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« The Secret Lives of Search Committees, part 23: Top 5 job-market tips | Main | Mid-career reflections, part 6: trajectory matters »

07/09/2018

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Socrates

Marcus,
This is the key to the good life in general. People really do matter. When you start to appreciate your students and colleagues, things go much better in life. It is not always easy. But it does pay off. Not in a crass way, but in a way that makes one's life richer.

Mentors are also important. I have had a few along the way (I do not think I am easily mentored either!). But the people who have been mentors have been great for me and my career. They tell you how to behave, and what is of real value. I am far enough along that I have begun to mentor others (with some success ... and ...)

Postdoc

The inauthenticity is a problem because the crony job market forces you to befriend those in power over you, regardless of whether you really like those people. You can’t just be friends with the people you like naturally. You need to make the right friends, and that might even mean forgoing natural friendships. This is a corrupt system. Jobs shouldn’t be given out based on connections but based on merit.

Marcus Arvan

Postdoc: Thanks for weighing in. Here are some thoughts in reply.

You write: "The inauthenticity is a problem because the crony job market forces you to befriend those in power over you, regardless of whether you really like those people. You can’t just be friends with the people you like naturally."

Yes and no.

Yes in the sense that this is true of *any* profession. Just about every profession in the world requires having good relationships with people you might not want to be friends with. That's just what it is to work in a profession.

However, as I point out in the OP, this reality can in an important way be minimized. First, by changing your own perspective, it is possible to see people differently. Early in my career, when I didn't think relationships mattered, I didn't want to be friends with certain people. But then, as soon as I gave some of them a chance (see my stories above about approaching faculty members), I *wanted* to have good relationships with them--because they showed good will, etc. Second, one does have a fair amount of autonomy to decide who one's mentors are. There were some professors whose professional outlooks I fundamentally disagreed with. Although I tried to avoid alienating them, I decided to work instead with people who I thought were more supportive. These are the kinds of choices you can make. You can determine *who* to befriend to have a good experience in the profession--and you do not need to befriend everyone.

You write: "You need to make the right friends, and that might even mean forgoing natural friendships. This is a corrupt system. Jobs shouldn’t be given out based on connections but based on merit."

Welcome to human life. Seriously. I agree with you in principle. I also think each of us should try to make the world a fairer place. For what it is worth, I do my best. Still, for all that, your comment here strikes me as perniciously idealistic. Yes, in an ideal world, jobs would be distributed by merit. However, I think it is wise to grapple with the world as it is, not fixate excessively on how it should be. Again, we should try to improve the world by all means. But one must grapple with reality as it is. Otherwise, one will simply run head-on into that reality, like it or not.

Postdoc

"Yes in the sense that this is true of *any* profession. Just about every profession in the world requires having good relationships with people you might not want to be friends with. That's just what it is to work in a profession."

This is true given the right definition of 'good relationship.' It's of course true that working in a profession requires you to get along with people, more or less, and to do your job well. However, what you say is false if by 'good relationship' you mean something more personal. It's not required by every profession that you be friends with your colleagues.

"There were some professors whose professional outlooks I fundamentally disagreed with. Although I tried to avoid alienating them, I decided to work instead with people who I thought were more supportive. These are the kinds of choices you can make. You can determine *who* to befriend to have a good experience in the profession--and you do not need to befriend everyone."

The problem comes when those you fundamentally disagree with or whose personalities you find to be obnoxious happen to be the people in charge of your future in the profession. Not everyone will find themselves in this kind of position but some will. Some will be able to avoid inauthenticity but others may not.

"Still, for all that, your comment here strikes me as perniciously idealistic. Yes, in an ideal world, jobs would be distributed by merit. However, I think it is wise to grapple with the world as it is, not fixate excessively on how it should be. Again, we should try to improve the world by all means. But one must grapple with reality as it is. Otherwise, one will simply run head-on into that reality, like it or not."

I was actually completely clueless. I wasn't intentionally trying to bash my head against a wall in stubborn opposition. I simply didn't know how the world worked.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Postdoc: Thanks for your reply. Here are some further thoughts.

You write: "However, what you say is false if by 'good relationship' you mean something more personal. It's not required by every profession that you be friends with your colleagues."

I beg to differ. I think it is true in almost every profession--at least those where one works with other people--that it is generally advisable to be 'friends' with your colleagues. While some people may not *realize* it is true, I nevertheless think it is true.

You write: "The problem comes when those you fundamentally disagree with or whose personalities you find to be obnoxious happen to be the people in charge of your future in the profession. Not everyone will find themselves in this kind of position but some will. Some will be able to avoid inauthenticity but others may not."

