Have I made a terrible mistake?

I just made a big life decision on the side of risk rather than safety. And I’m worried.

The chances for anyone getting a tenure track job in philosophy are really small. No one knows for sure, but most people think about 10% of people on the philosophy job market in a given year get a tenure track job. Given that I have a family, I cannot do what many in my position do: a series of one-year positions in different locations while getting their CVs in better shape.

So I did get a tenure track offer this year. Only one, out of maybe 50 applications sent. In an absolutely desirable location, both in itself and because it is near family. For a higher-than-usual starting salary in philosophy. And I just turned it down. My advisor advised me to turn it down.

It was at a community college. I have absolutely no problem with a community college per se. However, the teaching load was absolutely nuts. There is no way I would get any research done. (Oddly, philosophers call their philosophy work “research,” although they are not usually researching anything. Do other humanities departments do this?) Not much leisure time to be with my family. And teaching the same course over and over.

My advisor’s thinking was this: if I don’t start publishing in the next couple of years, I can’t move to a better job. So I am stuck in a community college for life. And he thinks I have better prospects than that. It’s nice that he has faith in my abilities, which I certainly do not. My other job offer was for an adjunct position at a local reasonably respectable four-year university. It is for 1/4 the money (yes, literally 1/4) of the community college offer. It is, however, 1/2 the teaching load. So the idea is: turn down the high-paying tenure track community college, take the adjunct position, try to publish, and see if I can get a better job. So I did it.

I am also reasonably settled where I am. My kids are in great schools and have tons of friends. I would like to uproot them only if we are going somewhere we intend to stay a while. I love teaching, but when you have tons of students, it becomes a far more tedious job. I’m thinking of writing a book about my kid with special needs, and if I took this job, there’s no way I could.

I’m terrified. I may never get offered money for philosophy again. I hope I did the right thing.

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. Someday, you will find yourself at a fork. Down this way will be a very muddy road. Down that way will be a very muddy road.

    It does not matter which road you take: you’ll soon be wishing you took the other.

    • “Down that path lies madness.
      On the other hand, the road to hell is paved with melting snowballs.”

      -Larry Wall

    • It does not matter which road you take: you’ll soon be wishing you took the other.

      When you have two good options, you really can’t lose. But damned if it doesn’t sometimes feel like you can’t win.

  2. I’m horrible at making (and then dealing with) these sorts of decisions. There’s lots of good advice out there for how to cope, but none of it ever seems to help me with either my paralyzing indecision on the way in or my painful, fearful regrets afterwards.

    If it were me, more than anything else I’d hold on to the fact that I followed my advisor’s recommendation — the alternative would’ve had me worrying that I’d just destroyed my future career by ignoring the person who’s in a position to know these things, just for the sake of short-term benefits.

  3. i could see going either way with this one, but i don’t think you made a terrible mistake. if the teaching load would have prevented you from doing other important work, then tenure track or not it was not the right choice.

    good luck. it’s rough out there.

  4. What would you prefer to call it? Mulling? Contemplating? Pondering? Waxing nostalgic? 😉

    To use a cliche: Fortune favors the bold!

    Jaybird is quite right above. I think life has a lot of times when we pick between two equally hard muddy roads and always wish we picked the other. While trudging through the mud.

    Major life decisions like this only become the right decision or the wrong decision in hindsight. Often long after the decision was made, probably years or decades. Right now, your were offered a job with one very strong perk: “tenure” and a medium perk of a slightly high starting salary. However, the job also seemed to be a one-way track and you would not be able to see your family much. Those are two big downsides.

    So you weighed the options and decided the perks were not worth it. And that is that.

    I think life is often filled with what-ifs and grass is always greener situations. And I am very prone to grass is always greener musings. I tried to be a theatre director for most of my 20s, followed my passion as they say. This did not work out and eventually I got tired of dead-end jobs and went to law school. So now I am starting my career with various ups and downs at 32 in a still not great economy. And I am also 32 and still waiting for a job that has benefits and career advancement. My career has been advancing by slowly building experience with contract positions like the academic route above. So I look at my classmates from high school and college who were a bit more mainstream with envy sometimes because they were able to get right to building their careers without any need for misfitness to be kicked out. They own property, take vacations with their romantic partners, etc. There are times when I feel like I am far behind even though I recognize it was necessary to attempt for theatre and get my MFA. Even though most people would probably consider those years “wasted”.

    When I was in my last year of law school, everyone asked me whether I would work for my dad. I said no and people were shocked and did not seem to get the concept that my parents were against nepotism this way and thought it made people “weak”. I guess this was especially shocking because of how bad the legal job market was. However, lot of my classmates do work for their parents or other family members who are lawyers (many have lawyer parents and do not though as well). I wonder how much of this is because of the bad economy or whether this people would work for their parents anyway. There are times when this has been frustrating emotionally. Now it occurs to me that this will only be resolved in hindsight. If I become a successful lawyer than I will be glad my dad was against nepotism and think it made me strong, a hustler, got work on my own merit, etc. If I never make it, I will be pretty bitter about the philosophy on nepotism as making someone weak.

