I wrote a post the other day on why I think it can be a good idea to take some time off the job market, if one can afford to do so. My claim was: my personal experience was that a year or two off can help one develop as a philosopher, teacher, and human being. To this, Rachel and Helen both suggested (rightly, I think) that taking time off for these reasons can be very risky, at least in terms of landing a tenure-track job. I agree. However, I would like to explain just why I think it can be a risk worth taking.
Rachel's and Helent's comments got me thinking -- along with an experience I had this morning at breakfast -- about defining "success." The operating assumption in most discussions about the job market seems to be that one should always -- or at least generally -- do what is likely to put oneself in the best position possible to get a tenure-track position. Indeed, when I come across blogs on the job market, this is what the discussions are mostly about: strategy. Why?
As one commenter over at this post at the Smoker points out:
When I was on the market years ago, my adviser sketched out what he thought was the standard for success. "Get a tenure track job, then get tenure." That's what I was told success was. No requirements concerning the kind of school or location though. Is this the vision most people in our discipline have for 'success'?
People tend to focus on strategy, in other words, because people in our profession tend to define "success" as obtaining a tenure-track job. But, while at first glance this might seem rational -- and while I want a tenure-track job myself -- I am not at all convinced that it is rational for everyone. Let me explain why.
I woke up this morning and realized I absolutely love what I do. I am doing philosophy that I believe is important (important by my lights, at any rate!). I am teaching in a way that I believe is good, and which results in real development and understanding in students who otherwise might be disengaged or lack any philosophical understanding. I can't wait to get up in the morning.
Why? The short answer is: because I haven't made getting a tenure-track job the be-all and end-all of my existence. Yes, it is important to me; and yes, I do try to (mostly) make prudent decisions in terms of putting myself in a good position to get a TT job. However, that being said, I have also chosen to take certain risks because, in my judgment, those risks promised me something of great importance. I know people who have non-tt jobs who are miserable. I know people who have tenure-track jobs and are miserable. I know people who find no joy in their research, teaching, or university service.
Maybe, of course, these risks won't "work out" for me in the end. Maybe I'll end up disappointed, without a tenure-track job. It is possible, I understand that. But I "played it safe" for far too long in grad school, and that didn't work out for me very well. I lost the joy I had for philosophy, and I didn't do great work -- and I feel like I only started to flourish, as a researcher, teacher, colleague, and human being the less I thought about the job market and the more I just dedicated myself to doing these things well, and in a way that is "true" to who I am as a philosopher, for their own sake.
And so I guess that's what I want to convey. Job-market strategy is undeniably important. But it's not the only thing that matters, nor, in some cases, is it obvious to me that it should even be one's dominant concern. There are risks in everything. If getting a TT job is your dominant concern, there are risks with that come with that: you may get a TT job but not be happy; or you might not get a TT job and wish you had been more "true to yourself." The question, as I like to put it, is this: what risks are you prepared to take? I've always thought: if I develop myself into the best philosopher, teacher, and colleague I can be, I have faith that there will be at least one search committee out there who will recognize it. And if not, at least I will be able to sleep at night knowing I gave it my best, as the philosopher, teacher, and human being I wanted to be, rather than one I thought I should be merely for the sake of strategy.
I imagine some will say, "That all sounds well and good to you now...but if you never get a TT job you will wish you had prioritized strategy." To which I say: I do prioritize strategy, and I wholeheartedly advocate taking intelligent steps to do well on the job market. My point has only been that, given that there are risks in everything, sometimes it can make sense to take a few risks on strategy, since those risks can result in important things (like loving what you do, being true to yourself as a philosopher, and developing into the best philosopher, teacher, and colleague you can be)!