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Trevor Hedberg
Columbus, OH
Postdoctoral Scholar at The Ohio State University
Interests: Philosophy, Reading, Writing, Editing, Teaching, Website Design, Tennis, NBA, Anime, Video Games
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I think it's fairly clear that "perfection" is not the expected standard that committee members use to evaluate candidates. However, I think the spirit of the OP's remarks is that a single slip-up (or just something that committee members perceive as a slip-up) is enough to sink your candidacy. I think that general idea is true: in the 30 interviews first round interviews I've done, there were some instances where I interviewed well and still came up short in advancing or getting the offer. But in every instance where I made a clear mistake or misstep (e.g., a joke that didn't land, needing to rephrase something I said initially, being caught off-guard by a bizarre question), I did not advance to the next stage. The margin for error for candidates in an interview is extraordinarily low since the differences between the quality of candidates that make it to the interview stage will be almost imperceptible. Committee members are looking for reasons to eliminate candidates -- a way to differentiate between them. Having an average or below-average interview (even if no big blunders are made) will almost always result in them picking another candidate.
I've largely avoided unethical behavior by hiring committees, but in one case, I was completely misled by the search committee chair about the interview questions I was going to receive. I was told via email that the interview was going to focus on my teaching and that I would be asked specifically about how I'd teach the courses listed in the job ad. I spent several hours in the few days prior to the interview outlining topic / reading lists and rehearsing how I'd pitch my approach for those courses and the accompanying assessments. When the interview took place, I was barely asked about my teaching at all. Instead, I was asked mostly about my research and a series of vague questions about social justice. Most of my interview prep for that position was a total waste of time. It was even more puzzling because it was a job with a 4/4 teaching load: I'd have expected they would genuinely care about teaching. But whatever the reason for this bait and switch, I was not at all disappointed to not advance to the next set of interviews.
@curious. It varied the 1st and 3rd examples were asked of all candidates (I assume). The 2nd one certainly wasn't because it was an extremely specific question about my writing sample. I ultimately got offered jobs in cases #2 and #3; I did not advance past the 1st round interview in case #1.
Given the commonness of things getting suck in review, I suspect this feature of the candidates research profile might go unnoticed unless the candidate draws attention to it. This reminds me of advice I gave to some prospective graduate students years ago who went to great lengths to explain, for instance, why their C in a chemistry class wasn't a big deal. I advised them to omit that content because I didn't think anything of that fact when I looked through their transcripts, but when they made a big deal of it in their statements, suddenly I thought it might be something of significance. I think the same kind of problem could arise here and that the job candidate might actually make the issue look worse by drawing attention to it.
During my past time on the job market, I was offered a total of 4 postdocs -- an interdisciplinary research one with a minimal teaching load, two in biomedical ethics with significant teaching responsibilities (but still plenty of time for research), and a teaching postdoc focused primarily on designing and administering many sections of an innovative introductory philosophy course. One of these positions did require a specialized research statement about the particular initiative related to the postdoc; the others did not. However, in all cases, I think that being able to demonstrate that I fit the research area of the postdoc via publications and research plans and had relevant teaching experience was crucial. In this respect, I suppose postdocs aren't that different from other jobs. It sounds like the reader was wondering specifically about distinguished postdocs that lack clearly defined research specializations. In those cases, I suspect it's mostly about publications, prestige (e.g., where you got your PhD, who's writing your letters), and what you intend to do as a postdoc (which is basically your research plan for the next 2 years). I would strongly advise taking the first strategy that the OP mentions: having a clear plan for what you will do the next 2 years anchored around single topic (or perhaps two related topics) is better than stretching yourself thin across many things that you may or may not do during that time. Teaching isn't irrelevant, but postdocs -- unless explicitly labeled as teaching-focused -- usually have low teaching loads and carry an assumption that you will engaged in significant research while you hold the job.
I think it has to be a fairly special circumstance for a publication in a "lower-ranking" journal to count against you in a meaningful way. Marcus mentions several reasons above. Another reason is that some journals are "lower ranking" in a lot of contexts but carry a lot of weight in their specialty area. As one example, I don't think you're hurting your candidacy for an environmental ethics job by having publications in Environmental Values or Ethics, Policy & Environment instead of publications in Ethics or Philosophy & Public Affairs even though the latter journals would generally be considered better by most members of the profession. Additionally, a fair number of jobs nowadays have hiring committees with few (or even 0) philosophers on their search committees. Non-philosophers will not be in position to assess which journals in the field are best and are unlikely to devalue publications from lower-ranked journals.
When I was applying for jobs, I based this decision on the type of institution and the type of position. If it was a teaching-focused position, then I included a teaching letter. If it was a research-focused position (especially one at an R1 institution), then I included only research letters, though I should acknowledge that one of my research-focused letters did briefly mention my teaching. In my various cycles on the job market, I got interviews and job offers for both teaching-focused and research-focused positions, so I think this strategy was effective -- or at least that it did not hurt my chances.
