The Dossier for philosophy jobs

What is in a dossier?

A dossier is a packet of materials that is sent to prospective employers. It typically contains the following:

  1. Curriculum Vitae, informally Vita, and henceforth CV: an academic resume.
  2. Letters of recommendation: usually three or four.
  3. Writing sample: 25-30 pages and no more.
  4. Two different dissertation abstracts: a paragraph for the CV and a page.
  5. A cover letter: this states that you wish to apply for the job.

On arrival, your dossier will be put into a folder with your name on it and filed with all of the other applications.

The dossier will be used in a variety of ways. It is first used to make a list of people to be interviewed. It will then be used by those who are conducting interviews: they will ask questions about its content. Finally, it will be used by the members of a department who are deciding whether to vote for hiring you.

In other words, the dossier is subjected to differing kinds of scrutiny at each stage. Its contents must be clear enough to help those processing massive numbers of applications and substantive enough to engage someone reading them carefully.


You will need at least three letters of recommendation. These will typically come from the members of your thesis committee. It is important to develop relationships with faculty members while you are in graduate school so you will be in a position to ask for letters.

If you have not already finished your dissertation, it must be the case that your thesis advisor can and will honestly say that you will finish by the end of the year. Talk to your advisor in the spring or summer before you plan to go on the job market to confirm that you agree on what would have to be done in order to finish by this time. You really need that letter to say that you will finish.

You should also ask your thesis advisor, or someone else, to write about your teaching. Give the person who will do this a list of the courses you have taught and copies of any teaching evaluations you have. A little known fact is that all professors in our department are supposed to evaluate their teaching assistants. These evaluations should be on file with the department secretaries. While you are not supposed to see these evaluations, you can ask that they be sent to the person who is writing about your teaching.

You should not be timid about asking for letters. It’s part of the job and every faculty member, no matter how cranky or irresponsible, acknowledges that this is so (that’s hypothetical, of course since, as you know, faculty members do not have normal human flaws). Faculty members often have to solicit letters on their own behalf when they apply for grants or promotions. And, of course, we had to get them when we were in your shoes. It is natural to feel uncomfortable when you are asking someone to take the time to evaluate you. Nonetheless, it is part of this line of work and everyone knows it. So try not to procrastinate or be indirect: just ask and make everything, due dates especially, clear.

The CV

A CV is an academic resume. It should include information about your education, teaching, and research.

A good CV strikes a balance between standardization and personalization. It should meet expectations in formatting and content so those reading it can find what they want to know quickly. But it should also apply those rules in a way that brings out your distinctive strengths and qualities.

I have mocked up a small sample CV to give you an idea of the relevant categories and how one might format them. This is just to get you started: the rules are flexible and should be made to accommodate your particular strengths and taste. To get a sense of the respects in which CVs vary (and those in which they do not), you can peruse the CVs on the department’s faculty page.


These are relatively broad areas that correspond, very roughly, to the major divisions of a philosophy department’s curriculum.

To get a sense of how these areas are understood, consult old copies of Jobs for Philosophers (JFP). You can see past issues of JFP at the APA’s website.

AOS means that you could teach on the graduate level in an area and publish in it. AOC means that you could teach on the undergraduate level in an area. “Could teach” means “given a reasonable amount of preparation time, such as a summer, you could prepare a course in the area.” It does not mean that you should be able to teach any course in the area with that much preparation. There are, however, standard undergraduate courses that you should be able to teach in your AOS: history surveys, introductory courses on ethics, reasoning, epistemology and metaphysics, and so on. If you claim an area as an AOS (or even AOC), you should be prepared to describe a course you would teach in that area.

Do not categorize yourself too narrowly. If you work on a particular historical philosopher, for example, your AOS will be the philosophical era into which that philosopher is commonly put: Plato - ancient philosophy, Hume - early modern, and so on. There are sometimes borderline calls; use your judgment and knowledge. But don’t describe Kant as your AOS without at least indicating whether your research looks forward (say, to post-Kantian continental philosophy) or back (say, early modern).

An AOC can be quite helpful as many departments have courses that they must staff and chances are that the person doing it currently could use a break. Introductory ethics, medical ethics, and logic all leap to mind (sorry, I work in ethics) as courses that often fit the bill. Again, looking over Jobs for Philosophers will give you an idea of what AOCs are in demand.

