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04/13/2019

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Amanda

General thoughts on what professors at PhD institutions should do to support students.

1. Talking about the job market should start the first year, and the first year that talk should include discussion of non-academic careers. I don't like the idea of calling it "plan B" because that suggests students who go that route some how failed and are using it as a back-up. While this might sometimes describe things accurately, if there wasn't such a norm against it, many PhDs might choose to work non-academic jobs as a plan A. And since there is not enough academic jobs for everyone, this is a good thing.
2. It is true most philosophers do not know much about working outside academia. But if you work at a PhD program, or even an MA program, this should change. It should be part of your job in supporting grad students to learn about alternative possibilities for employment. Many other disciplines do this already, there is no reason philosophers can't other than they do not see this kind of support for grads as a priority. But it should be - for one philosophers with grad programs are benefiting immensely from cheap TA labor, it is the least one could do in return. But I do think it has to be a cultural thing, where this becomes a common part of grad school.
3. Grad programs need to focus more on teaching as a part of what is required of a philosophy PhD. I mean training in teaching, making sure grad students are getting solo teaching experience, and a culture that openly values great teaching as one way to be a great philosopher.
4. Grad programs should value alternative types of research, i.e. like value more than traditional metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of language. This is not to say they shouldn't value those things, too, of course. But philosophers looking down on all areas outside of those mentioned is all too common. This is not bad simply for those who work outside of academia, but most jobs in the academy are not in the areas mentioned. Even more and more research schools are increasingly looking into areas like philosophy of science, bioethics, philosophy of technology, etc.
5. This may seem silly, but a small but important thing philosophy professors can do is reply and be responsive to grad student questions and emails. In my experience it is far too common for grad professors to basically ignore their students.

Marcus Arvan

Yes, the culture needs to change. Programs have traditionally deterred grad students from working outside of the program. The rationale has always been that grad students shouldn’t be distracted from their academic research. But, as Amanda implies, this is absurd. Many other disciplines simultaneously prepare students for academic jobs *and* alt-ac jobs, by encouraging their students to work in internships and whatnot. These other disciplines are no less intensive than philosophy, and their students learn to do their academic research while getting outside experience in the non-academic sector. Given how horrible the academic job market in philosophy is, I think it is absolutely imperative that philosophy grad programs need to change in this regard. It is unconscionable (in my view) for grad programs to train students for only *one* job (an academic job) when the chances of getting that one job—after 5-7+ years of grad school—are minimal.

Anonymous

"It is true most philosophers do not know much about working outside academia. But if you work at a PhD program, or even an MA program, this should change. It should be part of your job in supporting grad students to learn about alternative possibilities for employment. Many other disciplines do this already, there is no reason philosophers can't other than they do not see this kind of support for grads as a priority."

Could you explain more of what you have in mind? This seems all but impossible to me. I was effectively out of philosophy the first few years after finishing my PhD, and I think it took the first 2 of those doing alt-ac job hunting to really get a solid grip on what the employment landscape for philosophy PhDs looks like and how things work. I'm talking here about real, honest-to-god practical know-how about how to land interviews at high-paying jobs. I don't mean to be cynical, but an otherwise clueless life-long philosophy professor who's had a coffee chat with the university career center people and looked up a few "10 tips for turning a CV into a resume" articles is worse than useless to a grad student. I really do mean *worse* than useless, since this well-meaning person is apt to give bad advice to students. Besides, a student who takes a weekend or two to read a dozen or so autobiographical accounts from philosophy PhDs who successfully made the transition will know everything that professor could learn from inside their position at a university. So, the student might as well just do the leg work themselves.

For the most part I think that it's a losing strategy for life-time philosophers (who have never worked outside academics in skilled employment) to try to hand out alt-ac career advice to their students.

Robeyns' point that "There is an important task for PhD supervisors in passing on the names of (unknown) PhD students to 'members of the outside world', so that the PhDs can extend their networks" seems great (if these professors have such outside contacts or are contacted by people). The single most important thing anyone needs for securing any job (especially an alt-ac job as a philosophy PhD student) is a personal contact.

The other big thing you can do is just be encouraging. Forward networking opportunities you come across to students. Instead of trying to give advice, it seems better to point students in the direction of those with the relevant knowledge.

