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Pendaran Roberts

I think both sides are right to a degree. If a department hires someone too good to be true, they'll likely regret it. However, given the job market, if a pack of ravaging dogs fighting over scraps can be called a market, what's too good to be true isn't what it used to be.


I think that, given what Marcus said about how bad this can be, hiring departments are likely to overestimate the odds of it happening. This, combined with what Pendaran Roberts is pointing to have combined to make it a really odd time to be a very-good-but-not-amazing job candidate. By virtue of being not amazing, one fails to attract fancy-pants departments. By virtue of being very good, one ends up being labeled a flight risk by non-fancy-pants departments with out-of-date ideas about how good a philosopher they can attract.

I think the other thing to worry about is whether these is any evidence that departments can *effectively* screen for flight risks. I am dubious both of (a) there being research on the matter and (b) the effectiveness of any screening procedure actually implemented.


Just for the record: yes, it is true, departments do lose lines when a recent hire leaves after 1 year. We lost one. It was a great hire, perhaps too great.

Postdoc Quinns

So: what's a job candidate to do?

I've been on the market for several years. By regularly publishing, I show to search committees that I have not been idle since graduating (and I keep my employers happy). But after a few years of regularly publishing, one looks like a flight risk. Either I hurt myself by publishing, or I hurt myself by not publishing.

How do I stay on the market without hurting myself?

Marcus Arvan

Postdoc Quinns: Unfortunately, I don't think there is a simple answer. I grappled with this issue myself as a candidate several years ago, and these are the best answers I ever came up with:



In a nutshell, job-candidates face a real dilemma, and probably have to fall on one horn or the other.

On the one hand, I think if you publish in top-ranked journals, you put yourself in a better position to get a job at a research university -- but run the risk of looking like a flight risk for teaching schools.

On the other hand, I think if you publish in decent lower-ranked journals and have a good teaching record, you probably make yourself more competitive for teaching schools (and less of a flight risk), but less competitive for research schools.

As such, there may be no way to become maximally competitive for all types of jobs simultaneously. One can either become more competitive for one type of job, but not the other; or vice versa. At the end of the day, I figured all I could do is just do my best work and find out which side of the dilemma my candidacy would fall on--and it turns out I made myself more competitive for teaching jobs.

Anyway, although this advice may be admittedly disappointing, I nevertheless think that may be the best that anyone can do: just do your best at everything (teaching, research, service, etc.), and let the cards fall where they may.


I think we have to be very careful about generalizing from things that happened even three or four years ago. By all accounts, the number of applicants on the market has more than doubled since then and the number of jobs has not increased. This means that your confidence that a person is a flight risk should be much less than it used to be, and that anecdotes about superstars from 5 years back are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the general population of job-seekers. That's the poster's point, not that flight isn't possible, but that as things get worse and worse it becomes deeply unfair to screen someone just because they have good publications.

Marcus Arvan

Joe: Yes, we must be careful with that. But we must also be careful to understand the difficult situation that hiring departments may be in. Funding for philosophy departments is scarce. A department doing a hire at a teaching school may have been fighting for the past 15 years to get a single new tenure-track line. Because they might not get the line back if they have a failed hire, they may not be able to afford taking a risk on someone who might leave. And as hard as the job market may be, there may be candidates who still plausibly seem like a risk.

Again, imagine a teaching school with a 4/4 teaching load in the middle of nowhere. Suppose a candidate from Cornell or Harvard (or wherever) applies there with a record of publication in top-5 journals (Ethics, Phil Review, etc.), and with glowing letters from The Most Famous Philosophers Alive saying they are the next Great Philosopher who is going to revolutionize the field. As terrible as the job market is, given the uncertainties and stakes involved, is it really unreasonable to consider such a person a potential flight risk? Why? If their CV is so good that it suggests they belong at a Top Program, isn't there a non-negligible chance that they're *not* going to love their 4/4 job in the middle of nowhere so much that they won't apply out and be competitive for those jobs? It's not like I've heard just a few stories of new hires jumping ship. I've heard more than a few -- and, as anon points out above, these cases can devastate departments, losing them TT lines they desperately need.


I've been wondering about something relevant to this issue: My impression is that, over the past few years (while I've been on the market and so paying close attention), the number of TT jobs going to people who already had TT jobs has steadily increased. That is, the amount of flight happening has actually increased, rather than decreased, as one might have expected given the scarcity of jobs. Of course, I haven't confirmed my impression by checking the numbers (I don't have time, but I'd love it if someone could confirm or disconfirm). So maybe I'm just off base here.

