Our books

Become a Fan

« Query on diversity statements | Main | Ask a search-committee member »



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


I think the whole `hook me with your research program' thing is yet another place where search committees are asking for dishonesty from applicants. Why? Because if I (and, I suspect, many of us) were to write down my research program honestly, it would look like this:

(1) I have a grab bag of projects that I'm currently working on. They're related by the fact that I know how to work on them.

(2) Some of these will work out and lead to publications. Others won't. On my way to these successes and failures, I'll think of other things vaguely related to these to work on. Some of those will be things I work on in the future. Others I'll end up forgetting about. To the extent that I make choices among these, it will be based on idiosyncratic facts about what seems interesting to me on some particular day, which happen to look easiest, and which I happen to find collaborators for.

(3) Crucially, this means I have no idea which of the things I'm working on will be successful in the future and I have no idea what my future research will be. But it'll be on something, cuz I like doing philosophy.

If you look at some of the `major figures' alive today (take, e.g. Kit Fine) it's pretty clear this is their research MO as well. I think it's pretty normal. But we're supposed to, in job documents, pretend like "oh no, all of this is totally planned and under control and directed in some particular direction". And we're all pretend to one another that that's normal. It isn't.

Marcus Arvan

Tom: Thanks for chiming in. However, I want to push back a little on your main concern. Having served on three search committees, I think there can be very good reasons to desire a clear and coherent research program in a candidate--not just a "grab bag" and former publishing success. Allow me to explain.

I've been watching the job-market fairly carefully for years now--who gets hired, who doesn't, and so on. One thing I've noticed (and have heard stories about) are candidates who are hired into a TT job but then hardly publish anything and don't end up getting tenure. In some cases, this is because the candidate didn't learn how to publish (which is one of many reasons why I'm inclined to think departments should avoid hiring people with zero publications). But another kind of case I've heard about is one where the person has published but then "runs out of gas" once hired--because...you guessed it, they didn't really have a well-developed research program with "legs" (i.e. fruitfulness).

In fact, we actually had a reader write in about this recently, who wrote: "I'm not long out of graduate school, and now I've got to get some publications under my belt. I'm okay with diligence, but now that I'm not working on the dissertation and don't have a committee steering me with a moderately heavy hand, I'm having a heck of a time finding rich research projects and identifying good potential essays to work on. I've got a handful of smaller ideas (here's a minor objection, here's a quibble something buried deep in that literature), but nothing that seems remotely like the sort of idea that'd become a great article." (https://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2018/09/query-on-developing-research-projects-post-phd.html ).

This is a real and serious issue. It is one thing to publish a "grab bag" of articles while in grad school with faculty and a dissertation supervisor to mentor you. It is quite another thing to keep one's research productivity going after a few years--especially when one is teaching a full course-load. This is the sort of thing a well-developed research program (with a central "hook") is genuinely helpful with. For example, I don't have to go very far in order to come up with an idea for the next article I want to draft. Why? Because I have a couple of research programs that quite naturally have "next steps" to take. When I finish one paper, then I begin another. This is much easier to sustain than a "grab bag" approach. And while of course there are some philosophers (e.g. Kit Fine) who can be successful with a grab bag approach, Kit Fines are rare and it can be next to impossible for a search committee to predict who the next Kit Fine will be.

In my experience, when hiring for TT positions, one main question search committees care about is: "will this person be likely to get tenure?" In addition to a past publishing record, a *genuine* research program can provide a search committee reasons to think the answer is likely to be yes. It tells the search committee, "This person's research is likely to have legs. Given that have published before, their program is organized around a Big Idea, and they have a coherent long-term plan for developing it, this person is a safe bet to keep publishing and get tenure." The person who only has a "grab bag" to offer provides less to be confident about. And, to be clear, many departments *really* need to play it safe here. That is, many departments really need to be confident that the person they hire is likely to get tenure. Why? Because if they don't, the department can lose that tenure line altogether. This means that departments have grounds to want really clear evidence not only that a candidate has published some stuff in the past, but also that they are likely to continue doing so effectively once hired full-time. And this, again, is something that a real research program can be evidence for.

