A Prospective Grad Student Says “No Thanks”


I am not sure what I expected when I applied to PhD programs. But when April rolled around, I began to ask myself what kind of future I was signing up for, and how different it would be from numerous other paths. After all, horror stories abound about the process of getting a PhD, and the terrible job market afterward. At best, I could hope to be turning 40, with a 9-year-old daughter and whatever other children we may have, still making less than I was at age 30, and with no job security…

I want a great career for myself — one where I will make a real impact with my ideas and my words. However, I can’t in good conscience subject my family to the kind of risks involved with an academy that is basically crumbling, and would continue to do so under our feet. I decided that I would not build a house on loose sand.

That’s Mike Sturm, a married father of one with a job in industrial distribution, writing about his decision to not pursue a PhD in philosophy, in “Why I Chose To Give up on Academia.”

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Anon
Anon
5 years ago

Why is it news every time someone decides to leave, or not to go into, academia/philosophy? Yes, it’s not for everyone. Yes, it has its problems. Message received. Is the hope that enough stories like this will encourage change? It seems like little to no job security, low pay, etc. is just the nature of the beast.Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
5 years ago

Except that it isn’t the nature of the beast; it doesn’t HAVE to be this way. Yes, to be sure, it’s not for everyone. But the reality is that the current climate in academia in general and academic philosophy in particular is driving away otherwise excellent candidates.Report

Anonymous assistant prof
Anonymous assistant prof
5 years ago

The fact that these “why I decided to leave academia” things feel like testimonies of traumatized people finally picking up the courage to leave an abusive cult indicates there is something pernicious about academia. By the time most people finish their grad program, they are thoroughly indoctrinated that leaving academia equals failure, and nothing else in the world would make them happy. This is how academia can have a 75% adjunct labor force. If more people had a healthy, realistic outlook on academia, we wouldn’t have such a large labor force of people willing to work for poverty wages, and it would really make a difference if some of us decided enough is enough and leave for the private sector. As it stands, we are all utterly replaceable, with a large army of underemployed PhDs willing to work under increasingly unfavorable conditionsReport

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
5 years ago

Part of the value of sharing these stories is to help individuals change how they think of their own career paths and their own relationship to philosophy and other forms of inquiry. If “little to no job security, low pay, etc. is just the nature of the [academic] beast,” then people who care about philosophical inquiry and humanistic education need to reconsider how strongly we associate philosophy with that beast.

The problem isn’t just that people are made to feel like “leaving academia equals failure.” It’s also that even those who get over that still too often think that “leaving academia” has to equal “leaving philosophy” or “leaving the life of the mind” or whatever.

Academic institutions, and academic careers, are great insofar as they provide a reasonable way to make a living while pursuing philosophical or other scholarly activity. But when they fail to do that – when working in an academic setting can only be rationalized under the idea of sacrificing material comfort and security to pursue what you love – it’s time to start questioning why that sacrifice has to be made to the benefit of universities.Report

Alo
Alo
5 years ago

I suggest current and aspiring philosophers to read this book ‘economists and socities’ by the sociologist Marion fourcade. In the book she charts how academic economists, whose methods are as obscure as philosophers to the layman, gravitated closer to the structures of power and bureaucracy. Such influence often bring resources to the field, because it is viewed with prestige.

Philosophers on the other hand, have been gravitating away from what is actually a useful subject for any functioning democracy. Part of philosopher’s goal is to outdo each other in their niche, specific fields. This, together with a lack of strategic acuteness, organization and agreement, stymies its ability to move closer to the structure of power, which can provide resources.

The lack of cooperation, due partly but substantially to a kind of rugged individuals, makes it extremely inflexible in how it can make itself more useful, in the eyes of the people, who all know (but don’t say), it is an extravagent career for many.Report

ordinal
ordinal
5 years ago

If it were a matter only of low job security and minimal pay, one might leave it at that. But the cumulative effect of such news stories is to emphasize that philosophy is a highly competitive, backbiting, winner-take-all, rank and pedigree conscious discipline. In that case, the losers owe nothing to the winners, and may even be obligated to help dismantle the institutions that support such disciplines in their present state? Why compound your losses by supporting the winners in so ugly and bleak a contest? Why not support the neoliberal and neocon agenda to drive philosophy out of the university altogether? Why continue to believe that the university is home to the intellectual, as if they ever had a home?Report

