Purdue primes alumna’s giant leap from graduate student to philosophy professor
This article has been updated to reflect a new position that Davidson notified us of after the story was posted.
When Lacey J. Davidson (PhD ’19) started graduate school in philosophy at Purdue University, she hoped she would go into academia. “What else are you going to do?” Davidson quipped, referring to the common misperception that job prospects for philosophy graduates are narrow at best.
But, there was a time when she might have doubted the prospects. “When I arrived, I adjusted my expectations. I became much more open to doing a variety of things, partially because the job market is so horribly tight in philosophy and because I learned that the philosophical skill set is widely applicable,” she said.
But, thanks to opportunities she had at Purdue and her own engagement with her colleagues, department, university, and community, Davidson had more than one offer for a faculty position and ultimately settled into a tenure-track position as Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Indianapolis. Her areas of specialization are philosophy of race and social epistemology.
She credits her Purdue graduate experience for helping her beat the odds to make a successful transition from graduate school to a career in academia. She also credits the job placement program in Purdue’s Department of Philosophy for helping not only her, but all Purdue PhD philosophy graduate students to secure academic appointments. The program includes a placement director who coaches students through the job application process. Most Purdue philosophy PhD graduates secure a continuing tenure-track job within three years of graduating.
Here, in her own words, Davidson speaks about meaningful professional development experiences she had while in graduate school and the support she received while at Purdue.
Lacey Davidson (PhD ’19) credits the professional development experiences and support she had at Purdue with helping her to successfully prepare for and transition into a tenure-tenure track philosophy faculty position in a tight job market.
How did your Purdue mentors support you and prepare you for a career in academia?
I had two fantastic mentors and advisors in the Philosophy Department, Leonard Harris and Dan Kelly [both are professors in the Department of Philosophy at Purdue]. They were extremely supportive through my whole time at Purdue, but especially in that transition when you are done with coursework and you are transitioning into your preliminary exams and into the dissertation stage, trying to figure out what you want to do, what you want to write on.
One way they were supportive is helping me learn what the practice of philosophy looks like in a professional sense. What the discipline is, how it does things. One of the main ways it functions is through going to conferences, engaging with people at conferences, writing papers, submitting papers, getting papers published, and engaging with other people through that process. As somebody who did not come from a family with a lot of graduate education experience, I definitely didn’t know that before I got there. That process of learning from them, getting advice, getting feedback on drafts, on paper ideas, on conference submissions, and just getting encouragement was so valuable to me.
When I think about the experiences I had at Purdue in comparison to some of my colleagues and PhD students at other universities, a big difference was in the amount of contact that we were able to have with our mentors and our advisors. If you go to the Purdue Philosophy Department, all the faculty are there. Their doors are open. They are working. They are writing. They are meeting with students. The student-centered nature in our department—you just don’t get at every place. The amount of energy, time, and care that our faculty put into graduate student success is something that I value not just because I went to Purdue, but because I don’t think that this support is present everywhere.
You had some unique event organization and leadership experiences while at Purdue. Did those experiences help you stand out as a candidate for faculty positions?
I had the opportunity to host a speaker series at Purdue, the Purdue Lectures in Ethics, Policy, and Science. It was really interesting in terms of how the funding for that series worked. The grad student who hosted that series worked with people all across the university to get little bits of money for the series. That was such a great way to get funding because you meet people from all across the university. You get to hear what it is they are interested in, and it made for a truly interdisciplinary ethics-based lecture series. I coordinated that for two years.
Also, along with other graduate students, I hosted the Inclusive Philosophy Conference, which was a graduate conference hosted by Purdue. Students from all over the United States came to present at it. We got funding for that in a very similar way, by asking different departments to give us a little bit of money.
Lots of grad students don’t have the experience of organizing big events. Being able to talk about how to work across a university to plan a successful event or series of events is unique as a job candidate. Those are the kinds of things that you can make happen at Purdue. Obviously, Purdue is a huge university, but in some ways it has a small town vibe. It allows you to build relationships and get to know people. The excitement for different ways of doing things is there, and you can leverage that to do things you want to do. My department was extremely supportive of me doing what I wanted to do.
Having publications is an asset when it comes to being competitive for faculty positions. How were you able to get published as a graduate student?
The pressure to publish is coming at us at an earlier and earlier age in graduate school careers. It used to be you might graduate from Purdue or anywhere with no publications as a grad student. Now you are going to be much more competitive on the job market if you have one, two, three, however many you can have.
There were various workshops that were helpful to me at Purdue. One in particular was about the publishing process. How you go from a term paper, for example, that you wrote for a class to trying to get that published in a philosophy journal.
You publish either alone or with just one other person in philosophy. It is different from other disciplines in that in a lab maybe everybody who worked on a project would be an author on a paper and that’s just not how the disciplinary norms are in philosophy. To have something published, it can feel like you’re alone in it. But, there was a lot of support at Purdue around getting published.
Was there a competitive vibe in Purdue’s Department of Philosophy?
I would say that for the most part it is non-competitive. We were interested in supporting each other and helping everybody in our department to succeed. It’s not about one person being the shining star.
It’s very supportive and everybody is looking out for each other and part of that is because of some of the structures in place.
When I first arrived, there was a Women in Philosophy program. Faculty and graduate students would get together in a social way. In Philosophy, that’s super important because there are not that many women. To be able to have that support from other women was important. Also, while I was there, some graduate students started a chapter for Minorities in Philosophy. It’s for people who have been historically excluded from philosophy. So, people of color, women, people who have disabilities, anybody who had been historically excluded from philosophy.
So, I enjoyed the grad student support piece as well as the support to do that from the department. They were excited that we were getting together and analyzing some of the barriers to participation in philosophy that people faced because of their identities.
Did you receive any other types of support along the way?
I received funding from the College of Liberal Arts and my department for travel. I think that is fairly rare. Having access to that as a graduate student changes the game completely. I went to so many conferences in comparison to a lot of people who were my age or in the same point as me in other programs. I can’t overstate how much it matters to have financial support for travel for research. I also received the Bilsland Dissertation Fellowship for my last year, and that completely changes everything as well. You don’t have to teach. I could just focus on my research. I’m very, very thankful for that.
How did you engage with the Greater Lafayette community while you were a student at Purdue?
In early 2016, several of us from the community founded the Younger Women’s Task Force of Greater Lafayette. YWTF continues to be a successful organizing group in the Greater Lafayette area. It’s an antiracist feminist member-led organizing group working to make the conditions of our lives better.
I think that community work is a part of mental health. It’s a part of feeling like you have a place in the world, doing something that matters. My philosophical work and my community/organizing work go hand-in-hand. I can’t work out my philosophical theories without seeing what it looks like in action.
People say that philosophy is this abstract thing. To me, I think that everyday people do philosophy all the time. People are thinking all the time about the issues that matter the most to them. What are they going to do? What should they do? What are their obligations? These are all philosophical questions.
Learn more about Lacey Davidson and her research
June 21, 2021