Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?

I’m currently on the philosophy job market. And, boy, does it suck. And I am shocked, shocked! For what do you go into philosophy, after all, besides the fame, the money, the table dances, the sheer respect accorded to you by everyone who thinks you spend all day proving chairs don’t exist?

Okay, I know I shouldn’t have expected better. In my limited defense: I started philosophy grad school back in ’04. Anyone would have told you then that it was not a good job market and not a prudential choice. But it wasn’t utterly insane. If you were willing to do primarily teaching at a no-name college, your chances of getting a job were not all that bad. It did take, perhaps, a soupçon of vainglory, but not full-on megalomania. After Lehman, the philosophy job market tanked. It went from merely bad to thoroughly wretched.

Also, in 2004 I was unmarried and childless. I am now hitched to, God help me, another philosopher. Plus I went and had three kids, one with serious special needs. It seemed so easy back then to toss off concerns about money and job security. Basically, it was a years-long version of Woody Allen in one of my favorite moments from Love and Death: [Dismissively, waving hand] “Ba-ha-ha-ha! Money!” [Reconsidering] “Well, money….”

So. Here I am, trying to get a job. Someone heroically tried to figure out recently what one’s chances are of getting a job in philosophy. Her results when you are applying from a ranked program (which I am): One’s overall chance of getting any job (post-doc or tenure-track) coming from an NRC ranked institution may be as high as 51%, 39% for any tenure-track job, and 11% for a ranked tenure-track job. That sounds not that bad. I don’t need a ranked tenure-track job, although I’d certainly prefer tenure-track over post-doc. However, no one knows how many people are on the market. She assumed conservatively that since 700-some-odd people applied to a job at Barnard, there must be 800 job candidates on the market. I think it’s next to impossible that about 90% of people applied to any one job. There will be people who don’t want to live in New York City, there will be people who do not bother applying to jobs that are out of reach, there will be people who want to teach grad students, there will be people who forgot to send that one application, whatever. I think the percentages of job-getters must be significantly lower.

My CV has its ups and downs. My PhD granting institution is somewhere in the middle of the rankings of ranked schools in the US (ranked schools are the top 50 of the 144 U.S. PhD-granting institutions). This is enough to pretty much ensure that I won’t get a job at a top-flight research university. And other than that, depending on what you are looking for, there are pluses and minuses. I think I am as reasonably attractive a candidate as can be expected from my ranking of school, with the occasional exception. No superstar, but I do have some other things in my favor.

Traditionally, the fall is when most tenure-track jobs are advertised. The spring is more for one-year visiting positions. Usually, the search committee chooses the top 15 candidates for first-round interviews, then invites the top candidates from the first round to an on-campus interview. More tenure-track jobs are beginning to be advertised throughout spring, however. So we’re not as certain as we once were by January that all hope is lost.

I’ve applied to about 40 post-docs and tenure-track jobs. Heard nothing for the longest while, and was thoroughly depressed. There is a community wiki where philosophers post when they receive interviews from the various job posts. I saw job after job to which I applied show up there.

Just a few days ago, I managed to get one first-round interview at a small liberal arts college in a very geographically desirable area. I was also informed by a university with a grad program that they received over 400 applications, and they have made a first cut to some still-large number. I am in the first cut. They will not choose the top 15 until after the holidays. And that’s that. Most schools to which I have applied have made their selection and I’m not on the list. Still waiting to hear from about 15 programs, 5 of which are ludicrously out of reach.

I would be very excited to get either of these jobs. The other job I’m waiting for with bated breath for is actually a post-doc (that is, just a two-year position). However, it is extremely prestigious bioethics position. I am really more interested in bioethics my actual area of specialization right now, so it would be nice to be able to shift direction. This post-doc would enable me to get a better job in philosophy, but also open up other employment opportunities. And I wouldn’t have to move, because the place is nearby! I don’t know when they’ll let candidates know. I will be seriously bummed if I can’t get that one, even though I know what a reach it is.

I am grateful to have gotten an interview, especially at a place I’d be happy to work. Happy too, to have made a first cut at another place I’d be happy work. So many people have gotten just a goose egg for interviews for multiple years in a row. But I can’t look at my chances now for any job with any optimism. My PhD granting institution will employ me for another year or maybe two if I get nothing, but then I’m on my own.

I love teaching philosophy and think I’m good at it. I think I’m pretty good at research, too, but I don’t think the world will be missing out on the next Hume if I left the field.

I am weirdly optimistic that I will be able to get a non-academic job. I have no idea why. I have not seriously researched this.