One reason the question is relevant, though, is that if people are more likely to leave than they once were (for what reasons, I don't exactly know, though I have suspicions), that could be part of the CAUSE of the scarcity of jobs. (After all, it would be possible, in principle, for the whole job market to be nothing but a shuffling of people from one place to another. And if even only a little bit of that is happening, the backlog of people looking for jobs will grow faster than it would have otherwise.) It also suggests (to me, anyway) that those with TT jobs may have an ethical obligation (to the profession and others in it) not to leave their jobs. (Of course the obligation could be overridden if the job was genuinely awful for them for some reason––I've heard of cases in which I think any such obligation would surely have been overridden.)

Anyway, I'm curious (i) whether anyone can confirm or disconfirm my impression about the number of TT jobs going to people already holding TT positions and (ii) what people think about there being an ethical obligation to stay in your current TT job (absent overriding reasons to leave it).

Marcus Arvan

NK: I haven't done the numbers either, but I get that sense too. It could be trend, but it could also be an artifact of reporting. As recent discussions here suggest, some people do not report their new jobs because they do not want to appear self-congratulatory or be the subject of gossip. I suspect these reasons for not reporting apply less to lateral moves from one TT job to another, as people plausibly have personal and professional incentives to publicly report when they've "moved up in the philosophy world."


NK: I'm a little wary of the ethical line. I certainly don't think anyone should be actively or perniciously screwing other people over. But I also think that things are bad enough that it's everybody for themselves.

I worry about the ethical line because it's already doing a whole lot of work for (well, against) us: we're supposedly doing this because it's something we love. Our pay is kind of crappy, especially by contrast to the time spent on education; we already do *a lot* of basically unremunerated service work for the profession and for institutions; raises are scarce and getting scarcer; those of us who spend a lot of time on teaching are probably already going over and above what we're actually paid to do; we're willing to accept years spent earning poverty wages before our big break; and, perhaps most importantly, we have virtually no control over where we live. Couple that with the gladiatorial spectacle of the job market, and we're all already sucking up a lot of crap.

We already tell VAPs and adjuncts not to invest more in their employers than their employers invest in them. I think the same holds true for TT faculty, too. Our relationship to the university is a contractual one, and lateral moves are a legitimate part and parcel of that game. Even if lateral moves end up making things worse for those of us on the market, I don't think they make them appreciably worse, or that their removal from the equation would make things appreciably better. It's crappy, sure, but the whole situation is crappy.

It looks to me like the real ethical obligations here are on the employer's side of the table.

As for flight risks... Tim's right. What exactly are these screening methods, and can we really be confident that they work relatively well?

Only Wednesday

"It looks to me like the real ethical obligations here are on the employer's side of the table."

Agreed. Departments should not open jobs both to junior faculty who have no permanent jobs and those who already have one. They should not have open rank jobs when, clearly, they expect senior ranked faculty to trump the junior ranked. I've lost a nice TT job to someone who already had a comfy job. She was not even among the finalists (all junior). She did not even work in the advertised AOS. I don't resent those who apply, but I resent departments who make the life of the better-off easier, thereby consciously making the like of the worse-off even harder.


Max: I share, your concerns about the ethical line I suggested, and certainly agree that the real ethical obligations are on the employer's side of the table. But I'm still skeptical of the conclusion that it should therefore be everyone for themselves. When people with TT jobs apply for other TT jobs, that increases competition for everyone on the market, which tends to put all of us in a weaker position vis-a-vis our employers. So it seems like there's at least something to be said for a strategy of solidarity.

Of course, if you're right that lateral moves don't make that much of a difference––and that might well be right––then I guess this is all beside the point.


There's probably a Bayes' Theorem sort of thing going on here. (Useful link for those unfamiliar with the concept: http://vassarstats.net/bayes.html)

Let me explain:

The vast majority of people hired at any given institution are not flight risks. This is clear: even if we've heard *lots* (as Marcus says) of stories about flights, everyone else we've ever met from such a school is an example of a non-fleeing philosopher.

As a result, any method used to screen for flight risks has to be *overwhelmingly accurate* (in the sense of not getting many false positives) in order for it to be worth using. This is especially so because I get the impression that the sorts of things one looks for to determine flight-riskiness are not likely to result in people saying things like "OMG, this person's a total non-flight-risk", but at best things like "ok, this person doesn't *seem* to be a flight risk".

