Writing Samples and Teaching Statements

Written by: Julie Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong
Published on: Dec 20, 2010

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.