In the meantime, I got to spend 8 years (and counting) doing philosophy, which has made me such a clearer thinker. I got to watch students get their minds blown by the ideas introduced in philosophy class. I got to have a flexible schedule when my kids were young and spend serious time with them. That I did that for a while is pretty awesome in itself, no?



Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. Goodness! I’m hoping I don’t see you out with a “Will philosophize for food” sign standing by the side of the highway.

    I had no idea that Lehman trashed philosophy so terribly.
    The gall of them! [shake of fist]

  2. I’d offer my thoughts on the academic job market, but maybe you don’t want any unsolicited “advice.” I’ll settle for saying good luck.

      • Don’t get your hopes up too much.
        Until you get an actual bonafide interview, where you can tell how interested someone is.

        Plenty of places interview women for the “optics”. As a programmer, I’ve certainly had my share of “why did they just interview me” interviews. Tremendously frustrating, particularly when I thought I’d be a decent fit for the job.

        • Yes. In philosophy, too, women get more interviews because they have to report to university HR departments, and the numbers are so skewed, but they do not get hired at rates any higher than males. Bad sign I did not get more interviews.

      • Perhaps too late to catch your attention, but here’s what I’ve got.

        1. Don’t quit. Those who quit are clearing the way for those who stick it out. But sticking it out means being willing to take whatever you can get. For me that meant moving two years in a row, then because I refused to move my kids a third year in a row, spending a year commuting 7 1/2 hours and being home only on weekends (fortunately, that place we’d moved to the previous year then asked me to come back permanently). I suspect casting your net widely enough that you might have to move more than once could be a big sticking point for you. If so, I wish you the best in your local area, and hope it’s a region with lots of schools.

        2. Tailor your cover letters to the place you’re applying. The first time I ran a job search to find a new colleague, I was so appalled at how badly people applied that I actually wrote, and got published, an article on how not to screw up. As I wrote, if grad school was supposed to teach you anything, it was how to do your homework, so if you don’t show that you did your homework about the place you’re applying to, why would I hire you? I had a guy who looked great on paper, but didn’t give any indication he wanted to be at a liberal arts college–just a few days too late his department chair called to plump for him, and literally groaned when I told him that, because in fact the guy did really want to be a that type of school. We asked for someone to teach democratic theory, and one applicant had taken no less than 6 relevant courses in grad school (based on reviewing his transcript), but gave no hint of wanting to teach the subject. Given other qualified candidates who did express their interest, it was easiest for me to assume he’d decided through experience that he didn’t want to teach it–if he did, he should have said so. And I had one woman apply who had her B.A. from NYU and her Ph.D. from Colombia, and gave no indication that she actually knew we were located in a podunk Midwestern town. There’s no way in hell I’d bring in someone who perhaps has spent their whole life in NYC unless they say, “I’ve been dying to get out of the city for years!”

        I.e., know your audience! (Corollary: If you’re applying to a small college, yes you can teach anything they need you to teach–you’re well educated enough to build basic knowledge in a field more quickly than the students, and as the years go by you’ll be able to slough off anything you really hate.)

        3. When you go on interviews, act very interested and asks lots of questions, even if they seem piddly to you and you’ve heard the answer from 10 other faculty members. They’re trying to sell themselves to you, just as much as you’re trying to sell yourself to them, and if you don’t seem interested in them, they’ll figure they’d better grab the more interested person. I’m lousy at that part myself (because for the most part I’m adaptable and didn’t care where I moved (and didn’t apply to any places where I really objected to living anyway)), and I know with certainty it cost me at least one offer. And when I ran an interview I had one guy who seemed really disinterested; great candidate, but really didn’t seem sold on us.

        4. Don’t act arrogant, and don’t act obsequious. I saw plenty of both as a grad student watching people interview. The arrogant ones tended to lose people’s votes by offending them (classic moment: a guy from Missouri, just finishing up at Harvard, who’d affected what he seemed to think was a Harvard accent, looking down his nose at an eminent scholar and sniffing, “That’s how I would interpret it; would you interpret it differently? Guess whose vote he didn’t get?) The obsequious gave everyone the creeps; one guy was even kowtowing to us grad students, which just made him look really uncertain, and not ready for the big time.

        Beyond all that, it’s an incredible crap shoot. I somehow had a weird link with a woman whose actual knowledge base was very different from mine, yet we ended up applying for lots of the same jobs. She got one job I applied for, turning down a job she’d previously been offered, which place then turned to me, and then she left that job and got a job that I also got interviewed for. Nothing in our respective application packets would lead anyone to expect that. And when I’ve sat on hiring committees I’ve learned that regardless of what’s in the job application, the actual job description gets implicitly negotiated among the members of the committee as they see what’s offered to them. I.e., the “ideal” candidate is socially constructed through the process.

