Would You Do It Over Again?


Philosophy professors and graduate students: think back to when you decided to study philosophy seriously, or to try to make a career out of being a philosopher. Suppose you could travel back to that time and had only a few moments to answer one question from your past self, who asks you, “Should I try to be a philosopher?” How would you answer?

While I won’t require it, I would encourage people to sign their names, or at least describe their current status in the profession, as that might help readers get more out of the posted answers.

(The question is owed to Michaela McSweeney, who discussed it with some friends online a short while ago.)

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Jennifer Frey
6 years ago

I would do it again, absolutely. I would tell my past self to have more confidence, finish grad school more quickly, and work harder on my Greek, but that’s about it.Report

Sleeper
Sleeper
6 years ago

Is it better to be a fool satisfied? I found graduate school really worthwhile and so it is hard to say to my previous self, “don’t do it,” but I am not sure it is a good career choice. You are never off duty: there is always something else to read or write or prepare for, and it is not as if you need any special equipment, so there is never any excuse to not be working. Taking that plus the competitive pressures of academia (I am just a few years into a tenure track position) and I feel like I fluctuate between three states: working, feeling guilty that I am not working, and sweet sweet sleep. Maybe I would be happier with a 9-5 job.Report

K Culpepper
K Culpepper
6 years ago

I think it would be useful to separate the task of philosophy from a career in academia. I left a philosophy PhD program to work for an investment bank and later for positions in government. I do not regret leaving academia because it did not suit my personality. (Although finding people who have studied philosophy seriously outside of academia is quite difficult, even in the information age.)

But I certainly do not regret having studied philosophy either and I believe it is fair to say it will be a lifelong passion of mine, along with studying languages. The fact that I had devoted so much time to considering what is necessary to live a good life, what constitutes fairness, etc. has helped me so much in policy-making. I think my public contributions are better than they would have been otherwise and it is easy for me to cut through poor arguments and help other people focus on what is at stake. I can’t think of any other background that would have prepared me as well as philosophy for what I do now.Report

sisyphilosophy
Reply to  K Culpepper
6 years ago

“I left a philosophy PhD program to work for an investment bank… I had devoted so much time to considering what is necessary to live a good life”.

I find – unless this was a utility-headed ‘earning to give’ pursuit of a career with maximal financial returns, and thus the ability to effect the maximal good altruistically – this a curious combination. If that indeed wasn’t your motivation, how do you square the circle of the good life and being an investment banker?Report

K Culpepper
K Culpepper
Reply to  sisyphilosophy
6 years ago

Why would you say that? I took a job at an investment bank and was dissatisfied because it did not fit with my sense of living the good life. I was in my mid-20s when I made that decision for crying out loud. But the skills I learned there make me very effective at protecting the population I serve now. It’s pretty superficial and petty to assume that having clients means you are a greedy person. And one of the fun things about high finance is that is more or less a giant logic game.Report

sisyphilosophy
Reply to  sisyphilosophy
6 years ago

Sorry for any offence, my probing was for – as stated – curiosities sake. I wondered how you personally reconciled the two. I did not make any claim on your character, as ‘greedy’ or otherwise. I’m glad that you are happy.Report

anonanonanon
anonanonanon
6 years ago

After a combined total of 10 years in grad school and in several temporary positions (still) as I search for a more permanent position, I’d have to advise, “don’t do it.”Report

Fritz Allhoff
Fritz Allhoff
6 years ago

Absolutely! It’s an amazing way to spend a career. Got tenure-track job straight out of graduate school, early tenure, having a ton of fun. Advice? Pick marketable areas, be broad, publish a lot. Easily the three biggest trouble spots with application dossiers.Report

mid-career
mid-career
6 years ago

This is a tricky question.

I write as a mid-career philosopher who has done pretty well. I’m teaching at an R1 school, have active research projects on the go, and have excellent students, both grad and undergrad.

