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Sam Duncan

To be honest this sounds entirely unconvincing to me. This goes back to a point that Marcus has made over and over, which is that most grad students really have very little idea of what they need to do to get a job. This is especially so since what jobs you're competitive for really depends on your program. Some graduate students I knew in grad school thought that what you needed to do to get a job coming out of a program UVA was to publish a lot on trendy and generally narrow topics in LEMM in the elite journals. A few of those guys got jobs but a lot didn't and that's because that while their strategy would have been a great one for someone coming out of a Leiter top 10 competing for the jobs that hire those sorts of candidates it wasn't nearly as good a strategy for getting a job at the places that generally hired UVA grads. On the other hand, some graduate students thought that what you needed to do was to study bioethics or some other in demand area of applied ethics. Pretty much all of them got jobs and usually without too much effort. Some of us did exactly what Brennan said not to do. We didn't have it as easy as the people who did bioethics, but in the long term I think we still tended to a lot better than the first group. We had more breadth generally speaking and that served us well in competing for the kinds of teaching focused jobs we were actually competitive for with our backgrounds.
Anyway, if graduate students really knew what they needed to do to compete for the kinds of jobs that students coming out of their programs were competitive for, then it wouldn't be a bad strategy. There are a lot of interesting things in philosophy and choosing your focus with at least some thought of your career prospects isn't a bad idea. But I just don't think grad students can actually do what Brennan claims they do (I suspect the ones who seem to do this generally get lucky and then rationalize it as a plan after the fact). I've never known anyone who was all that good at looking at what had gotten people jobs in the past and reverse engineering their CVs to match it and I've known more than a few people who've tried. I'm not even sure it's possible. The sample sizes of graduating students tend to be very small so it's hard to sort out real trends from pure luck. Even if you could sort out what has really worked for students from your program, I'm not sure how helpful that would be. Programs change so quickly with faculty moving on, retiring, or passing away that what worked 5 years ago for someone from your program wouldn't work now in a lot of cases. 5 years ago focusing on bioethics at UVA was about as close to a ticket to a surefire job in philosophy as you could get. Now, I'm not even sure you could put together a good dissertation committee for a bioethics topic in philosophy there (you could probably do better in Religious Studies). UTK used to have a great niche program in applied ethics (which is a lot of how they had that +70% placement rate) and while I wouldn't cast aspersions on it now, they've deemphasized that focus to some extent so what used to be great strategy is now probably only a good one at best for most graduate students. I'm sure people could tell similar stories of many many programs.


Just finished my PhD. Starting my third year I made a turn towards the strategic type. Nothing blatantly mercenary: I only work on things I enjoy. But I definitely have a direction in mind and a clear plan for how to get there.

Honestly, I became much happier, more focused, more successful and better motivated when I had a direction and clear steps to get there.

I realize there are many people for whom that won't work. But it worked pretty well for me.

This is the first that I'd heard of Brennan's book but I just checked out a copy based on the passage you quoted.

Trevor Hedberg

I actually ordered this book and read it all a couple weeks ago. I'm not sure these short snippets in the interview entirely capture the distinction he's really after. At a quick glance through, I couldn't find a quote that mirrored exactly what he said in the interview, although there is an explanation of the Olympics analogy early in chapter 2.

I interpreted him as saying that graduate students generally either prioritize professional development throughout their graduate career or they don't. If they don't, then their chances of landing a permanent job are very close to zero; if they do, then they have a legitimate chance of landing a good job (but of course there is no guarantee). The heart of the book is an explanation of what it means to prioritize your professional development during graduate school. (A lot of that revolves around creating and publishing work.) Maybe that broad distinction still doesn't work, but at least in my experience, I thought it was easy to identify graduate students who were serious about building their CVs, going to conferences, developing an online presence in the field, and publishing their work compared to those who pursued these things either halfheartedly or not at all.


Overall, I was the growth and development type of graduate student, pursuing a philosophy PhD, in the first place, for the love of studying philosophy, and on the assumption that doing so is worthwhile because it is qualitatively different than a graduate degree that one pursues mainly instrumentally, say, like an MBA or a PhD in finance (and this is not to claim that a person cannot value the science of managing a business, or the economics of claims on resources, for their own sake, but it is doubtful that many students in such fields ever had the "What are you going to do with that?!" argument). In gloomier moments, I believe that the "type" of graduate student that I was has rendered my degree a "lifestyle PhD."

