So You Want To Be A Philosopher

Despite what anyone tells you, either optimistically or pessimistically, the job market shows remarkable stability, hiring about half of the available candidates. The difficulty is that almost all of them will apply to almost all the jobs, so that one ad may receive 300-400 applications to be reviewed after finals are graded and Christmas break has begun. First, some simple mechanics. The job market in philosophy, with very very few exceptions, is structured around the academic year, with positions starting in the fall. Recruitment for positions begins a little less than a year in advance, and you will need to have certain materials prepared by the time recruitment begins. So if you wish to be employed in a given year in fall, you must begin preparing well over a year in advance. Most recruitment occurs under the auspices of the APA, so it is best to take care of student membership dues before you begin the process. The APA distributes job postings to members through a newsletter “Jobs for Philosophers” (JFP) several times a year. JFP’s are also available online to dues paying members. The APA also holds three annual meetings, one for each of the regional divisions (Eastern, Central and Pacific). These meetings are where the first screening interviews take place. Since plane fares go up the later reservations are made, and you can’t know far enough in advance whether or not you will have interviews, you must make travel arrangements to attend the Eastern meeting as a part of your commitment to going on the market and hope that you will be interviewed.

The JFP is not the only venue for post listings, however. The Chronicle for Higher Education also posts jobs throughout the year, which can be checked in print by subscribing, even earlier online for subscribers, or free and open to the public one week after they are available to subscribers. However, the desirable jobs that appear here are almost always also posted in JFP, so use of CHE at most will give you quicker notice and allow you to get applications in earlier; you may make a more favorable impression if you are one of a small number of applications that the search committee receives before the flood that follows the JFP posting. (Still, given academic procrastination, this is unlikely to be the case). Nonetheless, it is worth doing—one job that I had an on-campus interview at was only advertised in CHE, and the number of applicants they revealed that they had received was much smaller number than I found at JFP advertised jobs. However, most of the jobs in CHE that do not appear in JFP are community college jobs. The pursuit of these involves very different sorts of considerations. Such jobs are far more like “real world” jobs (they more closely resemble high school teaching; I taught in such a setting briefly and was once commanded to use a particular pre-fab “Welcome to the World of Philosophy” textbook because it was more convenient for the bookstore to order than the real texts I had built my syllabus around—this is not unusual) and real world rules about networking apply. Typically, such positions are filled by inside candidates before the ad goes to press. So the best way to break into community college teaching is to simply show up at the local community college and offer to teach. Starting as an adjunct, you become known locally, and then when a tenure-track job opens up, you become the heir presumptive and can pity the fools across the country who apply to the CHE ad. This strategy generally does not work, however, for any non community college positions (there are rare exceptions, all tending toward the lower end of the job desirability spectrum).

JFP jobs tend to fall into two categories: tenure-track and one-year. One year positions divide further into renewable (these are heavy service teaching positions, typically in departments which lack a graduate program and so cannot farm the courses out to TAs) and non-renewable (these are typically sabbatical replacement positions—you must leave when the real professor returns, but at least you get to teach more interesting courses). A third possibility is the one year that is due to an unexpected departure of a tenured or tenure track professor; such positions usually get eliminated at the end of the year and are replaced by tenure track positions, which of course you can apply for from the inside.

The advertisement of tenure-track positions of highest desirability tends to cluster near the fall, so that interviews for these positions can be set up for the Eastern division meeting over Christmas break. As the year wears on, the tenure-track positions become less and less prestigious, and the ratio shifts toward more one-year positions. By the end of the Central division meeting, almost all of the tenure-track positions will have been advertised and interviewed for. The Pacific division meeting typically has far less of value and often can be skipped. There is little correlation between the location of the school and the division meeting at which interviews take place, the pattern instead tending to be Eastern=more prestigious research tenure track positions, Central=less prestigious research tenure track positions, liberal arts college positions, one year positions, Pacific=one year positions. If a job advertises only in CHE, naturally they do not interview at the APA. One exception to this rule is that the Eastern meeting is also where the liberal arts colleges in the north Atlantic seaboard region, typically the high ranked schools, also recruit. In years past, however, recruitment for such positions was really handled by backchannel communications between the LA college’s philosophy department, and the philosophy departments of certain highly ranked north Atlantic seaboard region universities—they advertise, receive applications, hold interviews, etc. but the process in such cases is largely a sham. Also, such jobs do not at all fit the description of liberal arts college jobs generally (see below) but are essentially just like research jobs minus the graduate program.

