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04/24/2017

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Recent PhD

I had very many failures: for publication, for conferences, especially APA submissions. They all felt bad. In my 3rd year, I started rock climbing, which --- strangely --- really helped me going forward. In rock climbing, even the best climbers fail sometimes, perhaps more times than they succeed. You just have to fail, fail, fail, fail, and then succeed. My strategy was to try to do something similar in my academic life. Will see how it works out at the end, but so far it mostly has.

someone

I had a really tough time after I finished my PhD. I was badly unprepared for the job market and spent about a year working menial jobs to pay the bills and was very close to giving up. As you can imagine, I was pretty despondent. But I never stopped trying and in the end I got a great postdoc gig which has since led to some other great things and although I'm still probly a long way from getting a tenure track position, I do at least feel like I'm moving in the right direction. In my admittedly limited experience, persistence and thick skin are just as important as philosophical acumen when it comes to making a career as a philosopher.

lategrad

Once I spent about a year researching a certain issue, and had come up with what I thought was a good idea for my "preliminary exam", which was really just a paper. I took the idea in to my adviser, and he basically said "This is crap" in somewhat milder terms. I walked out half-depressed and half-pissed. I started to give up on it, but instead ran my idea past a few friends, who thought it was good. I scheduled another meeting with my adviser, spent about a week straight preparing myself for battle, and then pitched the idea again. My adviser acquiesced. About a year later the paper was published.

This was a big turning point for me in grad school. It taught me fortitude, confidence in my reasoning and instincts, and just plain grit.

Pendaran Roberts

Before I started to have success with publications, I got a lot of rejections. It was hard. I dealt with it in unhealthy ways. I wasn't good at accepting rejection.

However, I wasn't one to give up. So, I just kept trying. I learned through trial and error, mostly all on my own, how to publish philosophy in good places.

What this required was thinking carefully about referee reports. You have to apply your own reasoning and intuitions to the reports to determine which comments are worth addressing and which are not. You then have to be able to generalize from comments on one paper to other papers you are working on.

It's difficult to give a formula. However, one thing you learn is how much you can realistically get done in a certain word length. When I first started I thought I needed to say a lot to make a paper interesting, but referees would always find things to complain about. So, my papers became narrower and narrower.

If I could talk to my past self I'd tell him, 'Whatever you think you can do in 10k words, cut that down 4-5 times.'

I am still learning.

K

I was rejected from almost every PhD program I applied to (I was accepted to two, and waitlisted at one). I ended up in a non-ranked PhD program, and have felt like a failure for my entire time in graduate school. I have often felt ashamed and embarrassed at conferences with my institutional affiliation listed on my name tag, and I have spent a lot of time dealing with the frustration that comes with knowing PhD prestige will prevent me from being considered for lots of jobs I might want.

I have dealt with this by working my ass off to prove that I belong in philosophy. I think it has mostly worked (I landed a TT job ABD, have published, have been awarded research grants and scholarships, etc.). But I still feel frustration and regret that who I was as a barely-even-adult undergraduate determined the trajectory of my career. Every time I think of this, I try to shift my thoughts back to my accomplishments and focus on what I can do to carve out my own future (rather than get in line where I'm supposed to, given my background in this field). And for what it's worth, had I "succeeded" and graduated from a top school, I might not have the success and job I have today. So, I think it's also important to put failure into perspective- not by thinking that "everything happens for a reason" (like my mom would say), but by reminding oneself that failure can enable other possibilities. You might land that paper in a better journal, you might end up getting a job you love (even if you would have accepted that other one you didn't get and wanted *so bad*), etc.

Oh, I guess that brings me to another failure: I had an on-campus interview for a job that was a dream job for me. I didn't get it, and I was crushed. But now I'm starting a job in a cool place and my partner has been accepted into a master's program in a (really good) nearby school, which will likely lead to promising employment opportunities for him. Had I landed my *dream job*, he probably wouldn't have been able to come with me (it was in a weird, rural place where neither of us really wanted to live and we had immigration challenges to sort out). So I'm ultimately grateful for these failures, even if they hurt like hell at the time.