However, just before Brennan's typology of graduate students, he states in the same interview "...evidence indicates that success on the academic job market depends heavily on the reputation of one's advisor, the quality of one's writing samples and the impressiveness of one's CV (especially in terms of publications). Grad students have significant control over these things." If we are charitable, one of the three aforementioned factors in job market success are reasonably in the "significant control" of graduate students (i.e., a polished writing sample), but even this hinges substantially on luck, and if one is a member of a disadvantaged group, underrepresented in all facets of academic philosophy (a racial and ethnic minority, first-in-family college student, of low socioeconomic status, as I am), the assertion that one is deeply responsible for the prestige of their advisor, and their quantity of publications in high-ranking journals, smacks of extraordinary privilege.

Illusion of Terra

Interesting topic, and hadn't really thought about it explicitly so far. I can't really say which one would be more successful in the long run, so I will rather rely on anecdotes.

I have been more of the time to stew and develop type, while many, especially those in phil of sci, around me definitely were the strategic type. I never cared too much about going to every conference I could or building an online presence. I also didn't opt for the topics which seemed most promising when entering essay contests or the likes, but rather tried writing about something I thought was interesting.

This might have to do with having changed fields, and having ultimately chosen philosophy as the job I do because I an interested in the topics and not because it is a promising career (it really isn't).

That being said, I did find that some of the strategic people turned their backs on philosophy quite fast when hitting the post-phd phase and not being successful immediately. Others did get decent positions, which is great. Overall though, in my experience, there wasn't that much of a difference in the end. From the time to stew and develop types, the sucess in the post-phd time was quite comparable.

But, I think one should be strategic to a point, even if one wants to develop. While that doesn't mean that you need to write about topics you don't really care about, or that you have to visit every imaginable conference, workshop etc., I think it is advisable to have a general idea of what is popular and publishable.


Interesting post! I think the assumption that the strategic types are not *intrinsically* motivated is mistaken. I haven't read Brennan's book, but in the passage you quote he draws the analogy with athletes training for the Olympics. I'd say that such athletes are definitely intrinsically motivated, even if they also have a plan for how to achieve their aim.

Put differently, the athlete wants to win the Olympics not because they just care about the social status and prize money, but because they care about the sport itself; and similarly, I suppose Brennan would want to say that some graduate students think strategically exactly *because* they care about philosophy and for that reason aim for an academic career. (This is not to say that the 'stewing' type don't care about philosophy, of course - they just care in different ways).


Maybe the time and place I went to grad school was atypical, but basically everyone I knew was "serious about building their CVs, going to conferences, developing an online presence in the field, and publishing their work". The claim that those who don't do these things have basically zero chance at a job is pretty weak --- almost trivial or obvious.

What I got from Sam and Marcus was a more substantial distinction: (a) those who do (or try to do) the conferencing and publications "on their own terms", "stewing" about, not necessarily focused on placing themselves strategically, reading widely for pleasure, vs (b) those who do (or try to do) the conferencing and publications more strategically and on schedule, e.g. picking a hot topic or building a CV that fits the kinds of jobs students from their program tend to get.

There's also a third distinction that might be in play here, suggested by the word "stew". When I was a grad student, some (most) of us really lived philosophy. We hung out together at bars late at night talking philosophy. We read philosophy widely in our off hours, or (really) just didn't have discernible "off" hours. But for others, grad school and philosophy was just a job. They kept their work to 9-5, or whatever, and seemed to treat the department as a place of employment, mostly only showing up to what was really required. I got the sense (perhaps wrongly) that to them philosophy was just this thing they did, or job --- perhaps a really cool job, but still, just a job.

When we cut these finer distinctions and make stronger claims, I suspect that Sam is sort of right that *strategic* professional develop is really hard and easy to screw up. But, at least in broad strokes, it isn't *that* hard, right? I mean, you certainly can know if you're at a school that places students in teaching jobs, or if instead students from your program regularly get research jobs. If you read a blog like this, you could then take Marcus' advice on how that distinction should shape your preparation, to maximize your odds on the job market. But maybe I'm misjudging, in hindsight with a decade of experience, how easy this all is for someone just starting out.

At the same time, I suspect it's bad (career) advice to treat philosophy as a job (but probably good mental healthy advice). The students who do live philosophy, build strong social bonds with their peers, and work 24/7 are going to have a decided advantage over those who aren't willing to go so far. Again, I'm not endorsing this as mental health advice, and I think we need to take work-life balance very seriously, but it just seems obvious that someone who does a lot of networking and spends twice the hours on their work (assuming they work efficiently) will be better positioned for jobs moving forward.

