Jeff Dean -- Academic Publishing

Executive Editor for Physical Sciences and Technology, Harvard University Press

At what stage of your academic career did you start thinking about seeking work outside of philosophy? Describe the overlap between your academic and nonacademic careers, if any.

I was ABD at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, living out of state in Northampton, MA with my girlfriend. I was working on my dissertation, and to help make ends meet during that time I took a job with Blackwell Publishing (while also working part time in a medical records department—actually pretty interesting in its own right, but that didn’t lead to a career change).

My job was to contact philosophy professors about examination copies of books that might be appropriate for courses they were teaching, and to later follow up with them to get a sense of their impressions of the material: what did they make of the book, would they adopt it for their course, if so why, if not why not, etc. Yes, I was one of those sometimes annoying people who would call on the phone about this stuff, but at least I actually knew the material well. During this time I got to know the person who would later hire me full-time at Blackwell, and at one point he indicated they were looking to hire a philosophy editor, someone to find and work with authors to bring books under contract and to manage the publishing process for books on the philosophy list. He wondered if I might be interested in applying for the job, and that was the first time I’d thought of doing something other than getting a job as a philosophy professor.

When did you actually leave? What was your thinking, or what were your reasons?

I decided to apply for the job at Blackwell, and ultimately wound up accepting the position. A big part of the decision had to do with being able to live in the Boston area. I’d been offered a one year position with the possibility of renewal at a good university in the southeast, and I had what seemed to me to be a reasonably good chance of being offered a tenure track position at a less attractive school and location in the mid-south. The one year position was tempting, but my girlfriend (and then fiancée) was a choreographer, and having a dance company would be difficult if not impossible outside of a major urban area. She already had a cadre of dancers she worked with around Boston. Moreover, the editorial job sounded interesting, so I took the publishing position and we moved to just outside of Boston. I was working on a couple of papers, and figured that if I didn’t like publishing, I’d go back on the market the following year with a couple more publications under my belt. I did get the papers published, but decided I really liked publishing, and also like living around Boston.

Tell me more about your work at Blackwell.

I’m an “editor,” but not in the sense of a copy editor; in many ways my job is more like that of an agent than what most people think of when they hear the word “editor.” My main job at Blackwell was to find authors who were either working on a book project we might be interested in publishing, or—and this is what I did the majority of the time—look into and plan various books we wanted to publish, books that would either fit within existing series, become members of new series I planned, or stand on their own as books appropriate for the philosophy list at Blackwell. These consisted mainly of books for courses (e.g., anthologies, introductions, guides, more advanced overviews) and reference works (e.g., companions, dictionaries, encyclopedias), but also included some research monographs and, later, trade books for a more popular audience. In support of this work I attended philosophy conferences and visited campuses where I met with potential and existing authors. I also evaluated proposals and manuscripts (with the invaluable help of outside reviewers, i.e., other philosophers) and helped authors develop their ideas (again, often with the help of outside reviewers). Closer to publication of the book I helped authors through the publishing process, though after the final manuscript was submitted this was primarily carried out by colleagues in production, sales, and marketing.

In many cases I developed working relationships and friendships with authors that lasted for years, and across multiple books. This, along with travel to some wonderful conference locations, was the best part of the job. I particularly liked meeting current or potential authors in person, getting to know people, discussing and developing ideas, doing whatever I could to help make projects viable and ultimately successful. Socrates famously compares the work of the philosopher to that of a midwife, and I think the comparison is apt for the work of an acquisitions editor as well. At its best, the work involves sharing and developing ideas with interesting, committed people looking to engage others in philosophy through books. When effective, books can touch and sometime alter the lives of hundreds or even thousands of people, and there’s something satisfying about having a tangible object in the outcome—something I used to also feel when I worked on construction crews building houses as a teenager.

