On the Philosophy Job Market

For the first time, this winter I observed the job market as a member of a search committee. Here are some things I wish someone had told me when I was a job candidate, or even better, when I was a beginning graduate student. Of course, they must be taken with a grain of salt: every search committee operates slightly differently.

  1. Unless you are already in the final list of candidates for a job, your writing sample will rarely be read. Few people have the time, expertise, and confidence to judge the quality of your work on their own. Instead, they will rely on other sources of information (see below).
  2. The rank of your institution and department counts more than you might think. Examples: “Princeton” evokes the warmest feelings because both the university and the department are good. “University of Pittsburgh” impresses philosophers because the department is good, though non-philosophers and administrators will be less moved. Even though Harvard hasn’t had one of the best philosophy departments for a while, “Harvard” is so engrained in the brains of American academics that it commands people’s attention. Conversely, if your program is not highly ranked, that counts against you regardless of whether you’ve published in J. Phil.
  3. Virtually no one will read your published work, so they will judge it by where it’s published. J. Phil., Phil. Review, and other good journals attract people’s favorable attention. Conversely, publishing in obscure journals counts against you in any research-oriented department. Mutatis mutandis for journals in between. You should learn early on the ranking of philosophy journals and submit accordingly.
  4. If you haven’t published anything and you still aspire to a job in a research institution, you should be from Princeton or Harvard or have extremely strong letters of recommendation from famous people.
  5. The fame of your advisor and letter writers count for more than your might think. The bigger the name, the more meaningful the letter is assumed to be.
  6. Letters from people outside your institution help, though not a lot.
  7. Having more than the required three letters of recommendation helps, though not a lot.
  8. Presenting at conferences (especially selective ones, like the APA and PSA) helps a bit more, though still not a lot.
  9. Your cover letter doesn’t count in your favor if it’s good, but it can count against you if it’s sloppy. You should address all job requirements and say something about why you want that particular job.
  10. The rest of your CV (honors, service, courses taken, teaching experience, etc.) counts against you if it’s lacking, but does almost nothing positive for you, at least at research institutions. (E.g., no teaching experience is usually a negative.)
  11. When you are interviewed at the APA, you are not judged on a par with the other interviewees. Search committees arrive at the APA with a more or less firmly established ranking of candidates. This ranking is based on the above considerations plus the needs of the department and the inclinations of the committee members. The best you can do in your interview, and the most likely outcome, is to confirm your place in the existing ranking. In exceptional cases, you might move upwards slightly (mostly because someone above you in the ranking did really bad). Of course, if you make a really bad impression, you will move downwards, but it’s unlikely. Mostly, interviews confirm the existing ranking of candidates. So it’s perfectly normal to do splendidly at your interviews but not be considered any further, simply because everyone else above you did about as well.
  12. If you want to be competitive for jobs in teaching institutions, the rules are reversed. You shouldn’t come from a highly ranked program and you shouldn’t publish before hitting the job market. Otherwise, people will think you are too research–oriented for them. Given how many philosophers go on the job market each year, this leads to the paradox that some job candidates are not considered good enough by research institutions but are considered too good by teaching institutions. As a result, they don’t get a job. Obviously, they shouldn’t give up: they should fine tune their CV and try again next year.

Update [3/5/06]: I wrote a follow-up here.

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29 thoughts on “On the Philosophy Job Market”

  1. This is interesting. Unfortunately, it isn’t what I wanted to hear. Last year, I turned down a top-five (according to the PGR) philosophy department because of family concerns. Because my wife and I judged it important to have family nearby (we have children), I instead accepted an offer at a department of far less renown. It has two very big names, a very strong up and coming junior faculty, and several senior faculty that range from decent to very good but don’t publish much. Accordingly, the department has the resources available for me to become a good scholar if I go about my coursework and personal study in the right way.

    That said, my goal was to publish my way into a research university. It is discouraging to think that the rank of my institution and department can effect me in as negative a way as you’ve suggested. I knew it would effect my job prospects in the short-term, but your description of the hiring process seems to leave me less long-term hope than I counted on.

    I suppose I’ll just continue to publish, and work to impress the big names in town.

    Anon

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  2. The fame of your advisor and letter writers count for more than your might think. The bigger the name, the more meaningful the letter is assumed to be.

