Live from New York

Ken writes:

I’m in New York at the moment mixing business with pleasure meeting old friends from gradschool and attending a philosophy conference at the Marriott Marquis in the middle of Times Square (I’m not actually staying on site. I’m staying at a friend’s friend’s apartment on the Upper West Side).

It is a rather bittersweet occasion. For along with the delights of the city and the joys of seeing friends again is the realisation that it marks the ending of my career in philosophy. Academic jobs in philosophy have almost completely dried up. In the UK and Ireland, it is because governments have had to cut public sector spending on luxuries like education, and in the US, it is because US universities lost so much of their endowments when the stock markets and henge-funds collapsed in 2008. As an indication of how many PhDs are chasing how few available jobs, it is interesting to note that Boise State University received 588 applications for its recently advertised position (I know because I was one of the many unsuccessful applicants). BSU is not a prestigious institution and a successful applicant could not expect to have access to an extensive library collection or to teach gifted and motivated students. (point of comparison: UCD and TCD recently both had more than 150 applications for their latest posts advertised in 2008. Therefore, the market worsened precipitously just as my fixed term funded post-doc came to an end).

I’m trying to be philosophical about it. I do find it easier to take when I reflect on the aspects of my life that I’ve done right, principally Dot and the boys. In my disappointment I detect two strains; one proper and one shameful. It is proper to be disappointed that I can’t get a permanent post in philosophy given that I’ve invested a lot of my self in it almost continuously since 1993. It will be difficult to change direction and I worry that I won’t be able to convert all that momentum into anything remunerative or equally enjoyable. I’ve stayed in philosophy and academia this long because I find it intensely stimulating and now I will have to do without that source of intellectual excitement. The shameful reason for disappointment is that my cohort at school haven’t failed in the same way. At least five of my very close circle of friends from that time have PhDs and successful careers as academics (as far as I know the other philosopher in my circle dropped out of her PhD programme, but honorably, and years ago. She didn’t hang on in grimly ’til the last desperate end as I seem to have done).

I don’t know what I’m going to do in the future. But I can say with conviction that I’m not going to take myself or my career too seriously anytime soon. I’m going to chill out and enjoy time with my family and work only to pay the bills (which at the moment Dot is paying). I’ve got to bring myself really to accept that I cannot have it all. I cannot have the ideally perfect life so I must be content with what I do have. This may seem obvious, but it will be difficult for me. I’ve been caught up in myself for so long.

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8 thoughts on “Live from New York

  1. gazza

    Oh man, that’s rough, Ken. I really feel for you. As I’ve mentioned before, I came kind of close to dropping out of academia myself after finishing up my doctorate (and I’m married to someone who actually did it). Which isn’t much comfort to you; in fact it looks patently unfair that someone like me, who already had some doubts about academia, winds up with a job while someone like you, committed to the discipline all the way along the line, can’t get one. All I can do is extend my sincere sympathies, and remind you of what you know intellectually but not emotionally: that this isn’t your fault, and that you’re not a failure.

    Finally, I most highly recommend the following book:
    http://www.press.uchicago.edu/presssite/metadata.epl?mode=synopsis&bookkey=5298954
    It was a great help and reassurance to my wife (who jumped ship) and myself (who considered it).

  2. kenanddot

    Thanks for the kind words Gary! It’s heartening to receive a sympathetic hearing. Though don’t do yourself down. I don’t think it is possible to just ‘wind up’ in an academic job.
    I’ve actually been meanig to get in touch with you since September to get your advice on jobs outside the Academy. I’ll definitely check out that book.

  3. I have dropped out of my phd and my academic job and am loving it! I’m nowe in a different area of education , only on a year contract, bur feel so much happier in my work.

    Best wishes to you as you work out the next stage of your life/job/work

  4. mum

    My heart goes out to you. It’s a very hard realisation to accept after being so faithful to the discipline for so long. Gazza is right; you aren’t a failure. You have just had to face the prospect that the path you chose in 1993 has been blocked off by brambles and somehow you need to find another path or make a new one.

    Best wishes to you, brave soul.

  5. Chris

    I wanted to leave a comment on this post, but wasn’t sure what to say, so I hope you don’t mind if I just ramble on for a bit, in a sympathetic tone of voice. I always found New York at Christmas time a strangely depressing place. Whatever 2010 holds for you it should be better than that. I wish you all the very best with whatever it turns out to be.

    But, oh, what a horror the philosophy job market is! Even at the best of times it is horribly unjust, and at this worst of times the injustice can only be amplified. How can any university possibly do justice to five hundred and eighty eight applications? Even if they felt obliged to try to do justice to them (which they might not), there would be nothing for it but to resort to quick and dirty heuristics, and those, of course, can’t be anything but unfair.

    You know all that, but it’s worth reminding oneself that it means one must never take the job market personally (nor anything else in philosophy, if possible). The verdicts of hiring committees aren’t very reliable indicators of anything very much. They certainly aren’t reliable indicators of anything personal. What makes this fact so hard to take is not only that those verdicts are life-changingly important. It is also that the philosophy we do is, even when we aren’t taking it personally, representative of the sort of persons we are. It seems to me that philosophy is personal in that way, even when it looks, to outsiders, like an impersonal exercise in analysis.

    There is a positive moral to be extracted from that last thought:

    It is often said that the disciple of philosophy does not have a proprietary subject matter, but is, instead, the name of an activity. I don’t think that’s quite right. There is no particular activity that I do when I’m being philosophical, and many of the activities that I do do are things that non-philosophical disciplines do too. We don’t give an account of what philosophy is by identifying the activity of philosophizing. Rather, we give an account of what philosophy is by giving an account of what it is to be a philosopher.

    The norms that say ‘Believe the true, disbelieve the false’, ‘Prefer understanding to not understanding’ and ‘Be good, rather than bad’ are incumbent on us just in virtue of being minded agents. To be a philosopher is to take those norms seriously. And if you have spent the best years of your life taking them seriously then that is nothing to regret.

    I don’t mean that last bit to sound pompous, but I realize that it does – the thought is really just, you know, if you had your time again, what would you do? You couldn’t choose to not follow philosophy, without thereby alienating yourself from stuff that you care about, and not merely contingently.

  6. I am detecting a healthy tone of bittersweet optimism here, and appreciation for what you do have, which are wonderful things indeed.
    Wish I could have skipped over to NYC to meet up with the old Temple crowd…maybe next year?
    xoJill

  7. It’s sad to read about the apparent death of your academic career, but I hope that you find something out there which can be fulfilling as well as pay the bills! As you know I have a career ambition, but what I want most from work is to be engaged, challenged and satisfied that what I am doing has meaning and that I can do it well. I’m sure there are other careers out there for you, you may not have any clue what they are yet, and I’m sure you will find one of them. And, if not, you may find your path leads you back to philosophy by an unexpected way. Good luck, whatever happens.

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