Lessons for Philosophy from Economists on English?


“Over the last 35 years, less than half of graduated Ph.D. students have gotten tenure-track academic jobs upon graduation. The result is a large pool of residual job seekers, which places even more pressure on the job market for existing students.”…

“The data are pretty straightforward,” the paper says. “While students in top-10 programs might have a reasonable chance of getting tenure-track jobs at a national research university or national research liberal arts colleges, the chances for such placements are essentially nil for students graduating from lower ranked programs. If students from lower ranked programs do get tenure-track jobs, they will most likely be at schools where the primary focus is on undergraduate teaching to students with weak academic backgrounds.”…

“The actual situation facing Ph.D. candidates may be considerably worse than the available data suggest. Specifically, these data do not provide information about attrition, especially how many students started the program and might have completed their Ph.D. but chose not to because there were no jobs,” the paper says.

Those are excerpts from a piece at Inside Higher Ed about new economic research by Dave Colander and Daisy Zhou (Middlebury) about the job market for English Ph.D.s.  The job market situation in English does not seem all that different in these respects from that in philosophy. The authors make some suggestions as to how the English profession should respond to their findings. Perhaps they are applicable to philosophy, as well:

First, let students know about what happens to all of those who start doctoral programs:

In defense of departments, as long as they provide accurate information about job placement, the paper cites economic theory. “[F]rom an economist’s ‘free choice’ perspective, as long as students going into graduate study of English know the job market situation, graduate programs have no reason to be concerned about these results,” the paper says. “Students can be seen as choosing to study English not to prepare for a job but as a lifestyle choice. From their behavior (that is, their continuing to enroll), an economist would argue that the gain that they get from studying English is so great that they do so while fully accepting that it will not lead them to a tenure-track job.”

Second, orient programs towards the jobs the students are likely to get:

But even if departments are more transparent about job data, the paper says, there is something wrong with offering programs that ostensibly prepare people for careers when (based on the prestige of the program) one has no chance of getting that job. And the preparation may be minimal for the jobs new doctorates could get. The paper argues for recognizing the “vocational” reasons for pursuing a Ph.D. and adjusting doctoral programs accordingly.

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Kenny
6 years ago

My understanding is that the situation in philosophy is not quite as extreme. I don’t think there were 35 years of fewer than half of new PhDs getting a job. I seem to recall that through most of the ’90s, and up to 2008, the ratio of new PhDs to tenure-track positions varied in the range between 1.0 and 2.0. But perhaps I’m misremembering.

Still, the general guidelines seem right – programs should be forthright with placement data (which most philosophy departments basically are these days), and they should make sure that they’re adequately preparing students not for jobs at their own program, but for the jobs that their graduates are actually getting (which probably includes a range of academic and non-academic positions in many cases).Report

George Gale
George Gale
6 years ago

While the situation in Philosophy might be marginally better than English, it’s still not healthy. We need data like that provided in the new research article. Then, those low-rank departments whose actual, genuine, realistic hope of placing students anywhere (and you know who you are) should do the decent thing and close their grad school doors… or reformat to some sort of scheme which could turn out grads properly tuned to being, say, high school teachers. It’s the only decent thing to do. Just sayin’.Report

Anon undergrad
Anon undergrad
6 years ago

George Gale, that comment is ridiculous. Your solution will result in a doubling down both on the lack of jobs available to potential philosophy students, as well as the shameful publicly-held notion that all training, education, and career options should serve the demands of the (job) marketplace.Report

Jim
Jim
6 years ago

>>“[F]rom an economist’s ‘free choice’ perspective, as long as students going into graduate study of English know the job market situation, graduate programs have no reason to be concerned about these results,” the paper says. “Students can be seen as choosing to study English not to prepare for a job but as a lifestyle choice. From their behavior (that is, their continuing to enroll), an economist would argue that the gain that they get from studying English is so great that they do so while fully accepting that it will not lead them to a tenure-track job.”<<