p
p
5 years ago

There are stories like this in any job you can imagine: why I decided to leave film industry; why I decided to leave journalism; why I decided to leave restaurant business; why I decided to leave being a farmer; and so on. How about: why I decided to leave being a worker in a coal mine? I find these sorts of self-pitying and, at the same time, self-hero-making and moral posturing stories that utterly lack any kind of perspective on oneself and the world at large really sad. Yes – one needs to choose what one values in life because, yes, one cannot have everything one dreams of. If you can live without philosophy but not without family and you are not able to make money in philosophy, then do not do philosophy. Deal with it.Report

Worried grad student
Worried grad student
5 years ago

In his article, Mike Sturm offers these sage words:

“My advice to those looking to throw themselves headlong into the academy is to ask yourself two questions:

Am I willing to live on $25,000 per year for the next 20 years of my life, and have only year-to-year contract gigs at small colleges?

Is there no other way I could ever be doing all the things I love and making a living other than having a PhD and teaching?”

The problem, of course, is if after extensive soul-searching you’ve become convinced (not with certainty, but with as much assurance as any act of introspection can bring) that the answer to the first is no and the second is yes. Of course lots of very well-meaning people will try to convince you that the answer to the second isn’t yes, on the basis of psychological generalizations that frankly don’t look very persuasive when compared to the results of introspection.

Then it seems there’s not really much to do, except plan on being unhappy.

(And I say this knowing that I have a lot of advantages that others don’t, not the least of which is not wanting children or a conventional co-located relationship.)Report

Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Yet Another Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

Derek, can you give me an example of a common job outside of academia in which one is paid to do philosophy? Or are you saying that people should get jobs with better hours and better pay and then do philosophy on the side? If the latter is the case, you’re probably also going to need an accounting or business degree and a lot of luck/rich parents.

Academia is a center for intellectuals because it is an institution that pays people to engage in intellectual pursuits, among other things. Of course, companies like GE, IBM, and Monsanto will also pay people to engage in intellectual pursuits such as physics/computing/genetics. But these pursuits are limited according to whether they are expected to produce a profit, and often have dubious ethical implications. All this “philosophy belongs in the agora” stuff sounds very romantic, but it is fatally misguided. Socrates did his philosophy in the agora, but recall that he didn’t really have answers to anything. Virtually everyone who came after Socrates had years and years of intense formal education, and had either an academic position or an equivalently cushy social position with ample time to read and write. Where are new philosophers going to get their training if not in academia? I fear that without formal guidance they will be nothing but dilettantes making broad proclamations and repeating in ignorance what others have already said. Maybe instead of abandoning the one social institution that is devoted to pursuing knowledge for its own sake we should be fighting to save it.Report

E
E
5 years ago

One of my advisors told me, before I applied, “apply for a PhD program only if you can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Sage advice, in theory, but I really couldn’t imagine doing anything but philosophy when I was a starry eyed 24 year old, until my 4 years in grad school took the stars right out of my eyes. I quickly realized I liked teaching but hated the “business” of philosophy and academia in general. I struggled with work one semester because I was having trouble at home, and my advisor casually pointed out that his first marriage ended because his wife couldn’t handle being married to an academic.

He honestly thought he was being helpful, which made it worse. “Having trouble writing a paper on Rawls? Try getting divorced!”

I’m not condemning the idea of a philosophy PhD. It wasn’t for me, but I walked away with no debt and I learned a lot. I found a career I love as a result of my experiences teaching in grad school.Report

Philosophy PhD
Philosophy PhD
5 years ago

Assistant prof touches on an important point, which is the desperation factor. I would say that the most important reason I decided to leave academia was that I quite quickly realised how much more desperate my competitors were. This phenomenon has a name in game theory, but I can’t right now remember what it is. Anyway, it’s the situation where you realise that your competition is willing to do so much more to get these jobs (poor wages, ridiculous teaching loads, anonymous locations) that it’s irrational to enter the competition. Even if you emerge as the winner, the price you have to pay is simply too big.

