Advice for Applying for Academic Jobs in Philosophy: Indiana University Bloomington (Part 6: The Offer, and Reflections)

The aim of this series is to provide APA members with some insights into the hiring process from a variety of sources and perspectives. If you would like to submit a contribution, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us via the submission form here.

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This is the sixth of Allen Wood’s contributions on how a job candidate in philosophy should put together a dossier and apply for academic jobs. In Part 1, Wood addresses aspects of the job dossier, including AOCs/AOSs, the letter of application, the CV, and his approach to the series. Part 2 considers the writing sample. In Part 3, Wood discusses letters of recommendation, the research statement, teaching credentials, and publications. Part 4 addresses the interview. In Part 5, Wood discusses campus visits, job talks, and the teaching demo. In this final post, Wood addresses job offers and offers reflections on the process.

by Allen Wood

Job Offers

For many advertised jobs, as hard as this may be to believe, usually an offer is made. But some searches result in no offers, because the department cannot agree on anyone, and searches are then carried over to the next year—if the department is lucky and the dean does not take the position away from them. Some searches are also cancelled for budgetary reasons just before an offer is to be made. But sometimes more than one offer is made, if the department’s first choice is snapped up by another institution. But let’s suppose the search has a happy outcome, and an offer is made to you.

After the campus visit, get advice from your advisors about whether the job is really a good one. Don’t follow it blindly (this is your life we’re talking about), but don’t ignore it or go off half-cocked because you finally got a job offer. You may be right to turn it down. If the job is an acceptable one, get advice from your advisors about what you should say, and what you should ask, during the negotiation process—and that’s what it is, even if it’s a very one-sided negotiation in which they seem to hold all the power. In fact, however, once an institution has decided to make you an offer, you do suddenly have some power. For a job candidate, this is a most unfamiliar feeling, pleasant yet dangerous, which you should learn how to handle in a way that advantages rather than harms you. They have committed themselves and are now invested in trying to get you to accept their offer. How much they are invested varies greatly from case to case. In considering a job offer, you need to get a sense for whom you are dealing with, how they will react if you say this and ask for that, and how best to play your hand. Your advisors may be able to help you do this.

Reputable institutions should deal with people professionally, but some behave very unprofessionally at this stage, treating their potential employees arrogantly, unfairly, and stupidly. It may simply be that some department chair or dean is new to the job or is simply a jerk or a fool. Some try to impose a tight yes-or-no deadline on their offer so that you will be pressured into saying yes before you can get the more attractive offer from a better institution they know you’d prefer. I would not regard acceptances coerced under these circumstances as binding on you if the better offer later comes through and you can get away with backing out. Don’t they realize that it’s not in their own interest to hire faculty who resent being there because they know they could have been somewhere else better? It is sometimes dangerous to ask them for anything. If they behave unprofessionally at this stage, then you might be better off taking no job at all than taking that one. But the conduct of administrators is often the opposite of Pareto-optimal: the dean arranges things so that no matter what you do, everyone (even the dean himself) is worse off. (When you grind your teeth over this, call it the ‘Gnash Equilibrium.’)

“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

I am fully aware that to a job candidate, my account may make the whole process by which dossiers are read and by which people are hired or eliminated seem extremely unfair, even brutal and appallingly stupid. That’s because I think it is all these thingsthere are no more flattering terms in which to describe it. Every time I try to help my own students and colleagues get or retain jobs, and even more, every time I participate in a search on the side of those who hold the power, I become more painfully aware of this. But the market (and I don’t mean only the academic job market) is no place to look for fairness. If you are looking for fairness, go to a casino in Las Vegas or Atlantic City that runs a fair game of craps or blackjack or roulette—if you can find such a casino and such a game. I am a non-gambler—as an academic, I’ve dealt with hiring and tenure cases (when I had to), so I don’t have much experience with fair processes or just outcomes.

