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SLAC Associate (and frequent search member)

Purely anecdotal: my institution did a hire in M&E around five years ago. Something like a quarter of the writing samples were on grounding and/or metaontology. No one on the committee was a metaphysician and so all of those candidates bled together in our minds into an amorphous blob. "Who's so-and-so?" "Oh, he's one of the grounding files." I have no doubt that some of those writing samples were excellent and top-notch and others weren't, but our hiring committee wasn't well-positioned to separate the wheat from the chaff. (That's why we were hiring in M&E, because we didn't have such a person to tell us what was good and what wasn't.)

I don't think we gave a first-round interview to any of the grounding candidates, and the three candidates we ultimately invited to campus were all doing projects that either we hadn't really thought of before, or at least weren't being done by other applicants.

That particular search was more lopsided than some, but it's illustrative of the way my department at least makes hires: we almost always end up going for someone who is noticably different from most of the pile.


I've been involved with a dozen or so searches over the last decade (at an R1) - it is hard to generalize, but my sense is that there is probably something valuable about standing out. Heavily studied topics (e.g, a historian that works on Plato or Kant) have the advantage that most philosophers who aren't in these areas will have some familiarity with and interest in these figures. But there are a lot of people working on Kant! Far fewer (at least among new junior folks) on figures such as Berkeley, or even Descartes, these days. But: it might be hard to say something new about Berkeley or Descartes, much less Kant or Plato. And in the latter cases, you're competing against a lot of other folks! It is very hard to be thought of as the very best Kant scholar in a given year/applicant pool.

Of course - to continue to the example of early modern - recent decades have also seen a trend towards working on "lesser known" figures - e.g., Cavendish or Emilie du Chatalet - here it might be easier to say something new (though obviously these figures are to some extent "trendy" now) - but it is more work to get philosophers outside of this area interested - the typical non-historian may know next to nothing about the "lesser known" figures. You have to work harder to make the case why they're interesting.

The best kinds of topics - it seems to me - are ones where they haven't been overworked and aren't too trendy - but for which the applicant can make a strong case why they're interesting. Sometimes this is taking a new position on a well worked topic - (e.g., think of working on virtue ethics when everyone is doing consequentialism or vice versa)

Part of the issue here can be graduate training - the reason - let's suppose - that so many people are working on grounding is because a lot of the big graduate programs have faculty who are teaching graduate seminars on it (I don't know if this is true - this is just using the example from above).

So another thing to think about as a graduate student is finding a topic that may not be related to whatever you've been taking graduate seminars on. Of course, you need a supervisor that is willing to supervise such topics, and and you need to have the background to pursue them. But my sense is that with a bit more work most graduate students can find a topic for which they have enough background but which are relatively unexplored. It is a bit harder that just going to the latest journals and finding a topic about which people disagree, but in the long run I think it can be worth it. (Of course, it should be a topic that you're interested in and genuinely compels you, even if at some point down the road you'll be sick of it!)

Caligula's Goat

My perspective as a frequent search committee member at a SLAC on the west coast: it doesn't matter too much what your research is on so long as you can teach the courses in the AOS that we are searching for and can bring something extra on top.

For example, if we're doing a search for philosophy of race, we won't care too much whether you are interesting in the metaphysics of race, intersectional theory, ideal / non-idea justice and race, etc etc etc. So long as you can show us that you will publish the 6-7 articles you'll need for tenure and that you can teach all of the courses we'll need you to teach in race & ethics, you'll be a competitive candidate.

If you also do research in something else (non-Western philosophy, Africana philosophy, philosophy of love, feminist philosophy) then that's all a bonus to us and makes you even more competitive.

Although I think our tenure requirements are fairly high for a place without a graduate program, we're still primarily a teaching institution so your research matters only insofar as:

1. You can help us understand it
2. You can teach the courses we need you to teach
3. You can show us how your research can help you make your teaching even stronger so that you can help us to grow the major

The relative trendiness of the topic is, in that sense, mostly irrelevant at a place like ours.

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