Monday, August 31, 2015

Why I Keep Doing This To Myself

As job market season approaches, I find that it is natural to wonder why I would keep doing this to myself. I'm not from an elite graduate program, and I'm getting old and stale. The odds of success were never all that great, and they're not getting better.

Many years ago, when I first started Smoking, I considered this question. At that time, I said,
I keep doing this to myself because I love my job. Over the summer I snagged a VAP. It's a lot of teaching (only 2 preps, though!), a lot of students, not much money (twice what I made last year, though), and located in a part of the country I would not otherwise have opted for. Nevertheless, I get up in the morning and go to work and it doesn't feel like work. I like being in the classroom. I like introducing people to philosophy and teaching them how to do it. (I do not like grading their initial efforts.) I like thinking about philosophical problems, doing philosophical research, and writing philosophy papers. 
So, one thing I've learned being in this job is that I really like this kind of job. I like being a professor, and I like it when I read a good paper from a student and I can think, I taught this person how to do this. I like the feeling I get when I clearly identify a philosophical problem, work my way through it, and develop a plausible solution. 
All I want is to be able to keep doing this.
I find that this is all still true. Some days feel a little like work, of course. But mostly I feel like the only difference between then and now is that I've learned a lot about teaching, and I've published some stuff I'm proud of, and I've got some other stuff under review that I'm also proud of, and I've attended a bunch of conferences and department colloquia and given a bunch of talks that I've greatly enjoyed, and I've made a lot of friends. And I want to keep doing that.

And, I've discovered that I'm at least a little good at this. And I don't really know how to do anything else. So what else am I going to do? I keep my eyes peeled for other opportunities--non-teaching jobs that I'd be good at and which would make sense in other ways--but nothing has really materialized. One time an opportunity came up in the administration that I think I was well-suited for (though it didn't pay much more), but before I could do anything about it, I had to prep for class and I realized how much I'd miss teaching if I didn't get to do it anymore, so I let it go.

And, I see this as an important job. I see the classes I teach as an important part of a good, well-rounded University education that the students at this institution should have. There's the oft-touted critical thinking skills, of course, but I also address ideas from the past that educated people should know about, and demonstrate how to engage with foundational issues that lie at the bottom of a wide variety of other, otherwise unrelated intellectual endeavors. How to think effectively about weird things.

And it's not like I have absolutely no luck on the job market. I get interviews, and sometimes I get invited to campus. I get no offers, of course. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out why not. I don't know why not.

And my current position is pretty okay, as these things go. It's relatively stable, and it's much less exploitative than some of the positions I see advertised. The other members of my family are pretty well-situated. Nothing's ideal, but nothing's terrible.

And my family is supportive. I've known people whose families were not supportive, and it's a difficult bummer. I'm lucky.

And I feel like it would be stupid to sit out, and not go on the job market, even though I hate it and I doubt it will work. It's not that hard for me to go on the market--I've been out here a long time, and I've got it pretty down. Seems like I stand to lose more by not doing it than by doing it.

So, I guess that's why. I feel like I stand to lose more by not doing it.

--Mr. Zero


Derek Bowman said...

Mr. Zero,

I've had many of these same thoughts myself, but they are not enough to make me sanguine at the thought of indefinitely continuing with the academic job market.

I too like introducing students to philosophy, and I often even enjoying reading and commenting on their early efforts (though I have increasingly grown to loathe the need to assign and justify grades to those efforts). But if I'm doing these things because I love them (even though they aren't providing a stable financial present or a secure financial future) then why do I only "converse converse when I receive a fee and not when I do not." If, like Socrates, "I am equally ready to question the rich and poor if anyone is willing to answer my questions and listen to what I say," why do I reserve the bulk of my efforts for those who are able to afford a university education?

I also find that my experience with the academic job market - and witnessing the experience of others - has undermined my confidence in the value of a well-rounded university education. We like to say that education in philosophy - and in the humanities more broadly - helps to make people better critical thinkers in ways that will enrich their lives and make them better able to make their own choices. But if that's so, why can't the people with advanced training in the humanities find a way to engage in meaningful teaching and inquiry without subjecting ourselves and one another to the exploitation, trauma, and petty infighting that pervades the academic job market?

Anonymous said...

Good luck!

Anonymous said...


"I get no offers, of course. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out why not. I don't know why not."

Because most people don't get offers.



