Saturday, March 30, 2013

The biggish picture

There's some interesting data here about employment for PhDs since 1991. The article is mostly about the job market bust for PhDs in the sciences, and the data is compiled by NSF, but it includes employment data for PhDs in the Humanities. To sum up, employment rates in the Humanities were pretty much flat, hovering in the high 50s percentage-wise, until 2006, when a steady decline began. Academic employment went down and, correspondingly, unemployment went up. Both figures are now in the 40s. That was before the economic meltdown of 2008, so we're obviously seeing more at work than that particular disaster. In the same timeframe, postdocs have inched up, which jibes with my intuition on postdocs in philosophy. Seems like a lot of the new hires on Leiter's thread this year are postdocs.

Meanwhile, for PhDs overall, the decline actually began at the turn of the century, suggesting things might be somewhat worse in other disciplines. (Although people in the sciences have more opportunities to work in industry, and the data shows they are well-compensated for that work -- much better than Humanties PhDs who end up in the private sector.)

So, I guess the bad news is that the downward trend is unlikely to get better, even if the economy picks up, unless something else changes. The good news is it's not actually a lot worse than it used to be?


Thursday, March 14, 2013

On Research Strategies

I've been giving some thought to this set of research strategies from Marcus Arvan at Philosopher's Cocoon. I thought it was a very useful discussion, particularly given my own recent struggles with writing. I do a lot of this stuff already, but some of my habits represent a significant variation on the theme, and some of my habits are sort of like the opposite of its counterpart on Arvan's list. (To be clear, I'm not trying to argue with Arvan. I like his list. I'm just using the list as a way of thinking about my own work habits.) If you haven't read Arvan's post, go do it and then come back.

Arvan says,

2. Write first thing in the morning, without any form of self-censorship, setting a firm 3-5 page requirment for yourself, which you assiduously keep to and do not go over.

I kind of do this. I don't write in the morning, but I try to do a certain amount of writing-related work every day. However, I don't draft every day--some days I'm editing, revising, rewriting, or polishing; some days I'm researching and just making notes; some days I'm reorganizing. Sometimes I'm just not in a position to do any drafting. And on those non-drafting days it doesn't make much sense to think about my output in terms of pages. I just focus on doing as much as I can until it's time to go home.

3. Give yourself a couple hours a day of "alone time" outside away from the computer if you can.

I don't do this every day, but I try to do it a couple times a week.

 4. Send stuff out; don't sit on your work.

I like to sit on my work a little. I find that it really helps to let a paper rest for a little while and then come back to it with a fresh set of eyes. When I come back to it, I find that I notice things I wouldn't have noticed before--often, this is when I notice unclear or obscure passages, or places where something has been left implicit that needs to be made explicit, or places where the way things are organized or the order in which things are presented is messed up.

But I make an effort to send stuff out as soon as it's ready, and if I'm going to err, I err on the side of sending stuff out too soon.

5. When your work gets rejected, send it out again immediately.

I do this unless the rejection was accompanied by a set of helpful comments--which it generally is not. And if it's not, I try to send it back out that same day.

8. The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.

I try to do that, but I don't do the thing that Arvan does. I write an informal outline where I reconstruct the argument or view or whatever I'm engaging with, remind myself what the relevant literature is, and sketch out what my take is going to be. I do this whenever the need/desire arises. Then, when I finish a project and send it out, and am in a position to start something new, I go through these documents and see what jumps out.

I also try to read a lot, and go to conferences a lot, and when I do, I make an effort go to papers that are outside my immediate areas of interest. I find that a good way to get new ideas is to expose myself to other people's new ideas.

9. Only work on weekdays--take weekends off.

I generally do this. I try to devote my evenings and weekends to my family. Doesn't always happen, but I almost always try.

--Mr. Zero

Monday, March 11, 2013

You asked for it...

Anon has graciously asked for input from Smokers re: "best practices" in hiring.

I'm about to advertise a position (VAP or TT depending upon meeting with administration today), and I'd really like some insight into what works best for folks on the applicant side...
So, questions that I have: 
  • Preferable advertisement venues these days? (JFP--but where else?)
  • Application materials (best practices, in my day it was letter, reference letters x 3, teaching excellence (evidence of), writing sample, C.V.) 
  • Application media? What is best? I'm assuming electronic applications via email?
  • How about advertisement--what do you want to know that isn't always included? (I've been on senior admin searches where a fairly extensive "position profile) *8-10 pages) is produced describing the institution and the position desiderata), it always seems strange that we limit advertisements to 1 paragraph half of which is identical to all the ads in the JFP.
  • Skype vs phone for preliminaries?
  • Obviously attention to negative notification is important :)
  • Campus visits--what works, what frustrates?
  • VAP's vs TT-- differences in applications?
Anyway, much of this info is probably somewhere on the site, but developing a set of best practices from the perspective of job seekers could have a very beneficial effect on the profession.
This calls for some constructive advice, don't you think? What's on your wish list, Smokers?