These are my biggest, soul-crushing failures, but I've got journal rejections and conference rejections to report too, of course. None of those have such rosy endings, but if you're an ethicist without a rejection from Ethics (and a philosopher without a whole host of rejections), you have got to catch up. The best advice I received from a professor in grad school about this stuff was: "If you aren't being rejected, you aren't being productive enough."

And now I realize that I have been holding on to a paper for far too long after receiving a rejection, and need to work up the courage to send it back out.

Derek

A common thread in these stories is that pushing through failure leads to success, and that hard-headedness is a positive trait in an academic (and not merely one that enables success). I failed on the market many times, and worked hard to not let it slow me down. Eventually, I realized that enough was enough, and that I couldn't justify ignoring my track record any more. Looking back, now that I have left academia, I kind of wish that I had learned my lesson sooner. Focusing on my own career was selfish. It caused a lot of unhappiness to my spouse. I realized that I wasn't making anyone's life better by staying but my own: not my students (who would benefit just as much from one of the many many other qualified young philosophers), not my colleagues (I've continued my navel-gazey philosophical work, should it ever be of interest to anyone else), and not my family.

If you only talk to professional philosophers, you'll only hear stories of how perseverance paid off. There is a huge selection bias at work. And even if it does eventually lead to some kind of pay off, it does not entail that it should be something you're willing to undergo.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Derek: Thanks for your comment. I don't think anyone said or implied that "pushing through failure leads to success" or that "hard-headedness is a positive trait in an academic." I certainly don't think either of those things. There have been many, many times in my own journey where hard work and pushing through failure *far* from guaranteed success (again, I was on the academic job-market for 7 years, the first six of which didn't lead to success--and even to the end, things could have gone the other ways: I could have very well ended up not getting a permanent job).

What I think the stories being told here indicate is that pushing through failure *can* help one navigate a variety of professional obstacles. I don't think that's very controversial, and it coheres with the psychological literature on resilience and internal locus of control, both of which are qualities significantly related to success (but which do not guarantee it!).

All that being said, I think you are right that there are selection issues here--which is why I thank you for sharing your story. For, as you note, pushing through failures in academia is not *always* good, and being hard-headed can be unfair to oneself and one's loved ones.

In my own case, my spouse and I had many difficult conversations over whether I should stay on the market, and if so how long. We ultimately decided that although it wouldn't be fair to either of us for me to stay on the market forever, it made sense to try a little longer since things were going in a good direction (in terms of interviews, etc.).

Anyway, thanks again for sharing an alternative perspective. I agree that it is important to see that there are different ways to grapple effectively with professional setbacks, and that it is a mistake to think that hard work, hard-headness, and pushing through failure are a "magic bullet" that necessarily lead to success.

Pendaran Roberts

'If you only talk to professional philosophers, you'll only hear stories of how perseverance paid off. There is a huge selection bias at work. And even if it does eventually lead to some kind of pay off, it does not entail that it should be something you're willing to undergo.'

I agree with this 100% Derek. One of the MANY reasons the philosophy job market is so poor is that academia is a sort of cult or fraternity that people fetishize. They thus subject themselves to years of hazing just hoping to get in.

Another (of the MANY) reasons the job market is so bad is that PhDs in philosophy don't have any obvious job avenues outside of academia. So, people stay in academia because they can't imagine what else to do, at least besides being a waiter or something.

In my opinion, everyone before even starting a PhD needs to formulate a strong plan B. They then need to set a precise time limit for reaching their goals, three years lets say. After the three years has passed if their goals aren't met, they need to enact their plan B's.

Leaving philosophy isn't failure. People are generally praised for giving up irrational, self-destructive, and harmful behaviors, and continuing to fetishize an academic job and sacrifice for years upon years is irrational, self-destructive, and harmful.

If peopled followed this strategy this would not only do something to reduce the supply of job candidates, thus making the job market better for future PhDs, but also do something to reduce the number of PhDs forced into serfdom for the adjunct gods.

