Thursday, April 12, 2012

How to hire a philosopher

It really is a buyer's market, so anyone hiring a philosopher would do well to aim for the very best person who applies, and not worry much that this person will turn them down for something better. In our job search this year I decided to gamble and recommend to the search committee that we do just this (not quite in those terms though). They took my advice (perhaps not realizing what a gamble I thought it might be--I'm the only philosopher on the search committee), and it paid off. The people we brought to campus interviewed extremely well, did a great job in the classroom, impressed everyone they met, and were eminently hire-able. What's amazing is that I don't think any of them got better offers elsewhere. Other people in my top twenty are showing up as having accepted post-docs, so it's possible that deep into my pool of best applicants for a teaching job no one has been offered a tenure-track or quasi-tenure-track position (I'm guessing that a job like this would be preferred to a post-doc, and that guess might be wrong). So that's my first bit of advice: by all means try to weed out people who don't really seem to be looking for a teaching position (although I have doubts about this--wouldn't everyone rather do a little teaching really well for more money than more teaching probably less well for less money, i.e. take a job at a research school?), but from my (limited) experience, it's a big mistake to rule out anyone on the grounds that she is simply too good.

The other decision I made fairly late in the day, and it was more like a realization than a decision, was that it mattered to me that we should hire someone interesting and not someone who would encourage ways of thinking in our students that I would want to undo. I just couldn't bring myself to recommend candidates who were too extreme, either in the continental or the mainstream analytic direction. My top candidates had research programs that were either close to mine or else diverse in a way that I found exciting. Of my top four, two have written papers that I either think I might have written (on a good day) or else wish I could have written, and two work in quite different areas than I work in, but are so creative that I could easily see areas of overlap and possible mutual inspiration. I really wish we could have hired all four.

What I discovered above all was that the whole process was much more painful than I had anticipated. A couple of years ago I went to a conference at Åbo Akademi University in Finland, and several people there commented on what a great philosophy department Lars Hertzberg has put together. Of course Hertzberg is best known and most admired for his scholarly work, but I sensed that some people felt his work in building (or helping to build--I don't know the history) a group of such intelligent, pleasant, and interesting people was almost as significant an achievement. I had this in mind when I set about looking through our applications, feeling like a kid in a candy store. One applicant prompted me to write the words "seems almost too good to be true" in my notes. Another literally made my jaw drop. A couple did work that struck me as so cool that all I could really think about it was, "Wow!" And most of these people also provided excellent student evaluations, as well as at least one letter detailing just how good their teaching is. But we could only hire one person.

156 applicants means 155 rejections. Some of the 155 don't live all that far away, and several work in areas close enough to mine that it seems inevitable I will come into contact with them again in future. Their pain is greater than mine, of course, but it's horrible having to give genuinely excellent candidates bad news. I never anticipated losing as much sleep as I have. The consolation is that we have hired one of the people I described in the paragraph above, so I can't believe our luck. It comes at a price though.

I know that some people think it's ridiculous that people like me want to hire people better than us. But of course we do! We could easily have brought half a dozen people to campus for interviews who had tremendous publication records (in any terms you like: quantity, prestige, quality, fit, ...) as well as persuasive evidence of excellent teaching, not to mention collegiality, and all the rest of it. Of course you never know how good someone really is until you meet them, see them teach, and continue to do these things over a number of years. But why anyone would decide to shortlist people with less going for them on paper is beyond me. It isn't that a school like ours needs geniuses to teach the courses we offer. It's that there is no good reason to pass over an Einstein who can teach in favor of Bill Nye or Walter White, just because you are kind of a Bill Nye school. My reference to Einstein might make it sound as though I emphasized research above teaching, but I didn't. It's hard to judge teaching ability on paper, though, so research is a useful way to differentiate between candidates who provide equally strong evidence of teaching excellence. It's also part of our job description to engage in scholarly work. For the record, the person we are hiring was described by one of my colleagues who saw his teaching demonstration as having "hit it out of the park" and by another as having done as good a job as he had ever seen in such a demonstration. The wonderful and frightening thing is that these are the people getting jobs at schools like ours, and in some cases not getting the job but coming a very close second: jaw-droppingly good researchers who teach as well as anyone you have ever seen, and who come across as (and are said by people who know them to be) good people willing to help out wherever and whenever necessary.


  1. Yes, the Åbo department is another of those things that are almost too good to be true. And the fact that they've managed to keep it going since Lars's retirement, and in the current hostile socioeconomic climate, is better still.

    I can't teach a bit myself. It's just one of those things that I'm tone deaf about, or so to speak. One of the things that made it psychologically possible to allow myself to drift out of academia was the knowledge that I'd never have got any teaching job (because I couldn't even imagine myself applying for one). I've only ever taught single lectures in a few lecture courses with a rotating cast, everyone lecturing on their AOS. And even that has been an ordeal, although I tend to blow it out of proportion in my mind beforehand.

    Anyone who can teach, and I've fortunately had my share of good teachers, tends to strike me as a kind of freak of nature. And to think of trying to select one of these from an embarrassment of riches, like you...

  2. I'm sure you could teach, i.e. that when you have lectured you have done it well, although there are different kinds of teaching. I can't imagine striding a stage and speaking slickly like the most polished presenters at TED, which is perhaps what you mean. But in smaller groups it's often enough just to know what you are talking about. At least some of the teachers I think I've learned the most from had no obvious skills other than knowledge and a genuine interest in their subject.