Whatever the outcome, you should never take the process, or yourself, too seriously. One of my most successful students, when offered the job at a highly prestigious philosophy department where he has since gotten tenure, said to me, “I don’t deserve this.” I always liked and admired him, but never more than when he said that. I could easily have argued with him, since I think it has been shown that he did deserve it if anyone ever could. But my response was to remind him of his same words, but spoken by Little Bill (Gene Hackman) in the movie Unforgiven, when the vengeful drunken killer William Munny (Clint Eastwood) was standing over him with a shotgun. Then I quoted Munny’s reply to Little Bill, just before he pulled the trigger: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” If you get a good job, the only thing you have to be glad about is that what you didn’t deserve turned out to be better than what Little Bill didn’t deserve. Hold tight to that thought and you might just hold on to your humanity.

It’s not only that the process is capricious and unfair to all individuals. None of us, whether we are job candidates or those involved in hiring decisions, should ever forget how slow and halting has been the progress of philosophy as a profession regarding its acceptance of women, or despite this progress, how much still remains to be done. Nor should we be unaware of how few people of color there are in our profession, or of the obstacles that still exist for LGBT philosophers. Some of these unjustly disadvantaged people have succeeded, through incredible talent, effort, and good fortune. Congratulate them and give them credit, but don’t cite them as arguments that everything is okay. We still live in a profoundly ignorant, cruel, multiply prejudiced, and above all, racist society. William Faulkner was right: “The past isn’t dead—hell, it isn’t even past.” Things are now worse than they were a generation ago regarding the toxic combination of shameless racism with the shameless denial that it is racism. This poisonous brew stands behind a great deal of political power in our society. It would be culpable folly to think academic hiring decisions are immune to its influence. No decent person can be satisfied succeeding in an unjust world; nobody should ever want to succeed because the world is unjust. But those who are successful ought always to be vividly aware that their success has probably been due to injustices of one kind or another.

One lesson to take away from this, of course, is that we should all be trying to make the process fairer than it is. I’ve already sent you to the APA website that is trying to encourage institutions to do just that. But more immediately relevant to the situation of a job candidate is to face up to the fact that it is unrealistic and even unreasonable to expect the process to be fair. As a job candidate, the problem you face is to do the best you can in an extremely unfair world.

What counts as success and failure in looking for an academic job?

It may be hard for job candidates to believe this, but there are worse things than not getting this or that job, and the worst possible thing may very well be getting it. The fact that they didn’t hire you is usually a sign that you wouldn’t have wanted the job anyway. (This is not “sour grapes”; it’s usually true.) There are also worse things than not getting any academic job at all. They include getting the wrong job—a job at a place where they mistreat you, demoralize you, or strangle or snuff out your interest in philosophy altogether, turning you into a bad philosopher or an imitation-philosopher. Some people who get such jobs go on to make a living by leading empty, despicable lives. (They should have gone into something else—anything else, as long as it is useful to people and they have a talent for it.) Others are gutsy enough to stay in philosophy and look for a better job, one where they can flourish. I admire those who have such guts, but I do not think less of those who leave academic philosophy altogether. If you are wise, you want to be hired at an institution and a department that won’t mistreat or exploit you, where you’re likely to have colleagues who respect you for good reasons and whom you can respect in turn, where you will enjoy teaching, and where your own thinking will flourish.

At its best, an academic career can be just about the best life anybody could hope for. You can make a comfortable (though never an opulent) living by reading, discussing, writing about, learning, and teaching philosophy—in other words, you can be doing, a lot of the time, what you would have wanted to do with your life even if you never got paid a penny for it. But not everyone is cut out for an academic career. It can be a lot like being a movie star—except that your audience of “fans” and the remuneration are comically miniscule by comparison. My son, as a small boy, once asked me, “Pop, are you famous?” I think I told him I was, but only among a very limited audience. For an academic, however, any possible answer to such a question, even if it were both affirmative and true, would be humiliating. The pressures to produce thoughts and writings that others appreciate, to get people’s attention, to give talks, publish, and “sell” yourself, to make yourself look good to hiring committees, tenure committees, etc. (which, you find, are incompetent to render any evaluation of you not deserving of contempt): all this can be more than some people can stand, and more than a decent person should ever have to stand. Some people trained in philosophy find their training valuable for doing more worthwhile things. If I had the talents such people have, I might have chosen to do something else. But in my case, philosophy is the thing I do best, simply because it’s the only thing I’ve ever been any good at.