        What that means is that people don’t get interviews for all kinds of random reasons, often just not quite fitting one committee member’s fancy, despite others liking them. Often it’s not about any deficiencies in the candidate, but just the vagaries of the committee’s collective wish list, which they don’t even fully know until the get into the process, so of course no candidate could ever know up front.

        And keep in mind that it’s not the most important thing in your life–as you know, your family ultimately is.

        • Thanks James. This is really helpful. Especially this: And I had one woman apply who had her B.A. from NYU and her Ph.D. from Colombia, and gave no indication that she actually knew we were located in a podunk Midwestern town. There’s no way in hell I’d bring in someone who perhaps has spent their whole life in NYC unless they say, “I’ve been dying to get out of the city for years!”. As it happens, I have a BA from Columbia, an MA from NYU, and am getting my PhD from the ‘burbs of another biggish city. It would never have even occurred to me to say that I don’t want to live in New York, I guess just because I actually don’t want to live particularlyin New York! The cost of living is too high and the people are rude. I say that as a life-long New Yorker. I need to live in a place with good special ed and a good size medical center (preferably a children’s hospital). Other than that, I’m open. So New York, and a lot of other places, would suffice. The main advantage New York has is that my family lives there.

          Now that you mention it, the only interview I’ve gotten so far was an SLAC in the NY suburbs…which is usually far more competitive!

          I am willing to move the family once, but not twice. So that’s where we’re at. My husband and advisor are trying to talk me into twice, but not three times.

          • You’re welcome. And I get that moving the kids is hard, probably especially in your case. My wife and I used to say that if it was just the two of us we’d have been willing to move annually for several more years–we like to explore new places. But our oldest was already demonstrating some adjustment difficulties from the second move in two years, hence the decision–when all I got offered was another one year job–that I would commute for a year, rather than move the kids 3 years in a row, and risk moving them 4 years in a row. It was one hell of a tough year for all of us, but turned out to be the right decision, thank God.

            And if I may, I’d suggest not talking much about your kids’ special needs. Although nobody could legally base their decision on that, in the back of their minds–if not the front–they might think you won’t have the ability to give proper attention to your job. I know that’s really sh***y, and I won’t pretend otherwise (nor will I pretend that if it was your husband applying for the job that circumspection would be as necessary), but I’m afraid it can be a real issue. (That probably won’t surprise you.)

            To the extent you do mention your kids, you can use that to emphasize that you don’t want to live in the big city. “I grew up in New York, but I really want to bring up my own kids outside the city.” People will believe that.

          • I certainly do not mention my kid’s special needs (with one exception – a bioethics position). There was quite a brou-ha-ha involving that with my letter-writers – I wish I could tell the tale. In the end, one letter-writer, with my permission, alludes to how impressed he is with how much work I was able to do given a personal situation, but implies the situation is no longer such that it would impede my work.

            I have written before how frustrating it is because I think it has made me a better philosopher, and I have never missed a significant number of teaching days. Any time I have missed a day, I have done an online class. But whatever.

            I do not even mention kids, actually. I’ve seen data showing that anti-female implicit bias is stronger against academic CVs that indicate motherhood in some way. The settling-down issue works in favor of men, but not women. I will say that I do prefer a quieter life, etc.

            Interestingly, I just had a moment of combined pleasure and disappointment to discover that everyone in my department thought I am 32 or 33. I am really 39. The way in which this came up suggests that this wasn’t meant to flatter – they really thought this. Of course, who isn’t glad to look younger? But I was sort of counting on my age to indicate that I am not going to start having a bunch of kids.

          • I’ve seen data showing that anti-female implicit bias is stronger against academic CVs that indicate motherhood in some way.

            Sigh. I wish there was even some faint reason to doubt that.

          • It does sort of sound like it’d make a fun (if career ending) paper if you went around seeing how your CV reception is different amongst ethics departments based on gender and motherhood perceptions….

          • Nob,

            It would be a pretty simple experiment for someone who already had a job. Just mock up some identical applications, one with a female name and one with a male name, and see which gets more interview offers.

  3. I got 1/4 of the way through this post, started thinking about my own job search, which is largely aimed at positions that, on paper, I am largely unqualified for, and started to hate you.


      • No, but I’m considering a move into administration. Middle-management, here I come!

        • Having been to middle-management land and gotten back out, I’ll caution you: think about how you’d like to spend half your day in meetings.

