Landing a Faculty Job in Philosophy

December 11, 1998

The job market in philosophy improved throughout the 1980s -- so much so that by the end of the decade, there were only 1.4 registered candidates for every job advertised in the crucial October and November issues of Jobs for Philosophers, the official publication of the American Philosophical Association.

Since the academic job market collapsed in the early 1990s, however, the ratio has crept back up to early 80s levels of more than 2 candidates per advertised job in philosophy.

But even these figures paint too rosy a picture. For not all the jobs advertised are for rookie job seekers (some seek tenured associate and full professors); and not all those for rookie job seekers are for tenure-track jobs. In 1995-96, for example, it looks like the ratio of rookie job seekers to tenure-track jobs was more like 4 to 1.

To make matters worse, many of those tenure-track jobs are hardly plums, since some involve heavy teaching loads at academically weak institutions, perhaps in unattractive locations to boot. For 1995-96, there were 341 philosophy Ph.D.'s awarded in the United States and Canada, according to data printed in the September 1996 Review of Metaphysics. By 1998, only 6 of those students had secured tenure-track jobs at top-15 departments, while another 11 had landed such jobs, or their equivalent, at top-50 departments in the United States or abroad.

This is a sobering statistic when one considers that top Ph.D. programs do a much better job preparing their students to be researchers and graduate teachers than they do preparing them for the jobs that exist in greatest number: namely, for teachers of basic philosophy courses as part of a general undergraduate curriculum for students who are unlikely to pursue philosophical study in depth.

Anecdotal evidence confirms the grim picture painted by the numbers. Because the job market has been so bad throughout the 1990s, the market is not only saturated with each new crop of rookies, but also with the job candidates from prior years who either did not get tenure-track jobs or did not get tenure-track jobs they want, and thus who are looking to move up in the great academic hierarchy.

In 1997-98, my department at the University of Texas at Austin (one of the top 20 in the United States) advertised a position for an assistant professor in any area of philosophy -- what is known as an "open" position in the lingo of the profession. We received more than 500 applications, including some from established tenure-track faculty members at strong research universities in this country and abroad; from faculty members with excellent records who had been denied tenure at top-10 departments; from faculty members in tenure-track positions at leading liberal-arts colleges; even from some faculty members who already had tenured associate professor positions at decent state university systems. In addition, of course, we received hundreds of applications from "rookie" job seekers, at least 50 of whom would have been worth interviewing.

At the annual convention of the A.P.A., we ended up interviewing fewer than 20 candidates, only half of whom were rookie candidates. We invited only three candidates to the campus, only one a rookie job seeker, and he already had a book contract with Cambridge University Press.

We ended up hiring a non-rookie candidate, out of graduate school eight years, who was author of one book with Cambridge, another forthcoming from Oxford, and several dozen articles in peer-edited journals not only in philosophy but also in physics and biology. That same candidate got a half dozen other offers (both in the U.S. and abroad), many from departments that, like us, were advertising a position to which rookie candidates could have applied. Against this "known quantity," with an international reputation, rookie candidates didnt stand a chance.

Competition for jobs may be fierce, but it is not hopeless. This past academic year, 1997-98, departments at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Michigan, Minnesota, and Northwestern all hired rookie candidates -- though in each case the candidate hired came from one of the top 15 graduate programs in the field. That's the first point worth making: Overall job-market statistics are misleading, because they reflect not only how the graduates of top programs fare, but also how the graduates of less-distinguished programs fare.

But whatever the status of your graduate program in the profession, there are several things to keep in mind in seeking a job in philosophy. Philosophy jobs are typically advertised by the "Area of Specialty" (A.O.S.) sought and the "Area of Competence" (A.O.C.). Your A.O.S. is your primary area of research (reflected in your dissertation), including any cognate fields in which you could also do teaching at the graduate level and in which you might publish. The A.O.C. includes those fields where you could teach upper-level undergraduate courses.

