New Comment on the Philosophy Job Market

Some time ago, I wrote two posts on the philosophy job market, which generated a certain amount of discussion.  Today, an anonymous reader posted a particularly informative new comment.  The comment was posted in the old version of the blog, where few people are likely to find it.  So I am reproducing it here, for your benefit:

<<I am the chair of a search committee at a fourth tier research university. Some of what the original post says is accurate, but there are peculiarities when it comes to the lower end. Since there is more of the lower end, observations from here may prove useful.

First, yes, of course, rankings do sway the mind, as do famous names. But important caveats: I did a quick and dirty analysis of the JFP hiring departments we were competing with, and you rapidly realize that if there is any tendency to pair prestigious candidates with prestigious jobs, the “good” candidates are presumably unobtainable. Since resources to conduct a search are limited, we do not want to end up with a final four for on-campus interviews and get stiffed by them all. There is awareness that at least some of the candidates we pick must be obtainable. Consequently, several top department people did not even get a screening interview, because we know it will be wasted. About 1/4 of our screening interviews will be with top people. In the past I believed that this was motivated by a desire not to hire someone who will outshine their colleagues, but once I was actually in charge of one of these things, the fear of not finding someone at all (and possibly having the open slot taken away if it isn’t filled this year) is a powerful motivator. In any case, there is a tension between hope and fear–you want to snag great people but you know it’s unlikely and that efforts in that direction will be wasted.

Letters? What’s the point of reading them? They all sound like they came from templates anyway. It’s not the inflation, it’s the stupefying unoriginality of them all. Advice to letter-writers: put something weird in there! Convince me you have a pulse! The only time the letters are actually worth reading is when the candidate has done a terrible job of explaining what their thesis is about in the title and abstract, and you’re lucky enough to have a letter that actually explains what the candidate is up to. Evaluative language is ignored, and any account of teaching skill or attractive personality traits is discounted. That pretty much leaves “have I heard of this person?” If the department is a top department, that effect is redundant anyway; it only carries weight if the person is somehow well-known but not yet at a department which reflects their perceived stature. Short version: letters are meaningless.

A factor that has a disproportionate influence: people want to hire people interested in things they are interested in. So in a history of philosophy search, the philosophy of language guy is interested in the history person with a phil lang spin, the ethics person in the person with the ethics spin, etc. I think the very first thing people look at is the thesis title. The worst thesis title of all is one which can’t be readily classified; but the best one is the one which sounds like a match to our teaching needs which is “fun” too… from the utterly capricious perspective of the reader. Not witty or clever, but interesting-yet-respectable.

At a place like ours, teaching needs play an overriding role in our decision-making. As it turns out, there is very little attention paid to self-reports of teaching philosophy, and student evaluations are perceived as pretty meaningless. But the number of years of teaching experience, and the range of courses taught, are both significant. This also works to the disadvantage of the Princeton ABD.

The ideal candidate: PhD from a 2nd tier graduate program (hence won’t get snagged away from us by a better school), already has a tenure track position or a succession (2-3, but not too many more than that) of one-years, thus has some teaching experience and evidence of a range of courses like the ones we need taught, and who has already published some articles on topics related to the AOS we’re seeking, though it doesn’t much matter how great the articles are or where they were published (because they will need a certain number of them to make tenure, and we don’t want to have to do this again in six years). From that list, anyone with interests that seem connected to one’s own in some way jumps out and is a plus. Being a woman helps, because we can anticipate less grief from Affirmative Action, but this is also a two-edged sword, like the Princeton Effect–we assume that a woman with a good dossier will be so much in demand as to not be worth pursuing.

One last thing: that whole allegedly superceded Analytic vs. Continental thing? It isn’t. It’s a huge factor… one way or another. Graduate program of origin and thesis title are the tipoffs here. If you’re a Continental, you’d better Get Religion, because you’re going to a liberal arts college and, surprise!, they’re mostly run by churches. Didn’t they tell you that in unholier-than-thou grad school? I thought not.>>

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12 thoughts on “New Comment on the Philosophy Job Market”

  1. The final paragraph of this post may be potentially misleading to some grad students. I think it suggests an overly strong connection between being a liberal arts college, being a religious individual, and continental philosophy.

    I’m at a (sort of) liberal arts college (in the south) that is methodist affiliated, but I probably count as being within the analytic tradition. I don’t have religion either.

    Inspired by my own case, I decided to do some informal, unscientific investigation of the other philosophy programs in the consortium, the Associated Colleges of the South, using internet resources. These schools are mostly liberal arts colleges, mostly religiously affiliated, but mostly analytic. There are continental philosophers at many of these institutions and there is one that seems to me to be predominantly continental, but it is not clear that one has to be in the continental tradition to hold a job there.

    Maybe it is easier for continental philosophers to get jobs at liberal arts colleges, or religiously affiliated liberal arts colleges than elsewhere, but it may be an overstatement to say that liberal arts colleges are all religiously affiliated, so it helps to be a believer and a continental.

    Of course, I cannot tell how much being religious matters at these other schools, but it does not seem to be important here.

    Here are the schools that I looked at, with the notes I made. I spent about an hour compiling this, so don’t overrate the quality of these “findings”. I am not any kind of representative of these institutions.

    Birmingham-Southern, Methodist affiliated, no data on faculty.

    Centenary, Methodist affiliated, analytic

    Centre religiously affiliated, “mostly” continental.

