Our books

Become a Fan

« APA seeks to connect with philosophers interested in Asian Philosophies | Main | How can we help you? (April 2019) »



Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Sam K.

This sounds exactly right to me. I think my biggest mistake in grad school was waiting as long as I did to develop concrete hard skills for non-academic employers, and I suspect the same goes for many in my position. Incoming and early grad students really ought to heed this advice.

Trevor Hedberg

I think this is definitely something grad students should bear in mind. They should also be aware that it's possible for their Plan B to result in a dead end. In my own case, I was taking some advanced statistics classes on the side toward the end of my graduate career to facilitate a career alternative, but in the second of these courses, I discovered that I absolutely hated doing it and wanted no part of a career focused on that subject area. At that point, I dropped the course and focused on my dissertation for the remainder of grad school.

That being said, I also had a Plan C based on my study of technical communication that I did between getting my B.A. and starting a Ph.D. program, so I wasn't banking on statistics as my sole avenue for non-academic employment.


I think the key is for grad programs to encourage this. I do think it is their job to make sure all students land on their feet. At the least, they should put effort into this. It shouldn't be *all* on the students to do everything in their free time, with no guidance from their program. However, since most grad programs don't help with this, grad students indeed, given the situation, must do this alone for their own well-being.

Sam Duncan

It seems to me that if one is in a program with any sort of credible applied ethics specialty then one ought to do applied ethics. Not only is it a lot more marketable in academic philosophy than are a lot other specialties, it sets one up in exactly the way Protevi recommends. (I didn't and in the end it worked out for me. But the fact I won doesn't blind me to the fact I made a horrible bet). But this brings me to an interesting and I think disturbing point: There's an incredible amount of contempt for applied ethics in many corners of philosophy, especially among the Leiterrific or wannabe Leiterrific set. In fact, I've known of cases where universities more or less burnt down very good applied ethics programs to try and rebuild something more "prestigious." Political philosophy is of course more respected but even there there seems to be this weird hierarchy where the more abstract and disconnected is the more respectable it is. (I think with the entirely justified attention that philosophers like Elizabeth Anderson and Lisa Herzog's work has gotten this might be changing, or at least I hope so). Anyway one of the conversations we need to have is about how the values, or I would say prejudices, of academic philosophy hamper both good alt-ac planning and good academic job market planning.


With all due respect, I think the reason that bio-ethics and other applied ethics is held in low regard is because the scholarship is often really poor. It is poor in part because there are people with very little philosophical training "contributing", and their stuff is really ill-informed. But even the philosophers engaged in this are often quite weak. I think you are giving people poor advice to "do applied ethics". Finally, there is a history of bio-ethicists working at hospitals being called in to justify the decisions doctors are making. They are hired guns, often doing dirty work.

Sam Duncan

Without some actual proof for your broad generalizations I think it fair to say that this is just an example of the very prejudice I mentioned. Granted I don't know how one proves or disproves such incredibly broad and vague generalizations, which I suppose might be a good reason not to make them. But whatever the general quality of work in bio-ethics there is some excellent work being done in the field these days.
(See for example: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/theory-bioethics/




Or if you a truly excellent pice from someone without philosophy PhD, there's Sherri Fink's "Five Days at Memorial" which is about as good an example of philosophically informed reporting as I've ever seen.
Of course there's some bad work in bio-ethics but there's bad work in epistemology, phil mind, and metaphysics too. And oh boy could I ever point you to some truly bad papers in the sort of "ideal theory" that dominated political philosophy for way too long. As for your dirty work claim. Well no one has to do that sort of work. You may as well tell someone that she shouldn't study chemistry because there's a history of chemists making poison gas or physics because physicists worked on atomic bombs.
I never said that everyone should try to do applied ethics, but if there's someone in your department who does credible work on bioethics or another applied field then you're foolish not to at least seriously consider it.


There is poor and great scholarship in every area, bioethics included. The whole "bioethics (or other applied ethics) is poor scholarship" shows such prejudice toward a field most people have never looked into. And even assuming on average the scholarship wasn't as good...I still don't get why this would be any reason to look down on people in that field. Obviously a great scholar can work in a "poor scholarship" field. If the scholarship is poor we would want to even encourage more people to do it as to improve the scholarship! Unless one thinks there is something intrinsically wrong with the field, which would only bolster Sam's point about the prejudice.

