Helping Those Who Leave: What Can Departments Do?

For various reasons–personal, institutional, cultural, structural, etc.–some academics decide that the better course of action for them is to pursue careers outside of academia. Most PhD programs in philosophy, as far as I know, are not particularly interested in, or well set-up to be, helping their current students or recent graduates pursue non-academic careers. In part this is owed to the fact that placing such students in non-academic positions is largely irrelevant to a department’s standing in the reigning status hierarchy in the discipline. That is not an immovable fact about the discipline but it is a rather sticky one. Its stickiness is owed in part, I think, to various social factors and to the belief that while a PhD in philosophy could be useful for several kinds of careers, the only career one really needs the degree for is as a professor of philosophy. And so planning for non-academic futures for our grad students seems like planning for our students to fail to do what they are supposed to do, in a way that won’t yield any professional recognition in the discipline.

But, as the data reported here shows, nearly a fifth of PhD students drop out (at least — this was self-reported data by volunteering institutions, and I suspect the real number is higher) and on average, only about two-fifths of philosophy PhDs find employment as tenure-track professors. There are many more candidates (and really good ones, at that) for tenure-track jobs than there are such jobs, and it would seem that those involved in the production of these candidates should do something about this state of affairs.

Two perennial suggestions, apart from the now-common (I hope) practice of informing prospective and incoming graduate students of just how dire the employment situation is, is to admit fewer PhD students, or shut down some so-called “low-quality” PhD programs. I am not a fan of either of these suggestions. Against the first, I’d say that having a good-sized cohort helps create a more valuable academic experience for the graduate students, and also allows for a greater range of course offerings at institutions that have minimum enrollment requirements for courses. Against the second, I’d say that measuring the quality of programs is a complicated and controversial business, that even given some metric of quality programs improve or worsen over time, that there is value in having a diverse array of kinds of PhD programs, and that such diversity would likely be threatened by the application of a criteria that purported to provide a qualitative assessment of programs for the purposes of shutting some down. This is not to deny that some departments are better than others. But it is to say that I don’t think that on balance, much good at all would come from attempts to shut some down for the sake of the jobs problem. And in any event, even if these suggestions were taken up and had the salutory effects their proponents envision, they would not entirely solve the structural problem, nor address the other reasons people leave academia, and so there would still be a problem to address.

I think it would be helpful to hear ideas about what departments can do, or have been doing, to help current students or recent graduates find non-academic careers. Maybe some brainstorming is in order. And perhaps we can draw from other professions, such as the arts or athletics, which also are structured to leave many aspirants lacking the jobs their training seemingly best prepares them for.

(There are some places online that might be helpful to those interested in leaving academia. The Unemployed Philosopher’s Blog is a good resource. So is Alternative PhD, which has a page that lists a number of others. Here is another list. The APA has a page on nonacademic careers, but apparently it has not been updated since 2002.)

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