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Aesthetician Seeks Work
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Sherri Irvin

It’s getting to be that time of year again, when graduate students, visiting professors and disenchanted tenure-track faculty members are gearing up for the job hunt. As a recent veteran of this process, I’ve been invited to share my thoughts about the job market for aestheticians, from the candidate’s point of view. Of course, I’m just one person with one set of experiences, so everything I say is best taken with a grain of salt.

My path to the philosophy job market was a somewhat meandering one. While writing my dissertation at Princeton, I was living in Canada with my spouse, who is also a philosopher. Before finishing I picked up some part-time teaching, and then a full-time visiting position for two years at my spouse’s institution. I finished my dissertation during the first year of that job, in an amazing burst of December energy the likes of which I had never seen before and haven’t seen since.

I applied for a few tenure-track jobs in the local region, but nothing came through. I took up a two-year visiting position at another university in the city where I was living, since I had been told that they often convert visiting faculty positions to tenure-track. (Indeed, at both of the Canadian universities where I taught, there have been many instances of people starting out as visitors and securing tenure-track jobs.) I was also told that the administration was unlikely to convert me to tenure-track unless I secured an offer from another institution. This is what prompted me to go on the market “for real,” in the fall of 2004. My partner and I decided that, since it’s hard to place two people, we should make a real run at the market in case things didn’t work out for us where we were living. And so we applied for every pair of suitable jobs we could find (when applying for jobs in the same department, we mentioned each other in the first paragraph of our cover letters, though we did not submit our materials together). We also each applied for individual jobs, on the theory that perhaps a spousal appointment would come through somewhere. I had never been on the job market before, and my partner was an associate professor who had been tenured for a few years, so we had no idea what our prospects would be.

I suppose that I applied for 70 or 80 jobs before all was said and done (and I know people who have applied for many more). It’s amazing just how much busywork was involved. In terms of time commitment, being on the job market is a bit like having an extra course to teach, except more boring. Luckily, my application dossier was already in pretty good shape from the few jobs I had applied for in previous years: my CV, dissertation summary, cover letters and writing samples just needed a little tweaking, and I had my teaching evaluation data sheets ready to hand. Still, though, most of my memories from that fall have to do with photocopying, collating, stuffing envelopes and writing out addresses.

Then there was the waiting. By early December, when the only school I had heard from was in a rather remote part of Canada, I sent a nervous e-mail to my placement director asking if this was normal. He told me that most of the calls would be coming in a little bit later in the month. And, sure enough, they did start to trickle in. I had interviews for some of the aesthetics jobs I had applied for, but also for several open jobs and even a couple of ethics jobs. One of my friends who was on the market at the same time said he hadn’t bothered to apply for open jobs, figuring that aestheticians wouldn’t be seriously considered for them. In my experience, this didn’t turn out to be true: a number of departments that hadn’t been planning to hire in aesthetics seemed to be pretty interested in my work (perhaps because it engages, at least peripherally, with some more mainstream concerns in metaphysics and philosophy of language – but that’s just a guess). There was only one case in which, at a reception at the APA, it was hinted that although they liked my work, the fact that I was in a “marginal” discipline was a liability. When I was interviewed for open jobs, I never got the sense that they were all that concerned about my other areas of specialization and competence – they really seemed to take me seriously as an aesthetician, and not to hope that there was also, say, a philosopher of language hiding in my skin.

When I received the calls to set up my APA interviews, I asked a lot of questions. How long would the interview last? Who would be interviewing me? Were there any specific questions I should be prepared for? Who should I contact in case there was a scheduling problem? Getting the answers to these questions, and looking at the web sites of the interviewers, gave me at least a comforting illusion of being better prepared.

But the crucial preparation, as I realized during my APA interviews and subsequent fly-outs, came from all of the conference papers I had presented in the preceding years. Giving talks, both at ASA meetings and at general philosophy conferences, had provided me with invaluable experience presenting my ideas and answering a wide variety of questions about them, asked by everyone from top aestheticians to good philosophers with no knowledge of aesthetics to people who, well, seemed to be crazy. The ability to answer random questions from people who may have slept through your paper can come in handy when you’re being interviewed.

