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10/26/2018

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Nicolas Delon

Just want to note that I have a great job and consider myself immensely lucky. For one thing, I ‘succeedded’ in achieving one meaningful goal I had: land a TT job in the US with a French doctorate. But there have been so many ways I failed to get here. So many.

Now, this is an achievement for me because I feel like our job (professional philosophy), when it works and is not exploitative, can be the best. It’s flexible, intrinsically interesting, rewarding, and meaningful. Teaching, research and service can all have these characteristics. Of course, tons of other jobs can have some of these characteristics too. Or even be more flexible. For instance, just like Aaron James wishes he could go surfing just when he pleases I wish I could go running just when I please. But hey, it’s already a pretty sweet deal. I have nearly complete freedom over what I teach and I get to talk and write about stuff that matters to me and hopefully others with people who are genuinely interested.

I don’t consider my case a success but instead a perpetual work in progress. Oftentimes, in retrospect, we fail to see the bumps, hurdles, switchbacks, and U-turns along the winding path. We see apparent stories of success because, understandably, we don’t promote the process so much as the outcome, and survival bias makes it look like it takes nothing short of a spotless straight path to succeed, and others had nothing counting for them. But that’s an illusion—it’s both overly optimistic about what makes winners and overly pessimistic about the value of losers, especially in a context of luck. I’ve encountered 50 ways to get there. Take your time, fail, fail again, make mistakes, lots of them. Don’t look at the tail end of the curve; look at all the messy trajectories that have taken folks where they’re flourishing. This need not be academia or involve a PhD or a fancy job at an R1. Or it could. There are so few ‘winners’ in the first place that you can’t generalize from the ‘winners’ only.

So, it meant a lot to me to get where I am. And I’m all the more grateful as I could have failed - in fact in many ways did fail - to get here. No one’s single experience will tell you much about the profession. I don’t regret getting into it because how could I? I love my job. And regretting going this path likely means regretting so many dependent other things in my life—where I lived, what I did there, friends, family, and so on. Still, as there were many ways I could have failed among the way, so were there many ways I could have come to regret it—if you think regret can ever be fitting. So success won’t tell you much about lack of regret.

A humbling, essential reading to put ‘success’ in perspective is Robert Frank’s ‘Success and Luck’.

And when academia sucks, as it often does, remember to spend time with your loved ones, to get out, to watch movies and read novels, to listen to music and dance.

PhD on the market

I just finished my PhD and I am hanging in there while I wait for some good news from a growing pile of over 100 applications, hopefully not in vain.

I have partial success stories in publication, and many rewarding moments at conferences and similar events, including expressions of (I hope sincere) esteem from philosophers whose work I value.
I realize that my postgraduate studies made me a better philosopher, and I think this is valuable in itself.
I also found teaching very rewarding and enjoyable.

So I don't regret it, or not quite yet, but I am afraid I will end up doing so if I fail to get a stable position in the end. I just think that a similar amount of hard work and talent, in a different profession, would have produced far better outcomes and rewards.

I am astonished at how arbitrary the market seems to be. I would trade my best publication for a few more helpful connections, as I think this is ultimately your best chance to get a job or postdoc (second only perhaps coming from a very prestigious school).

Amanda

Loves:

Talking philosophy one on one
Thinking about ideas
Conferences and talks
The flexibility and freedom of the lifestyle
The last 20% of writing papers
*Some days teaching - but not all days.
Doing popular philosophy
The opportunity to travel and meet people from all around the world
The small circle that philosophy happens to be - which allows you to meet the same people over and over again/ make great intellectual friends.
Getting to dress how I want
The pretty good benefits and at least decent pay
The general university environment
The looks I get when I tell people I'm a professor
Working with graduate students

Was it the best choice overall/would I do it again? This, I really don't know. This is not a negative post so I won't go into the downsides that make me question whether I would repeat. But I would say this: very few people end up doing their absolute dream job, i.e. the job that they realize at 30 (when they have enough maturity and life experience, but not enough time) would be their first choice. So in the grand scheme of things, I am so, so, fortunate.

Pendaran Roberts

I don't have a success story to share, and I'll spare people having to listen to me mope. I'll say something positive instead. I will say that I think philosophy is the most interesting academic subject. This is a bold claim, but I think many of our biggest problems are philosophical. I think about philosophy every day. I love talking about it and writing about it. I mean I love these things in a vacuum. Publishing I don't love; who does? So, for anyone who chooses to struggle for a job in philosophy for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 years or more (god forbid), I can totally understand why. Being a philosopher is being in love.

Amanda

I have to say, kind of depressing this only has four comments. Philosophy is strange. People spend decades trying to get the job, and those who do and those who don't complain about it, and hardly say anything decent. I really do rarely hear a philosopher talk about why they love their job (Marcus an exception.) Perhaps this is just the critical/argumentative nature of philosophers.

Frank

Amanda: Yes, I was also looking forward to reading more encouraging things here. But then again I (a regular and appreciative lurker on this site) am reluctant to say what I love about my job/career for two reasons. First, I would not have wanted to hear such things when I was stuck in the great job market limbo. Second, I don't have anything particularly novel to say. Sorta like that first line in (I think?) Anna Karenina: All happy philosophy careers are the same. All unhappy ones are unhappy in their own way.