    This is true to some extent. There is some (imperfect) correlation between the bigness of the name and how reliable people will take the letter to be. But the content of the letter is important as well. I’ve seen plenty of middling, not-that-useful letters from big-name letter writers. Perhaps the candidates in question were all middling candidates. I suspect, though, that in at least some cases students would be better off working with, and getting letters from, lesser-name philosophers who work with them more closely, better appreciate their strengths, and can write letters whose content is more enthusiastic and useful. Of course, a student is not usually able to predict how these things will turn out. My primary advice is just to work with whomever you feel helps you be most productive.

    For what it’s worth, each year, I find myself trusting, and relying on, letters less and less.

    Virtually no one will read your published work, so they will judge it by where it’s published. J. Phil., Phil. Review, and other good journals attract people’s favorable attention.

    I expect different departments have different attitudes towards published work. But in the departments I’ve worked at (Harvard, Princeton, NYU), there’s been no requirement or expectation that the leading candidates will already be published. Having a paper that’s good enough to be in J Phil will certainly be to your benefit; you should use it as your writing sample. The extra time it would take you to really get it into J Phil would (I think) often be more productively spent writing another paper that good, or making your dissertation project better developed, more polished, or more marketable. So I never push my grad advisees to publish.

    As I said, I expect there are different views about this. Some of my colleagues have urged their students to publish. And I get the impression that some departments do place a higher value on candidates already being published. But it seems to me that, in our own hiring decisions, we care in the first place only about how much good work the candidates have to show us, and how good that work is.

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  3. I would love to have a sense of which journals command the most respect in normative ethics and history of modern– but how does one go about learning the rankings of the various journals? I’ve asked several of my professors about this, and generally get a response along the lines of “oh, I don’t know. Ethics is good.”

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  4. Do you have any insights about how much certain fellowships (e.g. mellon, Javits, Fulbright) help those first going on to the market? Are some especially likely to get you noticed?

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  5. Thanks for the advice! But I don’t suppose you’d be willing to write up a nice, rough-and-ready ranking of journals?

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  6. How confident are you (after one search lifetime?) that your remarks apply generally to the philosophy job market (or research job searches generally) rather than simply reflect what goes on in one search at your school?

    Fritz Warfield

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  7. How should those who aren’t good enough for research institutions and too good for teaching institutions go about fine tuning CV’s? Should they give up on the research institution, and drop the publications from the CV?

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  8. Most of this strikes me as correct, save for the last one on “teaching” institutions. I have taught at a regional state University and a liberal arts college. Cv’s from Harvard, Princeton, and Chicago have always been read and taken seriously. There are not that many applying from such institutions to “teaching” institutions. During the interview it doesn’t take long to figure out if a candidate is just not interested in a “teaching” job. It’s not hard to figure out that a candidate has applied for the job, say, because mailing out one more c.v. is relatively easy. There really is a matter of fit here.

    Also, I think it’s an overstatement to say that publication hurts you at “teaching” institutions. I think a vast majority of bachelor’s degree granting institutions do have have tenure linked to some level of publication.

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  9. Most of what G. says here seems to me pretty sound, sadly so in some cases.

    A couple of points about which I have reservations:

    Letters from people outside your institution can — and should — have real impact. Outside letters may seem “more objective” because it is assumed, with some justice, that your advisor and other teachers will be “pushing” your candidacy. It is important that the letter be from someone who has real knowledge of you and your work; by and large, letters that vibe, “s/he sent me a paper, so I took a peek,” generally are uncompelling, unless you really wow an acknowledged expert. Therefore, it is an excellent idea to interact with people outside of your institution as you become a senior graduate student. In my estimation, when you get a few years post degree, it is very important that you have letters from outside your doctoral program. When I see files from more advanced candidates who are still relying only on the support of the home crowd, I wonder about their professional maturity and ability to impact the profession. As you move forward it is important that your file start to loose its “graduate student feel,” and outside letters are a help here.

    On cover letters, I’d be curious to hear what others think. I spend almost no time with them when looking at applicants; I want to put my own spin on the file, and I’m not much interested in the candidate’s spin. So I devote about as much time to cover letters as I do to doctoral program applicants’ “pesonal statements.” In both cases, if you have a compelling consideration you must mention, keep it short; your audience will be sitting in front of a tower o’ files.

    As an applicant, I usually wrote very brief cover letters — a few lines. There was the occasional exception, as when a program in “Scientific and Philosophical Studies of the Mind” seemed a perfect fit for someone with my interdisciplinary interests (the committee disagreed). But if you’re like me, you’ll have 50 or more applications to do in your first go ’round (or two) on the market, and the considerable time it takes to tailor that many detailed letters might be better used elsewhere, like prepping for the (non-diagnostic but important) convention interviews.