Keep up the good work, economists.Report

Ryan
Ryan
6 years ago

A few remarks…

For one, in reply to Anon undergrad’s reply to George Gale, note that George said either shutter the departments or reformat the education they provide. Sure, he gave as an example preparation for high school education as one example of this reformatting, and that does gear the education still ultimately to the job marketplace, but I’m not sure this is as criticisable as you suggest. He can (and might be?) maintain(ing) the weaker position that philosophy graduate programs ought to be reformatted to take into account the scarcity of (good) jobs in higher education, but not at the cost of the ‘intrinsic’ value of this education. In other words, sure, go learn lots about philosophy, yourself, life and other goodies in graduate school, but come out of it at the age of 28-35 prepared for a decent job.

Which brings me to my next point…, I appreciate that as an undergraduate you might be particularly passionate about the non-vocational purpose of education. I still am, as a graduate student. But, and this might not apply to you, as you continue on in school you might find that although your view of the non-vocational value of education remains largely unchanged, something about you changes when you realize that after a decade or more of higher education you might still be struggling to balance your grocery bill with your laundry change. After a while, that becomes tiring, especially when you see your peers enjoy more comfortable (re: not necessarily luxurious) lifestyles. At that point, you start to wonder: hey, surely all this learning has to get me some kind of (decent) job, no?

Final point re: Jim’s observation. I take it you’re being sarcastic, and your point is well-taken. But consider: aren’t these economists essentially right here? All they’re saying, as I understand it, is that so long as students are informed about the dire career prospects awaiting them post-PhD graduate in English/philosophy/etc., then their choice to still attend isn’t a vocational decision as much as it is (poorly chosen word) a ‘lifestyle’ decision–by which I take it they mean a decision based upon one’s personal values.

I probably wont’ get a job in academia. But if I’m honest with my self, I never studied philosophy to get a job, and I’m not really sticking around to get a fancy job when I’m done. I’m here because most days I like doing philosophy more than I like every crapshoot, go-nowhere job I’ve had growing up–and still have each summer. Put crudely, for now I like the lifestyle.Report

Zachary Woodman
6 years ago

As an undergrad economics student, I wonder to what extent those in the economics profession fully follow their advice on fully informing their students of what happens to all their graduates. Obviously job prospects are much better for us than for our colleagues in philosophy and English departments so it’s not as much of a problem, but it would be nice for our undergrads if more schools did that rather than just select the few bright stars with tenure-tracked jobs as a sample.

That said, it does seem econ programs do a better job at that than some philosophy programs. Obviously, this is just anecdotal, but I seem to have better luck finding info on econ grad schools then some of my friends who are trying to get into philosophy grad schools.Report

Jay Lindst
Jay Lindst
6 years ago

Canada is in the same boat described by the economist; other than Toronto, UBC, and McGill, the other PhD programmes are basically churning out underpaid adjuncts with very limited employment prospects.

What out to happen across the board in all countries is an honest and thoroughly moral accounting that shuts down these smaller programmes. Their accreditations don’t carry the prestige (which is a lot of academic philosophy) to give them currency on the domestic and foreign market for professors.Report

Swift
Swift
6 years ago

George Gale says lower ranked graduate programs that have no chance to place students anywhere should close or restructure to prepare students for teaching in high school (or some similar vocation befitting their marginal pedigree). I’m interested what work the lower ranking (I’m assuming these are PGR rankings?) of such programs is doing here. If a program indeed has no reasonable chance of placing its candidates anywhere, then that seems like a reason to consider a change of some sort regardless of its ranking. Perhaps he assumes that lowly ranked programs will always or typically be in such a situation. I know first hand that this is not always the case since I am in a program that has consistently placed more than half of its graduates in stable academic positions (TT’s or renewable lectureships). I’d welcome data on whether or not our case is an outlier, but nothing about it seems exceptional to me. Most of our students expect to get teaching positions and not R1’s, but surely that’s not extraordinary. Regardless, without data supporting the belief that lowly ranked programs cannot reasonably expect to place their graduates, I’d suggest that the inclusion of that predicate in GG’s suggested policy is unreasonably prejudiced.Report

Derek Bowman
6 years ago

To Anon Undergrad: You haven’t yet thought through the full implications of your thoughts about education. If you really think education should be valued in a way that is independent of the need to have a stable way to pay one’s bills, it’s hard to see what’s so special about degree programs or universities as sites of education.

