Monday, November 25, 2013

Job applications: What not to do

This started as 3 observations, then
I thought of a few more things to say.
Once I got to 7 items, I added some
filler to make it a top 10.  I'm sorry
if these details ruin the sense of mystery
of how this post came to exist but I think
we should be honest with each other.
For Christ's sake, people.  What the fuck are you doing sending me this terribly shitty mess of cover letters, CVs, emails from students (emails from students!) and miscellaneous bullshit?  We are searching for an assistant professor, not the dumbest job applicant in the world.  Perhaps our ad should be more specific.

Here's a list of ten things about job application letters that piss me off.

10.  If you are a researcher, don't try to fake your way into a teaching position.  Oh, you really care about education?  That explains why you publish out the wazoo but your only teaching experience was as a TA in 1992.

9.  Likewise, if we are looking for a researcher to shower our department with grant money, then your mentoring of a high school kid's science fair project last year won't earn you any points.  In fact, Our scoring system looks like this:

   # of grants
+ # publications
- 100,000,000 if your CV says that you mentored a student's science fair project

= a number

It works surprisingly well.

Here's the jumpity jump, or as the RGM likes to say ...

8.  Let's talk about those cover letters.  Some of you wrote your cover letter in the email with your CV attached.  That's fine.  Some of you wrote a brief, clearly written statement in the email referencing the cover letter and CV that were attached.  That's fine.

Some of you attached your cover letter and CV to an email message written with the formality somewhere between a grocery list and a message I might write by peeing in the snow.  With worse punctuation.  This is not fine.  You already look like an idiot and I haven't even checked to see if you mentor high school students' science fair projects.  I guess we need to readjust our scoring system.

Even more annoying was the applicant who wrote one cover letter in the email then attached another cover letter with different information to the message.  Now you're just wasting my time.  I'm likely to lose my interest in you before I get a chance to read ...

7.  Your teaching philosophy.  Oh, Lord, have I been so bad as to deserve this?  (Don't bother, I know the answer.  (FYI: I was young.  I needed the money.))

Fresh-faced kids have no idea how to teach so I cut them some slack.  They talk about caring and helping students fulfill their potential and shit like that.  It's the equivalent of a new husband telling his lovely wife, "sure dear, I'll split the house work with you."  You only say stuff like that because you don't know any better.

The wannabe researchers basically say that they plan to get so much grant money that they'll hire their own postdoc to teach for them.  That is not ideal but I appreciate their honesty.

Some of them just couldn't be bothered so they wrote a paragraph telling me how much they like teaching because when they were young, some professor helped them finish their science fair project.

This is a long post.  I thought
you might miss me.
6.  Please, proofreed you're writing.

5.  Foreign applicants are my favorites.  Apparently, applying for jobs in other countries involves disclosing your marital status, age and hobbies.  Save that stuff for  We get along well in my department but not that well.

4.  You've worked at 15 different schools in the past 13 years.  Do you expect that job #16 will be the charm?  I hope it is.  Somewhere else.

3.  You called us a primarily undergraduate institution.  We are, actually, but that pisses off everybody because we are trying to be an top research university.  Your tendency to state the obvious truth does not bode well for your long-term success at this school.

2.  People teaching online classes confuse the crap out of me.  Seriously, give me a heads up about these things.  I got a headache trying to figure out how you were teaching at three schools on two different coasts at the same time.

1.  Our final contestant included screenshots of three emails from students who praised her teaching.  First off, you didn't redact the student's name and email address in a message that discussed his grade.  That's a big no-no.  Second, sending us three nice letters makes us wonder what your other five thousand students thought of you.  Third, are supposed to be impressed with this kind of shit?

There are good applicants in the stack of folders.  The rest provide comic relief for an otherwise boring search committee meeting.


  1. Clearly, some people DO need a life mentor! This was great fun. :)

    I'm ways curious what to do with Teaching Philosophies. We don't require them bc we all agreed that none of us could figure out what they were supposed to say that we could believe. They seemed like filler that someone would just bullshit about. Instead, we opted to offer two questions pertaining to our school and situation (for example, one was regarding willingness and preparedness to teach mass quantities GE courses; we are a SLAC; that means students take a lot of general ed crap). Anyway, I'm curious how others deal with the Teaching Philosophies.