Graduate from a couple years ago

I was absolutely the MBA-type PhD. From the very beginning of my program, I spoke regularly with advanced grad students and those who had already graduated from our program to figure out their perspectives on what it would take to get a job. I asked all sorts of other people too, including cold emailing people I didn’t know. I kept a long document full of their advice and the principles I had distilled from it. And I saw for myself which of them got jobs, and which didn’t. The writing is on the wall very early, if grad students are willing to look.

In my third year I read Kelsky’s “The Professor Is In” book, and it (at least in my mind) confirmed everything that I had heard from other people and had observed myself. I created a five-year plan and got to work trying to fill my CV with non-filler lines as much as possible. I tried hard to publish, and to be frank, I wasn’t that concerned about how good my papers were. One of the things that had become clear to me was that, at the jobs I would be competitive for—not top research jobs—the quality of my publications was going to matter very, very little. What I thought would matter instead was just the number of them, so I tried to get as many as I could (I am not talking about placing papers in predatory journals or crapfarms; the places my papers landed were legitimate journals, but not top ones).

I did the same thing with teaching, conferences, service opportunities, and everything else. I taught as much as I could, went to as many conferences as I could, all of that. My reasoning was—and Kelsky talks about this—if I could make my CV look like an up-and-coming assistant prof’s CV when I made it to the market, then I would have a good shot. (And on the issue of philosophy being your job, I didn’t work much outside of regular business hours, due to other responsibilities I had. I just tried to do work while at work. Just my opinion here, but I saw a lot of grad students waste enormous amounts of time drinking coffee and “developing themselves.”)

The result of all this was that I went on the job market early, got many interviews (even from research jobs), several flyouts, and one offer. I missed out just barely on other offers (including one that went to a person who was 12 YEARS out of his PhD and had already published a book with a good press. No amount of CV prep as a grad student can prepare you to compete against someone like that—and yet that person is a good example of exactly who you will have to compete against for almost every opening!).

The CV building, NOT the quality of the work, was more important in getting interviews. Of course in an on-campus visit you cannot fake your way through a Q&A or whatever. You will get found out if you don’t know what they expect you to know. But that’s separate from the way you package and prepare your grad career for the market.

To put it another way: during most of my first-round interviews, it was clear that no one on the committee had read more than just a small amount of my work, if they had read any at all. And it was also clear that they didn’t care what my work said. They already had the proof in front of them that I would be able to publish enough to get tenure. Since they were not hiring for a research job, what other difference could it make to them?

I think I have strayed a bit from the original topic but I feel very strongly that Brennan is right about this, and I have seen it borne out again and again and again in studentes from my program and many others. Graduate students systematically misunderstand what will be required of them to be successful on the market, as Sam Duncan says above. But all the information they need is there—the truth is there, if they are willing to look.

Trevor Hedberg

@Mike -- Just to follow up briefly, the distinction I'm pointing out might seem obvious to us, but the target audience for Brennan's book is prospective graduate students. (It's also not aimed exclusively at philosophy grad students.) And I think it's clear that many first-year graduate students begin their graduate studies without a clear picture of what they really need to do to be competitive for academic jobs. This can vary among programs, but at mine, more than half of those who obtained a PhD in the last 10 years had 0 publications, even though faculty members were generally rather transparent about what's needed to be competitive on the market. Most of the students in your program may have been different, but that might just indicate that they mostly aren't part of Brennan's target audience.


Thanks for clarifying, Trevor!


I was more on the MBA side of things; I definitely had a specific plan and benchmarks I wanted to achieve and I read about professional development and how to think about myself about a philosopher. I also had a spouse who is not a philosopher, so I didn’t spend most nights at the bar with my philosophy friends and I tried to get work accepted at the right conferences and network. Nevertheless, I also cared a lot about the quality of my work and the kind of work I did, and even though I was at the type of school where I knew I wasn’t going to get a top-10 job (and, frankly, I didn’t want that kind of job), I wanted to publish things I was proud of, in the areas that I wanted (so I didn’t choose my AOS on the basis of job prospects). So, while I did have one high quality publication before I went on the job market, that was it. But, I landed my pretty-close-to-dream job (a TT job at a place with a graduate program where both research and teaching were important, in a very desirable location). I have noticed that the stewing-style students in my grad program took longer (7-9 years, on average, where I finished in 6) and exited in a worse position than I did on the job market (though often with more teaching experience, too, which would be important for some kinds of jobs). Still, overall, it still seems to me that what I did was the right balance, at least for me. (Also, anecdotally, the women in our program were nearly all on what’s described here as the MBA side of things, and the men were much more split between the two approaches.)