But I recognize that a lot of the reason I am here is due to luck. Had the right position not opened up at the right time, I would not have this job, and probably not any job nearly as good. Many of my peers from graduate school who were as talented or more talented than me have failed to find a position that suits them. So I recognize that there are nearby possible worlds in which I would probably not be enjoying philosophy as much.

I guess I would still do it over again, however, even granting that things might not go as hoped. Isn’t this the case with all our choices? Don’t we always realize that things might not break our way, and that a lot of life is outside of our control? I think I knew this as a beginning graduate student, and I was keeping my fingers crossed.Report

Dissatisfied Faculty
Dissatisfied Faculty
6 years ago

I would NOT do it over again. I am almost overwhelmed by the dissatisfaction and accompanying stress of being a mid-career, middling-quality (alas most of us are middling quality!) academic stuck in a city I don’t particularly like working at a university I don’t particularly like.

The pay is quite low in comparison with many of my friends and family, some of whom did not finish college but instead started businesses. I also lost most of the earning potential of my 20s to the low pay of graduate school. (On the other hand, I had an absolutely wonderful time in graduate school – it was a very exciting time of discovery and camaraderie. That didn’t last into my career, though!)

Alas, today, I find the academy stultifying. Philosophy’s ridiculous star system disgusts me (it has got to be the worst in all of the humanities). My guess is that the same 75 – 100 professors (of all ranks) and the latest golden grad students get invited to the hot-shot conferences. It’s a rotating cast of characters that might seem diverse in virtue of the rotation, but it isn’t diverse at all.

As a mid-career professor, it is very difficult to move to a different university. One might move to a less prestigious university/department but then one will probably suffer a salary reduction. On top of dragging people you love to a new town the financial strain can be terrible for marriages and family.

On the other hand, I do love teaching. In fact, the highlight of my career has been teaching bright undergraduates. Working with students through their college years and watching them encounter new ideas, become inspired, face challenges, and grow intellectually has been deeply satisfying. I am thankful every day that this is part of my career. But, it is also increasingly difficult to have these interactions because class sizes are increasing, administrative duties are increasing, and the pressures of publication (and grant writing!) are increasingly substantial. Fortunately, I think that most philosophy faculty do appreciate and recognize their colleagues who are dedicated to teaching. Some of the best teachers I know are also the best intellects!

I look at my friends who chose their careers on the basis of where they live: to be close to friends and family, to be in places good to raise kids, or to do other things that they love outside of their careers, and these are by far the happiest people I know. They may not be in love with their jobs, but they do not suffer the misery of being trapped in a dead-end humanities job, constantly having to justify one’s employment and watching the big names get to travel all over the world to workshops (screw climate change, right? let’s all fly to Australia for a few weeks and then hit up a conference in Turkey and then a summer school in Budapest! and then do metaphysics with the very same group of people in Arizona in the winter!).

So, no: I wouldn’t do it over again. And, if I saw a way out of the profession in a way that would not condemn me and my family to significant financial strain, then I would leave.Report

Eva Dadlez
6 years ago

I would do it again, even though I’m in a red state, and not exactly at the research school of my dreams. Then again, I’m tenured senior faculty, I get summers to write, and I get along with everyone in my department. I’d tell my younger self to take a damned philosophy course BEFORE grad school, instead of waiting until very late in the game to discover her vocation. That held me up, I think, so that’s what I regret.Report

Dale Miller
6 years ago

Yes, knowing everything I know now (e.g., that I will get a job, get tenure, etc.). If I were put behind a sort of veil of ignorance, however, so that I only knew what the job market would be like at the time I was finishing but not my own particular fate, I’m not sure what I would advise my past self. (And I finished 15 years ago, when things were pretty bad compared to what they had been like previously but pretty good compared to what they’re like now.)Report

