Ask and you shall receive. Lots of useful responses to my post yesterday about why some departments don't allow some of their students to apply for the best jobs. There seem to be a couple of themes in what people are saying, so I want to try to address those.
First, I'd been assuming there'd be no downsides to sending applications to the best departments, but Robert's pushed back on that assumption. Maybe sending out less-than-outstanding applications can hurt candidates the way giving mediocre presentations or publishing mediocre work in mediocre journals can hurt people. Maybe, but how exactly? Especially if your department's not pushing your application very hard at that top school, it's going to get looked at for a few minutes by one, maybe two people. Maybe they'll read your writing sample, and maybe, to push this line a little harder, having the best people in the field see your underdeveloped work could hurt you. Again, maybe. But will it hurt so badly they wouldn't give your work another look after you'd got in good enough shape to appear in a decent journal? Which, remember, is what you'd have to do anyway to have a real shot at getting so much as a flyback from their department?
To take the opposite view, there are senior faculty in my department who say it can hurt to not apply to the best departments, even though we have no chance at getting those jobs. These profs' thinking is, it can hurt a candidate with middle-tier schools if it somehow gets around that the student's department didn't think they had a shot at the top-tier.
In any case, I need to think about the possible harms of applying a little more. As of yet, I'm not convinced.
Another idea people have is, somehow limiting the jobs students can apply for will help them get jobs. Anon. 7:43 is dead-on right about the importance of a very hands-on placement process in getting people jobs. But after people have been mentored throughout graduate school about producing good work and worked their way into the profession with presentations and maybe a publication or two, after they've had their CVs, writings samples, abstracts, and teaching portfolios vetted by the relevant senior and junior faculty, after even their letters have been vetted by trusted senior faculty, and after their profs have made calls to all the friends they honestly think should give their student an interview--if they've done all that hands-on stuff, what's the extra help of not letting students apply to Princeton?
John T. has a different take on how limiting the schools students can apply to can actually help them get jobs. One idea seems to be that departments can better influence another department's search process if they present a unified front with respect to a student's candidacy. But as Anon. 2:51 points out, besides offering honest assessments of different students' work, profs can tell their friends about the differences in students' interests and hope one or another candidate will appeal to the search committee as a possible fit for what they're looking for.
But John T. and others also have something else in mind, something about the psychology of search committees. John talks about a department wanting to be taken seriously when they tell a top-tier department, "This is the best student we've had in a decade." Fair enough, they should want to be taken seriously. But it seems like the best way to do that would be not to say a student's the best in a decade unless they're actually the best in a decade. Problem solved.
Along similar lines, Anon. 9:25 asks why anyone should expect their letter writers to say they're qualified for a job at a top-tier school. The answer is, of course, no one reasonable should expect that. But there's no problem here unless there are profs who tailor-up dishonestly inflated letters specifically for top-tier schools. If a prof writes a letter that just gives a useful description and honest assessment of a student's work, where's the problem?
I feel like I must be missing the thrust of what John and others were talking about with this business about being sensative to the psychology of the search committee. I have to admit, I'm somewhat suspicious it has something to do with a willingness dishonestly to inflate assessments of a student for some audience but not for others. If it's not that, I'm all ears as to what it really is.