Friday, March 8, 2013

Two PFOs

I received two PFO letters yesterday. The nice one came from the University of Michigan. It read as follows:

Subject: Thank You 
Thank you for applying for the positions we advertised at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. We were very impressed by the range and quality of the applications received this year. I'm not surprised to see how many of the people who applied for the positions here have landed excellent jobs, in departments that are I'm sure delighted to have hired them. 
Unfortunately, we now have offers out to other candidates, and if they are accepted that will fill our available jobs for the year. I wish we could have hired more people, and when we next have positions advertised, we will be contacting many of the people who applied this year to encourage them to apply again. 
Congratulations to everyone who already has a job this cycle, and good luck to everyone still searching. 
Brian Weatherson
Chair, Search Committee,
Philosophy Department,  University of Michigan at Ann Arbor

I thought this was tasteful and well-done, starting with the subject line. A bunch of this stuff doesn't really apply to me--I didn't land a job, excellent or otherwise; I'm 100% positive that they won't be contacting me to encourage me to apply again--but still. I'll take a "thank you and good luck" anytime. This isn't the best PFO I've ever had, or anything, but I'd put it in the top 10. 

The other one, by contrast, went like this: 

Subject: Not Selected for Campus for Interview 
Dear Applicant:     
Thank you for your interest in the Assistant Professor of Philosophy position in the Philosophy Department department at xxxx. At this time, the search committee has selected other candidates whose skills and abilities are better suited for the department. We wish you the best in your job search endeavors.   
Search Chair  

I was genuinely appalled by this. The blunt and ungrammatical subject line; the fact that has been obvious since December that I was not selected for campus for interview; the reference to my skills and abilities; the way it's not even really signed. This is not how it's done, Search Chair. 

Why is it so hard to say "we didn't hire you, but thanks for applying and good luck" without being a total asshole? 

--Mr. Zero

Friday, March 1, 2013

Philosophy is Difficult and Stays That Way

That's what I find, at least. A few years back, I mentioned that in studying for my dissertation defense, I sat down and reread the entire thing cover-to-cover (taking notes, making an outline, constructing handouts, etc). I said that I could see clear differences between the chapters that I'd written first and the ones I'd written last. I said, "the change in quality of writing, argument, and general sophistication between the first chapter I wrote and the last was astonishing to me; I am a much better philosopher now than I was when I started writing."

I feel the same way about the stuff I'm writing now in comparison with the stuff I was writing back then. The work I'm producing now is much more clearly written, the arguments are better, the general sophistication is higher. I am a much better producer of written philosophical work now than I was just two or three years ago. At least, that's how it seems to me.

The thing that's sort of weird about it—and, I don't know, maybe this isn't really all that weird—is that although I would say that I have gotten better at doing this, I would not say that it feels like I've gotten better, and I wouldn't say that it has gotten any easier to do it. If anything, I would say that it has gotten much more difficult. I find more and more that I wrestle with almost every sentence, and from there I wrestle with the arrangement of sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into sections, and sections into a coherent, complete paper. I struggle to formulate and organize and express the ideas and views and arguments that I'm trying to develop or defend, as well as those that appear in the literature that I'm trying to engage with.

I'm inclined to chalk it up to my being more sensitive to various nuances and subtleties and stuff, but maybe not proportionately better at expressing those nuances and subtleties, but I'm not sure. I don't know. I just made that up. It's probably wrong.

And now that I think of it, I'm not really sure why this seems surprising. I guess I was thinking of proficiency at philosophy on the model of proficiency at a musical instrument. When you first start learning an instrument, it's extremely difficult. You can't get it to do the things you want it to do; you can't make it play the sounds you want it to play. You can't play at tempo and you get tired quickly. But as you get better, it gets easier. You can make the instrument do what you want; you can play at tempo and for longer. A piece that gave you trouble or was unplayable two or three years ago comes easily now; a piece that would have been beyond impossible two or three years ago is merely difficult now. You can see and feel your improvement. And so I guess I figured that as I got better at philosophy, things that I found to be difficult would come to me more easily. (I'm not sure I ever really experienced this, but I think I thought that maybe I would if I got good enough.)

But now that I think of it, I don't think that's quite the right way to think of it. Now that I think of it—if you'll bear with me while I take this metaphor and torture it to death—I think that it would be more accurate to say that I've been playing a succession of pieces, each of which is right at the limit of my abilities. It doesn't seem like it's getting easier because improvements in my abilities make it possible for me to conceive of more difficult things (nuances, subtleties, etc) which I then immediately attempt. And so the work gets better, but not in a way that generates a literal awareness of improvement or feelings of ease.

So, anyways, that's what I've been thinking about as I decide whether to grade these exams or revise this paper.

--Mr. Zero