• August 31, 2015

Writing Samples and Teaching Statements

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Question: The only standard advice I have received about the writing sample for job applications is: "Stay within the page limit." But surely there is better advice than that. And how much leeway should a candidate have?

I have seen job descriptions request writing samples of 15, 20, 25, and 30 pages. If I have a writing sample of 24 pages, would that do for any of the jobs requesting 20 or 30, or should I edit my sample for each one to get the exact page count? Should endnotes count toward the page count, or can they go over it?

What is the best type of writing sample to use? Should new Ph.D.'s without publications use a revised dissertation chapter? Should they explain how the writing sample has changed from the chapter? Where should they put that explanation? Also, if a Ph.D. has a published piece that has nothing to do with the job description, should the candidate send the published piece or a sample more appropriate to the job?

I also have questions about the research statement that some applications request. How is it different from an abstract? The research statement seems like a very strange genre to write. How should new Ph.D.'s negotiate between writing about their dissertation and their future research in such a statement?

Julie: We recently received this question in response to our October column on controlling your emotions on the job market. The question really gets to the heart of what makes so many Ph.D.'s anxious about the application process—trying to understand what a search committee wants.

That is often coupled with the fear that getting even the smallest thing wrong—like a page count—will disqualify their candidacy.

Some candidates worry about how to highlight their strengths without overwhelming the search committee with documents. Others, especially new Ph.D.'s, worry that they don't have enough strong materials to attract a search committee's attention. Both groups often wonder what exactly a search committee is looking for in a "dossier."

Jenny: One of the challenges of an academic job search is that, as our reader states, different institutions ask for different materials in different ways. Some want a writing statement in 10 pages; others want 30. Some want five pages on your current research; others want five on your future plans. The writing and editing work required to submit everything that committees are looking for can be daunting.

Julie: And meeting every requirement is no guarantee of anything. For every candidate who sent the exact number of pages requested and got the job, there is another who sent in five pages more than requested and was still hired.

When thinking about page counts, it is important to respect a search committee's limits: If it asks for 15 pages, then don't send 50. Our reader's 24-page sample is likely suitable if a committee is requesting 30 pages. It may be also be appropriate for a committee requesting 20 pages, but if she has the time, she should do a bit of editing to trim a page or two.

Jenny: Talk with your adviser or other faculty members about the expectations for writing samples in your field because they vary from discipline to discipline. It's common, and generally accepted, for applicants to send a chapter of their dissertation as a writing sample in a job application.

Search committees use the writing sample to see if you can present an idea, discuss arguments on all sides of the topic, and cogently present your own view. If the only advice you're getting from members of your dissertation committee is to "stay within the page limit," then you might want to double-check with them about the quality of your work. What do they think would be the strongest pieces for you to submit?

Julie: If you have a published article or a book chapter, then send that alone—or with a dissertation chapter, so long as you don't go too far beyond the page limit. If you have several articles, then select one that best demonstrates your current research area.

Our reader mentions a situation in which a candidate has a published article, but it "has nothing to do with the job description." If that published piece is not germane to her present work, then it might not be the best choice to send to hiring committees.

As for endnotes and the title page of a publication you submit, they don't need to be part of the page count for the writing sample.

Jenny: As you think about what to submit, remember to be sure you have enough material so that if you get a campus interview, your writing sample and your job talk are not on the same topic.

Julie: Our reader said the research statement seems to be a "strange genre to write." And some Ph.D.'s are confused about the difference between an abstract and a research statement. An abstract is a one-to-two-page summary of a single project, usually the dissertation for most job candidates. A research statement, by contrast, should both summarize your current interests and be forward looking. It should describe the direction you plan to pursue, with some supporting information, and tell how that work will contribute to your field. Some job candidates who are postdocs may have a fully developed research plan. Others who are just completing their Ph.D.'s may not have had time to give as much thought to what's next.

Jenny: The research statement should include a response to the question, "Why does it matter?" and should demonstrate that your future research will follow logically from what you have done, and that it will be different, important, and innovative. You may also indicate how your research interests fit into work others have done. Preparing the research statement is good practice for job interviews because employers are keenly interested in what you plan to do in the future.

We think it's interesting that this candidate hasn't asked us about application materials related to teaching. In our experience, requests for those documents, such as a statement of your teaching philosophy, tend to be just as confusing to candidates, if not more, than requests for research-related statements.

Julie: Job candidates are often perplexed by the request to send "evidence of teaching excellence." That evidence most often comes in the form of a letter of recommendation in which your teaching is discussed at length. Such testimony is often the most effective proof of teaching excellence. Some candidates will also send a teaching evaluation (usually compiled into a single document that includes some information about how the performance was measured) as well as sample syllabi, examples of student work, or a teaching philosophy. Those materials can also prove useful for job interviews.

Jenny: A teaching-philosophy statement can be challenging to write, as it is unlike the usual type of writing that most doctoral students do. The Center for Research on Teaching and Learning at the University of Michigan has a useful online publication on writing these documents, as does the Teaching Center at Washington University in St. Louis.

Julie: Typically, we advise candidates not to send unsolicited materials. Search committees are overwhelmed with paperwork as it is. If your CV and letter seem compelling, a search committee will likely request more information from you, be it a writing sample, teaching evaluations, or a research statement.

Jenny: That said, we'd like to point out an interesting study published in The Journal of Higher Education and conducted by Deborah Meizlish and Matthew Kaplan from Michigan's Center for Research on Teaching and Learning. They surveyed search committees in six different fields at a range of institutions and found that faculty members often respond positively when job candidates send unsolicited materials related to teaching, particularly the teaching-philosophy statements. Consequently, the authors advise job candidates to send teaching statements, even when they are not requested in the initial application.