Sam Duncan

After thinking about this I believe my objections to Brennan are both more subtle but deeper than I convey in my initial post. I suspect that this relies on and further perpetuates a model of how to succeed that is pretty much false or at least is false for most people. Consider the claim that Achilles quotes from Brennan, ""...evidence indicates that success on the academic job market depends heavily on the reputation of one's advisor, the quality of one's writing samples and the impressiveness of one's CV (especially in terms of publications)." Now all that stuff may well be true when it comes to Leiter ranked schools. It's probably true of R1's in general and (to a slightly lesser extent R2s). But every claim there is just plain false when it comes to community colleges and (from everything I know) most other jobs at teaching focused schools like SLACs, regional teaching focused state schools, and Catholic colleges. The impressiveness of your advisor or CV or the Leiter ranking of your school probably won't mean much or anything in the competition for a community college job. Most people on the interview committee won't even know they should be impressed. What matters much more there is whether you can teach the classes they need taught to the type of students they have. The same goes for other teaching focused schools I'm told. And consider community college jobs are something like 40% of the jobs out there. I don't have hard figures but I'm certain those other teaching focused schools make up at least 10% of the job openings (and I'd wager any amount anyone cared to put up at pretty steep odds that it's actually more than that). So given that Brennan's advice is bad advice for a 50%+ of the philosophy jobs out there. If you go to a school lower than about 25 in the Leiter rankings then it's probably bad advice for competing for practically all of the jobs you actually have a shot at. The whole Olympics or athlete metaphor is also misleading and it feeds into a warped and unhelpful way of thinking about the market. Getting a job isn't a matter of getting a gold medal for merit or even for playing some artificial game well. It's a matter of convincing a school you can do a job they want done. This all strikes me as a yet another case of someone with a Leiterrific PhD in a research focused job recasting what worked for him and similarly situated people given their particular circumstances as the key to getting a job for all grad students.
Also, I think that in a lot of cases students who just follow their interests might end up better suited to jobs they're competitive for than ones who try to think "strategically." As Marcus says there's the matter of intrinsic interest. Beyond that just following your curiosity tends to make you better rounded. That may not be an asset in the competition for research focused jobs where hyper-specialization is the name of the game. But it serves one really well in applying for teaching focused jobs. It's a real asset at most teaching focused schools if you know a few odd subjects well enough to teach them. For instance, I read amount of Kierkegaard, Hegel, and Heidegger back in grad school on my own. That wasn't strategic at all. I just thought those guys were interesting. But then once I was on the market I got a fair number of interviews because I could teach a survey class on continental philosophy.
Finally, and I might be wrong about this, but reading between the lines this whole line, while cast as descriptive, seems to me to possibly cast blame on unsuccessful grad students for their own plight. If it is then that's outrageous. Even if you think that grad students should think like athletes well it's kind of scandal they have to "coach" themselves. Faculty in grad schools need to do a lot more to give their students good advice about how to compete for whatever jobs they might be competitive for. I'm all for graduate students thinking strategically (though I don't think Brennan's strategies are good ones for most of them) but faculty need to help them do that. If faculty were doing a decent job advising there wouldn't be a market for books like Brennan's or Kelsky's. That broke grad students feel they need to buy these books just to know what to do is deeply revealing.


It also now strikes me that Brennan's remark contrast strategic thinking with the kind of stewing one does *as an undergrad*. But my experience is that most of us, and most undergraduates, were *very* strategic in our thinking as undergraduates. If you made it to graduate school, or are just a jr or sr who is in a position to seriously think about graduate school, you presumably have been taking courses strategically, with an eye towards the requirements of the next step. The average undergraduate does this as well: e.g., as evinced by complaints that their gen ed courses aren't relevant to their post-university goals.

I mean, yeah, I get it, there certainly are some students out there who "stew" about in some deeply aimless way, frittering their nights away at bars without any real long term planning or awareness of professional development or career trajectory. Some of them consider graduate school, and may even get in somewhere. But there seem to be relatively few of these "pure stewers", and there certainly isn't any sort of bimodal distribution around "stewers" and strategic thinkers.

Anyway, that gets me to the point: we should take the "stewers" vs strategic thinkers as fictional archetypes that serve as a useful framing device when giving advice to graduate (or would-be graduate) students, and not as an actual sociological breakdown of students.