    1. CC, I like your approach since it forces the applicant to think about your school's situation. One problem with teaching philosophies is that how you teach depends on what you teach, the type of student and the number of students. I can't expect an applicant to cover all the possible scenarios. They could still try to BS you but at least it would be BS relevant to your particular school.

      Teaching philosophies are a good way to see who is full of crap. If we are hiring for a position that includes teaching lots of freshmen, we can safely ignore those applications with poor teaching philosophies. Separating the good from the mediocre is more easily accomplished in the interview and teaching demonstration.

    2. Realizing that people are going to shape their teaching philosophies based on their experiences is helpful. Thanks!

      They still feel like so much BS that I find myself glossing over when reading them b/c they're always written in such lofty, theoretical language that Education Departments impart with no specifics (and perhaps that's just my personal bias showing b/c I don't deal in the 'lofty').

    3. I agree about the lofty language. It's refreshing when an applicant writes about trying some reasonable approaches to teaching but expecting that not all students are teachable.

  2. 11. Don't list "manuscripts in prep." in the published peer-reviewed articles section of your CV. It is blatant filler, and we note it as desperation on your part to make your scant/thin publication record look more substantial. If you have 7 published articles and 6, count 'em, 6 manuscripts "in prep" that you went through the trouble of listing, that tells us that you can't seal the deal and actually finish writing your manuscripts to fire them off for submission. 7 + 6 submitted, pending review, is actually much more impressive (and you'll need submission date and publisher's manuscript ID number so we know you're not bullshitting).

    1. what if you have a bunch of pubs already, and just list one "in prep"?

    2. MaM: If you have a bunch of pubs in good places, we're going to be so hateful that nothing else in your cv will matter anyway!

      Leslie K

    3. Don't mix refereed publications with unrefereed publications. Doing this appears to be trying to pull a fast one. List the refereed publications at top, clearly marked "Refereed publications," and then list the others below, clearly labeled that they are not refereed.

      And yes, never list manuscripts in prep, this looks pathetic. Also, "submitted" to a journal does not count. "Accepted" does, and if your field has a preprint server like astro-ph, you may list the web address of your preprint.

    4. Minor clarification - "submitted", and in review, does count to a greater extent if it is to Nature, Science, PNAS or equivalent high-impact journals where most submissions are immediately rejected and don't even make it to review - if it makes it to the review stage, it is usually quite good already.

      Also, if publishing in a conference proceedings, specify if the conference proceedings are peer-reviewed or not peer-reviewed.

    5. I don't know about "counting", but if there is a preprint on the ArXiv I can look at (and I do), that does means something, whether or not is submitted. If it's in a topic I'm interested in, it is not hard to decide for myself how good it is. This is an issue in math, where from submission to appearing in print, to a good journal, two years is not exceptional. (Also, people generally don't list where a paper is submitted, until it has been accepted.)

  3. God, teaching philosophies. How I loathe them. I've had to send out roughly a million of the damn things in the past year, and still don't know what they're supposed to accomplish. Do the schools want the latest edu-babble? Just shoot me. Do they want to hear that I'm a hardass that holds students accountable? Probably not. If they want that feel-good stuff about nurturing a student's dreams and aspirations, clearly they've never met their own undergrads.

    Research statements I get. CVs I get. Cover letters I get (aside from hating the fact that they always sound somewhere between arrogant and grovelling). If you ask me for all my syllabi and writing samples and anything else you can think of during the initial phase of application, then frankly you can screw off. There's nothing I love more than spending way too much on sending out a physical application package and then never hearing a peep from the inconsiderate bastards. But the teaching philosophy? Good lord, what absolute dreck.

    Here's my teaching philosophy: I assign readings. I try to get the shiftless little bastards to do the readings (and usually fail). I lecture to them while they check their iPhones (even if I forbid them, leaving me to make public examples of them like old-school exemplary modes of public punishment). I try to get them to discuss questions, which even if they are worded so simply that a second grader could understand them only results in the standard 3-4 students who ALWAYS talk. I try other "student-centered" activities to create "active learning". HAHAHAHA, what a crock! Then I test them. Some fail, some should fail but pass (yay, non-tenured life!), and some genuinely get the material. The last category is always the smallest.

    Rinse, repeat, drink bourbon. That is my goddamn teaching philosophy.

