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07/06/2020

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Michel

I think it's generally a bad idea. I don't think your supervisor needs to be "famous" (insofar as philosophers can be!), but I do think they should actually be in your subfield, and not just adjacent in some way.

Your supervisor is supposed to do a few things for you. One of those is help you write the dissertation, and another is write you a letter. And certainly, someone not fully in your subfield can do those things. But they're also supposed to act as your introduction to the subfield--they're supposed to help you develop your research network by sharing theirs, to guide you with your publications and choice of outlets, to guide you through the conference maze, to help you identify what's hot and what's not in the subfield, etc. It's a lot harder for someone at the margins to do all that. And while these are not all things that will matter a ton to a teaching school, they are things that matter to your professional development (and to your tenure bid, and probably also to your happiness in the discipline).

I think of supervisors as shortcuts. They're not necessary, but they sure are handy. What I found, in the dissertation writing process, was that I could bring my work up to the requisite standard myself, but it took me a long time to do so. Whereas my supervisor could set me on the right path after just an hour or so of reading and talking. What I found was that meeting with him would save me *months* of work. And I think that holds true more broadly: your supervisor is there to save you the trouble of having to do everything for yourself, from scratch, with all the false starts that come with that. It's not that you can't do it without them, it's just that their help is more efficient, and allows you to spend your energies elsewhere. A supervisor outside your AOS can still help, but they're not likely to be as helpful as someone fully in your AOS.

I see this happen a lot in my AOS, which is not at all well-represented in PhD-granting departments in North America. The handful or two of graduates from programs with proper representation in the AOS have an easier time fitting into the subfield network (because 1. their supervisors perform the introductions, and 2. they already know people, either their fellow students or colloquium speakers, etc.), and are generally better read in the subfield to start with (that's the benefit of being able to take seminars/directed reading with someone in the subfield, and with having them be able to tell you about all kinds of things you should read for your work). The people in my AOS coming out of Princeton, Harvard, and Yale struggle a lot more on these counts, because they don't have appropriate guidance. They just have someone who occasionally dabbles in the AOS but who's never at any conferences and seldom, if ever, publishes in it.

As I said, none of that is insurmountable. And, in fact, my AOS is largely made up of people in that boat, who had to struggle through. It's just that having an advisor who's squarely in your AOS is a *huge* leg up.

When it comes to getting a job, though... Well, I think that the Princeton/Harvard/Yale grads have it a little easier, actually, because the halo compensates, and anyone hiring in our AOS is unlikely to know who the key figures/supervisors are anyway. The halo also makes up for the fact that it's a very low-status subfield. Plus, nobody is actually hiring in this AOS anyway, and no number of letters from famous people in the subfield will suffice to make up for its low status and get you an interview (at least, that's been my experience, and it looks to me like it's my friends' experience as well).

Marcus Arvan

Hey Michel: much of what you say sounds totally reasonable. But it’s simply not clear to me that one needs one’s *advisor* to do those things. I don’t see why someone else on one’s dissertation committee couldn’t do all of those things—and I don’t see why them merely being on one’s committee means that they are at the “margin” of what you do.

An example: I had an influential senior figure on my committee who specializes in Rawls—and my dissertation was heavily influenced by Rawls. However, I didn’t have them as my advisor, mostly because they were new to my program at the time but also because I just had a good relationship with my advisor (whose supportiveness, as I’ve explained many times, basically saved my career).

Bearing this is mind, why suppose that that the person who specializes in your dissertation area has to be your *advisor*? If they are on your committee, read your work, meet with you and provide ample feedback (as my Rawls specialist did), *and* write you a positive letter, what difference does it make? It seems to me that this way you can get most if not all of the benefits of working with them while at the same time (say) having an advisor who you have a closer and more supportive relationship with?

Michel

Marcus:

Sure, if they're doing all that work for you without being your official supervisor, then great! What you need is someone who'll do that work, titles be damned. And as long as someone is doing that work for you, then I think you're in good shape.

