Friday, October 19, 2007

And I Am So Ordinary

Not too long ago, I learned something I didn't know about how the placement process works in some places. I caught wind of it from one trusted friend, but couldn't quite believe it, so now I've verified it with a couple others. (Reporting!)

Some departments in philosophy won't let their students apply for really high-powered jobs. The departments insist on approving their students' list of jobs to apply for, and even if someone's AOS is in philosophy of mind and AOCs are language and logic, the department won't let them apply for, say, a top-10 job for an AOS in mind with AOCs in language and logic.

This seems like a bad idea for at least a couple of reasons. One, we all know people who've got interviews way out of their league. No, they didn't get the jobs. But the interviews sharpened them up for other interviews, the ones that did get them jobs. Why the fuck would you rule out the possibility of your candidates getting that experience? Two, I know search committees have to wade through a swamp of applications, and they might appreciate having fewer to go through. But really, if I were trying to make a hire, I'd want that decision to get made by, you know, me and my department. If anyone knows a good reason for this practice, I'd like to hear it.

But it's not just that this seems like a bad idea. I haven't been able to put my finger on why exactly, but something here disgusts me. It makes me want to fucking puke. Look, we all know most of us have exactly no shot at those jobs. We know that. So you might say, "No harm, no foul," right? But that's not the fucking point. The point is, what does it say to your students? It says you'd rather their CVs never got seen by anyone you think is really great. It says they're like that girl you were sleeping with who was cute enough to keep your bed warm in the winter, but too dumb or déclassé to meet your colleagues or friends. It says they're like your kid when you wouldn't let him try out for soccer, because you think he's too small to be any good.

If you think your own students are shit, that's your problem. N years in school, a dissertation and a PhD are enough dues paid to earn us the right to fail on our own fucking terms.


John Turri said...

"If anyone knows a good reason for this practice, I'd like to hear it."

Here's a possible good reason.

If they allow only the very, very best of their students to apply to top-10 departments, then people in those departments will perhaps listen when they say, "This is the best student we've had in ten years." That way, at least some students from the department have a shot at jobs in elite places. Otherwise, none would (or so the faculty think).

When that one-in-a-hundred student comes along, they quietly tell her that she may apply to anywhere she likes.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

How disgusting. If they are embarassed, they ought to figure out well in advance that this person is going to have a PhD from their program, and either fix them or "dump" them.

Personally, that smacks of not wanting to compete with their grad students for really good jobs.

I also find it troubling that some programs essentially divy up the job listings among their grad students. If grad school isn't about competition, then what is... competing against your classmates for a job isn't that awful.

John Turri said...

Inside the philosophy factory,

You're missing the point of dividing up jobs. It's not primarily that the students will be competing with each other. Rather, it's that the department will be competing against itself when more than one of its candidates compete for the same job. This decreases the chances of all candidates involved to land an interview or eventually the job.

When there's only one candidate from dept. A applying to dept. B, all the faculty members in A can call their contacts in B and rave about A. This produces a unified message, and one that's more likely to have the intended effect.

And BTW, dept. A might do this even when they've got two or more superlative candidates, none of whom is clearly better than the others.

John Turri said...

I meant 'and rave about the one candidate'.

Anonymous said...

I've applied for the same jobs as friends who work in the same area. I've told friends about jobs they might want to apply for, which I was already applying to. I'm not the same as my friends. We're different people. If a department decides I'm right for the job, they won't have much interest in my friend, and vice versa.

That's the thing about being a scholar. You aren't (or at least shouldn't be) a clone of your advisor, and if you're not that, there's almost no chance you'll be a twin of anyone else in your program. Faculty can write letters to the effect, if you want X, then you can't do better than our guy A, if you want Y, you can't do better than our girl B. Right?

John Turri said...


I see where you're coming from. But let me see if I can't push the defense I've suggested a bit further, if for no other reason than to see if a plausible case can be made on behalf of this policy.

It's not about a letter writer's ability to distinguish two candidates in various ways. It's about the department's ability to best promote its students. This requires a sensitivity to human psychology and especially the constraints under which search committees work. Subtle distinctions in letters of recommendation, which don't seem to favor one candidate over another overall, don't stand out as much as two people on the search committee having gotten phone calls from people they know well, indicating that candidate Smith is superlative.

