Around the Blogs

Below the fold are some thoughts on three blog entries on or linked by the Leiter blog.

Leiter links to this essay by Thom Brooks on advice for grad students re publishing. Three observations.

  1. I entirely agree with Brooks that if you are having trouble ‘finding your voice’ starting by writing book reviews is a good idea.
  2. From my observations bad publications don’t help that much in getting your first job, and really hurt in getting latter jobs, so be careful in what you send out.
  1. If, despite that, you want to send out everything you write (as one comment writer seems to suggest), the submissions address is Journal of Philosophy, Columbia University, New York NY. (Or any other journal not located in Ithaca.) If you want to try to publish your very best work, Philosophical Review would love to hear from you.

The UCSB philosophy blog links to Jason’s comment on the assertion on a flyer for a UCSB conference that “the most important advance [in the theory of meaning?] in the last 50 years is direct reference theory.” Amazingly, not all of the comment leavers there agree with Jason. Just what we’ve learned from direct reference theory (whether Millian or not) about quantifiers, adverbs, conditionals, tense, anaphor etc is a bit of a mystery to me. That what we’ve learned about names in the last 50 years from direct reference theory is more important than what we’ve learned about quantifiers, adverbs, conditionals, tense, anaphor etc from other semantic researchers seems a really odd claim to me.

This might be a reasonable time to link (yet again) to Geoff Nunberg’s reflections on the relative lack on interest linguists have taken in philosophical work on the theory of reference: Do You Know What It’s Like to Miss New Orleans? (PDF).

Finally, Leiter linked to Gualtiero Piccinini’s discussion of what it’s like to me on a search committee. I want to agree with one of his points, and disagree (reasonably strongly) with two others. First the point of agreement.

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.

Some people in the comments thread there were shocked by this, claiming it was a sign of close-mindedness. But the thought that search committees should throw out all the evidence of someone’s philosophical achievements to date in favour of what they learn in 50 minutes in a hotel room is really quite bizarre. The search process is not like the playoffs, where everyone starts again at 0-0, and it shouldn’t be. This might seem obvious, but it’s easy to forget, especially when you’re wondering why a great interview didn’t lead to a fly-out, or why a totally lousy one did. Now the two points of disagreement.

Unless you are already in the final list of candidates for a job, your writing sample will rarely be read.

This looks like induction from too small a sample here. In my experience there’s a fairly simple rule here. The amount of time people have to put into a search is independent of whether it’s an open search (with 250 eligible candidates) or a search on a specific area (where there might only be 80 or so candidates, only 50 or so of which really work on the area in question). In a typical department, there will be about (very roughly) 100 person-hours put into the first round of looking. That means that in an open search you’re lucky to spend more than 20 minutes on a file, which means the writing sample won’t be read unless there’s a reason to read it. But in a narrower search, it means you can spend 2 hours per file, and every writing sample can be read reasonably closely. I’m not sure that this is the best approach, but I’m not sure it’s so bad either. Anyway, it’s important not to confuse big open searches with narrower searches here, and inducting from one to the other is a mistake. The other oddity about the piece is the Harvard obsession, as evidenced by comments like this.

If you havenít 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.

Two things. Even if you’re from Princeton or (especially) Harvard, you should have extremely strong letters of recommendation from famous people. Of course, your faculty are reasonably famous, so that helps. But I can’t imagine a department where Harvard grads are valued ceteris paribus above grads of MIT, NYU, Rutgers, Michigan, Oxford or Pitt, let alone Stanford, Berkeley, Cornell or UCLA. This might reflect a failure of imagination on my part, but looking at the recent placement records of the two big departments in Cambridge suggests that the Harvard brand isn’t anywhere near as important as Piccinini suggests.

14 Replies to “Around the Blogs”

  1. Nurnberg’s essay was very nice; I’m glad I stopped by today if only for the chance to be directed to that.

    Its title was a bit affecting after last year’s events — even though it was written 5 years ago.

