The job letter is one of the most important pieces of writing an academic does. But I have seen, serving on 15 search committees, that some letters never have a chance. The direction offered by dissertation committees can steer new Ph.D.s in beneficial and harmful directions – so here I offer guidance to those advising graduate students. I will follow with a second piece, on advice for the candidates.
The university I teach at cares equally about scholarship and teaching. The ensuing advice therefore may be applied a bit differently at institutions that focus only on teaching or primarily on research.
1. When approving dissertation topics, advisers need to consider not just a candidate's or dissertation adviser's intellectual interests, but the job market realities today – in which very few of these new Ph.D.s will be employed at research universities. Make sure then that dissertations have some breadth. A job candidate for one of our two world literature positions wrote a dissertation on one 13th-century Turkish writer. (The details have been changed to protect the candidate.) Another candidate had not just one but two projects around a minor writer. We simply cannot afford to hire someone who has such a limited expertise. When committee members read such a dissertation description, we wonder what else will this person teach beyond a survey of Sultan Velid? And how will he or she survive, much less teach, a general education course?
2. Prevent candidates from writing paint-by-numbers dissertations. Take any approach: say transnationalism. When I juxtapose the candidate’s approach with the literature he or she studies, I should not be able to predict every move made. Too often I can. A dissertation should not be choreographed, and the argument must hold some surprises. So what will a transnational approach to x offer that the current scholarship ignores or underestimates? At least 25 percent of applications in any applicant pool can be eliminated on this ground alone.
3. Remember that theory is neither a god, nor magic, and sometimes concepts stand in for thought as opposed to enable it. Perhaps another 25 percent of applicants fall due to this problem. Although Badiou and Agamben and Ranciere currently have magical qualities, there are both rote and interesting applications of their ideas. Some theoretical projects look like cut and paste: I am going to read x in terms of Badiou’s theory of an event. Even worse, some dissertations fling any thinker on the subject together, without a clear sense of why such an approach might be coherent, let alone do interesting work. Committee members reading job letters have varying relations to theory: it therefore helps to ground concepts in particulars whenever possible. Sometimes it looks as if the candidate has simply abandoned thinking to the philosopher or critic cited: what are you adding to the conversation?
Committees should remind candidates that it is much easier to take down any theorist’s work than it is to put something back in its place. Often the critique is sharp, but the candidate’s own contribution beyond the critique is wanting.
4. Writers of recommendations need not just say that a student is "brilliant," but need to specify what exactly about the dissertation is "brilliant." Committees often have hundreds of applications to sort through, and thus are looking for ways to get a handle on a candidate's work especially when that work, as it often is, is outside one's field of expertise. Sometimes the opposite problem appears: the director or committee member is able to talk about the dissertation in such a compelling way that one wonders why the candidate is so much less eloquent. It might be helpful to discuss with the candidate how you plan to treat the significance of the work.
If the best you can say about a candidate is that he/she works hard, or if you cannot find it within you to write more than a paragraph about the candidate, you should have encouraged this student to seek another line of work long ago.
Richard C. Sha is professor of literature at American University.