The Early Career Job Market: Information and Advice for Australian Philosophers
by Mark Colyvan
There are a number of different career options for people with PhDs in philosophy, and despite the jokes, they don't all involve serving in fast food chains. The critical reasoning, communication, and analytic skills developed during the course of a PhD in philosophy are highly valued, no matter what career you ultimately decide to pursue. For a start, depending on the area of philosophy you are trained in, you may also be qualified to work in other academic disciplines. Philosophers have been employed in biology departments, business schools, cognitive science departments, English departments, ecology departments, economics departments, law schools, mathematics departments, statistics departments, women's studies departments, medical schools, and others. But I think it is fair to say that most people with PhDs in philosophy are interested in academic careers in philosophy. Here I will briefly outline some of the options and relay a few tips which may be of use in securing your first academic position in philosophy.
There are several different kinds of early-career positions: postdocs, tenure-track teaching and research positions, contract teaching and research positions, and casual teaching positions. I will address each of these options in turn, before turning to some more general advice about the academic career path. But first a few words about which of these 4 options are to be preferred. For most people the "problem" of needing to choose between these options is something they won't have to worry about: you take whatever academic position you can get your hands on. Still, some people are fortunate and must choose between these 4 options. In most cases the choices are clear. The only non-trivial decision is between a postdoc position and a tenure-track position. Even here, most would claim that the latter is clearly better than the former (on grounds of security). It's hard to disagree with such advice, but still there is something to be said for a 3-year postdoc getting one's research career on track working in a good research department. This is a little less secure, perhaps, but may well lead to a better long-term outcome. In any case, choosing a postdoc in a good program over a tenure-track position is certainly not irrational.
Although postdocs are a fairly standard next step after the PhD in the scientific career path, until recently they were relatively rare in the humanities. And they are still relatively rare in many countries, but thankfully this has changed in the past few years in Australia. Philosophy, in particular, in Australia now has a good number of postdocs on a regular basis. For example, the philosophy department at the University of Sydney currently employs several postdocs (and has employed up to as many as 14 at one time). Seeking a postdoc after your PhD is a very good (and relatively common) course of action in Australia these days. A postdoc allows an early-career researcher to spend another few years (typically 3) working on a research project, typically in collaboration with a senior and experienced researcher. Sometimes you can negotiate a 4-year postdoc with the department kicking in the extra year of funding for a year of teaching (usually spread over the 4-year contract).
There are 3 different kinds of postdocs, secured by 3 quite different processes:
1. Australian Research Council (ARC) Postdocs (or ARC APDs as they are affectionately known) are part of the Discovery Grant scheme. These are typically 3-year positions to work on a specific research project at a specific institution. There are two ways you can secure an APD: (i) apply for one on your own or (ii) apply as part of a team. The advantage of the first option is that, although you will have to nominate a supervisor, you are pretty much your own boss and you get to devise your own project. The down side is that very few early-career people have strong enough track records to support a competitive application. At the very least you will need your PhD in hand and a half a dozen or more good publications. Still, Australian philosophers have enjoyed success in securing these ARC postdocs, including at least one straight out of her PhD.
The second option involves applying for an ARC grant (either a Discovery Grant or a Linkage Grant) as part of a team, in which one or two senior people collaborate with an early-career person (the intended postdoc) on a specific project. With this option, the track record of the intending postdoc is less important than when going it alone—the senior folk can carry the team track record over the line. Still, the track record of the early career person is important and it would be a waste of everyone's time for one or two senior people to apply for an ARC grant in collaboration with an early-career researcher whose track record is not yet competitive. With both kinds of ARC postdocs, you are obliged to work on the nominated project. That should be no serious constraint though, for, after all, you should have had a hand in devising the project in the first place. It should thus be something you want to work on. And there is also usually no problem doing a bit of "moonlighting" and work on side projects of your own, so long as the goals of the main project are being met.
The solo postdoc gives you the freedom to choose where you will pursue the research. The choice, however, must be well motivated by academic considerations. "My mum doesn't want me to leave home" or "I'd like to live somewhere warm" won't cut it! The department you choose must be able to claim genuine research strength in the general area of your project, and there must be someone with the relevant expertise who is willing to take on a supervisory role. You need to contact the people concerned in advance and make sure that they are willing to support the application. You then apply through the research office of that university. All other things being equal, it is expected that you will be looking to pursue postdoctoral work somewhere other than where you did your PhD. Much of this also applies to the team application, except that obviously the choice of team and institution are decided earlier in the process. It is worth remembering that with team applications, it is possible to have multi-institution teams.
