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.
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
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 things—there 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.
Please see below for other posts in Wood’s series:
- Part 1 – Introduction, AOCs/AOSs, Letter of Application, and the CV
- Part 2 – The Writing Sample
- Part 3 – Letters of Recommendation, The Research Statement, Teaching Credentials, and Publications
- Part 4 – The Interview
- Part 5 – Campus Visits, Job Talks, and the Teaching Demo
- Part 6 – The Offer and Reflections
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.