    1. I'll just add that 90% of the teaching philosophies I read are worthless. They are so empty of real ideas that they tend to annoy me rather than instruct me.

      But, I see 10% or so written in common language. They are often filled with ideas supported by examples.

      Here's a mediocre example of what I'm getting at:

      Writers need to imagine their work getting out of the academy and into the real world, so on many assignments in my advanced class my students submit their essays to online or print publications in an appropriate discipline. The force exerted on a writer whose words are going to be seen outside the classroom often urges them to better consider the topic, content, style, and message of their texts.

    2. It's a tricky tightrope walk. Chances are that there's someone on the committee that will want all the latest edu-babble, and someone else who hates it, like I do. Here's the one that got me my tenure-track job here at Middlin' State, as well as an interview at Swarthmore (but not the job there):

      I am strongly committed to providing the very finest undergraduate education possible, since my early years were marred by professors who didn't take undergraduates seriously. They were out of date, too: they taught us how to develop plates, but all I know about modern instruments and computers, I picked up on my own. This laziness allowed a fine observatory to be bulldozed, after years of neglect. My students really should have better!

      Among the most important things we astronomers do is teaching general education courses on astronomy. I think a bad way to do this is to present an astrophysics course for majors, with the math removed. I don't see why humanities or social science majors need to know what cataclysmic variables are, for example. They do need to know how science works, since they live and vote in a society in which science is important. They also need to be able to tell good science from bad science, so prevalent in the news and everywhere on TV. My course is therefore more general than many, much more valuable to anyone not going into a career in science. I want my course to be among the few they remember ten years after graduation, the way my literature professors told me their course on Homer, Ovid, Dante, and Cervantes would be (and they were right). I therefore stress the methods and history of science. The results of science have a way of changing, anyway: science isn't just a body of facts, it's a way of thinking and looking at the world.

      Facts are not totally useless, however, and I think contemporary American education has gone too far with this attitude. To show what science is about, I teach them natural history. Still, natural history must not be presented as mythology. I stress how we know what we know, explaining physical law as needed, all with an eye on observed facts. I do not pontificate to a class, ``THIS IS THE WAY THINGS ARE.'' That isn't science. A dry recitation of facts won't make it with today's students anyway, if it ever did. Facts alone are boring: people want to be told stories. It's hard to imagine a more amazing story than the history of the Universe, all the more amazing because it's true. I cover a few constellations, too, not only because this is often what students most want to know, but also because I think the lore of astronomy is worthwhile knowing.

      I am glad you are building a planetarium, and have a remote 16-inch telescope planned. I'd like to make active use of them, to teach both elementary and advanced students to think for themselves, by believing their own eyes. I want them to develop their skills in reasoning, by puzzling things out. Making observations oneself is a splendid way to do this. The real reason I'm convinced of Big Bang cosmology is not because what I've read about it seems consistent. The real reason is that, when taking redshifts, I could see for myself on the TV monitor that the small, faint galaxies have the highest redshifts.

      I want science majors and graduate students to get involved in research. This is only partly because I have has good experiences with the NSF's Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. It's mainly because precisely this made all the difference with me. My later undergraduate and graduate years were infinitely better than my early years, because I was involved in research. Luckily also, my field, cataclysmic variables, lends itself well to student participation, since these stars vary over short timescales. Specific projects include:

      [a bunch of good ones, involving black holes, flare stars, and other beasties that go AAAAUUUGHH in the night]

      (continued below)

    3. (continued from above)
      I am taking some risk in writing this here, but I find an important part of mentoring undergraduate research is recognizing cases for whom it is not appropriate. Some students lack the independence or the curiosity or the maturity to do research effectively: trying to force them to do so may turn them off to science entirely. I have had several cases like this, and am pleased to have found ways to keep them interested and productive, and eventually, ready to do research. Three Work/Study students of mine help me haul C-8 telescopes to the roof of the science building every week, and set them up for Observational Astronomy class; they've become adept at handling equipment, and so may be ready for an experimental lab. I manage two other Work/Study students as html programmers. One helps with [some database I used to manage], and has become familiar with observatories and instrumentation around the world. The other is making galleries of nova shells, from my Hubble project, including many ``pretty pictures'' I've had the undergraduates take, while training them how to use the telescope. Two more first-year undergraduates, who had no computer or other technical skills, turned out to know woodworking: they are now building a Dobsonian mount for an on-campus telescope that lacks a mount.

