At the Cocoon, we are introducing a new series: personal accounts of philosophers who have been on the job market for a long time. We don't have a firm timeline for what "long" means, but a rough timeline is 3 or more years post-PhD. The idea is to collect testimonials - by people who are either anonymous or not - about what it is like to be an academic job seeker for a long period of time. We would welcome people who eventually found a permanent or TT job, but we are also happy with people who eventually found a non-academic job, or people who are still looking. The aim of this series is to give some sense about how non-linear a career path can be, and to shed light on how personal circumstances and looking for a job in a dismal market mutually influence each other.
If you are interested in telling your story, you can do so by e-mailing me at helenldecruz at gmail dot com.
Here is Mark Alfano's (TU Delft) job market story.
I finished my BA in philosophy at Princeton in 2005; during my senior year, I applied to about ten PhD programs. I got into none of them. I spent a gap year sitting in on seminars, working on my writing sample, and getting up-to-speed with more recent philosophical work. My second year seeking a PhD position, I applied to about a dozen programs and got into two. I ended up going to CUNY, where I was near the bottom of the barrel for funding. My first year there, I received $8000 and no health insurance. To live in NYC. I worked a couple of part-time jobs that I'd started during my gap year to help support myself. My partner, who was also doing a PhD, had better funding. We scraped by.
By all accounts, the funding situation at CUNY has improved since my time there. While I was a grad student, adjuncting typically paid $3000/course. I knew people who taught ten or more courses per year. Not surprisingly, CUNY folks tended not to finish in five, or six, or even seven, years. I was an exception to this. In large part because I couldn't stand to be exploited so brazenly, I stampeded through the coursework and dissertation. By the end of my fourth year, in spring 2010, I had half a dissertation written. I finished it over the summer and defended in the Fall term of my fifth year.
In fall 2010, I went full-bore on the market, in large part out of economic desperation: it was just after the bankers had sent the world economy careening into the Great Recession, and the philosophy job market was grim. I applied to 200 positions that year, both tenure-track and fixed term. Most of the people who handled my applications were humane. A few really seemed to relish their position of power over all their near-hopeless wannabe junior colleagues. But no amount of compassion or fair-mindedness could remedy the fact that there weren't nearly enough jobs to go around. After cratering in some interviews, I was pretty sure I was out of the discipline. It was April 2011. I still didn't have an offer. But then I received an offer for a one-year post-doc that I'd applied for months ago then heard nothing from. My partner and I were moving to Indiana!
The problem with a one-year postdoc is that, as soon as you arrive, you have to start applying for other jobs. So you benefit very little from it in the time before applications are due all over again. In my case, I was able to secure a contract from Cambridge for my first book before application season 2011-12. That seems to have helped a lot, though it's always hard to know as a candidate how these opaque processes really work.
My second year out, I scored big: I was offered both a post-doc at Princeton and a tenure-track job at University of Oregon. My wife also got a tenure-track position, at CUNY of all places. I was able to defer my start at Oregon by a year so that I could do the post-doc while my wife started her assistant professor job. The hope was either for me to find something more permanent in the NYC area or for Oregon to come to their senses and offer my wife a position worth taking and keeping.
Neither of those prospects came to fruition. After some agonizing during the post-doc year, we decided to move to Oregon, where my wife had at least managed to arrange a part time position. We were placed under the impression that the way to ensure that a tenure-track position would be offered to her was to get an outside offer. Eugene is a funky, fun town, but not exactly a center of higher education. We had left NYC, where there are lots of universities and colleges. In retrospect, I'm still not sure we made the right choice moving to Oregon.
In any case, we now had a new goal, which was awfully similar to our original goal: to find a pair of jobs not too distant from each other at departments and universities that treated their people decently. During the 2013-14 academic year, we applied to lots of jobs, had lots of interviews, and came up empty. During the 2014-15 year, we tried again. This time, we were lucky enough to receive offers from Delft University of Technology. Rather than making a counter-offer, as they'd indicated they would, the University of Oregon administration told us, in effect, to have a nice life. I still don’t know what the best explanation of this whole episode was—but I’ve learned to be much more careful.
I doubt that my story offers much in the way of generalizable lessons.
When I was confident that I'd put together a good application or had a good interview, it generally didn't pan out. When I was pretty sure that I'd tanked an interview, I sometimes got the offer. Sometimes my empirical work was a boon while my stuff on Nietzsche was a liability; sometimes it was the other way around. Most of the time, other people are just to busy to act benevolently or malevolently towards a job candidate. When they do take notice of you, you're often woven into a long and opaque departmental history in a way that makes no sense to you.
Sometimes, you'll be seen as uninterested in a job just because you're nervous, tired, jetlagged, or sick. My best example of this is a department that turned me down (I learned later) because I didn't seem keen enough on their job. This despite the fact that I managed to do the job talk and interview while suffering from a punctured ear drum and ear infection. I literally bled on myself during the interview. Other times, you'll be seen as overeager if you approach the position or the department too enthusiastically. There's almost no chance that you can plan in advance a strategy sure to please the majority of the hiring committee, let alone the department.