Our books

Become a Fan

« On discussing grad school with interested students | Main | CFP: 4th Annual Philosophers' Cocoon Philosophy Conference »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


I have sometimes seen how obtaining a permanent position in academia changes the landscape for people, in the sense that one's horizon expands and one suddenly gets time and mental space to see long arcs in research (and teaching). More often, however, people keep up old habits of investing every free moment in academic work, as perfectionism and striving for excellence have become ingrained. Changing these habits is hard but doable And, Helen, your suggestions of things that help are excellent! But besides these personal factors, also academic organizations and grant agencies are set up in such a way that they foster and institutionalize this focus on excellence. I think with this they stimulate unbalanced priorities, total devotion / identification, etc.

The problem is that the notion of academic excellence is really vague. What is it? How do we measure it? Should we really strive for it? No clear answers. Consequently you can never really know what you need to do, or when you meet the standards. Jeroen Geurts, professor of neuroscience and member of the Dutch Young Academy, and Harm van der Gaag, philosophical counselor, have tried to clarify the notion of excellence in their book "The Singing Horse". It is a Socratic dialogue about excellence, and if you like, you can find my review of it here: http://www.vansijl.com/2016/01/how-academic-excellence-resembles-a-singing-horse


I think the most important thing to do is psychological. Your value as a human being isn't dependent on getting a TT job in philosophy. Tell yourself 'the reason I can't find a job has more to do with the job market than with me.' If you can divorce your identity and value from being a philosopher, you'll be much happier. It took me a number of years to do that.

One thing that helps is to think of some solid backup plans, and go about preparing them. Tell yourself 'if things don't work in philosophy by x date, then I'm going to pursue my backup.' This will take a lot of emotional stress of your mind. You won't think 'I have to succeed at philosophy or my life is a waste.' Being less stressed will probably result in better interviews too (if you get any!)

Mark Silcox

Most of the folk I know with permanent jobs in the biz have stopped doing serious research long ago and spend most of their spare time on fairly standard middle-class lifestyle activities, e.g. bathroom remodeling, vegetarian cuisine, watching sports on TV. The kind of obsessive careerism Helen talks about here can be a problem, but I suspect the worry that it'll persist into later life once the employment fairly comes a'knocking is largely chimerical.


One thing that helps is to think of some solid backup plans, and go about preparing them. Tell yourself 'if things don't work in philosophy by x date, then I'm going to pursue my backup.' This will take a lot of emotional stress of your mind.

This sort of comment is frequently made on posts like these, but the sad truth is that for many, if not most of us, there is no solid backup plan that we are capable of executing. In my own case, I am in a non-tenure track position, at age 40, having been a non-traditional student. I have only degrees in the humanities, and have neither the time, nor the capital, to fund another degree program so as to compete on the non-academic market. There is nothing I can do, other than entry-level retail, manual labor at this point. Most will be younger than me, and if they have STEM degrees, or Ivy backgrounds, or family connections, then they might be able to cobble together a decent life. But for a good many people like me, failure on the job market sentences us to the fate of being over-educated, under-employed, laborers. (not that labor is in-itself abhorrent, but in most regions of the US it will likely not pay a living wage).


"In my own case, I am in a non-tenure track position, at age 40, having been a non-traditional student. I have only degrees in the humanities, and have neither the time, nor the capital, to fund another degree program so as to compete on the non-academic market."

I hear where you're coming from. I get it. For a lot of people though backups are available. There are probably even backups available for you, although they aren't obvious.

As an aside, no one should be trying for years on the philosophy job market if they have an alternative. It's too dangerous!

Axel Gelfert

It's good to see the topic of work-life balance get more and more attention among academics. A few other recent articles that come to mind, and which, at least implicitly, contain some advice are Robin Wilson's CHE piece 'Why are Associate Professors So Unhappy?' http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Are-Associate-Professors/132071/ ; an anonymous piece in The Guardian about the culture of acceptance of mental health issues among graduate students http://bit.ly/1bUxrgB ; and James Dixon's excellent recent piece on what to do when loyalty to one's institution is not reciprocated (http://chronicle.com/article/Loyalty-Schmoyalty/234609) -- an all too common experience among tenure-track and recently tenured faculty.

When I compare my own experiences with those of others, I realize that I can consider myself very lucky indeed, having landed a tenure-track job before the big job crunch in philosophy a few years ago, and having received a fair amount of departmental and institutional support over the years. Even so, I've had my fair share of disillusionment -- institutional priorities that shift in unpredictable ways, erratic decisions at higher levels, colleagues who free-ride on other people's work/admin load (and get away with it). All of this can be frustrating, and yet it sometimes feels like one shouldn't complain about it, especially when those who haven't been lucky enough to land a permanent job (and there is a huge element of luck!) obviously have a much harder time. (One of the articles linked above cites someone as saying that higher education attracts people who are "neurotic, ever unhappy, and ever restless" -- maybe that author has a point!)