Interviews at the APA took a surprising variety of forms. Some highly research-oriented departments brought in 8 or 10 people who grilled me about my research and hardly mentioned teaching; smaller departments sometimes had just one or two people who asked almost exclusively about teaching, with a question about research just to see whether I could describe it in a way students would understand. A more common mix was 3 or 4 interviewers, with a balance between research- and teaching-related questions. The atmosphere in almost all of the interviews was very positive and supportive, even when the questions were tough. However, one department’s interviewing committee seemed to be seething with hostility, and I wasn’t sorry to get out of there. If I had to characterize the experience overall, I would say it was stressful but fun. But anecdotal evidence suggests that not everyone shares this view.

Fly-outs, of course, have a very different pace than APA interviews, and the objectives have shifted a bit: whereas in an interview my only goal was to try to impress the interviewers and their main goal was to assess me as a candidate, during the fly-outs both I and the interviewing departments were trying to assess and impress each other. Fly-outs tend to involve many components: a job talk, an interview (perhaps with the whole department, or perhaps with a handful of interviewers), teaching a class (required by only a few departments), meetings with administrators (deans, rectors, college presidents, human resources people, housing people), meetings with individual faculty members or with groups of grad students, tours of the campus and the city, meals, etc. It was helpful to get an itinerary for the visit in advance so I’d know what to expect. Fly-outs can be a bit grueling, and in my experience it was important to get plenty of sleep, eat well and get some exercise – often by taking a walk or jog around town on my own, which helped give me a sense of whether I would want to live there. Most of the time people were extremely nice, helpful and welcoming. There was one department, though, where every time I wanted to use the restroom I had to ask a male faculty member for the key. So, it’s important to be prepared for little bits of weirdness. I always warned departments in advance that I was vegetarian, and this never seemed to create any problems or to raise any eyebrows.

Ultimately, I was in the fortunate position of having a few things to choose from. The university where I was teaching offered me a tenure-track position. My partner and I also had some success with our spousal strategy: we ended up with one pair of offers at an English-language university in Turkey, and one pair at a small college in a beautiful location in the South. I received a couple of offers from departments with no prospect for my spouse (though, before or during my fly-outs, I had made them aware of my “spousal issue”). And I received an offer from a department we both liked very much, where they suggested that there were good prospects for (though no guarantee of) an offer for my spouse the following year.

Making the decision, I found, was an exercise in listening to my gut. Should we stay where we were, just because it would be risky to try something else? Should we accept positions together in a beautiful location with very friendly colleagues, even though the environment might not be ideal for research? Would we like living in Turkey, and would it be hard to come back to North America if we wanted to? Should we take a risk, giving up our two-body solution in Canada to try and get settled in a department we thought would be ideal for both of us? Ultimately, we took the risk: I accepted a job at the University of Oklahoma, although this required giving up my tenure-track position in Canada.

Happily, as of this writing the risk has paid off: I love my colleagues; Norman, Oklahoma, is a great place to live (yes, really!); and I can run all year round, even without snowshoes. A tenured offer was made to my spouse during my first year here, and he has now joined the department.

I suppose the moral of the story depends on your perspective. It might be that you have to work your way up, spending some time in visiting positions before you’re a good candidate for the job you really want – both I and many other people I know have had this experience. It might be that I was crazy for giving up a two-body solution, even though things do seem to be working out in the end. It might be that it is at least possible to enjoy some aspects of the job market experience, when things go relatively well. It might be that it’s a good idea to give a lot of talks, get some teaching experience and apply for a lot of jobs. But in any case, if you’re getting ready to go on the market, I hope you’ll feel a little better prepared for having read this. And if you’ve already been there, perhaps this will bring back some fond job market memories.

2007 © Sherri Irvin

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