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Derek Bowman

Marcus: One worry is that current faculty may lack the knowledge and skills necessary to prepare students for work outside academia. This is in part simply because of a lack of familiarity on their part, but the problem may run deeper than this.

(1) Philosophers are conspicuously absent from many discussions of "alt-ac" plans and success stories. For example, many of those profiled on TheProfessorIsIn blog cite the marketability of specific (quantitative) research skills learned during their PhD - something not applicable to most philosophers.

Helen DeCruz's interviews with philosophers in other careers is a helpful corrective to this, as is the Cocoon's recent self-profile by Matt Drabek. But in reading those stories, one is struck by their particularity.

If these successes were largely products of individual circumstances, experiences, and interests, it's not clear whether there is anything general for faculty to learn that they could pass on to grad students.

(2) As you've noted elsewhere, employment problems are not unique to academia, and it's unclear that there are large untapped labor markets waiting around to be filled by philosophy PhDs. Your own example - academic publishing - it itself an industry in decline. For an excellent general discussion of this problem, see this short article by Jacqui Shine https://chroniclevitae.com/news/508-alt-ac-isn-t-always-the-answer

(3) Better models for philosophy might be found in humanities fields like the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association. From what I've seen, so far the MLA's attempts to address this involve little more than wishful thinking. The AHA got a Melon grant last year to develop aids for history PhDs working outside the academy, so it might be worth seeing what that has produced. However, even the optimistic announcement on the AHA's blog says of historians working outside of academia: "These scholars have one thing in common: they have found success (not to mention happiness) beyond the professoriate." http://blog.historians.org/2014/03/aha-receives-grant-expand-career-tracks-history-phds/

If that really turns out to be the only thing they have in common, then the prospects for general advice are dim.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Derek: you make legitimate points. However, I would suggest that perhaps you--like many people--overestimate how much people's employment prospects depend on their skills.

A great deal of empirical evidence--not to mention common everyday experience--suggest that a person's employment prospects depend greatly on who they know (i.e. networking), indeed, far more than their "marketable skills." It is estimated, for instance, that *80%* of jobs are gained through networking (see http://www.recruitingblogs.com/profiles/blogs/80-of-today-s-jobs-are-landed-through-networking .). My experience bears this out. I know many, many people outside of academia who *didn't* have "marketable skills" (people who were working behind a bar, for instance), but became very successful simply through knowing people.

This is why I suggested that grad programs and the APA could really work on setting up "philosophers networks." Indeed, let me ask you, if you were a philosopher out of academia working in industry, would you look to give a helping hand to fellow philosophers? I certainly would, and so too, I suspect, would many other philosophers. People hire people they like and/or care about--and philosophers out in industry know all too well just how smart, and talented, philosophy PhDs are.

The fatal conceit that too many people in this world make is that job markets in general are "meritocratic." They're not. They're largely a matter of who you know, and one big problem is that struggling philosophy PhD's don't have networking contacts in industry.

Finally, if philosophy MAs and PhDs were encouraged to work in industry (say, for 20 hours a week) in graduate school, they would be more likely to gain both contacts *and* non-philosophy skills--the kinds of skills that might open up even more career opportunities for them (beyond, say, working in publishing--the example I gave).


part of the problem is that people are spending 7 to 10 years in graduate programs. Clearly, for many of these people, things are not running smoothly in the program. They are falling behind. That is a sign that it isn't going to go well on job market. I am sympathetic to those suffering in a very bad job market. I went through it, and I hated it. And I have worked on my own campus to keep the discipline alive. But people need to take action sooner when things have taken a bad turn.
When I see a job applicant who has been in their graduate program a really long time, I worry they will not be able to get tenure. There is a tenure clock after all.

Marcus Arvan

Perspective: I entirely agree. Although I don't think we should push people out of grad school simply because they struggle (I know many people who spent 7-8 years in grad school, but still did well on the job market), I am in full agreement that it is better to take action sooner rather than later.

This is in part why I wrote this post. Well-disciplined fields (such as my wife's) set up grad students for success, through good mentoring, getting grad students through their programs in a timely manner, and ensuring that students not only gain academic skills, but also industry-relevant skills and contacts. My experience with my wife's field has been a real eye-opener. Faculty in her (top-5) PhD program don't have any more time on their hands than philosophy faculty (in fact, probably far less, given that they have to constantly apply for grants, etc.)--yet their programs are far more streamlined, they provide grad students far more guidance, hold them more accountable, and do an incredible amount to ensure that their students are successful, both in academia and in industry. Fields like ours would do well to try to emulate them. No, we are not a STEM field, and no, our grad students' skills are not as directly applicable to industry as theirs--but still, we could do a heck of a lot more to set up our students for success. Or so I think.

recent grad

Though it wouldn't always be a popular strategy within the philosophy community, one possible strategy would be to stress the ways in which philosophy can intersect with real world issues. Philosophy is an incredibly broad field and it is relevant to almost everything going on in the world today. A few topics off the top of my head: migratory rights, debt forgiveness, truth commissions, environmental harm, computer simulations in science, taxation policy. But so many grad students are writing on "timeless" problems with no real bearing on the world. I think there is a place for such non-applied philosophy. But I don't think it's philosophically more pure than applied philosophy and I think it plays a disproportionate role in many Ph.D. programs. Getting more students interested in writing dissertations on applied topics would plausibly make more non-academic careers possible (networking, etc. would be needed to). I wish I would have.

