Sunday, October 6, 2013

How to get a job in philosophy

This information about philosophy programs' placement records has been getting attention. I was surprised to see that my alma mater, the University of Virginia, comes second (behind CUNY) in the category "Which school's graduates work in academic philosophy the most upon graduation?" That's pretty impressive. 

There are all sorts of questions about the data so far, which might mean that UVA (currently ranked 37 in the Philosophical Gourmet Report, which is slightly higher, I think, than it used to be) should really be nowhere near second place in this category but if it does belong near the top, why might this be? I can think of a few possible reasons:

  1. luck (if this can count as a reason)
  2. the weight of a few big names--specialty rankings seem to matter, and UVA might not have the highest overall ranking but it does have, and has had, some great individual professors. His time at UVA (1982-1997) probably means he didn't affect these figures much (the report is based on data from 2000 on), but I'm sure having worked with Richard Rorty helped some people get jobs. (I worked with a brilliant philosopher, but her name meant nothing to the non-philosophers who hired me. It may have helped impress my predecessor, though, and his recommendation would have counted for something.)
  3. being in a state with other good schools--I don't know how many UVA PhDs have jobs elsewhere in the state, but I'm sure I'm not the only one. And I (think I) know that I got my job partly because I got my PhD in this state. The head of my department when I was hired wanted to hire someone solid rather than flashy (Harvard PhDs need not apply) perhaps because he was afraid of hiring someone who might then leave for greener pastures and certainly because he thought a real egghead would not be able to relate to our students. He also thought, incorrectly, that someone from UVA would have heard of VMI and so would know about its unique qualities. All three of the short-listed candidates had a UVA connection (two of us got our PhDs there and the other had been a visiting professor there, if I recall correctly). I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of CUNY PhDs get jobs in New York for similar kinds of reasons, i.e. they are considered local (which is a consideration as far as "fit" goes) and good enough without being off-puttingly fancy. Hiring locally also makes it cheaper to bring in candidates for interviews.   
First of all I should say that I don't think this kind of reasoning is good. Smart people can relate to less smart people. Graduates of "solid" PhD programs can be quite brilliant. "Fit" is a very suspect notion. But some people do reason in this kind of way, and this makes a difference to who gets hired where. If most jobs are at non-fancy places, it really might be an advantage to get a PhD from somewhere perceived to be non-fancy. Especially if, unbeknownst to the general public, that non-fancy place actually has a surprisingly good philosophy department or specialty in your area.

Then again, philosophy jobs in general are seemingly drying up. The more this happens the fewer people are likely to get PhDs. Then there won't be so many people qualified to be TAs or adjuncts or graders for MOOCs. I don't know what will happen to liberal arts education then. Probably it will partly go away and partly just get worse. There will be a few superstar types, many more low-paid MAs and failed superstars, and not much in between. And for the low-paid MOOC-grading MAs a "solid," regional school is probably either the best bet or at least good enough. 

In short: aim low. Or at least, don't aim too high in terms of programs with Leiterific rankings.

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