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Anonymous former job candidate

I think it is problematic. Here's something that happened to me a couple of years ago, at the E-APA, during the infamous Smoker. I had an interview with a very prestigious American school ("Department X").One of the search committee members of X is one of the top people in my field. She was interested in my research, and wanted to talk some more about it. During the Smoker, she invited me to the table of X, and we talked about my research. For context, I am from an unranked school (in continental Europe). While we were talking, a senior person from another prestigious department ("department Y") interrupted our conversation. He urgently had to talk about another candidate for the position of X (he was basically there to help candidates from his school, and said as much to me later). Apparently, the candidate had broken down in tears during the interview. The senior philosopher from Y said he urgently had to give some context why the candidate did this. Now, the SC from X said "I'm happy to talk, but I need to first continue my conversation with [me]".
I was quite shocked: not only did I have to navigate the for me unfamiliar American job market (and try to perform well in spite of being pregnant an severely jetlagged), other people apparently had senior folks advocating for them, and picking up the pieces if they screwed up (I'm not saying there were no circumstances that could explain why the candidate from Y cried, I only know that if I had cried, no-one would have been there to pick up the pieces). Our conversation was pretty much over by then. I was not invited to the on campus stage, and I have no idea how Y fared. What I do know is that these practices help the already vastly privileged.


I'm curious whether others think there is a vast difference between this practice and the practice of getting letters. It seems that both processes privilege elite connections or references from those known to the committee, although maybe the individual campaigning for students exacerbates the hierarchies involved. I'm not sure how I feel about either entirely.

Marcus Arvan

PhD: That's a great question. Personally, I've long doubted whether recommendation letters should continue to play a significant role in hiring. It seems to me an outdated/anachronistic practice reminiscent of old-time systems of patronage in the arts, making job-getting more a matter of "who you know"/"who likes you" than actual accomplishments. As I've said many times on this blog--and decades of empirical research in Industrial-Organizational Psychology strongly supports--hiring decisions should be based on objective measures of accomplishment, as they are the least biased, most reliable measures of job-qualification and excellence.

Decades of research in I/O Psychology show that although everyone thinks they have the "genius"/"best candidate" divining rod, the best predictors of job success are past performance, and algorithmic hiring procedures based on objective measures consistently outperform human evaluators. It is high time that academic hiring practices caught up with our best science, as many corporations already have.

See: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/law/2/2/293/

For those who don't click on the link, the link is to a famous, massive meta-analysis of 136 studies showing that, across a wide range of selection measures, algorithmic procedures statistically outperform human evaluators. This is only one of many such studies, and the overall finding (that hiring algorithms outperform human evaluators) is now a consensus view in the discipline of I/O-Psychology (a discipline that my spouse works in as a researcher). The full abstract is as follows:

Given a data set about an individual or a group (e.g., interviewer ratings, life history or demographic facts, test results, self-descriptions), there are two modes of data combination for a predictive or diagnostic purpose. The clinical method relies on human judgment that is based on informal contemplation and, sometimes, discussion with others (e.g., case conferences). The mechanical method involves a formal, algorithmic, objective procedure (e.g., equation) to reach the decision. Empirical comparisons of the accuracy of the two methods (136 studies over a wide range of predictands) show that the mechanical method is almost invariably equal to or superior to the clinical method: Common antiactuarial arguments are rebutted, possible causes of widespread resistance to the comparative research are offered, and policy implications of the statistical method's superiority are discussed.

Soon to be ex-academic

Rampant croneyism seems to have destroyed whatever integrity once might have existed in the philosophy job market, which isn't surprising given the decline in the number of jobs and the increasing number of candidates piling up year after year. Consider this: I have publications in the double-digits (and some of them in good places), years of experience teaching, finished my PhD on time, and have been nationally recognized for my promise as a graduate student across the humanities and social sciences. But, I come from a school that isn't recognized by the Leiter crowd. While candidates with a fraction of my accomplishments and potential receive job offers from elite schools I can't even seem to get shortlisted or interviewed. Now, something tells me that had I attended a more 'prestigious' school and if I had 'superstars' (both in scare quotes because I don't subscribe to magical thinking) writing my letters and aggressively advocating on my behalf, I'd probably at least be getting some interviews. As it stands, I'm essentially forced out of the profession before I've really begun.

a realist

Professional philosophy is not about philosophy.

Many of the most powerful and influential "scholars" would be better suited in business or marketing, because they're all image, no substance (they're also petty and ruthless when they feel like their standing is being threatened). In short, they are careerists, not philosophers.

Is it any surprise then when hiring decisions are no longer made on philosophical merit?


In Allen Wood's APA blog post (1/5/2016) concerning the application process, he writes that "Another hard fact is that your chances of surviving the first cut are often proportional to the prestige of the institution and department where you got your Ph.D., and to the reputation of your recommenders." Wood then goes on to say "If all this seems unfair, then that's because it is unfair." Wood then offers a rather weak defense for why, despite how unfair this is, we must accept that this is how things must be.

Now, I do enjoy Wood's work. But I am surprised that a philosopher can identify a solvable problem, and then say, in effect, "Well, that's just how it is." If Wood can offer novel interpretations of Kant and Hegel, surely he can think up some decent solutions to this problem (a practice that he himself admits is unfair).

The fact that some quite brilliant people attend non-ivys (or non-Leiter schools) is commonly accepted. Philosophers of all stripes will admit that this is the case. But I guess philosophers, despite championing themselves as critical thinkers, are just hypocrites. I guess that this is "just how it is."

There is social inequality. But that is just how it is.

The American economy is in ruins. But that is just how it is.

Clearly, these problems are just too complicated to ever fix. So why try? My intention is, of course, not to parallel philosophy applications with pressing civil issues. Rather, I only wish to point out that this problem is not as complex as other problems that are being worked on. We can do better.


I agree with your concern, but the way you express it seems to inadvertently support Wood's argument. Let me explain. You invoke the notion of brilliance. You claim that there are brilliant people at non-Ivy's and even non-Leiter schools. I have worked in philosophy a while. I have met very few brilliant people. I have met a lot of very smart, hard working people. But I really do not meet brilliant people often. The rhetoric of "brilliance" plays into Wood's view. He can say: "if they are so brilliant, why can't they get into a better PhD program, at least one ranked by the Leiter report?" Incidentally, as an aside, I think that many recognition that very strong students are at non-Ivy's: NYU, Rutgers, Michigan, Pittsburgh, Univ. of Southern California, etc.

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