Your first step is to read the ads and see which positions are reasonable to apply for. Most graduate students tend to feel that they are potentially qualified for almost any position, but the market views things quite differently. From the market’s perspective, each person fits a certain prototype, and what prototype you are assigned to depends entirely upon your dissertation topic. As you read the ads, you will see these labelled as “AOS” or area of specialization. You are then expected to conform to the prototype and possess certain presumed competences. Thus, if your thesis is on Descartes, you are an “AOS: classical modern” which means you are expected to be able to teach courses on Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Berkeley and Hume as well. If your thesis is on Kant, you would either be classified as a classical modern (see preceding sentence) or “AOS: 19th century Continental” in which case you would instead be expected to teach Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. You will be inclined to resist these package deals for two reasons. First, it is annoyingly reductive and doesn’t capture the rich complexity of your thought and competence, and second, this rich complexity renders you competent to perform a job, in your opinion, that the market will likely lock you out of. Continuing with the example, if you are a Kantian, you must decide whether to package yourself as a classical modern or as a 19th century Continental. If instead you present as a little of each, the search committee’s inability to clearly peg you during the 90 seconds that they look at your application leads you to being put in the waste basket. Example: “it says here he did his thesis on Plato, but he’s published an article about Tarski. What the hell is that? Into the garbage your dossier goes, young Donald Davidson.” You must identify what your prototype is and commit to remaking yourself in its image as best as you can. Having committed to the image of yourself as a classical modern focused on Kant, you must be able to say you can teach Leibniz, for example. Since compensating competences outside the AOS will not make up for lacks within it, you will simply be perceived as less competent than the more prototypical competitor. The market thus strongly penalizes oddity, originality, hybridicity, interestingness. Be predictable and don’t get penalized. If they say “we want to cast a Julia Roberts type” then you be Sandra Bullock, so to speak.

That said, you will be tempted to apply to as many positions as possible, which means that you will receive a great number of rejections. Sometimes you will get lucky and for some quirky inexplicable reason, the committee is intrigued because of some unique characteristic. Sometimes the committee simply chooses you for an interview out of some misunderstanding. But don’t count on it. If you apply for positions advertised as AOS in an area that your thesis topic doesn’t squarely fall into, expect to get no further consideration. In fact, I once received an angry letter chastising me for applying at all, simply because the overworked search committee member didn’t see a tight fit between my AOS and the ad AOS. (More precisely, my package was mailed back to me, with the words “Read the fucking ad!!!!” scribbled over it). We had a very interesting phone call after that, by means of which I helped to make him a better person and the world a better place.

In some cases, the hiring department will be other than a philosophy department (in less prestigious schools, it may be a “humanities” department, a “religion and philosophy” department or, save us, a “social sciences” department). Here, the ad writers just don’t know how to play the game and so don’t know what to ask for. In these cases, applying can’t hurt, since you never know if what they really want isn’t what you are. This often corresponds to the rare CHE non-community college ad that isn’t duplicated in the JFP. Go for it.

Your application will typically include three letters of recommendation from your graduate program’s philosophy faculty, a writing sample, a letter introducing yourself, and a CV. I also suggest a short essay on the “philosophy of education” for reasons explained below. Be sure to include a valid phone number and e-mail address where you can be reached during Christmas—if this is your family’s number because you will be home for the holidays, include that. The CV can follow any number of forms; get a professor’s CV and use it as a model; since there will likely not be many publications on yours, it may help to send out a few papers for publication review first and list them under the heading “under consideration.” This is seen through of course, but everyone else does it, so it looks bad if you don’t do it (i.e., like you haven’t any papers you are willing to share).

Naturally, you don’t want to be dishonest on your CV; I mention in passing that I was locked out of a job once because a competitor listed his dissertation as a publication, specifically, a book forthcoming from Cambridge UP. Conceivably the MS was under consideration; it was published, many many years later, with a different publisher (Stanford UP). Saying that an item has been published when it hasn’t is dangerous, since it is easy to check. Our friend was more cagy—a forthcoming publication is uncheckable without directly contacting the publisher, but might be counted the same as an on-the-shelves publication. I couldn’t say how much of this sort of behavior goes on; I don’t advise it, but in this one case, it was completely successful. He is now tenured and essentially that was all he ever wrote.

Your CV will also mention what courses you have taught. For a research position, there will be little interest in this, but for liberal arts college jobs, it is helpful to enclose a syllabus for each class you have taught, if the syllabus looks impressive. If you have student evaluation information that looks favorable, that should be included too. All schools will claim an interest in both teaching and research, but the reality is that it is one or the other in almost all cases. More on this below.

