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10/28/2015

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recent grad

This is really sad. I hope you can find some sort of satisfying vocation.

Tenured

This is a sad story. Every Department is different, and some are quite dysfunctional. But not all Departments are dysfunctional.

When I was hired, our Dept. Chair said to me "remember it is your department that tenures you." This was not a threat of any sort, but a clarification of the nature of the process. At my College it is highly unlikely that one will get tenure if they are not supported by one's department, and it is very rare for a candidate supported by the department to not get tenure. Things were straightforward in my case; everything ran smoothly. But the advice was appreciated. Some times junior people fail to hear the advice that is being given to them. I saw it on our campus in other departments. Further, take seriously the periodic reviews before tenure. If they say you need to work on your teaching or you need to publish more, then take it very seriously. They have documented an area in need of improvement, and that will be the basis for your dismissal if you have not turned things around.

Carolyn Jennings

Thank you for sharing your story. I hope that you find rewarding work in time. I also hope that you are able to see your contributions to our profession for what they are (e.g. "I spent too much time teaching which I liked and was good at..."). I wish that we had a system that rewarded all forms of philosophy work with stability approaching that of non-academic jobs, but the academic system (at least in the U.S.) is currently more brittle than that. For that reason we risk losing people, like yourself, who don't fit a rather narrow model. That, of course, says nothing of your value, and the value of others who don't find themselves advancing as they would like.

Just a Fellow

From refreshingly honest stories like this one it's possible to see clearly the sad truth of how dysfunctional the profession is. Remember, this story hardly ever gets told for many reasons and the fate here narrated, or a variation on it that is roughly approximate, is much more prevalent than most would like to believe. Perhaps I'll be ready to share a similar story of my own once this dreadful job cycle runs its course. If I'm not too busy working three part-time jobs to make ends meet. I think it used to be true that not all departments are dysfunctional. My undergrad alma mater was once such a place. Now it's no longer possible for a department to be anything but dysfunctional. Half the grad students drop out before getting a PhD, half of those with a PhD can't find a decent job (roughly speaking, with a downward trend), most of the positions that use to be TT are seemingly permanently adjunctified, and meanwhile the philosophy blogosphere does anything but the one thing that is needed: agitate for constructive ways to improve the working conditions of academic labor. At least the existence and momentum of Faculty Forward shows that not everyone in this profession is completely oblivious to what is now an ongoing catastrophe.

Dr. M

Yeah, I participated in or saw a lot of basically functional departments in other parts of my career (or those of family and friends). My final one was really the first dysfunctional one I'd seen up close, and I didn't understand how to handle it or just how dysfunctional it was. (Some other departments had been dysfunctional, largely fixed themselves, and avoided talking about the bad old days for fear of re-opening old wounds). My chair tried to talk to me often, but was impossible to understand for a number of reasons, and doing his best to leave. I certainly thought I'd addressed each of the issues from previous reviews when I went into my 3rd year review...

Sigh, when I was in academia, I thought a lot about Scholasticism and the Humanist backlashes. I wondered if the time of current academic philosophy was just about over, and philosophy needed to find ways to detach itself from academia, but that process certainly isn't easy. Once I was out of academia, I thought about Meiji samurai, whose time was over, and had little funding, but still had honor. Their culture couldn't treat them as anything but respected and impoverished and no longer useful.

I've already regretted sharing this story. On Facebook and such, some of the responses have been a lot harder for me to take than I'd guessed. Even here there seems a consensus that my story is sad, and I'm not used to thinking of it as sad. I usually think of myself as a failure, or someone who gambled on a high risk profession and lost, rather than as some kind of victim of tragedy. I knew the risks when I entered my Ph.D. program, at least a kinda. I just wasn't good enough at the many, many skills required to navigate the very competitive world of academic philosophy. I over-estimated my worth and paid dearly for my error, and am humbled. I do my best now to contribute to philosophy in amateur ways, and to re-value amateurism, in a world that doesn't. But I don't wish to preach to early-careerists, merely tell stories. Look at a variety of stories. Balance mine with others, and others with mine. Draw your own conclusions. Make your own choices. They are hard whatever you choose.

Lady Professor

I'm sorry you regret sharing your story. I think you have done a lot of good, and I'm glad you decided to share. In fact, I think your story redeemed this whole misconceived series. The fact is that many, many stories end exactly as yours. Through no fault of the protagonist. There are larger forces at work, yet people keep encouraging young people to enter the field. Or stay on the market in hopes of being one of the lucky ones. The encouragement offered is what is really regrettable.

blaarg

Dr. M, it is the profession that failed you, not you it

I graduated in 2014 with a few publications and have been unemployed since. I now have a few more and still can't find work.

There just aren't really any jobs for anyone.

I guess the exception is people from very top programs with connections and all that pedigree.