Marcus Arvan

Anonymous writes, “...the student might as well just do the leg work themselves...The single most important thing anyone needs for securing any job (especially an alt-ac job as a philosophy PhD student) is a personal contact. The other big thing you can do is just be encouraging.”

This, I think, is spot on. Philosophy faculty may not know the alt-ac world or have alt-ac contacts. So it may be up to philosophy grad students to find alt-ac experience themselves. But for goodness sake, grad programs and faculty should *encourage* their students to get alt-ac experience while in grad school. If only 40% of your students are going to get a tenure-track job, it is irresponsible to make them focus 100% of their energy on their academic training. Other academic fields have been way ahead of us on this. Their students are successful in academia and without because their programs encourage their students to get experience for both kinds of jobs. It is long past time for philosophy to get with it, and stop leaving our PhD’s out to dry.

Amanda

Grad faculty should learn what types of institutions hire philosophers, and what training philosophers would need to do to get those jobs, and then tell grad students about these opportunities and encourage the training. Jobs that I know could work for some philosophers:

-computer scientist
-therapist
-high school teacher
-careers in government, accountability offices, medicare counseling, etc.
-university administration
-non-profit management

All of the above jobs are things philosophers could do with some extra training. It is true that most jobs do require extra training, which is why grad students should at least be aware of it if not actively seeking that training during grad school. After a few grad students go and get alt-ac jobs, the faculty should stay in touch and that way they build connections and eventually will have personal ins to alt-ac jobs. But it has to start somewhere.

Shay Logan

My first job after I finished my philosophy PhD was in the *math* department at Smith College. After that I had two years in the philosophy department at NC State. I’m back in a math department (this time at Macalester College) this year. So fully half of my post-PhD employment has been in math departments.

I was able to get these jobs at least in part because I have an MS in math, which I got while I was doing my philosophy PhD. I was able to do that because I entered grad school with degrees in math and philosophy. All of that to say this: encourage your students to seek out formal training resulting in degrees in other fields. The *leading to degrees* bit is crucial. It’s not enough to audit a few classes, or to get a minor or a PhD minor or whathaveyou. Encouraging students to do this is also crucial. It’s *hard* to do the extra work in describing, and sometimes administrators of various stripes will try to shut it down. My advisers were an ally to me when these sorts of things happened. If they hadn’t been I may not have finished.

Skef

Helen,

You should explain to your advisees that their career choices are similar to those they would have had on finishing their bachelor's degree, as long as they make it clear to prospective employers that they're switching gears.

There may be individual hiring managers who look favorably on a humanities Ph.D, but not many and there is no systematic way of finding them. If going to graduate school helps it will be in the performance after getting the job, in almost every case not in the hiring process.

"If we restrict the number of PhDs, the barriers to entry to the profession will shift to earlier on in the process, and it will be more difficult for people without the cultural, economic and social capital (middle class, white, etc) to do a PhD in philosophy. Moreover, I think that a PhD in philosophy has value. I've interviewed people who went to grad school in philosophy who are successful writers of novels and have produced and co-written TV series, as well as career coaches, statisticians, computer programmers, and I was recently filmed for television series on science and religion by someone who studied (but did not complete) a Philosophy PhD. A Philosophy PhD is currently running for Member of the European Parliament (see here for an article in Dutch)."

Realistically, as for almost everyone else in your position, these are excuses for a system you benefit from and would rather continue benefiting from. Who among your peers who teach in departments without graduate programs would agree?

Thankfully the process of advising people on the job market does tend to unsettle the adviser out of that complacency, if only for a few moments. Good luck.

Anonymous

Amanda, I say this with hesitation, but this is the sort of bad advice I had in mind. It's easy to quickly google the common alt-ac jobs philosophy PhDs might be fit for. So this sort of knowledge isn't helpful to grad students; they have easy-access to it themselves. Besides, I think it's highly misleading. None of the jobs I was a serious candidate for were in the areas you list. What mattered for landing interviews wasn't that my philosophy degree was a good fit for the job (it's *never* a good fit, *from the perspective of the hiring manager*), but that *I* was a good fit for the job, and I'm a terrible fit for all the jobs you listed there. I could see impressionable 21-yr-old me hearing "lots of philosopher do computer science" from a professor and jumping into training in the area, only for it to never work out.

