Friday, April 09, 2010

Jobs for Philosophizing

Tuomas writes:
[I]f all you care about is getting a high paid position at a top university in the US, then listen to Leiter. But if you’re looking to do philosophy, the kind of philosophy that you want to do, then you’d better think in terms of the best possible supervisor for you rather than the placement record of the program.

Maybe I'm misreading him, but here Tuomas seems to be focusing exclusively on doing philosophy during grad school. This seems short-sighted: many of us are looking to do philosophy, not just for five years, but for the rest of our lives. Getting a job at a "top university" (or top liberal arts college) is instrumental to doing philosophy. The truly dedicated may still find time to do research on top of a 4/4+ teaching load, or even a non-academic job, but it's gotta be more difficult that way.

I'm reminded of those occasionally heard gripes to the effect that the conventional ways of demarcating the "best jobs" in philosophy reveal bad values: an unseemly obsession with mere prestige, or some such. This also seems to miss the crucial point that, quite apart from such perks as money and prestige, the conventionally-recognized "best jobs" also have features that mark them as better for enabling one's philosophizing: 2/2 teaching loads, unusually smart and engaged students, etc. It doesn't seem unreasonable to see these features as important.

That's not to say that any job falling short of this ideal is therefore "bad", of course. I'll be happy as long as I can continue with philosophy as my vocation. But I'd expect to be even happier if I'm lucky enough to end up at an institution with especially smart and engaged students, and which offers a good balance of teaching and research.

(P.S. I do of course agree with Tuomas' broader point that there are many important factors to take into account in choosing a grad school -- I don't think anyone really denies this. I just wanted to highlight the importance of job placement for the sake of one's future philosophizing, which he seemed to be neglecting. Focusing exclusively on the grad school experience itself, I'd still diverge from the specifics of Tuomas' advice, as I think one's grad student peers often make more of a difference than one's faculty advisors. But, again, there are lots of factors to consider, so I wouldn't want to suggest that any one factor must always be decisive.)


  1. Richard,

    I came across this and noticed that it was about my post, so I feel obliged to comment.

    You're of course right in that a (good) job is essential for continuing to do philosophy, I wouldn't deny that.

    However, when I talk about 'the kind of philosophy that you want to do', I have in mind those, like myself, who have fairly strong views about philosophical methodology and the type of philosophy that they want to do.

    Leiter's advice might indeed be good for those who don't quite know what they want to do, or don't have very strong methodological views, but for those us who do, I predict a very unfruitful co-operation if the supervisor, or most of the faculty, have very different views. Of course it might also be difficult to even get into the program in that case.

    For instance, I have particular views about the methodology of metaphysics, and it would be extremely difficult to work at a department where most of the faculty think that the methodology I wish to defend is inane. Sometimes this is so extreme that people at a certain faculty don't even know the relevant literature.

    Just to give an example: the conception of metaphysics that is prominent somewhere like Chicago or Pittsburgh is totally different from the one at NYU or Rutgers. It would be rather silly to pursue a Ph.D. in the *other* type of metaphysics at one of these programs. That may be an extreme example (and all of these happen to be top programs), but I believe that the point stands. I could maybe name five programs in the US that would've been in any way relevant for me, because there's only a dozen or so people who I could imagine working with, and most of these happen to be in the same departments exactly because of the mentioned reasons. If none of the people one wants to work with are in a top University, then I'm not convinced that it's a good reason to 'sell out'.

    You're right in that it might not be sensible to promote a single factor too high, but it seems to me that the student-supervisor relationship is the most important one (while taking into account geographical etc. limitation).

    One thing that I did not consider are grad student peers, and it's certainly true that they are an important part of the environment. However, I suspect that in many cases their views at least roughly reflect those of the faculty, so similar issues might emerge there.

    Having said that, I do agree that it would be better to end up in a nice job at a good University, but, once again: I would rather work somewhere where my colleagues share at least some of my methodological views, even if it would mean giving up some of the other perks.

  2. Hi Tuomas, thanks for the clarification. I agree that it's absolutely essential to choose a department where there is an adequate faculty advisor for the kind of philosophy you want to work on. (I read your suggestion that "you’d better think in terms of the best possible supervisor" as a stronger claim: that even marginal improvements in supervisor quality/fit should always be decisive. But it's good to hear that you didn't really mean that extreme claim.)

  3. I'm not yet persuaded that getting a job at a top (Leiterriffic) university or liberal arts college is instrumental to doing philosophy. It seems to hinge important on one's conception of "doing philosophy". If "doing philosophy" involves significant pressures to publish regularly, then fine. But if that's not one's conception, then other jobs may be superior. For example, I've heard from folks at CCs that they're freer to do philosophy as they see fit, given that there are few if any expectations as to research productivity.

  4. Following up on ADHR's comment, I wonder if CC folks would also say that part of doing philosophy for them is teaching philosophy. In my limited interactions with CC professors of philosophy, some find deep satisfaction in (1) teaching philosophy and (2) passing on philosophy to individuals who may or may not pursue the profession. I suspect the CC life might also be more amenable to those pesky outliers who believe philosophy is a "way of life" and such things.

  5. Yeah, I'm all in favour of "doing philosophy" in the pedagogical sense -- working through ideas with students, etc. But I would expect a top liberal arts college to be the ideal environment for this. After all, if you're only teaching a couple of classes per semester, you can afford to invest more into each of them. And student quality obviously makes a big difference to one's teaching experience too.

    Having said that, one distinctive benefit of teaching at a community college might be the satisfaction of "social justice" values -- bringing philosophy to the underprivileged, etc. I certainly have a lot of respect for that sort of motivation, though (just speaking personally here) I find myself much more engaged and inspired by the other sorts of philosophical values previously mentioned.

    Anyway, I should stress that I don't mean to be suggesting that any one type of job is necessarily best for everyone. But there are at least many of us for whom our philosophical goals are best-served by the conventionally recognized 'top jobs', and so I think it's unreasonable when people (elsewhere) suggest that the only reason to desire those jobs is for their non-philosophical perks. They do have distinctively philosophical benefits too (even if not for everyone).

  6. Since Toumas's advice is in the PGR, and has been for years, I'm a bit puzzled as to what the disagreement (if there is one) is about.

  7. Brian,

    Usually I am roughly in agreement with your comments about the profession, but this time I was alarmed by the tone, which seemed to suggest that one shouldn't do philosophy at all, or expect to get a (good) job in philosophy, if one doesn't attend one of the top programs (in the US).

    Naturally potential graduate students should be made aware of the tough job market, but I don't think they should change their plans at the cost of their philosophical views. This might happen in some cases if the ranking of the program is the primary criterion. So, the disagreement is that I think that the supervisor-student relationship is the most important factor, but I got the impression that the quality of the program is being raised above that.

    Incidentally, two of the best jobs in philosophy from my point of view, those of Kit Fine's and John Hawthorne's, are held by people with PhD's from not-so-very-top-programs: Warwick for Fine, and Syracuse for Hawthorne. I wonder if they would be the brilliant philosophers they are had they taken a different path.


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