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05/15/2023

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b

In the late 1990s I was completing a dissertation on social epistemology. A committee member referred to it as a trendy topic. I was not so aware that it was or would be perceived that way, until she said it. On a related note, while I was still on the market, a mentor told me that I should be sure to place a few papers every now and then in mainstream philosophy journals, in addition to Philosophy of Science and Social Studies of Science. It was good advice. But generally, good papers will get cited. Like Marcus says, it is imperative that you do work you enjoy.

lucky tt

I agree with everyone else that you should write on things you enjoy writing, are motivated to finish, and take pride in sharing. I want to second that it is a good idea to get publications in generalist's journals (but don't sweat it too much if not). I myself don't have publications in those journals and write on weird stuff. FWIW, I did get very nice jobs, but did encounter a skepticism or worry along the way based on that I don't have publications in those journals.

I didn't think I was niche until last year

On the one hand: no, I don't think publishing in a top/mainstream journal would do a lot (maybe it does a little) to make people not think that a topic is too niche or not rigorous enough.

On the other hand: I agree with Marcus and b. I also want to add that 1) many people are not very good judges of what other people consider niche; 2) we are collectively not very good at predicting what will become trendy in the future; and 3) you can't please them all anyway, and you only need one job.

So, I'd say: give the advice some weight. Continue to gather information. Keep your eyes open for mainstream pub chance, etc. But probably not worth radically changing practice over.

C

Sometimes niche arguments depend on controversial theses that are much-discussed in the mainstream. For example, I am working on what most would consider a niche project in the philosophy of religion that will (I suspect) hinge partly on whether a certain controversial theory in mainstream epistemology is true. Even though I’m not interested in defending that epistemological theory for its own sake, I was motivated enough to publish a paper about it in a respected generalist journal because it was closely connected to my research. I would recommend trying to pinpoint “trendy” issues that are relevant to the success of your niche arguments and publishing on some of those. That way, you’ll be advancing your favorite research program and scoring “relevance” points at the same time. (Though I agree with others that if this still feels like drudgery then it probably isn’t worth it.)

Daniel Weltman

I agree with Marcus and the other comments. An additional point: there are some people who will just dislike some niche topics no matter what you do, where you publish, etc. That means you can either ignore those topics forever to hopefully not piss those people off, or you can just accept those people will look down on you. I think option #2 is much better because you can't let your life be dictated by the grumpy people.

Similarly, there will be people who look down on you if you don't work on their niche topic (they look down on a lot of people!), people who look down on you if you only work on mainstream stuff, etc. Life is too short to worry about all the reasons someone might dislike you. Philosophy has lots of judgy people and you can waste a lot of effort trying to make them all happy.

Chris

I did my PhD on a very weird topic that my supervisor warned me (quite reasonably) might prove to be a "career-limiting move". It has since become a very hot topic and I now have a permanent job - something I suspect would be much less likely had I not worked on this topic.

My publications are almost exclusively on this weird topic and none are in top / generalist philosophy journals. I think these two facts have counted against me in some cases, but it's also not clear whether my CV would even have been on those short-list piles had I not been working on this topic. YMMV.

academic migrant

Agree with one of the above comments that niche topics sometimes draw from mainstream debates. I think one way to make things work is to show how your contribution to niche topics can give some feedback or shed insight on the so called mainstream debates.

At one point or another, someone, typically a member of a search committee, will asks what your contribution to philosophy is or why the work you do is important. This is one opportunity to come up with a decent answer.

Don't shoot the messenger

I just wanted to add that as one of the grumpy people who looks down on my fair share of topics, I think I would be more positively disposed to someone who sticks to their guns and can explain why they think their topic is valuable on its own terms than someone who tries to pretend they work on a topic I like.

If I'm going to hire a postmodern aesthetician (for example) then I want to higher someone who really thinks that postmodern aesthetics is valuable, not someone who is halfway to agreeing with me that it isn't.

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