A final quick thought: there may have been more "pure stewers" 20-30 years ago, when college admissions weren't so hyper competitive. But today, given that kids grow up in a culture of test prep, private preschool, and admissions consulting, I think most people are hyper aware of the sort of strategic, longer-term planning Brennan has in mind. Of course, this will vary by social class (e.g., as a first-generation college student I was much less aware of it than, I presume, the average upper-middle class kid), but as a professor at schools with mostly working-class students, I certainly saw even in them this sort of strategic planning. For example, nursing students really want to know why they have to bother taking philosophy, given that it isn't on their RN exams and doesn't directly impact how they treat patients.

Benjamin LS Nelson

I think we can make a distinction between 'philosopher' and 'professional scholar of philosophy'. I associate Brennan's 'MBA type' with people whose primary concern is to take up strategies for making a professional career as scholars of philosophy. And, anecdotally, I can't deny that the MBA type tends to achieve the successes they're looking for in the profession. But, as I think some commenters above are noting, I think it is at least reasonable to ask to what extent those two worlds intersect, and how productive one is being philosophically when they are being productive professionally.

Marcus Arvan

Benjamin: I think that's an important distinction worth reflecting on. I suspect I would be a very different philosopher today had I been the MBA type. I'm not saying I would have been better or worse *as* a philosopher. I really have no idea how to estimate the relevant counterfactuals. Nevertheless, it does seem plausible to me that had my professional priorities had been different, my philosophical priorities likely would have been very different too.


@Sam Duncan, what is LEMM and UVA?

Benjamin LS Nelson

@H, 'LEMM' stands for the so-called core areas of philosophy, "Language, Epistemology, Metaphysics, and Mind". "UVA" likely means University of Viriginia.

Hi Marcus, I agree, and think it's important to take a constrained-pluralistic attitude towards the idea of being a proper philosopher. It will only be useful to try to power up our counterfactual imagination, and come to comparative conclusions about philosophical priorities, once we get some rough idea about what a 'proper philosopher' looks like. (I take a virtue-theoretic approach, fwiw, but this starts to drift away from the main subject of the OP and the interesting thread of comments.)

In the absence of that, it's just useful to make the distinction for the sake of observing the conceptual friction, as the two aspirations rub up against each other. We might start by looking at relatively uncontroversial (or, at least, relatively familiar) philosophical critiques of professional and institutional reality -- e.g., the existence of salami publishing, the problems with peer review, the neoliberalization of the university, etc.


I agree about the distinction between pragmatic and idealistic grad students. And I agree with Brennan that the former usually do better. I don't think it follows that pragmatic philosophers don't do what they love, although it can mean this. But some philosophers manage the best of both worlds, i.e. doing something they love which is also strategic. For me, there was a very wide range of philosophy I loved, so choosing a strategic path was compatible with doing what I cared about. I doubt I'm unique.

What I find puzzling about Brennan's argument, and also a lot of his social media statements, is that on the one hand, Brennan often talks about how very few philosophers get R1 jobs, and points out that most professional philosophers have jobs that are mostly teaching. I personally think he exaggerates the extent that most professional philosophers are mostly teachers, but that aside, he does recognize most jobs are not R1 jobs. However, his professional advice for grad students seems very heavily swayed toward "publications are the most important thing." Yet this is only so for R1 jobs. While many teaching schools do care about publications, they are going to care just as much about teaching experience and teaching creativity. Too many high ranked publications can even hurt those who are aiming for teaching jobs.

Last note: I agree with the comment above: in my experience, the perceived quality of the publications often plays very little role in the search. Even at R1s this can be true. I served on an R1 search committee, and my own perception of the writing sample was not that high on my list of priorities. This is because we were not hiring in my AOS. It just seemed very odd for me to have my own judgement outside my AOS surpass the judgement of, (1) specialist journal reviewers (i.e. good publications suggest specialist journalist reviewers liked the paper) specialist letter writers, and my own specialist colleagues. I know I wasn't the only one who felt this way, too. Other faculty members mentioned they don't feel qualified to judge outside their AOS, at least not beyond basic stuff like, "this is competent and creative and I like the research plan." Actually, I'd say future research plan was very important to me, and that this is not mentioned enough in discussions about hiring. Even outside my AOS, I think I can gauge when someone has an impressive research plan going forward. Of course, it must be accompanied by actual accomplishments - it can't be all promissory. Maybe Leiter top5 or 10 hires on all promise, but not outside of that small bubble.

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