To put my cards on the table, as a philosopher who existentially and financially struggled against the philosophy job market in the years after finishing my degree and floated between various precarious forms of academic employment and the non-academic world, the thought of hearing these sorts of shallow tips from a philosophy professor makes me angry. A philosopher who's never been outside the academic ecosystem (which is most of the people at R1s) isn't in any sort of position to give good advice to students. The best they can do is to encourage these students to get out there and make connections and find opportunities (social clubs for early career professionals, internships, hobbies, volunteer positions, whatever). The career advice should be left up to real career consultants and friends who work in alt-ac fields.

Here's an example of the sort of thing a philosophy PhD needs to know to snag an alt-ac job: what do I say during the interview to convince the incredulous hiring manager that they should hire me instead of the half dozen candidates with the traditional resume characteristic of the position? I've seen lots of lists of the skills philosophers have that make them good fits for other jobs (e.g., critical thinking, professional speaking, etc). It's all useless. None of that will convince a hiring manager to pick you over the traditional candidate. (That hiring manager, btw, probably opened your interview with an off-handed joke about how much they couldn't understand their one philosophy course in college.) What will? That just depends on the situation, what that person needs, and your own experience. The only way to figure out what to say is actually have something to say, and that requires actually being a good fit for the position and knowing *a lot* about it.

Anonymous

For what it's worth, I'm torn over Skef's comments. I feel the pull and disagree. Even if a career in philosophy doesn't work out for me, I'm very glad I got to do the PhD and wouldn't trade the experience (both academic and personal) for anything. As Marcus says, if we drastically lower the number of grad students, among those left out probably would be people like me (a first-generation college student who got their BA at a no-name regional school).

Helen De Cruz

I do feel the pull of Skef's comments too and I'm glad we're having this uncomfortable discussion. For what it's worth, I am only moving this summer to a school with a grad programme (we have some, very few grad students at my present institution but these only are here for 3 years and they do not teach, as this is the UK system), so I haven't benefited from the system (yet). Still, even as I was several years post-PhD without a tenure track job, I did find value in my PhD.
As I come from a solid working class background, with a bricklayer father and a homemaker mother, the first in my family to even earn a BA at a university, I've always found the fact that I can study and learn, and steep myself in intellectual life very rewarding, and totally not obvious given where I was coming from. I recall thinking years down the line, Maybe an academic career does not work out, but at least I could do it. While this does not constitute a solid argument for: and therefore, we should give many people the opportunity to study for a PhD even if they don't come from a background that ticks all the boxes, it still has some pull for me. But ultimately, we need to help students get good jobs, and increasingly, these will be non-academic jobs.

Amanda

Anonymous: My guess is you have not had training for the type of jobs I suggested. If someone does not have training, then they will not be good fits for those jobs. That is the point of recommending training. But if they do have training, they very well can be, as I know many people who went that route. I don't understand how the fact that *you* were a bad fit for computer science is any evidence against that fact that many philosophers *are* and *were* good fits. The whole point of my post is that grad students should be thinking about what jobs are good fits for them, and get training in those areas. And yes, I do think it is the job of their professors to discuss and encourage this. And yes, it is very individual, but nothing in my post speaks against that.

You say that most philosophy professors have no experience in these outside areas. Yes, but my point is they ought to be getting experience about what it takes, and getting connections. This is common in other disciplines. It is true it is not what happens now, but that should change. I don't know why you would be opposed to philosophy professors learning what it takes to help their students get alt-ac jobs. I agree with you that most of the work must be done by the student, but simply having philosophy professors bring up the idea and encourage their grad students can make a big difference, in so far as it shifts the cultural norms in favor of looking for alt-ac opportunities during grad school.