In a perfect world, all people would work as hard as they can at what they do best, and in return would get from society everything they need. Don’t dismiss this thought as merely the ravings of an unrepentant Marxist philosopher. For even in our wretched capitalist world, such a life does happen for some people. My own life, for instance, though hardly perfect, has nevertheless been pretty much one of working hard at the only thing I’ve ever been able to do at all—which is also something I wanted to be doing—and making a decent living at it. Nobody can really have a good life in a society as unequal, unjust, and downright barbaric as ours: those who think otherwise are to be pitied, as well as argued with and, one hopes, corrected. But many of us can at least muddle through pretty well. My worst fear is that the kind of life I’ve had may no longer be possible in the future, because the Humboldtian research university may soon cease to exist. It may be starved to death by know-nothing politicians and replaced by something more barbaric, technocratic, and inhuman. But that’s a topic for another time. The point is that if this does not happen, then maybe with a combination of hard work and good luck, your life can muddle through like mine. Or it might be even better.

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Please see below for other posts in Wood’s series:

Allen Wood is the Ruth Norman Halls Professor of Philosophy at Indiana University Bloomington. He is also the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, where he teaches short courses and participates on Ph.D. dissertation committees. Find out more about Wood here.

8 thoughts on “Advice for Applying for Academic Jobs in Philosophy: Indiana University Bloomington (Part 6: The Offer, and Reflections)

  1. In the words of Merrill Garbus,

    “Can’t you give me something that will keep me whole
    A thing about the world that’s right, and even if you can’t do that,
    Then something that will soothe me.”

    (Actually I may have misheard these lyrics, but I like them.)

    I’m glad that this series is over, despite how excellent it is. Maybe I should leave philosophy to do the only other thing I have ever seriously considered or have been any good at: avant-garde music.

    Oh wait, there’s even less money in that.

  2. I enjoyed reading this. I have certainly used that line from the Unforgiven a few times. I too am sympathetic with Marx.

    However, again, I am unsure what real advice has been given. Much of this advice series has collapsed into commentary on the hiring process and now into our society as a whole.

    There is a place for that. But shouldn’t the APA be trying to provide us with some real advice?

    How about some data backed advice?

    I know many people who are getting PhDs or who have now received them who really need advice.

    The social commentary is fun and all but also pretty useless.

  3. Dr Roberts most recent post represents a bit of a climb-down, First Professor Wood’s blogs were supposed to be unacceptable (that it is so appalling that the APA should not have published them in the first place). I pointed out

    a) that if Wood’s strategies as a search committee member are common, then his suggestions would in fact be fairly useful, since a person who followed his advice would be less likely to be eliminated early on;
    b) that his strategies are in fact fairly common;
    and
    c) that some of his suggestions are useful even with respect to search committees that pursue alternative strategies.

    The next complaint, in effect, was that the advice was sound but platitudinous. ‘Compose a short punchy CV’. ‘Write short punchy papers and/or research statements in which the key ideas and arguments are developed up-front.’ ‘Don’t apply for jobs that are way outside your AOS or your AOC’. ‘Get prestigious letter-writers if you can.’ Aren’t these suggestions obvious, indeed so obvious as to be hardly worth stating?