I don't know. I will try the job market one last time. But I'm not abusing myself for years in this profession.

Derek Bowman

Dr. M:

I have two thoughts to share that I hope will be of some value to you.

First, I know that certain forms of sympathy, especially from strangers, can be hard to take. No doubt some of these people are expressing a kind of unintentionally condescending form of sympathy, which might understandably seem to erode your feelings of agency and standing.

But understand that for many of us it is a sympathy born of solidarity. Many of us are in very similar situations to your own, and others reasonably fear finding themselves in that situation in the near future. Still others recognize that it is only a combination of luck and unearned forms of social advantage that allowed them to avoid a similar fate.

Second, whatever the merits of your own self-assessment regarding your choices, what happened to your career is the predictable outcome of the system of academic training and employment as it exists. Even if through luck or virtue or cleverness you had managed to avoid it, it would still have happened to a number of qualified, deserving, hard working teachers and scholars. Part of what's so maddening about it is precisely the combination of personal responsibility for one's career with a lack of any meaningful control over that career.

Anonymous

Dr. M,

While it's probably better form to express sympathy for your situation, I'd like to point out one common mistake that new TT faculty make: They downplay the risks associated with being on the tenure track and play up the success of having "made it" by making imprudent life decisions. I know of one person in my Ph.D. program who went out and bought a Mercedes when he secured his TT position. He could barely make the car payments on his meager salary. Many do as you did and buy a house. However, being on the tenure track is no guarantee that you'll earn tenure. There are so many factors, some within your control and others not, that could influence the outcome. In my situation I was virtually assured that I would earn tenure, given the volume and quantity of my scholarly output. However, I refused to buy a house. I only committed to short-term leases on economy cars. I prepared for plan B and earned a professional degree that would land me a job outside academe, in case I was denied tenure. I eventually earned tenure and people said that in hindsight I should not have been so risk averse. However, it was possible that in those years on the tenure track my campus could have shut down or laid off TT faculty. Not having a long-term mortgage or car loan to pay off and actually laying the groundwork for a plan B prepared me for that very real possibility. It's better to be smart and safe in making these life choices, especially given the high stakes.

blaarg

The idea that in their late 30s someone could be denied tenure and left out to dry by the profession is pretty scary.

Dr. M

Lets see, first, ... sympathy is fine and appreciated (if a little surprising and hard to process), I'm not trying to slag on sympathy. What bothers me is false heteronormative assumptions about who I am, flawed unsolicited career advice from a place of privilege, and worst, people trying to feed me false hope, ... that stuff is hard enough to get off of as it is. None of those happened here, all of those happened in other places this story was linked.

Second, the profession did not fail me. The profession had no obligations to me. No one should expect fairness out of capitalism, that just ain't how it works. I know many qualified people will fail to get TT jobs. I knew that when I entered my Ph.D. program. It's not a secret. It's a gamble and everyone knows it or ought to. I thought it would be closer to 50/50 when I entered, and it was closer to 1 in 3 by the time I completed. I haven't seen recent stats maybe it's worse than that by now. But that's how it is. In fact, professions as a whole are slowly going bye-bye, that's what the squeezing of the American middle class is. So we need to get past professionalism, or thinking the professions owe us anything.

Third, as for buying a house, the issue wasn't financial irresponsibility. We knew the market was nearing a bubble, we bought well within our price range planning for the long haul. We could have sold it even at the worst and not lost too much, probably. The issue was that we were tired of moving across the country every year or so and feeling rootless, and being unwilling to commit to a community. One of the things that surprised many people was that we did not leave town when my job was over, but tried to stay and find something else in this flawed town we've come to love. If I'd have been willing to go anywhere again, (especially if I'd been willing to leave the continent) I'm pretty sure I could have swung something. If you have never felt rootlessness to be a burden and yearned to start putting down roots despite rational advantages of permanent mobility, I doubt I can explain it to you. We had a Plan B, and Plan C going in too, (although those failed, shifted out from under us, and ultimately got pre-empted by a better option that came as a surprise).

Fourth, another way of spinning what happened to me is like this. I wanted a career and a family. I thought that would be a difficult stretch, but worth a try. When push came to shove, I kept choosing family over career in dozens of little ways. Now I have no career, but still have a loving, functional family. I'm not convinced I choose wrong. Or even choose wrong to try to have both, despite failing. It hurts not to have a career, but it may still be the right call.

Things happen, and we spin, and spin, re-interpreting how to make sense of them ...