Padding your resume with lists of organization memberships may work in other fields, but will probably get you nowhere in philosophy. Mention them if they are there, but otherwise don’t worry about it. Too much of that sort of thing will raise questions about why you are not working instead. Personal information is considered more inappropriate here than in the business world. However, if you are a member of a protected class, and this is not obvious from your AOS, get that information in there somehow. AOS/AOCs are one way people code this info—”AOC: Feminist Theory” will rarely send the signal that the courses they need taught will get taught, but does convey the fact that hiring you will help them with their affirmative action officer, should this not be obvious by your first name. Similarly with “AOC: Critical Race Theory.” My impression, however, is that this should only go in the AOC, which signals your status, leaving your AOS free to communicate your professional prototype—because if it is in your AOS, that conveys a particular prototype itself: that you are a possibly too strident activist. If the ad itself seeks AOS, or more commonly AOC: Feminist Theory or AOS or AOC: Critical Race Theory, this is an affirmative action hire, and you can save yourself a lot of bother by not applying for it if you are not in the protected class. By contrast, if these codes do not appear in the AOS/AOC, but there is a little affirmative action blurb in the ad, it can be safely ignored. The truth, for better or worse, is that most hiring departments strenuously resist affirmative action pressure, and respond to it if at all by recruiting a race or sex set-aside, clearly labeled as such. So if you are in a protected class, you will have no advantages in all likelihood for AOS: philosophy of language AOC: metaphysics, epistemology, but if the ad instead reads AOS: open, AOC: feminist theory, a male need not apply, and it makes little difference what your work is about. Protesting that though male you know a lot about feminist theory will generate a few chuckles behind your back. If you are in certain protected classes that are not taken seriously as such by most (Asian American or East Indian-American come to mind) do not be surprised if your efforts to crack a set-aside position come to naught, since the purpose of the set-aside is not to comply with the law per se, but to respond to pressure from those who are able to bring pressure to bear. Interestingly, this is almost always women, who exist in academia in far greater numbers than African-Americans, who by contrast receive next to no benefit from affirmative action at all. Some protected classes are more protected than others. (And to the extent that the women are straight and partnered, and the affirmative action works, we are simply shifting the location of a paycheck inside a household, which happily has minimal impact on prior distribution of resources and prestige). One final thought about affirmative action: appearances are misleading. You will notice at the meetings that women appear to be getting far more interviews than men, which may make women overconfident and men resentful. The truth is that by the time that the finally hiring decisions are made, the non-set-aside positions will not be made with an eye toward affirmative action issues at all, at least in the more prestigious departments. In short, male candidates will tend to get very few screening interviews and very few on-campus interviews and very few offers, and the same is true for the women, except that they will get more screening interviews that go nowhere. (There may be more affirmative action pressure at lesser schools, because the fear of squandering prestige by ceding control over the hire to people who are clueless about the discipline is less of an issue). So the best strategy is: if you are not protected or do not wish to be a token hire, ignore the obvious signals and don’t apply for those jobs. Ignore the ratios of interviews and focus on your case, its merits and prospects.

Regarding “AOS/AOC: open” you might think that it follows from the definition that this will include both analytics and continentals. Don’t kid yourself. It means “analytics.” It also means war inside the hiring department: they couldn’t even agree on a definition of what sort of person to hire. As you are preparing your writing sample, be sure that it is relatively self-contained and not too long. Also be sure you have two of them, because if you get an on-campus interview, you will be asked to deliver a paper orally, and it will look bad if this is the same paper as the one you submitted in writing initially. If it is a different paper, for all they know, you have dozens on tap. If it is the same, they know you have only one.

Go over your materials. They must be concise and perfect, a pleasure to read. Remember, you are putting these into a stack with 300-400 other packages just like it, to be glanced at for 90 seconds by a very unhappy professor who would rather be getting his or her Christmas shopping out of the way (or, who, having waited until Dec. 22nd to do the Christmas shopping, now faces the onerous task of getting recommendations to the other committee members in time for the morning 23rd meeting so that they can call you on the afternoon of the 23rd—the time pressure is as enormous as the procrastination). Your writing sample in particular must be tight and clear, on the outside chance that they read it at all at this stage.

You will probably not get an opportunity to see your letters, and it is probably best for your emotional well-being if you don’t. If you have the sort of letter writer who feels, as I do, that you have a right to see the letter and who volunteers access to it, check it out. Bear in mind that there is enormous letter inflation, so all letters, read casually, sound like very strong recommendations. However, an elaborate code that all but the students understand has developed for conveying quickly how to size up the candidate (e.g. “hard working” means “stupid,” “strong recommendation” means “I don’t recommend,” “very strong recommendation” means “I recommend with reservations” and “strongest [better: “strongest possible”] recommendation” means “yeah, go ahead and hire her—she’s OK”). Including a telephone number and an invitation to telephone, combined with inflationary delirium, strengthens the letter; including the telephone number while saying the case is complex and best explained over the phone is very bad. Anything that falls short of saying you are breaking new ground in your research and likely to be famous soon sends a negative signal; if it is coupled with statements about how conscientious and dedicated a teacher you are, this is tantamount to condemnation. Less than delirious is bad. It is perhaps best not to know about these things.

The flip side is that lower ranked schools, their protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, do not actually want the best qualified people they can get, but the best qualified people who are no more qualified than the people they’ve already got. The reasons for this are complex. First, the “culture” of a lower ranked school is fundamentally different from a top school, and without at all intending it, people socialized at top programs acquire many repellant personality nuances that convey contempt to faculty and students alike. This is inevitable since they have been subjected to a selection pressure that values the appearance of superior intelligence, and the only truly efficient way to signal superior intelligence in a pinch is a tone of disdain. If you have read this far, the odds are overwhelming good that you’ve acquired this already and don’t even know it. Since not everyone can have the best jobs, indeed, not everyone can have a job at all, working on people skills improves your chances.

Anyway: qualified rave which is code for a thumbs-down may cut you out of the better jobs while tracking you nicely into a liberal arts or lesser state college job. The only advantage of this knowledge is that if it comes to your attention that you have a weak letter, you can know to drop it. Since you probably won’t be able to get this information directly, ask a faculty ally to read the other letters and report back to you who’s damning you with faint praise. This, by the way, is one reason why you can never have too many faculty allies—less than three letters is very bad and typically not even permitted by the hiring department.

