Our books

Become a Fan

« The Shadow Self | Main | Tips for moving mid-career? »



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


I think some of this thinking comes from either (1) not really believing, or (2) not really appreciating, that 85% of jobs happen by networking. So philosophers are sending out applications that might not get uptake, but it has nothing to do with being a philosopher. It is just that most people aren't hired that way.

A Philosopher

While I agree with the spirit of this post, I think premise 1 is a strawman. The (supposed) problem isn't that philosophers lack special skills relevant to jobs outside the academy. The problem is that the special skills they have won't get them any attention on the job market outside the academy. To put it too simply, while just about every hiring manager would love to find candidates with creative analytical thinking skills, for just about all of them this is (at best) their #2 concern. Just because philosophers have skills relevant to jobs doesn't mean they have the skills necessary for a job (or at least for getting noticed by a hiring manager). The #1 concern is almost always whether the candidate has some job-specific skills or experience: can you show me past marketing projects you ran, do you know how to code in R, how successful where you at selling software in the past, what do you know about petroleum engineering, etc? Everyone will acknowledge that it's great (and perhaps even unique) to have creative analytical thinking skills, but the vast number of jobs are specifically to fill some unmet need of the employer, and this need always involves some specific skill or experience beyond creative analytical thinking.

But again, I agree with the spirit of this post. What should be inferred from this situation isn't that philosophers have no hope at getting a job outside philosophy, but only that they have no hope at getting such a job on the strength of their resume alone. Philosophers aren't "plug and play" job candidates. Philosophers will get jobs by networking and making connections (which is how most people get jobs anyway). What's wrong is the whole philosophical mindset of passively sending out a resume (or cv) into a merit-based hiring search whereby one snags a job on the basis of their skills. So while skills are important, philosophers bring to the table this deeply distorted picture of how it all works. As you point out, plenty of people get and succeed in high paying jobs without any special skills. The real problem with the special-skills fallacy is premise 2.


I agree that 1 is a straw man. If you look into requirements for jobs (which I've spent a lot of time doing), you'll see that they almost all list as essential criteria relevant, job-specific experience; for example, a marketing job will require two years of experience in marketing; a management job will require experience in management or at least relevant training. About the only jobs that don't require lots of job-specific experience are low end, low pay jobs. Now I'm sure if one has appropriate connections, one can somewhat mitigate these requirements, but many PhDs won't presently have connections outside academia. So, they will have to compete based on merit and won't be able to mitigate the requirements. Also, it's worth mentioning that even with connections it's not like the world works only on cronyism, competence plays some role. I mean for the most part things mostly work most of the time--sort of.

Anyway, even without connections, this doesn't mean that PhDs leaving academia can't develop good careers, but it does mean that it takes a lot of work usually to do so. They are likely to have to start at a similar level to a graduating BA who may be 5-10 years younger. Even getting these jobs can be difficult, because the philosopher is again unlikely to have relevant job-specific experience and/or training, e.g. a relevant BA. However, it's certainly possible to sell yourself to some hiring managers. Anyway, in sum, the issue isn't that philosophers can't have good alt ac careers; the issue is that it's difficult to obtain them and can take a lot of work, which may be especially difficult after giving up on one's preferred career having been effectively tortured by the philosophy job market for some numbers of years.

I guess another way of making my point is this: We shouldn't say something as extreme as philosophers can't have good careers outside academia. They certainly can and do. But we also shouldn't pretend that it's easy in general for them to do so--exceptions made for the well connected. It can take a lot of work and there are not obvious post PhD, non-academic career trajectories that one's PhD in philosophy best qualifies one to pursue.

(Payscale: Some people checked a while back and the sample size for philosophy was very small--I think it was 12 people. It may be bigger now but worth mentioning. I also believe, if I remember correctly, that this data only includes those in full-time work and is based on Payscale users--that is, it's not a general survey of philosophy majors.)

Marcus Arvan

A Philosopher and postdoc: Thanks for your comments, which make apt points.

Notice, though, that the very things you mention--industry-relevant alt-ac experience and networking connections--are the very things I've been at pains to argue in my previous posts in this series that grad programs should *encourage* (rather than discourage) their students to cultivate while in grad school!

Part of the reason I think it is vital to counteract the Special-Skills Fallacy is that it seems to me that this general line of reasoning (viz. "our skills aren't transferable") is what *prevents* grad students from getting alt-ac experience while in grad school, and what grad programs use to (implicitly or explicitly) justify prohibiting grad students from getting industry experience, such as summer internships while trying to publish (since the assumption grad programs make is, "We are training researchers and teachers, *not* cultivating skills our students can and should be able to also leverage into alt-ac careers through industry experience on the side).

So, in a sense you are right: (1) is a bit of a straw man (as it were) *given* the status quo approach to alt-ac in our profession (namely, programs not encouraging or even prohibiting their grad students from getting summer internships while also working on publishing). But this is precisely the status quo that I am arguing we should change: grad programs should be encouraging rather than discouraging grad students from getting industry experience while doing teaching and research. Other academic disciplines do this effectively. My message is: we can too, and should, because our skills are more transferable than we may be apt to recognize!

Grad students, whether they recognize it or not, have a *ton* of time on their hands. They typically only TA a course, and get to spend the rest of their lives working on research--and my sense is that much of this is not time particularly well-spent. In retrospect, I realize just how much time I wasted while in grad school--and know many other philosophy grad students who wasted a ton of time as well. In contrast, grad students in other disciplines use their time more effectively learning how to research and teach while also having part-time internships on the side. Given the horrible state of the academic job-market, it is this, I believe--the status quo (which marginalizes getting some part-time industry experience while in philosophy grad programs)--that absolutely needs to change. And so my thought is that recognizing that we *do* train our students with industry-relevant skills (creativity, critical thinking, precision of speech and thought, etc.) may be an important first step in motivating this type of much needed change.

A Philosopher

Marcus, I agree with this, although I could quibble with points here and there.

To quibble a bit: I still think talk of skills is a red herring. A lot of other disciplines (okay, perhaps not humanities ones) involve skills which are job-specific for industry: e.g., psych, maths, engineering, chemistry, etc. Grads in these programs can shape and conceptualize their internships and other career development around the transfer of these skills. But in philosophy and the humanities, (I think) you're wasting your time trying to organize the career development around creative analytical thinking as a skill.

