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by John Davenport
Trends in the job market for academic philosophers
It is no secret that the job market in philosophy has changed dramatically in recent years. Although the late 1970s saw a big fall, the last two decades may be distinctive in combining sustained growth in college populations with declines in the number of tenure-track positions available in philosophy. Between 1990 and now, college enrollment climbed from approximately 11 million to over 17 million, and yet the number of tenure and tenure-track positions in our field may be only marginally more than a quarter-century ago.
What are the likely causes behind the decline in the number of full-time job openings over the last 15–20 years? While the 2008–2009 financial crisis surely played a role in recent years, it cannot explain the longer trend. All the following possibilities come to mind:
- later retirement ages among philosophy professors
- state funding for higher education not keeping up with rising costs at public universities
- administrations’ shrinking philosophy departments by attrition, especially at state colleges, because the number of majors has dropped or has not been growing
How we can find out more about this trend
We desperately need the APA to survey 4,000+ American departments that teach Philosophy (sometimes along with other subjects) about the history of their positions in the last two decades and to do other research to calculate how much these and other factors are driving the decline. Note that while the APA has roughly 2,300 tenured or tenure-track members, there are likely a few hundred more who did not report their status to the APA or who do not belong to the APA—clearly the average across U.S. colleges and universities is well short of 1 position per college. And given the number of colleges with multiple philosophy faculty members, including probably over 1,000 at the top 400 universities and liberal arts colleges, there must then be thousands of U.S. higher education institutions that do not employ even one regular philosophy faculty member.
I propose that the APA needs to be lobbying all colleges that are philosophically understaffed, and that it should employ a professional lobbyist to help in understanding the decline. If the third cause listed above is a strong factor, then we also need to know why the number of philosophy majors has not remained steady. We have always pointed to the unjustified yet widespread fear that a Philosophy degree will not prepare students for high-paying jobs—a misconception that better marketing of our field can address—but we should look more deeply.
The need to reinvent philosophy programs
Philosophy programs have often failed to reinvent themselves in the face of declining faith in humanities degrees and competition from creative new interdisciplinary programs. Perhaps the increasing dominance of M&E (metaphysics and epistemology) specialists is unbalancing our course offerings. Perhaps we also miss many potential students because of the general absence of philosophers on major network and cable television programs, and because of the lack of popular trade books by philosophers in numbers and prominence comparable to those published by historians, scholars from the hard sciences, economics, and political science. Where are the philosophical equivalents of Greene’s The Elegant Universe, Piketty’s Capital, Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, or Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, together with the popular media appearances these entailed?
Doubtless, most philosophy majors were inspired at some point by one or two impressive professors, but many other students never considered taking that introductory-level course that might have exposed them to such inspiration, because they have never heard much about philosophy: it has little visible presence in our mass public discourse or our high-school electives. We need major initiatives to address these factors and turn around the decline, especially at public colleges and universities. Getting philosophy electives routinely taught in U.S. high schools, as they are in Europe, is another job for a full-time APA professional lobbyist.
The problem with offer acceptance deadlines creeping ever earlier
But I will focus here on another problem within our hiring process itself, which is even more directly of our own making: we have allowed what was a fairly reliable and predictable—albeit highly imperfect—customary set of procedures almost completely to collapse with the rise of Skype interviews. The main problem is not that most first-round interviews are no longer conducted in person at the APA Eastern Division Meeting. The transition to Skype interviews has done significant harm in eroding the robustness of the one annual meeting at which a lot of colleagues in our field were able to meet face to face; thus we have partly lost one major source of collegiality, to say nothing of meeting a threshold of attendees in which publishers can take sufficient interest. But at least the move to web-based interviews has saved time and money for many job-seekers who are already under so much pressure (given the decline in available positions). And though Skype interviews lack much that in-person interviews enable, they may make it easier for smaller colleges and departments with very limited budgets to get involved in first-round interviewing.
Rather, the pressing moral problem arises from serious erosion of our customary norms regarding when job candidates could be required to make “take it or leave it” final decisions on job offers. Things have changed dramatically: because on-campus interviews traditionally followed the Eastern Division Meeting and continued until early March, most candidates receiving offers would not be required to make a binding decision until at least mid-March (or April 1 in the best cases). Of course, there was no formal rule, but few departments demanded a yes-or-no answer in mid-February, before the candidate has completed all his or her on-campus interviews (or at least those interviews that offered prospects in serious competition with the standing job offer). The reasons were obvious to all: this custom protected the interests of job seekers—who are already at so much of a disadvantage given their oversupply—from being forced to enter a maximin game and take their first offer before knowing all their relevant options. It also meant that candidates were very unlikely to renege on a commitment to accept a job.
Then, perhaps 8–10 years ago, this system started to erode. I was surprised when a graduate student in our department came to our holiday party in mid-December asking faculty mentors what he should do about a small college that demanded to know before year’s end whether he would accept their job offer or not, even though he had three on-campus interviews lined up in the new year (with more possibly to come). What an unfair dilemma in which to place the most vulnerable persons in our profession! This sort of strategy deprives job candidate of the only stage in the process when he or she may have a slight advantage, which can also help in negotiating a better salary and benefits: namely, the stage of having multiple offers. I was outraged, but was even more shocked a couple of years later when Notre Dame, my own graduate alma mater, initially demanded such a do-or-die answer in December from a candidate in metaphysics, apparently to prevent other strong departments from even getting to interview her. Although it is reported that they let this deadline slide into January, this was fair neither to the candidate nor to other departments that were seriously in the running. So you can imagine my chagrin when my own department recently began on-campus interviews in December. But we have to, I was told, or else we will lose out. I fully expect campus visits to be in November or October soon enough with demands for offer acceptance before Thanksgiving.