    Only time can tell.

    • My brother, who is a lawyer, does not work for my father. But he gets rent-free office space and client recommendations from him. So I suppose that counts. Good luck!

      Having kids has given me the fortunate ability not to have regretted much in my life so far. If I hadn’t done what I had done, I wouldn’t have these kiddos. So I can all my mistakes as non-mistakes. If I don’t have any more kids, however, there goes that fallback!

      • When did your brother graduate from law school?

        Free office space and client recommendations are a big deal.

        Thanks for the well-wishes. I am doing kind of okay but also feel like I am being forced to be an entrepreneur against my will” and that causes a lot of stress.** I just want a nice job with benefits like PTO and healthcare.

        *If we lived in a sane country with universal healthcare and a social safety net, I’d be more comfortable with being an entrepreneur. Now I feel like I am becoming a Republican talking point for “rugged individualism” against my will.

        **I do know quite a few people who hung up their own shingle as they say. They all had partners or spouses with a steady of source of income and they also got health insurance through their spouses or partners. This also makes it less scary. Some of them also rent from their parents at below market rates.

  5. Follow your bliss. Yeah, I know it’s cliched, but you were offered money to teach philosophy instead of doing philosophy.

    Some jobs are traps. That’s a big part of why I’m where I am right now and it sucks.

  6. I firmly believe in taking risks that move us toward doing what we want to do. Sometimes stepping out into the wild yonder sets you free.

    Blessings on your path, Rose. Many blessings.

  7. Never second-guess yourself. Down that road lies madness. I watched my Dad get his advanced degrees and become a professor, eventually burning out: he was a pretty good prof but a better linguist and editor.

    All these years as a consultant, I’ve watched other guys (and women) go for the money and the security. They end up in one of three places:

    1. Stuck in a dead-end position with no real hope of advancement — and all the politics of a Real Job.

    2. Chasing the money, patching up an ever-more-obscure toolkit or system. The money’s good while those outfits can’t get off their old system — but then they’re out in the weeds and haven’t been keeping up with the times.

    3. Rising to their level of inefficiency: they’re pretty good coders but once promoted, they can’t manage other coders. They end up in the unemployment line.

    The only guide to a successful career is to remember it’s your own.

    I’m just a coder, you’re a philosopher. Doesn’t matter what the subject is, success is becoming an authority on the subject, or at least your part of the landscape. Your advisor is your authority at this point: you might lack much confidence in yourself, an entirely sensible sentiment, but trust others who do have confidence in you. Write your book. Your book wants to be written, needs to be written. If there’s any happiness to be had in a career, it’s when you’re doing what you do best — and doing it well.

    Platitudes all, to be sure. Doubt is useful — as fear is useful. Keeps us alive, keeps us grounded. But regret is a killer. It paralyses as it kills. I am an authority on Regret.

    “Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
    You are not those who saw the harbour
    Receding, or those who will disembark.
    Here between the hither and the farther shore
    While time is withdrawn, consider the future
    And the past with an equal mind.

    • Doesn’t matter what the subject is, success is becoming an authority on the subject, or at least your part of the landscape.

      Plus a gazillion.

    • Agreeing with BlaiseP here. And remember that once you took that Ph.D. and decided to do philosophy, you would be faced with a series of rough choices. You weren’t going to choose between doing your passion in Hawaii vs doing your passion in (insert other cool place here), for a large sum of money.

      • Yes, I hear you. That is a good reminder.

  8. Look at it this way, if you’re good enough to get a tenure-track offer at a community college on your first real chunk of job searching… you’re going to be better than good enough after getting a couple of publications under your belt.

    Generally speaking, I’m a fan of “take the short term loss for the long term gain as long as you can afford the short term loss”. It seems pretty evident to me that if you don’t need the extra 3/4 of pay in the next two-three years, you made the right decision.

  9. This sounds like an interesting philisophical question, bird in the hand versus birds in the bush. I wish you the best either way.

  10. Hey Rose, I am not now nor have I ever been on the philosophy market, so take this for what it’s worth, which is not very much. I have, however, had several friends on that market, who’ve gone various routes. A couple I’ve known went the adjunct route and ended up with a tenure-track position at a 4-year school, and a couple have gone the adjunct route and ended up with a cc job . The third possibility, of course, is adjunct to out of academia, but that one is almost always a personal choice, not something people are forced into unless they just really, really suck in their adjunct position, which I’m pretty sure is not going to happen with you. So, I think the worst thing that it is likely to come of the choice you’ve made is that in a few years you end up with the sort of job that you’ve just turned down, which is to say, if you’d prefer a tenure-track position at a 4-year school, your decision wasn’t bad at all because you haven’t really closed any doors, and you’ve kept another door open (or at least more open).