One problem in recent years has been the growing culture gap between the issues that are "hot" in the top graduate programs and what is actually taught at the bulk of institutions of higher education in the United States. Thus, there is a growing demand for the teaching of "applied ethics" (which includes both medical ethics and business ethics), yet hardly any of the top graduate programs boast specialists in that area or train doctoral students in it.

Applied ethics is viewed as unrigorous and philosophically superficial, hence it is largely ignored by the leading programs. Yet according to A.P.A. data for the 1995-96 job market, the ratio of jobs seeking an A.O.S. of "Applied Ethics" to candidates with that A.O.S. was almost 1 to 1. By contrast, for an A.O.S. of metaphysics -- a "hot" area in all the leading departments -- the ratio of candidates to jobs was about 4 to 1.

That being said, it seems perverse to go to graduate school in philosophy and then choose your field based on job prospects. If you wanted to do that, you could have gotten a J.D. or M.B.A., and surely have done very well. You went to philosophy grad school presumably because you loved some aspect of philosophy. The dissertation, if it is to be successful, must reflect where your true interests lie.

But there is a compromise posture. According to A.P.A. data based on a 1994 survey, more than 70 per cent of all U.S. philosophy departments offer the following courses at least once every two years: ethics, ancient philosophy, early modern philosophy, and logic. That is not surprising: any philosophy department, whether at a leading research university or at a small liberal-arts college, needs to offer the courses that cover the core of the discipline.

Relatively few departments can afford to have a specialist in cutting-edge analytic metaphysics, even if they would like to. But a specialist in metaphysics who is competent to cover the basic undergraduates courses in, say, ancient philosophy and logic, might be very attractive. Almost all departments at least aspire to maintain a serious research profile. The metaphysician who can teach the core department curriculum allows a department to meet that aspiration and fulfill its institutional obligations.

The same A.P.A. survey revealed that less than 25 per cent of U.S. departments offered the following courses in a given two-year period: Philosophy of Environment; Eastern/Indian Philosophy; Recent Continental Philosophy/Poststructuralism; Philosophy of Human Nature; Philosophy of Social Science; Philosophy of Technology; Philosophy of Mathematics; Arabic/Islamic Philosophy. The moral to draw is twofold: These are not professionally advantageous areas to have as an A.O.C.; and if those areas constitute one's A.O.S., it would be advisable to have A.O.C. areas that meet pressing curricular needs.

Theres something else to keep in mind, given the culture gap between most Ph.D. programs and the needs of most hiring departments. Most departments need competent, reliable teachers; most Ph.D. programs train researchers. More than one job seeker has had the experience of walking into an interview feeling quite ready to defend her dissertation against all comers, only to find that the hiring department wanted to spend most of the session talking about what she could teach and how she would teach it.

The moral: prepare appropriately for each interview. Research the interviewing departments in advance. Understand what their needs and interests are likely to be. Get faculty members at your doctoral institution to conduct a mock interview that emphasizes both research and teaching.

Ultimately, much of what can be done to improve your job prospects must be done long before the year arrives when you are looking for an academic position. Figure out early what the strengths of your department are; determine which faculty members have national reputations; see which faculty members "go to bat" for their doctoral students and get them jobs.

Far too many students attach themselves to professionally marginal faculty members, who may happen to be charismatic or congenial or who seem to loom large in local departmental affairs. No matter how good their subsequent work, these students will be at an enormous disadvantage when it comes to getting a job. What matters isnt how important and impressive your advisor looks in Austin or Madison or Berkeley or New Haven. What matters is how he is perceived in the profession at large.

Brian Leiter is the Joe A. Worsham Centennial Professor at the University of Texas at Austin and Visiting Professor at Yale Law School during 1998-1999. Mr. Leiter writes "The Philosophical Gourmet Report, 1998-2000," a ranking of U.S. graduate programs in analytic philosophy, which is available at