Philosophers fail to soar in high-flying U.S. economy

January 02, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON 3/8 A — WASHINGTON -- In a ballroom in the basement of a hotel here, some of the most educated people in America stand -- resumes in hand, nerves in check -- hoping that somewhere in the sea of tables in front of them is the chance to pursue their chosen profession.

The problem is that the booming American economy is not crying out for philosophers.

``I feel so sorry for the applicants,'' says the Rev. Joseph Conley of Fordham University in New York, one of the 150 or so colleges interviewing last week at the annual Eastern division meeting of the American Philosophical Association.

Conley and one or two colleagues would spend much of their four days at the convention at one of the tables in the Hilton Hotel ballroom, where potential employees met prospective employers, 30 minutes at a time.

Fordham's philosophy department has two faculty openings, both of them highly coveted tenure-track positions, not the one-year or one-semester fill-in positions that are more plentiful but still sought-after.

Though Fordham has only about 25 applicants for a fairly specialized medieval philosophy post, its more mainstream phenomenology job received 250 applicants.

For the most part, the age of these applicants is about 30. They graduated from college with top grades, spent another two years taking graduate-level philosophy courses, passed extensive examinations and devoted several more years to researching and writing a book-length doctoral thesis.

Either to support themselves while finishing that thesis or during their job search, many spent years teaching individual courses for a few thousand dollars or in temporary positions -- the humanities' equivalent of medical schools' internships and residencies.

For one of these applicants to reach the convention, he or she has passed the most difficult cut -- getting an interview. The Fordham department chose 10 applicants to interview for each position. Two will be invited to the New York campus to meet the rest of the faculty and make presentations. One will be chosen.

``It's a cliche to say it, but this is really the most difficult part of my job,'' Conley says of the interviewing process. ``These people # have worked for years, most of them are in debt and the jobs are just not there.''

At the Hilton ballroom last week, two or three people, usually approaching middle age, conduct job interviews at tables. The applicant is usually the youngest person at the table, neatly dressed, sitting bolt upright, exuding eagerness and apprehension.

Around the edge of the ballroom, other applicants wait for their time at the tables looking like junior high students at their first dance.

``It is very competitive,'' says Paul Welty, 29, who just got his doctorate from Emory University. ``Everyone's eyeing each other out of the corner of their eye, checking out their papers, how they're dressed. You try to keep it in perspective.''

Welty has come to the convention with one scheduled interview and is trying to get another, though few schools conduct interviews on anything other than a pre-arranged basis.

``I'm just starting out at this,'' he says. ``I'll probably be doing the same thing next year.''

In philosophy, as in the humanities in general, the expectation in the mid-1980s was that faculty positions would open up in the mid-1990s as the large number of professors hired to teach the baby boomers reached retirement age.

It didn't work out that way, in part because the professors are not retiring, in part because funds for the humanities are declining as schools emphasize science and information technology.

Eric Hoffman, executive director of the American Philosophical Association, sees some light at the end of the tunnel because the organization's Jobs for Philosophers publication last year advertised almost 300 openings, which is about the same number of philosophy doctorates granted each year.

But because that is up from fewer than 200 openings a few years ago, many candidates from previous years are still seeking faculty positions. Hoffman says more than 700 people registered as job-seekers at this convention.

For many applicants, job-hunting trips to the convention are an annual event.

Michael Griffin, 30, is at his third convention and is pleased because he has six interviews. He thinks he has an advantage because his specialty is the 17th-century philosopher Leibniz.

``People who do the history of philosophy have a broader range of options,'' he says, explaining that small colleges look for someone who can teach historical surveys of the subject, something that would not come easily to a student of the rigorously logical and abstract analytic approach that dominates most American philosophy departments.

``I'm not discouraged yet,'' says Griffin, who has had a succession of one-year jobs. ``In March, if I haven't heard from any schools, then I'll be discouraged. I'll give it a few more years.''

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