A reader calls my attention to this posting which purports to be by a faculty member at a school ranked between 13 and 35 in the last PGR. (It may well be by a faculty member, I have no real basis for judging.) This anonymous faculty member writes:
I’m at a Leiterespectable department that has aspirations of being Leiterrific. Our deadline was last week, and we’ve received hundreds of applications. We’ll be holding a series of meetings over the next month to come up with a list of a dozen or so candidates that we want to interview at the APA. The first step is to rule out all but 50 or so of the applications. Each file will get looked at by more than one committee member. We’re responsible like that. But on what basis do you think that we will rule out all but 50 or so of the applications? I’ll give you a clue: it doesn’t involve reading any writing samples. It’s not that we’re not required to read any writing samples. Nor is it that some irresponsible committee members won’t read writing samples. It’s that we’re all encouraged not to read any part of any candidate's writing sample at this stage.
That’s right, boys and girls. I know you’ve been slaving away at your writing samples for months now. I just wanted to tell you that, if other departments are anything like ours, chances are that most of the departments that reject you will reject you without reading your work.
Unfortunately, the post does not specify the criteria the search committee does rely upon. I take it that at most departments faced with several hundred applications, most dossiers are, in fact, put to one side without reading the written work. But the sorting principles at this early stage are hardly unreasonable ones. A minority of the dossiers are probably put to one side based on pedigree, i.e., they come from a department that the hiring department does not view as providing credible training in philosophy (that may or may not correspond to the PGR results, it depends on the hiring department, but there is probably some rough correlation). For the remainder, members of the search committee will at least look at the CV, read the dissertation abstract, and, most importantly, read the letters of reference. Assuming the CV and abstract make the candidate a good fit for the position, what the letters say and who they are from is probably most crucial at this stage, and will determine which dossiers will get detailed scrutiny in the final round (i.e., whose writing samples will be read with care). Contrary to what the anonymous faculty member implies, the reason to work hard on your writing sample is because it will now play a huge role in deciding who among the, say, fifty candidates that get scrutinized will actually get one of the ten or fifteen interview slots at the APA.
The anonymous poster, above, is a bit too flip about all this, and makes it sound more unreasonable than it in fact is (maybe it is in fact quite unreasonable at that person's department, but I doubt it). It's also worth emphasizing that the preceding may not characterize the hiring process at a liberal arts college or a university emphasizing undergraduate teaching and the like. These programs will surely also be taking into account pedigree and letters, but the pedigree that matters may be the pedigree with which the department has had good experience, and, especially if it is a small department, there will be as much or greater interest in things like collegiality, responsibility, teaching competence, and so on, than simply research excellence, which tends to drive hiring at departments in research universities.
I am opening comments, subject to two ground rules: (1) those purporting to describe departmental hiring practices will have to post under their actual names, or the post will not be approved; (2) grad students and job seekers may post questions or comments anonymously, though these will be approved based on relevance and content. Post only once; comments may take awhile to appear.