    Well, if Wood’s account of his everyday experience as a search committee member is correct, the answer is clearly ‘No’. These suggestions are not as obvious to many candidates as perhaps they ought to be. If people were NOT applying for jobs with the wrong AOS, Wood would not be able to use ‘having the wrong AOS’ as a criterion to eliminate candidates en masse. If people were NOT composing long, boring, padded CVs, then a preference for the short and succinct would not be of any use in enabling him to cross people off his list. If everyone developed their key ideas upfront, then he could not eliminate those writing samples and research statements that take a seeming eternity to get to the point. (And, I might add, as a referee for over thirty journals, the refereeing process would be a lot less painful than it often tends to be.) But Professor Wood IS doing all of these things which means that his advice is NOT as blindingly obvious – or perhaps not as easy to follow – as Dr Roberts seem to think. Since quite a lot of people are not acting on his advice before he gives it, then that is an indication that his advice is in fact worth the giving.

    Now Dr Roberts complaint has metamorphosed into the demand for some data-driven advice. [Wood is not such a bad fellow after all a) because he is a Marxist and b) because he likes ‘The Unforgiven’. I guess I meet one of these two conditions.] Though there is something to be said for Dr Roberts’ idea, I am inclined to suspect that more data would probably not be very helpful in generating specific usable advice that would continue to be useful once it had been widely taken. .

    So far as I can see there are three kinds of data that might be relevant.

    1) Data on the average number for applicants for various kinds of positions. This might be of use in determining whether to apply in the first place, either for jobs of a certain kind or for philosophy jobs in general. But it would not be of much use in telling you how best to formulate your dossier when applying for an R1 position. And it was THAT question that Professor Wood was trying to answer.

    2) Non-anecdotal (that is quantitative) data on how search committees go about their business. This had better be *quantitative* data as there is plenty of anecdotal information available on the web. See for instance:

    http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2013/01/members-of-search-committees-what-do-you-actually-do-in-reviewing-files.html )

    If you knew by and large how most search committees, made their selections, this might generate some useful ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ . But it would be hard to get such data without the aid of a well-constructed questionnaire administered to large numbers of search committee members, not only in the US but in other countries where APA members might be seeking employment. It would have to be an exceptionally well-constructed survey to be useful, as search committee members are probably motivated by all sorts of considerations of which they are not fully aware. Designing a questionnaire and getting the answers would be a very sizeable undertaking. Moreover, there is reason to think that the advice generated would continue to be a either platitudinous or equivocal. The reason is that different employers of different kinds – indeed sometimes different employers of the SAME kind– are often looking for different things, and using different criteria to prune down their lists. Hence there is nothing non-platitudinous that would be useful in all or most cases. See Simon Keller’s contribution to a 2012 thread on Leiter):

    ‘A big part of this conversation is an effort to find principles within a non-principled process. From my experiences on both sides of the hiring process, on this and most other issues there’s just no secret truth to be found about “what search committees look for”. Different people on different search committees look for different things at different times. Often, they don’t really have much of an idea of what they’re looking for. You can’t predict what jobs will be available when you go onto the market, or which people will be on the hiring committees, or what those people will be thinking at the time your application goes before the committee, if it does.’

    http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2012/05/grad-students-questions-about-publishing.html

    See also *this* from a recent post by Marcus Arvan on ‘The Philosopher’s Cocoon’.

    ‘Consequently, the longer I’ve been in this game (i.e. academic philosophy), the more it seems to me that there is not one job market; there are several different ones. Research schools are looking to hire a certain kind of candidate. SLACs seem to be looking for a different kind of candidate. Community colleges seem to be looking for a third kind of candidate. And so on. Unfortunately, this puts candidates in something of a trilemma. Things that make one a more attractive candidate for one type of job plausibly might make them less attractive for another type of job.’

    http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2016/01/getting-inside-the-heads-of-search-committee-members-institutional-motivators.html#comments