So you’ve sent your materials. Now you wait until the Christmas meeting. The department will call you as late as humanly possible, generally on December 23rd (this is why you need your parents’ phone number if you’re away for the holidays, and to have already bought your plane ticket). When you talk on the phone, do not probe for information about what your chances are, but it is OK to probe for more information about what sort of competencies they are looking for. Though there should be nothing new here, sometimes a tired and overworked search committee member will blurt out that “classical modern” means they really have to have a Leibniz scholar. This is useful intelligence for your interview. You can also try to wheedle out of them whether they have an inside candidate (an applicant who is currently working in the department in a one-year position). If so, do not despair. After seeing this person for a year day in and day out, they may have decided that priority one is to have him teach adjunct in Siberia, anywhere but here. Also, sometimes desirable insiders get better offers elsewhere and leave, effectively transforming the search into an open one. In one case, I actually declined an interview that had an inside candidate who seemed very unlikely to be dislodged; in another case, I was the inside candidate and was well liked by many in the department but didn’t get the position anyway. So don’t make too much of this if it becomes known to you. A little probing, however, can’t hurt, if it isn’t too pushy. Generally asking about the affirmative action situation is futile—in most cases, the facts will be clear from the ad. If the ad does not make this clear, and it is true that they really intend to hire a protected class person while filling a legitimate need, they are unlikely to answer such a question truthfully, so there is little point in asking.

One category of ad that merits mention is the ad that refers to a religious denomination. Some people seem to be under the misapprehension that there is something illegal about religious tests for employment, but this is emphatically not the case. Most people greatly underestimate the role this plays in the market (all your information will be from faculty or grad students at non-denominational research departments, who are in no position to know). In some cases, the intent is clear: the ad will request a comment detailing your attitude toward Christianity (typically), or sometimes even toward their particular denomination’s version of it. In one case, this wasn’t in the ad, but was a question in a form that was sent to me after I applied. “Describe briefly the nature of your personal relationship to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” was the exact wording, I believe. When you see this sort of thing, you will know right off the bat if you can get to first base with them or not (typically not). Be alert to ads which simply mention the denomination versus ads which request a statement of faith in so many words. In the latter case, the seriousness is obvious and if you cannot give them what they want without lying, you would be miserable teaching there anyway in all likelihood. The other sort of case is trickier and merits discussion. Why? Because though your training has prepared you exclusively for a research position at a major public or secular private university, the odds are far better that you will end up getting or getting close to employment at a liberal arts college, and such positions can be actually quite nice. However, most liberal arts colleges have a denomination behind them, with varying degrees of involvement in administration. If the school is, say, really serious about only recruiting fanatical members of the Southern Baptist Convention, well, there it is. More common, however, is that the board of trustees must answer to the denomination, but the faculty are actually not terribly committed to the denomination, if at all. In cases like this, it may be that most of the faculty received their job by making some pro forma remark in letter or interview stating that they are or were raised as members of that denomination. People willing to say that get the job. Afterwards, the faculty goes on its merry way, teaching in essentially the same way they would’ve taught at a public university research department. It is very difficult to know what to do in such situations, and impossible to ask openly about what you should do. (One of my students was recruited by such a place and did well all the way to the very end; but his answers to the “are you Christian?” hints seemed both promising and evasive. Finally they called another letter writer, and asked casually, “he’s not a Christian, is he?” to which the reply was “I don’t think so” and that ended things). But the fact remains that people who apply for jobs at places like Luther College who are willing to say once or twice that they are or were raised Lutheran, but don’t really have much of interest in talking about their current, perhaps tepid, level of religious commitment, will get interviews and jobs, while people who say in their letter or interview “while I am not a Lutheran [or worse, while I am not a Christian], I respect and tolerate religious diversity, play well with others, etc.” will not get the job. This locked me out of St. Olaf’s after a promising screening interview. This is perhaps the biggest secret about the job market: most jobs are being offered by churches and most candidates are atheists! Obviously, quite a few people must be somewhat deceptive about this; more, one hand washes the other, as atheists on search committees hire atheists for jobs as the administration looks over their shoulders to make sure the denomination’s interests are served. Will you play along or not? You will have to decide. But knowing what the game is expands your options.

One exception to this is the Catholic school. It is not always clear that a Catholic school will prefer a Catholic or not (consider DePaul). However, when they do, they are much less likely to be playing this wink-wink game described above. If you aren’t Catholic, you’ll never get away with pretending you are—it’s a whole culture. BTW, “we want a Catholic” is sometimes signaled in a way reminiscent of “we want a woman to placate the affirmative action officer”: “AOC: Thomistic philosophy.”

One final point before we get to interviews. One crucial consideration as you hit the market is the status of your dissertation. This presents something of a conundrum. You are a stronger candidate if you have successfully defended your thesis. But that means you are no longer a grad student and have no assistantship. So you must not defend, in order to retain your assistantship, which means you are not a viable candidate. There are two ways to deal with this difficulty. First, finish the thesis and have all committee members read all chapters before the fall job market revs up. Then in the letters they can say that all that remains to do is defend, and that they are satisfied with what they’ve seen. (If they say instead that they’ve seen part of the thesis and are confident you will write enough in the future to finish before next fall, you probably won’t be taken seriously for the tenure track position—it’s too risky for the hiring department). But the defense must wait until after you know you have the job, otherwise you burn your bridge to the old assistantship. This is the best plan for other reasons, for as Sternberg says, in the one indispensible book that every graduate student not bent on self-destruction has read How to Complete and Survive a Doctoral Dissertation, it is very unwise to leave the vicinity of the committee members with a thesis not yet completed. It greatly enhances your prospects for failure. Out of sight, out of mind, out of give a damn. The other alternative is to go on the market with an incomplete thesis and chance it. In this case, you probably won’t get a tenure track, but you may get a one year, which gives you a shot at finishing before the following fall and then allows you to compete for the tenure tracks the next year.

