A Philosopher’s Diary,#7 — Rigged and Lucky: The Myth of Meritocracy in Professional Academic Philosophy.

By Michelle Maiese

“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” by Francisco Goya (Los Caprichos, #43, 1799)


Now, nine years later, after more than 300,000 views of the site, this new series, A Philosopher’s Diary, finally literally instantiates that description by featuring short monthly entries by one or another of the members of the APP circle, in order to create an ongoing collective philosophical diary that records the creative results of critical, synoptic, systematic rational reflection on any philosophical topic or topics under the sun, without any special restrictions as to content, format, or length.

In this seventh installment, Michelle Maiese critically examines a pernicious and persistent myth about winners and losers in the social institution of professional academic philosophy.



#2 The Vision Problem

#3 Against Perfectionism

#4 Respect For Choices vs. Respect For Persons

#5 Thirty-Six Philosophical Precepts of Martial Arts Practice

#6 Enlightenment, Education, and Inspiration


Rigged and Lucky: The Myth of Meritocracy in Professional Academic Philosophy

Some people earn a PhD and land a post-doctorate gig or faculty position right away; some of these positions are tenure-track and some are less permanent. Some people end up at institutions that are more research-oriented and some end up at schools with a heavier teaching load. Still others don’t land any sort of permanent position and take on jobs as contingent/ adjunct faculty. What explains the difference between the career trajectories of these different individuals?

One possible explanation is that it’s entirely due to differing skills levels and aptitudes for philosophy. Some people simply are superior philosophers and teachers who earn awards or publish their work more extensively; perhaps it’s those people who are likely to get jobs.

Nevertheless, almost everyone acknowledges — or should acknowledge — that it is far more complicated than that. After all, it truly matters whether someone who has recently earned, or is on the brink of earning, their PhD has a well-known dissertation adviser, whether the program they attended is highly ranked on the Gourmet report, what sorts of jobs happen to be available the year they go on the job market, and whether they are well-connected with a network of high-status insiders. None of these considerations have any intrinsic bearing on whether they are a strong researcher or teacher, and yet they can make all the difference when it comes to obtaining a job.

Once this initial game of “rigged and lucky” has played itself out, an individual is set on a particular trajectory and it is increasingly difficult for them to change course. It’s easy enough to imagine that there exists an agent named Jordan, who has just completed their PhD, gone on the job market, and not found any success in obtaining a permanent position. It also is not at all difficult to imagine that Jordan is an extremely good philosopher and teacher, with a well-researched dissertation and strong analytical skills, who also has a knack for getting students engaged in philosophical discussions. Because Jordan truly loves philosophy, they decide not to give up; they apply for and obtain a number of adjunct teaching positions. However, in order to cover student loans, afford their expensive rent payments, and otherwise support themself and their family, they need to teach 6–7 classes each semester. Because they fully understand the need to publish their research in order to land a more permanent teaching position, they wake up early each morning and also spend much of their free time on weekends writing. Still, it is extremely difficult for them to compete on the job market with high status post-docs or those with permanent positions. Even when Jordan is applying for jobs at schools oriented more toward teaching, job candidates with more publications may very well be viewed as stronger candidates. What is more, the longer Jordan spends doing adjunct teaching, the more prospective employers are likely to view them as a less-qualified candidate.

But, as I noted already, Jordan’s situation is principally the result of factors that have nothing to do with their intellectual or pedagogical abilities, attitudes, hard work and self-discipline, or general knack for philosophy.

And yet, at my own institution, I have heard people speak of adjunct professors as if they have less ability, less dedication, less knowledge, or less skill at teaching. The explicit or implicit assumption is that they must be less meritorious merely because they have not landed a permanent job. But that’s nothing but bullshit and the self-congratulating ideology of those who are the winners in a destructive, deforming social institution. The reality is that many adjunct professors are better teachers, and more actively involved in research, than many or even most tenured faculty members.

If we hope for a system that truly is based on merit, we need to consider what sorts of changes would enable this. As I’ve indicated above, the current system is rigged and lucky: it rewards some people for unearned status due to social-institutional ideology and manipulation, and it penalizes others for sheer contingencies over which they have had no control. At the individual level, it is practically difficult or even impossible for any one of us to make corrections for these factors on our own.

But, one thing that people with permanent positions can do is refuse to accept the explicit or implicit mythical narrative that adjunct faculty members aren’t as qualified in the areas of teaching or research, as those with permanent positions, and say so out loud. And they can also refuse to regard those people as expendable, but instead actively seek ways to make them integral, permanent parts of the life of a college or university. In short, they can push back against the myth of meritocracy.


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 24 October 2022

Against Professional Philosophy is a sub-project of the online mega-project Philosophy Without Borders, which is home-based on Patreon here.

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Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.