Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Do dedicated teachers have an easier time on the job market?

Since it is job market season in the academic world and particularly the philosophy world, I thought it would be good to bring this question to the floor here at ISW. Many new PhDs are justifiably concerned about finding gainful employment in philosophy, especially in a job market that includes not just new PhDs but people wanting to make lateral moves or "climb the ladder" in the discipline. The task can be daunting, and even haunting with the amount of uncertainty involved. First, some assumptions: I'm assuming there is a model of a good philosopher who doesn't want to devote all of his or her time to research. This is, of course, someone who does not hold research in disdain, but is comfortable with, say, 60%-90% of his or her time each week being devoted to preparing classes, teaching classes, and helping students. Second assumption: graduate students have a finite amount of time after completing coursework that they can spend writing their dissertations, publishing papers, or preparing courses and studying teaching. Third assumption: there are a good deal more jobs available that make teaching a priority in one's career over research (call these teaching-primary positions) and, with the first assumption, these positions can be fulfilling for good philosophers. Finally, fourth assumption: many teaching-primary positions are looking for good teachers first with supporting evidence of promising research.

Now I think it goes without saying that the best possible preparation one could have for the job market is to be as good of a teacher and as good of a researcher as one possibly can. But with the assumption of finite time, I think things get more interesting. One can choose to spend one's time eeking out another publication in a more research-oriented journal or polishing an article about one's teaching, compiling video, compiling other evidence, interacting with students, and so on in preparation for making the case on the job market. Given that many good philosophers could be happy in a teaching-primary job and there are more of them out there, and these departments are looking for people who have worked on honing their teaching, it seems that occasionally in the hectic life of a grad student in the later years, it can be more advantageous to work on one's teaching than reinforcing one's research. Perhaps it's even right to claim that the upper bound for how much good research can do for you on the job market as a whole is lower than the upper bound for how much work on your teaching can do for you. Dedicated teachers looking for a teaching-primary position would seem to have an easier time on the job market than dedicated researchers trying to hedge their bets by applying to teaching-primary positions as fallbacks. I wish I had facts and figures to support my hunches here, but I only have anecdotal evidence from my own graduate studies where the people who made teaching a primary focus rarely spent more than a year on the job market, compared to others who had more mixed success.

Some practical fallout after the break.

I think this kind of thing is important to start noticing more forthrightly because there is a certain kind of bias that must inevitably creep into graduate programs. After all, graduate programs are staffed by philosophers who are usually not in teaching-primary positions. So their natural inclination (and what they know) will be to train philosophers in a research-primary fashion to compete for research-primary jobs. But it's important to keep this bias in mind because one may be pushing students towards a path where they have less of a chance to compete for teaching-primary jobs, and thus less of a chance of having a potentially fulfilling career in philosophy. I've heard tell of graduate students who couldn't get letters for any school their advisor deemed "beneath" him/her.

The practical fallout is twofold. First, philosophy graduate programs should have at least some kind of real teacher training program, if not a whole teaching-track for graduate students (that, again, isn't treated with derision by people who view research-primary jobs as the sole destination for good philosophers). There are grad programs that do this (Syracuse is one I know of for sure, I'd be very happy to collect stories of others). Graduate programs should also hire with an eye towards finding at least some people who can meaningfully contribute to such a program. Second, prospective graduate students need to be better informed about which programs do and don't do a good job of supporting teaching development (perhaps we even need a separate kind of Gourmet Report; it would already be handy to have a ranking solely by placement given how many prospectives use the Report). Third, students who find themselves in a program without such an emphasis need to understand how to develop their teaching and "sell" their teaching on the job market. It can be the gateway to not only an easier time on the job market, but also a fulfilling position.


  1. Adam, your post reminded me of Leiter's remarks about applying to grad school in the Gourmet Report:

    Students should also keep in mind that many, perhaps most, of the academic positions in philosophy in the United States are at institutions of higher learning that have as their primary function general education, rather than intensive training in philosophy. There is, moreover, a growing culture gap between what is taught at the leading graduate programs (moral realism, naturalistic theories of mental content, theories of truth) and what sorts of jobs are available (openings for specialists in African-American philosophy, environmental ethics, history of modern philosophy with an emphasis on race and gender issues).

    I think he's right about this culture gap but it extends even further: There is a significant gap, concerning the relative value or importance of teaching and research, between the R-1 schools where most people do their graduate work and the teaching-oriented institutions where most people find employment. It's been widely noted that research expectations have risen across the discipline such that it's very nearly impossible to be tenured anywhere without at least a modest research record. But I also suspect there's a cultural shift going on with respect to teaching as well: The culture of assessment and higher ed accountability is leading institutions to be more probing about teaching quality. This lends credence to your general advice: A grad student with a solid dissertation and who shows promise as a researcher might be better off spending more energy developing her teaching credentials instead of, say, working over a dissertation chapter into a research article. And as our earlier discussion of how teaching credentials are evaluated indicates, grad students should think carefully not simply about improving those credentials but about how to make those credentials evident to those who might hire them.

  2. I have anecdotal evidence as well that those who have developed their teaching and seek jobs where teaching is emphasized have a generally easier time on the market (where easy means pretty miserable rather than excruciating).

    Some practical advice that relates to this has to do with how a job candidate prepares for interviews. The rule, though there were exceptions, to most of the interviews I've had for jobs emphasizing teaching has been that the vast majority of discussion relates to teaching, rather than one's dissertation. If a job-seeker is prepared to defend his or her disseratation for most or all of an interview, but fails to prepare for a discussion of teaching (How would you teach this course?), problems obviously arise. Also, if you want job that does emphasize teaching, it would be wise to have your advisor or a faculty member address your teaching and your goals in their recommendation letters.

  3. Hey Adam,
    Not heeding this advice some years ago is probably part of the reason I am sending out applicaions for the third year in a row.

    But, as always with the job market, it is hard to give good general advice, For people outside the top 40 depts, this is great advice. I really don't know what it is like to come from a top 20 place, but I suspect this strategy would not be supported by many such departments.


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