He's a Jolly Good Fellow

Great suggestion, anonymous. If everyone in a PhD program, or on the job search, or on the tenure track earns a professional degree (while simultaneously teaching, grading, performing a variety of service tasks, and pumping out articles, books, as well as traveling to conferences), then there's nothing to worry about. You probably didn't go far enough. I suppose one shouldn't get married, have children, or even have a dog, either. Maybe cut off relations with family because that takes too much time and effort for such a high-stakes profession (while we're at it let's shave our heads, take a vow of abstinence, and drink some kool-aid, too). That makes way more sense than thinking about why there are fewer TT positions every year, more nonviable contingent positions, while building projects, non-educational fluff, administrative positions and salaries all continue to swell. What's poor form isn't that you don't express sympathy. It's that your only response to what's not merely worsening labor conditions but a crisis is that we tighten our belts and make sure we have a B.S. in computer programming, too. Nice way to shift the blame. Now, anytime someone doesn't make it we can just blame it on 'poor life choices' and factors 'outside our control'. How about this instead: current university administrations have made existing tenured faculty complicit in the adjunctification of the profession. Year by year there will be fewer jobs until there's just some knucklehead with an M.B.A (the guy who had a plan B) managing a bunch of academic precariat with PhDs. What if the surplus of PhDs wasn't a problem but rather the solution to a problem? Namely, how to ensure that faculty cost as little as possible so the university can fully become a profitable venture completely determined by financial interests. What better way to make that happen than to overproduce PhDs, and then drive down remuneration and degrade working conditions while everyone is desperately struggling to find what work they can? Stick to that story about life choices, though. It's a nice way to feel good about yourself and not have to bother expressing sympathy when someone else has been rendered disposable.

W

"Now I have no career, but still have a loving, functional family."

You and your wife should be proud that you have stuck with each other through the moves, the job transitions, and so on. This is the thing that struck me most from the story.

blaarg

"Second, the profession did not fail me. The profession had no obligations to me."

This is false.

We need to stop training PhDs and leaving them to rot.

It was wrong for them to deny you tenure. The old dean left and the new wanted to get rid of you. How is that alright?

It's shitty!

Dr. M

Look, I really shouldn't preach ...

I don't know why you went to grad school, but let me tell you about why I did.

I was taught that taking a few philosophy classes is an excellent thing for many kinds of people to do, and even that a double major in philosophy and something was helpful. But that grad school in philosophy was a very different story. I was told that grad school in philosophy would be bad for my pocketbook, security, and social class, that it was risky and foolish. That anyone who can avoid going to grad school in philosophy should. Philosophy as a profession, was a place for weirdos who couldn't find a safe or sane place elsewhere within academia. We were academia's holy fools - and indeed since so few of us got jobs in academia, we were society's holy fools as well. I was taught this BY professional philosophers. Other academics wouldn't say this, but seemed to agree in deeply euphemism-veiled blanditudes. And I decided that I too couldn't avoid going to grad school in philosophy even if I tried, even though I understood that at some conventional level several other paths made more sense. I was called to foolishness. Even talked with young nuns, or folks thinking seriously about nunhood? Yeah. We are not at root intellectuals. We are lovers. Lovers of wisdom. A Ph.D. in philosophy is not a job ticket, it is a love affair. You can dress it up with phenomenology, or analysis, or other styles, but it doesn't change the fundamentals. We are lovers of something which is destined to transform and destroy us.

Was I left to rot? If I am to be Sophia's compost, so be it. I might prefer otherwise, but this is what I signed up for, and I am content. Let's hope I enrich other things well in subtle ways in the process of rotting. You'll all travel the path of rot, one way or the other eventually too ... Maybe at a different pace or rhythm, with different dance steps or background music, but you're travelling roughly the same path I am eventually.

I wasn't denied tenure, I didn't even make it that far. If I'd have been allowed to stay a few more years, I'd have faced my tenure year, and there is every chance I would have lost tenure on my merits, especially if my publications didn't get more impressive in the next couple years. As it was, I was kicked out early for poor enough reasons that I can at least salve my ego that perhaps I didn't deserve it. A few years later and I might not have had that balm. Did the old dean and the new one do me wrong? Maybe. Many think so. Certainly I'm still friends with someone who was assistant dean at the time, and she feels guilty for putting me in an impossible position. I was certainly done wrong by several of my colleagues. I'm not saying I was dealt with justly, I'm saying I never expected justice. Is it shitty? Hell yeah. But the world is shitty, and we try to find value within it anyway, because we believe there is much beauty despite the shit, sometimes even because of it.

We need to stop training Ph.D.s and leaving them to rot? How? We can't magically whistle up more jobs. We could cut back on how many Ph.D.s we train, but not far enough to solve the problem, and as we teach fewer there will be fewer jobs. Unless we are willing to go back to strict apprenticeships or caste systems, there are always going to be more Ph.D.s than teaching jobs. The only solutions are having other career paths people get philosophy Ph.D.s for (as in professional schools), or a lot of external funding for research positions (as in the sciences), or lots of smart, competent people being left to rot. Can you turn away the young holy fools, that want a Ph.D. in philosophy even though they sorta know the risks? How is that any better? Those of you who get the few stable niches in philosophy have to struggle with the flipside of this, and I hope that despite your real misgivings, you'll keep allowing young fools to take the dreadful, beautiful risks, while warning them away as honorably as you can...