I think the better way to conceptualize what you're doing is just as pursuing whatever interests you. You like risk analysis? Intern with an actuary. You like solving problems? Join your campus consulting club and do cases with them. Want to flight climate change? Volunteer with a relevant nonprofit in the area. Have a friend doing cool web design work? Join them.

None of these people need to be sold on your creative analytical thinking skills. Trust me, they'll discover them quickly enough. You'll be a stand-out in the group. I also don't see any need to artificially limit your search for these opportunities to those that somehow intersect with your philosophical research, although (obviously) if that happens or might reasonably be made to happen, cool. Perhaps working on the problem of induction goes well with something in data science, or you could do philosophical work on climate change while aiming to work outside the academy on the issue. But unless these pairings are organic I doubt they're worth trying to force somehow (e.g., I wouldn't pursue a dissertation topic on something I really didn't have anything interesting to contribute just because it might sort of carry into an alt-ac career).

I get that your worry is that some philosophy faculty take the disconnect between these alt-ac pursuits and philosophical skill as reason to discourage, or even prohibit, grad students from doing anything but philosophy. But I don't think you're going to convince too many faculty who think this way that there actually is a lot of overlap.

If there's a special-skills fallacy, it's the fallacy of thinking that the lack of transferable skills in philosophy implies that Grad students should focus only on philosophy: that they lack the time, interest, or head space to pursue other careers; that pursuing other careers necessarily detracts from their philosophy work; or that such pursuits are in some other way incompatible with philosophy graduate education.

While there might be disagreement between us over how to interpret and handle the skills issue (premise 1), I think we're in agreement on the specifics of the skills issue and on the other aspects of this problem (premises 2 and 4).

Also, someone should point out to the faculty members who think this way that they are pursuing an unsustainable model. If they want graduate students in 10-20 years, they will need to do a better job helping them find jobs. It's hard to imagine that the effects of such a large portion of philosophy PhDs going unemployed will not trickle down and hurt the pipeline and the programs themselves in various ways.

Another Soul-Crusher

I'm going to propose a different angle: what hides behind the fallacy?

Certainly "The Special Skills Fallacy" is rarely voiced or spelled out, and it looks weak as soon as it is. Still, I really could imagine a lot of senior/established philosophers saying something like it. They wouldn't put it in print, but I could see some of them chuckling through it dismissively over coffee, or even offering it as a kind of off the cuff defense if Marcus cornered them at the APA and asked: "Why doesn't your grad program do more to support alt-ac paths?"

But that's the key, I think: lines of thought like the Special Skills Fallacy would be offered *after the fact* to justify inaction that is already well established as policy. Marcus is right that it's a lame justification and should be discarded, but then we have to ask "what was really the source of the inaction?"

Here are 2 options, as talking points.

First, ignorance. The folks who would be able to do something about encouraging grads to consider and pursue alt-ac options are all established academic philosophers. The vast majority of them followed the traditional career path (back when it existed) and have little to no experience outside of academia. If they do have any experience outside academia, it was likely decades ago. They are in no position to offer any apt guidance of their own on alt-ac paths, and probably haven't seriously considered them. So, I suspect many of them honestly don't know where to start. I don't think this ignorance is excusable given philosophy's present condition but it suggests that the most important step away from inaction will be educating faculty (not grads) about alt-ac options. Marcus had some relevant suggestions in this earlier post https://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2019/05/alt-ac-how-our-profession-might-do-better.html

Second, disinterest. Let's be honest. Many folks who are in or are pursuing academic philosophy see it as vastly more valuable than other career paths. There is little if any impetus of personal motivation for them to care all that much about alt-ac paths. For grads, that's "plan B" if the academic path doesn't work out. (Many grads might delay considering "plan B" earlier thanks to another important fallacy: https://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2019/05/sweat-equity-on-the-philosophy-job-market.html). But the real problem here is faculty. For them, plan "A" has worked out. Ignorance comes from the fact that most of them have never had to consider plan B seriously. But the fact that plan B was the "fallback plan" indicates their disinterest in it. Just imagine if philosophy PhD programs began offering programs for alt-ac paths. I suspect very few faculty would be excited about it, and I suspect it would go poorly. I can see the first flailings in this direction creeping into course listings now:

"Proseminar in Not-Philosophy. Survey of the more painful portions of reality. Learn the basics of building a Linked-In account and how to translate your academic CV into a non-academic resume. Usually taught by younger faculty [as part of their service, rotating with admissions committee work]. Cannot be taken for a grade; does not count towards full-time enrollment; does not fulfill any requirements towards graduation. Offered irregularly and only to meet student demand. Guaranteed to conflict with TA duties or other seminars."

Well, maybe that's over the top, but you get the idea. Like ignorance, disinterest also strikes me as no excuse given the present state of philosophy, but I do think it will be a significant issue. Disinterest makes it seem to faculty like a "duty" or a "chore" to do what needs to be done to make any progress on the issue, and the field will have to confront that. I suspect progress might be easiest if we *embrace* this: yes, this is not the fun part of your job as an academic philosopher, we recognize that, and we aren't asking you to like it or to take a huge personal interest in it. Get over it and to do it.

What this suggests to me is that progress is going to require strong leadership (or "coercion" if you prefer to be up front about it), from somewhere. I don't know if it could come from a Department Chair, from broader University administration, or from some entity like the APA (I sincerely doubt it). But I do suspect that we'll never get anywhere unless we treat the steps that need to be taken here as something of a chore, and I do suspect there's no magical-moral argument out there that's going to make academic philosophers sit up and realize they have some special obligation to fulfill this duty: it has to be explicitly imposed upon them somehow.

The problem is that we look to established faculty for leadership in other areas, and most of them have no interest in offering it here: they are the ones who need it.

Derek Bowman

Thanks to you and Helen for your recent posts on this topic.

You don't need the 'special-skills' fallacy to reach the conclusion that "there are no obvious alt-ac career choices for philosophers." Your own arguments establish this.