Not everything about the work was enjoyable. At its worst, it included certain fairly rote elements, things that had to be done with various internal data management systems, and the sheer volume of email eventually started bogging me down. This was simply the result of being responsible for a very big list of books and authors, not to mention all that had been in place prior to my arrival and which I inherited. But the good far outweighed the bad, and overall I found the work interesting and worthwhile.

What do you do now, and what's interesting about it?

I worked for Blackwell, which eventually became Wiley-Blackwell, for 14 years. I left for a more senior position where I was responsible for the editorial group at Focal Press, an imprint of Taylor & Francis focused on professional and practical books on the creative use of technologies in film, photography, animation, gaming, theater, audio engineering, and web design. I’d long been interested in film and photography (part of my graduate work focused on aesthetics and philosophy of film), and I was eager to lead an editorial team. It was a great job, and I had the privilege of working with an outstanding team of publishers and authors. But, as sometimes happens in the private sector, restructuring of the business moved the center of activity to New York City. I didn’t want to relocate and in September of 2015 an opportunity arose to join Harvard University Press, and I’m now back to working directly with authors again. I liked the management work at Focal Press, having also been responsible for managing a number of people at Wiley-Blackwell, but working directly with authors is my favorite aspect of publishing. I’ve shifted subject areas and now work on books in the physical sciences, engineering, and technology. As with film and photography, these areas have always held personal interest to me, but I’ve not worked on them in a professional capacity until now. It’s a challenge getting up to sufficient speed in a wide range of new areas and developing a new network of authors and contacts, but immensely enjoyable and rewarding. I’m also engaged with some work in history, philosophy, and the social sciences as these intersect with the sciences and technology, so some of what I do now is familiar from my previous work.

How did you figure out what work projects you wanted to take on outside of academia? By extension, what advice would you offer to philosophers who want to leave philosophy, but who haven’t figured out what work they would pursue in its place?

I fell into publishing somewhat by accident, as indicated above. The prospect was appealing because it meant that I could work across a broad range of subject areas, allowing me to learn a great deal in the process. It is not the same as immersing oneself in a relatively small subset of areas in a specific discipline, which is more typical for academic work, but it suits my personality: I am better at improving ideas than generating them, and I’m curious about almost everything.

Although I did ultimately decide to leave academic philosophy, it was because I had an alternative opportunity that seemed attractive. I didn’t leave because I felt I “had to get out” due to some personal rupture with the discipline, or because I got frustrated with trying for years and not meeting with the kind of success I’d hoped for, though of course that might have eventually happened if I’d stuck around long enough. I still like philosophy and philosophers, and of course publishing philosophy books kept me very much in the mix. As for advice, I’d say to look to other domains where ideas matter. It may not be the same as doing philosophy, but engaging with others to figure things out can be really rewarding, especially when engaging with complexities that have an impact on the way people live their lives.

How would someone in philosophy get started in academic publishing? What positions/job titles would be good points of entry for a philosopher, and might part-time or volunteer experience be necessary to land full-time work? What does the contraction of the publishing world mean for job prospects in the field?

With respect to publishing specifically, I’d say that it’s important to be willing to start wherever there’s an opportunity. This may mean starting in a fairly junior position, or starting in an area you don’t necessarily expect to wind up in (e.g., you may imagine working in editorial, but such positions aren’t always available, and it may be worth considering a position in production, marketing, or sales—you may find you like the work, but if not you may then be in a better position to then move over to editorial). Entry-level editorial positions include either Assistant Editor or Editorial Assistant; the terminology isn’t consistent, so these can either be different names for the same job, or can be somewhat different jobs. If you have an advanced degree, you may be able to land an Associate Editor position. The competition for jobs in publishing is tough, but not as tough as it is for most academic posts. I would recommend being willing to do part-time or contract work, and even intern work; the most difficult element is getting your foot in the door. The world of publishing is complex, so while some parts of the industry are contracting, other parts are expanding, and in fact a number of well-known publishers—both commercial and non-profit—have recently had their best years ever. That said, there’s no doubt that it’s a shifting landscape. Change and consolidation are constants, but this can create opportunities as well as challenges.

