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.>>