Yes, there are lots of things philosophers can do - and that they actually do. But one of the things you learn from reading Helen's interviews with philosophers in a variety of careers (and mine at FRP) is that each of these paths and careers are very individuals. By all means grad programs should follow your suggestion to maintain contacts with previous graduates and the industries that employ them. But there just isn't any particular career tract that present themselves as obvious or natural pathways. This makes it harder for job candidates who have to stake out their own path, and it sets a nearly impossible task for grad programs to proactively prepare students for that variety of careers.

A Philosopher

I think the main point raised by Another Soul-Crusher shouldn't be understated. The top faulty running most programs are from a day when this alt-ac stuff wasn't an issue, and the star junior faulty slowly filtering up into those roles by and large are the lucky (or privileged) people who have had smooth academic trajectories without forays into nonacademic job markets. The influence of this on their knowledge, know-how, values, and perspective can't be understated. I suspect we're also at the point now where most successful young philosophers know they were an unlucky draw away from being out of the field themselves. There's surely some cognitive dissonance at play whereby doing too much down these roads will call to mind painful thoughts of friends who failed and their own precarious position. For those cruising along through success, better to block out the uncomfortable sight of those crashing and burning.

None of this is to say faculty can't and shouldn't do more to help. But I do think it explains why getting most of them (old or young) to actually do so will be very hard. The post-hoc rationalization might be hilariously weak, but the practical and emotive forces behind the present inaction are very strong.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Derek: Maybe we just disagree over semantics (or rhetoric?), but my point was that there *are* obvious alt-ac career choices for philosophers--namely, just about everything under the Sun.

Further, your points about Helen's interviews establish this: that philosophers can be successful in a *variety* of careers. That is precisely the point I am trying to make: that we should treat *many* lines of work as 'obvious career choices' for philosophers, given our skills and natural aptitudes!

The problem (I think) is not that there aren't obvious career choices: the problem is that are *many* and we sell ourselves and our students short by thinking there aren't! ;)


If all careers are obvious choices for philosophers, then none are. For a career to be an obvious choice it must stand out from other careers as a better choice. Now it could be that every career is a very good choice. There wouldn't then be an obvious choice, but there could be many good choices. But as has been pointed out by myself and others, without job-specific training, philosophers do not have many good choices. What we have is potential, but it takes time and work to develop that into an alt ac career. Here's another way of looking at things. A clinical psychologist who leaves academia has an obvious choice--to go expand their clinical work to be a full-time job. A philosopher has no obvious choice in this way, and that's what is meant by 'no obvious choice.' Obviously, we should do more to help philosophers develop alt-ac careers by building networks and encouraging job-specific training (not exactly sure how this would work). Alternatively, we should just admit way less PhD students to begin with. Whatever we do, we shouldn't pretend that we've got it better outside of academia than we do. That's not going to help anyone.


Hi there. I’m a graduate student and when I hear about preparing for alt-ac stuff I am a little resistant and I want to explain why. Part of the sentiment explained above is that grad students should be preparing for alt-ac stuff because we have a lot of time on our hands anyway. I’m a graduate student and I want to push back against the sentiment that graduate students have a lot of time on their hands. I understand that graduate students often have a lot of unstructured time, but I also think that it’s easy to forget how demanding it is to be a graduate student. Using myself as an example, I am studying a particular period in the history of philosophy. During my time in graduate school I am expected to develop expert-level knowledge in this extremely difficult field, develop a broad range of knowledge in the history of philosophy (even better if I can learn non-traditional sources), learn the language of the period I am studying fluently, learn contemporary debates in analytic philosophy so that I can apply the philosophy from my own period to these debates, and, ideally, learn something from another discipline other than philosophy as well. This is to say nothing about my teaching responsibilities, other departmental expectations, and so on. And even that is to say nothing about having a hobby, family, or extra income. Oh, and there’s a clock on this.

It would be easy to say that I should simply abandon one or more of these expectations, but considering that graduate students are in a perpetual echo chamber of being told that things are hopeless for them anyway and so they must do the absolute maximum possible, this is hard advice to swallow (even if it is true). It’s not easy to simply add another task — like learning coding or something in case all of this work is for naught. This is somewhat irrational, but from a first person perspective, the idea that on top of doing everything I can be as competitive as possible on the job market I should also spend a significant amount of time preparing for work that has nothing to do with philosophy sounds like being told I just shouldn’t be doing philosophy at all.

Another Soul-Crusher

I was once a gradsrudent, and I understand the mentality. I would have said the same then that you're saying now. but regarding the strategy of "doing everything [you] can be as competitive as possible on the job market," see the earlier thread:


Your mentors probably won't say it, and it's (sort of) up to you whether you think it means you "just shouldn’t be doing philosophy at all," but (in my opinion) emphatically: most grad students shouldn't be trying to work their way into a TT job, at all. It doesn't work.

Marcus Arvan

Gradstudent, I appreciate your resistance. But here are some cold, hard facts:

(1) Your workload right now is nothing compared to what it will be if/when you are a full-time faculty member.

(2) Grad students in other disciplines do everything you just wrote and a whole lot *more* - all while getting internships in industry and graduating in 5-6 years.

Let me explain.

On (1): As a grad student, you may think that the things you listed--learning a language, studying a particular period, developing expert knowledge of the contemporary literature, and teaching--are a lot. However, I will tell you this: anyone who has become a full-time faculty member will say the amount of work in philosophy grad programs is nothing compared to the workload you will have afterwards. For, in addition to *continuing* most of the things you list, faculty members have a litany of other time-consuming responsibilities:

(i) They teach full course loads (often 3/3 or 4/4).
(ii) They have to prep entire courses they have little to no background in.
(iii) They have to serve on university committees.
(iv) They have to supervise independent studies, honors theses, grad dissertations.
(v) They have to publish at least 1 article in a good journal per year to get tenure.
(vi) They have to serve on faculty senates.
(vii) They organize events and conferences.

I could go on and on. *Trust* me, what you are being asked to do now is nothing compared to what you will have to do a few years down the road--and yet, you somehow, if you get a full-time faculty job, you will somehow find a way to do all of these things--because you will learn to become more efficient with your time.

On (2): I have a spouse in a top-2 PhD program in another field (Industrial-Organizational Psychology). Although people in her field don't have to learn a foreign spoken language, they *do* have to learn computer programming, advanced statistics, and methodologies. Moreover, these are not "one time" things. There are so many different types of advanced methodologies and statistics that they often have to learn new ones on the fly--such as when a referee tells them they need to (which happens all of the time).