The need for APA action
The most outrageous thing about this unjust state of affairs is that we could see it coming a mile away. There has been an APA committee working on the problem, and I pleaded with two members of it at different points in time to set a firm date before which no department could legitimately make such “now-or-never” offers/demands without the severest penalties we could devise.
The APA did post an official “Handbook on Placement Practices” available via a link way down in the Meeting Dates section of the website. The last section of this document on “Offers” says, “responses to offers of a position whose duties begin in the succeeding fall should not be required before January 15.”
There are three problems with this. First, the date is way too early—long before many on-campus interviews in the spring would take place (at best, it would force hiring departments to do campus interviews in the late fall when faculty are much busier). Second, how many hiring departments have seen this document? A boldface letter containing the policy needs to go to every department chair. Third, there is no enforcement mechanism—no punishment for violation.
After the initial draft of this blog post was submitted, it just so happens that a short statement from the APA on the Job Market Calendar appeared on February 16, 2016. This new policy recommends that no application have a deadline prior to November 1 and that no offer-acceptance be required before February 1. Now this is clearly a big improvement: even if the application deadline could be October without causing problems, the idea behind November 1 is clearly to prevent fall offer-acceptance demands. I still hold that February 1 is too early, given the need for on-campus interviews in the spring, along with the possibility of some visits being postponed due to snow conditions. But it is good to have a clear APA statement on the matter. The problem is now that it needs real enforcement.
The results of having no enforced policy have been entirely predictable: simple game theory tells us that once new technology changes things so that hiring departments are now in a Prisoner’s Dilemma, such that defecting from the norm and making early offers with early drop-dead dates gives them a huge strategic advantage, some will do it. And as more do, the dilemma worsens, forcing more and more departments to do the same. Thus the “arms race” begins, and the drop-dead dates move earlier and earlier, like Iowa and New Hampshire competing to have the earliest primary, so that soon enough, if the APA’s new policy is ignored, candidates will be faced with do-or-die decisions on offers in early October or even September. Maybe in a few years, we’ll even be having on campus-interviews during the summer, and will finally lap ourselves, getting back to April interviews!
Please don’t get me wrong. I recognize that most jobs in the world do not come with an indefinite period in which to accept the offer. However, a professor position in higher education is very different from most jobs, not only because entry into the profession is highly structured by our institutions, but also because higher education is not a for-profit business with a free-flowing schedule (we tend to have a highly structured annual schedule, with papers to grade, exams to give, etc., in early December). Among institutions looking to fill a full-time tenure-track position beginning in the fall semester of year x, very few have some sound institutional reason why they absolutely need to know by November or December of year x–1 that their position is already filled. Rather, the desire to have the preferred candidate under contract earlier is merely a desire to get a strategic advantage over other colleges interested in the same candidate—and candidates’ interests are just collateral damage in this game. This cuts both ways. In the presently developing situation, who could blame a candidate who said “yes” to an offer in early December in order to ensure having a job, but then accepted a better offer in late February, thus breaking the promise made to the first department? After all, they put her/him in a highly unfair position.
A solution: setting a single date for job offers
Of course I’m not saying that the process should be set up so that departments that “have their act together,” defining their position and reviewing candidates expeditiously, should have to wait forever for other departments that post a job very late and take a long time to do their work. I’m not even insisting that the date before which no one should have to make a final decision on offers has to remain in mid-spring, now that first interviews can happen earlier. The most crucial point here is simply that a single date should be set and kept for all colleges and universities, in order to prevent a way of competing that merely generates a collective action problem (CAP) between departments and makes job seekers worse off too. I tend to think that March 15 is the best date (is there a non-strategic, non-CAP-generating reason that we really need to know earlier, even at colleges running on a quarter-system?). But an earlier date may do, even though it is worse for departments located in areas with more winter snow; arguably an earlier date could also be fairer to runner-up candidates who are waiting for those sitting on offers to make a final decision—although in many cases, they would lose little if they received an offer in late March as a result of a first-choice candidate declining the same offer.
I can only express my profoundest disappointment that the APA did not take action sooner to prevent this CAP from developing along its foreseen path. The result is intolerable, and although it is more difficult to fix the problem now, I recommend a serious effort to move us back to a norm according to which it is simply forbidden to demand a final answer from any job candidate before the agreed-on date. The APA has to run this system (there is no other entity capable of doing this job), and penalties must be placed on departments violating the norm. On the first offense, start with a public letter of censure to the department, naming and shaming, and warning of the consequences of recidivism. On a second offense, ban every member of the department (not including graduate students) from presenting at any of the APA meetings for three years. On a third offense, raise it to seven years, and ban the department from advertising in Philjobs (or perhaps make department members ineligible for APA prizes, officer positions, distinguished lectureships, etc.). Whatever the list of penalties, they must be real enough to solve the problem that is now making us all worse off than we need to be, for lack of cooperation on this point. We need to get very serious about this right now, without any further delay.
John Davenport is Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University where he also directs the Peace and Justice Studies minor. He teaches and writes on ethics and political philosophy (including democratic theory and global governance), moral psychology and agency (including free will, autonomy, and love), existentialism, and philosophy of religion. Find out more about Davenport here.