Bayes' Theorem. It's real and it matters and it tells us definitively to stop trying to screen for flight riskiness.

(That was overstated for effect. I won't stand by it if pressed, I just thought it was a fun position to take on the matter.)

Marcus Arvan

Tim: I don't think Bayes' theorem can settle the matter, and for two reasons. First, I suspect that when it comes to the kinds of candidates committees might screen out, there may indeed be overwhelming reasons to think the screening method is probably accurate. Anecdotally, I don't think committees tend to screen for flight risks wantonly, but instead tend to do it only for *really* clear cases (viz. candidates from Top 5 schools with impressive top-ranked publishing records that make it a near certainty that the person is likely to have the means and motivation to leave the 4/4 job for a research job). Second, any calculation of expected utility must be based not only on probability of different outcomes (viz. Bayes' theorem), but also the *utilities* of different possible outcomes. Provided a committee likes all of the candidates they are thinking of hiring (for which in my experience is common), the positive utility associated with *any* successful hire is likely to be approximately the same (namely, a good hire). So it is really the "bad case" (i.e. a failed hire) a committee has greater utility-based reasons to want to avoid. Since as mentioned above a failed hire (who jumps ship) has immense disutilty for a hiring department, even if the probability of that result is very small the overall expected outcome of taking the risk may be far lower than that of making a safer choice, selecting a candidate who will almost certainly accept and remain in the position.

Chris Stephens

I'm not sure how much this generalizes, but I have one personal anecdote that may be relevant. When I was on the job market, many years ago, a school I interviewed with ended with the usual "Do you have any questions for us? or anything else you'd like to tell us?" - I asked some standard question about the University, but what (it turns out) there were really looking for was something like "I'd love to live in area X" (where the University was located), because they were worried about flight risk. They even sent a follow up letter that explicitly told me the main reason I didn't get a campus visit was because I didn't do enough to indicate that I'd take the job if offered or stay if I got it.

I even had a family connection to the area (which I didn't mention), but in retrospect, mentioning this might have made a difference.

I ended up getting a good job offer elsewhere so in the end it doesn't really matter, but it was certainly a job I'd have taken if I didn't have another option. Gladly.

So maybe there's a double lesson here: if you're the candidate, and you do have some special reason to want to be in the area of the University (e.g., family or in-laws in the area, etc.), mention it if you think the school might be worried about you as a flight risk.
If you're the department, can you really be sure that you're able to get reliable evidence about who is and isn't a flight risk? Even if you pick the candidate who is "from the area" they may have a spouse or two-body problem that makes them want to leave, etc.


I think there is no point is screening for flight risk (other than just the obvious things such as if a candidate openly expresses serious doubts about their ability to be happy. I was one of those people who went after just 1 year. And my employers could not have possibly seen this coming because on paper it looked all good - I was a good fit, I even knew a couple of people in the department and we got on well. The problem was, my partner really disliked living where we lived. And so did I. There were other problems - not related to the department - such as the university operating a clean desk policy with no personal office space. You have to find a desk in the morning, usually shared and then clear out after a day. They were moving toward an open desk policy. I disliked this and stayed at home to work which the faculty didn't like, so about 5 months in I realized this wasn't going to work long-term and so I cut my losses and applied for another job (that I got after several months).
There may be people who genuinely come with the intention of going as soon as they can, but sometimes a job's just not a good fit, and sometimes you only know once you're there (LA Paul's transformative experience). Since I did not know I would move so soon, I doubt there's any way my department could have known.


What a strange desk policy. I hope I never have to deal with that!

Anon at Small School

At my school, if someone leaves a TT position, even if they were not tenured, my department will MOST LIKELY loose the line. In that situation, flight is a worry. I wish the admin would recognize the problem this creates for us doing the hiring. But there it is.

Sam Duncan

Employers outside academia use the same principles. Not only do they worry about applicants leaving a job, they also worry about people staying in the job but becoming dissatisfied with the job and disengaged. To me the scandal of academia isn't that employers take these things into account but that they don't do so more often or weigh them more heavily. Think about the position losing a new hire leaves them in even in the best case scenario. Even if they don't lose the line, they have to use more time and money doing another search. And think how much money, time, effort, and stress a search involves. It starts the clock back at zero for the new employee, which is bad because we all know that for any moderately challenging job one gets better at it with time (at least as long as that person is half way engaged).

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