Research On Excess Philosophy PhDs


Are there too many philosophy PhDs? Do those seeking PhDs in philosophy have an accurate understanding of their chances of securing a permanent academic position? Ingrid Robeyns (Utrecht), is beginning a research project on the topic. She writes that, in the Netherlands,

In those debates, one often hears the rough number that about 9 out of 10 PhD students aspires to have an academic job, yet only between 1 and 2 end up in academia. If that is true, there is a serious mismatch between expectations and objective outcomes. Moreover, there is also the impression that the situation has become worse due to the budget cuts for higher education.

Robeyns and her student, Sine Bagatur, will be conducting a survey aimed at “collecting information on the expectations of current PhD students, and contrasting this to the realizations of those who received their Philosophy PhD in the past (and the expectations they had).” The project is limited to looking at philosophy PhDs in the Netherlands. She adds:

In addition to the survey, we will conduct a literature research so as to compare our results with the findings in other countries, or compare it with the situation of PhD students in other subjects in the Netherlands. This comparison will allow us to see how Dutch Philosophy PhD students’ situation differs from other groups, and also collect a number of suggestions on what could be done to address problems and issues that the findings reveal. If time permits, we also want to conduct a number of in-depth interviews, which would be helpful with interpreting the data, and also with gathering ideas on how to address problems that may emerge.

The project is described at a post at Crooked Timber. Daily Nous readers outside the Netherlands may be able to help out in regards to this bit:

If you happen to know of any similar research that has been done in your country, Sine and I would be very grateful for any suggestions. Also, if a similar survey has been held in some other country, it would be great if we could build on work that has been done rather than reinventing the wheel. Are there any specific questions you feel should be asked?

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Professor X
Professor X
6 years ago

The problem is *not* that too many people are doing philosophy PhDs. It is vital for the long-term health of the profession that *many* people have the opportunity to begin a PhD. We need to cast our nets widely in recruiting talented youngsters to philosophy–otherwise, the only people who will make it into the profession are those who were fortunate enough to do their undergrad at Ivy-League schools or at other places where a famous philosopher happened to teach (i.e., the people who are nowadays making it into the top 20 Leiter ranked schools). On the contrary, the problem is *the way jobs are being allocated*–namely, for the most part, just handing the jobs to people from top 20 schools. Yes, there are way too many PhD graduates for the number of jobs. But the solution is not to cut the number of PhD students. It is to work out a way of allocating jobs based on proven ability, rather than prestige and networking prowess. I don’t know an easy way to do this–but there must be some way! Let’s think creatively about it, rather than proposing to restricting a career in philosophy to those who happened to go to prestigious undergrad institutions (and so essentially destroying the profession–I don’t believe this is an overstatement).Report

Sacco
Sacco
6 years ago

Professor X writes: “Yes, there are way too many PhD graduates for the number of jobs.”

Can anyone confirm whether this is true, strictly speaking? Often, when it is said that “there aren’t enough jobs in philosophy,” I find that this is elliptical for “there aren’t enough [decent] jobs in philosophy.” But if it turns out that there just aren’t enough decent jobs, wouldn’t the problem of “too many philosophy PhDs” go away if the profession were to organize and demand better working conditions for the average adjunct, like better pay?Report

Here is a Name
Here is a Name
6 years ago

The problem is that there are too many people for the number of jobs. As long as there are enough people that administrators can hire adjuncts for bad pay and little-to-no benefits, then they will do so. Faculty organizing will never realistically have a serious impact on that nationwide so long as there are people willing to take those jobs. (That isn’t to say there aren’t things faculty in particular locations can do, nor that faculty can’t do some things nationwide to make the situation slightly more tolerable for exiting adjuncts.)