You don't want to end up being in yours 40s making below median income working 50 hours a week adjuncting with no benefits or job security. Now, that's what I call failure!

Amanda

I was looking at Phil jobs, and there is an amazing change in those who are getting hired just over the last 3-4 years. People are getting more and more accomplished in terms of both teaching experience and publications. Less and less ABD's are getting hired (although there are still some) and more people are getting hired who have been on the market 4+ years. A lot of those are people who have had fancy research postdocs for a number of years. I think or maybe hope there has got to be a tipping point. As the back log and quality of applicants keeps increasing, most first year hires are more accomplished than the average associate professor. Philosophers are on average about 30 when they finish their Phd -if it now becomes the norm to wait 5 years to get a TT position - well, IDK. I hope something will happen. That maybe less people will go to grad school, or programs will get better at preparing philosophers for non-academic positions; it just seems something has to give.

UK grad student

Completely agree with Pendaran here (I was saying similar things in earlier threads on here).

And, just to add to the doom and gloom that Amanda evokes: not only is it taking longer and longer to get jobs post-PhD, it's also taking longer and longer to get the PhD itself. I was talking to an older professor the other day, and he mentioned that people now tend to assume that in the 60s/70s it was easy for academics to get jobs, but, he said, actually the job market was not that rosy, and many PhDs failed to get academic jobs. But, I reminded him, people tended to have their PhDs in those days by age 26 (he had his aged 23!). And some coming from Oxbridge didn't even need to get PhDs (a BPhil was sometimes enough).

Whereas now, you'll notice people going into 5/6 year American PhD programmes having studied as undergraduates for 4 years, AND done a 1 or 2 years masters degree. That's 10-13 years of higher education (assuming they actually finish their PhD in 5/6 years)! It's really depressing that an increasing number of people feel they need to take degrees like the Oxford BPhil to get into US graduate programmes. The BPhil is meant to be equivalent to the first two years of a US integrated PhD programme, not a precursor to it!

I don't particularly blame students themselves - something's clearly wrong with the system when it takes 10-13 years of post-high-school training to get a relatively low-paying entry-level job (and that's assuming you get a job right of grad school - which as Amanda notes is increasingly unlikely).

To bring this to the point of this thread: Given the sheer amount of time-to-TT job it takes a philosopher, one is bound to have many failures on way! I think it becomes really important to be able to judge when a failure is minor and isolated enough that you should persevere in spite of it, and when it is part of a pattern that suggests it's time to get the hell out. But, of course, that's easier said than done.

Maybe we should just have more brutal exams earlier in the process, or (even) harsher admissions systems, so that we produce fewer PhDs. (But there's a worry that harsh admissions processes encourages people to stack up on masters degrees before applying to PhD programmes.)

Pendaran Roberts

'I was looking at Phil jobs, and there is an amazing change in those who are getting hired just over the last 3-4 years. People are getting more and more accomplished in terms of both teaching experience and publications.'

When I checked just last year, this is not what I noticed. I saw a lot of PhDs from top programs who were hired with 0 or maybe 1 or 2 papers.

With three publications (of any kind) you made it into the 47th percentile.

With one top 20, you made it into the 74th percentile.

This is just one year of data I found on philjobs with a sample size of 119. So, it must be taken with a grain of salt, a few grains!, but it just doesn't support this picture that people are hired based on publishing merit. I can't comment on teaching.

However, it is true that more and more of us are building up the CVs of tenured professors of the past just trying to get noticed. The reason many are annoyed is that it seems that often candidates are not selected based on this kind of merit.

'Philosophers are on average about 30 when they finish their Phd -if it now becomes the norm to wait 5 years to get a TT position - well, IDK. I hope something will happen. That maybe less people will go to grad school, or programs will get better at preparing philosophers for non-academic positions; it just seems something has to give.'

We're living in bubble after bubble due to central banks printing trillions of dollars to bail out their rich friends. The US government is in debt 20 trillion dollars. The FED 4 trillion. And that's just the US. In most of Europe, we have zero interest rates, or even negative rates.

