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« The Secret Lives of Search Committees, Part 22: apply again! | Main | Mid-career reflections, part 5: people matter »

07/06/2018

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Postdoc

I think another tip worth mentioning is network and find an advisor or mentor who is going to work on your behalf to help you get a job, to help you publish, talk you up, introduce you to the big names in the field, and so on. Many of those I know who managed to get somewhere were great networkers, or had a lot of help from more senior faculty. Of course, you can't completely control what kind of person your advisor ends up being or how much he ends up liking you. You can't control, not entirely, whether you can find a good mentor. However, if you think you can get a job based simply on your own merit, especially if you don't have the pedigree, I think you'll be disappointed. So, I guess this tip could be summarized like so: As unintuitive as it might seem to some of you (I know it never occurred to me), don't spend all your time during your PhD reading and writing. Rather, be sociable, and find out how to get people to like you, remember you, think you're smart, and so on. (I've found that a good way to get people to think you're smart is to 1. use big words and 2. be fast on your feet, e.g. maybe memorize a series of witty but not condescending rejoinders). These things are as important to finding a job as your philosophical outputs (including your teaching, if you have the opportunity to do much of that in grad school).

I think a problem that many encounter, and I certainly think this applies to me, is that the type of person attracted to philosophy tends to derive more pleasure from reading and writing and thinking than from socializing or making friends. They may even find these activities annoying, frustrating, or boring. When we do have conversations with people, it's difficult not to just talk about philosophy, argue about philosophy, and when the conversation changes to something 'normal,' we bore fast. Moreover, we're kind of indoctrinated into thinking that the best philosopher is the loner who spends his time reading and writing and thinking and going for walks alone, think of famous figures like Kant and Wittgenstein. We're indoctrinated to think that the way you appear like a good philosopher is not to socialize too much or be too 'normal.' And we're happy to accept this indoctrination, because it fits perfectly with our personalities. Unfortunately, we're still human and subject to all the biases that humans are subject to, so when it comes to hiring even if we're not that sociable, it's going to be impossible not to prefer people we've heard good things about from friends or people we respect, and so on. In fact, it might even be entirely rational for us to do this. So, get out of your room, away from the computer, and try to 'put yourself out there' so to speak. Try to learn to be memorable and affable and friendly. Get people to like you and talk about you and want to be with you.

Maybe one day we'll do away with interviews, introduce blind hiring, and base decisions mainly on merit (number of pubs, number of relevant classes taught, evaluations). However, until that time comes, those who have successfully gotten their name stuck in the minds of numerous faculty with positive associations attached will benefit over those who haven't. Those who can get people to talk behind their backs positively about them will benefit over those who aren't talked about or who are mainly talked about negatively, e.g. so and so is kind of irritable, or so and so is too serious, or so and so is too argumentative... So, work on your personality and trying to be likable. Probably there are 'tricks' you can use.

Postscript: I don't like that the discipline works this way. I don't condone it. But if your internal morality permits it, trying to be 'that kind of person' might pay off. Of course, this is more easily said than done. Alternatively, you can just be yourself, work your hardest, and take what comes, as long as it's recognized this isn't the best way to find a job.

Marcus Arvan

Post doc: YES. I almost included that in my top-5, but am planning to discuss it in an upcoming post called “people matter” in my Midcareer Reflections series. My sense is that too many grad students are too idealistic, thinking that success in the field is all about what you put on paper. No, just as in every part of human life, we are not dealing with meritocratic robots. We are dealing with human *beings*—and humans have this odd tendency to want to help out other human beings they like but not help out those they don’t. It may or may not be fair or right, but early career people need to be aware of it—that like all professions, there’s a lot more to ours than simply what’s on your CV or in your published articles.

Marcus Arvan

Though I think you are mostly wrong on this: “I've found that a good way to get people to think you're smart is to 1. use big words and 2. be fast on your feet, e.g. maybe memorize a series of witty but not condescending rejoinders).“

In my experience, this is almost always exactly the *wrong* way to be. This general strategy of trying to “one-up” others around you, trying to show off how smart you are (even if is not overtly condescending), in my experience at most works for a few Golden Boys who people already think are geniuses. In almost every other case—including my own past first-hand experience—my sense is that the strategy you suggest just turns people *against* you.

As I explained in my recent post on bitterness and resentment, my experience is that trying to be a good, helpful person works far better. The Boy Genius aside (and probably not even in their case), no one wants to be around someone who uses big words and speaks really fast. That just comes off obnoxious and egoistic. It’s no way to get people on your side. Instead, try being kind and helpful. Unless everyone thinks you're a genius, it works better.

Postdoc

Well, we’re just speculating based on our anecdotal data. There is empirical research in psychology about how to get ahead at work and etc. We should refer to that. However, in my experience the people who were thought to be really smart did three things:

1. They used big words.

2. They memorized a lot of names and those peoples views.

3. They were fast on their feet with rejoinders.

Of course 1-3 is not that relevant to philosophy but they seem to be really good at getting people to think you have a lot of potential.

Amanda

I agree with Marcus on the big word thing. I know people who do that and they almost universally come across as trying too hard and it makes them look worse. I actually know one person like this in particular... and everyone I know talks about them behind their back because their attempts to use impressive vocabulary are transparent and obnoxious.

I do agree networking is very important. One of the main differences between people I know who succeed and those who don't are the successful people recognize thats success is not achieved *ONLY* through a C.V.

Derek Bowman

I have no objections to any of this as advice, but I'd like to highlight just how brutal the "game of inches" quote really is.

**"On this team we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch."**

And in this context the thing we're clawing and tearing ourselves and one another to pieces for isn't truth or beauty or philosophical insights. It's just for the same thing we'd be struggling for in any other industry - often with better pay or security or with a less extended training/apprenticeship period.

Marcus Arvan

Derek: I mostly agree. Life is brutal. It sucks that academia is not an island of non-brutality. Alas...

I will say, though, that some of us are scratching and clawing for truth and beauty. Although I know people who seem to treat philosophy as a game—one with winners and losers—I also know people who are sincerely pursuing truth and beauty. I sincerely believe that I am, and know others in the profession who believe that they are as well.

An unfortunate lesson of this post, and of the profession and human life more generally, is that whatever truth and beauty we seek has to occur in a brutal labor system. Such is life. I would be the first to wholeheartedly agree that it is sad. I wish the world were different in oh so many ways...

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