The Job Market: Applications, Imbalances, and a Stale Narrative
This post is from an anonymous job seeker who was awarded his Ph.D. in philosophy (more than five years ago) by a U.S. institution. He has been on the job market since then, and because he can’t imagine himself happy doing anything else, he has not given up.
This post comes from a place of profound exasperation, not only with the job market, but also with certain prevailing narratives about the job market in the blogosphere. Both points of frustration stem from the same root: the gross imbalance of power that exists between job candidates and search committees. Some of this imbalance is understandable and, to a certain extent, inevitable: search committees have an incredibly desirable and rare job to give, the seekers want that job, etc., etc. But in the philosophy job market (and perhaps other markets in academia), this initial power differential also occasions an egregious imbalance in the division of labor and invites a small-mindedness, fickleness, and (with few exceptions) an indifference toward candidates that is—or so I shall argue—completely objectionable.
The overwhelming tendency (again, with some very notable exceptions) in the blogosphere is to speak of these objectionable elements as if they are as fixed and regular as the sunrise. Generally well-meaning advice givers tell the prospective candidates how to tailor their materials, their accomplishments, and even their mannerisms to the needs of the search committees. And though the advice given changes from one author to another, and sometimes from one commenter to another, the needs of these committees remain constant: they wish to judge candidates as quickly as possible and with an absolute minimum of effort.
My aim is to contribute, however feebly, to a small minority voice that has begun to question the necessity of these practices, and to provide the grounds for concrete action devoted to ending, or at least minimizing, them. First, I’d like to say a little bit about those experiences of mine as a candidate that are, I think, at least broadly generalizable to some significant subset of job market candidates. I would then like to argue about just how unfair and unnecessary these experiences are. My hope is that this will provide some catalyst for change.
Due largely to space and time constraints, I will focus only on a single aspect of the job market: specifically, the preparation of application dossiers. In that context, the most salient experiences of mine are these: Each year, I devote between six and fourteen hours of work to each application I submit. Assuming that the six-hour applications are more common than the fourteen-hour ones, let’s say that I average, then, about eight hours per application. Let us then suppose that a typical job cycle is, conservatively, one in which I apply for twenty-five jobs over a six-week period. Over that period, then, I devote thirty-three hours of work per week to my applications. Now let me add that I am currently an adjunct faculty member. So while I’m devoting a veritable week’s worth of labor solely to job applications, I also need to keep up with my normal teaching responsibilities, of which I have many, and for which I am undercompensated. And in order to stay competitive as a candidate, I’m also trying to grow my research program, for which I am not at all compensated. And I suppose it bears mentioning that I also have a spouse and children, who have entirely reasonable and plentiful claims on my time and attention, and a soft pillow and mattress that miss me dearly when I’m gone.
So the most obvious issue here is that the application process takes up an unreasonable amount of time. This is a direct consequence of the attitudes of search committees and their expectations of the candidates: we are to expect that, in spite of their industry and intellectual agility in other matters, search committee members lack all energy, ability, and willingness to make even the simplest inferences from “candidate A has this relevant experience” to “candidate A seems like a good fit.” So this sudden sloth and simplicity shifts at least the following four unnecessary burdens onto the candidate:
- The burden of demonstrating fitness for the position: We candidates need to say, over and over again—though not in a way that makes us seem either overweening or desperate—exactly how we would fulfill the requirements of the position. And since we know very little about the position—the vast majority of job ads are hopelessly vague—we need to spend hours and hours of research on the particular philosophy program: what kinds of classes they offer, what it is that others in the department are teaching, how to minimize potential overlaps or conflicts in teaching, what sorts of general education curricula the department participates in, what sort of research the faculty does, and so on. And then we need to incorporate those findings, decorously and without seeming sycophantic or peculiar, into our dossiers.
- The burden of perfection: The apparent sloth of the search committee member also occasions an entirely loathsome small-mindedness. He is, we are told, judgmental, dismissive, and completely indifferent as concerns the plight of the candidate. The candidates are therefore warned: committee members want to throw out your application; they are seeking reasons to do so, and as we are repeatedly told, there is no aspect of your application that is too trivial to serve their purpose. If you put the research paragraph before the teaching paragraph on your cover letter, the committee member gets to dismiss your dossier and call it your fault. If you improperly categorize a publication under contract, you’re trying to pull one over on the committee. If you send all your teaching evaluations as part of your “demonstration of teaching excellence,” you are a burden on the committee and should have been more decisive. If you only send some of them, you’re being too secretive and probably have something to hide. Your writing sample should be an absolute model of rigorous scholarship, just so long as you get to the point and don’t expect anyone to actually read it. An already-published writing sample doesn’t tell search committees what you’re going to do, just what you’ve done; and an unpublished writing sample doesn’t demonstrate that you can publish, regardless of what your CV might tell them.
- The burden of stigmatizing: Even if you should manage to do all the trivial things right—which is tantamount to a Kantian demonstrating the existence of a first cause—there are still the stigmas associated with your background and status, which search committees will use against you. If you didn’t go to the right program, you’re either not very good at what you do, or in any case, not good enough. If you’ve been on the market too long, you’re likely too embittered to be a good candidate.
- The burden of work, time, and energy: Of course, the behavior of the search committees is unacceptable in almost any circumstance. But according to the prevailing narrative, this is not one of them. It is a practical necessity of the search itself: it takes too much work, too much time, too much energy to take every application seriously. And in a sense, this brings us back to our original point; but it is, perhaps ironically, worth emphasizing. For I am almost certain that it would not take thirty-three hours per week over a six-week period to whittle down, in a fair manner, a pile of applications; nor would it involve the agonizing guesswork, persistent insecurity, or guilt over shirked obligations to others. And yet, we candidates find a way, year after year, to devote the necessary time to take each application seriously. (Of course, one also reads a whole lot about applications that candidates do not take seriously. I have to imagine, just from my own experience and those of friends and colleagues, that these are in the vast minority, and that the practice of weeding out non-serious applications is at least non-trivially comparable to attempts to weed out voter fraud in Texas.)
Now, to be clear, my point here is not just to shame search committee members with some “If I can do it, so can you” argument. The ultimate point is this: because search committees claim to lack the time, candidates are expected to sacrifice theirs; because they lack energy, we are supposed to expend ours; because they are small-minded and dismissive, we are supposed to be circumspect and accommodating; because they are vague and fickle, we are supposed to be precise and committed; and so on.
If only for the fact that we philosophers need to consider ourselves good-faith guardians of the Socratic tradition, this needs to change. We’re committed to openness, inclusiveness, sympathy, and charity, by the very nature of our calling. We’re also committed not only to articulating and defending, but also living out a life committed to the truth about the good; and we cannot accept, in so far as we are able, commitment to attitudes, practices, or institutions that reliably bring out what is worst in us. It thus follows, additionally, that we need to stop thinking that we can purge ourselves of these wrongdoings simply by talking about them and allowing, in practice, these attitudes to continue to hold sway over us. It is crucial that we not just be those well-meaning professors who say, “I understand how tough it must be for you seeking a permanent job,” but that we do something about it. As a modest first step, then, let us consider changing the conversation about the philosophy job market in the following way: that we spend relatively less time trying to help candidates navigate the injustices of the job market, and relatively more time identifying those injustices and putting an end to them.
Anonymous posts are a possibility for the blog but will be rare, and should be proposed to the team by an APA member when the post provides a valuable perspective that its author would not be able to contribute under their real name.
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