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Assistant Prof

One advantage of narrowing, beyond name recognition, is that over time it's probably easier to write papers: you will have to do less reading for each paper, since you will already be mostly on top of the literature, and you may be able to draw on some elements of your previous thinking.


For those who think we should be narrow, I'm curious about how narrow "narrow" really is.

e.g., for someone working on consciousness we could distinguish between:

(1) Working on consciousness.
(2) Working on the metaphysics of consciousness.
(3) Working on the metaphysics of consciousness from an a priori perspective.
(4) Working on the metaphysics of consciousness from an a priori perspective with the aim of defending non-physicalist views.
(5) Working on the metaphysics of consciousness from an a priori perspective with the aim of defending one particular non-physicalist view.
(6) You get the idea.

Is there some level of that which isn't actually narrow enough?


Let me offer some perspective. My first TT job was at a typical state college that was principally concerned with undergraduate teaching. Even there, they hired on the basis of a targeted specialization - it was in their ad. I was the lucky one that year - the ad explicitly asked for someone with expertise in the philosophy of social science. They had a course they needed taught. So it was imperative that I had published in this area, or I would not have been shortlisted. But if I had only published in this area I would not have been eligible for any other jobs (I think it may have been one of the few jobs in the philosophy of social sciences that year, maybe the only one). Fortunately, for me, I had published a number of papers in general philosophy of science. I had even published on collective intentionality (I considered this part of philosophy of social science, others regarded it as on the edge of philosophy of mind). My point: I think it is imperative, if you are on the general market, outside the top research schools, to publish in a range of topics.

Bill Vanderburgh

I've maintained several disparate research interests over my career, and I think there are some costs to doing so that are worth mentioning. I agree with Marcus that local knowledge about tenure expectations is crucial (not just what your chair and departmental colleagues say, but also the dean and folks who serve on the university tenure committee). If they are open to you publishing broadly, next make sure you account for the fact that you are essentially doubling or tripling the amount of work you need to do to get up speed (or even to just keep up) in several areas. Then there is the time to reacquaint yourself with a topic when you switch to the next thing. That's in addition to foregoing a snowball effect you can get when continuing to engage with a single topic where new related ideas come to you fairly easily. If I were to redo my academic career I would stick to publishing in just one topic area until I had gotten tenure. (Level 2 or 3 in anon's taxonomy!)

leading thinker

I'm 7 years post-PhD and have gotten a permanent job (tenure-equivalent) and promoted at a good research university. All my publications bar one are on a single, quite narrowly defined topic, on which I'm considered a "leading thinker". So the narrowing approach worked for me - not that I did it at all for strategic reasons, and indeed, I've thought for quite a long time that there are strategic reasons to branch out (and had mentors and search committees tell me as much).

But the narrowing approach has come at a cost: now I find myself so deeply entrenched in this one topic that (as others say) it's fairly easy to just keep producing publications on it, while in contrast it seems impossibly difficult to find the time to learn a new/different literature thoroughly enough to have something original and plausible to say about it. (Especially when the commitments, new projects, etc. related to the old topic keep coming thick and fast!)

It's hard to know what exactly to recommend. I mainly offer the anecdote in the hope that it's useful or interesting. But if I were to recommend anything, I suppose it would be this: *if* you decide to narrow your interests, don't narrow them too much; try to stay reasonably abreast of at least one or two other topics at the same time. It's possible to dig oneself into a groove that's hard to get out of!

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