    It’s also strange that he’s posted it publicly yet still has “not for circulation” at the top.

  2. I agree that Harvard might be ranked above other places in ethics, especially Kantian ethics. But it’s not in other fields. (Of course not above doesn’t entail below.)

    There’s a bigger point here. Piccinini claims that school quality is a big factor alongside department quality in determining placement. I don’t see much evidence for that, certainly not from considering Harvard. If Harvard grads are very highly considered in ethics, that’s a sign that department quality in that field matters, not that university quality matters.

  3. I thought Piccinini did draw a distinction in 2 between what impresses people, i.e. administrators, deans, etc, and what impresses philosophers. So the former will be impressed by Harvard while the later will be more impressed by Pitt. This would seem to matter some since, to my understanding, many places require an interview with a dean.

  4. Many places do require interviews with a dean, but very few give the dean in question much input into the search. If a candidate storms out of the dean’s office swearing loudly, the dean might veto them, but at least in America deans have very little positive input into hiring.

    At least, I should say, this is true at the ‘research institutions’ he’s talking about. Smaller schools might well be different.

    I should also note that there’s a way to check at least some of these claims. Take a look at the placement record of Harvard compared to MIT, Rutgers, Michigan, Pitt etc. If you can see Harvard being clearly better among research schools than its rivals, you have sharper eyesight than I do.

  5. I think “Princeton or Harvard” is intended to imply “not Villanova or Louisville”, not “not MIT or Pitt”. I think, in other words, that it gives exemplary members rather than a comprehensive listing.

  6. so basically we have a logistic regression model with a job offer as a dependent variable and reputation, recommendations and publications as major factors and possibly some minor factors (e.g. school reputation) that are still contested. what confuses me are claims such as “i wish i knew this earlier”. who doesn’t know this? does one really need a search committee insider to tell him to get into a top program and publish in best journals?

  7. Hmm. Even our specialized searches tend to get more than 100 applicants, and I’m surprised to find that better regarded departments get fewer such applications. In any case, I think the norm is higher than 80 for most searches. Since lots of departments tend not to divide up the pile but use some function from individual preferences to next round closer review (which means that everyone spends time looking at all of it at least for the first cut), you can’t really just divide the person hours by the number of files to find the time available to read a paper.

    Some reading does happen before people wind up on an interview list, and at least in my department we will all have read the papers of the people we interview at the meetings. But I think that does not mean that it is more probably than not that the average sample will be read by someone when 200 files come in for a job.

    Brian is right to point out that it would be irrational to disregard one’s view of the writing sample and letters of recommendation based on an interview. So of course people will have ideas about who it would be best to hire before interviewing, and these may or may not change based on interview evidence. I know that Dick Jeffrey used to cite empirical evidence that the prior evidence was more reliable than interview evidence and that people were liable to underweight it relative to interview evidence if they did interviews.

  8. Two clarifications:

    (1) As Carl notes above, Harvard was just an example. It’s a good example because it’s usually considered the most prestigious university in the country and it used to have the best philosophy department. From my anectodal evidence, I think that might give a (small) boost to their candidates, other things being equal. If so, more power to them. But even if I’m wrong about this, they are still doing very well.

    (2) Some people read no writing samples ever, and some people read them all. There is no universal rule. But generally, I think it’s reasonable to expect that most candidates will be eliminated from most job searches without their sample being read.

  9. Why does G. Piccinini think it’s “reasonable to expect that most candidates will be eliminated from most job searches without their [writing] sample being read”? Induction from one search at his school? Two searches?

    My school searches almost every year for from 1 to 4 positions per year. Between the committees responsible for screening each area and those like me who obsess about hiring, I think it would be the rare case for a writing sample of an applicant not to be read by at least two people. A few files (1 to 2% per year) are so obviously defective or even incomplete that they will not get a serious screening. And in some cases writing samples begin so badly that one can stop reading, with confidence, before finishing. But this is far different from an overall approach that eliminates most files solely by considering CV + letters (or whatever Piccinini thinks we are using to screen the files).

