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Job Applicants: A Reverse Cover Letter

Current job openings:

The academic job market is almost always a trash fire. Today—and this was first written in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic—the job market is extra lousy. I can’t change that alone, but one of the reasons I apply for grants is to create lines, to hire people, and give them space to excel. With that in mind, I’ve written this “reverse cover letter” to explain to interested applicants why you should do me the service of applying for a position with my small but growing research groups. Everyone has limited time and resources, and I want you to be sure before you put the work in that I’m the right fit for you.


0) What do you pay?

Good, this is the most important question—for better or worse.

It depends on the project, but I tend to pay in the realm of $53,000-$55,000 per year. This is consistent with the National Institutes for Health postdoc salary for a scholar 2 years out from their PhD. Even if funded by agencies that pay less (i.e. the National Science Foundation), my university typically makes me pay more, because we are unionized.

This is for a 0/0 load. Interested postdocs can elect to teach for experience and money. My department chair typically authorizes a 2/1 load. The current adjunct collective bargaining agreement (see—unionized!) is $5,192.45 for a three credit hour course, as of September 1st 2020. So if you elect to do this, you should expect to earn approximately $68,000-$70,000 per year, which is close to an Assistant Professor’s salaries at many other universities.

Our healthcare is good: as a staff member at UMass Lowell you are an employee of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. We access healthcare through the Massachusetts Group Insurance Commission. When I say it is not bad health insurance I say that as an Australian, which means that I’m judging it by the standards of someone who grew up with national health insurance—so by US standards it’s really good.

1) What kind of work will I be doing?

Unless otherwise specified, the postdoctoral lines I stand up follow a similar pattern. Roughly 60% of your time will be spent on the project to which the associate’s position (that’s what we call them at UMass Lowell because of the way bargaining agreements work—see below) is assigned. This will depend on the project. For Summer 2021, I am hiring someone to work with myself and Dr. Neil Shortland on our Department of Defense funded research on the ethics of performance enhancement in the military. Part of this is conceptual work done in collaboration with Professors Jonathan Moreno and Michael Gross. The other part is empirical in nature—and even if you’re a philosopher by training, you’ll be given the tools and expected to assist with the qualitative research we are going. You’ll also take on administrative parts of the project including workshop organization, reporting to our funders, and to the UMass Lowell research office, IRB, and college administration.

The remaining 40% is what I term “protected research time.” That means you’ll do your own work according to the kind of research you want to market in future jobs. Maybe it’s turning your dissertation into papers; maybe it’s trying to get a book contract; maybe it’s starting an archival project. You will be expected to produce and I will help you with that as you need. But the core aim of my postdocs is for you to leave to a better position than this one. This will ideally be a tenure-track line or its equivalent depending on where in the world you end up; or, if another temporary position, somewhere you will both enjoy and will get you closer to job security. My most recent postdoc, Dr. Pamela Robinson, is now working with Prof. Seth Lazar at the Australian National University, which is absolutely the kind of step I’m looking for.

2) What kind of training can I expect to receive?

My primary area of research—at least, the one that goes on my CV—is applied ethics. If you don’t have experience with this (see below), that’ll be part of your training. My experience with philosophers getting into that world is that combining the tools of our shared training with the long histories, social science, and even quantitative research that underpins some of our applied claims is something that does need training, and I’m fairly good at it.

The larger kind of training you should expect, and I expect to provide you, are in grantsmanship, structuring a research program, and getting a job. The academic world should be different, but it is not, and it is not my mission to change it at the expense of my postdocs. The coins of the realm in academia today, even in philosophy, are

  • Publications
  • Money

This is a cover letter, so I’m permitted some moderate bragging: as a philosopher, I have a pretty stellar grant record. I win more than I lose, and I’ve brought my current university a touch over $2 million in funding since starting here in 2016. I can’t guarantee that for you, and you may not be ultimately interested. But I will teach you the skills, and I can guarantee that on the job market, chairs, deans and provosts will all look kindly at the prospect of you writing your own grants, or being recruited by others at your institution to submit them. I’ll also send you to funders to meet the people who write the checks, so you can get to know them.

Other than that, training differs by project. Some projects are empirical—and within that, qualitative or quantitative—others are solely conceptual. Some have big workshops attached, others it’s just us working together.

3) What if my area of specialization (AOS) isn’t applied ethics?

That’s fine! I can do applied ethics, I don’t need you to do it immediately. I’d rather pick postdocs based on their capacity for success in their discipline, their record of good work, fit with the project, and enthusiasm for working with me.

This means that I will hire most people with a background in philosophy. I’ll also hire people in science, technology, and society (STS), the medical humanities, security studies, political science, international relations, and so on. The caveats here are more about if you think I’m a good fit and aren’t a philosopher.

