Just What Is a Dossier?

January 04, 2005

Opening the first job listings is like opening presents on Christmas morning. There are the pleasant surprises, the perfect toys, and the occasional unsightly outfits from that aunt you'd rather not talk about. But for the most part it is an occasion for excitement and wonder. There is the sense of abundance, of endless possibilities. But the next day, childlike wonder gives way to infantile greed. Why did she get more presents than I did? (Both Jason and I have sisters.) Why are there so many job listings this year in metaphysics and so few in epistemology?

Where's all my stuff?

And then there is the massive nightmare of paper everywhere. The job market's paper nightmare is not stuffed into trash bags and hauled to the curb for the garbage collectors, but collated, clipped, and slid carefully into perfectly labeled envelopes entrusted to the Postal Service.

Deciding what goes into those envelopes is more difficult than we had expected as we pursue our joint search for jobs in the same town -- me as a Ph.D. candidate in English looking for my first tenure-track job and Jason as a tenured professor in philosophy looking for a similar position.

My placement advisers preach the one cardinal rule of job applications: Never send anything the ad doesn't specifically ask for. The corollary to that unbreakable rule is that you always send a dissertation abstract, even if the ad doesn't call for one.

So the actual cardinal rule is this: Send only what the department asks for, except for the stuff you should always send, even though the ad never asks for it.

It may well be that the request for the abstract is couched in the cryptic terms in which these ads are written. Take the word "dossier," for example. What the devil is a dossier? Some ads read, "Send dossier, including letters of recommendation"; others read, "Send dossier and letters of recommendation."

One university e-mailed me to request my dossier. What it wanted was not letters of recommendation, which it already had, but transcripts and a writing sample.

Now let's face it, I've been in graduate school since the mid-1990s. I need a job. I'd send these folks a DNA sample and EKG readings if I thought they would secure me an interview. I'll gladly and promptly provide prospective employers with absolutely anything they want to see, if I can just figure out what that is.

Given that the ads are so cagey about what a dossier might contain, they are surprisingly prescriptive about the length of the writing sample they want to see. College X wants to see 15 pages; College Y, 20; and the University of Z, "no more than 30."

A job candidate needs three or four writing samples, or at least a writing sample that can be readily resized to meet those competing demands. So in addition to writing Chapter 4 of my dissertation, I'm busy rewriting Chapter 2 in various configurations that suit the demands of various departments.

Fortunately, I've had some experience in the art of academic recycling -- expanding seminar papers into dissertation chapters and reducing dissertation chapters to conference presentations. I can gut, inflate, and otherwise repackage a piece in award-winning time (if awards were to be given for excellence in the nerdly arts).

In the midst of the daily printing, photocopying, and postmarking, I find some consolation that there is at least a clear mandate about the length of the writing sample. The real mystery here is about style. Obviously we want to showcase our best work. But what does that mean?

Jason found himself with several options. There was the lively polemic that shows off his textual and argumentative skills but would be incomprehensible to any nonspecialist. There was the big-picture synthesis that offers an interesting overview of a huge topic and therefore necessarily skimps on the details. There was the provocative new take on a familiar issue that might have provoked more than just interest.

Which of those publications would showcase the kind of scholar Jason has been? Or should the goal instead be to provide a taste of the scholarship Jason hopes to produce in the future? Perhaps a more exploratory paper that reveals the character of an exciting new project is better than a highly polished and published piece that represents a line of research that has gone as far as it's going to go.

Jason may fret about writing samples, but he is spared the trauma of the cover letter. Philosophers are occupationally incapable of writing personal statements, so the standard job letter from philosophers is basically "Here's my application. Sincerely yours."

But in English, the job letter is expected to be a mini-masterpiece -- introducing the candidate, describing his research and teaching, and explaining how he is a perfect fit for the needs and interests of the prospective employer.

The problem is that departments are surprisingly uncommunicative about what their needs and interests are. Job advertisements are spare, standardized, and uninformative, and departmental Web sites seldom articulate how the department imagines its current hire fitting into its future development and educational mission.

So the standard advice about tailoring application letters, while well-intentioned, turns out to be almost impossible to follow. We would love to show prospective employers how we might fit into their plans and dreams, but only successful mind reading would allow us to do so.

My adviser, always quick to put a cheerful face on things, considers the process of compiling the CV and writing the application letter a process of self-discovery. For her, it's about taking stock of one's accomplishments.

But actually it seems to us that job candidates generally know who they are. The exercise of putting together application letters and CV's reminds us that even by the time someone is at the point of finishing a Ph.D., one's scholarly identity is fairly well established.

The standard advice about tailoring application letters seems to rest on a picture of the protean Ph.D. who emerges from the dissertation defense ready to be absolutely anything. The kind of scholar I am, the sorts of jobs I would be most suited for, and the range of teaching of which I am capable -- those are all pretty evident from my CV, and it would be self-defeating to write an application letter that would promptly be contradicted by my vita.

It would be almost as foolish as the insincere religious conversion contemplated by one of my friends, who was so afraid of not getting a job that he would undergo any spiritual, intellectual, or physical ordeal to secure one.

Certainly one can highlight features of one's record that might be of particular interest to a prospective employer (assuming you can figure out what those are), but one cannot become in a paragraph what one has not become in six years of graduate school.

So for us, the application process is more about self-exposure. It's departments that are more often engaged in self-discovery.

Many departments work out their views of themselves and their plans for what they want to become through the hiring process. That is probably why job ads are so uninformative. Departments are hoping to run across someone who will make them say, "Yes, that's just the person we need in order to become what we want to be -- even though, before we met him, we didn't know what that was."

Both Jason and I have come to realize that our job is not to adjust our application materials to respond to needs at which we can only guess, but to present our own determinate scholarly identities in such an attractive way that some department will open the envelope and see, not just our past accomplishments, but its own promising future.

The problems of figuring out what exactly to put in that envelope are probably fairly universal. There doesn't seem to be a specifically "academic-couple" aspect to them. The reason is that although we are a couple applying for jobs, we are not applying for jobs as a couple. I have my jobs and Jason has his.

The two-body problem comes in only when we compare our job lists. I have 30 jobs that roughly match my qualifications; Jason has six. By a striking turn of luck, one quite desirable institution ended up on both of our lists; but of course we can't submit a joint application. We have to do exactly what everyone else does: Try to make our individual applications as strong as possible and hope that that pesky spousal problem works itself out in the end.

We will soon see how successful we have been. In the meantime, we pursue, separately, our goal of staying together.


Graham Bennett is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. candidate in English and Jason Lindsey is the pen name of a tenured professor in philosophy at a public research university in the Midwest. They will chronicle their joint search for academic appointments this year.