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I appreciate this. My own case has been borderline for a few years now. I honestly don't know whether I'd enjoy post-PhD professional philosophy enough to pursue it. Sometimes it seems obvious that I would, other times not. This is why I still work on my Plan B (or A2).

Trevor Hedberg

Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Marcus. I definitely agree that the positive aspects of graduate study in philosophy are too often overshadowed by the negative aspects of it when the question of whether to apply to graduate school is discussed. That said, I'm not sure the general advice you're putting forward would be helpful to undergraduates that are considering graduate school in philosophy. As I understand it, it's something like this: you should pursue philosophy if "it's who you are in your bones." Or in other words, you should pursue philosophy if it's something that you genuinely love to do and would not be satisfied doing something else. (Correct me if this is an inaccurate or incomplete interpretation.)

My worry is that undergraduate students are not likely to be able to assess whether they have this genuine love of philosophy. One's undergraduate education in philosophy does not provide an accurate picture of what graduate school or life as a professor will be like. Thus, I'm not sure students are positioned well enough (in an epistemic sense) to make a reliable judgment about this matter. I know of many humanities students who loved their field before entering graduate school by quickly grew to despise it and eventually abandoned pursuit of their graduate degrees. Love of the field is, in my view, too fragile a reason to pursue graduate school in philosophy. Obviously, it hasn't proven fragile for you, Marcus, but it definitely does prove too fragile for many people. So if that's the central reason why one should study philosophy, I'd think that it would be too great a risk for me to recommend any undergraduate to take it.


Echoing what Trevor said, people are generally bad at affective forecasting. They are even worse when they have no experience with many of the options on the table (as undergraduates often lack experience with anything other than academia).

Marcus Arvan

Trevor and grad: Thanks for your comments. I think that is the best worry to have, but here is why I remain unconvinced. Something can be a relatively bad method of forecasting but still be the best available method. Consider marriage. In many relevant, it is like grad school or a career in academia. It is almost impossible not to enter into a marriage naive of what marriage truly involves. Believe you me, marriage presents challenges, disappointments--and yes, joys--that one never would have expected or understood before getting married. But, for all that, getting married is something people should consider. Further, although love may not be a great predictor--love can flourish, love can die--it still may be the *best* reason to get married.

Trust me, I appreciate your worry. My love for philosophy has waxed and waned a great deal over the years. There have been times I hated my decision to pursue an academic career. Yet, I still want to say, love of what you do is still probably the best reason to make such a risky choice--far better than other reasons (e.g. wanting a "professor's life", etc.).

Derek Bowman

But, Marcus, in how many ways does the structure of the academy get in the way of teaching and doing philosophy?

How much time do you have to spend meeting tedious administrative requirements? How much time do many of us have to spend trying to get jobs? How much time do those with jobs have to spend slogging through applications? How much do you have to tailor the form and content of your teaching to bureaucratic needs of the university?

In short, why think that universities are still a good place for those who love philosophy and teaching?

Marcus Arvan

But, Derek, how many times does married life get in the way of doing things one would otherwise want to be free to do?

How much time do you have to spend cleaning the house because your spouse expects to have a reasonably clean house? How much time do many of us married people have to spend trying to reach fair compromises about division of parental duties? How much time do we have to slog through our children's homework with them?

In short, why think that marriages are still a good place for those who love each other?

Answer: because, for all of its drawbacks, marriage can still be a wonderful thing for people who love each other.

And the answer to your question is: because, for all of its drawbacks, being an academic philosopher can still be a wonderful thing for those who love research, teaching, conferences, colleagues, etc.

Derek Bowman

The marriage analogy is quite telling.

A marriage is not simply a balancing of costs and benefits, it is a relationship of mutual commitment. You've shown your commitment to the academy, by intertwining your sense of self and your conception of what it means to be a teacher and a philosopher with that institution (or set of institutions). How much commitment does the academy show - to you and to your philosophical and pedagogical values?

Marcus Arvan

Derek: I think you may be simultaneously over-estimating how much marriage consists of mutual commitment and under-estimating how much an academic career consists in a similar kind of commitment. Let me explain.

Begin with marriage. Yes, spouses share a commitment to one another (or, at least, they should in a healthy relationship). But, for all that, spouses often have *diverging* commitments--commitment that are at odds with the other person's commitments, and which require ongoing negotiation (or "give and take").

Here are a few examples.

First case: I am an introvert, my wife an extrovert. She is always pushing me to behave more like an extrovert--and for many reasons: because she would like for me to be a more active conversationalist, more fun to be around, etc. I, on the other hand, don't like being pressured to be an extrovert too much. I *like* being an introvert.

Here is a second case: I like traveling (to conferences, etc.). My wife not only doesn't like traveling. She doesn't like it when I travel.

Here is a third case: I like going to bed early, and am cranky if I don't get 9 hours of sleep. My wife likes going to bed late, and is cranky if I pressure her to go to bed when I want to.

Spouses, in other words, are committed to each other, yes--but they also often have conflicting interests, and a *healthy* marriage navigates those conflicts in a healthy way.