    You're right about the embarrassment of riches though. It would be easy to put together a fantastic department from the people on the market this year.

  3. >>it's a big mistake to rule out anyone on the grounds that she is simply too good<<

    Words to live by if I've ever heard them.

    1. You're not supposed to self-identify as too good though. Not that you would, of course.

  4. As a PhD student in philosophy, who -- given the numbers -- is highly unlikely to land a tenure-track job, I am beginning to question why philosophy departments continue to admit so many students. Is there not an ethical responsibility for departments to cease producing so many PhDs -- some of whom will be 32, 33 years old by the time they go on the market -- who will never land a job in this field? And who will -- in this economy -- be nearly unemployable for the rest of their lives?

    I understand, of course, that admitting one student per year will kill a department: what would a graduate seminar look like after a few years of this? Faculty would no longer be able to teach (there would be only a handful of students) and deans would, I'm sure, come calling quite quickly.

    Still, given that this is *philosophy* and not, say, physics, is it not time that professionals (those with job security) begin to look themselves in the mirror and ask if they are acting responsibly? Admitting four or five 24 or 25-year olds to a doctoral program is a form of exploitation: given the maturity level of young people, they cannot possibly imagine life on the other side of 30 with a doctoral degree that would not get them in the door at Wal-mart as a cashier. Their labor will be used for a time (as research assistants, as teachers for core courses) and then they will be discarded.

    I'm just curious as to your thoughts on this. Given that the job situation you describe is not going to change, perhaps it is time that philosophy departments begin to take more seriously their responsibility not only to their own survival, but to the survival of those graduate students who will ostensibly be their "colleagues" for five or six years. I take responsibility for undertaking my doctoral studies, but in no way was I prepared for the types of odds I would face upon graduation. There are many lines of work in which 156 applications are quite common, of course, but at least in those fields the candidates have other skills that might land them a position doing something else. A computer programmer rejected at one company can send his resume to hundreds more. A philosophy doctoral student is in most cases completely de-clawed by the time they are finished with their dissertation; if they cannot land a job in philosophy, how will they survive?

  5. I'm inclined to agree, but I speak from complete ignorance about how many doctoral programs there are in philosophy, how many PhDs they produce each year, what effects closing these programs would have, and so on. I did hear about a department that considered adding a graduate program only to realize that the world just didn't need any more and decided not to go ahead. That seemed wise. Reducing or closing an existing program must be harder, but should surely be considered by schools that fail to place most of their graduates in decent jobs. Especially programs that are rather generic, if that's not too cruel a thing to say (I don't think it is as long as I don't name any names, and I don't have any particular school in mind). That is, if a program is one of a very small number, perhaps the only one, with a particular specialty then maybe it should keep going (assuming some of its graduates get decent jobs). But if a department is a third-tier (or lower) poor man's Rutgers, then it might be doing more harm than good in admitting doctoral students.

  6. Thank you, Dr. Richter. I agree completely. I think there is the running cliche that when one applies to philosophy programs that one "should only do it if one can't imagine doing anything else," but the problem is that eventually, this person *will* have to do something else. It's a little bit like making the major leagues in baseball. Most of those in the minors are really just filler so that the parent clubs can field teams at A, AA, and the AAA levels for the superstars to play with.

    I believe there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 110-115 PhD programs in philosophy, though that number might be off by 10 or so. That's just too many when one considers how difficult it is for people in Leiter's top 20 to land positions, let alone for someone in the bottom third. If adjuncts were paid a living wage, much of this problem would disappear -- many of us would be happy to live year-to-year on contracts that paid 30 or 35K, strictly for the love of it -- but we are so far from that time that it's a bit of a fantasy to think it will ever happen. To continue with the baseball analogy (which might be foreign to some readers), I put the state of adjunct labor somewhere around 1920 -- 50 years before the Curt Flood decision.

    In any event, thank you for your considered response, and for your scholarship. I used "Why Be Good?" in my ethics classes last year, and the students loved it.

  7. Thanks, Ulrike! I'm glad your students liked the book.

    Over 100 PhD programs seems like way too many. I wouldn't have thought there was any need for more than about 70 or so. It's hard to imagine shutting a Leiter top 50 program, and maybe about 20 others that are good but not likely to be recognized in the Leiter ranking. But even 70 could be too many if each one produces several new PhDs every year. There just aren't that many jobs out there.

    As for pay, it will take something miraculous to improve pay for adjuncts (maybe a US News & World Report decision that it's really bad for schools to rely on underpaid adjuncts). Management has found out what it can get away with. And that means that tenure track faculty members can be paid relatively little and still be getting much more than an adjunct. So they gladly accept (relatively) low salaries, which also are not likely to rise in the foreseeable future.

    One reason why some people might not be able to imagine doing anything but philosophy, or going into academia, could be that they have never really done anything else. That was my position, and it isn't a good basis on which to make important decisions. I wonder whether the thing to do would be to turn a lot of doctoral programs into Master's only programs. People who can't imagine doing anything else, but who don't get into a PhD program, could get an MA in a couple of years, and then either get admitted to a PhD program (having done suitably well in their MA program) or else move on to something else. They would not have 'wasted' much of their lives, and an MA is less of an overqualification, I think, than a PhD in many lines of work.

    But that's enough uninformed speculation from me. The market may yet improve, and some people do still get jobs even now. I hope you become one of them.