          • At this point, the only admin positions I’d consider would still be focused primarily on the experiences of students… a Dean of Students, Director of Student Life/Programing, etc. There will be meetings, but many of them will be with children or will be about things that directly impact the lives of children. I very much enjoy those meetings. Well, most of the time… 🙂

  4. I’m pounding the pavement ahead of delivering my thesis, so hopefully I won’t be in ‘need a job limbo’ for an extended period of time.

    If I get offered a shot at a PhD, I might just take it – even if it does mean 3 more years of schooling. At least it’d be paid.

    • I saw that ad. My husband has skills that are directly applicable to AI (he does functionalist theories of consciousness). Me less so. I am no ontologist, nor logician, nor decision theorist, etc. But like I said, I am absurdly overconfident that I will be able to milk this PhD in the real world somehow. If I can develop bioethics, all the better.

      Or I really think I can write a marketable non-fiction book about raising kids with special needs.

      Or I was thinking. Apparently, to make a show funny, all you have to do is show New Jerseyans and Long Islanders in their native habitat using their accents and dressing the part. Cake Boss, Jersey Shore, Long Island Medium, etc. I am a Long Island Jew, my husband is a New Jersey Italian. We have no problem putting on the accents of our youth. I get some serious manicures and stiletto heels, my husband gets hair gel, and we have a reality show – Jersey Philosophy.

      • Bioethics ought to be good for something!

        A book about raising kids with special needs ought to sell well. Particularly if you market it to overstressed doctors, who need something to recommend to parents when the docs are peddling unexpected news.

        ROFL. Jersey Philosophy sounds fun. I actually know a guy who did get a reality show idea of his on-air (not that he gets paid for this). What was the name of that show… “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” or something like that (a satire on Toddlers and Tiaras). I’m told it’s quite popular. Even if I owned a tv, I doubt I’d watch.

      • Sounds good, but just remember that a coherent existentialism should avoid the constant mortal leap between Being and Nothingness, nor confuse the finitude of possibilities with resignation to The Situation.

        We’ll do lunch!

        • CEHC, once we establish the relevant concepts of personhood and determine the true semantics/pragmatics distinction, we’ll have our people call your people!

  5. As I told you at the time, you should never have gone to grad school at the cost of pursuing your true dream: to be a cigarette girl in a 1930s Busby Berkeley musical.

    • The job market for everything seems bad these days except Wall Street type jobs and those only go to the select few in any era.

      • “The job market for everything seems bad these days except Wall Street type jobs and those only go to the select few in any era.”

        there’s bad and then there’s bad, though. in a lot of areas the academic market (as far as the liberal arts is concerned) is somewhere beyond bad into ridiculously bad – 400 – 700 applicants for tiny out of the way schools in not-traditionally-considered-awesome-areas is common. given it is what it is, and that it’s a buyer’s market, a mid-level school can pick up some ivy league folk at cost, leaving the 2nd and 3rd tier folk out in the cold in adjunct land or fighting over table scraps.

        of course, tenure is a stupid concept and all (unless you have it, in which case it is an awesome reality filled with magic), and we’re headed towards a higher education crash of reckoning that is going to change the game pretty severely, but until things change those who still want in on the rock star lifestyle will have to keep hustling.

        it would be a far more fascinating experience were i not along for the ride. and if anything it’s a lot more like your wall st. example – spousal hires are still common (especially if the spouse is in an area where grant money is flowing) and a lot are inside track jobs that need to post a listing for social and legal formalities.

        the best analogy – to my mind – for academic careers are rock stars – lots of people play instruments; fewer still are musicians; fewer still are working musicians; fewer still are well-known working musicians; fewer still are famous musicians; and fewer still are rock stars.

        someone with a lib arts phd seeking a tenure track job wants to be a rock star. so do the other 400 people. probably far easier to become an administrator and get some of that sweet life before everything turns sour and people start looking for witches to burn.

        • “there’s bad and then there’s bad, though. in a lot of areas the academic market (as far as the liberal arts is concerned) is somewhere beyond bad into ridiculously bad.”

          I do not disagree. I decided against becoming a professor of theatre for a reason. My MFA is a terminal degree and allows me to teach at the college/university level. Chances are I would be in adjunct land though.

          “400 – 700 applicants for tiny out of the way schools in not-traditionally-considered-awesome-areas is common.”


