I work in assessment design and content development for ACT, Inc., an educational and workforce assessment company. ACT is primarily known for its college readiness assessment (i.e., the ACT), which is the largest college readiness assessment in the United States. My work primarily concerns the assessment of critical thinking, graduate admissions (i.e., the GMAT test for business schools, for which ACT provides test content), and the assessment of workforce and career skills. Previously I worked full time as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at The University of Iowa, and I still occasionally teach philosophy courses there. It’s at Iowa where I received my philosophy PhD in 2012. I also maintain an active research program, attend philosophy and interdisciplinary conferences, and recently published a book, Classify and Label: The Unintended Marginalization of Social Groups.
My job market story begins 2011 and tentatively ends in 2014. Over the course of these four years on the market, I gradually transitioned from a fully committed academic to a more or less fully committed non-academic professional. I’ll say a bit about how that happened and the sort of transformation this involved.
In 2011 I was still a graduate student and went on the market with the well-known and ill-advised “spray and pray” strategy: I applied for over 150 positions, including all “AOS: open” ads. I landed 2 interviews, both for one year gigs far away from my Iowa City home. I came close to landing one of these positions, but in the end I struck out. This took an incredible personal toll, and I’m still not thrilled about giving the details. The short version is that the period of heavy stress that this caused led me to lose over one fourth of my body weight in about 2 months. During the worst period, I lost weight at a rate of one pound per day.
I went on the market in 2012 as a full time Visiting Assistant Professor who had a relatively stable position for the next six months and felt much better about the market than in 2011. I applied more selectively, sending out only about 50 applications and carefully crafting cover letters for each one. I did well, landing 4 or 5 interviews, mostly for tenure-track positions. I bombed one interview, but did well in the others. As with many other marketeers, I anxiously awaited word for on-campus interviews.
But by this point, I had my doubts about an academic career. Standard job market advice tells you to announce your love for teaching undergraduates, especially undergraduates who aren’t prepared for college and/or are extrinsically motivated by grades or career potential. But…was I really in it for the teaching? Did I really want to spend most of my professional life, even into my 50s and 60s, working primarily with 18-22 year olds? Perhaps the greatest sin of the philosophy job market and all the associated folderol is that it discourages people from asking questions like those. What do you love about academic work, and does a job as a professor allow you to develop this?
I want to be clear about this. I don’t dislike teaching. I simply re-evaluated the place teaching holds in my broader list of priorities. I think teaching is OK. Sometimes I get great enjoyment out of it, and sometimes it’s a little miserable. All in all, it can be a crapshoot from semester to semester. And I think it’s much easier to do the job well when you’re teaching 1 or 2 classes than when you’re teaching 4 or 5. What I (re)discovered is that I was involved in academia because I loved engaging with people about large and important ideas. Sometimes teaching facilitates this, but never in as satisfying a manner as research, conference travel, and engagement with colleagues.
But it’s not just about the old “teaching vs. research” question. I’m a person who wants to be closely attached to a place. I’ve always had a sense of place, and I like Iowa City. I could leave it – in fact, I did leave it for a year in order to live with my partner in Minneapolis – but I couldn’t just leave it for any place. And the thought of bouncing around for repeated one-year gigs or for a tenure-track position in somewhere I hated was depressing. Maybe some of you can do philosophy anywhere. I found out that I can’t.
It was around this time that I found an ad for a non-academic position posted in the JFP, and it looked promising: it was a position with a company based in Iowa City and it appeared to be a way to apply philosophical training in a meaningful way. I applied for the position, interviewed well enough, received an offer in January 2013 with a salary comparable to assistant professors of philosophy, and accepted the offer. It’s the job I still have today.
The philosophy job market changed for me in a big, big way after this. For one, the stress was mostly gone. I had a good job that I liked, and this freed me up to start asking some very tough questions of academic posts. Another thing that happened in the fall of 2014 is that I received a major raise and promotion with ACT. I was now earning a salary comparable to a late assistant or early associate professor of philosophy, and the vast majority of academic posts would have entailed about a 20% salary cut. The salary cut would be more than that if you were to factor in my part-time teaching that I was still doing at Iowa.
