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When applying to faculty jobs, how much weight is given to your research/teaching statements? Talking with a few folks on admissions committees at Very Good Departments in Big Research Universities, I was told in no uncertain terms that

  • your letters get you the interview,
  • your talk and individual meetings get you the job,
  • nothing else really matters,

where "nothing" includes your research statement, your teaching statement, the content of your publications, or your hairdo. Of course, I am working with a very small sample here. How true is this sentiment? (And if it is true, why keep asking us young folks to write these hackneyed teaching statements that nobody ever reads?) More importantly,

Question: For those who have been on faculty hiring committees, what are the actual criteria you use to invite applicants?

By actual (in bold and italics) I don't mean "what the job posting specifies" or "what the department charter says you're supposed do," but rather "how you actually make these decisions in a meeting right before lunch while preoccupied with a grant proposal due at midnight and the fact that the cafeteria is going to fill up with noisy smelly undergrads if you don't get there soon."

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    your previous title did not reflect the tone of your question and did you disservice… I second making the title more in line with the question, if somewhat less provocative. Regarding “unceremoniously”, please keep in mind that this site is collaboratively edited… the person who did so did it to help – F'x Nov 17 '13 at 21:00
  • You are right. I appreciate the community and will edit away the sarcasm. Mea culpa. – Dnuorg Spu Nov 17 '13 at 21:40
  • It is hard to believe that all search committees read carefully teaching or research statements. Because, I have seen people getting jobs with a teaching and/or research statements that convey nothing but immaturity at teaching and research (and academic work). For example, I read in one of those teaching statements an anecdote like this: "once, I saw one of my past undergraduate students and she told me I am the best math teacher she's ever had". So either the search committee of his current job didn't read his teaching statement or they have never read any teaching statement at all. – user4511 Nov 18 '13 at 11:19
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I am the chair of the faculty recruiting committee in a Very Good Department at a Big Research University. I read research and teaching statements.

I need to know that you have a compelling agenda for your future research; your letters won't talk about that at all. I need to know that you can describe and motivate your research agenda well enough to attract external research funding. I need to know that you know why (not just "that") your work is interesting, visible, important, and likely to have high impact. I need to know that you communicate clearly enough to be a good teacher, and that you care enough about teaching to formulate a coherent teaching philosophy. I need to know that your research, teaching, and career goals—as you describe them—match those of my department. I need to know that you are taking the recruiting process seriously.

In the long run, your publications (which I also read) and your recommendation letters are probably more important. But saying that your statements have no importance is a dangerous exaggeration.

Also, I don't eat in the cafeteria.

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    Thank you, that is a useful admonition. I think you are a good guy, and I am glad people like you are making these kinds of decisions. I also notice you have a particular zeal for the academic process (as evidenced by 33.1k points on Stack Exchange). To what degree would you say your colleagues share this zeal? – Dnuorg Spu Nov 17 '13 at 21:50
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    To the degree that they want to be taken seriously in committee discussion. – JeffE Nov 18 '13 at 12:52
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I agree that letters are by far the most important part of an application, but there's a big difference between not reading something and not having it be the deciding factor. Your research statement is needed to describe your research agenda; if you don't do a good job of this, you are unlikely to be hired. However, there's only so much one can learn from a research statement. For example, some people describe ambitious plans they cannot actually carry out successfully, some are very good at making incremental work sound exciting, and some may work in an area nobody on the hiring committee can evaluate confidently (perhaps that's why the department needs to hire in this area). The top candidates all have impressive research statements, and the differences between them are generally not compelling enough to matter compared with what the letters reveal. On the other hand, it's certainly possible to write a bad research statement, for example by giving the impression that your greatest ambition is to refine your thesis work forever. If you do that, you'll discover that someone was reading after all.

Teaching statements are a messier subject, and nobody can quite agree on what should even be in them. Search committee members at research universities differ in how they evaluate them: some read them very seriously, while others use them for nothing but filtering out applicants who might provoke a student uprising through incompetent teaching. I think you'd be surprised at how many people care about teaching, even in departments that are not known for teaching excellence overall, and even people who don't care about teaching know they need to maintain some minimal standards and put on a good show for the administration.

Of course, all this depends on what sort of job you are applying for. There's enormous variation, not just via the obvious categories (research universities, comprehensive universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, etc.) but also at the departmental level or just based on who's on the search committee. There are overall patterns, such as the importance of letters, but there is no agreement on things like whether cover letters matter.

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It's certainly true that publications, letters and your performance in an interview are far more important than research or teaching statements; I'd much rather be on the job market with latter weak than the former. That said, I think you're conflating two things here: most applicants' research and teaching statements never get read. But if you get the job, it's pretty likely they were. Between TT and postdoc searches, my department currently has 623 applicants in our MathJobs queue; that's way too many to read all the research statements of. But eventually things will get narrowed to a shortlist, and then documents will get read.