OK, so you’ve read the October JFP, you’ve read the November JFP, you’ve applied and sent out your materials. You wait. On December 23rd, having bitten your nails down to nothing, while staring resentfully at the expensive plane ticket for Boston or New York you’ve bought (and btw, save yourself some money and stay at the nearest youth hostel instead of in the meeting hotel), you get phone calls. If you are male, you may get anywhere from one to four; if female, seven to fifteen (and remember, this discrepancy means nothing).

Now you must put your show on the road. For the interview, you will want to have copies of your CV, writing sample, syllabi—assume that they’ve misplaced everything. Also important, if there is something in the AOC that suggests the teaching of a class you’ve never taught, pull their catalog off the web and try to figure out which course descriptions might be classes they want you to teach. If one or more of these are classes you’ve never taught (which is likely), make a syllabus for it. For liberal arts jobs, and, more rarely, research jobs, this can be a make or break thing. The vast majority of interviewees are asked, “how would you teach a course on blah blah blah” and most of them say “I’m not sure, I never really thought about it.” (This is an artifact of the generally piss poor interview prep that goes on in the departments fielding candidates). However, you will say, “I have a few ideas [passing copy of syllabus to interviewer]; here’s what I’d do and why…” Especially at a liberal arts college, this just blows them away.

Lastly, dress in your church Sunday best. They know from experience that academics dress down, so they will assume that you will be a certain number of grades more slovenly than you appear in the interview. If you show up dressed too casually, they will assume that means you will teach naked with a large club. Women should “dress for success” for research jobs to extinguish any subliminal, unconscious sexism. However, matters are somewhat different with low ranked schools, where avoiding dressing in too businesslike a manner for either gender may mitigate the committee’s insecurities some.

The interview. The committee will interview about fifteen people, so that is where you stand, no better, no worse. For a research job, you should know that your affiliation will be compared with the affiliation of people from other departments, in a fairly mechanical way, in line with Leiter Report rankings. Still, do your best; there are always anomalies. Also, while there may be a glut of candidates, not everyone can come from Princeton or Pitt, and interdepartmental competition for the top candidates is fierce. You need not be their first choice. You need only be their final choice. If you can, try to get on the schedule for early in the day and early in the meetings, for obvious reasons. If you can, try to talk to someone who has already been interviewed by them—you may bump into someone at the meeting—for any sense of what the interview is like.

The interviews used to be held in hotel room suites, though this practice is on the wane because of complaints by women about being alone with men in hotel rooms. There will also be a large convention hall type room filled with tables where interviews sometimes take place. The most crucial thing to understand here is that an interview is predictably different depending upon whether it is a first tier research department, a second tier research department or a liberal arts college. First, research departments, the ones with graduate programs, are primarily concerned with their prestige and how you will add to or detract from it. They do not much care about your personality (though calm self-confidence is routinely mistaken for talent) or your teaching abilities. Consequently, most of the interview will focus on your dissertation, and actually will be little different from a dissertation defense. The best defense is a totally paranoid defense. Try to imagine every possible question and come up with a credible answer for each. Beyond this, it may be helpful to do a little background research on who is in the department, who is in the interview panel. Do they have any known biases? In an interview many years ago at Penn, Paul Guyer was present, and by sheer coincidence, I made a remark critical of a central line in Henry Allison’s Kant interpretation, and he visibly beamed at me. Usually these things can’t be planned for, but bear in mind that if you launch into “in my dissertation, I argue that View X is seriously misguided” and the interviewer is the leading proponent of View X, you’re probably dead before you’ve begun. Do your homework. Obviously you can’t rewrite your thesis at this point, but in the above scenario, it is just as easy to say “View X, despite its very evident attractions, has been criticized, perhaps misguidedly, along the following lines. Responding to these criticisms becomes easier if we use the following strategies I’ve developed, etc.” It’s better for you if there’s no expert in your area, but in any case, try to be as excruciatingly clear as possible while responding to the questions, and don’t be shocked by very aggressive nasty questioning. The truth is that most academics are not very nice people, and tenure does seem to have liberated them from a fear of appearing rude. Mock interviews can help slightly here, though they are seldom as mean-spirited as the real thing. In the best research departments, this thesis defense mode will continue up to the last minute, after which they will ask you what you like to teach, and you say, and you’re done. The assessment will be largely based on how brilliant you seem. Do not let the mask of power slip for a moment, do not confess weaknesses, confusions, ignorance, and always try to steer the conversation onto your area of greatest strength. (There is another path, which is to seem spacey and deep, which can allow you more wiggle room for nonresponsiveness, but unless you really are deep and obviously so, I wouldn’t risk it unless you know you’re in a room full of Wittgensteinians). If you are a Kant scholar and are asked “that reminds me of something in [name of philosopher no one has ever read from an entirely different century]—what do you think?” immediately deflect the questioning back to what you know about. The best way to look stupid is to start fumbling around, speculating on what might be the right answer to a question about something you are totally ignorant about. Some people like to do this to you on purpose just to see what you’ll do. In one interview, after discussing Foucault’s concept of power, a hostile questioner asked, “what would you say, then, about predicativity in Husserl?” Sometimes its best to punt. I said “I have no idea what that is.” Look of sadistic triumph dawns over interviewer’s face. This is not the worst I’ve heard, only the worst I’ve been subjected to. The worst I’ve heard was the interviewer who though it was interesting to say nothing while others spoke until the end, and then ask “if you could be reincarnated as any animal, what would it be?” while having a particular “good” animal in mind that the candidate had to correctly hit on. Expect the worst. [My strangest interview experience: I come into the hotel room, there is only one guy in there. We sit at the table and he pulls out a cassette recorder, turns it on. He reads a series of questions from a typed script, never making eye contact. I answer each one. He says thank you, turns off the machine. “We will notify you by phone if you have the position on Thursday at 11:30 a.m.” They never call.]