    If his department is doing what he claims is the norm, then he should work to change his department rather than generalizing about what the rest of us are doing.

    I am not, I hasten to add, performing an induction based on what happens at my own school. I have compared notes about this with quite a few colleagues at quite a few schools over the years. There are different approaches to initial screening of files out there, and some are more responsible and thorough than others when it comes to reading the work of candidates. But it is not at all reasonable to assume that most are eliminated from most searches without their writing sample being read.

  10. Fritz,

    I agree that one should be careful about overgeneralization based on one or two searches in one year at one institution. And I am confident that your set of “data points” concerning how job searches are conducted is larger than Gualtierro’s set. Still, I’m not sure if you have a random sample of how searches are conducted in the profession. Perhaps you have a sampling bias that is weighted with an abundance of data from research I departments.

    Take the state of Michigan. There are three PhD granting departments in that state, last I heard. There are about a dozen other universities in the Michigan state system as well. That doesn’t include community colleges or private colleges. The large research departments will tend to be bigger, but there are more institutions with smaller departments. So, the number of jobs at these other institutions is probably not insignificant. Someone more industrious than myself might review JFP for the past few years and report a count of the numbers of jobs in the different kinds of institutions. That might be of help to grad students. And so might having some description of how searches are conducted at those institutions.

    One thing I think will be found is that there is self-selection for jobs. I think it likely that Harvard or Princeton or Chicago grad students will simply choose not to apply to certain schools.

  11. Ken,

    You are right thay my evidence is at least significantly skewed in the direction of what’s going on at, if not “Research I“s, then major and 2nd tier state Universities, major privates, good-and-better liberal arts schools.

    I do have information about searches at places other than these (hey, I have to try to place students too!) but yes, I do know much less about searches at the sorts of schools you point to than I do at the types of schools I mention above. I agree it would be good to know more about search practices at a wider variety of schools — it would be good for me to know this and for the profession as a whole to know more.

  12. Fritz,

    Here is the kind of thing that I conjecture happens (how often I don’t know) in smaller departments without graduate programs, programs with maybe six faculty or fewer. The department comes to the conclusion it needs someone to cover a particular field, say, philosophy of religion or philosophy of science or epistemology. The person hired will be “the philosopher of science” or “the philosopher of religion” or “the epistemologist.” In such a situation, the faculty interviewing a candidate may be very capable and intelligent philosophers, but really be at a marked disadvantage in the candidate’s area. Imagine, say, a Plato scholar interviewing a Bayesian epistemologist, or vice versa. So, given that the need is to have someone who will work well with undergraduates, one might be looking for someone who is intelligent, reasonable, articulate, and cares about teaching undergraduates, not someone who is going to have a great insight into, say, anaphora.

    I don’t know how common this scenario is, but I don’t mean to say that this scenario is universal. Maybe the safe thing to say is that any student applying for a job in a smaller program without a PhD or MA, should be prepared for this kind of eventuality. I think it can happen that a candidate will have a conference interview in which she receives no questions about her research. That might be shocking and disturbing and might make a candidate wish to withdraw from consideration, but I don’t think that being prepared for that situation can hurt.

  13. In my very limited experience the kind of interview Ken describes is not unusual at all. I had four initial interviews this year and had exactly one question about research. The question was ‘explain your dissertation in terms that an undergraduate could understand’. I was never pressed about any claim I made in my writing samples. I suspect the samples were read, but no one wanted to talk about them.

    The most common issues in my interviews were growing the major, teaching methods and dealing with unmotivated (or just plain bad) students. Unless you can reasonably aspire to landing a research job (where that means at least any place with a 2/2 load) it is wise to spend a lot of time on developing as a teacher. At a fair number of jobs that and ‘personal fit’ are all that matter.

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