  • Your posts about job-hunting have always been helpful (and thanks a lot for making your application package public). But this one was both encouraging and depressing. It's good to know all documents will be read in the end if you get shortlisted. But 623...? Six hundred twenty three?! That's just crazy... – Yuichiro Fujiwara Nov 18 '13 at 18:38
  • @YuichiroFujiwara Well, that's MathJobs. Everybody can easily apply for every job (and of course, you have to if that's what everybody else is doing). I think that number is suppressed somewhat by UVa not being a major metropolitan area. The postdoc numbers are running 150-200 lower than what we saw at Northeastern. But of course, a lot of the people who apply are not serious candidates (for example, people graduating this year applying for the TT positions), so the numbers anywhere are also kind of inflated. – Ben Webster Nov 18 '13 at 18:54
  • That many doesn't sound crazy to me, but I suspect it reflects the way people paper the universe these days, applying for everything everywhere, regardless of whether even they think they're a believable candidate. You get lots of junk. I think what Ben is saying is that out of any pool of applicants, something like 80% will be obviously inferior to the other 20% based simply on credentials. He doesn't need to read anything else to know this. But by the time anyone gets hired, that person's statements will get close review because this is choice they'll have to live with. – Nicole Hamilton Nov 18 '13 at 19:11
  • To both: That makes sense. I'm not sure about the numbers Nicole brought up though. But I can imagine the majority of applications are obviously not competitive and have no chance, at least in the case of highly competitive TT positions at reputable universities. – Yuichiro Fujiwara Nov 18 '13 at 19:23
  • @NicoleHamilton I'm not sure 80/20 is really the correct balance. I don't know that it's so easy to skim the top 20% out of the top 40%. Lots of people are superficially plausible (went to a respectable university, have some publications and good letters of reference), probably at least 50% and unless they are in a field you know well, it can be hard to figure out who has done really impressive work. – Ben Webster Dec 15 '13 at 11:38
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As a member of a hiring committee in a small department at a primarily undergraduate institution, I read both statements.

For the research statement

I need to know that the research planned by the candidate is feasible at my institution. If he/she needs access to one of only five specialty instruments in the world, then I am suspicious that the candidate may not be happy at my institution and will likely want to move on in a few years. I also want to see projects that look like they are friendly to undergraduates. Finally, since I am in a small department, I want to see research that somehow balances our desire to find someone who complements the types of research we are already doing while filling in voids in our expertise.

For the teaching statement

Since teaching will be the majority of what the candidate will do, I read this statement for a few key items.

  1. Is the statement cogent and organized? I do not care what the teaching philosophy of the candidate is so much as I care that the candidate has clearly thought about how they would approach teaching and learning.
  2. Does the statement contain more specific examples than fluffy buzzwords? Even if the candidate has limited teaching experience, specific examples from classes the candidate has taken again demonstrate that the candidate has thought about what good teaching might look like.
  3. How long is the statement? Half a page means the candidate put no effort into the statement. More than three pages means the candidate does not have focused thoughts on the matter.

Ultimnately, I make certain to read both statements carefully for the same reason I read the letters carefully. I want to make sure the candidate is the best possible match for the job.

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Yes, people like to rant about the current state of the system, and most often over-exaggerate the importance given to this or that item. Some people find it sounds better to say “the system is rigged/stupid/corrupt, all that counts is whom you know” than “it's a pretty tough job, and we need that much information to make the best decision”.

I think the simplest way to make the point is this one: with the huge amount of competition and pressure on that particular job market, hiring committees use all the information they can get their hands on to make the best decision.

Going to the extreme, even things like your hairdo, your clothes and your language style do convey information to your interlocutors: does the guy know how to adhere certain basic social conventions, for one thing? It sure is a minor element compared to your publications, but it may come to play a role, because, well, plenty of other applicants will have stellar publications!

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    Note that my question is not a rant: it is a startled reaction to matter-of-fact information provided by actual people on faculty hiring committees. (I for one am all for the reading of statements.) – Dnuorg Spu Nov 17 '13 at 21:41
  • I said the people you quote are ranting… though at least one sentence in your question (“why keep asking us young folks to write these hackneyed teaching statements that nobody ever reads?”) feels borderline :) – F'x Nov 17 '13 at 21:48
  • Ok, you are right. :-) – Dnuorg Spu Nov 17 '13 at 21:51
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I sat on a hiring committee last year. We read all the research statements. Candidates didn't submit a separate "teaching philosophy" but did discuss teaching experience/perspective in their cover letters.

I would bet that it depends on the job. If the job is narrowly targeted toward a specific research area, your research statement is more likely to be similar to those of many other applicants, so it may carry somewhat less weight. For the committee I was on, the job ad was very open-ended, so the research statements carried considerable weight in weeding out people whose research didn't jibe with the department's goals.

At least in my experience, it is quite untrue that the letters are the only thing that gets you the interview. In our discussions, letters were among the least discussed aspects of the applications. Committee members would not if a particular letter seemed especially glowing or damning, but that was about it.

One thing you don't mention is your CV, which I found to be one of the most important factors. We spent a lot of time discussing the research output of the candidates.

In general, my impression is that it is (unfortunately) much easier to shipwreck your prospects than to boost them. We definitely had people who gave poor interviews, or poor job talks, and thereby took themselves out of the running. So, even if people don't give the research statement immense weight, it's worth your while to make it decent, because if it is noticeably sucky it could torpedo your chances.

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Every time I do an interview I see the interviewers pull out a folder and read my research statements right in front of me. So yes, I am pretty positive people read them.

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I have been on search committees. I have made decisions (usually decisions about who goes on my short list) on the basis of the research statement. So make an effort to have it readable and accurate.

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