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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E
E
6 years ago

As an ex-philosophy grad student and a former visiting instructor and adjunct now teaching high school students, I’ll say that you have a better chance of impacting people’s lives teaching high school students, just based on volume and time of contact. I, personally, find it infinitely more rewarding.Report

Alo
Alo
6 years ago

As someone from the Social Sciences deeply into Philosophy, I would like to mention a few things about the false statement below. I’m not sure whether it was meant to provoke and address a wide audience, as it seems that way, but I would like to mention a few things anyway.

“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.”

It is not right, logically speaking, to say communism or national socialism or any political ideologies exemplified in reality were caused by Marx, Nietzsche (or [insert philosopher’s name]). First of all, the ideas that were appropriated by the progenitors of very negative political ideologies during dark periods in the last century were falsely or misguidedly selected by the parties to further their purposes. For instance, Communism envisioned by Marx were definitely not the kind of communism that were implemented by the Soviets. Marx utopia ultimately got rid of the state, the Soviets implemented a totalitarian state. Nietzsche was used by the Nazis as ideological tools, such as to inspire soldiers to war (falsely), and the decimation of jews. Nietzsche himself despised just about anyone who couldn’t think for themselves, including the Germans. (Not sure about Ayn Rand, I’m not sure how she is conflated with other 2).

Second, what led to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had many other political and economic forces that philosophers had no control or did not even know. How could a few individual’s, even taking into account the influence and strength of their philosophies, be said to involve millions of people, large scale political action, and massive changes in social and economic structure. This ignores completely the way the world was like before and why people were dissatisfied with it and had dreams of better societies.

I think the author gives way too much credit to philosophers, about events that happen, while at the same time discrediting way too much the ideas that they developed and thought about and what they mean, by making such false equivalences.Report

Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Yet Another Anon Grad Student
6 years ago

“Marx helped give rise to Communism, which was a Bad Thing; Nietzsche heavily influenced National Socialism which was a Very Bad Thing”

Not to be that guy, but that’s kind of a crappy comparison. Marx actually developed and advocated socialism. In contrast, Nietzsche was rabidly anti-Nationalist and anti-antisemitic. He just had his work twisted by his Nationalistic and antisemitic sister while he was incapacitated.Report

Puzzled Grad Student
Puzzled Grad Student
6 years ago

I was fine with most of what the linked-to post said, but this line seemed rather unfounded and offensive:

“on average the very best people tend not to go into these areas [ethics or political philosophy]”

Really? Is there any reason to think that on average the best philosophers do not go into moral and political philosophy?Report

Adam Omelianchuk
Adam Omelianchuk
6 years ago

Whenever I see posts like this that essentially ask the “Is it all worth it?” question with lots of reasons posited that answer “HELL NO!” but then further asks, “But what if you want to do it anyway…” I come back to this: I know that it is unlikely that I will get a good job after grad school, which if all ends well will take 8 years of my life; if I am lucky and live til I’m 80, I will look back on those years and say, “I really got to do what I wanted to do for a tenth of my life, and I’m glad I did it–that is more than most people get.” I say this as someone who was in the working world for 10 years behind a desk before going to grad school. Yes, maybe I will work at some crummy desk job again in the future, but at least I will be able to do philosophy on nights and weekends; most importantly, I will get to read what I want and converse with the people most important to me.Report

Monica
Monica
6 years ago

This is very North America-centric and ignores the vast amount of philosophy work being conducted in Europe and Asia. It also ignores the great contributions philosophy has made via the disciple rather than via individuals. Ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of human rights all have significant, ongoing influence over collective and individual decisions at all levels of social interaction. This goes largely unrecognised by the general public because philosophy is oven subsumed by more popular titles but that doesn’t mean there should be fewer philosophers, it just means we need to become better communicators.Report

Ciaran Cummins
6 years ago

Christ on a bike, when will this monomaniacal view of academic philosophy end? As Monica rightly said, this post (and similar posts/articles about philosophers’ self-flagellation) ignores swathes of philosophical work being carried out in other parts of the globe (not to mention by the philosophically-inclined in other university departments).