One decision I made, about a year and a half after getting tenure, was to work with people whose academic values and outlooks I broadly share, both within the university and outside. I decided I would no longer feel loyalty towards those who are only in it for themselves or who talk the talk (about being 'interdisciplinary', 'making things happen') but who failed to walk the walk (e.g. by not delivering on their promises or by constantly outsourcing work to others, often more junior than them, under the guise of 'giving them exposure and experience'...). As with every institution, some of the worst offenders in this regard are also the most well-connected (since they have actively placed themselves right in the middle of decision-making processes), which is perhaps why I've often found it more rewarding, and indeed eye-opening, to involve those at the margins of the profession. Having finally recognized that loyalty towards the university or towards some abstract institutional goal often goes unreciprocated, I decided to pursue topics and links with people whose work I'm truly interested in (rather than for purely strategic reasons). It has made me a happier researcher, I think.

But all of this is still heavily skewed towards the 'work' end of the 'work/life' spectrum... What about freeing up time outside of work? I've tried to free up my weekends as much as possible and I regularly set aside time for reading (books only, no articles) on days where I don't have to prepare for teaching and don't have urgent deadlines. Regarding the choice of reading material, academic books are fine as long as they don't relate to stuff I'm immediately working on; this way, I feel less pressured and my hope is that it will eventually allow me to pursue those long arcs of research that initially motivated me to enter academia. But, even more importantly, I've rediscovered fiction for myself! And I've found that, especially at times when one is facing challenges or disillusionment, reading, say, a good psychological novel, can actually help put one's own problems into perspective. So, in addition to Helen's excellent list of activities (which I wholeheartedly endorse, even if I don't practice all of them as much as I should...did someone say 'exercise regularly'?), I recommend picking up a good novel as an antidote to letting one's job colonize every aspect of one's life.

Helen De Cruz

Axel: I think this is an excellent suggestion (and I should have thought about it, considering I am currently working on the connection between reading fiction, being transported by fiction, and wellbeing. I find reading enormously enjoyable and have recently discovered the YA novel. While it's often derided (especially YA aimed at girls), I find the plots simple and easy to get along in (which helps with fragmented time), and the characters and situations fun and engaging. Divergent, Hunger Games, lots of works by Sharon Shinn. I hope to organize a workshop on the topic this summer.

Helen De Cruz

Postdoc and gradjunct: it is still in the works, but I'm making a website about philosophers with interesting careers outside of academia (following up on my series I did on NewApps) and it would also have a mentorship programme that would pair people who are seriously considering a move to industry with experienced philosophers who made the move. To launch next spring (funding etc permitting)


Helen...sounds like an interesting project. I'll be curious to see how such a mentorship program would work. People have such wildly divergent backgrounds in terms of their age, gender, undergraduate degree focus, family connections, academic pedigree, mathematical aptitude, etc...it would make it a tall order to match mentors well with people to guide.

European job seeker

Dear Helen, thank you for this post. I think that the grant system offers many incentives that force us to have stressing job habits.We can talk about work/life balance, etc., but I believe that this situation may be solved only if the grant agencies were to start to value the time-consuming activity of child-caring, etc.

Nathan Stout

I've found that *when* one works makes a big difference. More specifically, working very early in the morning has been a big help for me in terms of work/life balance because the early morning hours are not typically reserved for time that one spends with loved ones. So, I generally wake up around 4:30am and work from 5:00am-5:00pm. I never work in the evenings, which I spend with my wife or with friends, and I don't work on the weekends unless I absolutely have to, which allows me to devote time to hobbies. So, I'm able to spend time with the people I care about and do things other than philosophy that I enjoy all while still maintaining a 60 hour work week (which is generally sufficient for satisfying all of my professional obligations).

In terms of hobbies, I've found that doing something with my hands has been really helpful as it gets me away from a computer screen and gives my eyes a break from reading. I would recommend finding something that allows you to be creative and to build new skills while also using the critical thinking and problem solving skills that you've developed as a philosopher. Woodworking has been my hobby of choice.

Helen De Cruz

Gradjunct: We are in the very early stages - I've got into contact with a LinkedIn group of philosophers working in industry, the idea would be to match philosophers who are (1) serious about getting a job outside of academia (not just considering as plan B, but it's becoming plan A for them) and (2) have put some thought into the field they want to go into, e.g., consulting, think tank, coding, and we would find mentors in those fields who could provide advice. I hope it works out!

Helen De Cruz

European job seeker: I agree there is an additional problem for work-life balance in Europe, and speaking from experience I can say that it is not fun to keep oneself afloat on grants for years, with the abyss of unemployment - and academic oblivion - lurking always a few years or months ahead. I have held a total of 3 postdoc positions, and while it was enjoyable to have a lot of time for research, it was anxiety-inducing that the abyss was always there, and this probably contributed to workaholic habits I still have today. Some grant agencies do, fortunately, take formally into account childcare, e.g., NWO, ERC, which allow more time in their restrictions until when you can apply in years post-PhD whereas others do not (they allow place to explain career gaps in the CV but I'm not too optimistic about how much it weighs.
In any case, I'm now finally in a permanent position and just sent off 2 grant apps: a big one that costed me many months to write and get right, and a smaller one which also was a big time investment, and which I would really like to carry out. While I would be hugely disappointed if neither of them came into fruition, it is still a good thing my employment no longer depends on grant income.
Personally, I favor the almost defunct American model of grad school followed by tenure track rather than a Darwinian race where postdocs fall by the dozens. It's better to know early on if one can stay in academia or not.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

Job-market reporting thread

Current Job-Market Discussion Thread