If you don’t need a job, why do you need a PhD? And if you don’t need a PhD, why do you need to be in a grad program to get an education? Why think the best teachers are those who “converse when [they] receive a fee and not when [they] do not”? (cf Plato’s Apology 33a-b)

On the other hand, if you think that, by paying people to do and teach philosophy universities allow people to combine their philosophical and educational values with their social and material needs, then you should be concerned about departments that are failing to do that for their students.Report

Ryan
Ryan
6 years ago

Derek: I wonder whether in the first horn of your dilemma you’re leaning too heavily in the other direction than Anon Undergrad.

I grant you the first condition in that horn: if you don’t need an academic job, then you don’t need a PhD. But the second conditional is a stretch: one might decide that he needs to be in a graduate program even if he doesn’t believe he needs a PhD because he believes that he needs an education, and the graduate program is the best way to do that. This is surely a reasonable belief: a decent graduate program will fund you, and getting an advanced education is a lot easier when your basic material needs are met. So you need to be in a graduate program to get an education, even if you don’t need a PhD, because not being in that program is more likely than not to be at the cost of getting any education at all. Life gets in the way of philosophy very easily, in my experience.

As for the remark from Plato’s _Apology_, I don’t think it directly applies to this horn of your argument. One can easily maintain (a) that he needs to be in a graduate program to get an education and (b) the best teachers aren’t necessarily the ones who are paid to teach, that is, the ones one will be learning from in said graduate program. Again, the connection here is just that without this graduate program one has no funding, and without funding it becomes far (far) harder to educate oneself. So it strikes me that one can pretty easily admit that his institutionalized teachers aren’t necessarily the best while still holding on to the view that his institutionalized education is the best choice for him.

Regardless, I think that Anon Undergrad’s post brings out an important point: that we need to think through the non-vocational value of institutionalized education, perhaps especially in philosophy given the cultural climate of philosophy programs and the job prospects of their students, especially graduate students.

If we tie the purpose of institutionalized education too closely to its vocational potential then we risk losing sight of the intrinsic value of disciplines like philosophy. If we divorce the value of institutionalized education too much from its vocational potential, then among other things we risk restricting disciplines like philosophy to a social elite who can afford to drop 200k over four years for soul-care.

It strikes me that both sides of that dilemma need to budge a bit closer to the center. But ultimately it needs to be recognized by tenured professors and administrators who are feeling the financial pinch of having fewer undergraduates enroll as philosophy majors in their universities, that paying 50k a year for tuition to talk about Plato–or more to the point, listen along with 200 other students in a huge lecture hall to someone talk about Plato, sometimes perfunctorily–is laughably outrageous.

The professionalization/institutionalization of philosophy is a pickle all the way up, and down.Report

Derek Bowman
6 years ago

Ryan: I don’t disagree with most of your points. My comment was an attempt to encourage “Anon Undergrad” and others to engage in the kind of nuanced thinking you sketch here – not to establish a conclusion by a deductive argument by dilemma (though I will note that my second horn covers more “middle” ground than your interpretation would suggest).