So, in brief, grad students in my wife's field have to do analogues of *everything* you list:

(i) They need to learn a foreign language (computer programming), advanced methods, statistics, etc.--in an ongoing way.
(ii) They need to become experts of the history and variety of contemporary areas (their comp exams are 1000% harder - they have 7 written exams on 7 seven different areas that last two weeks, which they have to compose and memorize over 1000 pages of notes for, remembering specific studies and citations).
(iii) They teach.

On top of *all* of this, they do very time and labor-intensive things we don't. Whereas philosophers just read books and articles and then write books and articles, people in my wife's field have to:

(A) Constantly apply for grants (which is very time-consuming).
(B) Develop complex methodologies before beginning an experiment.
(C) Write up detailed proposals, getting them through their institution's Institutional Review Board (IRB), which is a pain in the ass because IRB's constantly send back proposals requiring changes.
(D) They need to solicit dozens or hundreds of participants, both online and in real life.
(E) Many of their studies include *meeting* participants, hosting them in labs, getting informed consent, giving them and teaching them aspects of the study (such as when and how to take their blood pressure daily).
(F) They (the grad students) usually manage 5-10 undergraduate labworkers.
(G) They need to collect, sort, cleanse, and analyze data.
(H) After *all* of this, they write papers and send them to journals.

Having lived with someone in this field, I cannot even begin to describe how time-consuming all of this is. I have been in philosophy for over 25 years now, and I can confidently say this: compared to her field, we have it very, very easy. In fact, looking at all that my spouse does, I often feel some embarrassment at how privileged I am as a philosopher--because of all of the things we *don't* have to do that people in her field do have to do as standard practice. To do research, we just read and write articles. People in other fields have to *dozens* of incredibly time consuming things to do research--in addition to everything else they do--that we don't.

Oh, and on top of all of these things: just about every student in her program gets part-time industry internships, both during the semester and during the summer--with corporations like Kellog, government institutions like the NSA and NASA, and so on. And they finish in 5-6 years.

If this comment comes across as a bit exasperated, here's why. It is frustrating to hear philosophy grad students simultaneously bemoan, "We don't have any alt-ac opportunities", but then (like the faculty in their grad programs) constantly express reluctance that they should do anything substantial to address the matter.

I understand you think you have a lot of work. I even understand that in a sense, you *do* have a lot of work. My point is simply that if we want to fix the problems with our profession--specifically, the terrible spot many grad students and job-marketeers find themselves in--we need to recognize the facts.

For the facts really are these: for all that philosophy grad students do, they do a heck of a lot *less*, on balance, than grad students in other fields. Consequently, if philosophy grad students don't want to do what grad students in other disciplines to ensure that they have good alt-ac opportunities, they need to own that, realizing that they are *choosing* to forego things that people in other fields who do equally if not more work do to make sure that they have good alt-act opportunities.

Look, I get it, capitalism sucks: we *all* do too much already. But we also make choices in this economic system, and given that people in other fields get internships while in grad school--to their tremendous benefit afterwards if they leave academia--I see no reason why grad students in philosophy shouldn't do the same if they want to have better opportunities.

Last note: trust me, the more that gets put on your plate, the more efficient you will become. Whereas it used to take me months to draft papers, now it takes a week. I've heard other faculty say the same--that they can't believe how much more efficient they have become at everything the more their workload has increased. I see the same thing in grad students in my spouse's program. They do more than we do while having internships because they learn to be very, very efficient with their time (which I know from ample experience in philosophy grad programs that many philosophy grad students aren't).

A Philosopher

I had typed up a reply seconding ASC and adding a few points, but posting that reply had too much the feel of ganging up on Gradstudent.

The dynamic of grad students pushing back on these discussions here at the Cocoon is worth noting. I'm not sure what it means. I could speculate about it, but nothing I would say isn't something anyone else wouldn't immediately come up with themselves.

Marcus Arvan

A Philosopher: good point. I definitely don't want to gang up on grad students. I know all too well (from ample first-personal experience) how hard early-career people in our profession have it.

That being said, I do think these kinds of hard conversations need to be had--at least if we want to make things better in the profession. For again, my worry--in this post and in many others--is that a heck of a lot has to be done to combat reticence to the very kinds of steps it will take to make things *better* in our discipline.

Change is hard. Ensuring better opportunities for philosophy grads--both in academia and without--will require work: work perhaps that many of us (both faculty and grad students) may not want to do. But the status quo is not serving many people well. And if we want to change the status quo we need to face up to what it will take to do so--and how other disciplines are already doing those things (and indeed, have been doing them for a very long time).


Wow, I'm going to have a panic attack just reading all that Marcus. I have two BA's, a PhD in philosophy, and I'm married to a psychologist. I don't think we have less to do than other professions in grad school. Yes, we have less in number, but to produce good publication outputs I thought about philosophy almost every waking hour of the day. I suspect that many other grad students do to. I wouldn't have had the mental power to learn programming too. Philosophy was exhausting enough. I'm sure that a TT professor has more things to do in number than a graduate student, but it's a lot less taxing doing things you're trained to do than learning new things. As a TT professor you have a lot of training under your belt to help complete your tasks. As a graduate student you're having to learn a ton of new material and develop philosophical skills.

In sum, it seems you are analyzing difficulty in terms of number of things to do, but that's not an appropriate way to determine difficulty. Some things are harder than others, and learning new difficult skills like writing philosophy is one of the harder things out there to learn. Philosophy is also one of those disciplines where work is harder to quantify--a lot of our work is thinking. Maybe you disagree but I have experience with other fields, for example, psychology, and philosophy is much harder in my opinion on the gray matter. I'm not here trying to suggest psychology is easy, but it's not difficult in the same ways as philosophy. So, yes philosophers have less to do in number, e.g. no labs to run, but what we do is hard.

Derek Bowman

Marcus: I think you're right that our disagreement is mostly a matter of rhetoric, and it may also be a product of different stages of thinking about the problem.

I realized early on in my own career crisis that academia that I could, in principle, do lots of things and do well at them. But even then I remained stuck because I couldn't bridge the gap between 'there are lots of things I could do' to 'here's the thing I will do.' As postdoc says, if all options are open, then none is the obvious one.