Mark Lance
Mark Lance
6 years ago

When I chose to go to grad school, I thought about whether I would want 5 years of doing what I love before having to find a standard job if I knew for certain I would not get a position in philosophy. I answered ‘yes’ then, and still think I was right. Things have gone well for me. I’m at a very good – but not top of the rankings school. I struggled my whole career with a system that discourages publishing in approaches that don’t mimic the dominant paradigm, but eventually, I got plenty published and found myself with wonderfully supportive colleagues. There are things about academia – and philosophy in particular that piss me off. Some are mentioned above. But for all that, I get paid a decent living to try to understand how things, in the broadest possible sense, hang together in the broadest possible sense – and to teach others how to pursue that understanding. (I also got to be part of an incredible interdisciplinary program that works with all the activists on campus.) For me, no city, no long hours, no mediocre pay relative to my social position and education could make that a bad deal. As has been said above, if you aren’t willing to put up with regular rejection, unfairness, less pay than you could get elsewhere, administrative bullshit, and little choice on where you live – this is a bad choice. But for me, the trade of those for what I do day to day is a no-brainer.Report

http://www.people.eku.edu/austinm/
6 years ago

I loved my time in graduate school and really enjoy my job most days. I was fortunate enough to get a tt position right after finishing my dissertation (from a May JFP ad). However, we were willing to go anywhere in the U.S., except the southeast. And here we are, almost 10 years later, in Kentucky of all places. For the first 3 years, we really wanted out, but it was not to be. We’ve now learned to appreciate the good things about where we live, and live with the things we don’t enjoy. My department is great, as we all get along and work well together. Being at a comprehensive university has been good overall for me, as I enjoy teaching and have been able to make time to do research and writing on topics that interest me. It is challenging, but it can be done. I find the “star system” mentioned above to be frustrating as well, but even so there are opportunities for “non-stars” to travel, learn, and engage people in different parts of the country and world. Every job has negatives, of course, but I get paid to converse, think, read, and write about ideas that matter and that can make a difference in the world. I would definitely do it all over again.Report

Nick
6 years ago

It might depend on whether we’re asking about today’s job market or the same job market that commentors entered years ago. I wouldn’t be surprised is answers changed as a function of this difference.

Also, a theme in answers tends to be, “It depends on your goals or values.” The goals being close to family, or wanting to avoid moving every few years, or making as much money as entrepreneurs seems to correlate with answering no. Also, those in appealing positions seem more comfortable saying “yes.” Coincidence?

Whether or not we are assuming Dale’s veil of ignorance might also change answers.Report

Justin Caouette (@JustinCaouette)
6 years ago

As a graduate student from a non-Leiter ranked program who will be hitting the market in October – yes! I would do it again in a heartbeat. The road has been very difficult for me (financially speaking), especially with a wife and 2 small children. That said, I took a few years off between undergrad and graduate school and worked various “real jobs” and I am in no hurry to get back to that type of life. So, even if I strike out on the market I would not see this time spent as a waste. I have grown so much as a person through this process and have traveled to places (many times with my family) that I would have never even thought to visit before this process began.

Now, if I would have stayed in the “real world” there is no doubt that I would have moved up the corporate latter. If I strike out on the market I’m sure I will have moments where I question the decision I made to attend graduate school for 6 years and not make money and buy a house and ________, __________, __________. But I’m sure these moments will be far and few between. The experiences that I have had with my wife and children on this journey have been amazing and the growth that we have all experienced because of our decision to embark on this journey will outweigh any financial setback that has been caused from me not staying in the corporate world. (Or, at least one can hope) 😉Report

James Camien McGuiggan
James Camien McGuiggan
6 years ago

I’m still doing my PhD, and I might well give another answer in ten years’ time if I haven’t by then found a job in a university I like in a town I like with colleagues I like. And the reason I give the answer I do may well be given for reasons (I probably don’t work enough so don’t get overworked; I don’t worry about publishing a lot and so perhaps don’t publish enough; I follow my own philosophical interests, and so may not be marketable) that mean I am scuppering my chances at getting a good job later on. But so far, the answer is emphatically ‘yes’. Had I not done philosophy, and come into contact with wise people with whom I have grown at what seems to me breakneck speed, I would be worse than a pig satisfied: I would be an irritating, arrogant pseudo-intellectual with no real understanding of any of the things I would claim matter – of myself, of religion, of art, nothing. (Not that I am so wise now, but at least I know that I know nothing.) It is through philosophy I have become as wise as I have become. But I suspect there are many things out of which I could get what I get out of philosophy. If I saw a version of myself in a possible world in which my vocation was religion or art or history, I would not necessarily regret his choices. (It might be worth remarking that none of these are notably more secure or remunerated than philosophy. Poverty may be my lot.)Report