    If different search committees are pursuing different selection strategies, then the only advice that holds good across the board is likely to be a set of broad spectrum platitudes. You might think that the following piece of advice (however difficult to live up to) would stand you in good stead in almost every case: ‘You are likely to do well if you have good teaching evaluations, good pedigree AND an excellent publications record (with plenty of papers in all the right places), Indeed, the better the teaching evaluations, the better the pedigree and the better the publications, the better you are likely to do.’ After all, if you manage to follow this advice, search committees should like you if they are pedigree-fixated and they should ALSO like you if they try to ignore pedigree, preferring to base their rankings on publications. And who could be averse to good teaching evaluations? But the best candidate in these respects is not always going to be winner. For quite a lot of employers are (very reasonably) worried about potential flight risk. They don’t want the best candidate they can get. They want the best candidate they can get *who can reasonably be expected to stay*. This being so, they might actually *prefer* a lesser light to the ABD from Harvard with standout teaching evaluations who already has a paper in Mind, a paper in Philosophical Review and a paper in the AJP. For these employers, ‘the best candidate’ is often not the best candidate. So although it may seem that the most mind-numbingly banal piece of advice that you can imagine is that you should have a succinct dossier which makes it abundantly but briefly clear that you are a good candidate in all the obvious ways (teaching evaluations, publications and pedigree), it turns out that following this advice would actually be *harmful* to you with some potential employers! So even this bit of platitudinous (though difficult-to-follow) advice turns out to be too pointed to be universally applicable.

    If all this anecdotage and rational reconstruction is born out by the survey (which is what I would strongly suspect) then the data-driven advice would end up being as just as inconclusive and unspecific as the anecdotal advice that is currently on offer, the reason being, in Simon Keller’s phrase, that there really are no principles in this non-principled process.

    3) A third kind of data that might be useful is data on the professional profiles of successful applicants for recent jobs. This would be a ‘revealed preference’ version of the survey on selection strategies. It would tell you which qualities search committees actually selected for though it would not tell you much about how the successful candidates managed to market themselves. Marcus Arvan made a start on this in 2012 in his contributions to the following (very long) thread on Leiter:

    http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2012/05/grad-students-questions-about-publishing.html

    Now this sort of information might not be of much help in telling you how to compose an application, but it might be of use in telling you what sort of a profile you should try to cultivate in order to maximize your chances of success. But if a more detailed survey matched Marcus’s results, which is what I would suspect, then it probably would not be very useful in generating specific advice. For what Marcus’s results suggest is that candidate-selection is just the kind of unprincipled process that Simon Keller was talking about. This does not mean that Marcus Arvan’s results were uninformative. On the contrary they were a real eye-opener for me as they showed fairly conclusively – and much to my surprise – that MANY departments prefer promise and pedigree to publications (or promise *as measured by* pedigree to promise *as measured by* publications). This struck me as iniquitous and I have been arguing against it ever since. But what the data ALSO showed is that SOME departments – and we are mostly talking about R1 departments here – prefer publications to pedigree, that some care a lot about the prestige of the venues and that some, apparently, do not. In other words what Marcus’s results indicated is that the process is just as unprincipled as Simon Keller took it to be

    Now it may be that either a type-two survey (of the selection practices of search committees) or a type-three investigation (of the professional profiles of successful applicants) COULD turn up useful results. They could suggest, for example that *the vast majority* of departments are so driven by pedigree-based snobbery that the non-Leiterrific might as well give up and go home. Or they could reveal that for *the vast majority* of search committees, it is publications that really count (perhaps weighted for venues or perhaps not). In that case the non-Leiterrific would be in with a chance (though having gone to a good school is more likely to make you a successful publisher). But if there is not anything that the vast majority selects for – or even there is not anything that the vast majority of R1s, SLACS, community colleges or (God help us all) OVERSEAS UNIVERSITIES selects for– then running the surveys is not going to generate anything usefully specific in the way of advice. It is all going to be a matter of ‘This often works – except when it doesn’t.’ And that, I suspect, will turn out to be the case.