Perhaps a more succinct way to put my point turns on an ambiguity between a narrow and a broad meaning of “professionalization of philosophy.” On the narrow reading it involves a development within contemporary academic philosophy (e.g. increased specialization; increased publishing by grad students; etc). But on the broad reading it covers the very fact of their being an institutionalized academic system that constitutes the ‘philosophy profession’ and locates philosophical education and practice primarily within those institutions. In these terms, my point is to encourage those who are uncomfortable with professionalization in the narrow sense should use those concerns as an occasion to reflect critically on the professionalization of philosophy in the larger sense.Report

Ryan
Ryan
6 years ago

Derek: I’m a bit confused because I’m having a hard time seeing the connection between your first post and this last one. But I definitely agree that those who are uncomfortable with professionalization in the narrow sense need to ask thorny questions about in the broader sense.

The professionalization of philosophy in both senses is problematic, in my view. After twelve years of study on my end–agreed, probably not enough to make these kinds of judgments–it remains extremely unclear to me whether I’ve acquired an iota of philosophical knowledge. Knowledge of philosophy, sure. But not any knowledge that is philosophical (as opposed to physical, chemical, or historical…).

If that’s telling in anyway, it makes me wonder what it is these huge institutions are really supporting.Report

Paul Hammond
Paul Hammond
6 years ago

I think we should be a little careful about interpreting what this study actually says about “higher-ranked” and “lower-ranked” programs. The author just takes US News and World Report rankings for English grad programs (of which there aren’t any in Philosophy, by the way) as the basis for his division of the schools into different tiers. He then uses these rankings (I think) as a basis for assessing the quality of the jobs that graduates of each program get. But if the conclusion drawn from that is that graduates of better programs get better jobs that just begs the question about which programs (and jobs) are actually “better.” Especially given that he admits that “Overall, job placement rates differ among schools in different tiers, but only slightly,” and that “overall placement rates are similar up and down the rankings (140).” That doesn’t provide any support for the idea that the higher-ranked programs are actually better. If the author hadn’t gone into the study with the obvious presupposition that the USN&WR numbers tracked real quality would those data really have suggested that graduates of the higher ranked programs get better jobs? To me, the more plausible hypothesis would be that programs tend to sort themselves into subgroups which tend to hire one another’s graduates and not to hire graduates from programs in the other subgroups. If six schools were really better than all the other ones, wouldn’t you think all their graduates would get jobs before anyone from the rest of the programs would?

I think it’s very plausible that something similar happens in Philosophy, although analogous data obviously doesn’t exist. But I think the important takeaway from this article would be that even if graduates from PGR top 10 schools get jobs at PGR top 10 schools and other people don’t, that doesn’t even suggest that the PGR tracks anything like objective quality. It only means hiring committees at those schools like to hire graduates of those schools.Report

ok
ok
6 years ago

It may be worth highlighting how bad things have become in philosophy since 2008. Carolyn Dicey Jennings has done amazing work on this (for which she is to be thanked!): http://philosophysmoker.blogspot.com/2012/04/to-get-job-in-philosophy.html

“Thus, overall prospects are at around 24% chance of getting any job, 17% chance of getting any tenure-track job, 6% chance of getting a ranked tenure-track job.” This is Jennings’ conservative estimate, using data that is now a couple years old. The market now seems to be worse (because there are more unemployed candidates).

I don’t know what ‘overall’ chances of getting a job are these days — the 17% number is the chance of getting a job during the particular cycle Jennings analyzed, so it should go up over multiple years of trying. But I would doubt it hits anything near the 50 percent mark. (also complicating things is that the market has become even more saturated since 2012 in terms of both numbers and quality of candidates, but the jobs numbers haven’t budged).

I really think the APA or some other group should compose a task force on this topic — how bad is the job market really these days and what should be the profession’s response.

In the U.S., we obviously can’t require PhD programs to shutter their doors but perhaps some of them should seriously consider converting their program to a masters program. Relatedly, support for students who are interested in using their PhD for non-academic careers might be helpful. In the very *least*, we should be very transparent about attrition and placement data, including data on how many years a student typically goes on the market before getting a job. Some people are not willing or able to be on the market 3 times, and if that’s what it takes to get a job, that’s something they deserve to know before they start a program.Report