Even if there were a way to allocate jobs “based on proven ability, rather than prestige and networking prowess,” there would still be more people than there are tenure track jobs. Shuffling who gets the limited resources doesn’t make them less limited. (This is not to accept or reject the claims about prestige, ability, and hiring patterns.)Report

Luke Maring
Luke Maring
6 years ago

Sacco: That’s a fair question. But I keep hearing about cases that fit the following fact pattern: University X, a good but not outstanding job, received, like, 700 (or more) applications. Assuming that most of those apps are not from people already in secure jobs (which seems like a safe assumption), there probably aren’t enough jobs for all the newly-minted PhDs.Report

Another Anon Junior Person
Another Anon Junior Person
6 years ago

@ Professor X: “Yes, there are way too many PhD graduates for the number of jobs. But the solution is not to cut the number of PhD students. It is to work out a way of allocating jobs based on proven ability, rather than prestige and networking prowess.”

I’m not sure how this solution addresses this problem (too many PhDs per job). Suppose there are ways of ensuring fair opportunity and access to those vanishingly small number of jobs. And so suppose that the job market, in this ideal world, is a pure meritocracy: each and every job holder is extremely qualified. Even so, there will be a large number of PhD holders who are *also extremely qualified* and who don’t have jobs! There are more extremely qualified PhDs, whatever their backgrounds, than there are jobs. And even though making sure that someone from an unranked school gets equal consideration as someone from a ranked one is good, this does not change the number of seats in the game of musical chairs.Report

JDRox
JDRox
6 years ago

Professor X writes, “Yes, there are way too many PhD graduates for the number of jobs. But the solution is not to cut the number of PhD students. It is to work out a way of allocating jobs based on proven ability” I don’t understand how this is a solution to the problem, as Professor X puts it, that “there are way too many PhD graduates for the number of jobs.”

There are, as I see it, only four positions that it is possible to take on this issue:

1) There are, in fact, at least roughly as many jobs each as there are new PhDs (over, say, two or three year spans of time).
2) There is nothing wrong with a system that produces significantly more PhDs than there are jobs.
3) We should try to change the system in a way that creates more jobs in philosophy–enough to employ, at least roughly, the number of philosophers we train.
4) We should try to change the system in a way that creates fewer trained philosophers–a bit more than is needed to fill the number of jobs there are.

I take it that (1) is empirically false. (2) seems doubtful to me. It’s pretty plausible that it’s morally dubious at the individual level (harmful to the “excess students”), but it is even more plausibly bad at the systemic level–bad for universities to be spending money producing unneeded PhDs in philosophy rather than, say, giving scholarships to needy undergraduates. (3) seems dubious as long as we accept some sort of ‘ought implies can’ principle. I mean, many of us should be trying to change the system in a way that creates more philosophy jobs. But since we’re pretty unlikely to succeed at that, I think we’re stuck with (4).Report

Anon Grad Student
Anon Grad Student
6 years ago

_Professor_ X sees only part of the problem. X is right that a big pipeline is one part of one story of how you would get great talent at the top. But X is ignoring what I think many people take to be a serious problem with any big pipeline setup, whether or not it is effective at selecting for ‘talent’: it leads to many, many people being ultimately frustrated.

Now, I don’t know how to weigh things like the importance of getting ‘talent’ to the top, the harms of frustration, the benefits of getting a shot even if it is a long shot, and the rest. But if it is true (as I expect it is) that students entering into PhD programs have inflated, even if still dire, senses of their own personal shot at a suitable position, and if it is true that trying but falling short comes at great cost, then I think the argument that X is ignoring has to be at the core of any story.Report

Professor X
Professor X
6 years ago

‘Here is a Name’ writes: “Even if there were a way to allocate jobs “based on proven ability, rather than prestige and networking prowess,” there would still be more people than there are tenure track jobs.”

Yes, of course. But at least then, in signing up for grad school at a non-top-20 program, you’d be signing up for a chance to, within the next 5 or so years, work hard and flourish into somebody who can make an outstanding contribution to the philosophical community and, based on this potential, get a job in a tertiary institution. As things are today, by signing up for grad school at a non-top-20 program, you are signing up for being forced out of the profession in 5 years time.