I was told back when I was a grad student that these kinds of publications would probably help me for teaching-oriented positions but hurt me with regard to research positions. My experience in the profession roughly accords with that. These kinds of publications don't carry all that much weight to those evaluating applications for research positions -- they might actually hurt your chances by giving the impression that you aren't "serious" about your research. However, they may look good to administrators and faculty as less research-focused places who want to increase department and/or university visibility. It really just depends. I definitely think there are a couple of jobs where a greater quantity of "public" philosophy or other philosophical work aimed at a broader audience would have helped me.
Most journal articles are 6000-8000 words. (Or at least that's what they'll state on their official webpages.) Given that convention, I always interpreted "short" writing samples as being under 6000 words. Preferably in the 4000-5000 word range. The commonness of these requests means that it's useful to try and publish a shorter piece at some point early in one's career -- something I did not do until after I had already been on the market a couple of times.
This reminds me of some of the Cocoon posts in the past on whether or not to have children in graduate school. (I authored a couple on that topic.) I recall taking some flack for defending what a colleague of mine called "an anti-family view", but my concerns were dominantly rooted in what Jared mentions above -- the low income, the challenges associated with relocating your family, the difficulties of balancing your studies with childcare, etc. Of course, I recognize that these concerns may carry greater weight with some readers when they come from a person who is actively struggling with those challenges rather than a non-parent like myself. I certainly know some people who navigated these challenges successfully, but there's no doubt that it added an additional layer of difficulty to their graduate studies and the job search that followed.
I want to make a note on this comment above: "Current demand will be filled up by people currently on the job market. So, the demand might drop in the future. This of course depends on how many years away you are from going to the job market." Current demand might be filled by people currently on the market for a while, but a lot of jobs with high teaching loads are not permanent positions. Those jobs are filled for 1-3 years and then come open again. Hearkening back to my specific medical ethics recommendation, enrollment in STEM fields has been steadily increasing for a long time. Medical programs almost always require medical ethics or an equivalent course, so demand for those courses has been rising for a while now. The same is true for courses like engineering ethics. At any university with a small faculty, the ability to teach these kinds of courses would be a notable asset in a job search even if the focus of the search was in an AOS other than ethics.
While it's probably not possible for everyone to cultivate an AOC in the area, I'd make getting an AOC in medical ethics a priority for most graduate students. Medical ethics is one of the most in-demand courses at almost any university. That's been the case since I began graduate school, and I suspect it will continue to be the case for a while.
To echo what some others have said, give the students easy, short assignments that are graded on completion. This will boost student engagement in those lectures, and it will also require that students attend class to get those points. I'd vote against restricting access to slides and other materials used in class. Many students will miss class for legitimate reasons, and you'd be disadvantaging them by cutting them off from that material. If they miss class for a documented disability, then your institution's Disability Services Office (or equivalent) may be require that you distribute this material to those students. Moreover, students will usually benefit from being able to revisit course material later when they review for exams and will not be able to do that easily if their only reference to the handouts, slides, etc., is their own notes.
I was on the job market off and on for the last 6 years and edited hundreds of cover letters. Every year, I looked for advice about what makes cover letters good. Outside of some of the most obvious things, such as briefly explaining how your credentials are a match for the job ad, there's really no consensus about how cover letters should be written. Even basic characteristics like how long they should be or the extent to which one should tailor their cover letter to a specific department, location, etc., are the subject of tremendous disagreement. So I generally just made my own judgments about these things. It worked out in the end, though I wonder if I could have done just as well with less work on cover letters -- I never detected any difference in success rate between the applications where I tailored my cover letters extensively vs the letters that were more generic.
There's always the option to replace an acknowledgement footnote with something like "acknowledgement removed for blind review" if there's a concern about how it would be perceived by current reviewers, but I would definitely support acknowledgements for all referees if/when the paper makes it to publication.
Given that the ABD phase is the most likely place that graduate students will struggle and drop out of the program, I think it's best for them to be meeting with their dissertation advisor regularly. In my own case, I met with him about every two weeks on average during fall and spring semesters while I was working on it. This was true even if I produced no new content between sessions, and that happened a fair amount -- my week to week progress had high variance. Nowadays, with virtual meetings being easy and commonplace, this should not be too burdensome, and it's an excellent way to keep your advisor in the loop about how things are going.
I've generally thanked (by name) anyone who gave comments on a previous draft or with whom I had a long conversation or email exchange about the subject matter. I'll also thank my presentation audiences (in general terms) and, if applicable, my commentators at the event (by name). Obviously not all comments are of equal quality, but I view this as part of showing respect to the time and effort that others put forward to engage with my work. Also, while it might go without saying, acknowledge someone regardless of their career status or university affiliation. I still have bad memories of giving detailed comments on a paper at a conference in 2012 and discovering I was not in the acknowledgements when that paper was published a couple years later even though it was obvious the author had changed the paper to respond to my objections. Other people who were at that conference did get acknowledged, which made me wonder if I was excluded just because, say, I was a grad student or from a relatively undistinguished program.