The right response to this, I think, is to avoid situations where the people in charge of your prospects are people you cannot stand. One way to do this is to find out before joining a grad program whether you are a good 'fit' for the faculty there. Another way is to choose to specialize in an area and work with people who *are* a good fit for you. This is what I did. When I started at Arizona, I focused in metaphysics. I did not gel with faculty there at that time in that area. I took some classes in political philosophy and found myself a better fit for some of the people working in that area. So I changed my focus. One should not put oneself in a position where the people that have power over you are people you cannot stomach to work with and be authentic with.

You write: "I was actually completely clueless. I wasn't intentionally trying to bash my head against a wall in stubborn opposition. I simply didn't know how the world worked."

This is why I am writing posts like this, and it is why I am also concerned with some of the views you are expressing. These are not the kinds of things that grad students and other early-career people in the profession can afford to be unaware of. 'Street smarts' are vital in most areas of life. My point in my above comments are that, in our profession, 'street smarts' involve being aware of these kinds of things and grappling with the profession as it is, not how one wishes it would be.

Postdoc

"I beg to differ. I think it is true in almost every profession--at least those where one works with other people--that it is generally advisable to be 'friends' with your colleagues. While some people may not *realize* it is true, I nevertheless think it is true."

I have never had anyone else say anything like this. But it's at least not true in principle. You can work well with people who are not your friends, and in fact might even work better when the bias of friendship is taken out of the picture.

"The right response to this, I think, is to avoid situations where the people in charge of your prospects are people you cannot stand. One way to do this is to find out before joining a grad program whether you are a good 'fit' for the faculty there. Another way is to choose to specialize in an area and work with people who *are* a good fit for you. This is what I did. When I started at Arizona, I focused in metaphysics. I did not gel with faculty there at that time in that area. I took some classes in political philosophy and found myself a better fit for some of the people working in that area. So I changed my focus. One should not put oneself in a position where the people that have power over you are people you cannot stomach to work with and be authentic with."

I agree with all of this. I should have changed PhD programs. I didn't know better though.

"'Street smarts' are vital in most areas of life. My point in my above comments are that, in our profession, 'street smarts' involve being aware of these kinds of things and grappling with the profession as it is, not how one wishes it would be."

I think it's unclear how the profession really is or really works. We are taught contradictory things. I was told it was a merit based system, where what was most important was to publish papers in the best journals you can.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Postdoc: Interesting. You and I seem to have had very different life experiences.

To my point about the importance of 'being friends' with coworkers, you write: "I have never had anyone else say anything like this. But it's at least not true in principle. You can work well with people who are not your friends, and in fact might even work better when the bias of friendship is taken out of the picture."

I find this very surprising. I have rarely encountered anyone who *doesn't* think it is true and important.

Indeed, literally everyone I know who has been successful--in many different industries--has mentioned just how important personal relationships have been to their success. This is a more general instance of something my mother and father drilled into my head growing up, which is that we don't live in a meritocratic world but rather a world where people help their friends. I resisted this as an idealistic young man. I wanted the world to be meritocratic. But it *isn't*. And anyone embarking on a profession--especially one as tenuous as ours--should know this.

Further, the relevant issue here--as in life is general--is not what is "true in principle" but what is true as a rough generalization. This is a major difference between having street smarts and not having them. The person with street smarts does not focus on what is "true in principle." They focus on and tailor their behavior to actual patterns in reality--and as I note in the OP, and as my parents noted to me all growing up, the importance of *personal* relationships pervades human life. People tend to help their friends, thwart their enemies, and neglect people they don't have feelings for one way or the other. This may sound terrible, and indeed it might be--though, as I noted in the OP, I think one can authentically appreciate the importance of relationships if one changes one's perspective. In any case, I firmly believe it to be true: *personal* relationships matter--in human life, and across many professions, including philosophy. One can say what is "true in principle" all one likes--but one must deal with consequences if what is true in principle does not match reality.

You write: "I think it's unclear how the profession really is or really works. We are taught contradictory things. I was told it was a merit based system, where what was most important was to publish papers in the best journals you can."

I find it surprising--and disappointing--that you were told that. While I was told to only publish stuff in top journals (bad advice), I was never told the profession was a meritocracy, and have a hard time seeing how--given human nature--anyone could seriously think that.

Postdoc

"I find this very surprising. I have rarely encountered anyone who *doesn't* think it is true and important.

Indeed, literally everyone I know who has been successful--in many different industries--has mentioned just how important personal relationships have been to their success."

Interesting. Yea, I've never encountered this. People I knew liked to claim their success was because of their talents. I didn't know people who talked about how important their personal relationships were. Either they weren't that important, or they were ashamed to admit it.

"They focus on and tailor their behavior to actual patterns in reality--and as I note in the OP, and as my parents noted to me all growing up, the importance of *personal* relationships pervades human life. People tend to help their friends, thwart their enemies, and neglect people they don't have feelings for one way or the other. This may sound terrible, and indeed it might be."

