Why require writing samples?

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In our newest “how can we help you?” thread, a reader asks:

If a candidate has a number of papers that are available on the inter webs, what is the function of the writing sample? Assuming that I would choose one of those publications, it seems to me that I’m not exactly giving them something they don’t already have.

Maybe it’s a way of pointing to the paper I like the most? Is most representative of where I’ve been/where I want to go?

The answer to these questions is, I think, much simpler than this. Another reader submitted the following reply:

[D]o you really think that when faced with literally hundreds of applications people have the time to google somebody, find their website or philpapers, pick a paper to read, etc.? I (and many people!) look at writing samples pre-first-cut (not read them carefully, but browse through them and read some of them when they catch my eye), and if I had to do my own internet research on each candidate to do so it would take… way, way more time than the already way too much time it takes to be on a search committee.

Indeed. Most jobs not only receive hundreds of candidates, but each of those candidates’ application materials contain a half-dozen documents, ranging from cover letters to CVs, teaching portfolios, research statements, and letters of recommendation. People on hiring committees have to sift through all of these materials in addition to otherwise working in a full-time job (teaching full course loads, research, mentoring, etc.). While we very may well check out other work of candidates we are interested in, it just isn’t viable, time-wise for search committee members to go through this for every candidate. Hence, writing samples.

Still, I think there’s a perhaps a better question implicit in the OP’s query: namely, what a candidate’s choice of writing sample says (or should say) about them. For example, in discussions here and elsewhere, it’s often said that candidates should “submit their best work.” But is that all? What if their best work is a small self-contained piece that doesn’t bear much relation to their broader research agenda? Would it be better to submit a piece of work that shows “where their research is heading”?

I’m curious to hear what readers think!

Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More

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