We can’t give everybody who wants to be a philosophy professor a job. ***But we can make it much more likely than it is at present that the relatively few jobs that there are go to (a) the hardest workers, and (b) the people with the most potential to contribute to the profession.***Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
6 years ago

Professor X:
It is simply not true that all those who attend graduate schools outside the top 20 are doomed to unemployment. There are plenty of examples of programs like Penn State, Memphis, and Emory placing students, and from what I remember, these institutions aren’t ranked at all.

Your point about prestige bias strikes me as orthogonal to the focus of this thread; even if we accepted all the questionable assumptions lurking behind your claims, surely we’d still have good reason to limit the number of PhDs we are creating. If there were reasons to keep the doors of unranked or lower ranked departments open, we could do that and still reduce the overall numbers by capping the size of each graduate program.

Of course, this is not going to happen, but I don’t see any good reason why it shouldn’t.Report

Tim O'Keefe
6 years ago

Professor X @8 says: “As things are today, by signing up for grad school at a non-top-20 program, you are signing up for being forced out of the profession in 5 years time.”

I don’t want to sounds like I’m understating how dire the job market is, but this statement is way too cut and dried. There is only a very rough correlation between overall PGR ranking and job placement success, and it’s not as if there is some sharp cut-off between PGR-ranked 20 and better and below 20. A few examples of programs that seem to do pretty well at placing their people are:
UC-Riverside, PRG #28: http://philosophy.ucr.edu/student-placement/
Georgetown, PGR #37: http://philosophy.georgetown.edu/graduate/phd-graduates/placement-record
Emory, unranked in PGR: http://philosophy.emory.edu/home/graduate/Placement.htmlReport

Professor X
Professor X
6 years ago

Plum writes: “even if we accepted all the questionable assumptions lurking behind your claims, surely we’d still have good reason to limit the number of PhDs we are creating”.

No, we wouldn’t. Again, I think it is absolutely vital that we cast the net as widely as possible. It is the future of *philosophy* that must be prioritised. Even if we change the system so that jobs are allocated more fairly than they are at present, still many people who embark upon a philosophy PhD will fail during their degree or fail to find a job at the end of it. But there are many also who strive to become professional athletes (or actors, or painters, or whatever…) when only a small fraction can succeed. We (rightly) allow these people to so strive–and indeed, in many cases, fund them–primarily because of the value of high level competitive sport in our society, and the way it enriches all our lives. Philosophy, I would suggest, has considerably more value than sport.Report

HoldYourHorses
HoldYourHorses
6 years ago

I’m a grad student at a program ranked outside of the top 20. I started in 2009 and experienced some trouble after my third year. Long story short, I ended up taking some adjuncting gigs elsewhere for a while. It hasn’t been a cakewalk, but studying, writing, and teaching philosophy for all these years has been worth every minute.

So please kids, if you really love philosophy, don’t let this thread discourage you.Report

Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
6 years ago

Professor X: “It is the future of philosophy that must be prioritised.” And if ever so many human beings have to be thrown under the bus to meet that priority, so be it, I suppose.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
6 years ago

@#11: you really don’t see the disanalogy between acting and philosophy? To be an actor, you don’t need specific training; at this point in history, to be a philosophy professor requires getting a doctorate in philosophy or a related field.

We, as a profession, are knowingly creating more philosophers than can get academic jobs. This is wrong, and I see no reason why “Philosophy” must be fed thousands of young lives in order for it to thrive.Report

Professor X
Professor X
6 years ago

Just to second what HoldYourHorses says. Doing a philosophy PhD is in many ways a great option–a way to do something meaningful and enjoyable with your life–even if it doesn’t turn into a philosophy job at the end. And, of course, in response to Tim O’Keefe and others, I’m generalising. There are graduates from schools outside the top-20 that find jobs with satisfactory teaching loads. I certainly don’t want to discourage people from doing philosophy PhDs. On the contrary, as I’ve said, I am in favour of casting the net extremely widely.Report

Professor X
Professor X
6 years ago

Plum: “To be an actor, you don’t need specific training”. Tell that to the thousands upon thousands of actors who trained for years to get where they are today.Report

HoldYourHorses
HoldYourHorses
6 years ago

So what’s the moral of the story? Universities should keep giving people a shot and offer them funding for roughly five years. Majors who love philosophy should apply and go anywhere that offers them funding for that amount of time. Nobody should expect a TT job at the end- but any PhD student should hope and strive for one. And everyone should calm down and breath easy.