Anonymous

Amanda, so far as I can tell our disagreement is over whether or not philosophy faulty should (a) merely encourage grad students to seek out alt-ac opportunities, or (b) hand out more substantive career advice. Granted the line between these two blurs, but set that issue aside. The point of both my personal anecdote and my interview story was to highlight the depth of knowledge (mostly hands-on and practical) required to be successful at the alt-ac market. My point is that unless philosophy professors actually have real, substantive advice to give, they should stay on the mere-encouragement side of the line. It's not that I'm "opposed to philosophy professors learning what it takes to help their students get alt-ac jobs", I just don't think it's a realistic to think these professors can learn anything useful beyond what a grad student his or herself can learn in a weekend of Googling. Again, the point of my anecdote was that it took me two years of hard work actually applying to jobs to learn anything useful about how to get such a job. I'm very doubtful that an overworked philosophy professor who's never been down that path themselves or isn't a full-time professional career counselor is going to be able to pick up much if anything useful in their spare time. There's also a real danger of the Dunning–Kruger effect here: the little bit of knowledge this person might pick up on the side in their earnest attempt to help is likely to lead them to think they know more than they do and to guide students with more assurance than they should. Maybe we're just talking past each other somehow, because the whole thought of philosophy professors playing career counselor for alt-ac careers they themselves have no experience in just sounds crazy to me. (Imagine the opposite: a lead computer programmer at Microsoft doing some side reading on the weekends about philosophy grad school so he can advise his subordinates on the application process! That's silly.) My position is that philosophers should be in the encouraging & networking business, not the advice business, unless they have genuine advice to hand out --- which is unlikely in most cases.

Here is a final thought: As Aristotle points out, often the real difficulty isn't in the general principle, but knowing how to apply it. Maybe computer science or whatever is a good alt-ac career for philosophers. That general knowledge is cheap and students already know it. What really is tricky is knowing what steps an individual should take, given the details of their particular situation, to actually make that happen. That's what students need to know. A philosophy professor isn't going to learn enough to ably guide a student through that process, and is just as likely to hand out bad advice and send the student down the wrong path.

Derek Bowman

I'm genuinely curious to know which disciplines are doing this better. I know there have been widely publicized efforts by the MLA and the AHA, but I still see plenty of struggling PhDs from those fields.

Part of the problem, emphasized by Anonymous, is that for most humanities fields there isn't a natural alternative career trajectory. Yes, there are lots of things humanities PhDs can do - but all of the stories covered by Helen's interviews (and mine) are specific to the individuals profiled. This makes it hard to establish any general advice or resources - though certainly making a effort to maintain a network of program grads in other fields makes sense as a basic minimum.

I agree we need continued cultural change about how we view the decision not to pursue (or continue pursuing) an academic career. But we shouldn't assume that we can do that by making philosophy grad school into some sort of grab-bag career training program would be a mistake. If your primary goal is to pursue a non-academic career, full-time enrollment in a philosophy or other humanities PhD is a very inefficient way to go about it.

Another Anon

I’ve got a concern that I rarely see discussed in most alt-ac conversations. It’s this: giving yourself the best chance of success on the current philosophy job market requires pretty much all your focus and energy. Conferencing. Publications. Finishing the dissertation. Etc. (Ok, sure, there’re outliers here and there—a few can churn out multiple publications while still having a lot of free time. But those folks are pretty rare.) So, if getting a job in academic philosophy is your ‘plan A’, then it’s just hard to see how there’s time to go do any substantive exploration of alt-ac options, or to get enough training to develop (realistically) sufficient secondary areas of expertise. Not to mention the beating one’s focus would take to do all of that. (Now, if you’ve already got a BA (or minor) in programming, or something else, or your dissertation is on something more clearly transferable outside of universities (e.g., bioethics), then ok, use that. But for the many folks who don’t fit that description, I think the worry I just voiced above is pretty big.)

Also, I have to say that, while I value everyone’s perspectives in this thread—thanks for talking about this tough topic!—I do have to side with Anonymous’s skeptical view about advice coming from those who’ve not spent much time outside of academia. (The advice is very well-meant, of course.) I’ve got some experience here, having spent some years working in the business world prior to doing a PhD in philosophy. (Why did I switch? Sigh. Reasons that seemed so good at the time. Still, I don’t totally regret it. Maybe like 50% regret…) Based on what I’ve seen there, in the daily working life and also in hiring, I’m certain that most hiring managers just aren’t going to hire a Ph.D. in philosophy who lacks any meaningful and relevant work experience. You’re just not going to get hired over the person with a few years or more of real work experience or even the kid with the degree in the relevant field. Most managers won’t see much in the way of directly transferable and concrete-seeming skills, from academic philosophy to the business world, whether that’s in sales (ick), marketing (ack), technology, operations, or even business analysis. Oh, I’m sure there are a few managers out there willing to take a risk on the huge but (for their purposes) unformed potential that an academic philosopher brings; but most, frankly, aren’t very interested in the sort of wide-ranging (but perhaps free-wheeling) analytical and creative thinking ability we’ve got, and would much prefer someone who can do the needed functions within days or weeks of being hired. And contrary to some wishful thinking I’ve heard expressed in conversations about alt-ac careers, business managers aren’t interested in hearing about the ethical implications of that new marketing campaign. And they’re not going to hire any ethics consultants. (Not really, at least. ‘Ethics’ in the business world means ‘rules of conduct you signed in your employment contract.’) I also agree with Anonymous that most folks, if they even know what philosophy is, are likely to think it’s mostly useless. (Think of all those first-year students who didn’t have a clue what philosophy was in your Intro class. Well, for every one of those, there’re two more who didn’t take Intro to Philosophy. Some of those will be reviewing your resumé.)