This also relates to Gradstudent's recent comment. Asking job candidates (or departments) to prepare (or help their students prepare) is to ask them to take time and focus away from other activities. And even if this is a reasonable demand, it can't be done for every possible career path at once. As one of my interviewees says:

"[W]hat tends to matter most are reputations, networks, and skills and abilities within the field or industry where you’re seeking employment. Largely as a result, philosophy graduate programs aren’t especially well positioned when it comes to helping their graduate students find non-academic employment. My impression is that most academics have fairly weak networks outside the field, and I think it’s pretty hard to develop a reputation for something else while studying philosophy."

This doesn't mean departments can't and shouldn't follow your advice to foster and maintain networks of former graduates and contacts in other industries. So from the standpoint of job candidates, departments, and the profession at large self-sabotaging your rhetorical stance is an appropriate one. But having taken that point on board, it's important to also recognize that there is a limit to how much departments can and should do to support alternative career paths, precisely because there is no clear and manageable set of industries and careers to channel ourselves or our students into.


I have to say I find the response to my post pretty shocking. “I know you think you have a lot of work” borders on condescending. It is completely outlandish to me to respond to graduate students who receive poverty level wages for the amount of work they do to say that they really ‘have it good.’ Virtually all philosophy graduate students could work a fraction of the hours they do for far more money and opportunities in the future. My post was not even to say that graduate students in philosophy ‘have it worse’ than either faculty or IO psychologists, but to say that alt-ac work competes with other philosophy opportuntiies *and expectations*. All I was trying to do is point out that graduate students are pressured in several different directions simultaneously, and alt-ac training is yet another pressure, and unlike the others, does nothing (or almost nothing) to advance one’s career within philosophy. It is thus perfectly reasonable that graduate students, who are pressured in virtually all directions to do as much work as possible toward getting a philosophy job, do not want to do it. It’s actually hard for me to imagine the mindset you would have to take according to which it makes sense to pursue graduate school at all and pursue alt-ac simultaneously.

I don’t think the comparison to being a full-time faculty member or IO psychology are apt. A full-time non-adjuncting faculty member, even at the lower end of wages, will on average have over double the earnings of a graduate student. Some googling suggests that the mean wage for an IO psychologist is six-figures or more. Graduate students are in the precarious position of being offered poverty level wages with, at least potentially, nothing to show for it. There are lots of other differences, too. For example, it is much harder to learn how to teach a college course than it is to simply add another course for a semester. Moreover, there are unique difficulties in learning how to do academic work properly that do not correspond to the volume of work. There are other differences as well; learning a programming language is not nearly as difficult as it is to become fluent in a foreign language, and so on...

I know that your intention is to ‘tell it how it is’ in hopes of making graduate students ‘wake up’ to other opportunities, but the effect is actually really alienating, it makes me think that faculty members simply do not believe that we have many work pressures and so do not respect the precarity of our position. This is to say nothing about how especially difficult this position can be if you are a woman, or a mother, or not white, or have mental illness, or are a first generation student, and so on...

Another Soul-Crusher

Partly in reply to Derek. Bear with me.

I just went to philjobs' appointment listings, and pulled up the department websites for the departments/programs of the first 6 appointments.

#1 Texas A&M:
Undergrad page: https://philosophy.tamu.edu/undergraduate-studies/
Links to: https://philosophyisagreatmajor.com/
And adds with great gusto: "Philosophy is not job-training for an entry-level position; it is education for a lifetime."
Resources for grads: https://philosophy.tamu.edu/current-students/ bureaucratic nonsense.

#2 Bucknell (no grad program)
Philosophy Resources Page: https://bit.ly/2JZUmwD
Links to data on majors' standardized test scores and a slew of articles about career options for majors.
Resources for their recent grads looking to proceed to graduate studies, on the same page: PGR and Pluralists Guide. That is all.

#3 Cambridge: Anomalous.

#4 NC State (no grad program in philosophy)
Front page for Phil: https://philrel.chass.ncsu.edu/philosophy/
Declares: "Philosophy is concerned with fundamental questions about reality, knowledge and morality. Its ability to develop critical thinking skills is unmatched. A mind trained in philosophy can achieve great things in many arenas."
Also has a whole section on "What can I do with philosophy" https://philrel.chass.ncsu.edu/philosophy/#What and yet another link to https://philosophyisagreatmajor.com/

#5 U Penn:
Undergrad landing page: https://philosophy.sas.upenn.edu/undergraduate
Ends with the sales pitch: "The development of these skills helps equip one for any profession in which creative thought and critical discrimination are needed. Penn's philosophy majors have gone on to advanced study and careers in many areas, including law, medicine, business, journalism, computer science, the natural sciences, and government, as well as philosophy itself."
No similar pitch on any grad pages; bureaucratic details about the degrees.

#6 Dalhousie:
Front page: https://www.dal.ca/faculty/arts/philosophy.html
Links to this page: https://www.dal.ca/faculty/arts/philosophy/about/why-choose-philosophy.html
Which declares as a sales pitch to undergrads, among other things: "The basic skills practiced in philosophy—clear and critical thinking, logically cogent argumentation and writing, to name a few—are the very skills demanded and rewarded in the most lucrative, influential professions."
Elsewhere is a link to this page: https://www.dal.ca/academics/programs/undergraduate/philosophy/what_can_i_do_withthisdegree/career_opportunities.html
Which promises "Lifelong skills you can apply to any walk of life," and says, among other things: "Students from our program become university professors, ethics advisors for businesses, hospitals and medical associations, novelists, musicians, lawyers, cognitive science engineers attempting to produce machine intelligences, business people, journalists, poets and artists – to name just a few."
Grad page provides only bureaucratic details: https://www.dal.ca/faculty/arts/philosophy/programs/graduate-and-phd-programs.html#contentPar_nlcrichtext_1


You say: "...there is a limit to how much departments can and should do to support alternative career paths, precisely because there is no clear and manageable set of industries and careers to channel ourselves or our students into."

The basic tension here is that philosophy is aggressively marketed to undergraduates as ludicrously good prep for any number of careers. Its virtues and payoffs are precisely marketed as amorphous and undelimited (un-manageable). One gets the sense that "we can't even tell you in great detail all the ways philosophy can help you get a career, so vast and varied is its value."

