Before we move on to discussing dossier materials (cover letters, research and teaching statements, teaching portfolios, etc.), I was thinking it might be good for our Job-Market Boot Camp to spend some time discussing an issue that a few commenters suggested when I first proposed this series: namely, how to develop a coherent research program post-PhD.
In a few moments, I will say a few things from my own experience on this topic. However, I would also like to pose two question to readers, and then invite two groups of people to share their thoughts.
Here are my two questions for readers:
- Do readers who did traditional, book-length dissertations feel like they have had an easy or difficult time developing coherent research-programs post PhD?
- Do readers who did the newer, "series of papers" alternative to a traditional dissertation feel like they have had an easy or difficult time developing coherent research programs post-PhD?
I'll be curious to hear how people answer. As I've mentioned a couple times before, I've wondered whether the new "series of papers" alternative hampers people's ability to develop coherent long-term research programs. Personally, I feel like doing a traditional dissertation was absolutely invaluable for me in terms of learning how to really put together a big, coherent program--and I wonder whether a series of related papers can approximate that. Frankly, it's always been hard for me to see how a series of papers could develop that ability, as a series of three (or four) related papers are, by their very nature, very different--both in structure and scope--different than a book/dissertation. But maybe I'm off. I'm curious to hear what people have to say!
Next, because I only have limited experience--namely, my own experience--developing coherent research programs, I would like to invite two classes of people in particular to share their thoughts on the research program issue:
- Job candidates who were successful on the market
- Search committee members
For successful job candidates, did you do anything in particular to develop/present your research program that seemed to really attract attention on the market? For search committee members, was there anything in particular that you were looking for, and alternatively, things that stood out to you as "red flags" about a candidate's research program?
Finally, here are my thoughts. In my experience, the most important thing when it comes to developing a coherent research program is figuring out what kind of philosopher you are and running with it. Broadly speaking, there seem to me to be two types of philosophers: "lumpers" and "splitters". Lumpers are people who develop a Big Idea, and then use that Big Idea to develop lots of Little Ideas. Rawls, I take it, was a paradigmatic lumper (fairness/original position-->lots of little arguments). Splitters, on the other hand, are people who begin with lots of Little Ideas, and then move from those Little Ideas to a Bigger Idea. David Lewis, I take it, was a paradigmatic splitter (Humeanism + possible worlds + counterfactuals, etc. --> Moral Realism). I guess, finally, there are Synthesizers, who sort of work from both ends--from Big Ideas to lots of Little Ideas, and vice versa. Kant, I guess, seems to me a paradigmatic Synthesizer.
Anyway, my general feeling is this: figure out who you are, and the "coherent research program" will come naturally. Don't figure out who you are, and you'll have trouble. I initially struggled with this, post-PhD. My dissertation was based on one Big Difficult Idea. Unfortunately, I had trouble publishing that Idea, as well--it was really Difficult for me to get it right. So, while I sent out dissertation stuff to journals, had it get rejected, revised it, etc., I found myself in a quandary. I needed to find other stuff to work on, just in case the dissertation stuff didn't pan out in terms of publications (not an uncommon result, or so I hear). So, what I initially tried to do is Not Be Myself. I read journal articles in Important Journals by Important People, and tried to write some reply pieces (i.e. Small Ideas) that I hoped would result in a new research program. Unfortunately, although I did publish a couple of these, it felt really stultifying and definitely wasn't leading to a new research program. It occurred to me, "Whatever I am, I am not a splitter. I am not going to get a research program out of a bunch of small ideas."
So, what I did next was trust my instincts--the same Lumper process that led to my dissertation Idea. I taught a human rights course, felt like there was a Big False Assumption dominating the literature, wrote up a paper on it...and found a new research program. Over the next few years, I came up with a couple more research programs in similar way.
The general lesson I think I learned? Once you finish your PhD, you'll come up with coherent research programs...as long as you don't try to be someone you're not. Of course, this was only my experience, but it was a striking one. When I first graduated, I felt like I needed to be the kind of philosopher I thought my advisors/grad school professors would have wanted me to be. As soon as I stopped trying to be the kind of philosopher I thought I was "supposed" to be and started trying to be the kind of philosopher I wanted to be, philosophy instantly became a great deal more enjoyable...and research programs emerged. So, if you're having trouble developing a research program, I say: give it a shot.
Here's another thing I found useful: follow all leads. Don't avoid a new research idea because it seems outlandish or outside your wheelhouse. You never know what might be your next research program. Your next big program might turn out to be something you totally don't expect (this happened to me a couple of times).
One final point I would make is that, in my experience, it's perfectly fine to have more than one research program (I actively marketed myself as having four research programs in my final year on the market, and it did not seem to work against me in any way). The important things, though, are these: (1) You should have one, or at most two, dominant research programs (the primary foci of your research statement/cover letters), (2) It is very helpful if you can relate the research programs together, (3) Don't BS search committees, saying you have a "research program" where you don't, and (4) You need to have a clear, detailed, plausible story of precisely how you intend to develop the program over the next 5 years or so. You don't have to have to a ton of publications on the research program to make a plausible case to a search committee that you have a legitimate, coherent research project in an area, but--aside from your dissertation topic--you do need to have some real proof that the program is well-developed (i.e. a few publications, book manuscript, etc.).
Anyway, these are just some of my thoughts. What are yours?