    There’s a further point to note. Suppose that a survey of the first kind (on what search committees do) or an investigation of the second kind (into what successful applicants tend to look like) turns up really useful results. That is, they suggest winning and workable strategies that are open to all. These are widely publicized and the advice is taken to heart by every aspirant philosopher. Will this improve everybody’s prospects? Obviously not. Though some might do better than they did before (by avoiding some obvious pitfalls), this would bring about NO overall an improvement in the job situation. Think of all those conservative employment ministers (we have got them in both the country of my birth and the country of my adoption), who endeavor to improve the unemployment statistics by incentivizing get-up-and-go on the part of jobseekers. It is true of course that in the present environment jobseekers with get-up-and-go are more likely to get a job than those without. But it does not follow that you can cure unemployment by instilling get-up-and-go in all the unemployed. Even if you succeed, the net effect will be that jobs go not to the go-getters but to the super-go-getters. Thus the conservative strategy is foredoomed to fail. If you improve the overall quality of the applicants but don’t improve the supply of jobs you simply raise the standards for a successful applicant. Similarly with philosophy. If there is good, readily-available and easy-to-follow advice that gives those who take it a competitive advantage, it is an advantage which will soon dissipate since everybody will start to follow it. If everyone writes pithy CVs the writers of pithy CVs will lose their competitive advantage. If everybody gets to the point with their writing samples it won’t do you any extra good to get to the point (though it will do you harm if you don’t.) Of course, the competitive advantage to be derived from following the advice won’t dissipate if the advice is sound but DIFFICULT to follow (e.g. ‘Write really good papers and get them published in top journals’; ‘Impress the hell out of everyone you meet.’). If the advice is hard to follow, not everyone will follow it which means that those that do will continue to be one up on their competitors. Thus advice which is easy to follow will not confer a long-term competitive advantage while advice which continues to confer a long-term competitive advantage will not be easy to follow. So even if something useful (to most applicants) comes out of the research it not likely to stay useful for long.

    One further unrelated point. Professor Wood advocates a certain amount of bargaining and playing hard to get one once you have received your job offer. This may be good advice in the US but it is a bad idea in the UK or Australasia or (I suspect) in most European countries. There junior hires are offered a standard set off terms and conditions on a ‘take or leave it’ basis and departments simply are not authorized to offer anything else. Bargaining is not part of the local culture. So don’t try bargaining except in an environment where the other side is authorized to bargain back. If you are offered a decent contract on a take-it or-leave-it basis then you had better take it, or you will find that you have inadvertently left it to somebody else.

    • I don’t have time to read, analyse, and carefully respond to such a long post. The gist seems to be that we can’t do any better than what’s been provided. This is just false.

      Here are just a few things that would be very helpful.

      1. A survey of philosophers about their preferences with regard to numerous application relevant items: long CV or short, lots of publications or a few really good ones, and so on. Especially important would be to know how much pedigree of PhD granting institution really matters. Some data driven advice would allow for applicants to build the best portfolios and concentrate on the most important aspects.

      2. An investigation over time of junior hirers looking at how the job market has changed. We know that 20 years ago 1 or no publications was enough for a TT job. Now you need a lot. Is this trend progressing still or has it evened out? If it’s still getting worse, then that would be useful information for graduate students.

      3. An investigation of how much pedigree of letter writers matters. Is it better to have a letter from a famous person who doesn’t know you that well or a letter from a less famous person who knows you very well. Many of us could get a letter from someone famous if we worked at it. But it’s unclear whether this is better than a letter from someone who knows us very well. What to do?

      4. An investigation into how much teaching is needed to be competitive. Clearly teaching jobs will have more of a focus on teaching, but what about for more research focused jobs? Should a postdoc attempt to teach that extra course or should they just concentrate on their research? Right now it’s hard to know.

      5. An investigation into how well UK PhDs do in the US job market and vice versa. If you want to work in the US, is it very important to do a PhD in the US? If you want to work in the UK or in Europe, should you do your PhD in the UK and or Europe?

      Actual quantitative data regarding these 5 things amongst others would be very useful to candidates. It may happen that philosophers are split on many questions. That’s important to know too. If half want a long CV and half want a short CV, then perhaps applicants could even do something about that. We could provide a CV abstract followed by a more in-depth CV.

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