    I may be an odd duck regards cover letters, so others might chime in.

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  10. As someone who fairly recently made just the transition you speak of, I recognize some of the “wisdom” that you have gained from transitioning to the other side of the interview table. That said, it seems apparent that many of your points are exaggerated for effect (or at least I hope that they are). For instance, if someone is doing great work (and this is recognizable by publications or other means) and comes from a less prestigious department, then this is often recognized, at least in the searches that I have been a part of. Most of your criteria would be subject to similar modifications assuming that the search committee is at all diligent. One thing that I think you get wrong however is your last point. I don’t think that it is the case that you need to have a lot of publications to be hired by a research univesity. Though it helps, pedigree matters here a whole lot. If you come from a top reseach university and your celebrated advisors say in their letters that your research has much promise, then you can be hired without publications, without meaningful teaching experience and sometimes even A.B.D. I have seen candidates with this profile picked-up early in the hiring cycle. Your corollary that publications scare off “teaching institutions” may only be true in second tier liberal arts schools, community colleges, and satellite state colleges. Certainly, at better liberal arts colleges, one is expected to teach well and to publish and it is of great advantage to have a couple of respectable publications on your c.v. in addition to some proof of your ability to teach.

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  11. Hi. I got here via Brian Leiter’s site. Just wanted to say that while the post is interesting and helpful, on many points it does not reflect my experience. I’m also serving on a philosophy search committee for the first time, at a large research institution.

    I was surprised at how little the PhD-granting institution seemed to matter – often, people from higher-ranked programs were passed over in favor of people from lower-ranked programs with more interesting projects.

    Also, publications mattered a lot, even if not in top journals. Eg. having a publication in somewhere like Southern Journal of Philosophy was taken as a big plus, not because that’s where you’d be hoped to publish in the long term, but because it shows that you’re capable of getting out there and getting things done. At my university, and at some others I know of, it’s very difficult to get a job having published nothing at all.

    I think that the moral is that different places do things differently, and allow different kinds of candidates to rise to the top.

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  12. I have to disagree with your last item. We’re more a “teaching department” than a research one, but publications are a plus from candidates. (Getting tenure, of course, requires excellent teaching and scholarship — though not the same quantity as research schools — so seeing some publications gives us an inkling about whether the candidate we hire will be able to get tenure.)

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  13. Could you give us a list of, let’s say, the top ten general philosophy journals in terms of reputation? (e.g., not Economics and Philosophy or Religious Studies but Nous or Journal of Philosophy) I know what I like, the journals I think have useful papers, but those aren’t necessarily the “top” journals from a search committee’s perspective.

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  14. Re: “The fame of your advisor and letter writers count for more than your might think. The bigger the name, the more meaningful the letter is assumed to be.”

    While I won’t deny that is true, in my experience letters from people the ctte members know get the most weight of all. And the people most likely to known are people active in the profession in more ways than just publication: people who also go to conferences, write philosophy blogs, etc.

    Don’t get me wrong: a big name or two helps. But if you don’t have 3 big names, look for someone active.

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  15. I don’t think 12 is entirely correct. I would conjecture that a very large fraction of regional state universities and liberal arts colleges lacking PhD programs still expect some published research for tenure.

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  16. First of all, what really matters in this world (academic world included) is a well balanced auctarial-financial performance budget without losses. But if we could imagine an ideal perfect world with unlimited resources to erradicate the maladaptive endogamic structural problem that you denounce, what we could do is to get a well design division of labor with people not only trained ad educated to teach, not only trained to research, not only trained to organize, not only poeple trianed in human resources and board reviews…; but also create a “new” species of well educated people that not only must know or suppose how other people do their works but also trained to “appreciate” what is needed in every moment according to the general trends of the demands of society and institutions, working in the shadows generating a net of expertise in every aspect and activity of human existence.
    The great mathematician Cantor even after developing his celebrated theory of sets, supernumerability… many of his contemporaries deny its intrinsic validity.
    G. Frege died inmerse in melancholy because no one recognize his achievements that finally were used to found contemporary logical mathematics and also to trigger well known philosophical movement.
    So, many times what really counts is not being the best candidate for the job but that others “know” and deploy what is require to “know” that you are the best for the job.
    Reputation, fame, in the form of letters of recomendation by “famous” or widely respected people is the necessary condition for building human networks in the social space because reduce entropy, and in this sense, biases such that elite universities are more considered for job committes is a natural inclination rooted in our nature.
    Non-human primates are nepotistic and humans as well and we all rely on past interactions and contingencies (except strong reciprocators).
    For that reason to know that someone is fitted to the job we first have to gather information about the subject (candidate)and if this information come from “good” sources, will be accepted.
    The problem is that not always from “good” sources come reliable information about people, and other sources can have good information as well. In pragmatics terms i think that all is subject to improve but given the pace of the gargantuan absorption of markets and its changing demands in skills, merits etc., the problem that you denounce is a logical side-effect. Nobel laurete in economics Michel Spence (1973) suggest precisely what you states at the final of the post when you say that people is rejected but try in succesive ocassions.
    Level of education is a good indicator of talent because impose a handicap in the person (he never have productivity traits) but despite of it he lives.
    In proverbial language it is said that “he who insist then finally get it”. The big caveat is that having the capacity for tuning requires several affordances very significative. Think in money.