More generally, what advice do you have for philosophers who, by chance or by necessity, are considering leaving philosophy?

Think carefully about the manner in which your skills as a philosopher are transferrable, both in general terms (philosophy is an interesting and fairly distinctive mix of imagination and rigor), and in terms of your specializations. Strong skills with formal logic are highly valued in any number of domains, and with a bit of finesse, various other areas of philosophy can lend themselves naturally to contexts outside of academia. In my own case, the fact that I had broad interests and a varied background in coursework was an advantage, in that I knew something about a wide range of areas. In any case, it’s crucial not to assume employers outside of philosophy will either know anything about what philosophy is like, or make any special effort to understand it; they may not be in a good position to judge the value of your experience, so you may have to spell things out, making explicit connections between your skill sets and what the employer is looking for. Look carefully at the job requirements, and “translate” the manner in which your skill set meets these requirements. Analytical skills, problem solving, creativity, research experience, adaptability, attention to detail, communication skills, presentation skills…all of these and more show up in a wide variety of job descriptions and a good cover letter or interview can convey how training in philosophy has prepared you to meet these requirements. A cover letter can indicate as much cleanly and concisely; an interview setting may allow for more detail.

In addition to being aware of what the job requires and how your background in philosophy may contribute, be aware of what the job does not require. Overselling experience and abilities, especially academic experience in a non-academic context, can be a liability. Rather than coming across as smart and accomplished, overplaying the academic hand can seem out of touch with the reality of what the employer is seeking.

What's your perspective on academia today? Is there anything you miss about academia that can’t be replicated at your current job? What does your career offer that wasn't available to you as a philosopher?

I get the impression that academia is not as attractive as it used to be, not just because it’s hard to land a tenure-track position (or any position), but because academia has become more burdened by institutional developments borrowed, largely inappropriately, from private sector business concerns. Still, I agree with the often-emphasized idea that education and research are crucially important for the well-being of liberal democracies, and that being dedicated to developing both students and ideas is one of the most worthwhile endeavors there is. Although academia is undergoing significant change, the world of work outside of academia changes much more quickly and dramatically; changing jobs and even careers, either by choice or necessity, is more common. For some this is exciting and interesting—even if unsettling—but for others it can be alienating. That said, I’ve been fortunate to have a fair amount of stability through most of my career, while more recently being able to take advantage of interesting opportunities as they arose.

I do miss the day-to-day interaction with colleagues and students, the constant jostling of ideas for their own sake, and a more open-ended sense of discovery and development. College and university campuses are extremely appealing places, not just because of the physical beauty exhibited by some of them, but because of the strong sense of community many engender. That said, I get quite a lot of that in my current position, other than time with students, which I really do miss. I have been fortunate enough to live in a wonderful location by choice, and with sufficient means and stability to have a family. From a strictly practical perspective, the skill set I’ve developed has become more transparently transferrable, something useful in a world of constant flux, and I can now demonstrate capabilities and successful experience with management, budgets, contracts, negotiation, client relations, market analysis, business development, and so on. These skills are basic to many jobs well beyond publishing. It can also be rewarding to be engaged in endeavors that have more immediate and tangible results than is typical in philosophy, though the value in this tends to be bound up with what is being produced. In any case, my colleagues are interesting, I am still involved with academia even if at more arm’s length, and I love engaging with authors and helping them develop their work from a publishing perspective.

There is certainly life outside of academia, well beyond some sort of consolation prize. Philosophy can be wonderful, but a full-time career in the profession isn’t on the cards for everyone, and I expect some would be happier pursuing other options. For those who can’t see doing anything else, that may be a sign that you ought to stick with philosophy through thick and thin—or it may be that there’s more to the world outside of philosophy than you imagine.

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Jeff's Background

Ph.D. in Philosophy
University of Wisconsin-Madison (1999)