If you have no interest in doing applied ethics work I obviously won’t hire you. But if you are, and you’re willing to learn, we’ll get along just fine. I have a longstanding belief that applied ethics work is short-changed by a lack of interaction with other fields, and with other areas in philosophy. I’m particularly interested on that latter front with working with philosophers of science, epistemologists, political philosophers, and metaethicists.

4) So what do you look for in postdocs then?

I am looking for an early career (i.e. recently graduated with their PhD or who has never held a tenure track appointment) with capacity for success in their discipline, record of good work, fit with the project, and enthusiasm for working in my group. But note that these are fungible, and flexible:

  • Capacity for success doesn’t mean I’m looking for a safe bet—the world doesn’t necessarily need more of those;
  • Record of good work is important, but it’s often a combination of your CV and a writing sample, plus whatever of yours I source from your publication record. Quantity isn’t necessarily quality, however, and publications aren’t always our best work, so send something you’re proud of;
  • Fit with the project is really important because I have funders to answer to, and I won’t lie and tell you that the prospect of more money (and thus more postdocs) is important. But it isn’t everything, and like capacity for success I will take risks;
  • Enthusiasm for working with me and my colleagues is important because no one wants to work for two or more years with someone they can’t get along with. But it’s also not the decisive factor—the job market is rough and I know most applicants are also just trying to get a job. For me, “I want this job because I like eating” is a praiseworthy response, because it is honest.

5) I’ve never heard of UMass Lowell.

No, of course you haven’t, because Amherst doesn’t like to share the spotlight 😉

UMass Lowell is primarily a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) school, and while we have an excellent philosophy department we are currently an undergraduate-only department with around a dozen majors and an absolute ton of service teaching. I was hired to teach engineering ethics: we teach this to about 320 engineering majors a semester, plus an interminable number of intro courses to everyone from nurses to computer scientists. Our university has a “social responsibility and ethics” requirement, so almost undergraduate student will take one of our courses.

So what’s going for you here? We’re close to Boston and Cambridge, and the vibrant scholarship those cities have. Boston Logan is 45 minutes away on a good day, and (when there isn’t a pandemic on) the rest of the country and the world.

More importantly, Lowell is the home of the American union movement, and our faculty is unionized. As a postdoc you would be part of the L3-Staff union. That guarantees you job security for your term, decent pay, good health benefits, and protects you as an employee—even from your boss, me. I’ve been union since I was 16 (with my brief sabbatical in the Ivy League) and am a fan of the idea that I’m your boss, but you have power over me.

6) I’m not an American – is that a problem?

Until October 2019, neither was I! And it is not—none of my projects require US citizenship. We have an international office that is very good, and I know the steps and people to ring to get the relevant documentation together for the right kind of visa.

7) How much travel is required for these positions?

There are three kinds of travel you might undertake. First is project related travel, e.g to conduct interviews, brief government, present at conferences.

Second is discretionary travel. Depending on the award to which the position is attached this is either sponsored by my funds directly, or explicitly through the grant. In either case this amounts to approximately $3000 USD a year in travel funding for you to attend conferences and do professional work as part of your protected research time.

Finally there is miscellaneous travel. For example, I might send you to Washington, DC to meet a program officer and learn the ropes about how a particular funding agency; there might be a meeting I want to attend that is neither project related nor part of your research agenda and will find funds to bring you along as part of your development.

Importantly, if you cannot travel for whatever reason, let me know and we can work things out. Reasons might include: caregiving responsibilities, illness, disability, or anything else. Travel is not for everyone and there are more than enough ways to make up this in the work we do together (including repurposing your discretionary funds, e.g. to fly people to you, for additional literature).

8) I have a disability/chronic illness/kids/aging parents/a sick spouse. I can’t work 100 hours a week. Are you one of those PIs?

Hell no. I’m an Australian who believes Sundays are for riding my bike, seeing my friends, and spending time with my spouse. I like the 9-5 and while I’m not always good at it, I’m getting better and healing from my early years drowning in US academia’s expectations. I also have a congenital illness and am very, very aware of what it is like to wake up and go “oh no, today isn’t going to work out.”

In general, I expect you to work 40 hours a week (inclusive of lunchtime—which you should take, and I should take more). This will probably not always be the same 40 hours week to week; some weeks may be more and some less. You may feel the need to work more, but I will never force you to do that. If you can’t work 40 hours a week for some reason, let me know. We can see if we can work something out.

If you can’t work the same 40 hours a week as me, or need to work around other commitments or needs you have, we can do that. This world is hard enough as it is, and needs not one more unkind PI. We work hard here, but we also take time for ourselves.