The Job Market: Applications, Imbalances, and a Stale Narrative

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.

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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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

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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.

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.

9 thoughts on “The Job Market: Applications, Imbalances, and a Stale Narrative

  1. Thank you for articulating this. This is something that I’ve seen some tenured professors be fairly unaware of. They have not really realized, until I told them, the hourly commitment of applying to jobs (20 to 35 hrs a week), the fact that a lazy job ad can create 2-5 more hours of work on my end, and the way in which they request references will make me pay $30 to interfolio instead of $5. When that gets multiplied by the double digits of applications we’re sending out, those are not insignificant numbers.

  2. Anonymous, I appreciate your ‘profound exasperation’ at the job market. I was an adjunct for 4 years, and I drove 1000 miles a week. Applying to jobs was itself a job. But, at the risk of being contrarian, I worry about the fact that you are blaming search committee members (who, you say, exhibit “loathsome small-mindedness,” “fickleness,” “sloth and simplicity,” etc.) and even those who give advice about such matters for things that aren’t their fault.

    I worry that you don’t understand these issues. What do I mean? Early on, you say that, “search committees have an incredibly desirable and rare job to give.” Well, do you appreciate what this means? Alas, you really don’t seem to. At a minimum, it means that committee members, acting for the university, are offering someone a lifetime of decent money, security, and other perks, wherein that person gets to do exactly what he or she wants to do professionally. This will cost the university, say, 100,000 dollars (or more) for 20 years or so.

    And this brings me to my points. You object that committee members impose “unnecessary burdens” on candidates. Are they really unnecessary?

    First, you object that candidates must show “how they would fulfill the requirements of the position.” Seriously? Imagine someone applying to be, say, an Attorney, says, “I refuse to show how I’m fit for the position. You should figure that out on your own.” Well, the firm would infer that the employee doesn’t appreciate the job (or doesn’t want it), what they are committing to (e.g. money) and would infer that such a person would be an irascible, contentious, annoying employee. Concerning philosophy, it doesn’t matter if the job descriptions is vague. Given the prize, the burden is still on the candidate (and not the committee members) to show how he or she is fit for the position. You need them. You do the work. Cumbersome but basic. There is no cause for you calling committee members lazy, immoral, loathsome, for this reason.

    Second, you object that candidates (i.e. you) are supposed to be perfect. But your version of this burden, actually, is just pieces of advice (e.g. keeping publications and ‘under contract’ works separate) easily recognizable from recent blogs. Do you object to some or all of these ‘perfections’? Oddly, you don’t say. Do you flout them? Since many of such pieces of advice are fairly universal guides for accommodating what committees what committee members might infer, flouting all of them is a bad idea. Plainly, though, since committee members (i.e. as individuals) want different things (i.e. have different preferences and prejudices), and since committees (i.e. when you add up the inclinations of said individuals) want different things, there is no single set of perfections. Each committee has its own ‘perfections’ it is looking for. And so what? I hope you’re not saying that committee members cannot have preferences.

    Actually, it sounds as if you’re saying that since committee members base their decisions their own trivial ‘perfections’ that you can never know, you will likely fail them. However, just pointing this obvious fact out- we all fail such tests- is not close to having an objection to committee members using said preferences. Actually, many of the things you mention (e.g. when to send evaluations) concern how members might read your stuff. Importantly, all of the things you mention will pale in significance to most members when compared to big questions: What did you do your Ph.D. on? Do you have potential to publish? Will you be able to teach what they want you to, and do so well? Do people know you? Believe me, networking matters! Stuff like that. You say you spend many, many hours revising your documents. Given your success, this makes me wonder what you’re doing. Then again, for all I know (you didn’t give much information) there could be some simple thing causing the trouble.

    Third, you object that committee members stigmatize candidates. Yes, they do. But actually, your moral indignation or calling hiring committee members lazy, immoral, indifferent, slothful, etc. won’t help. Understanding some psychology might help. You’ve been on the market for 5 years. Should members hold that against you? No. But that doesn’t mean that some of them can resist doing so. Why? Analogy: Woman X meets man Y. Y tells her “I’m 42 and single. I’ve always been single. Why hasn’t he been picked up?” Similarly, a committee member looks at your C.V. It says “I’ve been on the market for 5 years. I’ve always been on the market. That person wonders the same.” Even worse, imagine that this same woman is on your committee and just spoke with Y. It may seem inconsistent of her not to make the same inference about you.My apologies, Anon, but social psychology can be amoral, and is what it is. Much of the advice about applying to jobs out there tries to help you understand such psychological matters (i.e. of committee members) rather than mischaracterizing how those members think, and (unrealistically) suggesting that such people can (psychologically) change in ways that will never happen. Unfortunately, the grain of truth in your stigma point here is that many of the things philosophers unfairly stigmatize candidates about are very difficult to change or fake.I know someone (in your position) who literally got a second Ph.D. from a more prestigious university to escape said stigmas.

