‘Cover letters don’t matter at all’, ‘The cover letter is the most important part of the application’, ‘A few publications is a prerequisite for making your application stand out’, ‘Publications don’t matter’, etc.

    Another way to put this is that anecdotal evidence seems to not be enough to justify any principle about what is important for a job seeker, but anecdotal evidence seems to be all any of us have.

    I don’t mean to be saying that there’s no consensus about what would be ideal – lots of publications, good letters from a variety of institutions, teaching experience, etc. – but no claim of the form “The most important n things for job seekers are x1 … xn” is justified for me, because all the testimonial evidence I have on claims of this sort is conflicting.

    Bill Hart says at the beginning of his book defending dualism that a friend defended an unorthodox view in print, and that subsequently three separate replies appeared, each claiming to present a definitive refutation. Hart’s friend, he reports, suspected that his original idea had been a good one when he noted that all three of the replies were inconsistent with the others.

  10. I think that this is good advice (especially the part about getting letters from outside people). However, you understate the help an applicant can get by having a publication or two in good places. Its primary benefit isn’t just that it allows you to get an outside letter, but that it decisively shows that you have the ability to publish in good places, by actually having done so. I don’t see why you’d not pay attention to this in the hiring process, even for a junior person. Sure, it can be outweighed by other things, but for my money, production is one of the better indicators of promise.

    BTW, people interested in more on this particular topic can see it being thrashed out in the comments section of Brian Leiter’s blog last Fall,

  11. Based solely on letters that I read during a search this past year, I would note that there may be one big problem with trying to get outside letters: outside letter-writers may be more likely to write negative references when you don’t really expect it. Specifically, I saw letters of the following type: “Student X from neighboring school is o.k., but Student Y, who is my advisee from my school, is far better.” This might be particularly bad when student Y is also being considered for the job. I would only ask for an outside reference if I had worked very closely with the professor.

    Based both on this past year’s search and my own recent time on the market, I would advise getting “outside” letters from within your department (by which I mean letters from people who are not on your dissertation committee and/or do not work in your general area). For example, it can look very good if big name Professor Z found you to be an excellent student, scholar, and generally good person even if your work has nothing to do with Professor Z’s work.

  12. Advisors at the home institution should pull letters of the sort JC describes from the file. And unfortunately it does not go without saying that one should not write such letters: [ceteris paribus] one should decline to write rather than using the opportunity to plug one’s own student.

    Similarly for minimalistic outside letters — better to decline to write than to write “I barely know this student and haven’t read her work” in job letter.

  13. Weatherson’s advice about delivering a positive paper at a job talk strikes me as true. In my experience, it applies not just to philosophy but to all of the humanities (especially if the job is for a junior position). In delivering a negative paper, one runs the risk of appearing as if one is still stuck in a graduate student mentality and not yet ready to enter the big league. In graduate school, one is taught to pick apart and bash lousy arguments. The hiring committee assumes that you already have these skills. In other words, giving a negative paper looks intellectually immature—they are the easiest kind of papers to write. In contrast, positive papers are extremely difficult to write because there are always caveats and counter-criticisms that one can never fully address in during the allotted time. If you feel that you must introduce negative material, keep it to a bare minimum (i.e. enough to contextualize your positive argument).

    As a side note, I would like to suggest that a distinction be made between “critical” and “negative.”

    positive paper = a paper that states what is the case and provides a solution

    critical paper = a paper that meticulously assesses claims and counter-claims

    negative paper = a paper that states what is not the case, pointing out problems without offering solutions.

    While all papers should/must be “critical” not all have to be “negative.” Hope this helps.

  14. Suppose someone (finally) convincingly shows up the flaw in some perennial sort of argument. Something like the ontological argument has been criticized and revised from Gaunilo, Kant, Leibniz, down to Godel, Hartshorne, Plantinga, Lewis, and again more recently Sobel and Koons have the gloves on.
    Would it show your philosophical immaturity that you finally, convincingly terminated that argument? It seems to me, hardly.

  15. In response to Mike:

    Indeed, it would be impressive if a job candidate could pull off something like that. However, it is unlikely that said candidate will. If you want a job, stick to positive papers (and check your desire to destroy at the door—that’s grad school behavior).

  16. John:

    The point concerns the value of negative papers, right? I say (truly, I think) that they can be extremely valuable. Obviously I’m not saying that graduate students will probably have a very good one available. Just as obviously, it is improbable that they will have a very good positive paper available. My point is not to rule out presenting a negative paper a priori.

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