Both kinds of ARC postdoc depend on a successful grant application. (The success rates of these grants are around 20% so you should have other irons in the fire.) In order to put together a competitive application, you will need to demonstrate that you have the ability to carry out the research in question. This involves, in part, having both a good publication record and a good publication record in the area of the proposed project. Of course, the proposed research needs to be new (turning your PhD into a book or a series of papers is not a suitable project), but you do need to show that your previous research puts you in a good position to embark on the proposed project. Both kinds of postdoc involve quite a bit—typically several weeks—of work. The application needs to be submitted in February the year before the postdoc is taken up and the results of the application are not known for 8 or 9 months. You can only apply through one institution in any given round. The application needs to be looked over and commented on by experienced grant writers and assessors, and revised in response to their comments. As a rough guide, I find that writing an ARC grant application takes about as much work (and about the same time) as writing a paper. Further information about the ARC, its grants and the application process are available on the ARC website (link below).
2. University Postdocs are another option. These are postdoctoral fellowships offered by the individual universities. They are usually university wide and invite applications from qualified scholars in any discipline and for any project (although as before, the project will need to be one suited to the expertise of the philosophy department in question). These too are very competitive. Universities that regularly advertise such postdocs are: Macquarie University, The University of Sydney, The University of Queensland, The University of Western Australia, and Monash. (Keep an eye on these websites because news of these general postdocs don't always make it onto philosophy mailing lists.) Since these postdocs are university wide, in any given year there is no guarantee that a philosophy application will succeed, although at Macquarie and Sydney, at least, there is a good record of philosophy snaring these university postdocs. With these university postdocs you apply directly to the university in question, consulting fairly closely with the philosophy department.
3. Ad hoc Postdocs for Specific Projects are another increasingly-common option. From time to time there are postdocs advertised for specific projects. These are usually funded by a senior researcher securing funding of some form or another. The funding in question can be from a university grant, an ARC grant, or other external grants. For instance, there are currently a couple of ARC Laureate Fellowships held by philosophers. These are very prestigious senior appointments attracting over a million dollars in research funds. It is very common for these fellows to employ a couple of postdocs to work on the project in question. This affords wonderful opportunities for early career folk to work with a major international figure and as part of a world-class team. Currently, ANU and The University of Sydney have philosophers who hold Laureate Fellowships.
These ad hoc postdocs are a little more restricted in that the project is someone else's baby and the grant holder is looking for someone with particular skills to work on it with him or her. There is usually the opportunity to pursue side projects, but the prime responsibility will be to satisfy the conditions of the grant. The good news is that since these postdocs are so specific, they are often hard to find a suitable person for. So if you fit the bill, you may be able to walk into a very good job without too much fuss. Sometimes these positions need to be filled fairly quickly and are often filled "by appointment" (i.e., without the regular advertising and without the full search). It pays to keep one's ear to the ground in relation to these. Indeed, if you are nearing completion of your PhD, with a few publications under your belt, you'd do well to make it known that you are on the lookout for a postdoc. I'm not suggesting sending your CV off to everyone in Australia, or the like—that most definitely would not go down well. But your supervisor might discretely let the relevant people know about you and your talents.
Finally, just to highlight the fact that all 3 of the above postdoc options are possible (indeed, actual), in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sydney in recent years we've had several of each kind of postdoc.
Junior continuing positions in Australasia are almost always teaching and research positions. They are generally advertised on the aphil email list, as well as a variety of other places. The application process usually involves formally applying, with a cover letter, a CV, the names of (usually) 3 referees, and an explicit statement of how you meet the selection criteria for the position in question. You might also include teaching evaluations, if you have any. The selection process varies a little, but typically all the applications are considered by the university selection committee, a "long" short list is drawn up and referees' reports are called for for those on this list, then a "short" short list (of about 3) is drawn up and these people are summoned for interviews. The candidates interviewed should also expect to be asked to present a research paper to the philosophy department and perhaps even give a guest lecture to an undergraduate class.