"why can't the people with advanced training in the humanities find a way to engage in meaningful teaching and inquiry without subjecting ourselves and one another to the exploitation, trauma, and petty infighting that pervades the academic job market?"

Have you considered teaching in the prison system in your state? It won't pay your bills, but it could fulfill your desire to do meaningful teaching.

Anonymous said...

I'd be fine staying in my exploitative-but-not-that-bad position until something good and permanent came along... except that I don't know how long this position will continue to exist. I've already switched from one NTT position to another twice now, and each time takes its toll. I don't know if my NTT will exist next year. If I don't get a TT job, I'm probably looking at (another) long-distance move to (another) NTT position which (again) doesn't offer anywhere near enough relocation funding.

I can't afford to do it. Financially, I'm strapped. Emotionally, I'm worn down. I want to keep on fighting for my place in this position, but I am just so, so tired of moving and living for a year or two in one place and then having to move again.

It's not the profession, itself, that's killing me. Instead, what's killing me is the prospect of having to get used to a whole new set of supermarkets and cultural quirks, having to decide yet again if my vacuum makes it onto the moving truck or gets replaced with a new one when I arrive, learning yet again how to live in a brand new place.

I want roots. I want home. I do not want and cannot continue to be a wanderer. I don't know how long it will be until I break.

Helen said...

Hi Mr Zero - Your post made me think about the difficulties phds, especially in the humanities, face in looking for a job outside of academia. I have written a blogpost offering some concrete advice for people who want to consider such a path here:

Anonymous said...

"One time an opportunity came up in the administration that I think I was well-suited for....., but before I could do anything about it, I had to prep for class and I realized how much I'd miss teaching if I didn't get to do it anymore, so I let it go."

I'm an associate professor at my university and I don't understand this entirely. There are lots of administrators at my school at least who teach a class on the side. Some of these jobs are pretty decent and you get health benefits, tuition remission, etc. So this is a way to continue teaching some if you want to.

Anonymous said...


Not to mention how important it is to have administrators who are themselves passionate educators, instead of career ladder-climbers.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Zero,

I truly feel for you. I'm in a similar situation, though I haven't been on the market as many years as you. It's tough to know whether to keep going and for how long. Perhaps you should make this your last year but commit to its truly being your last year, if you don't wind up getting something. In my own case, making that commitment has somehow relieved pressure. I don't need to wonder if I'll still be doing this in five years. I know I won't be.

Anonymous said...

Anon 4:33 is on the right track. This year will be my 4th on the market, and my 2nd after completing my PhD. I have had a non-TT full-time lectureship at a state university in the Midwest for the last 2 years. I am grateful for the full time gig, but there is no chance of my position being converted to TT. And I have decided that, if I get no interviews this year, then I am leaving academia altogether and moving to another state. I feel better knowing that I am done torturing myself, and I never have to go through this again, after this year.

Anonymous said...

Let me say that this new generation of job-seekers is weak, weak, weak. Only 2 years post-Ph.D. on the job market and you give up? 5? 7? Try 10. There's a Harvard grad who got a job at a crappy school in the South after spending 17 years pursuing the doctorate. It's not brilliance that gets you a job. It's persistence. Doggedness. The same attribute that got you the Ph.D. And when you get the TT job, you might still be dissatisfied. The pay is low. Too much teaching. Too much administrative work. Not enough research. Toughen up.

Anonymous said...

"It's not brilliance that gets you a job. It's persistence."

Then how do you explain all those who get great jobs right out of grad school?

Anonymous said...


That's kind of a jerk comment to make. fwiw.

Derek Bowman said...


Weak is persisting with something that isn't working because you don't value yourself or your philosophical activity enough to expect anything better and because you're afraid to try something new. Persistence in your own exploitation - and that of your friends and colleagues - is not a virtue.

Anonymous said...

I would like to add that that "crappy school in the South" is Auburn. As far as philosophy jobs go, that's a pretty decent one.

Anonymous said...

To my knowledge this job (TT at Ana Maria College in Mass.) hasn't yet posted elsewhere:

Anonymous said...

I would avoid Anna Maria. School is a disaster. This is the same search that they have been running for years and keep postponing due to lack of funding.

Anonymous said...

Early Modern TT job (not yet posted on Phil Jobs):

Anonymous said...