      Both my undergraduate and graduate degrees are in physics, so I would welcome teaching courses in physics, particularly intermediate classical mechanics, e&m, thermal physics, and optics. as well as astronomy courses. I would of course also be open to supervising seminars and independent study projects.

      I would also like to be involved in a vigorous public outreach program. Having given shows for three years at a world-class planetarium, I have plenty of experience in explaining things simply---but not overly so---to the public. I have since remained involved by publishing articles in Sky & Telescope and in Mercury, as well as acting as advisor for the student astronomy club, arranging events for them including public outreach at local schools, dark-site observing sessions, and trips to Kennedy Space Center.

    4. So you see, one thing that probably helped was that I mentioned NSF, a source of funding. I also mentioned state-of-the-art research, with Hubble Space Telescope and Kennedy Space Center. I hasten to add that this was for a teaching university, but then I rather doubt that teaching statements get read carefully in an R1. Very few faculty in an R1 would care about involving undergraduates in research using small telescopes, though: the runner-up for my job laughed when asked about this (since we was used to using a $600 million NASA spacecraft).

      As you can also see, I made some effort to be all things to all people. This is really what you need to do, and yet still be credible. Looking at this now, it's a wonder I don't drop dead of exhaustion, but then it helps that few of my colleagues in the physics department understand just what it is that astronomers like me do, anyway.

    5. Whatever you do, don't liken undergraduates to wolves, sharks, hyenas (who make a uncannily human laughing sound when tearing a victim limb from limb with they filthy jaws, thanks for the idea!), or rabid vampire bats.

    6. I enjoyed reading your philosophy, Frod. Daring, but I think it captures the problem of Gen-Ed courses well, and not only those in science.

      You're welcome for the hyena thing. Seemed appropriate.

    7. Frod, I enjoyed reading your statement, too. I don't know if Science-engineering Calculus is really gen-ed in the same sense as you describe. It's not really the kind of course where we can give students any idea of the process, of what "doing math" really is, or even describe mathematical discoveries. All we have time to do is "train" students to set up a certain kind of computation, without the physical context that gives meaning to them. (I know, other places have intro physics and math taught in tandem, but we don't and "innovation" of this kind is discouraged by the admins and the students.) If I tried to teach basic E&M with vector calculus (which I could do), there would be a revolt.

  4. Teaching Philosophies? As someone who served on a search committee last year (and I pray to St. Jude that it will be my last), I can state without doubt that they serve one purpose (at least here): to provide a detail or two--usually not more--for a committee member to support and/or prove hir point either for or against a candidate, as in "I think this candidate" (does or does not) "warrant a closer look because of this" [single] phrase or teaching trick/gimmick/ etc.... (which confirms my argument that most college teachers embody confirmation bias). My advice to candidates? Be honest, proofread, and know it will not help or hurt that much, so be honest but please proofread.

  5. I'm taking copious notes. Please continue. :)

  6. This thread prompted me to actually dig out my old teaching philosophy (which I think I wrote on a Commodore 64). Like Leslie suggests it describes concrete approaches to teaching specific courses (which I made sure matched the job applied for). It says things like:

    When I teach Intro Hamster Husbandry, I emphasize the connection between best husbandry practices and the physiological needs of the hamster. Weekly problem sets challenge the students to identify the practical techniques for a hypothetical hamster situation. This gives the students a practical justification as well as a conceptual framework on which to arrange their understand of hamsterology. On the other hand, in advanced Hamster-fur weaving, I use a more hands on approach to demonstrate how the weaving techniques follow from the physical properties of the fur.

    ...and I kept it brief.

  7. Please do not be misled about my job history. It is true that I've held positions at 15 universities over the past nine years, but I have never resigned from a position.

  8. Once upon a time I had a job that required me to help faculty members write their teaching philosophies (and I still offer free-lance help for people I like), a task that can make outstanding teachers quake in their boots and channel their inner freshman: "I just don't know what you WANT!"

    The problem, of course, is that no one really knows what we want from teaching philosophies, except for those few fuddy-duddies who want to see their favorite theorists name-checked. I've served on search committees that waded through piles of teaching philosophies in which the same theorists' names came up hundreds of times (I'm looking at you, Paolo Freire!), and after a while I'd give anything for a simple statement that indicates why the applicant does what she does in the classroom.