John Schwenkler
6 years ago

Spend 6+ years reading super-interesting stuff and conversing with brilliant people about matters of fundamental importance? Yes, I would do it again, even if behind the veil of ignorance and the job market as it is now. Given the veil, though, I’d advise myself to explore alternative career paths actively during my years of graduate study, so I’d have ready options if things didn’t work out on the job market, and an open mind about abandoning grad. study for something sufficiently attractive.Report

Carolyn
6 years ago

It is very cool to be part of a community of deep and careful thinkers. I probably could have found another career that would have been more reliable in certain respects, but it probably would not have come with this community. My mind is much sharper in such a community, which was obvious after the first few months of graduate school. I was willing to sacrifice a lot for that at the time, and I am still of that frame of mind.Report

Jeb
Jeb
6 years ago

Asking a tenured prof if they would do it again is like asking a lottery winner if they’d buy a ticket again.Report

justinrweinberg
6 years ago

There is an ambiguity in the question, as some of the comments have illustrated. What I meant to be asking was, given how things have turned out for you as a (would-be or aspiring or actual or former) professional philosopher so far, would you do it again?

Would I do it again?

It is a hard question. As Mid-Career noted, above, luck is a big factor. I have been very lucky with my career; despite making several mistakes, I have wound up tenured at an R1 in a supportive philosophy department with a graduate program and pleasant colleagues, located in a decent small city with a warm climate. It could have gone very differently at a number of stages. To borrow Jeb’s metaphor, I do feel like I have won the lottery. (Of course, we know that lottery winners are usually not any happier than anyone else after the euphoria has worn off.)

I do spend a lot of time working (not always efficiently, I think). As Sleeper observed, above, the job never quite feels like it ends, and I rarely feel like I am doing enough and as good work as I ought to. And, as Dissatisfied Faculty says, the pay is bad compared to what similarly skilled and educated persons earn in other professions.

That said, there are several things that make me think that I would indeed do it over again. I’ll limit myself to just three points. First, I find philosophy fun and creative. It can be difficult, annoying, frustrating, boring, and so on, but overwhelmingly it is also fun. There are other professions that allow for fun, I’m sure, but there is such a diversity of things I could set my mind to, in such a variety of ways, and have it still count as “work” that I suspect that the fun in philosophy is inexhaustible in a way that is rare across professions. (And I suspect that the professions which share this characteristic are similarly “risky.”)

Second, I really like philosophers, and I consider myself very fortunate to get to spend a lot of time talking with them. I like the way they think. They are generally smart, careful, focused, analytical, with a real concern for figuring out what is true. Some of them are quite funny. To hang out with good philosophers is to take a break from all of the bullshit and stupidity that dominates so much of our culture’s communication. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we all know there is plenty of bullshit in the philosophy profession, but there is also lots of space clear of bullshit.

Third, there are the general upsides of being an academic: the autonomy of one’s research, the relative flexibility of one’s schedule, and, not least, being part of the enterprise of making interesting people.Report

Steven Hales
6 years ago

Every job has its pros and cons. Simply being a tenured prof is not equivalent to being a lottery winner. I work at a second-tier state school and teach 4-4. In the plus column I have reliable, friendly, hard-working colleagues in the department. My salary is good, especially for where I live. I get to think about philosophy, which I love, and there is little publication or grants pressure on me (from others). When I have good students, teaching is a joy. I really enjoy research and being part of the broader conversation in philosophy. On the other hand, my students are often ill-prepared, unmotivated, and uninterested. The state cuts our funding every year while adding to our paperwork burden. I have little research support, a heavy teaching load, and do all my own grading. Still, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I would certainly tell my past self “yes, be a philosopher,” even though that self had to beat out 275 applicants to get the position I have now (the job market of the past shouldn’t be seen with rose-colored glasses).Report