    Good luck.

      • I’d agree with Chris. And remember, a good decision is not determined by the outcome, but by the information available when you made it. It is very hard to move from a tenure track job with a heavy teaching load to a higher level research oriented job, but with continng to add teaching experience, those teaching oriented opportunities remain viable.

        Yes, you did take a risk, but it sounds like a very reasonable one. But keep one thing in mind: as good as your adviser has been to you, your ultimate decisions must be based on what will be best for you, not just his vision of your career. In the end, you know better than he what will make for the good life for Rose.

        But as others have said, have no regrets! Regrets are an emotional drain, and uselessly focus on what can’t be changed. Always look forward.

    • FWIW, as I read I also suspected based on nothing that at some point down the line you would probably again be a very attractive candidate for a TT CC job like the one you’re passing on now – maybe with some better features, even. So I thought that also supports the idea of taking the higher-risk option to start out. Though that’s of course very much a bird that is not in your hand, so it’s certainly still risky that it might be that way.

      …But I had absolutely no basis on which to suspect that that is actually true, so I couldn’t really say so. So I’m glad Chris has some anecdotal data to suggest it might be.

  11. I think you absolutely did the right thing. I was a tenured academic (before my crazy mid-life career change) and I’m convinced your adviser’s advice was dead-on. Once you go into the community colleges (despite the worthy purpose that they serve), I think the high teaching load would make it impossible to get any serious research/publishing done. I sat on, and chaired, many search committees at my University (a most miserable job, that) and a person who had spent some years after finishing their degree teaching at a community college, and not getting anything published in the meantime, would have been at a distict disadvantage. If all you want to do is teach, go for the CC. But if research and writing, a scholar’s life, is what you really want, I think you made the right call.

    • If all you want to do is teach, go for the CC.

      Let’s expand that slightly — if all you want to teach is first- and second-year classes, go for the CC. I’m more familiar with the math departments at our local CCs. Math there stops at the level where tenure-track profs at four-year research universities say, “Alright, I’ll teach second-year calculus again because the department has obligations, but in return you have to let me teach a graduate class in XYZ.”

      • There are also 4 year undergrad schools. No grad classes, but you get some higher level courses than at CCs, and a little less repetition. Usually a higher teaching load than a grad institution, less than a CC, although there’s much variation.

        • Small liberal arts colleges for the win as they say

  12. I know too little about you, about philosophy, or about the market for philosophy phd.’s to tell you if you made the right decision or not. All I have to say is this:

    1. You must be pretty good at what you’re doing if you got at least one offer.

    2. Best of luck and good fortune to you!

    • that’s a good point, too – i’m sure it’s the usual 300 – 400 applicants per job like the rest of the tenure track positions out there in the liberal arts. that’s impressive on its own.

  13. The cc job would have closed off your dream of a research job. The job you chose did not close off taking a cc job in the future. So you did the right thing.

  14. Another vote for: it sounds like you did the right thing. That CC job sounds seriously un-fun, the kind of thing that could drive you out of your field altogether. And you have various personal reasons to take what would be a compelling piece of advice in any case: the assessment of your advisor, who presumably knows your professional interests and strengths better than anyone else on the planet and wants only for your degree to produce what he takes to be the best approximation of your ideal professional life that it possibly can. If your gut said to take the adjunct job, I think you probably made the right choice.

  15. And you have to admire everyone’s restraint for not answering with “My philosophy on that is …”.

  16. Rose,

    I think an offer of a good-sounding job so soon is a great sign. I don’t know enough about these kinds of jobs to offer any specific advice but I will share some general job advice that was recently given to me: Don’t let desperation ever drive your decision making. I’ve been searching for a new job recently because I don’t like my current position but I keep reminding myself that a good long-term decision must trump my short-term displeasure.

    It sounds to me like you made the right decision. And when all else fails, I like the wisdom of Zac Brown:

    “It’s funny how it’s the little things in life
    That mean the most
    Not where you live or what you drive
    Or the price tag on your clothes
    There’s no dollar sign on a piece of mind
    This I’ve come to know”

    You are doing right by your kids and you have other goals you want to pursue. Go with the job that allows you to do that. You write well. Your book will be awesome.

  17. Neil Gaiman has an interesting view of this type of thing. He said that since he was young he envisioned his career goals as a distant mountain and employment opportunities were accepted or rejected based on the sole criterion of whether the job moved him closer to it. So, you know. What’s your mountain?

    • Alas and alack, those elements of our blog were created for us by League overlords and are not under our editorial control. (My bio omits my daughter, it turns out.) We should pester said overlords for revisions.

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