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  17. should we infer from your findings that if a student gets into, say, nyu, rutgers, and princeton, she should still today go to princeton (so long as she likes the faculty at the places more or less equally, has her interests represented at them more or less equally, etc.), since princeton is significantly more distinguished as an overall academic institution than either of the other schools?

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  18. (1) I am not trying to criticize anyone; just inform.
    (2) Re: “should we infer from your findings that if a student gets into, say, nyu, rutgers, and princeton, she should still today go to princeton (so long as she likes the faculty at the places more or less equally, has her interests represented at them more or less equally, etc.), since princeton is significantly more distinguished as an overall academic institution than either of the other schools?”

    Interesting question. Other things being equal, yes. But of course, other things are never exactly equal. For one thing, she will be on the job market in 5 years or more, and things might be slightly different then. For another thing, even other things being equal, at this time the name “Princeton” probably gives you only a minimal advantage over “Rutgers” or “NYU”, because the departments are about equally good, and hires in philosophy are made primarily by philosophers. At this level of fine discrimination, publications and letters of recommendation play a much bigger role.

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  19. I also disagree with #12. I teach at a large urban non-prestigious state university (MA but not PhD). A published journal article would be a plus in the application, along with a sense of where the research program is headed. At least one refereed journal article is required for tenure (and some of us think that should be 3-5 refereed articles).

    Be aware that departments like mine are often split on how much to emphasize teaching vs. research, so you need to show strength in both.

    If it’s clear that you’re this year’s “hot property” in a field, some of us will shy away, as we assume you’ll cancel before visiting our campus or only stay a year or two before bailing for greener pastures. If you’re seriously interested in a “lesser” school (perhaps for personal reasons), then volunteer that information in your cover letter so we take you seriously.

    Don’t assume that the people you meet at APA-Eastern are the only people who will be voting on the finalist hiring. If faculty show up at your job talk, there’s a good chance they are participating in the vote to hire, so make sure you get to know everybody who attends. And if that vote is one-person-one-vote (as I’ve seen in most situations), the vote of the chair and/or APA screening committee won’t have any more weight than the others — you ignore the other faculty members at your peril.

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  20. I think it would be helpful to students to distinguish the kinds of jobs that are available in the profession. Not all job searches will run on the criteria you suggest. Not all are concerned to staff Research I PhD programs. Granted, those jobs tend to pay more, have more research support, carry greater prestige, etc., but they do not exhaust the jobs for philosophers. I think that just about any program that offers a B.A. in philosophy will be interested in faculty who are smart and will be active intellectual members of the profession. Distinctions between Princeton vs. Rutgers vs NYU will not much matter in some places, since they are rare occurrences. JP vs Synthese is maybe not that big a deal in some places.

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  21. “I think that just about any program that offers a B.A. in philosophy will be interested in faculty who are smart and will be active intellectual members of the profession.” Not true if you mean that every competent candidate will get attention (interviews, for example) from at least one school. I’m speaking not just from my own experience, but also other people I’ve known with degrees from top-5 and top-50 schools who’ve gotten no interviews while other people who are indistinguishable in terms of schools, publications, and teaching experience get a lot of attention.

    I find Gualtiero’s comments about committees coming into interviews with a semi-final ranking the most interesting part of this whole post/exchange. Different schools and different committee members have different standards, but I would think that one hallmark of an academic mind is being open to being persuaded of new things. I have a feeling that’s not as true as it could be.