Yet there's not even a minimal effort to suggest anything similar to grads. Not a single one of these Departments offers **anything** to indicate how graduate studies might be parlayed into any other alt-ac career. It's as if they have no interest in even mentioning it.

Now I know that you're doing your part over at https://freerangephilosophers.com/ but I hope we can all agree that there's something odd here. These Departments were essentially selected randomly -- I'm sure we'd see similar results elsewhere.

Is the assumption that prospective grads already know the vast value of philosophy and don't need to be reminded? (Then why are so many of us unable to see it after the job market is done with us?)

Is the assumption that prospective grads aren't interested in alt-ac options? (Well, that's often true, and it's part of the problem, and it's why Departments need to make an effort to challenge the assumption that students don't need to seriously consider it.)

I could go on, but this is already a monster post. (Sorry, Marcus). I don't think we should start worrying about the "limits" we might put on departments/programs to promote alt-ac options until we're pretty sure we're approaching the reasonable limits. That's a long way away.

Marcus Arvan

gradstudent: That's fair. I apologize for coming across as condescending. I also didn't mean to say that philosophy grad students 'have it good' - not by any means. I recall all too well how hard I and many of my friends had as grad students, and empathize deeply. I am sorry that my comment was insensitive.

Still, it's things like this that I still want to push on - when you write, "It’s actually hard for me to imagine the mindset you would have to take according to which it makes sense to pursue graduate school at all and pursue alt-ac simultaneously."

This is precisely what I think our profession--from grad students to grad faculty--has all wrong. The fact that grad faculty and grad students find it hard to get in the mindset that it could possibly make sense to get alt-ac experience while in grad school is precisely what harms generation after generation of philosophy grad student.

Outside of the humanities, in discipline after discipline--ranging from STEM disciplines to the social sciences to MBA programs--it is *expected* that students get experience in industry while doing all of the academic things (teaching and research) you mention. The fact that legions of other disciplines do these things shows--in my view--that there is something deeply misguided about the fact that we cannot "get in that mindset."

Is it *really* impossible to have a 15-hour-per week internship during the summer? Could you really not get enough research done with that relatively modest add-on? I remember my time in grad school all too well, and can't think of a single grad student I knew who couldn't make that kind of time if they really wanted to (there are also probably plenty of things grad programs could do to make it easier and less costly). The real problem, I think, is that we're socialized--and socialize ourselves--to not want to do these things: to think "there isn't enough time" when doing these things is *standard* in most academic disciplines.

Yes, of course, grad school can be especially "difficult...if you are a woman, or a mother, or not white, or have mental illness, or are a first generation student, and so on...". I appreciate that. However, my spouse is a woman of color, some of her grad student friends are mothers, others are first-generation college students, and others have struggled with mental illness--and yet just about all of them *do* find time to get alt-ac experience during grad school.

Finally, what's more costly for people with the above social identities: (A) the costs of having to work 15 hours a week during the summer in an alt-act internship (which can often pay money, by the way) while also doing grad work, or (B) the costs of not getting any alt-ac experience during your 5-7+ years in grad school so that when you're among the 65% of PhDs who can't get a permanent academic job, the primary option available to you is low-paying adjunct work without any benefits?

The answer to this question seems quite clear to me. The latter is typically *far* worse than the former--and it is precisely why I think it is absolutely vital for the mindset in our discipline to change. Encouraging grad students to find the time to get alt-act experience--and *helping* them carve out that time--would be better for everyone, especially the most vulnerable members of our profession.

An alt-ac

While I kind of agree with the spirit of this post, it should be noted that there are perfectly good jobs for philosophers outside Academia which value their specific skills and knowledge. I work in applied ethics in the public sector. I wasn't hired for my "general skills", but rather because I know ethics very well and I have proved to be a good researcher in philosophy. Most of the positions in our organization are designed for people with knowledge of ethics, political philosophy, (normative) epistemology and metaethics. And we are not some sort of weird curiosity: I can name at least five other public organizations who hire philosophers for their specific skills.

Of course this doesn't generalize well to all branches of philosophy (e.g., metaphysics). But clearly, some of us can use our specific, philosophy-related skills for jobs outside Academia.

Perhaps those jobs don't exist in the US? That would be surprising. Also, I think the problem stems from the fact that, regardless of whether these jobs exist, most departments and people involved in training philosophers ignore their existence.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Derek (and postdoc): your points are very well taken - but I think a lot of the uncertainty you both mention (viz. no career being obvious if all are) would evaporate if grad programs more effectively leveraged networking with their previous students that went into industry. For that could set up a “pipeline”—something I have observed in my spouse’s grad department. For example, if a department has former students go into industries A, B, and C, then if the program preserves and fosters a relationship with those students after they have left the program, then the *current* students now have obvious alt-ac careers to pursue: namely, A, B, and C - precisely because now they have connections they can leverag in those industries (which as we know is how most jobs are found). This, in rough outline, is how I thinking changing our discipline’s mindset—and how grad programs are run—might progressively resolve the very real issues lying behind the Special Skills Fallacy.

A Philosopher


Keep in mind that a lot of the people here aren't tenured faculty at R1s far removed from your perspective. I'm just a few years removed from the PhD with no permanent employment.

When I was in grad school I would have had the same reaction you're having now. A couple years out on the job market and things look very different to me. I wish the discipline had adopted many of the suggestions which get thrown around here, since I would in that case likely be in a much better position one way or another. I very much doubt I'm the only one who found moving into the job market to be transformative.

Also, I don't think Marcus or anyone wants grad programs to *force* their students to prep for alt-ac careers. Right now we're in the position where there is no culture at all and little cognizant awareness of alternatives and where there is often much informal pressure against and stigma around --- if not outright banning of --- such prep. As I read the discussion here, the desire is to make it so that there's culture and awareness surrounding alt-ac careers and so that grad students are supported and free to develop these interests as they go. That doesn't mean forcing anyone to do anything, obviously.

Finally, there's just the cold hard economic reality that philosophy programs will not survive if 65% of their graduates continue to fail to secure permanent employment while spending the decade after graduating floundering in debt, depressed, and working at Starbucks between adjusting gigs. Since these programs literally will not survive another 20 years under those conditions, and since there aren't enough permanent academic jobs, they either need to admit 65% percent fewer students or they need to start supporting those students on realistic career trajectories.

