In this second post on philosophers who were on the job market for a long time, Mark Silcox (professor of philosophy at the University of Central Oklahoma) tells his job market story. For more background on the aims of this series, and how to tell your story, see here.
I applied for my first permanent job teaching philosophy in 1997. I had barely started my dissertation, never presented at a conference, and never published anything. But in spite of the fact that the senior faculty at my top-twenty school were given to deploring the lamentable decline in ability amongst grad students, they also seemed to take it for granted that all of us who at least survived the first few years of the program could be expected to land a gig in some research school within a year or two of becoming ABD.
Needless to say, that didn’t happen, and I spent most of ’98 and ’99 in my parents’ basement, battering out vast early drafts of obscure chapters on Quine, Davidson, and McDowell and e-mailing them across one international border to a committee that seemed strangely disinclined to read them.
I got what in retrospect what seems like an incredible lucky break in 1999 when I was hired for a very low-paying (but potentially multi-year) VAP gig in the deep south, in spite of still having nothing decisive to say about when my doctorate might be finished. During the next five years I got around a bit more in the discipline – spoke at a few small conferences, got a couple of papers into obscure, but honorably peer-reviewed journals – and kept up a steady stream of job applications. In 2002, after e-mailing dozens of drafts of dissertation chapters to my increasingly distant and ambivalent PhD. committee, they finally relented and let me do orals because I’d been told by my employers that they wouldn’t re-hire me unless I got the damn thing finished.
By 2005, I was still stuck in my southern VAP gig. I had given up applying for other temporary positions and had started to think that I didn’t have a future in the discipline. But I had somehow inadvertently managed to put myself up for a horribly paid one-year sabbatical replacement at a suburban commuter school in Oklahoma, and after one phone interview, the Dean there seemed so anxious to hire me that it would have been graceless to turn them down. I packed up and moved once again, leaving my wife and dogs behind in Georgia for the year.
I got my first chance to teach upper-year philosophy classes to committed majors that year in Oklahoma, and fell back in love with the whole way of life. My colleagues in the multi-disciplinary department that had hired me were an unusually congenial and encouraging group, and at age thirty-five I felt as though I was getting a very brief, weirdly belated shot at being a Promising Young Man.
Then, early in 2006, I found out that the tenure-track guy there who taught most of the courses I was best qualified to take over was quitting to move back to the northeast with his family. After over 1,000 sight-unseen applications to institutions all around the English-speaking world, and close to thirty utterly fruitless ‘phone and face-to-face interviews, I was briskly hired into the permanent job I still have now as an insider candidate.
I can’t honestly say that the nine-year odyssey described above was uniformly unpleasant – apart from the stress of having a committee that wouldn’t give me feedback, and the one very dark moment of having to move away from my spouse, I stayed mostly pretty cheerful throughout it all. I was sustained by my enjoyment of teaching, the sense that my philosophical writing was (very slowly) improving in quality, and my utter incompetence at ever getting around to formulating a coherent Plan B. I’m also blessed with what I guess must be some pretty resilient brain chemistry and a certain dogged persistence (a sympathetic, quite famous senior philosopher once flattered me for what he referred to as my “ass power”). The main effect that the whole experience has had on my intellectual life has been to make me a lot more of an economic determinist, and more sympathetic than I probably would have been otherwise to luck egalitarianism.