If You Want to Do Good, Should You Get a Philosophy PhD?


Suppose you wanted to choose a career based on how much good it will allow you to do. Assessing careers with that in mind is one of the aims of 80,000 Hours, a non-profit organization co-founded by philosopher Will MacAskill. The group looks at four aspects of a job: (1) Role Impact — the extent to which the career enables you to help others; (2) Career Capital — the extent to which the career allows you to develop skills, connections, and credentials useful for pursuing future opportunities; (3) Personal Fit — how well you’ll do at the job; and (4) Job Satisfaction — whether you’ll enjoy the work. They recently applied this framework to pursuing a PhD in philosophy:

Philosophy, especially some areas within ethics and political philosophy, is plausibly a high-value area for research, and, if one is successful within philosophy, may also provide a good basis for impact via being a public intellectual. However, because of the current nature of the academic job market for philosophy, and because a philosophy PhD scores poorly in terms of career capital and keeping one’s options open, we currently believe that a philosophy PhD is unlikely to be the best choice for the vast majority of people who are considering that option. It’s important to note that almost all professional philosophers who have written publicly on this topic advise against aiming to become a philosopher as a career, unless “there is nothing else you can imagine doing.”…

You can read the entire “career profile” for Philosophy PhDs here, and a post at the 80,000 Hours blog summarizing it, by MacAskill. He emailed me about them, and asked that the Daily Nous readership take a look and provide some feedback.

There are very interesting questions to take up here regarding  how pursuing a career in philosophy measures up along each of the four aspects. Regarding philosophy’s “role impact” (beneficence), MacAskill seems to think that some philosophical developments can produce a lot of good, but that such developments are rare and brought about by a very small number of philosophers. He thus discourages the choice of philosophy PhD unless you get into a very good program (more on that below). If his advice were taken seriously, there would be many fewer philosophy PhDs. Yet I wonder how large the philosophical community needs to be in order to produce the excellent, high-impact philosophy he favors. Such work is not developed in a vacuum.

Just as interesting is his take on philosophy’s negative impact. Here are his examples in the blog post: “Marx helped give rise to Communism, which was a Bad Thing; Nietzsche heavily influenced National Socialism which was a Very Bad Thing; Ayn Rand gave rise to Objectivists who are, like, really annoying.”

MacAskill also makes much of the fact that philosophers—often highly successful ones—warn people away from the career. Here’s a representative quote he lifts from The Philosophy Smoker:

If you find that the quality of your life is lowered by having a profession where you constantly feel mediocre, like you’re not doing enough, like others are better than you, like your work is valueless, GET OUT NOW. No, seriously. It only gets worse after grad school, in my experience. You’re looking at a lifetime of rejections. That’s what professional philosophy is: an incredible string of rejections, with rare successes in between. And even if you DO avoid rejection (your paper is accepted to a conference! It gets published! You even write a book!), guess what? The best you can hope for is for others to attempt to prove that you’re wrong.

What if you’re going to go ahead and do it anyway? The full profile includes this bit of blogospheric bait:

We would recommend pursuing philosophy as a career only if one has explored and rejected other career options, and only if you get into a top-twelve PhD program: Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Oxford, NYU, Pittsburgh, Princeton, Rutgers, Stanford, UCLA, and Yale.

Why those 12?

We haven’t investigated this in as much depth as we would like, and we’re not convinced about the reliability of the data, which is often patchy. However, we estimate that the chances of ending up in a tenure-track or equivalent academic post if you enter a top-12 PhD program to be about 60%…. We came up with this list by taking the product of the Philosophical Gourmet Guide’s mean scores of departments (as a measure of quality of position obtained after receiving the PhD) multiplied by the probability of entering a tenure-track or equivalent position according to Jennings’ placement data. We then added in Oxford (which wasn’t included in Jennings’ placement data but would certainly have made the top ten if it were), and Pittsburgh (which performs well in a ranking of departments by how many junior philosophers in top-20 Gourmet guide departments the department has placed). This isn’t intended to be a definitive top-12 ranking; if you’re considering doing a PhD in philosophy it’s worth consulting the Jennings data, the Gourmet Guide, and finding out as much as you can about the individual departments to see what’s a good fit for you.

I appreciate the “not-definitive” disclaimer. In my view, which 12 schools are on this list is the least interesting thing about this whole post, but if that is what you want to argue about, be my guest. I will note, though, that the youngest of the examples MacAskill gives of a high-impact philosopher, Nick Bostrom, didn’t go to any of these schools. The philosopher who clearly inspired this project, and who is also mentioned on the list, Peter Singer, did (he got a B.Phil at Oxford). He is a very high-impact philosopher, but it is worth recalling what he has said about why he went into philosophy:

Perhaps what swung the decision towards philosophy was that the philosophy department’s faculty and students used to get into lots of interesting debates in the local pub on important issues like morality, God, free will…  I wanted to think about the Big Questions.

It isn’t clear he was going for impact. If he was, would he have chosen philosophy?

So, should one choose to pursue a philosophy PhD? Lots to discuss here.

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