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08/15/2019

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Academic

I find this a bit off-putting. I suspect that it may betray a bit of unrecognized privilege on Kevin's part, who I gather is the child of academics. I am the child of parents who were married at 16 and 20; and my paternal grandparents had a grade 6 and grade 8 education. I have a PhD and a career in philosophy now. I pursued a PhD on the long shot that I could have an academic career. Of course I did not know what I was entering (we seldom do). But it would have been a failure - a profound failure - not to get an academic job. So this idea that we are now going to talk to students as if such disappointments are not real strikes me as a grave mistake. Sure, some students might not want an academic career. And it is not a good fit for many people - including many who get one. But it is quite odd to turn this around into something it is not.

Marcus Arvan

Academic: I'm the son of two first-generation Americans (and first-generation college students) who got married at the age of 22 with $27 dollars between them, and whose parents only had the equivalent of a high school education. I don't find the post off-putting at all. On the contrary, I think I agree with basically every word of it.

All my parents ever wanted for their two sons is for us to be happy. Are they proud that I received a PhD and have gainful employment as an academic? Yes. Would they have been proud of me had I received a PhD--or even left early with an MA--and instead gotten a good career in industry? I am absolutely certain they would. On a related note, only about 50% of PhDs from my spouse's top-2 program in another field go into academia. The other half get excellent careers in industry. Nobody regards them as failures, certainly not themselves. This is because their discipline trains their students for both, and doesn't treat those who go into industry as failures.

Our discipline could learn from hers. According to the ADPA report, only 34.7% of philosophy PhDs get permanent academic jobs within three years of graduation. On your reasoning, that makes 65.3% of philosophy PhDs "profound failures". By my lights, this is a terribly unhealthy and counterproductive way for people in a discipline with these kinds of job numbers to think.

Daniel

In addition to everything Kevin and Marcus have said, one potential benefit of shifting the profession such that non-academic employment is much more of an expected and celebrated outcome is that philosophical study at all levels might grow in esteem.

Right now, people tend to think a BA in philosophy is useless and a PhD in philosophy is a joke, and we certainly don't help things by treating a PhD in philosophy as a waste unless one secures academic employment, which is nearly impossible to secure. When we say "a PhD is no good unless you're a professor" we're effectively agreeing with people that a PhD is worthless, because it's tough to be a professor!

Perhaps if we didn't treat people as failures for doing something else with their PhD, everyone (philosophers and non-philosophers alike) could wake up to the value that philosophy has outside of academia. (If in fact it has such value...)

Helen De Cruz

Academic: I think what makes not getting an academic job is in part a social reality - when all our advisers, fellow grad students etc say that you fail if you don't get an academic job, it becomes a social fact that you've failed.
I liked this post and agree with most of it - particularly with the need for fostering a culture change.
I'm a first generation college student like Marcus. I'm from a working class background. My sister and I both got PhDs. My sister got a PhD in physics - only one student in her cohort (out of five) got an academic job. The others went to the banking sector, startups, and in her case, meteorology. She now works for a governmental agency that studies long-term climate change. My parents definitely think my sister has the more prestigious job. I'm just an academic (my parents say "She teaches" - which is indeed what I do to a large extent).
By being socialized in grad school we come to think it's the end of our lives if we don't get an academic job. But as Kevin points out, an academic job is not for everyone. I know tenured academics who are miserable. They hate teaching, they feel burned out for research. Even among us more lucky ones who like teaching, getting to make syllabi this time of year fills us with dread (check the many memes on social media). So I'm going with: sure, academia is wonderful, but to pretend that anything but academia is a failure presents a warped field of reality which isn't accepted in many fields but somehow we humanities people buy into it. And by doing so, we're selling ourselves short.

Amanda

This is a great post. And I guess I don't really understand "an academic's" post. First, just because you would have considered yourself a failure if you didn't get an academic job doesn't mean everyone else would, or should. Second, if someone has parents from the lower-socio economic end of the spectrum, why on earth wouldn't those parents consider one of the many white collar jobs that philosophers get after a Phd, and that often pay much better, and that are also typically closed-off to those with only a high school diploma...why wouldn't those be just as much a success as an academic job? (I could go on about my own underprivileged background, but I don't like this sort of thing. I see it as this weird reverse elitism that presumes those from elite backgrounds don't understand struggle, or hard work, or difficulties, which is...false. Philosophers who have "privileged" backgrounds, who get a Phd in philosophy, and then struggle on the job market, I have no reason to think they aren't as hurt and disappointed as those from less privileged backgrounds.)

Upon entering grad school, most philosophers enter a bubble where the vast majority of the time we interact only with other academics. This, I think, gives us a very skewed view of how special academic jobs really are. The most famous and prestigious philosophers in the profession typically aren't known from Adam outside of the academy, or even outside of philosophy. And yet both these famous philosophers themselves and others in the discipline give them this rockstar status that is largely an in-group created fantasy, a cult worshiping the enlightened masters.

Lastly, it is simply a fact that most philosophy PhDs will not get academic jobs. So if we are halfway decent and caring human beings, we should be concerned that these very talented philosophers have a happy and fulfilling career, and respect from the philosophy profession to which they devoted so much effort.

