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trade off

Long, knee jerk, stream of consciousness post ahead.

I am not unsympathetic to the idea that it would be good for graduate programs to do what they can to prepare their students for non-academic employment. Indeed, I am probably going to have to make that transition myself as I've been bouncing around from non-TT jobs for awhile and now, well, pandemic.

But it also strikes me as a somewhat strange proposal. Graduate programs in philosophy are programs that train people to be professional philosophers. I doubt anyone has put it quite this way, but philosophy graduate programs are vocational programs.

So, thinking that philosophy graduate programs should train their students to do things other than academic philosophy would be like thinking that a program for electricians at a technical college should train their students to be something other than electricians.

I imagine that most of the push back to this will come in one of two forms. Either people will be skeptical about whether graduate programs in philosophy *are* vocational in this sense or people will think that even though they are they *shouldn't* be. After all, the thing Marcus is advocating for is a claim about what departments should do.

Focusing on the normative claim, I'm just not so sure about it. From the point of view of particular students it seems like departments should do it. Very few students coming out of philosophy PhD students will have good academic job prospects anytime soon. So, for these students, it's in their interest to get trained to pursue non-academic employment.

But from a broader perspective it isn't obvious that departments should pivot in this way. Should we really reconfigure philosophy graduate programs to be programs whereby smart people who like to think hard about stuff and largely received BAs in philosophy are trained to get some kind of job?

I suppose that non-academic professional training could be incorporated into graduate programs in a way that does not disturb their core mission of training academic philosophers. But in that case it isn't obvious that that implementation would be any more effective than students availing themselves of the many online resources that already exist.

In any case, it does strike me that there is a trade off here that is worth thinking about.

I hope this doesn't come off as especially cold. If it does, just remember that I'm in the precarious situation that this proposal is aimed to address and that I'm not opposed to the proposal at the end of the day.

Marcus Arvan

Hey tradeoff: Speaking here as a department chair who has been involved in administration, the 15% decline in university enrollments in the next 5-10 years is expected to absolutely devastate higher education. Further, as we all know, humanities departments like philosophy are going to be the first to go. And COVID is likely to only make things worse.

So, to me, this is not a question about tradeoffs. I think that was the salient question 10 or 15 years ago. The question now is one of survival. I mean it. If philosophy departments don't start thinking ahead about ways to bring in more outside funding, it will be at our own peril. And, like it or not, industry ties are an excellent way to do that.

Finally, I don't think there really is any necessary tradeoff here. Many disciplines do both: prepare their MA and PhD students for academia, while at the same time preparing them for industry. I see no reason why there needs to be an 'either/or' here. Indeed, as I will detail in my next post on Monday, I think there are some really simple things that grad departments can do here to vastly improve their ability to place students in non-academic jobs--things that have literally nothing to do with "training" student for those jobs. So stay tuned!


Is it better to have philosophy departments that spend some time with professional development, or is it better to have no philosophy departments at all? The criticism against these proposals is usually grounded in some type of philosophical purism, however, insisting on "pure" philosophy often results in no philosophy at all.

Also, I think that philosophers focusing on professional non-academic jobs actually makes programs better philosophically. I often think a lot of philosophical arguments are flawed in that they are grounded in intuitions that are completely out of touch with the non-academic world. This would help keep philosophers in touch. It would help them see arguments and viewpoints that exist outside their small academic bubble.


Maybe this could be done not at the department level but as a service of the graduate school?

This is not singularly a problem for philosophy but reflects as you point out a consequence of drop in enrollment joined to an already existing oversupply of potential faculty for universities.

Put another way, it makes sense that departments full of philosophers who may not have other professional experience -- or at best haven't had it for a decade -- may not be up to speed on the non-academic world.

Maybe each GSAS should require each department to submit (a) proposals for collaborative jobs for graduates of their program and (b) support for pursuing non-academic jobs.


I would like to follow up on trade-off's remarks. I agree, to some extent. First, I do not think people who work in philosophy departments are really qualified to help their students with most alternative careers. Second, I think this is going to create an even more pronounced inequality between the VERY best programs and the others. I will explain. The best, MIT, Harvard and such will not change a thing. If students need help outside of the discipline they will be directed to other resources and offices on campus. But, if lower tier programs (even outside the top 25) do something to help people with alt careers, the faculty, the students, and the program will have to devote resources to this, which will set them on a course to not compete with other schools that stay focused. But, like Marcus, I think there is real pressure on 4 year colleges to make it look like philosophy grads can do anything. They need to make it look like their program is not a waste, and they ultimately need to court successful alum to give back. It is a terrible development, as far as I am concerned.

Marcus Arvan

Trader: you write, “The best, MIT, Harvard and such will not change a thing.“ I have heard through the grapevine that Rutgers’ PhD program (or at least their placement director) has already taken substantial steps to better prepare students for industry and cultivate industry ties. And for good reason: industry ties can promise to help departments, even the best ones. Setting aside outside donations for things like endowed chairs—which even the best departments love to have—Deans, Provosts, and college Presidents (the people who decide where university funds are allocated) absolutely love it if your PhD students get jobs at places like Google, etc. It not only looks good for the university. These are also the kinds of people who can turn out to be big donors for the university in the long run. Finally, top programs that better prepare students for industry to serve as a competitive advantage over other top-programs. For example, if Rutgers has an excellent academic and non-academic placement record due to spending more time on non-academic placement, chances are the best students would prefer to enter their program over another one that doesn't. If you were a brilliant grad student choosing between two top programs, which would you choose: one that places nearly all of its students somewhere (academic or non-academic, thanks to focusing on both), or one that only graduates about 50% of its students and only places 50% of them in academic jobs while leaving the remaining to flounder with no clear non-academic prospects? Any halfway sensible person would choose the former kind of program over the latter.