@6:08 Although Derek Bowman already handled you pretty easily, I'd like to chime in. The fact that some of us can't afford to be underpaid/exploited/not paid at all for longer than 2 years isn't a moral failing on our part. The only thing 'weak' around here is your pathetic attempt at reasoning. For example, the fact that some Ivy Leaguer got a job after 17 years hardly implies that their Sisyphusean efforts should form a standard for the rest of us. 'Toughen up', you advise us. Spoken like a true tool. I've been through stuff that would make you wet yourself, but that doesn't change the fact that the job 'market' in this profession is a joke. People get what few decent jobs there are based on the prestige of their schools and their networking connections (and even that's no longer sufficient). Even publications (to say nothing of teaching) are just feathers in one's cap. All the uncritical verbal diarrhea about 'pedigree' and 'top ten' schools and publications just reveals what an elitist echo chamber the so-called 'profession' is. Jerks like you actually make me feel better. If I don't get a job in this 'field' at least I won't have to work with a company (wo)man like you.

Anonymous said...

fwiw, I assumed 6:08's comments were an attempt at gallows humor... not intended earnestly. I sure hope I'm right! (and if I'm wrong, I'd bet 10:1 or higher that 6:08 has not been on the market for more than one or two years themselves.. I can't believe they'd be so sanguine about it otherwise).

Anonymous said...

Derek, well put: "Persistence in your own exploitation - and that of your friends and colleagues - is not a virtue."

exactly right!

Anonymous said...

A question for the more experienced among the Smoker's readership. Is my subjective sense that the jobs are really coming in slow this season truth-apt? Or am I being deceived by a "watched-pot" phenomenon?

Anonymous said...

It's astonishing - in this day and age, given the problems and the visibility of those problems - that people are still applying to PhD programs in Philosophy and also *not* developing Plan B programs during their course of study. Honestly, anyone who doesn't go into it thinking it's a sucker's game is a fool. And yes, some are fools by choice, doing their best to either ignore the problems or assume that they will be the exception to the many, many years of job market shittiness. (Although the current climate can be traced back to roughly 2007/2008, it certainly wasn't remarkably better before then. We are nearly a decade into the worst market years in the profession's history, and we don't seem to see any shortage of applicants willing to invest the best years of their young adulthood into a losing proposition.)

Here's my advice:
1. If you are not in a PhD program, don't go. Unless you are independently wealthy and do not need to work for a living, it's not worth it. You will spend several years pursuing a degree that will not land you full-time work. Your career will be in something other that Philosophy, and your PhD may in fact hold you back in whatever career you decide to start building in your mid-to-late 30s with no work experience and a set of skills most employers don't understand.
2. If you are in a PhD program, start your Plan B career now. If you are fully funded, take advantage of that funding to start doing other things. Knowing you won't have a career in Philosophy (unless you consider bouncing around between 1-year gigs and adjunct work a career), phone in your classes, slow down your research, and start developing skills that can actually get you a job. If your own professional interests look toward other fields (law, medicine, social work, politics), look seriously at those other fields now.
3. If you have been on the market for more than 2 years and you are not doing better in each consecutive year, get out now. Not after a few more years; now. If you are not doing better on the market than you were when you first graduated, there's no reason to think things will somehow improve down the line, when you are further separated from your graduation date and there are even more applicants on the market.

I know that some of you will point to those rare examples and say, "see, someone comes out of this with a job, so why not me?" And yes, someone will hit the lottery. But that's not a reason to keep buying tickets. It's certainly no reason to throw all of your time, money, and resources (including emotional) into buying those tickets.

I promise you, every year you spend chasing this dream will be a year you regret, if not now then certainly down the road. I know that none of you entered (or will enter) graduate school looking forward to the time in your life when you spend so much of your energy applying for jobs you will never get an interview for, much less be hired to. None of you eagerly anticipated the years spent in a holding pattern, only to realize that there is no landing strip.

I understand that you love the field. But remember this: the field does not love you back. How long are you willing to spend in a one-sided relationship?

Get out now.

Anonymous said...

It's still quite early. Not too long ago, the vast bulk of advertisements appeared in the 15 October Jobs for Philosophers. We've not even barreled through mid-September yet.

Anonymous said...


It seems lthat your subjective sense is followed by a 'that' clause and so has propositional structure. As such, it is truth-apt.

(But to answer your intended question, I'm not sure. I also check too much and get mad when there's a day without new ads.)

Anonymous said...