Malcolm

People seem to be talking past one another. “It would have been a failure not to achieve goal x” is not the same as “I consider myself a failure not to have achieved goal x.”

An academic’s point seems to just be the first. It is possible to say that in getting a PhD one aims at a certain result that, if you don’t achieve it, constitutes failing to meet a goal that is very important to you and which you are very disappointed not to achieve. This doesn’t mean a secondary goal wouldn’t be useful to have, or even fulfilling to get.

That said, I took part of the post just to be saying not to assume what people’s primary aim is with their PhD. This seems compatible with someone wanting a tenure track job and being disappointed they don’t get it.

Academic

Thank you Malcolm: "People seem to be talking past one another. “It would have been a failure not to achieve goal x” is not the same as “I consider myself a failure not to have achieved goal x.”"
This is right.
So contrary to what Amanda suggests - "So if we are halfway decent and caring human beings ..." - I am a halfway decent and caring human being (but JUST halfway).
My point is that we must recognize people's disappointment. People are often coming to graduate school with the aim of becoming professors, however unrealistic that might be. And there is bound to be a sense of disappointment when one realizes that goal is not going to be realized, even if one tries to recalibrate or redirect themself to another goal.

Amanda

Malcom, that's all true. And it is very understandable if anyone who wanted a TT-job, and then didn't get one, goes through a period of feeling like a failure. That is part of the human experience of setting goals and not achieving them. But I also think that a significant difference could be made if the culture of the philosophy profession had a different outlook toward non-academic jobs. If, for instance, the environment was one in which those in the academia showed real respect and admiration for philosophers with alt-ac careers. All sociological evidence suggests that, for most persons, our sense of self-worth, whether we feel like we won or lost in life, etc., is very closely associated with our social group's judgments on the same matters.

Jennifer

I thought this was a great post. I had to leave academia due to illness and for a very long time I felt like a failure. I didn't doubt there were things I could do beyond academic philosophy, thanks to the wonderful training I got from my departments (Stetson and UNF, respectively). In fact, UNF's MA program is specifically geared towards thinking about issues outside academia and prepares one for a non academic career (say, as a Chief Ethics Officer). While I do think academia should become more tolerant to people who have to take time off due to illness, for example, I also think there are many rewarding careers outside academia where a PhD in philosophy may thrive. I have found that a lot of my academic work is respected and appreciated outside academia. I had trouble converting a CV into a resume and learning "less stuffy" prose for emails, but at the moment, I feel as though, even though it was dumb luck I got sick and had to leave academic philosophy, it turned out to be alright. I still get to enjoy and participate in discussions, as the one here. I know enough to read philosophy on my own time and I even, sometimes, get to incorporate philosophy into my work outside academia. Thanks for this post. I actually makes me feel welcome and a kindred with academic philosophers--after a few years of feeling like a failure.

Waldemar

This is a terrific post, with a great awareness of the subtle and not so subtle ways graduate study sets some people up for failure. I do want to add that the non-academic job market is going to look different for individuals in different specialties of philosophy, with most of the author's experience seemingly on the formal side of philosophy. So it's hard to generalize about non-academic careers, even just for philosophy PhDs, much less about other academic fields.

Anonymous

I agree with this post to the extent that it points out a kind of cultural elitism that exists in academic philosophy that's harmful to our students. However, I do not agree that we should continue to pump out double or triple or quadruple the number of PhDs actually needed. There are two reasons I think this:

1. It does a lot of harm to people. Young and bright intellectual high achievers will believe that they can beat the odds and so dedicate a decade of their lives to a goal that they are likely to not succeed at. It doesn't help that parents and professors almost always encourage ambition in young people. The idea that people can psychologically simply move on or do all this work while maintaining a reasoned and healthy stance that the odds are against them is unrealistic. That's not how (most?) humans' minds work. I had to believe I would succeed to do the work.

2. A PhD in philosophy is not nearly as marketable as some let on. I have a PhD and since giving up on academia I have really struggled to find satisfying employment (that is, anything other than entry level boring jobs). You don't need a decade of education to get these jobs. People who think differently need to carefully consider the kinds of jobs actually available to someone with a PhD in philosophy leaving academia, especially someone who doesn't have a STEM background.

Sure, programs can do a lot to make it less awful for those who end up leaving after dedicating years of their lives to the profession. They can do this by being less elitist and maintaining connections outside academia and so on. I support such efforts. However, none of this is going to solve the problem: the philosophy job market is horrible; many people currently dedicate a decade of their lives to the profession to only be kicked out in the end or relegated to "half-citizen" status.

Amanda

I agree that even though I think all the ideas in the post are good ones, there is still a problem with over-producing philosophy Phds. Anonymous is right insofar as there are low odds that we can change the culture to the extent needed. I think we can change it some, and we should try very hard to do this. But if the numbers of Phds and jobs available stay the same, or even get worse, there will still be a significant number of struggling unemployed /underemployed philosophers.

Given the above, I think grad programs have a responsibility to limit the number of students they take-in, especially those with poor placement records. It is unrealistic, and also, I think, unnecessary, to expect Phd programs to close. But it seems much more plausible that they commit to accepting less students. For some programs a smaller cohort can even result in a friendlier, tighter-knit community.

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