This is such an amazing quote: " there are people with very little philosophical training "contributing", and their stuff is really ill-informed. But even the philosophers engaged in this are often quite weak." First, it shows someone who assumes that because someone doesn't have "philosophical" training, therefore they are ill-informed. And not only ill-informed, but apparently they can't even be thought of as contributing, hence the need to use scare quotes. What?! As if people in other areas cannot produce good work! There is such thing as interdisciplinary work, and in some respects non-philosophers will not be as good at certain things philosophers do, but they will be better at others. And then just to claim that people who work in an area are "weak." Stuff like this really makes me want to quit philosophy. The elitism is just nauseating. And I'm sure the person who wrote it thinks they are entirely justified because they have "informed research" and their own scholarly abilities are not "weak."


Also, Sam basically said what needed to be said about the hired guns comment...but what an odd thing to say. There are also bioethicists doing great work in hospitals, fighting against corruption, implementing policies that improve how patients are treated, fighting for healthcare access, etc. The fact that some are doing bad things...what does that have to do with anything? Lots of philosophers do bad things, lots do good things, and lots do meaningless things that have no impact on life outside a secluded area of the ivory towers.

As for what people should study, I just think applied ethics is one area to consider. Philosophy of science is another area with good prospects. The key is to seriously consider what strengths your department has, what the job market looks like (for most people metaphysics is a very risky choice) and what your dissertation might do for you if you do not go into professional philosophy.

Sam Duncan

Thanks for that. I'd wanted to add some of the same thoughts after my initial post but hadn't. But I can't resist adding that Biodegradeable's comment is a complete non sequitur. As you say there are two different claims here: 1. Whether work in applied ethics is inherently inferior to other more "prestigious" (that is LEMM) work. 2. Whether the actual work done in applied ethics is as a whole worse scholarship than that in other areas of philosophy. 2 has no obvious bearing on 1. One may as well argue from the obviously true fact that the average photograph is quite bad to the claim that photography is an inherently inferior art form. But the fact that the average cell phone snapshot uploaded to Instagram is bad has no bearing on whether Walker Evans or Paul Strand's work is bad or even of less value than say painting or drawing. Even if the average paper in bio-ethics is especially bad that doesn't mean that say John Arras and David Velleman's work isn't excellent.
Anyway, the prejudice I have in mind is 1 and it leads both graduate students and graduate degree programs to make poor decisions. I'm especially concerned with the latter. If the average department had a choice to hire either a star bio-ethicist or a mediocre LEMMing it's pretty obvious which would be better for their students' employment prospects both in academia and in alt-ac careers-- the bioethicist-- and equally obvious which would be more likely to move their Leiter rankings, the LEMMing.
And a final, perhaps cynical, thought as far as graduate students go: Let's suppose that 1 is true. It also seems to me pretty true that studying bioethics or another applied ethics field sets one up better in the academic job search and the alt-ac job search than does studying most LEMM topics. Is it so obvious the doing "better" research is worth the much higher chance that one ends up stuck as an adjunct or has to start their job search from scratch? It's easy for the tenured prof at an R1 with his forever job and 70K or more a year salary to say yes. But is it really so clear for the grad student facing the life of adjuncthood or starting over at 35?

Sam Duncan

Sorry I meant 2 in that last bit! I suppose I shouldn't go posting right after going through the mind-numbing process of filling out my tax returns.


Off-topic, but for the record: I don't think it's at all obviously true that the average photograph is quite bad (even leaving aside more mathematical worries about average = bad). It's also not obvious that snapshots and fine art photography are the same thing, even though they share a vehicular medium, and so the comparison to Walker Evans and Strand may well be misapplied.

It's also worth noting, however, that photography struggled mightily to be accepted as a fine art in the first place, and that even though it's now accepted, it still tends to be looked on as a lesser art form (painting, sculpture, and instrumental pure music still dominate the Western canon). So it's maybe not the best comparison class--doubly so, because philosophical aesthetics is a pretty marginalized subfield, and tends to be looked down on itself (recall Leiter's recent AOS prestige poll, where IIRC aesthetics/philosophy of art came second-to-last, and feminist theory came last).

(Apologies for veering so far off-topic.)

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

Job-market reporting thread

Current Job-Market Discussion Thread

Job ads crowdsourcing thread

Philosophers in Industry Directory