Derek Bowman

"Finally, if philosophy MAs and PhDs were encouraged to work in industry (say, for 20 hours a week) in graduate school, they would be more likely to gain both contacts *and* non-philosophy skills..."

Agreed. But they could get even more relevant contacts, experience, and skills by working 40-50 hours a week in industry.

Why think part-time training in industry is a better choice than part-time training in philosophy? What if we instead structured grad programs (or other forms of adult education) in philosophy to be more accommodating to people working full time jobs in other industries?


One worry is that most people who do a PhD in philosophy are not the types of people that would enjoy most of the jobs being created these days: waitresses and bartenders, ambulance drivers, and so on. The jobs that require university training or postgraduate training are going to mostly be specialised. There is a very narrow range of jobs that require a university degree or postgraduate degree and are not specialised. So, philosophers have no obvious industry to turn too. They largely have to make their own way. The problem is that connections are so important, and if you've spend the last decade in school reading and writing philosophy, you are unlikely to have any of the relevant connections.

I suspect going back to school may be the best bet in a lot of cases. But it is always difficult to know what degree to take. It would be interesting to know what people think about that: what are the best second degrees for philosophy PhDs to get that they would enjoy and be competitive for. Law school is the most obvious, accept that they have overproduced lawyers too, and 10% or so have difficult time finding work from what I read. And of course not everyone likes the idea of practicing law. It kind of disgusts me...

Marcus Arvan

Hi Derek: If it were possible for people to complete PhDs in philosophy while working full-time in industry, I would be all for it (at least an option for people to choose). However, I'm not at all sure it would be feasible. People in my wife's program work 20+ hours a week in industry, and it is difficult to balance course-work, publishing, etc., with that workload. It seems to me that their model is something like an ideal compromise: one gets enough time to focus on one's studies, while also good work experience. Working a full-time, 40-60 hour job while trying to do a PhD would I think be, if not impossible, then prohibitively difficult for most.

Marcus Arvan

recent grad: I think you are almost certainly right. Judging by recent job-market numbers, jobs in applied areas of philosophy appear to be in relative ascendance, for the reasons you mention. Applied philosophy--whether it concerns the ethics of warfare, self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, or philosophical psychology--has obvious attractions to people *outside* of philosophy, and, in today's economy, appear to be in greater demand than more abstract philosophical areas.

Marcus Arvan

recent grad: You write, "One worry is that most people who do a PhD in philosophy are not the types of people that would enjoy most of the jobs being created these days: waitresses and bartenders, ambulance drivers, and so on. The jobs that require university training or postgraduate training are going to mostly be specialised. There is a very narrow range of jobs that require a university degree or postgraduate degree and are not specialised. So, philosophers have no obvious industry to turn too."

I think this is a mistake. Yes, the new economy is generating the greatest number of jobs in service areas. But I know many people who are successful in other areas of industry without specialized education. I think you are really underestimating just how far experience and networking can take a person. Also, I would caution against assuming that a job in the service sector could not be a good one for a philosopher. There are high-paying management jobs in the hospitality industries for people with good organizational and reasoning skills--and, while this might not be the average philosopher's "dream job", by any means, a great many people in this world ultimately have to accept jobs that aren't the ones they dreamed of. It's not ideal, obviously, but it's far better than low-paid, temporary labor.

Derek Bowman


I think my suggestion wasn't clear: Instead of making full-time PhD programs the only (or primary) form of graduate education in philosophy, why not restructure (some) graduate programs to the idea of providing extended study to people who are working in other careers. If the goal is ultimately to have advanced philosophy training and to work in another industry, why not make part-time graduate training available to people already working in other industries?

Although it would require more institutional change, it actually seems much more feasible as a systematic solution than training PhDs in the traditional way and hoping they can pick up marketable contacts and skills on the side.

Matt Drabek

I agree with Marcus above that who you know is very important. But "who you know" is much broader than just the people you're personally networking with or meeting. There's also people-who-know-people-who-know-you, and various other degrees of connection. There are also departmental or institutional resources. If you're a graduate student or recent graduate of any large institution, it's a safe bet that there's a big block of people from that institution working somewhere in or near the town where that institution is located. These are all places/sites for brainstorming when it comes to preparing for the job market, and they're all a part of this idea of "who you know" being important. Maybe some ideas come out of this. Maybe a department decides to connect with a major company in its city to set up an internship (as the original post suggests the APA do). Maybe the graduate college puts as much resources into a career office and holds a career fair in much the way universities often do for undergrads. Maybe someone else has better ideas that come out of this.

recent grad

One clarification: my point about applied areas of philosophy was intended to highlight that applied areas would seem to fit into the non-academic sphere more naturally than purely abstract areas. For example, the leap from writing a dissertation on the ethics of environmental policy to working for a think tank is not that big. So if more people wrote on applied topics, there would be greater opportunities for Ph.D.s outside the academy.

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