Unfortunately, the right kind of preparation for research department interviews will leave you at a significant disadvantage in a liberal arts college or lesser state college interview, and the odds are, this is the kind of job you’ll get. Being ready for very difficult and hostile questions will make you nervous, defensive, very abstract, droning and monotonous. This is too bad, because they care about your research not a whit. Actually, they don’t care about your teaching either. They are trying to see if you will be fun to have around. And if you actually do well in the intellectual jousting type thing, you’ll come across as arrogant and threatening. Either way, boring or threatening, its very bad. So, when asked the inevitable first question “why don’t you start by telling us a little about your dissertation” you must keep it very simple and very short, because frankly they don’t give a damn, or will quickly cease to do so if any effort is actually involved on their part. If you know any salesmanship skills, they might come in handy here, since what you are trying to do is persuade them not that the thesis is brilliant, but that it, and you, are fun and interesting. The best thing here besides keeping it simple, is to really project the enthusiasm you used to have for the topic, why it really fascinates you. People love that. But this will only take up 5-10 minutes of the process tops, and we’ve still got a half an hour to go. Much of this will be spent talking about teaching. Here, the most crucial mistake you can make is projecting the attitudes you may have picked up by osmosis here that teaching doesn’t matter. (Ever notice how no one ever trained you how to teach? How no one ever inquired about how your teaching was going? How no one ever chastised you in response to an undergrad complaint?) What they want here is a sign that you regard teaching as a very serious duty, but this has never been asked of you before. The way to respond here is to have formulated an explicit statement (which you can add to your submitted materials) describing the goals of your teaching with some precision, and how you accomplish these goals using specific techniques. This is, of course, total nonsense, especially if you really do care about teaching. But showing that you’ve actually thought about how to be a good teacher and dutifully work at improving is what they are looking for. What they are not looking for is evidence that you actually are a great teacher, let alone an effortless natural at teaching for the simple reason that they are likely terrible teachers themselves and blame their students for their own shortcomings (a tip-off here is if it is a pretty good school objectively but they complain that their students are stupid). If they sense that the students will worship you, this may intimidate them. Conversely, if you are cavalier about this duty to reflect on and pretend to improve your teaching, you run another risk—of exposing their pretext for existence for what it really is. They all feel that their service to society, their reason for being is their teaching, and yet most of them are not very good at it. Hence the importance of projecting the idea that teaching does not come naturally to you but you work very very hard at improving. (I had rave student evaluations early in my job-seeking and was therefore not particularly interested in how to teach, since apparently I already knew, was not very reflective about it, and this, combined with a very strong report from the student member of their search committee, cost me the job at Knox College). So: lots of sample syllabi and some sort of shtik about your “philosophy of education” and teaching techniques (talk about “cultural literacy” and “critical thinking” and the sacredness of philosophy since the death of Socrates). However, the main thing in the liberal arts college interview they are trying to determine is are you likable enough as a person to have around, so a bit of bubbliness, enthusiasm, evidence that you are genuinely interested in the school, have lots of questions, etc. will help. Do not ask about opportunities for research, intellectual dialogue, the library, etc. This is intimidating. Ask instead about the school, the community, recreational activities, the cost of buying a house near the college, benefits, the quality of the local grammar schools, etc. To better understand the kind of people you are dealing with, take a week and read the novel Straight Man by Richard Russo. It is dead-on. I know. I interviewed at the college it is based on.

In liberal arts interviews, one sometimes gets utterly bizarre questions that seem almost calculated to put the deer that you are in their headlights. The oddest ones I recall were “describe your ideal philosophy department” and “if you could be anything other than a philosophy professor, what would it be?” The only weird question that I’ve heard a lot, which suggests that one might want to prepare an answer for it, is “what is philosophy?”