Now turn to academia. I'm happy to admit that a lot of academia is unfair and unhealthy (adjunct labor, etc.). But, for all that, I do not think it is *all* unhealthy--any more than I think all marriages are unhealthy.

In particular, I *do* feel like the academy--and my university--are committed enough to my values to make it worth reciprocating on my side (as a member of the academy). Here's how.

Consider research. Early in my career, I felt pressured to do "safe" work--and I did not find it fulfilling. So I started to do more ambitious work, work that I believed in (and still do!)...and (1) there were journals that were willing to publish it, (2) people in the academy who were willing to read it, (3) people in the academy who have been willing to cite it and discuss it (including on blogs), and (4) give me a raise on the basis of it (my university gives annual merit increases).

So, I feel like the academy and my university share a certain commitment to the value of my research. I do research I truly value, and I gain certain benefits from the academy for it.

Now turn to teaching. Early on in my career, I adopted a "safe" approach to teaching. But here too, it did not match my values. So, I decided to teach according to my own values. I became a hard grader, assigned daily homework because I believe in its pedagogical value, encourage paper rewrites because I believe in its pedagogical value; etc. But now I also get paid to do these things. My university values what I do--and the way I do it--enough to pay me to keep doing it. That is a commitment.

Now, look, of course, I might like for the academy, etc. to value these things more than they do--but I also might like my wife to value my introversion more than she does; I might like her to travel more than she does; etc.

The point, in both cases--in the case of marriage, and the case of the academy--is that in a healthy relationship, there is (1) a confluence of values, and (2) a healthy balance where there is a conflict of values.

I am happy to admit, again, that in many cases, (2) is false in the case of the academy. But it is also false in many unhealthy marriages. I think we should aim to make the academy more healthy, by reducing unfair/exploitative use of adjunct labor. This is a critical issue--but it is also to the side of the current topic, which is whether it *can* be good to pursue a career in academia. And I think it can.

Derek Bowman

Hi, Marcus.

Thanks for the detailed reply. Despite the obviously pointed nature of my initial questions, they were genuine questions, ones which I continue to try to answer for myself.

On the marriage front: I would only add that you've given too little weight to the mutual commitment *to one another* without which too much investment or devotion on one side is sure recipe for an unhealthy relationship. My worry is that too many academics (at least academic humanists and especially academic philosophers) find ourselves in just such an unbalanced relationship with academia.

I'm glad to hear that your relationship with the academy is going well (for now). But if I thought that people's chances of building a healthy marriage were as low as their chances of finding a decent academic career, I would encourage those I care about to steer clear of marriage, no matter how strong my own is.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Derek: Thanks for your reply. I certainly appreciate your concerns. You may be right that the chances of a "toxic relationship" is too high in the academia case to recommend it to people. While I am sympathetic with the worry, I think it is something people can reasonably disagree about. Let me explain why, once again by analogy to marriage. My own personal experiences are that healthy marriages are pretty rare. I've known and seen many people in profoundly unhappy marriages. Still, for all that, not getting married has costs too, and getting married can be a chance worth taking for the right reasons (i.e. love). By a similar token, the chances of a healthy relationship with academia may be small--but if you are a philosopher in your bones, it may be a risk worth taking. It may be worth taking, in particular, if all of the alternatives (i.e. a normal job) would almost certainly be soul-crushing and abandoning your nature and values.

In other words, there are many risks in life. Marriage poses great risks. Having children poses great risks. A career in academia poses great risks. Whether the risks are worth enduring depends--in my view--on (1) the relevant alternatives and (2) who you are. Although many times in the past *I* had a toxic relationship with academia, my point is that being a philosopher in one's bones can help one through it, and in much the same way that truly loving one's spouse can help me through the hard parts of marriage.

As a final note, I would suggest that there may be ways to make a toxic relationship with academia less toxic. Early in my career, I experienced things as toxic. I felt like I had to be a philosopher I didn't want to be, a teacher I didn't want to be, etc. And, for a while, I blamed the system, and seriously thought about leaving academia. But then, as a last ditch effort, I tried something else. I decided to try to be the philosopher and teacher that I thought I should be, more or less on the supposition that if my career in academia were to fizzle out, I wanted it to fizzle out on my own terms, doing my job in a way I believe in. And I kid you not: it made all the difference. I found that there were people who were willing to publish my crazy ideas, students who liked my demanding ways, etc.--and, while the story isn't fully written yet, I'm still here! So, while some parts of academia are indeed wrong and toxic (adjunct labor), I would suggest that there may be things one can do to make it less so, at least in some cases.

Derek Bowman

Marcus: First let me register my agreement with your last point - that's precisely what I've tried to do, more or less all along. But there's no reason why that same attitude cannot be applied to other careers or life pursuits. Academic work can be just as soul sucking as other jobs, and there's no reason that (many) other jobs can't be rewarding if similarly done on one's own terms.

The part of your original post, and most recent comment, that I still find troubling is the idea that someone who feels "in their bones" that they're a philosopher should simultaneously feel "in their bones" that being a professor in an academic setting is the only (or even necessarily, the main) gratifying, non-soul-sucking way to live your life and make your living.