The panic over job prospects is really just a dark, dark cloud that hangs over what would otherwise be a really exciting time in a person’s life.

After rolling with all the various punches that come with adjuncting, I’m tempted to shame a anyone who complains about teaching loads. But I’ll save that for another time.Report

Anon Grad Student
Anon Grad Student
6 years ago

HYH and PX –

There are two problems, and while the two of you might be addressing one, you’re sidestepping the other:
1) Many people will strive for a fancy philosophy position and fail.
2) Many people will strive for a fancy philosophy position, in deed deceiving themselves as to the odds of their success if not in word, and fail.

Some of the arguments here might speak to 1, but none speak convincingly to 2. And my impression from talking to young graduate students is that many of them fall into the second camp (even if, of course, almost everyone talks otherwise).

Of course maybe you think getting a really good grip on some arcane bit of philosophy super fast is important enough that we sustain a system that relies for its ‘meat’ on a bunch of deceived 22 year olds. But I definitely don’t think that.Report

HoldYourHorses
HoldYourHorses
6 years ago

Just last week, I had a student ask me whether he should pursue a philosophy as a career. I told him about all the worst aspects of the profession- you know, that it’s elitist, obnoxiously competitive, with very few job prospects. But that with that said, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. And that even if I never become a real professor, and have to support myself by other means for the rest of my life, I will always adjunct whenever I can, because it’s that much fun. I think you should tell kids something like that to quell concern #2.

PS: The adjuncting system is a disservice to students, if anyone wants to talk about that, Justin (ahem).Report

HoldYourHorses
HoldYourHorses
6 years ago

As for “getting a grip on some arcane bit of philosophy super fast” goes, I’m in favor of sharing the wealth, so I think it’s important to try and use as little grad funding as possible so that others can have a chance. So in that sense, I think it’s good to try and get a grip on the arcane bit of philosophy that constitutes a dissertation, super fast.

And call me cynical, but I doubt most arcane areas that constitute people’s dissertations will make for valuable contributions to the world. And I haven’t had the opportunity to start one yet, so I can’t speak from experience about how writing one serves as a valuable experience.

But can tell you what I’ve gsined from three years of arcane graduate coursework and six years of teaching slightly less arcane undergraduate courses.

Before graduate school, I lacked confidence in my own thinking. But at this point, I’ve spent so much time learning and thinking about beliefs and inferences that I’m almost an expert at thinking and thinking about thinking. Since I’m much better at discerning good inferences from bad ones than I was before, I’ve gained a tremendous amount of confidence in my own thinking.

That’s something of real value that we can all get from studying philosophy. And it’s also something of real value that we can offer the rest of the world when we teach philosophy.Report

grad
grad
6 years ago

From a graduate student at a European university you’re not going to hear about soon, writing a dissertation with an advisor you’re probably not going to hear about at all: thank you, HoldYourHorses.
Yeah, I’m going to hold them. And think, write, discuss and possibly teach philosophy as much as I can.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

#3 above said, “Faculty organizing will never realistically have a serious impact on that nationwide so long as there are people willing to take those jobs.”

I suspect the opposite is true: faculty could have an enormous impact on this problem if they would join the AAUP on their campus, or unionize their campus if necessary, and fight for better contracts for adjuncts and instructors. The percentage of courses that may be taught by temporary or non-tenure track instructors, their salaries, and other conditions that affect their employment can be negotiated by faculty.Report