Anonymous said...

This is off topic a bit, but I ran across something puzzling in the JFP. Job #153, Mississippi State University, requires that you be a member of "PBK". Not being familiar with that coded language, I looked at the MSU HR site and sure enough, applicants MUST be members of "Phi Beta Kappa". I've never seen this before. Is there a reason to restrict it so. A brief glance at the available profiles/CVs of their current faculty does not emphasize their membership in PBK. Someone help me here. Why (and can) they do this?

Anonymous said...

Another anon here -

Think of it this way. Suppose I am your letter writer. And suppose that though I think you are good, you haven't demonstrated to me that you are capable of the kind of work typically expected from faculty at the very top institutions. Why should you expect me to recommend you to my colleagues-at-large for a job I don't think you are qualified for? Limiting the schools to which you can apply using my letter is a way for me to make sure I'm not lying.

I will grant you that letter writers are not infallible in their judgments. After all, how am I to know exactly what a search committee is looking for? But I think most candidates' departments are aware of this potential problem, and therefore probably seek to err on the side of modesty. That is, while your department may think, for example, that there is no way you'll get a job at a top-30 research university, they will only ask that you not apply to, say, the top-10.

Note that though this account is different from that suggested by John Turri, I am not saying he is mistaken. Indeed, the maximization of placement justification that he speaks of, along with his concessions to the hiring process and the psychology of the search committee members, are very good points.

Robert said...

I am a fan of this blog and share much of your frustration about the terrible process of finding jobs in philosophy. But there's one way to blunt a bit of the hostility about this practice (though these concerns may not relate to your situation).

One thing to keep in mind during your maturation as a professional philosopher is the fact that your experiences and perspective can be quite limited about how many of the aspects of being a student, advising students, hiring faculty, and making tenure decisions should or do proceed.

As an undergraduate, grad student, or junior faculty member, you will have opinions about how these facets of our profession should or do work, but you have to keep in mind that you just don't really know everything about how one does or should go about doing this stuff.

As an undergrad I had strong, and I thought unassailable views about who my undergraduate dept. should hire, but I hadn't read the materials in that candidate's dossier. I disagreed with my dept. at the time, and I now know that I had very little understanding of things other than how well the candidate came across and how well he interacted with students. The department made the right decision--I didn't.

The same thing happened as a graduate student. I was puzzled by some decisions my dept. made in hiring, sometimes outraged, but in hindsight, my judgments were far too limited, and aside from giving my views about how those candidates interacted with grad students, I should have trusted my dept. to make good decisions about those hires (and they did).

As a young professor, I certainly have ideas about what sorts of things should be relevant to making a tenure decision, but I have very little experience evaluating these sorts of things, so I shouldn't get too indignant if a decision goes some way I hadn't anticipated.

I mention all this to say that (perhaps I am a bad judge of philosophical talent, but) it could just be that older folks know more than we young folks think they know about how things work. We younger folks are in a strange, emotional, intermediate place. We DO know SOME things about how these processes do and should work within our profession, but we should also know that we DO NOT know everything. It's hard to admit this, especially when it involves someone older telling us to limit our expectations, but we need to be careful about being overly dramatic.

So, getting back to the topic at hand, given what I have said above, unless you have strong/reliable evidence that your dept. or your advisors are clueless about how the market works, you should probably listen to them, within reason.

I should note that you really seem to have terrible advisors, as you have described them, but just because they won't give you comments, etc., that doesn't mean they don't now how to get you a job. You should seek evidence about this latter ability before dismissing what they recommend.

I guess that if you trust your advisors/dept. you could interpret this practice as akin to quite reasonable advice about

(a) not going on the market too early
(b) not submitting mediocre work to important conferences
(c) not publishing mediocre work
(d) not taking on unreasonable tasks outside of finishing one's dissertation

It is true, anyone CAN do one of these after a few years of graduate school, and I suppose that maybe a dept. shouldn't KEEP students from doing these things, but keep in mind that you might not be the best, most experienced person to judge whether this will be a good idea for your career.

I understand the view that YOU know more about what YOU can do than your advisor/dept., but I think being a grad student, or a young professor, breeds some sense of cockiness that often isn't warranted. You are a great grad student--you've stuck it out--but you may not be in the best position to judge how the profession will judge you. You have some opinions about this, but they might be wrong (or at least limited)!