CV Formatting

Formatting is largely a matter of personal taste. A good general rule to follow is to put information that is most central to your research after the sections on your educational background, AOS, and AOC. Other information, such as languages and teaching experience, should generally come later. Try to get something significant about your research on the first page: you want them to associate your name with your work.

Thesis abstract

A dissertation abstract should explain, in broad terms, the topic, significance, and basic argumentative strategy of your thesis.

And it should do so in a page. And then a paragraph (we suggest that you produce two abstracts: a paragraph length one for your CV and a page length version).

With normal fonts, margins, line-heights, etc..

Now that you have stopped snorting in anger and derision perhaps we can proceed.

The topic helps others to categorize you. The significance has to be explained because those reading the abstract are rarely specialists in your field. The basic argumentative strategy is there to fill in the story and serve as a launching pad for questions. It should be enticing.

It is not at all easy to compress something on the scale of a doctoral thesis into a page. But the ability to do so is not irrelevant to the job you seek. Quite the contrary. Identifying these three things is an important aspect of both teaching and research. Anyone who cannot do it is likely to be hopelessly caught in sea of details. It is not enjoyable to read the work such people produce and I shudder to imagine what it is like to listen to their lectures. Unfortunately, graduate education does not put a premium on doing these things, so this is probably your first concerted effort at doing it.

That’s OK: you will get it done and your improvement from draft to draft will be gratifying. I don’t want to scare you. But I do want you to take the job seriously and to see that it is valuable in its own right.

After you have a draft, get people who are not familiar with your area to read it. If they understand and are intrigued: good. If not: try again. Chances are good that you have to say more about what is interesting about the question you are addressing and use less specialized vocabulary. You will be surprised by the number of drafts and general effort involved.

Writing sample

The writing sample should be twenty-five to thirty pages of your best work.

You should respect the page limit. There are hundreds of files for every job and you do not want to make yours especially tedious. Moreover, as with many other parts of the job process, the ability to remain within standard constraints says something about your professional abilities.

If you cannot (or, worse will not) make a philosophical point within a reasonable space, what will your publications be like? I am not aware of many journals that encourage fifty page submissions. Your lectures? I see glassy eyed students who have long since forgotten what the point was supposed to be. Your conversations with your colleagues? Professors like giving lectures, not listening to them. Finally, if none of this convinces you, imagine getting an impossibly long paper from a student. Imagine getting impossibly long papers from all of your students. Would you view this as an opportunity or a burden? Now, pretend you are on a hiring committee ... .

It is best not to send the first chapter of your thesis. This tends to be programmatic and promissory, even though it is often your most polished work. It is better to send a piece that advances a substantive claim, even if its prose is less accomplished.

If the piece you are sending presupposes points made earlier in your dissertation, you might put a few paragraphs at the beginning explaining the topic of the thesis, how this piece fits in, and what claims it presupposes from elsewhere in the thesis.

Cover letter

A cover letter announces your desire to apply for a job. In philosophy, the cover letter is typically very brief: you declare you are applying for the job, state that Interfolio will send your dossier, say thank you very much, and sign it.

Different disciplines have vastly different expectations for the cover letter, even within the humanities. In some disciplines, the cover letter functions as an intellectual biography and dissertation abstract and is several pages long. Thankfully, short and sweet is the practice in philosophy.

Like every rule, however, this one is sometimes broken. Sometimes, there is special information that is worth putting in the cover letter. Perhaps a job has special requirements that you can meet. Perhaps there is something about your background that makes you just right for a job but that does not appear on your CV and other materials. It is entirely appropriate to include this sort of thing in one’s cover letter.

For example, I recall applying for a job that had very specific teaching requirements (it was a temporary job to replace someone on leave). So I described how I would teach the relevant courses in my cover letter. In the subsequent interview, I noticed that at least one member of the committee was working from my cover letter and had highlighted the parts she wanted to ask about.

Still, short and sweet will usually be fine and will certainly do a lot for your sanity. When in doubt, ask.

This page was written by Michael Green. It was posted July 28, 2008.
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