Luck and the Academic Job Market


Dan Hicks


May 30, 2019

First, some news: starting this fall, I will be an assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive and Information Sciences at the University of California, Merced. I wrote the bulk of this post on May 26, the day after the 9th annual Conference on Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology at UT Dallas. I have a great community at this conference, and I’ve been sharing the news with my friends. Everyone is thrilled for me, of course.

But certain kinds of congratulation, while well-intentioned, give me pause. These are “you really deserve this” and “things finally worked out.” To my ear, these kinds of congratulation accept the dominant meritocratic view of academia, which further tends to lead to the conclusion that academics struggling with precarity and contingency deserve their low pay, lack of stability, and marginalized status.

It’s not that I think that I don’t deserve a tenure-track job, in some sense or another. I check all the meritocratic boxes, with something like 12 or 14 peer-reviewed publications, the majority of which are in “top” philosophy of science journals; I have a good mix of single-authored disciplinary papers and interdisciplinary collaborations; my PhD is from a fairly prestigious program; over the past seven years I’ve held a series of postdocs and research positions at comparable institutions; and so on.

But luck has played an enormous role in getting me to the point where I could check all these boxes. If things had gone just slightly differently, I would be struggling like so many of my peers: teaching 7+ courses per year, trying to make ends meet on $30,000 per year or less, and desperately trying to find time to publish an occasional paper.

In the rest of this post, I want to highlight 3 moments where luck made an enormous difference to the trajectory of my career.

The first moment was my admission to Notre Dame. I was not a philosophy major in undergrad; I studied math and political science, and took two philosophy of science courses my senior year. I decided to pursue a career in philosophy after taking those two courses and sitting in on a few graduate courses at the University of Illinois, Chicago. For obvious reasons I didn’t have a lot of mentorship to help me articulate my interests clearly, identify appropriate grad programs, weigh the advantages of philosophy vs. HPS, or write a relevant writing sample. (My first attempt at a writing sample was on Wittgenstein, Foucault, and philosophy of math. The second attempt was a little better, on Kant’s philosophy of math.) My application was a mess.

Officially, I was waitlisted at every grad program to which I applied; but I doubt I was considered seriously anywhere. Except at Notre Dame. Two days before the deadline in 2005 I was offered a seat in the incoming cohort. No doubt ND was scraping the bottom of the waitlist when they got to me. I was just lucky that everyone else above me had declined the offer.

Of course, once I was admitted, I was a Notre Dame grad student and later a Notre Dame PhD, with all of the prestige and alumni connections that are attached to that name.

The second moment where luck played a major role in my career was actually a series of moments: the positions I’ve held since finishing my PhD. Like a lot of other precarious scholars, I’ve had to scramble from temporary position to temporary position, moving long distances every few years in order to follow the next opportunity. But unlike a lot of other precarious scholars, I’ve had a series of postdocs and other research-focused positions. Except for a single course of 6 students, I haven’t had any teaching responsibilities since 2013.

This series of research positions is largely the reason why I’ve been able to write so much, averaging almost 2 peer-reviewed papers per year since I finished my dissertation. (A traditional standard for tenure in philosophy at research universities is 1 single-authored paper per year.) In addition, these positions have given me opportunities to work in science policy, learn an entirely distinct set of research skills as a data scientist, and collaborate with researchers in other disciplines. Finally, they have also provided me with a comfortable income and conference travel support, giving me enough time and peace of mind to focus on research, rather than continually worrying about finding my next position while grinding through grading and commuting for poverty wages.

Over the last 15 years, I’ve regularly had to think about what my backup plan would be if I didn’t find a good next step. For a long time the best option would have been to live with my dad in the San Francisco Bay Area and adjunct while getting a certificate to teach high school math. In the last couple years, the best backup plan would have been to work as a data scientist in the tech industry. Data science would have paid much better than high school math, but both backups would have meant the end of my research career.

In each case, these research positions weren’t things that were planned out well in advance. Most of the offers came in April, which is relatively late in the annual academic job market cycle. The offer for my most recent position, at UC Davis, came in early August, about a month before my then-current position ended.

The third moment where luck made a huge difference in my career was the job ad for UC Merced. I’m currently finishing a postdoc position at UC Davis. Davis is about 15 miles west of Sacramento; I grew up about 30 miles east of Sacramento. My entire immediate family is in the Sacramento area. I knew when I applied for the postdoc that my family couldn’t handle me moving home just to move away again two years later. I was committed to staying in Northern California.

I recognized that this meant I was basically writing off a faculty position. (Unlike my grad school applications, I talked out the decision to accept this postdoc with a couple mentors before I had to make it.) There are several bachelor’s-granting colleges and universities in Northern California; but most are in the Bay Area, which is experiencing a severe housing crisis. Things are so bad that even UC Berkeley has lost faculty due to the cost of housing.

Davis and the Sacramento area haven’t been affected (too much, yet) by the Bay Area housing crisis. And I thought there might be a chance that UC Davis would hire a philosopher of science during the two years of my postdoc. But really, when I took the postdoc, my plan was to use the time to figure out pathways into state government and the tech industry.

Then, last August, a few people emailed me a job ad for a data ethics position (not at UC Merced, but another school). It was within my geographic range, and my work experience as a data scientist might compensate for the fact that I haven’t published anything on data ethics. I was hesitant to jump into the job market again, even just for one position. But once I decided to apply for that one, I went on PhilJobs and saw the UC Merced ad:

We are seeking candidates who take an interdisciplinary approach to ethics, applying ethical theories and principles to topics within the purview of [Cognitive and Information Sciences]. Sample topics might include neuroethics or the ethics of technology. Applied ethicists working on topics outside the scope of CIS who use scientific methods will also be considered (for example, someone who draws on large data sets).

Not only was I a good topical fit; but also the department liked the interdisciplinary breadth of my work, my experience as a data scientist, and my connections to the data science community at UC Davis. Geographically, Merced is about 2 hours south of Sacramento, and about 2 hours and 30 minutes from my mom’s house. It’s a small city of about 80,000 people, and far enough from the Bay Area that it hasn’t really been affected by the current housing crisis yet. (Though Merced was one of the epicenters of the housing crisis in 2007-08.)

In other words, an interdisciplinary department at a university in an affordable location within my geographic range was looking to hire someone who does roughly what I do. During the two-year period between my moving back to California and my giving up on academia entirely to work in the tech industry. The fit in both directions could hardly have been better.

In all of these moments, things easily could have gone some other way. I might still have been an academic, but I probably wouldn’t be heading into a very nice tenure-track position at a research university. And there’s a very good chance I would have left academia for good, whether to teach high school math or to work in the tech industry. For all of the success I’ve had due to my hard work and “talent”, there are people who were equally “talented” and worked just as hard — if not harder — but haven’t been recognized or rewarded. Still other people would have been just as “talented” and worked just as hard, but were never given the chance. I’ll happily take your congratulations, but please keep in mind the people who weren’t lucky enough to get the kinds of opportunities that have come my way.