          “we’re headed towards a higher education crash of reckoning that is going to change the game pretty severely,”

          Is this true? I am not sure it is true. There are lots of articles and think pieces about the rising costs of higher ed, the end of education as a great equalizer, and the problems the poor face when being the first to attend college in their families. The NY Times and Atlantic had great articles this week on the subject. However, we are still a post-Industrial economy where many bosses can and do require college degrees for job. Being a paralegal used to be a vocation, now it is something that young college graduates do for a year or two to try and see if they want to become lawyers. Even many manufacturing jobs are now somewhat skilled technical jobs that require a BA. I worry that we are seeing a return to the world before WWII where people are either very comfortable or really struggle with little or nothing inbetween.

          “the best analogy – to my mind – for academic careers are rock stars – lots of people play instruments; fewer still are musicians; fewer still are working musicians; fewer still are well-known working musicians; fewer still are famous musicians; and fewer still are rock stars.”

          I think the Rock Star analogy works for a lot of fields including traditional safe bets. There seems to be an overglut of everyone in the United States including the mass, educated class. Most Americans do not have college or advanced degrees but in a country of 300 plus million, there are still a damn lot of people with college and advanced degrees. Many private companies also have rock stars-only hiring philosophies and can choose among the best from the top 10-20 schools. Now someone with an MBA, JD, or MD from a mid-ranked school is probably going to suffer a lot less than someone with just an undergrad degree or no degree at all. However, perhaps we are even going to see a world where education is the only bet but far from a safe one for a middle class or above life.

        • “probably far easier to become an administrator and get some of that sweet life before everything turns sour and people start looking for witches to burn.”

          I know a lot of people who are trying to do this.

          • People want a job they can never be fired from. There’s very little else in this world like that. Maybe Pope?

            Anyway I figure some uni with a recognized sports team will screw up in the next ten years or so and such will begin the fall. Which will suck as it drags me down too but a house of cards built on sand cannot stand against itself and all that.

            No doubt we’ll have bailouts and all that too.

          • Plus there’s never been any guaranteed plays. The desire for total safety is utterly cancerous.

          • An Article III judge is a life-time appointment. There have been impeachments but those are rare.

  6. I think the situation in history is very similar to what you describe for philosophy, with the possible exception that things are probably worse for those seeking philosophy positions (the demand for history professors seems to me to have slightly more staying power than the demand for philosophy professors).

    For a lot of reasons, not all of which are related to the dismal job market, I’m probably not going to try to pursue an academic career.

    Still, I’ll say, good luck, Rose!

    • I should add that although I do believe the demand for history instructors is higher than the demand for philosophy instructors, I don’t think that necessarily represents the relevant worth of the two disciplines. I know I have at times complained about “philosophy,” but I do think philosophy is important. It’s just not something I’m really well equipped (or inclined) to do.

      • Thanks! And the only reason you’re not equipped is because you are not inclined. Philosophy can be useless or useful (like history, I suppose).

  7. Richard Jeni had a bit devoted to a degree in Political Science.

    “What do you do with a degree in polisci?”
    “Well, you can get a job teaching Political Science.”
    “This is Amway with a football team!”

  8. Good luck!

    Interestingly, I choose law school over a Academia for these very reasons.

    Though law is going through some tough times right now as well. I have been working as a contract attorney for most of 2012. The pay is good (though having to pay my own insurance and no PTO sucks). Right now when I apply to jobs I feel like my resume goes into a blackhole somewhere and get occasional anxiety attacks over being a contract attorney forever.

    What is sort of odd and pisses me off is that the class of 2012 seems to be doing much better on the job market than the class of 2011 (my year) for law school grads. I am doing better than many of my fellow 2011ers because I am one of the 55 percent who have a job that requires a bar license. 55 percent might look high but it is shockingly low. Observation tells me the class of 2012 is doing better. It feels like there is an invisible black mark against my class for when we graduated.

    • Yeah, I think 2010 had it the worst in philosophy. Not that it’s great now, but there is an element of randomness to it.

    • Well. Not hugely important in itself. I like a lot of it. I like the colleagues, the conversations, teaching the students, the flexibility and independence of working time. I hate the grading, the job insecurity, and the money.

      It’s more important in that there’s not all that much that I am equipped to do that I could imagine that I would like more. Writing, I suppose.

      • I’ve been thinking about doing a post on careers, and my belief that – excluding some highly technical fields – searching for one that matches your major (or for that matter hiring based on a major) is a too easy way to unhappy employment.

          • Could you do ethics work? I know a lot of big law firms have in-house ethics departments to analyze stuff like conflicts of interest. Don’t hopsitals also have boards for medical ethics to determine who gets an organ and whatnot?

  9. I’m learning how to program Android apps. Maybe land an Android job. Beats 9 years as an adjunct at a community college.

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