So, I was on the market in 2013 and 2014, but I applied to only a bare minimum of positions, perhaps 20 or 30 in total over the 2-year period. I applied only to positions that I thought had the potential to be more satisfying than my full time job, and that wasn’t many. I applied exclusively to tenure-track positions. I applied only for positions that explicitly listed one of my research areas. I generally avoided applying to places where the teaching load is greater than 7 courses per year. But I also read department websites carefully. I avoided applying to departments that didn’t already have people doing work I’m interested in. I avoided departments where the faculty wasn’t diverse in terms of both demographics and research interests. Despite applying to only 20-30 positions, I landed about 5 or 6 interviews. No job offers followed. I didn’t bother going on the market in 2015. I’m always willing to listen if the right position comes along, but I don’t see myself actively searching for academic employment in the future. It’s always possible that something happens and I get fired from my current job. That’s the sad reality of the non-academic world (and, increasingly, the academic one, too). If that happens, maybe I’d return to academia. But it’s not in my current plans.
In short, I found out what was important to me in a job: a reasonable workload, living in a place where I can develop a sense of community, having colleagues who are doing interesting work, having a diverse range of colleagues, job security, and a decent salary.
Who’d have thought, right? What an entitled jackass I had become. Demanding to be treated like a decent human being and all. I understand that many people on the philosophy job market feel like they’re not in a position to list priorities like this. And maybe you’re not. But I’d still bet it’s in your interest to do more of this type of priority building. For one, it’ll help you avoid the still quite terrible “spray and pray” market strategy, and help you focus on applying smartly instead of widely. But it also might help direct you toward the “alt-ac” career that’s right for you, if you’re thinking about leaving academia.
What are the lessons for folks on the market? Maybe you have more thoughts about this than I do, and maybe your thoughts are the more important ones. I’ll sketch out some things I’ve learned:
- There’s a complicated relationship between one’s desires and one’s life circumstances. When I interviewed for my current job, it’s true that I had already begun to reject the idea of an academic career. But I was far from comfortable embracing a non-academic one. You won’t fall out of love with academia overnight and you won’t fall in love with a non-academic post overnight. It took time to get comfortable with my non-academic career, but now I like it more than I liked academia.
- I learned that I’m deeply uncomfortable with the way many academics speak about academia, and I’ve started to understand why people sometimes refer to academia as a cult. I still regularly hear people calling employment in academic philosophy a “vocation” or a “calling.” There was a time when I felt that way, and I don’t want to suggest that this way of thinking is never appropriate. But this attitude can enter into a very nasty feedback loop with norms in academia that treat you as a “failure” if you don’t succeed on the philosophy job market. And that’s just utter horseshit.
- Taking full-time work outside of academia doesn’t have to end your research or teaching involvement. I wrote and published a philosophical book after taking my non-academic position (Classify and Label: The Unintended Marginalization of Social Groups, Lexington Books 2014). I’ve intermittently taught a course at The University of Iowa as a Visiting Assistant Professor. I also travel to about 3-4 academic conferences per year. It’s also possible to integrate academic and non-academic work. In my position with ACT, I’ve engaged with academics – including philosophers – in a variety of ways. Two philosophers served as consultants on a critical thinking assessment design project I’ve helped lead. I’ve done accommodations work with ACT, which sometimes involves drawing upon academic research on intersectionality, implicit bias, stereotype threat, and structural oppression. There’s plenty more I’m probably forgetting.
- Luck matters, and this includes things like networking, place, institutional affiliation, identity, time of the year, and other things you haven’t even thought about. Surprise, surprise, right? Many people are now learning about things like rampant pedigree bias and nepotism on the academic job market (in addition to the biases, like gender and racial bias, that bloggers have rightly drawn attention to). Where you’re hired outside of academia will also depend in part on these things. I was fully qualified for the job I was hired for, but I’m not going to pretend there wasn’t an element of luck. The hiring manager attended, about 30 years ago, the same philosophy PhD program I did. The company advertised in the JFP. The company is based in Iowa City, where I already lived. These things worked to my advantage. You can change your luck to a certain extent. You can meet people at conferences, do research on other industries, seek out and attend industry conferences in your town, ask your advisers if they know any industry folks, etc.
- The non-academic world is a different beast. The business world has its own academic/pseudo-academic jargon (e.g., “synergy”). Authority is sometimes wielded in a clumsy or foolish manner. There’s no such thing as one career path, especially for philosophers leaving the academy. But you can work some of this to your advantage. A person who can analyze ideas and cut through bullshit in a professional and friendly manner is a great asset to many companies, and many of them will see that. You’ve got plenty of skills to market.
- We all know that there’s been a lot of great work done in recent years on cleaning up the philosophy profession. Some of you reading this have probably been involved in such efforts. There’s a culture of fear among grad students and among job marketeers that big name philosophers will ruin their careers, particularly in online spaces. So far I’ve found this to be far less of an issue outside of academia. And, of course, let’s not forget that the philosophers graduate students are afraid of hold little or no authority outside of academia.