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Derek Bowman

As I've expressed before, I don't think the problem is with "giving-up," it is with specifying its object.

If you try to secure permanent or semi-permanent academic employment and, after one or more years without success, you stop trying, then you have definitely "given up" on trying to secure academic employment.

But you need not thereby "give up" on philosophy, or education, or the life of the mind, or whatever it is you went into philosophy education for.

I also think it's important to distinguish two very different ways of promoting "more positive attitudes toward non-academic career paths for philosophy PhDs." The first is to promote the idea that those who succeed at such paths have indeed succeeded at something worthwhile. Indeed, a philosophy PhD gainfully employed in another industry is doing better for themselves, and for the academic profession of philosophy, than someone who is barely getting by as an adjunct instructor or underpaid lecturer. (I say this as someone who has been, and may yet in the future be, such an underpaid adjunct).

But the other ways of promoting the value of non-academic careers for PhDs is more dangerous; it's the kind of wishful thinking that, as long as we just open our mind to new careers we don't have to worry about the overproduction of PhDs as compared to available academic jobs. Without well-established pathways for such careers, this is a recipe for offering individual successes as fuel for wishful thinking about systemic problems.

(NB: Giving up on "winning the lottery" sounds weird because winning/non-winning isn't something you can effectively decide to do. But giving up on "trying to win the lottery" - or giving up on "playing the lottery" is a quite sensible thing for lottery players to do).

Scott Clifton

With me it's just the opposite: when I hear that someone previously on the market for several years has found a non-ac job, I ENVY them. I wonder whether they can help me do the same thing. In some sense continuing to play the lottery, when the odds are so stacked against you, is what is more likely to create a negative bias against which one would have to struggle. As they say, if you've determined that you're in a hole that is going nowhere you want to be, stop digging. It's the ones who stop digging at the appropriate place that I admire. The difficult question, of course, is at which point should you stop digging.

Trevor Hedberg

Hi, Derek. I don't think I disagree with anything you've said. My point is simply that we often talk about leaving academia as if it isn't a worthy path (even if that isn't always intended). My concern is more about the connotation of the phrase "giving up" than its literal meaning.

Scott, I imagine a lot of folks share your perspective and wish there were more concrete paths to non-academic employment following a philosophy PhD. But I've also met some folks who clearly viewed their leaving academia as evidence of some personal shortcoming -- even after they started to flourish in their non-academic careers. We can still definitely make improvements in getting people to think it's "okay" for them to pursue careers outside the academy.


1. The majority of people who obtains PhDs in philosophy intend upon careers in academia. Such careers count as "success" for such people. Thus, being unable to achieve their chosen end does constitute a failure. Failure is simply lack of success. That said, we should distinguish between culpable failure and non-culpable failure. In most cases, the failure to obtain a tenure track position in academic philosophy is certainly not a culpable failure. Most of the people who apply for such jobs have the talent, education, skill, drive, and desire to flourish in the job, they simply don't get the chance. Their failure is non-culpable, but it is nonetheless a failure.

2. There are no non-academic career paths for philosophy PhDs. A path, to elaborate on the metaphor, is a known and standardized route to a given destination. No such thing exists in this case. There is no known or standardized route from academic philosophy into industry. There is no occupation, other research and teaching, for which the degree is seen as an adequate credential. In many cases, in the United States at least, it can even work against the applicant to have an advanced degree in philosophy (given the poor public image of the profession and the entrenched anti-intellectualism of American society). There are non-academic career *possibilities* for philosophy PhDs. But the best of these often require further education, Ivy League pedigree, personal/familial connections in industry, or very specific undergraduate backgrounds. In many cases (such as my own), the possibilities outside academia are as grim as they are inside, or worse.

Stacey Goguen

I think you've put your fingers on something important by talking about the implicit associations that go along with talking about failure.

For instance, the word "failure" often has the association of what gradjunct refers to with "culpable failure". This is also tied up with our associations regarding moral luck, Fate, and what it means to " succeed" at life.

Trevor Hedberg

gradjunct, I agree that if we're just concerned about dictionary definitions, you can consider failure a simple lack of success. But the way it's used in most contexts is, as Stacey mentions, the culpable type of failure. Referring to a person as a "failure" or to something they did as a "failure" is typically meant to be an insult, which is why we should try to avoid that label when we talk about leaving academia.

I was not thinking of path as limited to "standardized route" when I used the term in the original posts, but I agree that there aren't any career paths that are widely applicable to philosophy PhDs: what opportunities one should pursue will be highly dependent on individual background, personal interests, and a host of other factors. Even so, if one is smart enough to earn a philosophy PhD, then I suspect the person is capable to performing well in a wide array of jobs. (As someone put the point to me at the APA recently, "Your undergrad students are the ones who get most non-academic jobs, and what employer in his right mind would choose one of your undergrad students over you?") I suspect the bigger problem is a lack of knowledge regarding how to market one's skills and where to find jobs that one would be a good fit for. There aren't a ton of resources for facilitating the transition from academia to non-academic employment, but http://thescholarpreneur.com/ and https://versatilephd.com/ are a couple examples.


Trevor, I can only speak for myself, but being a philosophy PhD, I don't take having earned philosophy PhD to be a sign of intelligence at all. At best it is a indicative of dogged determination, and willingness to work at an obscure and difficult task for a long time. Many philosophers, myself included, are not interested in or skilled at with "quant" work, and rely more heavily on linguistic and rhetorical abilities than pure logical/mathematical ability. This undercuts your claim a PhD in philosophy is, generally, indicative of the capability to "perform well in a wide array of jobs." Perhaps if a philosopher has quant skills/background this will be true, but not all of us have those skills, or that background.

And, it is not difficult to fathom why a an employer might prefer to hire philosophy undergrads rather than philosophy PhDs. Undergrads are younger/more energetic/more adaptable, they are less set in their ways than more established academics, their salary expectations/requirements are less costly, as are the costs of their healthcare coverage in general, and they are probably more accepting of mentoring and corporate culture (and thus less likely to be flight risks).

Trevor Hedberg

gradjunct, I'd say the demonstration of intelligence comes in large part via the fact that one was able to get into a doctoral program in philosophy in the first place. I have not met a single PhD student in philosophy that was not markedly smarter than the typical undergraduate. You may be right that the actual process of attaining the PhD manifests determination more than anything else, but it also demonstrates an intellectual curiosity and an ability to learn a specialized field, both of which are skills employers would value.

Anyone can learn how to program with C++, how to use Statistical Analysis Software, how to design a website, etc., with relatively little formal training, provided that one is properly motivated and a good independent learner. (Statistics-based work nowadays is about the use of the appropriate software; you don't have to make calculations by hand or have an intricate conceptual grasp of the relevant formulas that the software uses, so I don't think a lack of mathematical acumen is a significant obstacle in that particular case.) I'm not diminishing formal instruction here, but with the wealth of online resources freely available, acquiring the basic skills no longer requires an additional degree. The real challenge, I think, is presenting oneself as having the appropriate motivation and disposition toward the job that one is applying for, such that one would actually be willing to undertake a little training -- potentially being taught by someone younger -- to make up for their relative lack of experience. (You allude to this when you note that many academics may be less enthusiastic about non-academic work and less adaptable than undergraduates.) Even so, those are obstacles that I'd consider surmountable, especially compared to the obstacles one must overcome in the hunt for a tenure-track academic position. If you really don't think that's true, then I fear that this may boil down to a fundamental disagreement about the breadth and marketability of the skills that philosophy PhDs possess.

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