In the UK, anyone can get a student loan and pay it back later. I assume it's basically the same in the US from what I've heard.

This is the time we live in! We are avoiding all of our economic problems by transferring them to the future.

Young adults aren't capable of making these decisions. They discount future expenses. Whenever I've asked students why they're doing a PhD, they say something like this:

'I could try to go on the job market with my philosophy degree, but have no idea what to do with it. So, I'll just stay in school and worry about it later.'

When you increase the supply of PhDs, they become less valuable. Hence, the job market problem so many of us have; hence, the CV inflation, and so on.

Of course, this is just part of the picture, but I suspect eventually that student loans will become much harder to get, after rates normalize and the current debt levels cannot be sustained. When this happens, the supply of PhDs should be much reduced.

Stuck, PhD

"In the UK, anyone can get a student loan and pay it back later. I assume it's basically the same in the US from what I've heard."

I'd argue that this is a very good thing, actually. The limiting factor in getting into any educational program should not be the financial resources currently in one's possession. It is incumbent on programs not to let in more people simply because they can afford (via loan or via personal wealth) to pay for it.

Amanda

It is true it is very easy to get student loans in the US, and fairly easy for them to be forgiven. However, I am not sure that a student loan crash will reduce the PhD supply. Most PhD's in the US are fully funded, and it is a minority of Phd's who take out loans (at least in the US).

Pendaran Roberts

I do think PhDs tend to be more heavily funded in the US than the UK. However, you still need to get a BA, which in the US is a 4 year affair. Less BAs, less money for the universities to fund PhDs and less BAs to apply to PhDs etc.

I agree with Stuck, PhD that it would be preferable if financial resources were not a limiting factor in getting into any education program. However, the problem we have is that there are way way more PhDs produced than jobs.

In a free market, we wouldn't have this, but when the government comes along and says 'everyone should be able to get an education,' then that education becomes worth less and less. That's just economics unfortunately.

Probably we need to get rid of loans, up the public funding, and force universities to charge low tuitions fees so people can pay their university fees by working at Starbucks during the summer.

This makes universities affordable to almost everyone but also puts immediate costs on getting a degree. Thus, in young people's minds, who seriously discount future costs, it would be like raising the price considerably.

Going to university wont be an automatic decision for as many people if they have to work to pay for it up front. The people who choose to do so will also value their education more. You value things you've earned more than things handed to you.

That's just one idea. But something needs to be done!

Craig

I don't think we're going to see a plummet in the number of phds much sooner than we see a plummet in the number of youngsters investing thousands of hours in sports careers. Both are fantastic long-shots that are the stuff of dreamers. You can find bunches of young men playing minor league baseball well into their twenties before giving up--why would we think philosophers less tenacious?

Tim

And now for a round of "Philosophers Making Up BS Economic Theories"!

But seriously. I can fabricate arguments for all sides of this debate that all seem equally good to me. I'm sure you can too. That's probably not because they actually are all equally good. Probably it's because I'm not trained at making actual serious economics-y arguments.

Maybe it's best if we don't try to debate things we're not experts on here. Approach the whole looking-for-ways-to-make-things-better bit with a healthy dose of intellectual humility.

Anon UK reader

Wouldn't one obvious way to stem the flow in the UK be to simply not admit students to PhD programmes who have not secured funding (that is, a grant/scholarship, not a loan)? I guess departments would be giving up the money they make from fees from such students, but this is pretty minimal I'd have thought (fees for PhD students are much less than for Masters and undergraduate students, and their numbers are much lower too). There's already a fair amount of funding out there. With only a slight increase, we'd be able to run good PhD programmes, containing only students who are fully funded. This would be completely meritocratic, would stop students going into debt in the way Pendaran describes, and would help those who do actually do the PhD.

Pendaran Roberts

Anon UK reader: 'Wouldn't one obvious way to stem the flow in the UK be to simply not admit students to PhD programmes who have not secured funding (that is, a grant/scholarship, not a loan)?'

