July 09, 2008

Brian Leiter Speaks Truly

In giving advice about how to deal with an upcoming bad (or, as he points out, even worse) job market in philosophy, he says (all punctuation and brackets in original):

But how to "prepare"? If you can delay a full search, do so (searching selectively may make good sense, i.e., targetting jobs for which you are a perfect 'fit'). Do not defend your dissertation until a job offer is in hand--PhDs "go stale" quickly, and you don't want to be a 2008 PhD who, because of general market trends, is still looking for a tenure-stream position in 2011. (I must say this is a really crazy aspect of the job market: everyone knows the market is tight, that most philosophers are, in one sense or another, "under-employed" in their first position [even when it is tenure-stream!], and that multiple searches over multiple years are the norm--yet still there is a tendency to draw unfavorable inferences when the job seeker has a PhD that is several years old, and no tenure-stream job.)

I only have anecdotal impressions that PhDs go stale,* but that has been my impression, and Leiter is correct that it's crazy. This seems like a bigger problem because it exacerbates the contingencies of your first job search or two; if you don't get a job right away, each year on the job market digs you into a deeper hole. That wouldn't be the case if search committees were more likely to hire people who'd been out for a couple of years, and they'd also have more information to go on, because people are more likely to start publishing after they graduate. (Though that might make success contingent on the vagaries of the publishing process, not only whether a paper is accepted but how long it takes.)

Unfortunately, not everyone can follow Leiter's advice not to defend until they have an offer in hand; even aside from funding issues, my slightly less anecdotal impression there is that many hiring schools want you to have defended before the interview.

*These impressions are not derived from the searches I took part in, where we made an offer to someone who had been out for several years.

Posted by Matt Weiner at July 9, 2008 02:24 PM

I can't tell if that spam is on topic or not.

Posted by: andrew at July 10, 2008 03:21 PM

Is it completely irrational for PhDs to go slightly "stale"? The average 2008 PhD will be qualified to degree X for a tenure-track job. The average 2008 PhD on the 2009 job market however will presumably be qualified to some lesser degree, because the ones that have been removed from the pool will include many more of the highly qualified ones than the non-highly-qualified ones, and I would guess that the number of new additions to the pool is smaller than this number. Certainly that's the case by the 2010 job market.

However, you're probably right that capricious chance would be less likely to harm someone's career significantly if the hiring committees looked more seriously at slightly older PhDs rather than completely "fresh" ones, and there would also be the added advantage of having more information to go on in making these decisions. But it seems inevitable that the first dynamic is going to win out, absent external regulation or collusion in hiring.

Posted by: Kenny Easwaran at July 11, 2008 05:33 AM

Hello! Please forgive me if this post is inappropriate, but I couldnít find a direct email address on your blog. Iím Anton and Iím launching my new blog dealing with language translation issues and would appreciate the opportunity to discuss mutual collaboration. You can contact me if you like at anton [at] icanlocalize {dot} com. Thanks!

Posted by: Anton at July 11, 2008 12:09 PM
The average 2008 PhD on the 2009 job market however will presumably be qualified to some lesser degree, because the ones that have been removed from the pool will include many more of the highly qualified ones than the non-highly-qualified ones

There are two issues with this idea. The first is the assumption that qualification, and the evidence for qualification, are innate properties that don't change over time. Somebody who's out for a year may have a more mature research program and more experience teaching; they may also have more papers out which allows the committee to have better evidence by which to assess them.

The second is that when people talk about "PhDs going stale," they mean, I think, that there is a preset bias against people with year-old PhDs just because of the year-old degree. Even if they are in fact equally qualified. There is a certain amount of herd mentality in the hiring process.

In fields that have a lot of postdocs, the dynamic is somewhat different.

Posted by: Ben at July 13, 2008 04:07 PM

Andrew, I deleted the spam comment before I realized you had replied to it. So your comment has gone stale. Now that's on topic!

Anyway, what Ben said about qualifications not remaining constant over time. My impression is that the degree to departments discount stale PhDs is much greater than anything that would be justified by the sort of effect you describe, and that it can even outweigh other more information that ought to be more reliable (like how much you've published in the interim -- the person we made the offer to had a lot of publications and hadn't been snapped up yet).

Also, I think that it'd be really pernicious to downgrade dossiers based on these statistical effects. Realistically, we're talking about how people get culled from the search before their writing sample gets a close look; and it's pretty clear that if you cull everyone from group X because some people from group X can be expected to be on average worse than non-Xers, then even the Xers who are better than non-Xers will get cut out. When the information that would show the stale PhDs to be better is in the dossier all along, in the sample and letters. Of course, people have to cull the application pool somehow; that's the problem. But I think the stale PhD argument gives a bad criterion.

The problem is that if everyone decides that an applicant can't be good, or they'd have a job already, you get an informational cascade based on the results of their first couple of job searches. And given that the job market is less than perfectly efficient, that can be really bad.

Another factor to think about, in light of Leiter's original advice, is that a stale PhD may just mean that your school didn't have the resources to keep you around after your unsuccessful job search.

And about whether it's inevitable that this dynamic will win out -- I think this is what Ben is getting at with the herd mentality, but it seems to me that there are two different equilibria here. If the expectation were that PhDs would do non-tenure-track jobs for a couple of years and accumulate more qualifications before they got hired, then I think that would happen. I have no idea how you'd get to that equilibrium, or even if it would be more desirable, but it would have the advantage that the hole you're in would get shallower rather than deeper as you went along. Up to a certain point, sadly.

Posted by: Matt W at July 13, 2008 08:37 PM