Friday, November 13, 2015

Of Marco Rubio, and hiring philosophers in Singapore

We've started to review applications for our tenure-track position at the National University of Singapore. If you're looking to apply and haven't already, send your application quickly!

Back when NUS hired me in 2008, the department advertised five positions, including some that were open in both rank and specialty. I'm told that the total number of applications for the whole mix of five jobs was something like 150.This year we're only advertising one job at the Assistant Professor rank, open to all specialties. We have 311 applications.

I'd like to think that the higher numbers are because we've been publishing lots of good work and raising the international research profile of the NUS philosophy department, making people more interested in crossing oceans and continents to come to Singapore. But even if that's part of it, the big story is the huge backlog of PhDs seeking jobs anywhere after the global financial crisis crushed university hiring. It looks like the supply of jobs this year is even lower than the last two. With the global economy mostly on an upswing, I have no idea why. 

I've taken at least a brief look at all the applications. It's exciting and depressing at the same time. Exciting because lots of people are doing useful work on questions that human beings so far haven't been able to answer, and one of them is going to be our new colleague. Depressing because the number of people doing good work far outstrips the number of available jobs, and a lot of them will have to do something else instead.

Marco Rubio's inaccurate claim that welders make more money than philosophers was a big story this week. Many of my philosophy friends pointed out that philosophy majors have a median income of $85,000 by mid-career while the median wage for welders is $37,420. Of course, most of those philosophy majors are chasing the big money in the private sector rather than facing the grim academic job market that I've described. And that brings me to something else that was wrong with Rubio's remark.
The path to American prosperity in this century is unlikely to involve being the world's top welding country, or even the top country for welding education. Other countries' labor markets are set up to out-weld us. America still manufactures lots of stuff, but usually through highly automated processes that require ever-fewer humans and create ever-fewer jobs.

America could be the country with the world's best universities, where all the other nations pay to send their best young people. Steel manufacturing may be moving to China and India, but academia there still lags far behind the US. Knowing this, wealthy parents there will pay lots of money to get their kids US college degrees. Oxford and Cambridge used to play a similar role in the old British Empire as the prestigious place where the smartest kids in the colonies wanted to study, and America could easily step up and occupy much of that role. Even apart from tuition fees, the financial benefits of having the world's smart people connected up through your country's university system are diffuse but tremendous.

Philosophy investigates the answers to deeply puzzling questions. The country that hires the philosophers publishing the best research becomes the country where the best answers to these questions are. That's the kind of country whose university system one should regard highly.

With three of my excellent NUS philosophy colleagues:
Ben Blumson, Weng Hong Tang, and Loy Hui-Chieh
If America doesn't seize the benefits of having the world's best universities, other countries will get them. Singapore did that when it hired 5 philosophers in 2008. As the head of our hiring committee, I'm helping it do that now.

Rubio isn't a confused dad giving his kids dubious career advice. He's a US Senator, and perhaps the most likely Republican presidential nominee. He has influence over funding for humanities research in America, and may come to have much more. Whether America reaps the benefits of being the global leader in higher education, or whether it lets these benefits fall to other countries wise enough to seize them, is among the stakes in the 2016 Presidential election.