If you're not from a top program, and you apply for a top job, chances are that if you get an interview at all, you will be *the* CANDIDATE FROM DEPT X that the hiring dept. is considering. Top depts. may have several candidates from their depts. being considered, but your department won't. Unless you have no faith in your dept's help in the market, you should probably trust their judgment about which of your students should have a reasonable shot. It may be one student, but there might be no students with a reasonable shot. It's not clear to me why your dept. isn't in a much better place to make this decision than you.

So why not just mail out the application and give it a shot? Well, I think there must be reasons related to why one should consider (a)-(d) above. It could hurt you. If you are coming from program outside the top 15 or so, and your dept. isn't pushing you for the top jobs, you probably aren't ready for these jobs. If you want one of those jobs, you're going to have to take a less prestigious job and publish your way in. That's how it works (and it DOES happen that way, sometimes).

If your work is outstanding, your advisors will tell you to apply to those jobs. If it isn't outstanding (which isn't to say it isn't good) I suspect it might hurt you to put it in front of the leaders of your field Best case scenario: they actually read it (a chapter of your dissertation?). Once your dissertation is done, you'll realize why this may not be the best thing. A published paper is different, but if it is really good, I suspect your advisors would be pushing you to apply to the top jobs.

You also mention that people do get some great interviews, though you note they rarely, if ever, get those jobs. You also suggest that those interviews help the candidates give better interviews for more reasonable jobs. Practice in interviews does help, but unless you have evidence that these unexpected interviews go well (and don't represent the candidate in a non-positive light), I don't see why it wouldn't make more sense to just apply to any old job for which you might get some possible interviews.

So, I would interpret discouragement from my advisors as an attempt to protect me from what I don't (fully) understand. But, I like my advisors and trust them. They have never discouraged me from applying for any job, nor did they discourage me from going out on the market very early in my career. But if they had, I would have listened to them (perhaps I wished they had, at times).

It could be that your advisors think you are shit, or view you like the (in)significant other who is not good enough to introduce their friends, but it might be that they might view you not as an offspring who will never play big league ball, but one who needs to start out in the minors, for now (which could be as high as AA or AAA ball, sorry to switch sports metaphors).

If your dept. isn't good at placing people and they dictate where one may apply, I guess you might be screwed. If this isn't the case, I guess I think some caution is warranted. Their advice may be discouraging, but helpful.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughts Robert. I might just add that my department, which is not a top-15 department, has an excellent placement rating, and they partly attribute their success to the fact that they limit where students can apply. In fact the whole practice is really involved and hands-on.

I was first disgusted by it, but I've seen friends get really good jobs. It is unclear to me whether they are getting good jobs because of my department's placement practices, but the department, nonetheless, has good reason to believe this is why.

bjdouble said...

Maybe departments don't want to be the second choice. If departments share info on applicants, then the lower ranked school might choose the candidate who isn't treating their job as a consolation prize.

Anonymous said...

Robert is right that a lot of people in the discipline have a very limited view of the field, and that undergrads and many grad students don't know much about the field beyond what they've seen at one or two schools and what they like as a student. But older isn't necessarily better. A lot of professors still spend their whole career at the place that hired them out of grad school, and a lot of the profs at top schools had an easy time on the market, maybe only competing for one season. So often the folks who are charged with advising and mentoring grad students have very limited perspectives. This blog is good about describing this phenomenon.

And by contrast, some grad students have a wide range of experiences. Folks who did a terminal MA, esp. at a state school like Northern Illinois or Wisconsin Milwaukee have a very different perspective when they do a PhD at Brown or Michigan than their peers straight out of undergrad, for example. And grad students who've been on the market 3-4 years, or young folks who have done one or two 1-yr positions can have a great perspective on the market, often better than their professors from grad school who have lived charmed careers.

So yes, Robert, sometimes it's best to trust your advisors, almost always it is cet par. But things are rarely equal, and then it may be better to talk instead to senior grad students, or people who have jobs though maybe not good ones. Or simply rely on one's own experience.

Finally, grad students who have master's degrees in related fields (biology, classics, economics) and know how those fields operate often have a useful perpective too, because philosophy is in some ways a weird field. But that's another post.

Robert said...