Amanda

Frank interesting - I would kind of think philosophers have different preferences on what they enjoy most. There are also different kinds of jobs - I know no one believes it but I have several friends who are long time, full-time, adjuncts and very happy. I sort of think they don't read philosophy blogs because they are made out to be miserable.

Frank

Amanda: A great reminder. It doesn't speak well of me that I also find that hard to believe. I imagine it would be especially frustrating to enjoy and find rewarding a career that you're constantly being told is victimizing you. And absolutely, there's a lot of different sorts of philosophy jobs. But most involve thinking, talking, writing, teaching and learning about philosophy - which is what I'm so happy to be able to do without having to first do something else for 40-60 hours a week. Worth noticing that is true for the F/T adjunct as well. I'm not at all confident that I've been working with the right notion of success this whole time.

Pendaran Roberts

Happiness is a state of mind. There are poor people the world over who are happy and millionaires who are unhappy. Success and happiness aren't that correlated. In fact, the confound is personal expectations, wants, and desires (among other things for sure). These things are determined heavily by your economic background and social class. Anyway, what this all means is that it's certainly possible to be happy as an adjunct professor. The question is under what sense of 'success' can such a person be interpreted as having a successful career? It seems almost by definition that he didn't.

Anon

It's not that hard to think of accounts of success that will fit the bill. Here's one: a successful career for X is one that is conducive to X's being happy.

Pendaran Roberts

One can be successful at being happy but simply being happy cannot reasonably be seen as sufficient for success. If it can, then I know a few successful people who just sit around and play video games. haha!

Amanda

Success (or one version of it): having a career where you get to think, reason, and use some of the most cherished human faculties. In addition, you find the career enjoyable, fulfilling, and it provides well enough for you and your loved ones. Many adjuncts have this - many of them publish papers and go to conferences too, although not nearly as often as TT folk, of course. People shouldn't forget that the adjunct lifestyle can be very different, depending on where you live in the country - pay, benefits, freedom, all vary immensely.

It is also important to remember that adjuncts have a PhD and (many) a full-time job working at a university. Many people would call this successful. I think the worst part of this type of career is likely the way people in the profession look down on your, often pity you. (Of course, some adjuncts are in a very bad place, and none of this means we shouldn't fight for better conditions for them. To the contrary - my point is that if adjuncts are given the working conditions everywhere that they are in the best parts of the US, the whole thing might not be so bad.)

And Frank - yes, in those general terms that is probably what makes all philosophers enjoy their careers. But you can get more specific - for instance, whether you prefer the writing part to the talking, etc.

Frank

Love this conversation. Not trying to be too Aristotelian about it, but whatever constitutes a successful career has to depend largely on the purpose careers have. In order to distinguish careers from (mere) jobs, that's probably something like "providing employment over an extended period of time in a pursuit that one finds fulfilling and worthwhile." Success within a career then has to be gauged relative to what someone finds fulfilling and worthwhile. Long-term adjuncting can fulfill that purpose, no? Or is there something to "career" that I'm missing? And I don't know that your video-game playing friends aren't successful people because I don't know what the purpose of a person is. But I'm pretty sure we should think differently about successful careers and successful people.

SLAC tenured professor & chair

I can say that my colleagues are my best friends and I'm so incredibly proud of them and happy to be around them every day either at work, or in a personal setting. I'm incredibly lucky to have a supportive partner that doesn't get frustrated when I opt to stay in my office very late to write. Writing in this way makes me incredibly happy and feel very accomplished. I don't work at the most prestigious place, but I really couldn't imagine myself being happier. I work hard, but I got very lucky to get the position I did (any position really), and my quality of life is much better than I ever could have imagined while doing my PhD.

Paul

I a very fortunate. I made almost every wrong choice academically. Went to a religious SLAC, was headed towards a PhD in theology, ended up in philosophy. Probably should've moved programs after completing my MA, but stayed because it was better for my family. Taught WAY too much in grad school, took forever to finally hone in on my diss project and get it done. Spent three years as an adjunct, had kids during that time. Thought very seriously about hanging it up and being a full time stay at home dad (fortunately spouse had a good job this entire time). Was able to land an interdisciplinary R1 job. I love teaching interdisciplinary courses more than straight philosophy courses, but I consider what I teach philosophy in the deepest, broadest, and richest sense. Asking fundamental questions about human nature and society, and drawing connections across disciplines, methodologies, and cultures. Engaging novels, history, social science. I guess I agree with Richard Rorty that the best philosophy doesn't always happen in a philosophy department...

I love teaching, especially social-political ideas, and seeing the light bulb come on in the heads of my students. I love having conversations with colleagues across disciplinary bounds. I really do enjoy the research. But my favorite aspect is seeing former students flourish and pursue careers and projects that matter: politics, law, think-tanks, non-profits. To see them become passionate about social-political issues and actually try to make a difference in the world makes it all worth it.

Well, and the fact that there is decent pay, good benefits, and an amazing amount of autonomy. That's pretty awesome. I feel like I won the lottery.

Recent grad

Don't forget the availability bias.

Lauren

I'm in my first year of a TT gig, and I love the teaching and my students and I love the freedom to think and teach about what I want (within departmental needs, but my departmental requirements are pretty broad). I love going to conferences, talking about philosophy with my colleagues (and, as far as I can tell so far, I have great colleagues), and meeting with students and seeing the "aha" moments and the engagement. I feel like I just lucked out and got the best job ever.

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