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a philosopher

"Some readers might respond that giving special consideration to 2020-21 graduates would be unfair to candidates already on the market (who have had to deal with a bad job-market to begin with). However, for my part, I am optimistic that a policy of giving 'special consideration' to COVID-era PhDs wouldn't lead people to discriminate against prior job-candidates, but instead serve primarily to remind search committees that they shouldn't discriminate against COVID-era graduates (since, as many people have noted, CV gaps in particular and underemployment seem to be routinely held against academic job-candidates)."

I don't see how these points add up. Many of us currently on the job market have gaps in our academic employment precisely because we're *still* part of that backlog from the 2008 recession. Shouldn't we be reminding search committee members that they shouldn't be holding gaps against *anybody*? I find it hard to believe that an explicit policy of COVID19-era PhDs receiving special consideration won't translate into discrimination against all of us already on the market, part of the current backlog, with gaps. It seems like such a policy is an easy way to search committee members to ease their survivor's guilt: "oh, well, I can sleep easy now at night knowing I'm doing my part to act justly w.r.t. our unemployed PhDs --- after all, I'm being empathetic to the plight of COVID19er's!!"

I do like the other suggestions, although I think they raise an obvious question: why haven't we been slowing PhD admissions anyway, to ease the already tremendous backlog of unemployed and underemployed PhDs? (Alternatively, why haven't we been retooling our PhD training to lead to alternative careers outside academics?)

I know this reply has been a bit negative. I didn't quite mean it that way. I think this is an important discussion and a good start to it. Thanks for that Marcus.

I guess I'm also just generally skeptical of the discipline's ability to change quick enough to help the COVID19ers. (After all, change has been super slow in the wake of the 2008 recession, what with the huge backlog currently on the job market.) I'm skeptical of the profession's ability (at large) to act in ways that go against their own immediate self interest (e.g., cutting PhD admissions), or to radically conceptualize their role (e.g., by retooling their programs to train people for careers outside professional philosophy).

I'll end by saying that I look forward to reading the more positive, creative, and helpful suggestions of others.

Marcus Arvan

a philosopher: I think all of your concerns are good ones. I do think that the new PhDs who will be coming out after COVID-19 (this fall and next year) will probably experience something quite unlike what you or I experienced as a result of the Recession. Yes, our job market fell by about 50% over several years. But the next year or two could (or so it seems to me) conceivably result in something far worse (a 90% drop)? This is of course merely a matter of degree (50% was pretty bad, I know all too well!). But still, maybe we *should* have had something like this very policy ("special consideration for Recession PhDs") for the same reason then. Saying we shouldn't have such a policy now because it would be unfair to you, me, and other Recession grads seems to me sort of akin to saying that we shouldn't eliminate student loan debt now because people in the past had to pay their debt. At some point, I think we need to admit: in a nonideal world, there is no perfectly fair solution. Someone is going to have to get treated unfairly. But, moving forward, we need to do *something* to make things more fair (otherwise nothing will ever change!), and so maybe adopting something like this policy now would be the *fairest* thing to do (even if, again, it's not perfectly fair).

I dunno. Like I said, I think all your concerns are good ones. I have just struggled to come up with anything better! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

a philosopher

Marcus: That's a reasonable argument. Thanks for expanding on your reasoning.

Derek Bowman


I don't think the fairness issue is that we would be doing something to help graduates in the current/coming recession than we didn't do for graduates of the previous recession. It's that - if this preference has any force - we'd be favoring current graduates struggling to find stable work over graduates from the previous recession who are *still* struggling to find stable work. It's hard to see how this would be fair looking purely at the here and now.

So it seems the proper analogy would be a policy of study loan forgiveness for those who graduated in 2020-21 but not for other graduates still struggling to pay off their student loans.

Overall, I agree with your (1) and (2), though I think (2) has some downsides. For people in the right position, graduate school can be a good way to ride out a recession.

But (3) makes no sense to me. Clearly what is needed is a change in norms that recognizes the irrationality of holding 'gaps' or 'years on the market' against candidates across the board. That's what fairness going forward would look like.

Marcus Arvan

Thanks Derek, like I said in the OP I'm not wedded to this proposal, and I think your and "a philosopher"'s concerns are good ones.

How about then instead of 3 search committees adopt an explicit policy to state in ads that CV gaps and/or underemployment since the Great Recession and in the COVID-19 will be discounted? That could of course be worth little more than the "paper it is written on"--but perhaps putting it explicitly in their ads might remind them of it when it becomes time to make decisions. I dunno.

Illusion of Terra

I'm not certain how this works in the US, but one possible option in Europe is to apply for grants to fund your own research position. I think it would be great if graduate schools would support current PhD students to do so, possibly on top of extending their stipends. Generally, to me it doesn't seem like research groups do not want new postdocs, but rather that they can't afford them.
This of course would only help a small section, but it might be at least something. It is different when it comes to vaps or tenured professorships, though.


Marcus, let's say your 90%-loss estimate is correct: next year's market will have only 10% of the traditional jobs we saw this year.

If that's right, I think the philosophy community is in for a much more radical shock than anyone now can get their head around. Your suggestions to give all PhD students another 2 years of funding and stop admitting new students for 2 years is radical --- but probably not radical enough.

I think to be effective these measures will need to be matted with a radical reconceptualization of how philosophy programs run. We need to stop only training PhD students to be philosophy professors (or, at least, philosophy professors on the traditional model). Rather: programs need to encourage students to write dissertations which tackle issues of relevance to industries outside academia, students need to looking for ways to integrate their philosophical talents into these alternative workspaces, taking internships, fostering collaborations with people in business, etc.

