The Agony and the Ecstasy: My Life With a Philosophy PhD

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The secret to my success? I have no secret. At least, that’s what I realized recently when I was asked to recount the pathway to the stable and rewarding career I now enjoy as a university professor. Interestingly, I don’t think anyone has been interested enough in my life to bother asking me such a question until about a week or so ago. Actually, this person wasn’t so much interested in me per se as he was about my struggle to find a job with a PhD in philosophy, one of those humanities degrees that’s more effective at amassing student loan debt than it is at landing you a lucrative tenure-track job anywhere, let alone at a prestigious university.

Doctoral students in a variety of disciplines have long had a tough time in a very tough job market.  In the case of my fellow philosophy students at Stony Brook, where I got my PhD in 1997, the struggle has been quite real, to say the least.  And judging by articles I’ve seen in The Chronicle and The New York Times over the past couple of years or so, things have not gotten any better. In fact, the arduous fight for adjunct teaching rights, complete with a bevy of heartbreaking stories, indicates that things have become worse.

As for being an American Indian with a philosophy PhD, well, that’s a whole category of strangeness altogether!  When I was on the job market back in the late 90s I learned three things.  One, trying to leave academia was impossible, at least for me, because potential employers kept pigeonholing me as an “academic,” and so would never take me seriously as a possible colleague.  Everyone who interviewed me kept asking why I didn’t “want to teach,” then told me that they couldn’t hire me because I’ll probably land some impressive academic job and leave them after three months.  Second, when I did turn to the philosophy job market I learned the hard way just how ethnocentric philosophy departments were across the US and Canada.  In spite of the generous support I received from my philosophy professors in my effort at developing American Indian philosophy as my area of concentration, the rest of the Philosophy World couldn’t care less!  I did get an interview with UNC-Asheville, which went very well at the American Philosophical Association meeting, however didn’t lead to an on-site interview.  Otherwise, the numerous CVs I sent to virtually every philosophy department with a job opening responded with a terse “thanks, but no thanks” letter.  Some of them, of course, didn’t respond at all.

me prepping

Actual photo of me prepping for my two courses at Central Arizona College, summer of 1992

So, then, how did I find employment?  The third thing I learned from the above job market experience was the importance of friends, as opposed to networking.  When I got into my philosophy doctoral program I got in part because one of the grad students already there, David Abram (author of ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’) strongly advocated for my admission.  Then, when I got my first adjunct job in 1992 at Central Arizona College teaching Intro to Philosophy and World Religions, it was because my mentor at the University of Arizona, Ofelia Zepeda, introduced me to people she knew at CAC.  (At this point, I didn’t have my PhD yet but I did have a master’s in American Indian Studies.)

In turn, the chair of the philosophy department at CAC, Ek Buys, introduced me to Ann Mahoney, the chair of the philosophy department at Mesa Community College, where I got some much-needed adjunct work to carry me through 1992-1993 until I could return to my philosophy doctoral program to finish my degree at Stony Brook.  As I was finishing my dissertation, though, I got it into my head that I wanted to leave academia. So, I spent countless days and weeks looking for work in the government and private sector. Moreover, since this was the 90s I thought for sure that I could move to the Bay Area and find work in the booming tech industry. All I got for my trouble was disappointment, not to mention impoverished and overwhelmingly in-debt.

Eventually, I found my way back into teaching when I landed a job at Verde Valley School, a private college prep school in Sedona, teaching American Indian philosophies. When I was compelled to leave that job due to the political turmoil that the school was undergoing, I was lucky to reconnect with Ann Mahoney, who saved me from descending back into the doldrums and poverty of adjunct life by offering me a full-time one-year-only appointment as a philosophy instructor. Of course, since this was a one-year-only gig, at the same time I was adjusting to teaching five sections with about 200 students enrolled altogether—which I’d repeat the following spring semester—I also had to start looking for work for the following academic year.

During that dreadful time when I was applying to all those philosophy jobs, I applied for two and only two jobs in American Indian Studies: one at the University of Michigan and the other at the University of Minnesota.  Michigan never even sent me the customary “thanks, but no thanks” letter.  However, Minnesota called, and they called in large part because another of my old professors at the University of Arizona, David Wilkins, was there.  Finally, after going through the indignity of tenure-denial at the U of M, I did, fortunately, have a friend in James Riding In at Arizona State University, where I’m at today, who was very helpful when once again my future was uncertain. James was my editor when I published my first peer-reviewed article in the ‘Wicazo Sa Review’.

In the end, my career as a university professor, which has sustained me for the past fifteen years—not counting my community college, high school, and unemployed days—seems to be the result of perseverance and incredible instances of good fortune. I didn’t go to a lot of conferences, and when I did I wasn’t very good at networking. Nor was I publishing much, at least not at the beginning of my university career in 2000. I only had a non-peer reviewed article and a book review to speak of at that point. Naturally, I did have the support of people who believed in me—my wife Sharon, above all others. And, in spite of the disappointments and hardship, I guess I must have believed in myself just enough to go on. What else could I do?

Consequently, when graduate students, including the ones I advise, ask me about how to navigate the job market, all I can tell them is my story and that relationships are everything. Networking is nothing more than brown-nosing and an exchange of contact info, complete with empty promises to get in touch. Relationships, like kinship, is the product of making an emotional connection with someone, which isn’t easy to achieve, but they can be the difference between the life and death. At the same time, you won’t know who your “relatives” are until they unexpectedly show up just when you need someone the most. Unfortunately, there isn’t a how-to manual or a workshop to show you how to deliberately acquire the kind of relationships that helped me. Like life itself, this kind of organic bonding occurs spontaneously and mysteriously.

kant

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