Very quickly the committee will decide which four people will be suitable for on campus follow up. If you do not hear anything after a few weeks, forget about them. Most departments are unspeakably rude about their obligation to inform a candidate they are no longer under active consideration. If you are lucky you will get a form letter almost a year later saying thanks but no thanks. Sometimes they are better than that. In any case, every significant interaction with them should elicit a fresh written thank you letter from you. Sometimes its the little things…

But let’s assume the happier case—you’ve been picked. You will find out in early to mid -January probably and be invited out for a couple of days in early to mid-February. Since they will see four people, that part of the process will take about a month tops. If you are the first person on the list, you will have to wait awhile, if the last, you may not have to wait long at all. Now this defies explanation, but it seems that invariably, exactly one of the four is immediately eliminated on the basis of looks, personality, lack of intelligence or something else bad that sticks out; this person may hear right away that they are no longer under consideration. (If this happens to you, be mad but don’t despair—seeing this happen on the hiring side several times now, it is usually the result of a misunderstanding). Then the other three are considered more or less equally attractive. It is a good bet, also, that if these three people have made a favorable impression on this department, they will have also done so with some other departments.

Now the game begins. The hiring departments rank order their three survivors in a meeting on grounds that are nothing short of spectacularly arbitrary in most cases (recall that the initial cuts were made in reference to a prototype and an objective ranking of home departments—the three candidates are likely indistinguishable even up close, unless the department couldn’t decide on a prototype, in which case that is the decision to be made, not who is best). For example, there may be two equally divided factions who want fundamentally different things which nicely match two of the candidates. Thus the third candidiate that no one wants rises to the top by not alienating either faction (that, btw, was how I ended up at Northwestern for a time). An offer is made to the person on the top of the list of each list at each hiring department. The problem is that if you are second on the list of three at department 1 and the first on the list at 1 is second on the list at more prestigious department 2, then first will not accept the offer right away, but wait and see if an offer is forthcoming from department 2, contingent on the first at 2 turning them down for a better offer in turn.

South Indishois State Howie College Baleston U.
1. Bob from Pitt 1. Sally from Harvard 1. Bob from Pitt
2. You 2. Bob from Pitt 2. Sally from Harvard
3. Sally from Harvard 3. You 3. You
4. No Social Skills 4. No Social Skills 4. No Social Skills

And a mixed assortment of eleven people who said, “I’ve never really thought about it” when asked how they would teach a specific course in their very own AOC.

You have interviews in February. No Skills is immediately and politely turned down by all. Baleston, a very highly regarded research university, is deadlocked because the affirmative action officer says all hell will break loose if they don’t hire Sally (their last three hires have been male) but they really like Bob more. Delays. Finally, Bob gets two offers, one from Baleston and one from Indishois, but Bob really wants Howie and tells the others he’ll get back to them later. Sally gets one offer from Howie and accepts. It is April. You still haven’t heard anything. Howie sends you a rejection letter and also sends one to Bob. Bob gets off the pot and accepts Baleston, sending his regrets to Indishois. Indishois offers you a job on May 23rd. You accept. (I am indebted to Mandel’s indispensible The Professor Game for these fictitious schools). Take this basic structure and multiply it by the hundred and fifty hiring departments and three hundred candidates and you have a very complex process which can take months to resolve itself. So unless you are the first choice at all the places you on-campused at, you may not know until summer if you have a job. By then, of course, you will have probably had a nervous breakdown. But don’t despair. The key is that you were on the list of three, and perhaps at more than one place. You’ll probably get an offer. You just have to wait in line for it. In the mean time, there is the Central division meeting to worry about.

How should you behave during the on-campus? Again, the answers are different depending upon which type of school it is. In all cases you want to seem reasonably friendly at least. With the research department, what they are looking for is still: signs of brilliance or stupidity and signs that you’ll be useful to have around, lend prestige to the department, be someone one can talk to about philosophy with profit, etc. Do not assume that certain chunks of time are official interview time and others are not. They will be paying very close attention to what you say over dinner, for example, hoping to trick you into revealing something useful to the decision. Factions for or against you probably formed before they even met you, so the problem is not making a favorable impression on those favorably disposed, but not exposing even the appearance of weakness to the already hostile. The greater your breadth or apparent breadth of knowledge, the better—you cannot afford to confess ignorance about too many things unless your ignorance in a particular area is so colossal, or the matter in question so inconsequential, that it is hopeless or doesn’t matter that you don’t know it. In departments hiring a token Continental to work side by side with a bunch of analytics, showing some knowledge of and respect for analytic philosophy can’t hurt (though this can backfire too—in one case, I made nice with the analytics, and then at the meeting, they turned to the one continental in the department and left the decision entirely to him; he predictably excluded me because he was hoping to acquire a new friend and I was “too analytic”!). The main message here is that you must still be “on” all the time—you cannot afford to show weakness or let the mask slip. Not only do you know everything about philosophy, but you have a very well-articulated plan for your next several articles or books. If not, you are a risk to them. Watch out for the question “what’s next for you after you finish revising your thesis into a book/series of articles?” You must have an answer almost as worked out as the one to “tell us about your dissertation.” “I haven’t really thought about it yet” dooms you utterly because that means that they will have a very hard time putting you up for tenure, so why walk into that problem now if they don’t have to? Naturally, making any comments that anyone could conceivably construe as offensive or inappropriate is a mistake. On non-philosophical questions, the safest stance is to act like a middle class white collar coalition-building centrist democrat (unless you know for sure that this is a very different sort of place) running for public office being interviewed on television. You didn’t inhale. Assume the red light is always on.