    So this, totally free of charge, is what I tell colleagues who need help with teaching philosophies: Think of your most effective teaching moments and briefly describe what those moments look like and why you do it that way. If you can come up with a metaphor that hasn't been used a million times already, use it to structure your statement. (Everyone's tired of "guide on the side/sage on the stage.") The statement itself should be brief (aim for a single page, single-spaced, and not much more) but should provide a vivid picture of what you do and why you do it. It may be structured as a set of simple principles, each one followed by a specific example. If you feel the need to give credit to a favorite professor or scholar or theorist, do it succinctly. End with a brief but dynamic statement summing the essence of your pedagogy--and then ask a few seasoned search-committee veterans to read it and mark it up.

    Finally, look over your philosophy as if it were a job applicant's and ask yourself whether you'd want to hire the person described therein. If not, try again.

    1. Anyone mentioning Eric Mazur will have me brandish my staple gun at them, menacingly! (What a way to end an interview.)

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. See, now I kind of want to submit my Teaching Statement to Beaker Ben and see what he says about it.

  10. One more: please, spell the name of our school correctly. And for Yaro's sake, don't call our school by the name of another to which you're also applying.

    1. Well, I've certainly been guilty of that one, once or twice, back in the day. My fault, of course, and I felt like kind of a tool knowing that my application to that particular job was going in the reject pile. I'm sure the University of Yellowknife thinks I'm a prize git.

      But seriously. When you're on a search committee complaining about how many applications you have to read, just remember that n-1 of those applicants has to find a job somewhere else. If every job gets X applicants, then every applicant has to apply to X jobs. Every committee wants the application tailored to their own precious speshulness. Yaro forbid that an applicant should miss an edit revising their cover letter on the umpteenth application.

    2. It's an oversight but it reveals the other schools you are applying to. If we are better tha that school, we'll be insulted. If the school is better than us, we'll be flattered.

  11. I like Mencken's teaching philosophy:
    "Expose the facts... and gild them with whatever appearance of interest and importance one can conjure up..."

  12. I've been on many search committees over the years, and I can't recall ever reading a candidate's "teaching philosophy"; in fact, I can't recall a teaching statement (or teaching LOR) ever being mentioned at any stage of the process. People are hired for their research, period. And I can't recall anyone in my dept being denied tenure for teaching-related reasons.

    So why does this nonsense survive? Obviously in service of the politically correct smokescreen "teaching is as important to us as research". Bullshit. Teaching is strictly a matter of common sense and experience. For the people we hire, the only question is how quickly they can lower their standards to meet the level of our typical student, which is weaker than anything they have seen before (having grown up in exceptional research paradises.)

    As recently as last year I applied to a number of places, and had to write the stupid thing. So I just made it about what I have actually done at different levels. Reading it recently, to my horror I discovered some general feel-good platitudes had still crept in. In the next incarnation of the document, they'll be gone. I could see some use for a "describe your teaching experience" document for a candidate who's been out at least three years. But "philosophy"? Come on.

    The American Math Society manages a job search platform ("mathjobs") where candidates can deposit vitae, research and teaching statements and cover letters, LOR writers can send confidential LORs and employers can look them up. I'm a big fan of the generic cover letter. What makes employer X so special that they think they deserve a personalized one? The generic employer will be looking at a large number of (largely interchangeable) candidates, so it stands to reason that candidates will apply to a large number of (equally interchangeable) jobs. The likelihood of success is so low, it makes no sense to spend more than a minimal amount of time on this. Math obs should be like "LinkedIn": if you declare yourself "on the market", just post your updated vita, alert a few places with openings, re-post the LORs (if not too old) and if anyone is interested they'll call you.

    SLACs are still an enigma to me. I'm using the arbitrary definition "small places with conscientious students and faculty doing research, but no graduate program." If they want to improve their "research profile", I suppose a younger version of me would be a reasonable candidate. Yet I have reason to believe they would completely ignore candidates with my background (for a junior, and even more for a senior position). Mystery, the SLACs. I've never visited one.

    I often encounter the expression (on job ads) "evidence of teaching excellence". Now, what the hell would that be? I wish a sort of "standard" would develop on that one, so candidates wouldn't have to guess, or (in my case) ignore it, other than describing what teaching/advising/course development I have done.


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