Derek Bowman

Another Soul-Crusher:

There's a huge difference between choosing philosophy as an undergraduate major and dedicating 5-10 additional years to getting a PhD. For many jobs it seems to matter more that you have a 4-year degree than what that degree is in. So given that one is already pursuing a 4-year degree, for many career paths (or for those still trying to determine their career path) one may as well get a major or minor in philosophy.

But for someone pursuing a non-academic career without specific degree requirements, it's not at all clear that pursuing a PhD is a particularly reasonable way of trying to get there. So I think it would be a bit silly for PhD programs to market themselves using the same kind of all-purpose career readiness that is sold to undergraduates.


"Virtually all philosophy graduate students could work a fraction of the hours they do for far more money and opportunities in the future...."

Yes - but no one is making them do this. They choose this. And more today than ever before, they choose this *knowing* or reasonably *should have* known, the difficult odds of success. Why do grad students do this? I suspect because they find the work meaningful and somewhat enjoyable, on the whole. If a grad student hates grad school and thinks they work too much for little pay, they can leave. And many do - almost 50%. Hence, those who stay, I think, should think carefully about what one is getting into.

On the one hand, grad students have enough work that they *could* spend 60 hours a week doing grad school. I know *almost no one* where this is true. Nearly all grad students I know spent an incrediably signficiant amount of time drinking, partying, pursuing their hobbies, etc. This happens all the time. Maybe there are some exceptions, but most grad students can reasily rearrange their time to do an internship. I worked a part time job for 5 years during grad school. Alas, it was not one that had alt-ac opportunities, but I think the point is it was a very doable thing.

Why do most grad students refrain from doing alt-ac opportunities:

1. There is a cultural norm against it.

2. Because there is a cultural norm against it, it is easy to deceive oneself and think you do not have time.

3. One sees it as "giving-up" on philosophy. It isn't. I know a friend who spent 6 years in an alt-ac job and then got hired on the tenure-track. Caring about alt-ac does not mean you do not care about philosophy.

4. People believe that they are obligated to put all their efforts into philosophy because this will greatly increase the odds of getting a TT hire. I think this is wrong. As so many posts have showed the job market is arbitrary - and I also think doing alt-ac work will not have a significant impact on job chances. Often I think it will help you as the experience can make you stand out.

5. Everyone believes they are the exception and will get an alt-ac job.

anon grad student

An alt-ac: Would you be willing to say more about what these non-academic organizations that might be interested in ethicists (broadly construed) might look like? I'm a grad student who's looking now to transition into something non-academic, and it'd be helpful to have some concrete examples of these organizations.


That was meant to say "everyone believes they are an exception and will get a TT job."

I suspect of the above reasons I listed, the strongest is the first one, and that if there was a cultural change in philosophy and there was no longer a norm against alt-ac work or alt-ac training (i.e. it wasn't seen as "leaving" philosophy but using your philosophical skills and training to take a different meaningful path)that this alone would change the mind of many grad students. Philosophers tend to care a lot about what people think of them, especially other philosophers and especially those in power. This is probably because our field is so strongly based on reputation. But I think it puts an obligation on those who were lucky enough to land a TT job to work hard to change the culture. I hope this can happen but I have my doubts.


Thanks for your apology Marcus, I happily accept, and appreciate all that you do to help graduate students. I think that something that might be helpful is *incorporating* alt-ac opportunities into the arduous process of getting a Ph. D rather than simply adding it. Two examples come to mind. One is Texas A&M’s Ph. D program, where you are required to get an MA in another discipline to receive the philosophy Ph. D. Another is to replace or supplant the language requirement with an interdisciplinary requirement, where students could either fulfill a language requirement *or* receive a certain amount of credits (through internships or otherwise) from another discipline. This would help incorporate the goal of alt-ac experience into the goals of a Ph. D student, and I think that grad students are less likely to be resistant to this, but even enthusiastic about it.

To everyone else who responded to me: of course I know that things are bleak. I read this blog. I think that there’s a real lack of empathy here. If you really want to make conditions better for graduate students, I recommend that you try to imagine what things are like from their perspective. The attitude here often seems to be: I have nothing to learn, because I’ve been a graduate student too. But maybe not everyone’s experience was like yours. Every graduate student I know has been told how bleak things are many times a year for several years. The original intenton of my post is to push back against the notion that graduate students are simply lazy oafs choosing not to do the pragmatic thing because they are deluded. If this was your experience, it is not mine. Most graduate students at the programs I’ve been at are working part time jobs not for extra spending money, but to get by: to be able to pay for (necessary) dental treatments, for food for their children, to be able to pay to travel to conferences since their program won’t fund them, or to save to be able to move on the slim chance they get a job.

Marcus Arvan

Hi gradstudent: Thanks for following up, and for accepting my apology. :)

I think your suggestions for incorporating alt-ac training into the philosophy PhD (dual degrees and interdisciplinary coursework) are good ones. I'm all for them. But I also still think programs should encourage alt-ac experience in the real world (viz. internships and part-time jobs). This, again, is because most jobs are found through networking and because (as several commenters above note) prospective employers favor candidates with actual industry experience, not just academic training.

On that note, it is good to hear that most of the grad students you know work part-time jobs. Even if it's just working in a restaurant (which my wife did), part-time jobs can open up an unexpectedly wide array of opportunities through the people you meet and befriend (people who have friends, friends of friends, and so on). I've seen these kinds of networks pay great dividends with my spouse's friends. In any case, if you're right that most philosophy PhD students have part time jobs, I think that is a welcome trend. When I was in grad school, I didn't know a *single* grad student in either program I was in who had a part-time job (besides adjuncting).When I was in grad school, the culture was '100% philosophy, 100% of the time...except when you're playing videogames, socializing, or engaging in whatever hobbies you have.'

Anyway, I think combining these two things--developing a culture in favor of part-time work *and* dual degrees/interdisciplinary training--would be an enormous improvement that would put philosophy grad students into a much better position on the whole.

On that note, let me say a couple of things about your concern about empathy. I can't speak for others, but speaking for myself I don't think the issue is that I lack empathy for grad students such as yourself. I had a terribly trying experience as a grad student. Grad school not only brought me to the proverbial end of my rope (I almost didn't finish), I also ended up with nearly $60K worth of debt (both credit cards and student loans)...which, fortunately, I've now all paid off (something I thought I would never be able to do).