Alan White
6 years ago

Jeb, Weinberg, and Hales are effectively my lawfirm representing me on all this. My parents never went to high school, so oddly that was a form of luck that loosened up my self-assessment for future success not shared by many of my colleagues. I have had exactly one interview in my 33-year career at my 4/4, beating out an internal cadidate, so I’m also lucky I was not so incapable as to stymie the opportunities sent my way. (I think I’ve been heavily influenced in assessing all this by Neil Levy’s book Hard Luck–highly recommended.) I love research and have a smattering of good pubs, but more importantly I love the classroom and will have a retirement that would never have been available to my parents, and many contemporaries to boot. I’m also lucky to be part of a generation where the net allows me to be inspired by philosophers beyond the excellent ones I happen to have in my department. Yeah, I would recommend my younger self to try the same thing again–but I would emphasize the element of luck in all this, and in some ways he should have appreciated, but naively didn’t.Report

David Boonin
David Boonin
6 years ago

Given how things have turned out for me, I would almost certainly do it again. I have a modest teaching load, good students and stimulating colleagues and live in the town i grew up in, a great place that I always wanted to come back to. While I really enjoy doing and teaching philosophy, though, the main reasons that I’m happy with how things ended up for me have much more to do with the benefits of having the kind of academic job that I have than with having a job in philosophy in particular. The entire time that my son was in elementary school, I was able to arrange my teaching schedule so that I dropped him off and picked him up from school virtually every day for five years, and in the early years I volunteered in his classroom once a week, too. A number of years later, when my daughter was born, I stayed home with her on non-teaching days until she was ready for preschool. I was often able to stay home with a child if they were sick. We could go on long trips during their summer vacations. We didn’t have to overbook them with summer camps and organized summer activities because I could be home with them during the day in the summer. I got to take my family to New Zealand for six months while I was on a paid sabbatical. if I get really interested in something, I can decide to write a book about it, and that’s considered part of doing my job. I can get research money to travel to conferences. These are the sorts of things that make me most content with my career and they really have to do with being a professor with the sort of position I have rather than with being a philosopher.

I think that I’m better at philosophy than at other things I’m interested in, and there are probably some distinctive rewards to studying philosophy as opposed to say, history, political science, or film. But there are probably some distinctive rewards to studying those things, too, and I suspect that if I had a comparable position teaching in one of those fields, I’d be more or less as content as I am now.Report

john
john
6 years ago

I have been thinking about this for a few days. I’d like to share my thoughts.

I am glad mostly to be a philosophy professor because my schedule allows me to be very involved in my child’s life and schooling. Many parents, especially fathers, realistically don’t have that opportunity. If I could do it over again and wound up with some normal 9-5 job or whatever, I wouldn’t have that time to invest in my child.

Philosophy, unlike many other academic fields, allows one to dabble in lots of other fields, which I have appreciated. This has allowed me to pursue other important issues in other fields and areas of inquiry and life, since they have a philosophical dimension.

I am sure that I make some positive difference with many students, in terms of their critical reasoning abilities. I do wish, however, that more students cared more and were more interested.

I know my writings have made some positive difference also. I have focused on important social issues, not esoteric topics, though.

Getting a job was a struggle, and those struggles really “hurt my soul” for a long time. If I lost my philosophy job, I wouldn’t seek another: I’d find something else to do.

Would I do it again? It all really depends on the alternatives, and a lot of the alternatives seem to take up a lot of time so I wouldn’t have that time to spend with my family. And many other jobs, while often highly paid, really amount to doing nothing of ultimate significance. I have a rather wealthy friend who has been successful in the car parts industry who says that his job basically amounts to “selling shit, nothing important.” So if I had done something else, I likely would have more money, but I am not sure I’d be better off overall.Report