By Trevor Hedberg
Not long ago, there were some lively discussions on the Cocoon about the extent to which we should encourage philosophers to stay on the job market and the extent to which graduate programs can best prepare job candidates for the many years of applying for academic jobs that likely awaits them. I’m not going to rehash the central positions in these disputes or endorse one view over the others. Instead, I want to point out a worrying assumption in these discussions, one which I believe is also found in the profession at large.
The assumption might be put as follows: if you get a PhD in philosophy and do not get a tenured academic appointment, then you have failed. The profession often appears to operate as if the be-all, end-all of a philosophy PhD is securing tenure at an academic institution. Think about how many folks apply for academic jobs year after year without ever applying for a single non-academic position. Think about how few resources are provided to graduate students to facilitate their pursuit of non-academic jobs. Think about the general perception of those who choose not to pursue academic jobs: are these individuals typically regarded by their peers and departments as success stories? (My impression is that the answer is usually no, though I'd be happy to be wrong about this.)
Now one might counter by stating that this assumption is not that widely held in the profession, and in one sense, I agree: I suspect (and hope) that most do not hold it consciously. Instead, this belief usually manifests as an implicit aspect of how we judge others in the profession. Sometimes it reveals itself subtly in the language we use to describe the pursuit of a non-academic career. Think about the title of a post I mentioned earlier: “When should one give up? And what should we encourage?” Few phrases in the English language generate the connotation of failure more powerfully than “give up,” and many who choose to leave academia may well regard it as a failure of sorts. In fact, the portrayal of leaving academia as an act of “giving up” or “quitting” is fairly common:
- Mike Sturm, “Why I Chose to Give Up on Academia”
- Eric Anthony Grollman, “Giving Up on Academic Stardom”
- Karen Kelsky, “Thoughts on Throwing in the Towel”
- Patrick Iber, “Should I Just Quit Academia?”
- Sydni Dunn, “Why So Many Academics Quit and Tell”
- Louie Generis, “When to Quit Academia”
In a strict sense, these expressions are not incorrect, but they do not accurately reflect how these decisions should be perceived. The expression that one “gave up” on a task usually carries an implication that it is within the person’s power to complete the task and that completing the task would be a good thing (or at least preferable to not finishing it). These assumptions explain why claims like “She gave up on winning the lottery” or “He gave up on being a drug kingpin” are at best hollow truths, and they also provide the only context in which the adage “Never give up” can be a sensible rule. With these assumptions in place, it’s reasonable to portray instances of “giving up” as bad because they demonstrate a personal failure of some sort.
Analogous points can be made about "quitting." There's an assumption that quitting pertains to activities that one both can and should complete, and so quitting is seen as a personal failure. Why else would we feel so guilty at being called a "quitter" by our parents, teachers, coaches, and so on?
And here's where the problem arises: for many people it is not a poor choice to stop pursuing academic employment and does not reflect a personal failure. Why? Because the academic job market is so saturated with quality candidates that getting a tenure-track position is relevantly analogous to winning a lottery. Your odds are surely better than most conventional lotteries, and you can do some things to increase your individual odds a bit, but ultimately, as I’ve stressed before, there is no reliable formula for what to do to get an academic job. The problem is that the way we often portray decisions to leave academia does not reflect this fact and instead (often unintentionally) casts the person leaving in a negative light, encouraging us to attribute their departure to unsavory character traits, such as poor work ethic or bad decision-making, rather than tough circumstances or bad luck.
While it’s perfectly appropriate to discuss more concrete means of supporting graduate students who seek non-academic careers, an equally important task is to promote more positive attitudes toward non-academic career paths for philosophy PhDs. I can only speculate at how easy or difficult cultivating that outlook will be, though it was certainly a slow process in my own case. Only after several years of examining the job market statistics, reflecting on the relative scarcity of academic positions, and interacting with stellar philosophers in non-tenure-track positions did I manage to change my attitudes about those who ultimately leave academia. It is far easier, especially early in one's professional career, to believe that those who cannot find academic employment are "not good enough" instead of acknowledging that the same thing could happen to you, no matter how skilled you might be. In any case, I think an appropriate starting point for shifting our attitudes is altering how we portray those who seek employment beyond the classroom. Many move on from academia, but very few truly “give up” on it.