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Defending Bioethics in the Job Market

By Keisha Ray, PhD

I am a junior scholar who is currently on the job market, hoping to secure a faculty position as a bioethicist. I have been consumed by this task for over a year now. I have done phone interviews, video-chat interviews riddled with technological hiccups, and grueling and exhausting on-campus interviews. I have worked and reworked my curriculum vitae and cover letters, I have paid a lot of money to send my 150-page dossier to hundreds of schools, and I have spent a lot of money on traveling to universities for on-campus interviews. Furthermore, the hours spent on completing these tasks and not working on my own research is something that I willfully choose not to think about. In other words, I’ve done what my mentors have told me to do is necessary to get a job in a very, very competitive market. I’ve done what I am supposed to do.

This may sound like a long list of complaints, but it is not. My graduate training included a realistic view of the job market and my mentors prepared me for what would be required of me to possibly attain a tenure-track faculty or research position. I was made aware that I could possibly do a lot of work and devote a lot of time to the pursuit of a tenure-track job and still not receive a desired position. I am willing to take that risk because I cannot imagine not studying bioethics. It is what I love to do. So although my graduate program prepared me for the amount of effort it takes to possibly land a position in bioethics, I was not prepared for a part of the job process that I have encountered quite frequently and in varying degrees of aggressiveness—the need to defend the value of an education.

I have interviewed for faculty positions in philosophy departments at schools that have bioethicists on staff and philosophy departments that currently do not have a bioethicist on staff, but are looking to hire one. During the interview process in both instances, I have experienced the expected: Troublesome resistance from philosophers who do not see the value of bioethics and the value of students receiving a bioethics education. I have experienced the implication that bioethics is not philosophy or the very direct “well, your work is not really philosophy.” My graduate program did not have to formally prepare me for this outlook on any area under the umbrella of applied ethics because I experienced it first-hand. I have personally seen the blank stares and squinted eyes from graduate students when I told them that I am studying bioethics. I have experienced the discouragement from professors who tried to get me to pick a different course of study out of an interest for my academic well-being. Some of this discouragement even came in the form of the direct and frank phrase of “Why would you want to study bioethics? That’s not philosophy. Why don’t you pick a real philosophical specialization?”

Based on these experiences and many others like them, I am well aware that many philosophers do not share my same passion for bioethics or even see it as a part of the philosophy club. So when interviewers who are questioning me for positions in a philosophy department express this sentiment, I am prepared. From these experiences I have developed a pre-packaged answer to people who devalue bioethics. It goes something like the following (said with the most bright-eyed optimism that you can imagine):

“As a branch of applied ethics, bioethics is the application of reasoning and critical thinking skills, ethical thought, and argumentative skills to aspects of life that are essential to who we are as individuals and to who we are as communities. Everyone at some point in his or her life has or will experience the topics that a good bioethics education makes us think, reason, and argue about. Bioethics is inescapable—it forces us to confront questions about what is the good life. And for those students who choose not to pursue a career in medicine or bioethics, the skills learned in a bioethics course are applicable to any career choice or to many of the circumstances that we find ourselves in during life’s obstacles.”

Most of the time my delivery of this description of bioethics wins people over, or at least it seems to win them over. Who knows what committees discuss when the phone hangs up or when you board the airplane to go back home. However, there are instances when this description has failed me and that’s when I am faced with unexpected resistance from hiring committees at some medical schools, deeming bioethics “philosophical jargon.” To be fair, some members of hiring committees see the value of bioethics or I would not be in the room. But at some point in the interview a very apparent dividing line appears that separates myself and the interviewers-that-value-bioethics from their colleagues that think it is a waste of time for their medical students to study “philosophical jargon.” But I am the interviewee, so it is my job to convince the disbelievers in the room and not their colleagues.

In this setting I do struggle to give a satisfactory response. I have grown accustomed to the resistance of non-bioethics philosophers, but I naively assumed the value of bioethics was obvious to everyone in a medical school or at the very least, everyone interviewing me for a position. I naively thought that this sentiment was something that pioneers in bioethics had already overcome and eliminated from the profession. But in my experiences it is not. I truly hope that this is an individual experience, one that is unique to my interviews. In the case that it is not unique to me, being made aware of the possibility of facing these sentiments about the profession is important to job market preparations.

If these experiences are unique to me then one explanation for them is that I just found myself the middleman in an interdepartmental struggle. The eye rolls and frequent shifting of bodies in seats that signal discomfort, and likely annoyance by half of the interviewers in the room, while the other half ask me to defend my profession, is evidence of this possibility. Perhaps it is an issue of conflicting views concerning the evolution of medical school curriculum: A conflict between some faculty members who want the curriculum to include bioethics and/or medical humanities education, and some faculty members who believe bioethics and/or medical humanities education is not a necessary part of medical school. Maybe they believe it is not necessary because a bioethics education includes topics that students can learn on the job. Perhaps the issue is the same issue that ethics as a discipline once faced: We already know right from wrong, we learned it in grade school or from our grandmothers. This is of course all speculation; however, these are strong possible explanations for my experiences given the nature of some interviewers’ questions that require less of meaningful response and more of a Socratic defense of bioethics.

Just as I still struggle with providing a meaningful response to questions about the value of a bioethics education, I wrestle with who ought to be the agents of change in these kinds of circumstances. Is it junior scholars who find themselves in faculty interviews or is it the faculty that already hold these positions? Perhaps it is a team effort. If so, then the starting team must be prepared for all aspects of finding a job in bioethics, including the ability to defend the existence of our team. At the very least, adequate preparations for getting a job in bioethics has to include an evaluation of the way that we study, talk, and teach bioethics so that we can be sure that bioethics’ existence is constantly evolving.

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