Perhaps if philosophy phd’s were not presented in such a formulaic manner, then there’d be less worrying and self-loathing by those with them and those thinking about pursuing them.

Perhaps if these individuals were pointed in other directions to go with their phd’s (work outside of philosophy departments but in relation to your area(s) of interest, or in far less traditional academic career trajectories), then the idea that professional philosophy is and can ONLY be, “an incredible string of rejections, with rare successes in between” would stop being peddled.Report

Grumble
Grumble
6 years ago

If you want to do good, should you be involved with, support, or listen to 80,000 hours? There are a few reasons to think the answer is ‘no’. For instance, they are quite annoying and patronising, and people are put off by annoying and patronising people and might want to reject what they say out of hand. This might be irrational, but people can be irrational. I take it the idea is to make things better in the world, and if your approach puts people off then (even if your claims are true about what careers people should take) you shouldn’t take this approach.Report

Richard Yetter Chappell
6 years ago

Hi Grumble, what aspects of their presentation do you find “annoying and patronising”? It would seem unfortunate to have this effect on some readers, if it’s avoidable, so I expect that more specific feedback here could be very helpful for them.Report

Sean
Sean
6 years ago

How about a post on the supposition? Should we really choose careers that will ‘do the most good’? Even if so, should we advise people to do this? Should we do it, or advise people to do it, by trying to pick the career that will do the most good?

It is very, very, far from obvious that we should answer any of these questions in the affirmative. Speaking for myself, I chose philosophy in part because I wanted answers to just these kind of questions, not because I knew the answers to start with and saw philosophy as the right way to apply them in my life.Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
6 years ago

@Puzzled Grad Student: +1. E.g., Williams, Rawls, Singer, Parfit. The view that ethics is somehow a less rigorous field than M&E is ridiculous.
Re. the overall issue: Graduate study in philosophy could be viewed as similar to studying to become an artist. One must be motivated by passion because few will make a decent living either in philosophy or in the arts. There is a perfectionist argument for pursuing a self-transformative passion such philosophy or the arts and there are reasons for thinking that this self-transformative element has some spin-off benefit to others under one’s influence. Surely, though, if one had a passion for the law and became a human rights attorney, or for medicine and devoted oneself to preventing disease in impoverished places, one would be doing much much more for the world in a direct and evident way than teaching or writing philosophy could do. As a philosopher, the most good I could do would be to inspire my students to care about such things and become physicians or lawyers themselves who do good in the world (or whatever careers are their passion). I can help them make connections between their moral commitments and their careers. So, in this as in other ways, philosophy is a meta-discipline.Report

Will MacAskill
6 years ago

On negative impacts of philosophy:

I do think that the precise word choice I used in both the profile and the blog post (e.g. Nietzsche ‘heavily influenced’) was mistaken and I’ve revised that – thank you.

I’m fine with the idea that the examples of big social changes that have been linked to philosophers’ views all would have happened anyway as a result of political or economic forces; that’s something I don’t know enough about (and wonder how confident one could ever be either way).

What I’m very wary of is having a low evidential bar for examples of philosophy having a big positive impact on the world but a high evidential bar for examples of philosophy have a big negative impact on the world. The list is of philosophers who have been cited as influences on major world developments. If we were to go into more depth, we could investigate further the extent to which any of these philosophers made a difference (positive or negative).

Note it doesn’t matter whether these ideas were ‘twisted’ or not. The risk that as an intellectual your ideas will be bastardized and used for bad ends is a potentially grave one; if you are thinking about doing philosophy in order to have an impact on the world, then you need to bear that risk in mind.Report

Will MacAskill
6 years ago

On anglocentrism: Yes the profile is anglocentric. I say that explicitly in the profile, but not in the blog post. Most of the audience of 80,000 Hours is based in UK, North America and Australasia. It’s an open question to what extent this advice would be applicable to a career as a philosopher outside of the English-speaking world.Report

Will MacAskill
6 years ago

@Grumble: On annoying and patronising: I would also love to hear more on which aspects you think are annoying, and which patronising?Report