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  22. I don’t mean that every competent candidate will get attention. This could fail to happen if there are lots more graduate students than jobs, or lots more graduate students in, say, epistemology than there are jobs for folks in epistemology.

    I think I once heard that in a typical year, there are twice as many folks in the APA placement service as there are jobs listed in JFP.

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  23. The contrast between what is described here and what is practiced in my department is quite striking. In my interviews at top schools, I was quite sure that the search proceeded roughly as described in the blog. I was angered by it; I felt like it was a waste of my time.
    I am in a department with some really good philosophers, but we are far from nationally-known. We read all the writing samples of all the candidates, and we study carefully (3-4 hours per writing sample) the samples of the 15 candidates that we interview at the APA. As a result, the interview consists of serious philosophical discussion–we’re not concerned with canned talk about one’s dissertation and the like. So, the interview proceeds like a Q+A after a colloquium. Nor does pedigree impress us. We’re after the best three people to bring to campus. We invited to campus three people, all of whom came from schools ranked between 20 and 25 in Leiter’s rankings. We thought they were better than 7 candidates from top-8 schools. I’m quite sure that we will get a really good candidate–or two–from this search. And if we decide that none are top-notch, we’ll close down the search. We’ve done so before. It’s a huge amount of work, but we feel we owe it to the candidates and to our department to invest time to do a search properly.

    M

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  24. One of the anonymous said:

    “I don’t mean that every competent candidate will get attention. This could fail to happen if there are lots more graduate students than jobs, or lots more graduate students in, say, epistemology than there are jobs for folks in epistemology.

    I think I once heard that in a typical year, there are twice as many folks in the APA placement service as there are jobs listed in JFP…”

    It would be interesting to know how many of those people using the placement service already have tenure-track assistant prof. jobs. It seems much less likely that all competent grad students will “get attention” if they are competing against lateral movers.

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  25. The description differs from how searches go at my school (U Colorado) in a couple of ways:

    First, we do read the writing samples of the interview candidates–at least one or two people from the interview committee will have read a paper from each interviewee.

    Second, we don’t have a firm ranking going into the interviews, and the interviews have a big influence on the final outcome (too big, in my opinion).

    Third, things like the school you came from, where you published, and who recommended you are important in determining who gets on the interview list, but they don’t make much difference after that. After that, it’s mainly the writing and the interview.

    This isn’t a difference, but to reinforce something: having *at least one* publication is important.

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  26. Re: “we do read the writing samples of the interview candidates–at least one or two people from the interview committee will have read a paper from each interviewee.”

    So do we, and this is common for research institutions. In my original post, I wrote “unless you are already in the final list of candidates,” which was intentionally ambiguous between the list of APA interviewees (whose writing samples are typically read by committees from research institutions) and the list of campus visitors.

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  27. I was the chair of a search committee for a top-20 ranked department last year.

    We had about 125 applicants. We narrowed it down to 22 on the basis of letters and CVs — CVs include, of course, publications, employment history, educational history, teaching experience, etc. We carefully read and discussed at least one writing sample, and often two or three, from each of the top 22 candidates. On this basis we narrowed it down to eight for the APA interview.

    The rankings going into the APA interview were, in our case, somewhat different from the rankings coming out. Perhaps this is unusual, or even inappropriate — perhaps the interview should make only a small difference when compared to the written work.

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  28. I have been on several search committees, and I have two things to note.

    (1) Neither I nor anyone I have served on a search committee with reads the cover letter. For a research institution, the best cover letter reads like this: “To whom it may concern, please accept my application for Job #123 posted in Jobs for Philosophers, October 2005. Attached are my CV, two writing samples, a description of my research project, and a teaching portfolio (or whatever). Three letters of recommendation should arrive under separate cover. Yours, Pat Smith”. More than that, and you’re wasting your breath.

    (2) I care very much about teaching, yet I ignore teaching materials: teaching letters, teaching evaluations, etc. Here’s why: I find these materials completely uninformative. First, every new PhD gets some faculty member to write her/him a “teaching letter”, and these letters are all virtually identical. Every candidate gets praised to high heaven for her/his teaching abilities. Second, teaching evaluations done by students are notoriously problematic and unreliable. Third, it’s too easy for a candidate to fudge on this, by only sending the good evaluations. Fourth, some candidates send lists of syllabi: these days, it takes very little to download syllabi from any number of sources. I *will* ask a candidate about teaching during an interview: then you can get a sense of whether s/he has any idea of how to teach Intro to Philosophy — but a proferred syllabus is not usually much help.

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