    Davidson, founded Presbyterian, analytic

    Furman, “Furman’s heritage is rooted in the non-creedal, free church Baptist tradition which has always valued particular religious commitments while insisting not only on the freedom of the individual to believe as he or she sees fit but also on respect for a diversity of religious perspectives, including the perspective of the non-religious person.” Not obviously continental.

    Hendrix, Methodist affiliated, analytic

    Millsaps, Methodist affiliated, not obviously continental

    Morehouse, Baptists origins, couldn’t find info.

    Rhodes, not mentioned, good continental representation

    Rollins, religious origins, some continental

    Southwestern, Methodist affiliated, good continental representation

    Spelman, Baptist origins, not enough faculty info, but curriculum not obviously continental

    Trinity University, Founded Presbyterian with continuing affiliation, mostly analytic

    University of Richmond, No indication of religious affiliation, Some continental, but mostly analytic.

    University of the South, Episcopal affiliation, some continental.

    Washingon & Lee, private, independent, non-sectarian, some continental

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  2. I would second Ken’s points, it is simple mistaken to equate liberal arts colleges and religious schools. The situation is far more complex, but one glaring point is this:

    The top fifty liberal arts colleges are virtually all now secular institutions, though obviously founded by this or that religious group since they are usually very old institutions. Thus Haverford or Williams or Franklin & Marshall, etc etc, are not religious schools, and have attractive 2-2 loads, wonderful students and a very interdisciplinary environment (cos you meet MANY colleagues from other departments).

    Outside the top liberal arts colleges, things are a little different and differ school-by-school and denomination -by-denomination. (For example “Blank Baptist Uni” usually means a religious school, whilst “Blank Wesleyan Uni” means a secular place… all with exceptions of course, so just do your homework).

    Anyway, I should end by noting that one can be very comfortable, happy and productive at a liberal arts college — all without any necessary religious component at many places. It is also interesting to weight the costs-rewards of positions at a lower-tier grad program versus a good liberal arts college. But THAT is for another day, cos grading still calls… (everywhere).

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  3. This is tangential to the post, but I’m curious about the sort of positions referred to in the phrase “succesion of one-years”, which I take to be visiting assistant professor positions. I have seen a lot of these on CVs and on faculty listings, but haven’t seen many advertisements for them — is there some explanation for this, or is it accidental? (For example, are these sometimes arranged personally rather than via a job advertisement?).

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  4. I believe many one year positions are advertized in the spring issues of Jobs for Philosophers.  But many of them are probably arranged locally, without a formal job search.

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  5. First, a minor correction. Ken refers to Centre College as “mostly” continental. This is misleading, at best (I’m not sure what the scare-quotes mean). Right now, the program is 3/4 analytic, though this may change next year since there’s a hire in the works.

    Also, regarding the point about liberal arts colleges and religion: Centre is religiously affiliated, but only very loosely, and candidates for almost all positions outside of the religion program are not expected to “get religion” and certainly don’t need to “get religion” in order to operate comfortably within the institution, to socialize with other faculty, and to communicate with students — though, in the latter case, since there are a fair number of strongly religious students at Centre, SOME understanding of the life and mind of a worshipper can be useful. Now, this point may not generalize across all liberal arts colleges, but I suspect that does generalize across those top 50 liberal arts colleges that are, like Centre, loosely religiously affiliated.

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  6. First, a minor correction. Ken refers to Centre College as “mostly” continental. This is misleading, at best (I’m not sure what the scare-quotes mean). Right now, the program is 3/4 analytic, though this may change next year since there’s a hire in the works.

    Also, regarding the point about liberal arts colleges and religion: Centre is religiously affiliated, but only very loosely, and candidates for almost all positions outside of the religion program are not expected to “get religion” and certainly don’t need to “get religion” in order to operate comfortably within the institution, to socialize with other faculty, and to communicate with students — though, in the latter case, since there are a fair number of strongly religious students at Centre, SOME understanding of the life and mind of a worshipper can be useful. Now, this point may not generalize across all liberal arts colleges, but I suspect that does generalize across those top 50 liberal arts colleges that are, like Centre, loosely religiously affiliated.

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  7. Jason,

    Sorry about the mistake regarding Centre.  As I noted, my investigation of this was quick and dirty.  I don’t recall what lead me to that view, other than perhaps some paper titles from faculty.  Happy to have the correction, especially since it fits with the general drift of my post.

    I think what you say regarding religion and Centre applies quite well to Centenary.  Maybe we are more loosely religiously affiliated than Centre.  I don’t know of any faculty here who expect those in our religious studies department, or anywhere else, to be a methodist (since we are a methodist affiliated institution) or even a Christian.  I would bet our president would think his life would be easier in external relations if there were methodists in the religious studies department.  He’s probably right there. 

    best,
    Ken

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  8. Is there somewhere an analysis of some sort regarding the numbers of jobs in philosophy broken down by the kinds of colleges and universities that hire philosophers? I’m thinking about categories such as
    PhD granting programs
    MA granting programs
    BA granting programs
    Non-BA granting programs

    Maybe further categories are needed, e.g. “elite” PhD programs and “non-elite”, maybe state regional universities and liberal arts colleges among BA granting programs.

    I know someone used to look at JFP to see what areas were being sought.

    This would he harder to compile, since it would in many cases involve knowing something about lots of different programs outside of what is published in JFP. But, this might be helpful to grad students in understanding the job market.

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