    Fourth, you object to committee members not working like you do. You say that since you, a husband and parent, spend so much time on applying, you’re “almost certain” that hiring committee members could do the same with evaluating applications, and that it would not involve guesswork, insecurity, or guilt. Well, I could say I’m certain that since I worked in a factory in the summer, so too could the lazy kids of today. Then again, I’d sound like I’m using purposely vacuous comparison to justify my anger towards the young. I’d make sure to say this anonymously. Just kidding. Seriously, though, you don’t even say how things could be better. Rather, you just pull one of those “I’m just starting a conversation” moves, and end it.

    Anyway, I’ve written too much. Perhaps, Anon, have too much frustration to appreciate all this. Still, instead of “changing the conversation,” why not get someone else (i.e. not from your graduate program, or your friends), to help you revise your documents. For your sake, I hope you don’t have something in your package (e.g. a Ph.D. from a program that isn’t really philosophy at all) that undermines everything.

  3. It sounds like what we need is a “Common Application” to be accepted by many departments, along with a commitment to read application materials charitably in light of their being prepared for more than one kind of job.
    (Like the Common Application that many colleges accept for entering BA students.)

  4. It seems to me that this scholar ought to seriously ponder the claim that only teaching philosophy can make him happy. If he comes to find it is only teaching philosophy that makes him happy, then it sounds like he might need to broaden his understanding of happiness. Such a restriction on happiness seems very unhealthy.

    My advice: think of more ways to be happy and look outside philosophy. Especially if the profession treats you with so little dignity (including the search committees)

  5. I, too find the common refrain of, “this is the only thing that can make me happy” to be problematic. So I’m glad Nathaniel brought it up. However, I doubt the OP will find his comment helpful. Chances are, the OP has already tried thinking about other stuff they could do, so I think Nathaniel’s advice is restating a good end result (having an idea of a backup career) when the problem a lot of us face is HOW to go about doing that, when academia seems like the only place we are comfortable in and suited to our skill set. If it was as easy as sitting down and thinking up other stuff to do, I don’t think that refrain would be as common as it is in the profession.

  6. I would also like to push Basil to consider re-framing his long comment, which is uncharitable and condescending to the OP. Basil says, “I worry that you don’t understand these issues.”

    If that is the case, why not ask the OP what he means in regards to your several worried, instead of launching into a very long comment where you explain why you thinks the OP doesn’t know what he is talking about? The former seems like the basic, charitable thing to do.

    As an example, I think you’re interpreting the OP’s comments uncharitably when you take him to be saying that a candidate shouldn’t need to show AT ALL how they are qualified for the position.

    But that’s not what the OP is saying. He’s complaining about how overly burdensome it is to do this sufficiently, because job ads are often vague. He’s saying, “it’s hard to show that we’re qualified when you often only gesture at what you mean by that, and force us to spend hours researching your department in order to figure out what you mean by “qualified”.”

  7. I left academic philosophy after years of imagining that I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. As Stacey mentioned, that is an incredibly common refrain in the profession. I think it shows just how insular academic philosophy is. My imagination was lacking and I didn’t make an honest effort to investigate what else there was to do in the world. If you really think that academic philosophy is the only place you are comfortable in and suited to your skill set, then I doubt you’ve put any real effort into figuring out what else makes you happy.

    Perhaps what held me back most was equating leaving with giving up. Colleagues, friends, and family, though well-meaning, expressed dismay at all the wasted time and effort spent preparing for a career in academic philosophy. That prevented me from seriously considering alternatives. It’s not wasted effort and leaving doesn’t mean giving up. It’s moving on – potentially to greener pastures.

    Philosophers, speaking generally, have amazing intellectual and communicative skill sets that are applicable in all kinds of careers. It also turns out that there are all kinds of careers that involve the same type of abstract analytical reasoning and intellectually challenging problems that philosophers love engaging in.

    Something has gone seriously wrong if you’re with the mindset that academic philosophy is the only thing that makes you happy.

  8. I sympathize with the author’s frustration on the job market, but, along with Basil, I think the repeated characterization of hiring committee members as small-minded, fickle, indifferent, etc. belies a lack of understanding of what it is like from the other side. Let me try an analogy. Suppose you have to grade 300 student term papers in the next six weeks. This is on top of your regular 4-4 teaching load, research projects, and other duties, not to mention a spouse and family. Here are the constraints:

    Every word in the grading rubric you distributed had to be approved by HR/Social Equity, and includes some mandated requirements you think are superfluous, burdensome on the student, vague, or otherwise BS. You have no choice.
    Only one student can pass; 299 must fail. Nevertheless, you must submit a ranked list to the Dean.

    I urge you to consider how you might swiftly and fairly accomplish this task.

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