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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Steve
Steve
6 years ago

I think this is a valuable question to be asking, but I don’t think employed philosophers have any clue how to help those who leave. It’s not like we know people outside of academia we can just call up.

The most a department can do is ease the transition financially, by offering teaching positions while people look for other jobs. BUt even that is hard, because such positions are usually limited in supply.Report

Jennifer Frey
6 years ago

I have many friends who have left academia successfully. Lots of folks used to leave Pitt to go to fancy law schools (this is less of a great option now, given the new realities of that profession), and many of my friends have left to find careers in computer software development/web design, teaching at private academies (usually at high school level), journalism, i-banking, etc. Most of the people I know who have been successful also do not primarily self-identify as philosophers, and had been thinking of a “plan B” from the start. To be honest, I think everyone should have a plan B as a graduate student, and departments should lend basic support to students pursuing non-academic careers. Certainly they should be willing to write letters for students who are seeking alternatives, and to be flexible about dissertation deadlines if a student needs some time to get plan B going. I also think (and this is more controversial) that if the odds look really long on success for any particular student, professors should actively encourage leaving the job market for something more in the student’s best interests. If a student has been out on the market for 2-3 years, or if they have written a dissertation that will be extremely difficult to market, it’s time to encourage them to pursue other opportunities. To fail to do this is a dereliction of duty as an advisor.

In general, a department’s culture is healthier insofar as it is a place where one another’s well being is being tended to explicitly. Departments should care about how their graduate students are faring beyond “placement” issues. This is a matter of decency and basic self-interest, since a department is more likely to attract good students if it is generally known that students who enter the program leave employed, whether that employment is inside or outside of academia.Report

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cms
6 years ago

Using the example of European countries, I would even go further and argue that even successful PhDs might happily enter the professions, and not only after having been unsuccessful on the job market for a while. A PhD is also a title documenting that a candidate has shown excellence in a field that was initially new to him/her. Under certain additional conditions this qualifies for project management and leadership careers. Philosophers are also generalists who nevertheless can analyze highly abstract material in constantly changing contexts. (We write all this when recommending students to law school.) Yet all this also qualifies for science journalism or science management. A lot of my former colleagues in philosophy of science have found jobs there. In Germany and Austria, a doctorate is even more or less required if you want to reach the higher ranks in a journal, a publishing house, a science administration, or become principal of a prestigious school etc.Report

philgrad
philgrad
6 years ago

Thanks for bringing up this important topic! There’s a nice book called _”So what are you going to do with that?” Finding Careers Outside Academia_ that offers a few suggestions for humanities graduate programs in general, and I think these are absolutely worth considering in many philosophy graduate programs:

1) Find out what their previous graduate students are actually doing (both inside and outside of academia) and not just immediately after finishing the program but five or ten years later.

2) Create a listserv to put current graduates in touch with alumni who work outside of the academy.

3) Have alumni who work outside of the academy give colloquium talks.

As Jennifer Frey stated, there are a lot of philosophy PhDs who have successful non-academic careers. Philosophy departments should treat such alumni as valuable resources.

Another idea is that philosophy faculty should work to develop connections with people in administrative roles across the university and at neighboring colleges. We all like to (often justifiably!) bemoan the rise in administration at universities, but the fact is there are career opportunities in administrative roles (career centers, libraries, registrars, grants, technology, etc.). A PhD in philosophy obviously isn’t a golden ticket for a transition into a career in higher ed administration, but I do think there are opportunities there.

Finally, the APA has been much-improved in recent years, but they’re absolutely lagging in comparison with the AHA and MLA, when it comes to this issue. There is a committee on Non-Academic Careers, and you can get a sense of its sad state by reading its previous reports (and noting its lack of reports): http://www.apaonline.org/group/nonacademic . I think I saw on another blog that Amy Ferrer was looking to revive the committee. That’s a good first step; I might suggest inviting philosophy PhDs in non-academic careers to contribute in some way to the work of this committee.Report

anon grad
anon grad
6 years ago

Let them audit classes that have nothing to do with philosophy. If someone has to eventually get another degree to start a new career, you might as well let them get *some* of the background for free. Of course, this has to be balanced against finishing the degree, but it’s possible to finish on time while also taking a few classes outside philosophy.Report

Jeff
Jeff
6 years ago

This is difficult, because the problem Ph.D.s face when entering the real world is that they don’t have experience in the thing the job requires. You hear this over and over again. Very specific experience is valued. But each job will value a different sort of experience, so there isn’t a lot a department can do. Some of the discussion in the article linked here is relevant:

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/02/21/what-s-the-use-of-a-phd.htmlReport

Anonymous Graduate Student
Anonymous Graduate Student
6 years ago

I am a graduate student finishing up my PhD this year. Even though I have a few publication, have taught a few classes with good evals, and even won a couple of competitive awards, I do not intend to go on the job market next year. Throughout my graduate studies I have also worked in the non-profit sector, and will continue down that path. Given this history, here’s what I think departments (really this is not at the department level, but often the university level):

At least in my school, I got in the program with a 5-year funding package, but that came with the condition that I will not work outside the university, except for the summers. I can see why universities would want to do that, but this is utterly unhelpful if one is trying to keep up a viable plan B. I just went on and worked anyway. My grades were great, I was publishing and presenting at conferences (and I was TAing), so I did not see the problem.

Universities should stipulate what you need to accomplish in your graduate research, and then not care if you have another job. Otherwise, it’s very hard to develop any kind of plan B…Report

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Reply to  Anonymous Graduate Student
6 years ago

I guess what universities want to prevent primarily is that graduate students take up additional teaching jobs at local colleges. As understandable as this is given the poor financing, it delays the PhD and ultimately leads to more badly paid years of work. What worked in your case, is a clear argument to make the rules more adaptable. Even though it might not be easy to draw that boundary in terms of legal or administrative rules.Report