In short, there are all kinds of reasons to think that better preparing students for industry jobs and maintaining relationships with them is in the long term interests of even the best departments. I think the kind of status-quo-ism your comment suggests is deeply counterproductive. Funding for higher education (viz. tuition revenue) is expected to crater in coming years, and if more departments don’t start thinking ahead like Rutgers, I think it’s likely to come back and bite them (and the philosophical profession more broadly) in the worst kind of way.


Harvard and MIT grads can walk into jobs at places like McKinsey ... they are already certified for success. I do not think the philosophy faculty will change a thing, and I do not think that the top schools will suffer for it. Even TV shows like like Big Bang Theory aid in keep the luster on these places.
I think you are failing to see how pronounced the dividing line is between the top and the next tier.

Marcus Arvan

Hey trader: Well, Rutgers is ranked #2 in the Leiter report. But maybe you're right about Harvard and MIT grads. I really don't know. I'd be very curious to hear from some of them who left academia and how easy (or difficult) it was finding a good non-academic job after 5-7+ years in a PhD program. It's also worth recognizing that something like 50% of students who start a PhD program never finish--which raises the obvious question: how easy is it for those students who leave those programs before finishing to find a good non-academic job? Again, I don't have the answers--but I'd be very curious to from some who do.


The comments about, "philosophy professors aren't qualified to do this," drive me batty. They aren't. But the point is they can and should be. This does NOT mean philosophy professors must become experts in tech and project management. All it means is that philosophy professors should make efforts to cultivate relationships with alum in working in tech and project management. Connections couldn't be more important re employment. So philosophy professors simply keeping in touch with former students in non-academic jobs is all they need to be qualified to "prepare students for the non-academic market.' Of course philosophy professors are not going to give a lecture on project management. But what they can do is invite their former students to do that lecture (i.e. former students who are currently in project management, ) It really puzzles me why so many people think either (1) philosophy professors are incapable of this, or, (2) philosophy professors have no obligation to put effort into the non-academic market. Philosophy professors are capable, because it is as easy as just described, i.e. staying in touch with former students. And they are obligated insofar as they are knowingly taking in more graduate students than can reasonably be expected to get jobs, moreover, those graduate students labor for pathetic pay at the great benefit of the R1 professors.

There is nothing wrong with non-academic resources at levels beyond the philosophy department. But I think the philosophy department has a key role to play, insofar as they are much better placed to connect with their own former students. If I got an email from one of my former professors asking for help with their grad students, I would be far more likely to say yes then if I got that email form some administrator in the humanities (who I probably had never meet. )


Trade off: You wrote: “I doubt anyone has put it quite this way, but philosophy graduate programs are vocational programs.”

First, I’m going to go with your argument here and assume that those two types of programs are somewhat symmetrical insofar as they are both vocational programs.

However, even vocational programs differ in regards to being either more/less fixed or portable. By “portable” I mean that the knowledge (e.g. know-how, know-that) acquired can be applied in diverse areas outside of academic philosophy. Portability is the ability to which we can transfer or move something somewhere. For example, there are many philosophy PhD students who go on to go to law school, be on an ethics board, journalism, technology, etc. My point is that the skills (e.g. clear writing, analytical skills, logic, critical thinking, conceptual analysis, ethics, etc.) we gain in philosophy are probably more portable than an electrician’s unless they were also taught advanced mathematics or other things during their schooling. Arguing from the “vocational programs” premise seems unconvincing to me given the variety of non-academic jobs that a lot of philosophers or philosophy majors are in already. Thus, your argument here is unconvincing and misleading.

Second, you wrote: “So, thinking that philosophy graduate programs should train their students to do things other than academic philosophy would be like thinking that a program for electricians at a technical college should train their students to be something other than electricians.”

The key phrase you used is “to do things other than academic philosophy.” This is a strawman fallacy because I don’t think that’s what people are endorsing here. I think non-philosophy training and skills can be taught *alongside* philosophy or have them as *options* for students who may need them later on after they graduate.

Third, you wrote: “I suppose that non-academic professional training could be incorporated into graduate programs in a way that does not disturb their core mission of training academic philosophers. But in that case it isn't obvious that that implementation would be any more effective than students availing themselves of the many online resources that already exist.”

However, many if not most industries require some sort of formal certification from a school. Most jobs still require at least a GED or high school diploma, let alone more advanced or higher paying jobs. It’s hard to get a certification unless you’ve been enrolled in official classes or academic track already. I think a lot of philosophers who are lucky to get certain jobs were able to receive training on the job. From a personal perspective, I graduated with a philosophy degree, but will soon be working at Honeywell. Now I am lucky that Honeywell is willing to train me even though I have no prior formal education or experience in that area. I do wish more industries would train people more on the job instead of requiring the redundant past experiences criteria that is flooding the job market.

In an ideal world, people can be able to teach themselves and prove their competence by taking some sort of certification exam instead of having to enroll in formal classes. But then again, having that would decrease enrollment. I guess it’s unfortunate for independent minded people who would rather teach themselves.

You have people like Bill Gates and Elon Musk donating millions of dollars towards science related projects, programs, and schools. This is mostly because they value science and love it and so it’s obvious. You have musicians and singers donating money towards music and arts. It’s unfortunate that philosophers outside of academia are small. It’s even more unfortunate that most people including wealthy people don’t see the value in philosophy. Ironic because Mark Zuckerberg did endorse the idea of a universal basic income even though those types of ideas are often discussed within political philosophy. It’s ironic because he won’t fund philosophy as much or not at all compared to other areas like science and tech despite the fact that funding philosophy would actually help him advance some of his social justice ideals as these things are argued and discussed about in philosophy classes.

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