Excellent post, Sam -- I think the most important general point (which I will add to 7 Years Later somewhere) is that time-saving teaching methods can sometimes also lead to better teaching. You illustrate this with some clear examples that may certainly be worth incorporating into some readers' courses. But even beyond using time-saving techniques, I think the more banal observation that increased prep time does not automatically lead to better teaching is also important. Some graduate students may think that prepping for their courses 20 hours a week will make their lectures, discussions, etc., better than if they only prepped for 10 hours a week. That doesn't follow: prep time usually follows a principle of diminishing returns. A few hours of prep will be loads better than none, but prep past 15 hours might well make no difference at all to the quality of your instruction.
Caligula's Goat -- The guide will be hosted online. Probably not in the format of a wiki but using an elaborate linked table of contents (where you click where you want to go). This guide isn't aimed exclusively (or even primarily) at undergrads, though it could be of use to them. I expect those currently in graduate school to be those who would be most interested in the material.
A few quick comments based on the exchange above. First, this guide isn't primarily about how to apply to graduate school or whether to apply to graduate school in the first place. That is covered briefly in an appendix, which could stand alone as its own document. The guide is about how to complete graduate school in philosophy while also accomplishing what's necessary to be competitive on the job market (to the extent that is possible with the way things currently are). The primary audience includes current graduate students -- not just prospective graduate students. Second, I have gotten email inquiries over the last year from undergraduate students (with whom I have no affiliation) who have stumbled upon my website asking when the guide will be completed. So there are at least some prospective graduate students who would be interested in a guide like this. Third, the particular sections are meant to be self-contained, so you wouldn't have to read the whole guide to understand a particular segment. To give one example, imagine you want some advice on teaching your own course for the first time. You could just read the section of the guide that addresses that issue. Or perhaps you're getting close to writing your dissertation and want to know what that experience will be like. Then you could just jump to that section. I highly doubt most people using this guide will read every word that's written, and it will be organized to facilitate that.
I have no idea how common the practice is, but if it is common, then it completely defeats the purpose of asking for letters of recommendation. I'd agree with "postdoc" above that letters are supposed to serve as independent confirmation from someone else -- ideally, an expert in the field who can assess the quality of your work -- that you do in fact have the credentials you claim elsewhere in your application materials and would be a good person to hire for the position. It may be true that you know your own work better than others, but you may also be biased about the quality of your work and think that it is better, more original, etc., than it actually is, and it's in your self-interest to suggest it is better than it really is (since this would give you a better chance of being competitive for jobs). This is why an evaluation of your work and character from a third party can be valuable. The book analogy referenced by "No letters in the first place" also doesn't make sense to me. Yes, you are typically responsible for writing the blurb that goes on the back cover of the book, but you don't write the endorsements that appear on the opening pages: those come from others who have read the manuscript (or at least large portions of it in advance). Endorsers for my book had to send their official statements to the publishers separately; I couldn't have submitted them on their behalf. You also don't write book reviews yourself, since those are meant to serve as independent evaluations of the book's quality. In my mind, that's the same role letters are supposed to play in the application process.
In a sample of about 20 1st round interviews, none of my best interviews (or what I'd consider my best interviews) have advanced me to the next stage of the search. Neither have any of my worst interviews. So I have my best results when I just have an average interview. I long ago learned to make no assumptions about what would happen following my job interview, regardless of how well (or poorly) I thought it went.
What constitutes a "good" PowerPoint design is going to depend a lot of what it's being used for. Sometimes, a lot of text on one slide is appropriate. If I'm presenting an author's core argument in numbered series of premises leading to the conclusion, I want the entire argument on one slide if possible so that it's clear how all the pieces of the argument lead to the conclusion. A lot of text may also be appropriate if you're highlighting a critical quote from the text and want the whole quote on screen at once. If you're showing a set of data or a graph (e.g., data on homicide rates in the context of a reading on gun control), then it's appropriate to have few words on a slide. Even so, there is one reason to not be super-text heavy in a teaching context: if your slides are too thorough, students will attempt to use them as a substitute for actually doing the course readings. This means some short-answer responses may be little more than copied portions of the PowerPoint slides. This rarely translates to strong answers, and it doesn't encourage the students to do the kind of independent thinking that philosophy courses typically require.
There's no question the postdoc would be the better choice. I struggle to think of a situation where it would be better to adjunct for a year instead of taking a postdoc, unless perhaps it was an overseas job where there were compelling non-academic reasons to stay closer to home. Plus, postdocs are generally pretty good jobs -- relatively light teaching loads, pretty good pay for the amount of work required, and time to pursue one's research. You will also usually get health insurance, a retirement plan, and other benefits associated with your university employment; adjuncts don't typically get these benefits.
Toggle Commented Oct 25, 2021 on Postdoc or adjunct? at The Philosophers' Cocoon
Michel -- That's a fair point, though I would find it hard to advise anyone to keep probing the academic job market year after year when their AOS usually has only a few job postings per year. That's such an unfavorable situation that even exemplary candidates will often see no meaningful results for many years even if they apply for positions every job cycle. I suspect they will often be better off seeking non-academic careers or building up a second AOS that is more marketable.