I should also stress that much of what I said earlier ignores an important thing to know about the market--the job ads rarely capture what a department is really looking for. Departments may be split on what they want, they may be looking for a best fit in lots of areas (many of which may not be listed in the ad), etc. Given this fact, it should be in your best interest to apply to every job for which you are remotely qualified.

How does this square with my earlier post? Well, that's what makes this process so much fun!

In the end, I think you should ask for advice from as many folks as possible. This is especially important if your advisor is crappy or is a dinosaur who thinks that job offers are passed out at the smoker. But you shouldn't infer that your otherwise adequate advisor is embarassed by you or clueless about the market because she tells you something that hurts your feelings or doesn't make sense to the advanced grad students in your department.

Inevitably, you will get conflicting advice, so I agree with the other posts that you need to do what makes you feel comfortable.

Anonymous said...

As someone on the other side of the table (presently hiring - hence the anonymity) I'm strongly against this practice and frankly, even though I try not to be influenced, I confess that I think twice when I see department X's favorite blue-eyed boy's application with one or two too many letters and a cover letter from the chair... I think three times when the phone starts ringing with talk from mid-career hot-shot colleague/acquaintance describing how well blue-eyed boy performed as a TA for ethics back in 2001.

As we go through applications, (and note that I'm not typing this from 1879 or Emerson Halls) the thing that makes more difference to us than almost anything else is publication. If you have one good publication, even a solid book review, in a decent place and if it has a reasonable argument, then your application won't go immediately into the recycling bin.
Even if you're from bottom-tier big state U.
Publications are a clear indication of personal merit.

So, let me explain why I agree with the author that there is something really wrong with departments filtering the applications:

Bottom line, candidates and not depts are the ones being judged, taking substantial and very concrete risks and paying the price of failure in the jobs process.

By contrast, departments are hurt or benefit insofar as they move up or down the Leiter ranks. Moving up in these rankings surely benefits the placement of future graduates. However, as far as I can tell, successful placement is not really that significant a factor in Brian's delightful popularity survey. This ranking, as far as I can tell, is primarily a measure of faculty prestige. Hiring Dr. Celebrity Wisesocks at bottom level Big State U could launch it up ten points, whereas placing 4 or 5 PhDs a year at decent (but not great) places isn't likely to change things too much.

Departments playing the Leiter game are fools if they put their efforts and committee time into denying their students the opportunity to apply to NYU, Princeton or Rutgers. It's not very nice on a personal level and certainly not worth the emotional/political energy.

Is it that hard to recognize that the benefit to the department of engaging in strateegery with respect to applications is tiny? It is so spectacularly minimal that it is simply crazy to think that it justifies denying even the tiniest opportunity for your student. Even if the chances for candidate x are small, candidates at bottom level Big State U need and maybe even deserve as many chances as they can get.

Often, candidates are hired for reasons that their teachers could not anticipate. Maybe someone is extremely funny, or would fit well in a university-wide grant application, or has a wide range of interests, or could teach a philosophy of music class, or is simply a nicer person than the other candidates... you can never tell precisely what factors come into play.

Let's talk about the idea that the faculty on whatever committee might make these decisions has more access to information than the students, or that they have special insights which should be trusted in these matters. There are a number of flaws here:

In general, it strikes me as a mistake to rely on the advice of senior faculty with respect to the job market. (For reasons outlined in this blog and in recent comments). Letting junior or recent associate profs at mid level schools decide whether to permit a candidate to apply to some more Leiter-licious dept. also strikes me as opening things to all kinds of funny business. Junior faculty at the mid-low level depts are often fishing for themselves during the very same job cycles. Makes for some uncomfortable moments in the corridors at the APA.

If it gets to the point, this late in the game, where faculty are fiddling with student's list of applications, ranking students etc. it strikes me that there is something stinky going on. Surely, if you have information that the student doesn't and if you are not acting against her interests, why not just tell her what you know, rather than pressuring her in some way or another. If you are acting against the interest of the student for the sake of your Leiter standing or some other reason...then it's just despicable and/or strategically silly behavior.

This is why I'm suspicious of the blue-eyed boys...

Anonymous said...

This practice is adopted in my department for good reasons that are in the interest of the student candidate. I strongly urge all students on the market to speak directly with their departmental placement advisors about such policies, in order to come to a fuller understanding of the rationale.