Well, probably the way to do it is just to admit less people to begin with and admit them based on merit. I'm not sure funding is very merit based, as its often not decided by philosophers anyway. I'm not an expert on this though! But we do need to cut back on the PhDs somehow!

Tim: 'But seriously. I can fabricate arguments for all sides of this debate that all seem equally good to me. I'm sure you can too. That's probably not because they actually are all equally good. Probably it's because I'm not trained at making actual serious economics-y arguments.'

You might not understand economics at all, but I do. I've always found economics to be interesting and important and have read and studied it.

Craig: 'I don't think we're going to see a plummet in the number of phds much sooner than we see a plummet in the number of youngsters investing thousands of hours in sports careers. Both are fantastic long-shots that are the stuff of dreamers. You can find bunches of young men playing minor league baseball well into their twenties before giving up--why would we think philosophers less tenacious?'

Although I was never into sports, I always had the impression that becoming a professional athlete was a dreamer's goal. However, I was never told that this was true for becoming an academic. It was always advertised to me as a normal kind of career choice.

Now people would say it was hard and competitive, but I don't remember anyone saying that it was silly or akin to wanting to be a pro footballer or something. I also don't remember anyone saying that any serious career wasn't hard and competitive.

I'm pretty sure if I had wanted to be a professional athlete or a professional musician or whatever that the response would have been 'that's silly.' So, I think part of the problem is that there are people who pursue PhDs who aren't dreamers like those trying to be professional athletes; rather they are just people pursuing what they think is a sensible career choice.

I think society is pretty honest about your odds of becoming a pro athlete or an astronaut or a musician (who makes a decent living) or an artist etc. Society for whatever reason isn't honest about your odds of becoming a university professor, at least not the one I lived in.

I think part of the problem is that at university we're surrounded with professors. We're surrounded with those who made it. And so we do get a rather biased perspective. Another problem is that things really have gotten worse and those giving advice often base it on their own experiences. There is also an incentive not to turn students away.

Amanda

I really am not sure what the general perception of becoming an academic is among the public. I do know that when I, as an undergrad, told my boyfriend that was what I was doing he shook his head and said, "People spend there whole life trying to get those jobs." His was the most honest perspective I got. On the other hand I run into people all the time who say, "Oh you want to be a professor? Why don't you get a job at Georgetown?" Ha, right, why don't I!

Anyway I do think trying to become a professional academic is much like trying to make it in pro sports, and if it is not the perception it should be.In both cases you need to work like crazy and give up lots of your regular life for years with a small chance of success. In both cases if you do succeed you have almost no choice in where you live and it is likely you will move frequently. Now one might argue pro-athletes get a lot of money, but that is only true for some sports: female athletes, professional runners or volleyball players, aren't making much more than philosophers. The main difference is athletes retire by 35 and philosophers 75!

Anon UK reader

Haha, Amanda, yeah I've had a few people say similar things to me. Like, 'You should get a job at LSE or UCL, because Oxbridge is such a bubble'. Ha! This sort of attitude makes failure much harder to deal with as an academic, because you're not likely to get much sympathy from anyone who's not themselves engaged in academia (e.g. parents, spouses, etc).

That said, we shouldn't overplay the difficulty. How many athletes in the youth system of your average football (soccer) team get professional jobs? Maybe 2%? Once we're in graduate school, our odds are much better. They at least know they're not going to make it by around age 20, though, whereas we can persist in the delusion pretty much indefinitely.

Pendaran, I think the funding is pretty meritocratic, although perhaps it could be improved a little. Philosophers almost always either make the final decision, or are heavily involved in making it via a process of nominations (and even then it's academics who make the final decision, not administrators). I think there are good reasons, apart from reducing the no. of PhDs, to limit grad school to those you're willing to fund. But that's a discussion for another time.