Yes, this is what I discovered in life much to my surprise.

"I find it surprising--and disappointing--that you were told that. While I was told to only publish stuff in top journals (bad advice), I was never told the profession was a meritocracy, and have a hard time seeing how--given human nature--anyone could seriously think that."

I guess I don't find it that hard to understand why people would think that. This is the reason I thought it. From a young age my dad hounded me about grades and my performance in and out of school. This continued in college, where grades became the most important part of my life. I fell in love with philosophy and wanted to go to graduate school. To do this, I was told that I needed good grades, mainly A's, and to produce good writing samples, etc. In graduate school there were more grades, and writing, and then publishing. I was told to publish or perish. So, I worked really hard to publish papers. I really didn't want to fail. So, I worked really hard at doing as well as I could as school. So, my entire world from when I was a kid until my 30s was determined by grades and then at the end by publications.

Given this was my life, I don't think it's weird to have developed the idea that merit is what matters and to focus on that. So, I did. It never occurred to me that I should be spending at least half my time trying to form friendships with the right people. In fact, I would have probably thought that that was distasteful and/or wrong. This is not to say I didn't make friends or have professional relationships. I've in fact published papers with colleagues. I just didn't put much effort into the social side of things. I didn't think it was important or what was expected of me. However, what I learned is that people give jobs to their friends first. In philosophy it seems that once these jobs are given out there just isn't a whole lot left over, the market being so bad.


Marcus Arvan

Hi Postdoc: Thanks for continuing the conversation. Since I'm not sure what else to add, allow me to digress a bit...

I don't know how old you are or what generation you are from, but I had a conversation with my spouse recently (who is a bit younger than I am) that may shed some light on this.

You say that your father hounded you about grades, how this was pushed throughout your undergrad studies, and how you built your entire life around a kind of meritocratic paradigm from childhood until your mid-30's (including your career in philosophy).

An interesting thing: my spouse (who is Generation Y or something like that) was taught the same things. All growing up, she was taught the importance of grades, performance, etc.--and believed these things would be rewarded.

Why is this interesting? Because, as a member of Generation X, this is exactly how I *wasn't* raised. Having spoken to my spouse and others in her generation, I see just how differently their parents raised her than our parents did mine.

As a Generation X-er (a notoriously cynical generation), I wasn't raised to think the world is fair and meritocratic, or all about grades and performance. I was raised to believe that life is fundamentally unfair; that success is often more about who you know than it is about merit; and so on. Whereas you (as you say) learned to focus on things like grades and performance, my parents spent most of my youth emphasizing the importance of getting to know people. Seriously. I'm not kidding. I hated them always saying it. I wanted the world to be fair and "pure." But now I get it: they were just showing me the way the world is. The world is a place where relationships matter--often, far more than other things.

I don't mean to overstate generational differences. However, across a number of discussions with different people, these differences have very much stood out to me.

Anyway, this cynical take on life I was raised with (and, in my experience, people in my generation were generally raised with) may sound terrible. But I think my generation was taught it for a reason. We owe our children the truth. My parents conveyed to me that performance matters, but that it is hardly the only thing that matters--and that, in much of life and industry, other things (such as relationships) matter far more. I think they were right to teach these things, and am thankful every day that they did. If young people are being taught something different--that success in life and career are determined by things like grades and performance--then I think that is real problem: one that can leads to false expectations. By all means, we should teach our children that the world *should* be fair. But we should not delude them into thinking that it is.

Postdoc

I am 33. However, I am not a normal 33 year old, because my father is 79 and was born in the 1939. His take on the world is so different from people today, and I think I was in fact raised out of time, so to speak. Honestly, I think it's really hurt me, because I fundamentally don't understand the modern world in the way that someone raised by younger parents would. Why did my dad think the world was a meritocracy? I think it was one for him, honestly. That's the best I can guess. He certainly doesn't value friendships or anything. haha! My dad would say the world has changed and people used to have a lot more opportunities in the west. A old of older people claim this. I hasten to guess that generations teach their kids differently, because they have different experiences. My dad's world was one where hard work really did pay off. Of course people always think things were better when they were young. So, it's difficult to know. Time obscures history and we can't see it for ourselves.

WasShocked

Marcus, Postdoc--

Question: Have either of you ever worked, in a serious way, outside of academia? I did for years, and then came to professional philosophy relatively later in life.

I have NEVER encountered an environment so driven by personal connections, and in which performance is so irrelevant to professional success. I came into academia expecting just the opposite: Ideas were what mattered, and people rose or fell on the basis of theirs. Now, as best I can tell, it's some mixture of race / gender / luck / connections / performance, with the last being the least important, relatively.