I guess I have two main objections to this idea.

First, it reinforces a romantic narrative of the struggling philosopher who is willing to suffer for her philosophy. I think this narrative impedes the ability of young people to seriously consider the costs and benefits of pursuing a career in philosophy. And it further encourages those who have pursued that path to be complicit in their own exploitation by accepting adjunct positions (or other indecent terms of employment) as the price to be paid by those who truly love philosophy.

And second, I think it gives over too much of our conception of philosophy, and of ourselves as philosophers, to institutions that do not ultimately have the best interests of philosophy or philosophers at heart. As we transition from graduate school to the tenure-track job market, we find that our status as members in good standing in the community of philosophers goes from being certified by our peers and advisors to becoming contingent on the hiring budget of various universities.

But if we truly feel the commitment to philosophy 'in our bones,' it's in our best interest to break that association. It's one thing to say that being a professor is good work if you can get it (though even there, it depends on the terms of employment). But we need to be providing our students - and one another - with better ways to understand what it means to be a philosopher in the world, whatever ways we may find to earn our living.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Derek: Thanks for continuing the (very stimulating) conversation/debate.

I appreciate your two main objections. I don't want to reinforce a harmful narrative or encourage people to be complicit in their own exploitation. I also don't think we should define ourselves or philosophy in terms of institutions that do not have our best interests at heart. Far from it, I think we should recognize, discuss, and confront both concerns.

I guess my point, though, is that it's important not to *merely* focus on the concerns. It is well and good to warn people of the hazards involved in pursuing an academic career (I know--and have felt--those hazards all too well!). It is also well and good to explore other ways in which those hazards can be avoided (I have noticed your calls for exploring ways to be philosophers outside of academic, and am all for it!).

Still, all that being said, I think it is important to also be forthright about the ways in which truly loving what one does--and choosing a risky career, for better or for worse, that fits with one's deepest notion of self and personal values--*can* be something worth choosing...with eyes wide open about the risks. Although, yes, there are hazards with advocating for such things, there are also hazards to not. If I had accepted the many warnings I received not to go into this for a living, I suppose I might have had a nice enough life. I might have even had an easier, more stable, more lucrative life. Maybe it would have even been better. But I doubt it. As difficult as it has been, life as a philosopher and teacher has meaning for me--meaning that I truly think my life would be lacking if I had chosen a different path.

My point, in other words, is that like many of life's most difficult decisions--whether to marry, whether to have children, etc.--there are immense risks, risks that should be taken seriously, approached carefully, etc--BUT, it's important to not *merely* look at the risks, and appreciate the entire picture (risks, rewards, alternative possibilities), etc. But maybe I'm wrong. :)

Derek Bowman

Thanks, Marcus. I think that we are largely in agreement about the relevant reasons, and if there is any substantial disagreement (I'm not sure that there is) it's on the more difficult matter of weighing those reasons.

I would just stress that there are (at least) two different ways to decide not to be an academic - one is to give up and settle for something less. This may sometimes (often?) be the best choice, but it at least sometimes (often?) worth trying to achieve something truly worthwhile despite the risks. Here I don't think we disagree (or if we do, it's about the scope of 'sometimes').

But the second is to recognize that being an academic may be insufficient to realize *the very values that motivate you to be an academic* and so try find something else as good or better. (Ah, but what? If I knew I wouldn't still be trying to succeed as an academic.)

To keep that distinction in mind, I would just rephrase what I take to be your main autobigoraphical claim:

"As difficult as it has been, life as a[n academic] philosopher and [universityteacher has meaning for me--meaning that I truly think my life would be lacking if I had chosen a different path."

I guess my hopeful (wishful?) thought is that, so modified your belief isn't true - that there are other ways in which you could have lived (or could yet live!) your life as a philosopher and teacher even without an academic career.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Derek: Thanks for the follow-up, and sorry for taking so long to get back to you. In addition to Thanksgiving, it was my birthday this weekend so I took some time off.

Anyway, I entirely agree! Some people might not be able to best serve their values in academia, and so should pursue something else. I am happy to admit this. Indeed, part of the point of my post is that it's crucial to reflect carefully on (1) who you are (or self-conceive as), (2) what your values are, and (3) whether a career in academia, for all its risks, coheres better with your self-identity and values than other alternatives. My point then was, that for some people, the risks may be worth it--if the alternatives all fit even more poorly with one's self-conception and values (including tolerance for risk) than a career in academia.

I also appreciate your final, optimistic remark about my life and self-conception. :) I'd like to think that my life could be just as meaningful and consistent with my self-conception and values even if I'd done something else. For what it is worth, I doubt it a bit. I *love* teaching, research, student mentoring, etc. in an academic environment. Indeed, if I thought I'd truly be happier doing something else, I probably would. Further, who knows, maybe I'll find that someday that I'd be happier doing something else. My point, in any case, is that--risks and all--doing it has been very consistent with my self-conception (including my tolerance for risk), and, as such, that it can make sense to pursue a career in this despite all of the legitimate worries that people like LaBossiere raise.

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