Things are much the same at the liberal arts on-campus, except that the effort to engage you in genuine philosophical discussion will be almost nil, and efforts on your part to start such a conversation may not be well-received (you may be dealing with aging tenured deadwood who now hate philosophy). Instead, imagine that you are being looked over as a possible resident in a neighborhood by the homeowners association. The crucial thing is, are you blandly likable or not. Again, on non-philosophical questions, see above. However, you must also convey the impression that, as it were, if you golf, I’ll golf with you. If you bake cookies for the second grade bake sale, I love to bake cookies, etc. Know your audience. These are ultimately just moderately well-paid civil servant types living in suburbia who are looking for someone who will “fit in.” They will probably be older than you, and in some cases, much older than you, and you want to convey maturity and reasonableness (in a recent round of interviews my current department conducted, I involuntarily took a dim view of a candidate wearing those wide and thin Italian fashion model eyeglasses. since they seemed to suggest either youth or narcissism). Be nice and demonstrate that you can play well with others, share your toys, won’t burn the administration building down, etc.

One thing to be prepared for on the liberal art visit is that usually delivering a top notch paper isn’t going to fly the way it would elsewhere, for two reasons. First, the audience is lazier, less up to date, more interested in the entertainment value and especially on the lookout for being intimidated by an arrogant know-it-all. So here, a paper should be somewhat lighter than at a research department, where it should resemble as much as possible a journal article. Sometimes a dumbed down version of the introductory chapter of your thesis will do just fine. Also, you may be asked to give the impossible “teaching talk”. If this is all you are asked to do, this can be a real nightmare. The teaching talk is designed to watch you teach a class. However, you are also being evaluated for the cogency of what you are saying. In the worst case scenario, they will fuse the paper presentation with the teaching talk, and judge you both on how cogent your talk is while making sure you aren’t talking over the students’ heads. This is close to a no-win situation—if you are responsive to the students, it looks like you’re not very bright, but if you are responsive to the faculty, it looks like you can’t teach. The best thing to do here is to take the lighter paper based on the introductory chapter and memorize it, and then teach it as you would teach a class of philosophy major juniors, seniors and maybe first year grad students. Hopefully, the students will be so bright and the faculty so dim that it will all even out. The worst case scenario is that they deliberately refuse to tell you which kind of talk it is to be. Then you must assume that it is a teaching talk and do what you can with it. The best case scenario is if they ask you to do one of each.

If, by the end of the day, you have no tenure track offer in hand, then you will probably go for a one year. The rule of thumb is that, given the glut in the market (about twice as many candidates as jobs) a lot of people will be headed for this. Basically, it will not be held against you if you work two or three years as a one year at different places before you hit a tenure track. This is in fact rather likely. However, much longer than that and you start to smell stale and people stop associating you with your grad school department and start associating you with the latest crappy job you had teaching ten sections of critical thinking at Hopeless State. At that point you may want to think about moving on to other things, but doing so will not be easy. If this is your lot, the most important thing is to keep trying to publish. The longer you go without publishing, the more dead you get, and smell. This is hard because these sorts of environments will make you feel like nobody, and to publish you have to imagine that you are somebody with something to say. My year at Indiana at Indianapolis was like that. Still, tenacity can pay off.

Some places play a little game in which they hire someone for a one year with the insinuation that it will later become a tenure track position. Both Indiana/Indy and St. Cloud tried to do that. There is simply no way of telling if they are lying or not in most cases, but the following rule of thumb is helpful. If the position is similar in AOS to someone tenured who just left, this may be a good way to get your foot in the door and be the inside candidate for the later tenure track, though there are no guarantees (I think it probably usually works, though in my case one time, at UCSD, it didn’t). If, on the other hand, it is renewable indefinitely and involves teaching lower division courses in large sections or heavy loads for low pay, be very skeptical of claims that it may lead to a tenure track later.

Three final little matters. If you and your romantic attache are on the market together, what can you expect? The short answer is, nothing good, but surely you saw this coming? The other questions students sometimes ask are, should you reveal (1) that you are gay, (2) your politics, or (3) your religion, if you really have one. On the first question, for a research job, yes, a teaching job, maybe no (depends on the school). On the second question, unless you already are “a middle class white collar coalition-building centrist democrat” put a lid on it. Completely. On the third question, in a research department, religious convictions in anyone but the token medievalist are considered a sign of stupidity (but you knew this already and may even believe it yourself). In a teaching department, only if the convictions dovetail with the institution’s affiliation or help convey the impression that you play well with others and share your toys (see above).

One last thought. In interviews, as a rule it is a bad idea to interrupt an especially aggressive but half-witted questioner with “Are we done here? Because I think I’ve had just about as much of this as I think I can stand, and would much rather be watching a movie than groveling for a job you probably won’t give me anyway—I understand there’s a showing of Schindler’s List in a half an hour near the hotel, and genocide would probably be more fun than this” because the questioner is only the twenty-seventh person in the past three years to act like disparities of market power entitle them to treat you like pond-scum and watch you come crawling anyway for a job that pays slightly more than what a dental assistant makes.

Then again, it worked for me.


One comment on “So You Want To Be A Philosopher

  1. Pliny the Elder says:

    What to do? Drink heavily.
    But once again I can feel joy at having departed academia (10 years and counting)

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