Finally, there is another issue. I have heard that at some R1 programs, tenure-decisions are *not* just a matter of which journals one publishes in. I recently heard someone say that the test for tenure at some R1's is whether you have become a Name in the Field. How do you become a Name? Usually, though not always, by having a Big Time Research Program. Chalmers? Became a Name for his work consciousness. Fricker? Became a Name for her work on Epistemic Injustice. Are there people who become Named Individuals in the profession on the basis of grab bag research? Sure, there is the occasional Kit Fine and David Lewis...but they are very, very rare (and even in these cases, they have Big-Time Programs--Grounding for Fine, possible worlds for Lewis, etc.).


Marcus, I'm tempted by a view somewhere between yours and Tom's. I don't think my research is a grab bag, but I do think the detailed narrative I give it in my research statement might not quite pan out. And so there's a sense in which thinking about how to describe that narrative sometimes feels - not dishonest, but perhaps overly optimistic, and, because of that, a bit silly.

It has to do with the detail with which we describe the research program. At the level of detail of "Consciousness" or "Epistemic Injustice", I'm very happy to describe my research direction! But the reality is that we describe it in much more depth in our documents, interviews, etc. I can be very precise about what my next few papers will be about, but what I'll be writing five years from now - that's much more difficult to be precise about. (I'd be happy to hear advice about this sort of longer-term prediction/interview question).


Just to confirm one data point Marcus mentioned: At my R1 - in paper it says tenure is based on being an internationally recognized scholar, and leader/innovator in your area. They note that top publications is one way to do this, but the former is more foundational. That said, perhaps I am wrong, but I think R1s are not as concerned about who they hire getting tenure- they are willing to take a risk that someone might be a really different and creative scholar, recognizing that this might not work out and the person might not get tenure.

On having a research project: Yes, it might change. However, simply the ability to come up with a coherent and interesting long-term project is evidence of something important. If you can do this much, you will likely be able to come up with a different project if the one you write about in your cover letter/ research statement doesn't pan-out.

Assistant Prof.

I sympathize with those who are resistant to describing their handful of publications as belonging to some crisp research project--some well-motivated guiding idea that gets explored and developed in a series of well-connected papers, some already published, some soon to come. Though it may be true that many committees respond positively to such weaving (and I have no reason to doubt that Marcus is right about that), the fact is that many of us (most of us?) just don't have such guiding ideas at all. Talk of constructing a "narrative", in these circumstances, smacks of whiggish history.

Here's how I dealt with this issue. It may or may not be an entirely common way to go about writing a research statement; I have no idea. Either way, what general lessons or warnings to extract from my experience is something that remains to me unclear.

1. I began by describing each of my publications and work in progress in one short paragraph.

2. For each of them, I thought of "further work" that I could do (and would do, if time and energy limits were ignored) on that topic: work on foundational stuff about the assumptions of my arguments, work on possible applications of my arguments to other discussions, work on defending my arguments against other arguments in the literature, and so on.

3. I then looked for more-or-less natural clusters and interesting connections: maybe the foundational stuff for some of my papers is more or less the same or fits well in some "meta" literature, maybe some of my publications and work in progress actually stand to each other in interesting relations, maybe some of my apparently distinct arguments are relevant to similar further discussions, and so on.

4. Finally, I cleaned-up these thoughts by finding the best way to discuss some of these research clusters in short-ish paragraphs centered around a publication or work in progress.

The result is not so much a narrative highlighting what is cool, unique, or unifying about your work, but rather a display of how you can think about an idea productively. If you had an idea that worked (where here the initial measure is just being published), you know how to extract all the value it may have around it. To me, that seems to show just as much research promise as alternative approaches. But then again, I've never served on a search committee.

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.)

Philosophers in Industry Directory

Job-market reporting thread

Current Job-Market Discussion Thread

Cocoon Job-Market Mentoring Program