Oudeis
Oudeis
6 years ago

I recall professors looking down on those who did not argue in as precise a manner as possible, be they students or other (junior) faculty/visiting professor, those who did not achieve some arbitrary, strange notion of rationality the professors called for, those who put forth very new, very different ideas instead of just arguing with one line from one article on one single subject in a dusty volume that no one will read. And what was annoying were professors’ claims about “intuitions”; if you translate philosopher-speak into normal-speak and ask non-philosophers, the professors’ supposed assessments of intuitions (moral and otherwise) and situations for that matter did not match up with the norm whatsoever.Report

Grumble
Grumble
6 years ago

Annoying: being told, in effect, that you haven’t done something that will ‘make a difference’ for the better by your choice of career. It seems implied that we ought to maximise the good with our choices, and it seems implied that if we didn’t or don’t then we’re somehow subpar people. You don’t say this explicitly of course, and maybe you don’t intend to imply these things. But it still seems like veiled criticism from people who seem to see themselves as people as making a difference for the better – I.e there’s an impression you see yourselves as better than everyone else, and that’s annoying because it’s not clear you are. Since it hasn’t been shown yet 80,000 hours is making a difference for the better, it’s annoying that you seem to expect people should listen to your advice. This feeds into the patronising aspect…
Patronising: people who went to elite/privileged institutions, who are often (but not necessarily) people from privileged (economically, socially) backgrounds, telling others that they should pursue philosophy only if they can get into an elite/privileged institution. Thanks guys, but some of us aren’t that lucky early in life (or at any stage) or didn’t realise what careers we would like to pursue earlier enough to put the considerable effort in be in with a chance of attending an elite/privileged institution at some point in our lives. And now we’re being told we shouldn’t do something we enjoy (if we want to make a difference for the better) because it won’t make a difference. Lucky you guys have figured everything out so the rest of us don’t keep ruining the world.Report

Jon Cogburn
6 years ago

At one point in the black notebooks Heidegger denounces anti-semites. When a French philosopher recently went on national TV and cited that as proof that Heidegger was not an anti-semite, he was widely and justifiably derided. Yet people over and over again (see above) do the very same with respect to the manner in which national socialists (or Ayn Rand for that matter) used Nietzsche’s texts.

Of course Nietzsche contradicts himself everywhere, so we can find things that go against the Nazi’s use of him. Some commentators take this to be a virtue, rather than a bug as it forces Zarathustra’s disciple to stab Zarathustra in the back. I don’t know (I quit Nietzsche for Schopenhauer years ago).

In any case, the stuff Nietzsche wrote to get back at his anti-semitic brother in law should be seen as irrelevant when considering the connections between him and National Socialism. The views Nietzsche expresses over and over again about democracy, equality, violence, his views about the primacy of aesthetics, as well as what he did with Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of will and also the manner he denounces his perceived opponents don’t at all fit into the Walter Kaufmann whitewashing and were easily usable by the Nazis without any interpretive folly. And, to the extent that this is relevant, it should be clear that Nietzsche himself would have had nothing but contempt for well meaning liberals trying to sanitize his thinking.Report

another nameless grad student
another nameless grad student
6 years ago

As a former activist now grad student, I have wrestled with whether I ought to continue in philosophy, especially given the threat of climate change. Trying to make it through grad school gives me very little free time to help out in the movement. Sean(10) asks whether we should be choosing careers that ‘do the most good’, and I have long questioned myself on this. I ultimately chose philosophy for two reasons. First, because I think it is a valuable discipline that helps make life worth living and humanity worth saving, even though it doesn’t have an immediate practical impact. What a neat species we are, producing interesting questions and ideas, culture and art! What would life be like without these things? Second, because it is what I wanted to do. I think that a world full of people pursuing careers they find fulfilling is better than a world where people sacrifice their identities in order to do good. Sue Wolf’s paper on moral saints is highly relevant here. That said, I do think we owe it to students to convey the value of the discipline through inspired teaching, owe it to ourselves to get involved with social causes we believe in (if only by donating money) and owe it to society to speak out on important issues relevant to our times (tip of the hat to the daily nous for the recent posts).Report

Molly Mahony
Molly Mahony
6 years ago

I could not help but notice that the “team” of 80,000 hours are primarily white males, with the exception two women, one a research advisor and one a volunteer.Report