Julie: We still would suggest that candidates err on the side of sending fewer documents rather than more. However, job candidates might send one unsolicited document to highlight an aspect of their candidacy of which they are particularly proud.

Jenny: It's important to familiarize yourself with all of the job-hunting documents well before you need them. You should be looking at resources on writing them as well as samples on Web sites, in books, and from students and postdocs ahead of you. It will help you get a sense of how you can present yourself most effectively.

Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director of New York University's Office of Faculty Resources. They are the authors of "The Academic Job Search Handbook" (University of Pennsylvania Press). If you have questions for the Career Talk columnists, send them to careertalk@chronicle.com.


1. sandilion - December 21, 2010 at 12:45 am

I do not send any unsolicited materials in my initial application. However, I do send as an attachment to my e-mail of thanks to the search committee after each phone interview a document that includes a brief course description, syllabus, student evaluations, and what I learned as an instructor from the most recent course I taught. I can usually tie this in naturally from some aspect of the phone conversation. All but one of my phone interviews have resulted in campus interviews, so at the very least, this isn't killing my applications. (Here's hoping a campus interview turns into a position in 2011!)

2. superdude - December 21, 2010 at 12:54 pm

I can't imagine a writing sample would ever be useful. Frankly, I won't hire someone, even coming straight from graduate school, without at least publication. That's all the "writing sample" I need.

3. timmo3 - December 21, 2010 at 01:13 pm

I'd like to offer a few comments from the other side of the table, not as a junior faculty job candidate but as one of the anonymous search committee members reading the applications. My comments pertain to those seeking jobs involving undergraduates, but they apply jn principle to other situations as well. Regarding research interests, teaching philosophy, and so on: These are difficult to write, and my advice is to start writing and revising your statements asap. One way they are used is to distinguish candidates who have given these topics serious thought, as opposed to someone who simply wrote something because it was part of the application. Think "mission" and "responsibilities" as you craft these statements. For instance, if you are applying to a primarily undergraduate school with a stated mission of involving students in research, your research plan should address this aspect explicitly. It is no good to have an elegant research plan that is so technically advanced that no undergraduate could possibly become involved. With teaching, consider not only what you want to teach, but how you are going to be innovative and creative, not simply focus on about (your favorite) esoteric topics, and deal with the perennial problems of getting students engaged in large classes, which is often the case in lower division core courses. You don't need to have all the answers, but you do need to tailor your statements to the specific responsibilities of the job you are seeking. Remember, the purpose of the written application is simply to make it to the next step, be it phone interview or on site interview. From there, the ball is in your court to follow through on what you wrote in your application.

4. raymond_j_ritchie - December 27, 2010 at 01:18 am

A writing sample? I have never been asked for one in my 34 years graduate & post-doc career. A publication list is sufficient but beware of multiple authorship. Fortunately most of mine are single authored. No publications? No-one without a publication in a refereed journal has a hope in Hades of getting a job or a post-doc in Australia. So start writing up your PhD work, preferably with no-one else's name on them. Avoid or minimise multiple authorship unless legally obliged to do so.
Beware of teaching statments. If they do not ask, don't send them one. Generic "Motherhood & babies" stuff will probably do you no good so unless you know exactly what they want to hear. It is better to keep quiet. A reference from someone specifically about your teaching might be a better proposition.

5. lmagnani - January 02, 2011 at 08:26 am

I think we need stop to "waste" time on these ridiculous and realy "academic" (in the worst sense of the word) bureaucratic things,
everyone would have to be free to send what he/she wants. Do we have to selct people or statements?

6. pjohnsonx - January 03, 2011 at 01:17 pm

My standard job application kit has four elements:
Cover letter, customized for each application
CV, with list of published articles
Teaching Portfolio with summary of courses taught, evaluation summaries ans\d student comments
Research portfolio with actual and prospective article titles
Each application takes about 30 minutes to customize, edit and send. I landed a full-time position after 60 applications in a fine-month period.

7. hnsawyer - January 06, 2011 at 09:25 pm

@lmagnani = I second that! (your comment)

8. gloriawalker - January 10, 2011 at 02:46 am

There are apples and blueberries. The upper class schools or Ivy, the State schools, the Corporate schools, Faith based schools and others. Each look for or request something different. I have noticed during the interviews that some of the individuals in charge of the hiring have not done what they are requesting of the applicants. I have found that some cannot read a transcript and I have found in some cannot read or write. Yes, I said it and I can prove it. In the past three years I have been out in the academic community collecting, observing etc. I have discovered graduates from schools or universities in Ivy League that amaze me to the point of questioning the administration of the institution. My first question "has he had a stroke" and my last question is "if he graduated from Harvard why is he not able to write a..."?

I think that we as educators have gotten into areas that are so far out that I cannot see where it helps our community. Research is fine but it does not make a good teacher most of the time. Those that select the route of teaching the students and not a great deal of effort in research are considered less by recruiters.

Another area is the certification such as AA or AS in the business
schools. In the past four years I see packaged classes, open book tests, take home tests, multiple times to take the tests and many other situations that concern me.

I see students from other countries coming to our elite school and the only thing they can say in English is "I go to CU". Then when he graduates he remains in the USA and gets a better job than the student that can speak, read and write American style.


9. emilybt - January 16, 2011 at 04:22 am

I think this gives your future boss an insight on your writing style and looks like they are liking this method more and more.
I think we should stop hunting careers as they are and look for success in our own field with career aptitude test because a career you love will boost your energy and potenciality.

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