Some of this is getting worse because of the creeping adjunctorate displacing the old professorate. Indeed academia is thoroughly colonized by admins in much the same way that the US is colonized by billionaires. Things change, and change slowly. But the basic dynamics of how to deal with advanced students of philosophy after they've reached their independence in wisdom, that's a problem that was familiar to fakirs, and bhikkus, and Plato's Academy, and plenty of others long, long ago.

Sorry, couldn't keep my mouth shut, er ... go read the next person's story ...

Anon

Dr. M,

It's admirable that you don't blame anyone else and aren't nursing grudges, and healthy too. I certainly would't be as forgiving in your position.

However, while you may be right not to blame any one person, I do think your story illustrates some ways that departments fail their grad students.

First, faculty don't really advise PhD. students about a larger research trajectory in their dissertation phase (or at least no one ever advised anyone at my school about that). I haven't been able to land a tenure track job yet, but if I had there's a good chance I wouldn't get tenure. I completely hit a wall after my dissertation and I realize in retrospect that while my project was good for a couple of very solid papers it wasn't a publishable book and there wasn't much to do after that. (I could have strung it along into another paper or two I think but I was sick of the topic myself). My point is that in the preliminary phase of the dissertation where I was narrowing my topic down no one even mentioned this as something to think about. If anything people urged a more modest and self-contained project so I could get some papers out of it, get it done, and get out. I'm not blaming the faculty; it's natural to focus a lot on getting your students the first job and forget what comes after it given how bad this market is. But grad students ought to think a bit more about the long term prospects of their research than I, or most of my cohort, did and if they don't their advisors ought to give them a hard nudge in that direction.

Second, they ought to do a bit more to be open about the sorts of politics that are at play in a lot of departments. However, the bigger issue here is that most at Ph.D. granting institutions have no idea what sorts of problems pop up at the smaller schools where most of their students get will get TT jobs if they do get jobs. At my Ph.D. institution there was some bad blood about raises (or the lack thereof), machinations about how to get a reduced course load, and the usual grudges over perceived slights of some sort or other, but nobody ever had to worry that the admin was out to eliminate their jobs. I don't know what to do about the fact that faculty at Ph.D. institutions have no idea how the other half (or rather other 90%) live, but it's a real problem and it prevents them from serving their Ph.D. students well in a lot of ways.

blaarg

I think something to recognise Dr. M is that even though you knew how bad the job prospects were for a PhD in philosophy a lot do not.

I went in with what I thought was a realistic attitude. The job market is really hard but if you do very well and get some papers published in good places, you'll get a job. I had people tell me that. I had faculty tell me that.

The reality though is that there are no jobs really. If people had been more honest I probably wouldn't have done the PhD.

Upwardly mobile but left many people behind

Thank you for your perspective, and your continued comments in the thread, Dr. M. While your story struck me as sad, it also struck me as not sad. I mean, your wife got a dream job!

I know of a few people who were out of the game for 10-20 years, then eventually landed tenure track CC jobs. That's not advice or anything, just a random observation.

People want to draw some moral about what we should be telling college students to prepare them, or to discourage them from entering grad school. But it is interesting to me how the same problem arises if you don't go to grad school. Everyone always told me to go to college to "get a good job", and it was quite a rude awakening when I graduated and literally no one wanted to give me any job, let alone a "good one".

It worked out for me eventually. Now I'm a tenure track professor and I just bought a new car and that still feels wrong. But my sister couldn't do anything with her college degree (it's from a very prestigious school). She's a part time maid who is losing teeth because she can't afford dental care (in her mid-30s). My brother couldn't even finish college, partly because of anxiety about taking student loans and what he would be employable for when he got out. He's in his mid-20s and was lucky to get a job at a run down movie theater (his first job).

If you ask my sister she would say she regrets even going to college, because she has debt and no one told her that it wouldn't lead to any kind of fulfilling or even living wage work.

So the ultimate issue is not the philosophy profession failing students, it's WAY bigger than that. Education within capitalism is a sorting mechanism, it can only help some people rise if it differentiates them from others that do not rise. If we only intervene to make education better we don't solve any of this if the underlying structural inequality is not addressed.

Posting anonymously so my siblings aren't embarrassed, not because I don't want to own the views publicly.

I agree philosophers need to do something, if anyone cares my recommendation is that we join other activism that is already happening at places like New Faculty Majority, etc. No need to reinvent the wheel, there is power in numbers.

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