Marcus is basically right when he says that "just about every profession in the world requires having good relationships with people you might not want to be friends with." But that's not Postdoc's point, I don't think. His/her point is that the system is CORRUPT--whether you succeed or fail turns largely on how good you are at flattering the right people. This is one reason why, despite having done well myself in the profession, I warn off everyone who asks me for advice about doing a PhD in philosophy.

Amanda

Interesting discussion, and important. I think there are far too many people who go into philosophy and believe what postdoc believed, and then end up incredibly bitter because of it. I always knew life wasn't fair, which is why I cultivated personal relationships in addition to teaching and publications. Every once and a while though, my old idealistic self (which honestly died when I was 8 years old or so) can't help but cry out against the unjust philosophy world, which, of course, is just one aspect of the unjust world. I guess for a brief period I believed philosophy was different. Hahahah.

"One way to do this is to find out before joining a grad program whether you are a good 'fit' for the faculty there. Another way is to choose to specialize in an area and work with people who *are* a good fit for you. This is what I did. When I started at Arizona, I focused in metaphysics. I did not gel with faculty there at that time in that area. I took some classes in political philosophy and found myself a better fit for some of the people working in that area. So I changed my focus. One should not put oneself in a position where the people that have power over you are people you cannot stomach to work with and be authentic with."

I think this is really, really, important advice. I too changed my dissertation topic because I didn't mesh with the faculty in my original area of interest. I know a number of grad students who stuck with their faculty adviser in spite of all the evidence in the world that this person(s) would be difficult to work with. A few of them left the program. Others couldn't get their adviser to write LOR's which basically kills any chance on the job market. And I think what kept these people making the wrong decision is this idealistic image that if they just work hard and be honest it will all turn out okay in the end. That is not how the world works, kids.(says the 32 year old!).

Marcus Arvan

Was Shocked: I did work seriously outside of academia (in a managerial position for a mental health provider), but only for about a year during undergrad and then one more year after my undergrad.

In that brief time, I was shocked about how much incompetence was rewarded...provided one sucked up to the right people and played the role of a “team player.” So I guess our experiences are flipped there, though my sample is probably too small to generalize.

More generally, most of my knowledge of what things are like outside of academia comes from talk with friends and relatives. While it is hard to make any good comparisons on that basis, many of the people I do know have said that connections and relationships matter a great deal.

In any case, my overall experience in academic philosophy isn’t as uniformly bad as yours seems to have been. Indeed, let me say something about the things you say shock you: your experience that you have never experienced a line of work so corrupt as this one. For what it is worth, my sense is that this may be more true in the R1 world than it is in the teaching-school world (an issue I’ve hammered on many times on this blog). To get an R1 job, my sense is that basically everything has to go right for you: you have to come out of the right program, have the right people in your corner, and so on. I’ve seen many, many incredibly accomplished people publish their tails off--publishing in places like Nous, JPhil, Mind, etc.--and still not get jobs. So I can fully understand why, focusing on this part of the profession, it looks so corrupt. You see high performers not rewarded for their performance.

Yet this is just one of many reasons why I think it is such a terrible mistake for people to fall into the conventional wisdom that I have questioned on this blog: about how you need to publish in the best journals to get a job, and so on. Folks, this game--the game of publishing in the best journals so you can get a job--is a *losing* game. The casino wins. I see it time and again. Candidate after candidate seems to think, "If only I publish one more article in Mind, then I'll get a job"...only to then see the job they wanted go to someone with no publications coming out of Princeton or wherever.

Is the lesson to be learned here that academia is corrupt? One might think so. But I think this is a hasty generalization. My experience is that the "teaching school" world is much different. In my world--at the kind teaching institution I now work in--I don't see people mostly hired on the basis of connections or Leiter rank. By and large, I see something different: I see a world where people genuinely care whether they are hiring a good teacher, someone who can publish consistently (but who isn't a flight risk), etc.

What evidence do I have that the teaching school game is more merit-based? Well, I have one friend who came out of a program that places 70% of its applicants in TT jobs—far more than NYU, Harvard, Princeton, whatever. Their secret? My sense, by and large, is that it’s not connections. It’s that they simply got their graduates to play a different game. Or take me. I stopped playing the R1 game. I started publishing in low-ranked journals, innovated as a teacher, did all kinds of service, etc. My interview and fly-out numbers skyrocketed. The things I was doing in my career evidently made a difference.

Long story short. I agree: there is a lot about our profession that is terribly unfair. Yet one serious problem is that almost everyone seems to be obsessed with playing the *less* fair game (the game of hoping you'll get an R1 job by publishing in top-journals). If you think that game is rigged--and you may be right--try playing another game. You might just be surprised it's not as terrible as you think. That, at any rate, is what I found.

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