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Follow the jobs or follow your interests

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Since the board is slow right now thought I’d throw an interesting question out there.

Since academic positions for Phds are becoming increasingly scarce it might make sense to focus on areas of interest where the few available jobs may be such as, for instance, hot areas like medical ethics, to increase your odds of being one of the lucky ones.

Possible objections to this strategy might be: 

1. A lot can change in terms of hot areas for academic positions in the 6 plus years it takes to finish your Phd.

2. Not focusing in an area in which you have a genuine interest makes it difficult to be engaged enough to finish the program.

3. Positions are limited so the odds are that you won’t find an academic position anyway, so at least study what you enjoy, even if its one that is out of favor currently (such as American Pragmatism for instance).






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I am all in for number three! I find the lack of academic job prospects liberating for the reason you state, and I’m not worried or conflicted about leaving academia after I finish my program. (Seriously, I have a part time job this summer that pays more than I would earn by adjuncting two courses. It’s less work for more money, and I still have time to tinker with papers.)

My general attitude is this: check all the boxes as if I planned to get an academic job in a field I would want to work it, and even go on the market when the time comes. But also: try getting administrative work every summer to keep the resume looking fresh, and enjoy the prospect of earning real paychecks outside academia.

The attitude also helps me keep a healthier relationship with academia. I can be a part of it without devoting every waking moment to it :)

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  1. That seems to depend. There are certain fields, like medical ethics, where there is likely to be more work in the near and far future.
  2. Yeah I certainly cannot bring myself to study fad fields, unless of course the fad happens to align with my primary interests.
  3. Probably a good shout.
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In admissions, it seems to make little sense to focus on hot fields, unless one's interests won't be palatable to major programs (but then in that case the program probably isn't a good fit). When choosing a dissertation topic, seems to make sense to pick a hotter topic over a cooler topic ceteris paribus, but only if the hotter topic is also something only really likes.

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Don't play the game of trying to predict which areas will be hot when. It's not a game you can win, except by luck. And it's not a game you'll be well-equipped to play until the end of your PhD at the earliest, when you're much more familiar with the discipline, your fields, have been on the market a number of times, have done the conference circuit a bunch, etc. (Besides which, most hot areas are only briefly hot--that is, they heat up for a few years then hiring peter out because the demand has been mostly filled). Cultivate a diversity of interests, and follow those interests. It's standard for people now to specialize in two (sometimes three) distinct areas; so cultivate your two. Where planning is concerned, try not to cultivate two areas which are dead ends jobs-wise (e.g. aesthetics and 19th-century Germany). But beyond that, just go for what interests you. You won't get a job anyway, so you might as well enjoy it as much as you can!

Edited by maxhgns
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