pablo

I do not know what sort of delusion we are living in if we are willing to fictionalize the state of the discipline and of its corresponding job market.
There is no amazing change in those who are getting hired over the last 3-4 years, just as there is none this year. That is wishful thinking. The Yale Humanities Postdoc (sic!) had 365 applicants and went to someone who does not even have their PhD, an ABD. The Chicago Humanities Postdoc also went to an ABD from... the University of Chicago. Good PhDs are hard to find nowadays.
On PhilJobs, one can find many similar examples of these hiring practices for 2016-2017. ABD from UC Berkeley, gets hired as an Assistant Professor of Early Modern philosophy at CUNY-Lehman College, with 1 publication on neuropsychology and nothing to do with the advertised AOS. Like the majority of any sort of important positions, tenure-track, postdocs, visiting - they all go to people from the top 20, with sometimes negligible publication history and teaching experience. They should just close down all other departments and let the top 20 give all the jobs to each other ad infinitum - because they already do that in a tribalist, nepotist, and demeritorious way. You wait 5-7 years to get a decent, stable position, the ABDs of top 20-30 get prestigious postdocs and TT positions with nothing.

Pendaran Roberts

"On the other hand I run into people all the time who say, "Oh you want to be a professor? Why don't you get a job at Georgetown?" Ha, right, why don't I!"

This is the perspective I get. People say things to me which suggest they think the academic job market is amazingly good. For years I have gotten questions such as 'where do you want to work', 'why don't you work at blah', and so on.

I've even had instances where people got mad at me for not getting a job near them, as if I chose not to. haha!

So, for whatever reasons it seems to me the lay perspective is that the academic job market is fantastic!

It might have something to do with the fact that people generally think education means better job prospects and a PhD is the highest you can go.

But I don't really know...

Amanda

Yeah it is probably harder to be a pro-athlete than a tt professor. But it depends a bit on how you frame it. I know a number of college football players who have zero chance making it in the NFL but go play arena in Canada and make about 60k. Perhaps that type of pro athlete is comparable to becoming a TT professor, I'm not sure. In any case, I might be exaggerating a bit but I find it a helpful analogy when trying to explain the market to family members who are basically clueless. "You see, becoming a professor is like trying to becoming a pro-athlete..."

Another issue with the ordinary person perspective is that they don't really know the difference between an adjunct and a TT professor. Hence if they know a friend got a one-course adjunct gig at Georgetown, they think it is fairly easy to get a full-time job at Georgetown.

As for who is getting hired, I have now argued both sides of the issue. I do think postdocs tend to be less meritorious and more based on prestige than TT positions. (I actually had a research professor tell me the point of postdocs is to work on publications, and hence those who have publications don't need them) Anyway, the data is out there and those who are interested can look at phil jobs and make there own judgement. The market is surely very difficult for most of us, and what is surely frustrating is the path to success can seem completely out of our control.

Amanda

Speaking of grappling with failures, I hope all are enjoying the flurry of PFO's arriving! Seeing I failed by getting no reply for 5 months, and checking the wiki, and phil jobs, was just not enough...

Everlasting Godstopper

Oh yes Amanda.

Here's an example of why job hunting is frustrating: I, along with many others, applied for a fellowship at the beginning of April. One month later, an e-mail has been sent out inviting those who submitted incomplete applications to re-apply by a new deadline.

Now, I *might* be wrong, but my understanding is that this is sometimes done when they have a preferred candidate in mind, and want to encourage/ensure that they make an application.

It's frustrating to know that this application has cost me time that now seems to have been better spent on working my own papers. Of course, these things are always a long shot, but I'd like to believe I am at least applying for jobs where people are appointed fairly :)

Optimistic Realist

Everlasting
It is just as likely that the position was offered to someone. They accepted, and then they dropped it before they started the position because of a better offer. Consequently, the search is still open.

Everlasting Godstopper

Hi Optimistic,

This is a U.K fellowship so I *think* the rules might be slightly different. For a post like this, it's usual to interview approx. 4-6 candidates, so the chances of them all turning it down are obviously remote.

Whatever is going on, it's all quite frustrating.

Amanda

Yeah no guarantee of anything. You might get a flyout when there is an extreme favorite, and that is a ton of time for low odds, but what choice do we have? Such is philosophy I suppose.

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