My hunch is that it's uncommon for people who don't feel bound by a supervisory relationship to do that work, but maybe I'm wrong. And things can easily be very different in a department with depth (which I confess is not the scenario I was imagining). I don't think it matters a ton that you have a *Rawls* specialist for a supervisor, for example, as long as you have a political philosopher.

I guess I'm mostly thinking of a situation where, say, you want to work in metaphysics and either nobody in your department does, or one person does but they're a bad match for some reason, so you work with the Ancient philosopher who dabbles in metaphysics instead, with no direct support from a metaphysicist/ian. Or, to stick with Rawls/political philosophy, nobody in the department actually specializes in political philosophy but you want to write on Rawls, so you go with the Ancient philosopher who's interested in Aristotle's Politics (but not much more). I think that's not uncommon, and it just seems like setting yourself up for a harder time.

Shen-yi Liao

Agree with Michel's point but would put it slightly differently.

There's an (implicit?) hierarchy of subfields of philosophy by prestige, and there's an (implicit?) hierarchy of institutions by prestige, and the two hierarchies interact. Unfortunate and unjust, but the way that things are. As things stand, it's more acceptable to have an advisor from a more prestigious subfield, especially if one is at a more prestigious institution.

Zac

Michel:

I find it interesting that to you the bigger obstacle posed to a recent graduate is subfield integration, rather than job security. As you mention in the last bit of your post, a student from a top-tier school is invariably more likely to secure a job, right? So shouldn't that be the priority over sub-field integration, since the latter condition is only possible in the first place if the former is met?

I ask out of genuine curiosity because I am facing a similar instance. I'm an undergraduate getting ready to apply to grad schools -- there is someone at a mid-to-low tier school who is probably the best qualified in North America to supervise on the topic. There are other people, though, who are capable but just less so at higher tier schools, and I think I've decided to prioritize the higher tier schools because they just provide such a higher chance at actually securing a job. The specialty person might have their contacts, but outside of those contacts the institutional prestige will count for nil in the hiring process. From a higher-tier school, the lack of specific network integration will be made up by the institutional prestige, which also has the benefit of being recognized outside of the limited sphere of the more qualified advisor. My AOS is also quite narrow, and so by counting on advisor prestige rather than institution prestige, I'm assuming that there will even be people hiring in that narrow AOS. If there aren't, then all the better to have the more widely recognized institutional prestige, right?

Thoughts?

Tom

Zac, I think one can over-emphasize things like institutional prestige, and even the prestige of a supervisor. These things matter, sure. But the quality of your work and your ability as a philosopher matters more, I'd say. I've seen people who were amazing thinkers and who published excellent work during or immediately after their PhD go on to succeed who came from mid to low-tier schools. And I've seen people attend top schools and leave academia. People generally recognize now that good thinkers can come from all over the place, not just the top schools. I'd say that if you're not cut out for philosophy, going to a top school won't help you one bit.

Evan


I partially agree with Tom in that the quality of work is important as well. However, we have to ask: “How often do hiring committees actually read some of the applicant’s works to determine whether they are in fact of good quality?”

I’ve read a lot of academic works from supposedly prestige publications such as Oxford University Press and other top academic journals. My conclusion? Some are shoddy. And many times, these articles tend to beat around the bush in their arguments.

It’s easy to claim that quality “matters more” if in fact most hiring committees actually spend the time familiarizing themselves with the applicants’ works.

But do they? Or do many (or most) of them just look at *how much* scholarly works the applicant has published and *where* the works were published on his or her CV?

If the latter, then I’m assuming that the hiring committees only care if the applicant has done at least the bare minimum to get their papers or other works published by these journals or academic publishers.

I’m not an academic, but if I were one and I *truly* value high quality work, then I’d read some if their works myself. I wouldn’t want to take for granted that the applicant’s work *could* be of the bare minimum in terms of quality if my university or myself expects high or excellent quality academic works.

Amanda

My own experience does not line up with Tom's claims. I think prestige matters far more than quality. Many people on search committees do not even closely read the writing samples, because they don't consider themselves experts. Anyway, while sometimes persons overcome low prestige, I think it is far more common that persons who don't deserve all the accolades get them anyway, because of institutional prestige.

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