I totally agree. It takes courage to take the leap and leave, but that is probably the rational thing to do for most of the non-TT profession and for many graduate students. I see so many eager grad students who work in overpopulated areas with little appeal outside PhD-granting programs and who have no Plan B. My god, I hope they have parents who can support them for a couple years later on. Sometimes we have to realize that we were born at the wrong time for certain things. I would have loved to be an explorer, but alas--the world's already been mapped.

Anonymous said...

@ Anon 1:47

I think your advice is very strong. If I could be getting paid a livable wage to do anything outside academia right now, I would jump on it. I am in a year-to-year appointment right now at about 45k a year but with NO security. My problem is that there is no where to go but down from here. My undergrad degree is not marketable (in the humanities and from a small state school), my grad degrees qualify me for nothing. No one is interested in the "transferable skills" of a philosophy phd. In fact, I have tried applying for gas station cashier/fast food kitchen jobs for summer income the last few years, and I have never even been called back for those. As shitty as my current gig, there is nothing better elsewhere. You have to plan B from the outset, and when i set out, there was still optimism that things would get better.

Anonymous said...

12:58 - I don't know about the jobs being slow, but it sure seems like their deadlines are way, way earlier. The first I can apply to has a Sept. 30 deadline, and a lot of the others have deadlines in early- to mid-October.

I'm kind of surprised at how many phil. of science jobs are coming out. And jealous.

Anonymous said...

"Sometimes we have to realize that we were born at the wrong time for certain things."

And we were also screwed yb our own profession, in ways they didn't really see coming (but should have). While this is not true of all philosophers, a great many of them have for years prided themselves on separating philosophy from the rest of the academic and, especially, non-academic world. Philosophers are professionally rewarded for work that nobody outside the field knows or cares much about, and too many have no idea how to connect their work to the larger world.

Philosophy is no different from college athletics: most people pursuing it will have a career in something other than what they devote their college years to. When, I used to wonder, will the field recognize this crisis and address it? It's not just graduate education; undergraduate education also needs to be re-evaluated. Far too many people teaching undergrads are preparing them for grad school, where they will refine their development for jobs they will never get.

Many of my colleagues scoff at recruiting fairs, when students and parents ask "what can I/my child do with a degree in philosophy?" Some give vague answers about how philosophy trains you in skills you can use broadly; others quietly mumble about how learning is its own reward. But it's an important question, when we frame it thus: how can we use philosophy outside of philosophy programs? Some people are great with that question; far too many are not.

Where will the profession be in 10 years? Sure, the major research programs will be fine. But at smaller schools, my money is on departments being eliminated or folded into other programs, with most of the teaching done by adjuncts. I just don't see the field doing anything to make philosophy relevant outside of its own narrow interests.


Derek Bowman said...

"The liberal arts make you good at being a free human being... It trains people to think independently, and thus to speak and act in ways not dictated by fear of the boss or anxiety about money or craving for power."

From here

How plausible is this in light of the way in which liberal arts PhDs collectively manage our own professions and individually manage our own job and career choices?

Anonymous said...

I think you make an excellent point, Derek. The claim that liberal arts study produces free human beings is not merely out of tune with the way in which liberal arts professionals conduct themselves 'professionally' - it is in flagrant contradiction to it. Students are trained to curry favor with 'bigshots' within their own fields and to respectfully enter into already-existing 'conversations' with the requisite deference (i.e., sucking-up) so as to make tiny advances or tweaks in the already established research projects of their elders, who then reward them with gigs and opportunities for prestigious publication. Faculty dance to the tune that corporate administration plays, complicit in the adjunctification of their discipline, wringing their hands sometimes but never too put out since their asses are already covered. A social-psychological study of the pathologies of professional philosophy is long overdue. Now that I'm about to receive my PhD in philosophy, and with dismal job prospects despite superlative accomplishments, perhaps I can avoid paying back my mountain of debt by returning to university to pursue a PhD in social psychology. Tentative title for the new project: 'The Philosophical Personality (Disorder)'.

....J? said...

One day your kids will be listening to you speak and absorbing it more than the last times. And you'll say words they'll never forget about life and the true nature of things. The truth about how ink stains and the sun burns. And you'll anchor yourself in a new generation by the stone of soul you carved. That's not poetic nonsense, that's what a sage should be. That's what a seeker should be. A seeker is not home without uncertainty.