Thursday, March 20, 2008

Getting a Job at a Teaching Institution

I recently received the following request related to teaching-focused institutions and the job market. Given the mysterious aspects of the job market, some input from those who've recently served on hiring committees would likely be useful to many grad students in our profession.

For those of you at teaching-oriented institutions, how do you rank the importance of the various elements of an application: Cover letter, CV, letters of recommendation, teaching philosophy (or teaching portfolio), writing sample? I’ve been told (from someone in my department) that focusing on the cover letter is a waste of time, but all of the general advice I’ve seen regarding cover letters (e.g. in books on the academic job search and in the Chronicle) is that they are quite important, particularly for non-research institutions. I just had a dean and faculty members from local 2- and 4-year institutions (one in philosophy, two in science) tell me that they don’t look at anything else unless they like the cover letter. They like to get a sense
of voice and a sense that the applicant understands their institution (as well as addressing the requirements listed in the job ad). Is this your experience as well, or do you weight things differently?

We’ve also been told by recent speakers (who work at research institutions) that if we’re interested in teaching-oriented colleges, that we should be careful to avoid publishing in top-notch journals, because that will hurt our chances of getting an interview. That seems quite
counter-intuitive to me, but I wonder if that is more true if you are sending out a generic cover letter.


  1. I have a tt position at a SLAC, and it seems to me that a poorly-written cover letter filled with jargon can certainly hurt a candidate. My position is somewhat unique, however, since I am in a 1 person department. Therefore my cover letter had to be comprehensible to non-specialists. Still, I think the point remains valid regardless of the size of the department: at a SLAC, a poorly written cover letter will sink your candidacy, while a well-written one just might help.

  2. Mike,

    Depends on the type of job, no?

    I'm at a small 4 yr liberal arts school. I've been on searches here. I can attest to the central importance of the cover letter in my experience. The reason is obvious: small 4yr schools are looking for "community colleagues" (and usually a fair amount of interdisciplinary spirit). The cover letter is used to sell the stuff not on your CV, which is important to them (CV is important of course, but fit is essential). The best letters I've seen are the ones that convince the reader that the candidate is right for THAT specific school (fill in the blank details on how). The candidate is selling the fit, which is important at such small schools.

    I have heard others on different search committees (not the ones I was on) mention that top notch journal publishing from a candidate can be a sort of red flag (only insofar as it might be a sign that you don't really want to stay on a 4yr school that emphasizes teaching). That said, I wouldn't hide such accomplishments. I'd let it speak for itself and explicitly sell the other stuff outright -- teaching and fit.

    Of course, at a research oriented school one should no doubt use a totally different strategy.

  3. There's been an enormous amount of discussion in the philosophy blogosphere about cover letters. Take a look at this discussion on the Leiter Report and this discussion on Gualtiero Piccinini's blog. There's plenty more if you Google 'philosophy job market cover letter' or similar phrases.

  4. I don't know exactly how I'd rank the importance of the different elements of an application, but my sense is that a so-so cover letter won't rule out a candidate, but nor will a fantastic cover letter put a marginal candidate on the list of finalists. Your cover letter is a crucial first impression and the key thing is that it not contain any egregious errors (e.g., being carelessly proofread or making statements about the hiring department or institution that are false and easy to hunt down). Some customization of cover letters makes sense, but this can be taken too far: In the searches I've been involved in, too much tailoring to the hiring institution made people suspect that it was an attempt to conceal otherwise inadequate qualifications.

    As for publishing in top-notch journals: If you send out a generic cover letter to a teaching-oriented institution AND you've got high powered publications, then perhaps the hiring committee will infer you're not really interested in their position. So your job is to indicate that you are interested. I don't know that having great publications hurts your chance of an interview at a teaching-oriented school. One definite worry is that you might bolt for an R1 school in a year or two, so you may need to provide reassurance on that score.

  5. On publications and "teaching" schools: Much depends on the culture at the particular department/school. I'm in an 8-person department with no grad program at non-R1 state university--a program that I think most people would put into the "teaching department" category. However, we do look very seriously at research, and would never hire someone for a tenure track position unless we thought that s/he was going to publish in decent journals (and publishing in top journals would be even better). The reason for this is that this is just what the majority of the people in our department do.
    While we are very interested in high-quality teaching, we want our high-quality teaching done by competent philosophers with sufficient expertise in and engagement with the profession to do some publishing. So I'd be wary of assuming that committees at a school that one might characterize as a "teaching" school are not interested in research. Instead, I'd advise taking a quick look at the people in the department to see whether they do research. If so, then they are likely to want to hire someone who is also going to do research. I don't know how well this would translate to SLACs. With state schools, however, a department may be competing internally for resources that are allocated partly according to research productivity, and having a good researcher may be important for a department that does not have a grad program or the other characteristics of a “research” department.

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  7. I think Anonymous 7:51's caveat on teaching is a wise one. This could highlight the distinction between teaching colleges with 2-2 or 3-2 loads and ones with 4-4 loads (probably more numerous). At the latter type of school, the chance of publishing in top journals will be very much diminished, at least the chance to do so regularly, given the teaching load. This may not be the case at teaching schools with smaller teaching loads.

  8. I would advise having clear and honest conversations with your letter writers about what sort of job you would best flourish in for the next six or so years. I would also do this as early as you possibly can. If you really want to focus on teaching, you should begin this in graduate school. If you really want to focus on research, you should focus on this. If you want a clear balance, as I have at a small liberal arts college that prizes both, then you have to learn how to articulate your views about the liberal arts and the relationship between teaching and research. As for publications: if you can get your work to a wide audience by publishing in a top journal, by all means do so - all of us are in this for the philosophy, regardless of whether we realize it more in the classroom or the printed page.

  9. I've been on three philosophy search committees at a community college with a 5/5 load.

    For me, the cover letter was crucial, as it let me interpret the rest of the CV for my institution. The successful ones addressed all the elements of the job description not covered by the CV and clarified experience quesitons not necessarily made clear by the CV.

    As for publications, I honestly only glanced at them --- mostly because I wanted to know what they were working on, not to see where they'd published.

    What is most important for a CC applicant is to express a desire to teach and an understanding that our teaching load leaves very little time for research.

  10. I am also at a community college with a 5/5 load, and it sounds like my experiences with hiring is similar to the above ("Philosophy Factory").

    I read through cover letters rather quickly, but I was essentially looking for the applicant's expressed desire to teach in such an environment and their ability, given this environment, to remain engaged with the discipline. We had many incredible candidates from top programs who really had no idea as to what they might be getting into.

    I also looked very seriously at research. In particular, I looked for breadth. We had several candidates who had published in "top notch journals", and it was hardly a red-flag. However, if a candidate had only published on, say, the epistemology of testimony and they listed epistemology as their primary area of interest-- it was a concern. We often find that those individuals who are "most engaged with the discipline", if that means articles and books, are often unable to explain the value of their research to students, nor are they able to teach very widely (which is a necessity here).

    I certainly didn't rule out any applicant if they had a narrow focus. The true nature of the candidate's training comes out in our difficult interviewing process (which have been compared to comprehensive exams).

    At any rate, our successful candidates tend to have some publications (some have even published monographs with good academic presses), and those publications indicated a wide interest in the discipline. Most important for us, though, was teaching competence (which many of our "professionally engaged" applicants took to be synonymous with "charismatic lecturer", which, of course, ruled them out).


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