Anyway, that’s a pretty negative take, I know. I’m a job marketeer, so I’m prone to it, I guess. But I do hope we can find ways to establish pipelines into non-academic careers. I’m all for it, and I do think we philosophers have a lot to offer.

Anonymous

I think the positive take on AA's post is that a successful alt-ac career won't come by winning a battle of merit with your resume, but will come by slow and organic career growth mostly through jobs you are offered (unsolicited) through your networking. Of course, that gets us back to AA's first point that there's not much time left over after philosophy for the sorts of opportunities you need to foster for that organic career growth. Still, over 5-7yrs of a PhD I would think one could find the time for some networking and at least get the process rolling so you're not starting from scratch when you graduate.

Regarding the issue of extra-philosophical training for the alt-ac market (e.g., in programing, or whatever), I actually think this is often a losing strategy. First, as AA points out, there just often isn't the time for it after your philosophical work. Second, it just makes you a really weird candidate: a philosophy PhD with a certificate in programing (or whatever) ... "wait, what?" (will be the reaction). Of course, for many jobs specialized training is needed, but I think getting the training first and hunting for the job second is the wrong way to do it. Getting the training you need for the job should just be something that happens naturally along that organic career development I mentioned above. You incrementally gain experience and skills as you climb through progressively more sophisticated opportunities: learn a little bit of programing (or whatever) for some philosophy-related task you're doing, snag a one-off opportunity to help a business friend do some related work and learn a little more along the way, take that new knowledge to the next opportunity 6 months down the road, etc. Eventually you have all the skills you needed with little to no formal training, 2yrs worth of work experience, and a friend of a friend handing you a full-time permanent job you didn't apply for.

For what it's worth, if you read a lot of successful alt-ac transition stories (including 1 or 2 I've seen posted here), they sound pretty much like that. To the extent that I halfway made a successful transition into an alt-ac career, it was through this sort of process.

Amanda

Anonymous I"m not sure we disagree. I don't think I would call what I'm advocating to be giving "substantial career advice." I want philosophy professors to know a list of plausible career alternatives, encourage students to consider these options, and have knowledge about *first step* avenues they can take in pursuing these careers. For example, point them to a part-time program within the university, or local institutions that have hired from the program in the past. Some lower-ranked philosophy programs that place a lot of their students in outside academic jobs do this already.

As of now, philosophy professors *typically* aren't even encouraging training, so there is a long way to go.

I don't agree that there isn't time to spend pursuing career alternatives when in grad school. If you pace it out, taking a course a semester can make a big difference. Now maybe you think philosophy grad students don't have time to take a course. But I think they do, and if they don't then they won't be ready for a TT job which requires much more work than grad school (unless you are a grad student doing an unusual amount of teaching, and if you are, you can probably cut back on a course to do alt-ac training.)

In the end, grad students have to decide what type of risks they are willing to take. If you want to put all your eggs into the academic market knowing that may require several years after grad school making little money will prepping for an alternative career, that is your choice. But grad programs should at least be honest both about the odds of success on the market. and the odds of finding career alternatives. They should then be understanding and encouraging when some grads choose to pursue additional, non-philosophical, training.

Amanda

As far as having a philosophy degree and computer science degree making you a "weird" candidate: I disagree. I know many philosophers who found jobs in computer science, some with additional degrees and a few without. It might be unusual, but I don't know why it is "weird" in any negative sense.