Perhaps all that sounds radical. I know in years past when I heard people say those things I wrote it off as silly; philosophy is about that stuff we publish in Mind and Phil Review. But I think there are now many models of how philosophy can expand and be relevant. In my own field (philosophy of mind), it's now standard that everyone does interdisciplinary work integrated with psychology and neuroscience. There are now all sorts of research centers focused on philosophical (but applied) topics like existential risk, climate change, AI & privacy, etc. (See, e.g., 80,000hrs.) This year the job market included, seemingly out of nowhere, *a lot* of ads looking for those specialized in intersection of AI, big data, ethics, and society. I somehow suspect that in the coming year we're going to see demand for medical ethicists and others working on the real-world impacts of pandemics. Presumably the epistemology of statistical modeling is about to get a lot hotter as well, or topics in economics and monetary policy. Another example not tied to current events: Although it's in the very early stages, I'm trying now to apply my own work on perception to practical problems faced by athletes and performance artists. I really don't see why creative individuals can't survey the landscape around them (e.g., searching national grants, talking to private-sector researchers, etc) to find interesting, compelling, and philosophically rich research programs of practical value.

I get that all this sounds really weird to those who have only ever operated in the bubble of academic philosophy. I used to be that person. But as someone who's been in and out of philosophy for five years now, I've met a lot of really cool, compelling individuals doing all sorts of interesting stuff with philosophical flavor. Much of this stuff is practical, either having value for nonprofit work that helps people, or turning a profit in industry.

Here is my actual suggestion for how to kick start the necessary retooling we need as a discipline. We need to stop basing professional rewards (research prestige, tenure, workshop invitations, etc) on just publications in philosophy journals. If philosophy professors are expected to go out and actually engage with the community (e.g., starting collaborative projects with nonprofits and industry), and we reward these things equally with publications in philosophy journals, then faculty at our PhD programs will naturally come to be placed to help their students develop their own applied projects. Right now it's hard for anyone to imagine how we could train PhDs to be anything but philosophy professors because all we ourselves do (for the most part) is teach classes and publish in philosophy journals. But if faculty cultivated their own integrative applied projects, they would naturally develop the skills, ideas, and connections needed to properly and responsibly shepherd cohorts into profitable careers outside philosophy. This will require a lot of entrepreneurial work on the part of faculty, but change isn't easy.

Look, if Marcus is right about the job market, philosophy as a discipline might be looking at its own death in the next ten years. Philosophy departments around the nation are already shuttering, and have been since 2008. If philosophers want to save themselves they need to stop cloistering and become relevant or valuable to society in new and interesting ways. Unfortunately, funds from student tuition won't be there much longer to fund most of our salaries. We need philosophy faculty who can pay part of their own salaries via grants or other collaborations with the private sector, and unless we're to totally fail our students, we need to position them to take on careers outside philosophy. (These are already things being done by many other disciplines, who fund themselves and position their PhDs for life outside the academy.)

I know some faculty are already doing these sorts of things, and there are lots of really interesting things happening right now in philosophy, but my sense is it's not nearly enough.

My comments here are mostly about philosophy in the US. Grants and interesting collaborations with those outside academic philosophy are much more common outside the US, of course.

set to graduate next year

I worry how feasible even (1) is. If universities are having to cut budgets in response to refunding room and board, lower returns on invested endowments, and anticipated reduction in enrollment next year -- to the point that they are putting hiring freezes in place -- why think that there will be enough available funds to extend funding for graduate students? Of course that would be the humane thing to do, but is it feasible?

My other worry is that these hiring freezes will mean that there won't even be enough short-term, NTT positions available to hold new graduates over (as well as older graduates still searching for permanent positions) for the next few cycles. A lot of philosophers might be pushed out of academia altogether because there simply aren't enough resources to keep them afloat in any form. Or am I being dramatic?

a philosopher

"My other worry is that these hiring freezes will mean that there won't even be enough short-term, NTT positions available to hold new graduates over (as well as older graduates still searching for permanent positions) for the next few cycles. A lot of philosophers might be pushed out of academia altogether because there simply aren't enough resources to keep them afloat in any form. Or am I being dramatic?"

That's already been the situation the last decade. There already aren't enough short-term, NTT positions available to hold people on the market over. The difference is that, presently, something like 30-40% of people are being pushed out of academia altogether, while the consequences of the upcoming hiring freezes might mean that percentage doubles.

So, no, you're not being dramatic.

set to graduate next year

"The difference is that, presently, something like 30-40% of people are being pushed out of academia altogether, while the consequences of the upcoming hiring freezes might mean that percentage doubles."

Yeah, it was the thought that the percentage might double that worried me.

Nervous Undergrad

Thanks so much for this helpful post. As a college junior about to apply to philosophy grad programs next year, I suppose this post makes me really nervous - philosophy admissions are incredibly competitive as is, and adopting policies to stop or massively reduce the intake of new candidates would mean twice the number of people competing for a spot. So I guess my question is, how likely do you think universities will adopt a policy like this in the coming cycle? Is it likely enough that I should probably stop spending so much time working on my application (I was going to get a part-time job this summer to focus on my writing sample and GREs in the remaining time) and start looking for realistic opportunities elsewhere? How worried should I be about my prospects next cycle?

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