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« Getting things done, part 4: downtime | Main | VAPS vs. Lecturers: do search committees care? »

02/13/2019

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SLAC Associate

In a search a handful of years ago, some colleagues at my SLAC argued that having previously been a student at our institution was sufficient for getting a spot on the interview list -- regardless of whether the student even had the AOS for which we were searching.

On the other hand, at the R1 where I gained my PhD, several members of one search committee argued that having previously been a student of that institution was sufficient cause to *not* get a spot on the interview list, regardless of how well the individual otherwise met the search criteria. (The stated reason was to avoid "incestual hiring", as they put it at the time.)

Amanda

Interesting stuff SLAC Associate. I get not hiring someone right after they did your PhD at your place, but if they have been somewhere else for a while it doesn't seem problematic. Especially assuming these situations are usually one offs, and their is not typically a pattern of this type of hiring. I do know that a number of teaching schools highly value people who went their as an undergrad. And I can see why - but not even having the right AOS seems a little nutty.

In my experience, it is very common (at R1s) to interview someone that has a personal connection with the department, i.e. the search committee members know the person's adviser, etc.

Biases I have seen:

-against low-ranked department PhDs (no surprise)
-against publishing co-authored work

OnTheGround

I think the best way to deal with this problem is for philosophers within those departments to talk to those making these kinds of arguments.

I'm currently on a (non-philosophy) TT search, and something like this came up in conversation: "the fact that candidate X has not been able to attain a TT position at a University is a strike against them," said one colleague. I simply made the case to my colleague that I didn't think that was a legitimate concern, citing the competitiveness of the job-market (I'm less sure how competitive this field is). I think my colleague took my reasoning to heart, and we have moved on to discuss the specifics of the cases: teaching experience, curriculum development, experience in the field (again, not a philosophy search), etc.

A Hab

As a Canadian I was dismayed when I worked at a Canadian university and not a single full time faculty member in the Department had a Ph.D. from a Canadian university. There was a huge bias (do I sound like Trump) against Canadian Ph.D.s. To make matters worse there were people tenured and going up for tenure who had quite lack-lustre publication records. I was still on the market, looking for a tenure track job, and I had as much as some of these people who were getting tenure. My sense is that such biases are quite wide spread.

stating the obvious

It is clear and widespread knowledge and/or I have heard US senior philosophers state that:

(1) US searches are systematically biased against people without a US (or at best Canadian) PhD (purported explanations: because search committee members do not know the candidates personally, because they do not know other graduate-school systems sufficiently well, and/or because Leiter rankings---the evaluators for which are US-based in 2 cases out of 3 and are chosen by an almost completely North American management/advisory board---favour US schools);

(2) searches are systematically biased against people with PhDs from lower-ranked schools.

Postdoctoral fellah

One thing I've seen in other online discussions about the job market is that many people don't consider using PGR rankings as a way to weed out applicants as a "bias" at all, but rather as a useful heuristic for applicant quality. Most people in this thread appear to disagree with this attitude. How might one convince such a person that this way if using PGR rankings is wrongheaded?

A Non-Mouse

Postdoctoral fellah: One way to do it would be to convince people that enough of the grads of the PGR programs are better philosophers than a large proportion of the grads from other programs. Good luck doing that without apparently question-begging. For example, without relying on undergrad or publication prestige, or on placement data.

Postdoctoral fellah

A Non-Mouse: sorry, I think my earlier comment was ambiguous. I meant to ask, how should one go about convincing a colleague that using the PGR as a heuristic for quality *is in fact a bias*? I agree that finding an unproblematic metric of applicant quality would be difficult. But maybe there are other ways to make the argument. For example, the PGR generally measures faculty prestige, rather than the quality of faculty members as mentors, or the rigor of a given PhD program. So the PGR doesn't measure factors that might make a PhD grad a better philosopher or teacher. At best, having a PhD from such an institution says that at some point 5 or 6 years ago, an admissions committee made up of prestigious individuals decided that a student had promise. Absent further information about whether that promise was met, that seems like a really weak reason to believe that a person is currently more likely to be a good philosopher.

stating the obvious

Postdoctoral fellah: There are a gazillion ways to convince someone that PGR rankings do not track applicants' quality, especially to the fine-grained degree in which they are used (i.e. to reward only those with a top-10 or -15 PhD). (That is IF the person in question wants to really think about the issue and understands quality of an applicant in terms that are not primarily connected to the latter's network of philosophy friends or their capacity to land publications in those top-10 or so journals that are edited in the top-10 or so departments and by said applicant's circle of friends.) One way is to remind the person in question of the US-centricity of the PGR---e.g. in ways I have described above. A second way is to question the assumption that so rough a methodology as the one the PGR employs (people looking at lists of names of faculty members and coming up with a 0--5 number) is capable of outputting a ranking that reliably selects the students of the top-10 or -15 departments as the only ones worthy of perpetuating the analytic-philosophy tradition in the US. A third way is to question the link between PGR ranking plus quality of faculty research (which the PGR purports to measure) and quality of PhD graduates. One worry is that the best philosophers are not really the best teachers (of future philosophers). Another worry is that the best philosophers are not really the best at spotting talent in students. Indeed, if philosophers hire young philosophers by using PGR rankings as heuristics, why think that they do something very different when it comes to giving PhD places to students? And so one goes back to UG or terminal MA schools and graduate admissions... In the end, most of the students and young philosophers who win in the PGR game seem to be US-born people with a well-off family background (cf. also Helen De Cruz's imperfect but thought-provoking 2018 Ergo article).

stating the obvious

Postdoctoral fellah: One more way is to remind the person in question that PGR rankings do not even purport to measure a young philosopher's aptness for an academic job. They are advertised as a guide for a student's choice of graduate school. But there are plenty more ways...