Anonymous

Amanda, I think we're on (mostly) the same page. I think my misunderstanding was due to not realizing just how far off many programs are in this area.

Regarding the "weird" candidate thing, it's not really the combination of the degrees, but the philosophy PhD itself. For example, in principle I should be more than qualified to take an entry-level administrative assistant position somewhere, but there's almost no way I would be considered for the position if I submitted my resume. Of course, part of that is the overqualified angle: I have a PhD. But part of it is the philosophy angle itself. As AA points out, think about all those mystified freshman in your intro classes who "don't get" philosophy. The hiring manager looking at your resume is likely one of those people, and they will remember how weird their philosophy class was. Just in general, a philosophy PhD is *so, so far* outside the realm of that person's expectations that they likely will just not bother to process what it might mean and will toss your application aside. (Just like philosophers, these people look for reasons to reject as well, and I'm *sure* "philosophy PhD" is a reason to reject for many people.) Now, of course, the administrative assistant job is an extreme case, and there are jobs out there where the philosophy degree isn't such a confusing signal for many potential hiring managers, but I don't think there's a single job outside academics where you can safely assume a random hiring manager won't be weirded out by a Philosophy PhD on a resume. Of course, if you have a personal connection, none of this matters. But if you're applying to jobs unsolicited, I do think the philosophy PhD on your resume is a net negative: it will weird out most hiring managers.

I realize that the above is a bit of backtracking and I'm changing my claim a bit, but on reflection I still think, for many jobs, the *combination* itself of a philosophy PhD and some other credential will be weird. Something beaten into my head was that hiring managers like narratives and stories. If you have a genuine narrative that really does integrate your philosophy work with the alt-ac career, you can certainly write a resume that won't look weird (although it's still bound to be very unconventional), but even then it will take some careful work and you'll be doing everything you can to highlight the non-philosophy stuff. (How to form and craft convincing narratives in my resume was one of the things which took so long to learn.)

Again, you and I probably won't disagree over any of the above. I'm sure you don't think you can just slap "PhD, Philosophy; Certificate, Computer Science" (or whatever) on a resume and be taken seriously for programing jobs. I guess I'm just trying to highlight *how much* there is to learn and do if you want a shot at a reasonable alt-ac position shortly after finishing a philosophy PhD. And maybe (certainly?) this is something professors need to instill their graduate students (it certainly wasn't instilled in me). At this point I'm probably just venting, so I'll bow out. But, thanks for understanding.

Amanda

Anonymous: I understand venting :). And I am sure you are right about the general difficulties of having a philosophy PhD creates and non-academic employment. But, assuming we are dealing with people who are *already* in a philosophy PhD program, that ship has sailed. They are going to have to deal with the philosophy PhD if they don't end up in academia, so one might as well make the best of an awkward situation. And indeed, that can be extremely difficult, which I think is all the more reason for grad students to take it seriously.

Marcus Arvan

“Of course, if you have a personal connection, none of this matters.“ *This* is the key part of your comment, Anonymous. My aunt has worked in HR for decades. The vast majority of jobs are found through personal connections, not submitting resumes. This is what I have been emphasizing: the culture of philosophy grad programs needs to change in terms of cultivating these connections with their students who have gone into industry. That is how you get a job: through someone vouching for you. Again, it’s *not* all about your resume or skills or whatever. That I think is a huge mistake in a lot of these discussions. Non-academic job markets are not meritocracies either. 80% of jobs are estimated to be the result of personal connections. So grad programs and grad students need to realize that if they want to have good alt-ac opportunities.

Anonymous

"that ship has sailed ... an awkward situation" - A good summary of the post-PhD alt-ac search.

Marcus: Agree, 100%.

Amanda

Marcus is right about personal connections! And in my experience grad programs simply loss track and stop communicating with those students that go into non-academic employment. This, of course, is the exact opposite of what they should be doing if they want to be of help to future students trying to find alt-ac jobs. They should stay in touch, so that former philosophy PhDs have good feelings toward their alumni institution and might help another PhD get a job one day.

Jian

After spending four years studying an undergraduate degree at a top university in Australia wasting my precious time and money, I thank my holy Buddha or spaghetti monster that I did not fell into the trap of a PhD.

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