The issue, I think, isn't lack of empathy. It's that I empathize *both* with grad students and those who have graduated but are now struggling on the job market, working low-paid adjunct jobs with no benefits, and leaving the profession dejected and hopeless (see Ben Sheredos' recent post on professional failure). As difficult as grad school was for me (and again, it was very, very difficult), my 7 years on the job market were a thousand times worse. I'm not exaggerating. At least in grad school I had friends and hobbies (playing music in a band) to offer some solace...all of which I lost when I had to move to new places and work myself to the bone only to get rejected from job after job for seven years straight. As 'A Philosopher' notes above, the job-market really can be a transformative experience...in the worst possible way (although perhaps not as bad as the transformative experience Sheredos details in his phenomenology of professional failure).

Anyway, this is what I think is going on. I truly empathize with you, and with every other grad student (to the extent that I can). I don't need to imagine what things are like from grad students' perspective. I *remember* what things are like from that perspective, very vividly in fact. I remember the days I felt hopeless about my dissertation; the days I felt like I would fail out of grad school and have nothing going for me at all; the credit card debt and student loans I had racked up; feeling like a failure every day; daily anxiety that I would be a disappointment to my parents, have to go live with them as a 30 year-old man, and live in constant embarrassment and regret; I could go on. I remember what it is like to be a grad student very, very well - the joys and the tears. Maybe things have changed. I don't know. What I do know is that I empathize as much as I possibly can.

But here, I think, is the crux of the matter. I don't just empathize with grad students like yourself. I also empathize with the person that you may become four or five years down the road, when you are *really* at the end of your rope on the job market, feeling totally hopeless and like you wasted the last 15 years (or whatever) of your life on a stupid dream (not saying it is a stupid dream, just that this is how it can feel). Because I've been there too. I know *that* standpoint better than I ever wanted to.

So what I'm really trying to do in all of this is to empathize with and help both groups of people: the people you are now (while in grad school) and the people you will become (when you finish or otherwise leave your programs). I may fail sometimes, as when I said the things that came across condescendingly. My exasperation then was not intended to directed at you per se (though, again, I'm sorry that it was in *fact* directed your way). My exasperation was that every time I've tried to discuss these issues and suggest ways to improve things, the response I've tended to receive has been resistance, both from faculty ('That's not our job!') and grad students ('I have too much to do'). I get frustrated sometimes *because* I empathize: because I know how difficult things can be as a grad student and as a job-marketeer, and because I know things will never change for the better unless and until people overcome these forms of resistance and *do* something to make things better!

A Philosopher

Well said, Marcus.


Just a few comments and thoughts in no particular order.

1. When I was a graduate student I worked about 60 hours a week on philosophy and teaching. Now, I think the market isn't merit based to the degree that I should have done this work, but at the time I thought this is what I needed to do to be competitive. I didn't have summers off either. I did have 'free' time I'd spend going out drinking with friends and other philosophers, but networking is important. So, I'm not sure these activities can be avoided if one is serious about the philosophy job market. Anyway, to whatever degree my experience generalizes to other graduate students, I'm not sure how they're supposed to fit in internships and alt-ac training.

2. This said, I like the idea of having combined PhDs, for example, philosophy and psychology, philosophy and physics, philosophy and computer science, etc. I see no reason why these kinds of degrees couldn't exist for students, and maybe they even do at some places. I also see no reason why one couldn't fit in a minor in the 5-7 years one is pursuing a PhD--it's just 5 classes. It would be good for philosophers to be exposed to other fields to a greater extent than many of them are, and this exposure may even help them transition if they leave academia.

3. I find mention of internships strange. This probably only goes to show how out of touch with reality I am--and I'm quite willing to admit that I am out of touch--but what would a philosopher intern for? I have heard of internships in law school, in finance (where they are required), and in other fields like programming, but every philosopher I know who left academia now works in a job that doesn't involve or require internships: civil service, entrepreneur, bar tender... From the research I've done, most of the jobs that philosophers go into don't require internships: real estate, technical writing (a small field), administration, government jobs (civil service). So, I'd just appreciate some examples of what kinds of internships we're talking about.

4. Whatever alt-ac work one does during their PhD, won't this be effectively meaningless on the market after 5 years of pursuing a TT job in philosophy? One will not have had any relevant experience in that field in 5 years, and that has got to be bad for one's resume. That is, I'm not sure if an internship in grad school is going to do much for one's alt-ac career after 5 years pursuing a TT job. I guess if one left sooner it would, but if one isn't going to try for at least a few years, then I'm not sure why one is bothering with the PhD in philosophy in the first place.


Internships would be in whatever field the philosopher would want to pursue after grad school. One can find opportunities by going to the career center, or simply looking at your email lots of times. I recall seriously considering a government summer internship that I got about by email.

I was a grad student all of 2.5 years ago. Grad students aren't lazy - they are humans motivated by most human motivations and cultural norms. But like Marcus, I have seen and continue to see the 60% of grad students who won't get jobs in horrible positions. Things should be different. I don't think it is a matter of just letting people make their own decisions, because decisions are hugely influenced by one's social environment. If it is within the typical environment to get an internship, far more people would do it, far more people would be with opportunities in years done the road, etc.

I feel empathy for grad students - I get how hard everything is and I wish things were different. But when you hear people repeatedly say "this is hard and I suffer", then others give advice about how to make it less hard and suffer less, and one is repeatedly meet with, "Well, I don't want/can't do that..." - it is hard to know what to say, especially when one finds it highly implausible that such and such can't be done. So yes, professors should listen to grad students. But maybe grad students should also listen to people who were themselves a few years ago. As Mill said we are the ones who have been in both places. If grad students don't listen, they will continue to suffer, and that is something I hate to see.

I have to say, I was in grad school less than 3 years ago and out of our cohort of 30-40 I think 3 of us had part time work. I also spent a period of 2 years at other grad programs, and the situation was similar. So if grad students are working part time, that is cool, but a bit surprising. Anyway, they should think about part time work that will help them in alt-ac situations. It is possible....

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

Philosophers in Industry Directory

Cocoon Job-Market Mentoring Program