A Non-Mouse

Postdoctoral fellah: No worries, it was much my fault at least as much as yours.

Amanda

Part of me thinks we should always be trying to overturn PGR bias, and then part of me sees that as hopeless....

superannuated abd

I'm curious how robust the prejudice identified in the OP is. In particular, I'm (self-interestedly) curious whether someone who could get the funding to stay a grad student for another year, and take a shot at the TT market again in the fall as a superannuated ABD, has strategic reasons to do so over accepting a VAP and applying from that position. And does this hold for all contract positions, or just the "bad" ones? E.g. is a 3-year, 3/3 "teaching assistant professor" job just as much of a strike against an applicant as a 1-year, 4/4 sabbatical relief job?

grymes

superannuated abd: In my experience, having solid teaching experience *as a professor* helps get you taken much more seriously as a potential colleague at SLACs and small comprehensives. Teaching schools also tend to value having a Ph.D. in hand to a degree that surprised me. (I also suspect anti-contingent-faculty-bias only starts to really kick in after a few years, though I'm less confident on this score.) So, if you're targeting teaching jobs, you should absolutely take the Georgetown job if you can get it (and want to live in DC), and should also seriously consider the sabbatical relief job (unless you think you'll be able to publish much better if you remain a graduate student leading up to next year's market).

In general, I suspect that search committee members' dumb biases are sufficiently idiosyncratic that candidates should take very few of them as action-guiding. No matter who you are, your application is going to turn off some people on some committees for some dumb reasons. Good luck trying to guess which people on which committees for which reasons.

Some SC members love co-authored work--it makes you look like a good collaborative colleague!--or outreach experience--hooray for public philosophy! Some think they're signs that you've failed to become an independent or serious scholar. I would bet that, in the abstract, such things are reliable neither as good nor bad signals.

A Philosopher

"In general, I suspect that search committee members' dumb biases are sufficiently idiosyncratic that candidates should take very few of them as action-guiding. No matter who you are, your application is going to turn off some people on some committees for some dumb reasons. Good luck trying to guess which people on which committees for which reasons."

I understand that it's good to be aware of the potential factors in play on the job market --- and thus that most of the discuss here is helpful --- but I also very much think this point gets less weight than it should. My *focus* has always been on how I can be and present my best self, as opposed to trying to navigate every potential idiosyncrasy of hiring committee members.

Marcus Arvan

A Philosopher: I think that’s the right call. Search committee members can be so idiosyncratic that trying to appeal to all of them is a fool’s errand. My sense is that the best thing to do is to become the best philosopher you can as you understand it, and then let the cards fall where they may.

grymes

Yeah. To be clear, I think threads like this one are a good idea. But they're (hopefully!) good for getting people to rethink their prejudices, not for guiding applicants like superannuated abd.

Amanda

comments are not open for the "do search committees care about lecturers vs vaps" post.

Marcus Arvan

Thanks Amanda - they’re open now!

Thomas Mulligan

Postdoctoral fellah--

You ask, "How might one convince such a person that [using PGR rankings as a heuristic for applicant quality] is wrongheaded?"

The answer is, I think, straightforward statistical reasoning.

Now, note that for the below argument to go through, we must assume that hiring committees seek to hire the best-qualified applicant. If instead they are trying to hire their friends, or to promote "diversity", or something else non-meritocratic, then the below will not generally hold. But let us assume that they seek to hire on merit.

We have a a committee which receives applications from many people. Each application contains multiple signals (publication record, PGR ranking, letters of recommendation, etc.) of merit.

The signals are noisy, and so the committee would form the most precise posterior possible if it incorporated every one of them. However, this is costly: No one has the time. So the committee says, reasonably enough, that it will use a heuristic of quality, as you put it, to whittle things down. So far so good.

At this point, the committee judges that PGR ranking is correlated with merit (you might disagree, but I think it's true). So it decides to use PGR ranking as its heuristic. But this is the mistake: If the committee were rational, it would rely on the most precise signal of merit available--which is not PGR ranking at all but publication record. In fact, pedigree is a (relatively) poor proxy of merit (see, e.g., Val Burris's work; and I think Helen De Cruz cites this research in her paper on pedigree).

A rational committee ignores pedigree and shortlists based on the publication record. In time, rational committees find that they hire disproportionately from pedigreed schools--even though pedigree played no role in their deliberations.

This is a simple example, but its generalizations provide even more reason to discount pedigree. For one thing, it's unclear how much independent information about merit PGR ranking provides, meaning there's less reason to consider it at any point in the hiring process. Moreover, it stands to reason that variance in the distribution of merit itself (not in signals of merit) is higher for non-pedigreed applicants than pedigreed applicants, and it turns out that this provides further reason to discount PGR ranking. (Here you could look at Bovens's paper in Mind, and, if you are interested in the math, my reply in Philosophia.)

Now one wonders: Why all the hubbub about pedigree and rankings in our profession and, more generally, our culture? I believe, and have argued, that it is ultimately born out of the insecurities of unmeritorious people. People of high merit tend to take quiet, internal satisfaction in their achievements. People of low merit seek to "import" the achievements of others into their own lives, by saying: "Those people are meritorious, those people are part of a group that I am a part of, therefore I am meritorious." Bad reasoning, to be sure, but common.

Similarly, think about people who brag about their high IQs--how many people like that are actually brilliant? Not many, I don't think. Of course, brilliant people tend to have high IQs, but if you're going to take pride in something like this, you ought to take pride in being brilliant, rather than possessing a trait that is well-correlated with brilliance.

stating the obvious

One more prejudice individual search committee members often have: I got my PhD from school X 20 years ago, so I will favour candidate Y who got their PhD from school X last year.

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