Australasia doesn't have a tenure system in the way the US does. All continuing positions in Australasia are by default ongoing (like tenured positions in the US) but are not as secure as tenured positions in the US. New junior appointees are usually placed on probation initially and moving from this to the regular continuing appointment needs to be taken seriously, of course, but it is nothing like the ordeal that gaining tenure in the US is.
By far the majority of philosophy jobs are in the US, and anyone going on the job market at the end of their PhD would do well to consider a position in the US. Applying for a US tenure-track position involves getting hold of the APA publication Jobs for Philosophers. (You need to be or have access to an APA member to get this.) The October and November issues are the most important: there are typically around 300 philosophy jobs advertised in each issue. Although the October and November Jobs for Philosophers contain jobs from around the world, most of the jobs are in the US. I strongly encourage you to get detailed advice from your depatment's graduate coordinator or graduate placement officer before hitting the US job market. The US job market is a strange beast and if you are not adequately prepared, it can be a intimidating experience. The following will serve as an overview and give you the rough sequence of events.
These are much like the above teaching and research positions, except they're for a limited term. The term can vary from a semester to 3 (or sometimes even 5) years. These appointments are typically made to cover the teaching of someone who is on leave or otherwise not teaching (e.g., because he or she has secured a research fellowship or has agreed to serve in some administrative role). The longer-term positions are usually advertised on aphil and in other places; the shorter-term positions are often filled by appointment with candidates found via word of mouth.
Such positions provide a very good opportunity to prove yourself and may well lead to a permanent position. You will be expected to perform the full range of academic duties: research, teaching, honours and postgrad supervision, some administration, and, eventually, service to the broader academic community (refereeing for journals, examining theses and so on). You need to make sure you get the balance right with these. It is very easy to let the research slip because all the other duties have deadlines. Make sure you allow yourself adequate research time and you keep publishing. Many departments formally assign mentors to junior staff, but even in those departments that do not do this, senior staff will generally be very willing to offer advice and assistance to junior staff. In my experience, from both sides of the junior–senior academic divide, senior staff delight in offering advice and guidance to junior staff (indeed, stopping some of us from giving advice can be the difficulty!). In any case, don't think that you need to do it all on your own.
It is very common for a person who has just finished their PhD to end up doing some casual teaching or casual research assistant work. This is usually an intermediate step while you bide your time for the dream job (or at least a job) to come your way. This is a crucial point in your career, and a great deal hangs on how you handle this period. It can be a fun time, with the saga of the PhD thesis behind you, the opportunity to enjoy some teaching, and eventually getting to write "Dr" before your name. But it can also be a very stressful period: waiting on PhD results and often needing to carry out revisions to the thesis, waiting for journals to get back to you with word on the papers you've sent off, teaching a bunch of courses on subjects you're not altogether familiar with, worrying about your future, and trying to make ends meet. The most important thing is to make sure your research does not get lost in all of this. A common mistake made in this period is to spend all your time and energy on other things (e.g., teaching) and letting the research slide. This is perfectly understandable, but a mistake all the same. Make sure you allocate at least one day per week to research and don't let anything interfere with your research time. Don't think that your department or your supervisor will take care of you if you simply hang around long enough. With the best will in the world, a department cannot hire a philosopher who is considered a research liability. It doesn't matter how nice a person you are, how good a teacher you are, or how much faithful service you've given to the department in question, if a position opens up, it will go to the best person for the job. You need to make sure that you are that person and this, in part, means keeping up your research profile.
It is not uncommon to find yourself doing casual work for a year or so, but sometimes it goes on longer. If this happens, you need to make some decisions. Assuming that you don't want (or can't afford) the casual-teaching period to continue indefinitely, you need to decide when to pack it in. It might be worth seeking some frank advice from your PhD advisor or head of department about your job prospects. (But if you are really committed to an academic career, don't pack it in too early and don't be too easily discouraged.) You might set yourself a deadline: get an academic job by some prespecified time or else look further afield. Even then the game might not be over. Although it is perhaps better for your academic prospects if you are associated with a university, it is not essential. You might, for instance, take another, better-paying job in place of the casual teaching positions. So long as you keep publishing, you may still secure an academic position a little further down the track. But in my experience, cases where good philosophers cannot break out of the casual-teaching cycle are uncommon, so hang in there!
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