Of course this is a lot to do with the institutional structures of academia. But I believe many candidates also suffer from the sunk-cost fallacy. Since you’ve already invested several years in order to get your PhD, you feel the need to justify your earlier (perhaps bad) choices by getting an academic job by any means. Needless to say, this isn’t entirely rational thinking.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
5 years ago

Re: Yet Another Anon Grad Student

Yes, I meant your second option. One does not need to “get paid to do philosophy” in order to both get paid AND do philosophy. You raise a number of important worries, and you’re right that Socrates is not a good model here (he owned his own home, had no qualms mooching off his rich friends, and didn’t care about making money to support his family). You’re also right that doing philosophy while working another job would be difficult. But is it really more difficult than trying to do so within an academic career? How many tenured and tenure-track professors already have to carve out time on evenings and weekends to do their research? How much philosophy do you get to do when you have to make applying for jobs a full time job, year after year (or semester after semester for many adjuncts)? And newly minted PhDs are already highly dependent on luck and family resources (or crippling debt) to make it through a series of postdocs / VAPs or adjunct lectureships while they continue applying for permanent positions.

I’m not advocating a romantic vision of “philosophy in the agora.” I’m advocating a hard and serious look at the possibility of continuing serious engagement with philosophy outside of an academic career, and at the real costs and challenges of aspiring to an academic career.

That’s also why the cliched “apply for a PhD program only if you can’t imagine doing anything else” is such horrible advice. If you can’t imagine doing anything else, then you also can’t imagine doing all of the non-philosophical work required to compete for academic jobs. If you can’t imagine doing anything else, you need to do something else for a while to try to expand your imagination.Report

anonymous
anonymous
5 years ago

Just to echo but then also add to what ‘p’ says: It’s really hard, for those of us who have even some idea of what it’s actually like to live a difficult life, to not just be annoyed with people whining about how rough it is to try to be a philosopher. Like really: gain some perspective. That being said, I think it’s totally correct that the system is unjust and terrible. It’s just that when philosophers narrow-mindedly focus on what’s bad for *them*, they both seem self-serving and as though they totally don’t get how economics and politics work. Nothing is going to change either for philosophers or for coal miners without radical reform of the larger economic and political systems. And philosophers who complain about this stuff rarely seem to make that connection, which makes it harder (I think) to take them seriously, especially when they so often are in positions of privilege and can choose to do other things, seemingly without understanding that most of the world’s population really doesn’t have many choices at all about what projects to pursue, what work to do, or whether they receive a living wage for that work. It’s true that the system is exploitative, unjust, etc., but that is a feature of larger problems. Focusing on some guy who clearly could do any number of things with his life and has one option shut off from him because it won’t provide him with a living wage to support his family seems to miss the point that most people have *nearly every* option sealed off from them. We should be working to create a world in which all kinds of work are valued and the freedom to choose what to do with one’s life is more equitably distributed.Report

Anon Prof
Anon Prof
5 years ago

Mike Strum was admitted to only one PGR-ranked PhD program. His chances of ending up with a TT job were low, and he was sensible in deciding not to enroll in graduate school. (He didn’t leave grad school; he decided not to enroll at all.). I don’t see that his experience has much relevance for the many students whose prospects of ending up in TT jobs are considerably better (without being certain).Report

Yet Another Anon Grad Student
Yet Another Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

Derek, my primary problem is that without the academy you won’t have PhD programs. Without a PhD one will have no formal training; no one to guide you or tell you what to read. Like it or not, the academy is necessary. If all you’re saying is that *in addition to academic philosophy* we should also encourage people to take non-academic jobs and pursue philosophy in their spare time after they get their PhDs, then I totally agree. If you’re saying that people don’t need formal training to do decent philosophy, I think you’re dead wrong. There may be a handful of individuals who are brilliant and motivated enough to study philosophy on their own in their spare time without guidance and still produce worthwhile ideas. But those people are exceptional.Report

PoliSciProf
PoliSciProf
5 years ago

Doing a PhD needs to be seen in a significant way as an end in itself, and not merely as a means to an academic career. And since it can occupy up to 10-12% of one’s life (including a post-doc or two), it might very well be worth doing as it is in fact a delightful and unmatched autonomous time (for some).

I, for one, remain struck by how different grad school life and professorial life turned out to be. The latter being somewhat less delightful than the former.Report

Mike
5 years ago

Though it may be a bit gauche to comment on the discussion about one’s own piece, I’ll take that risk because the discussion here is really good, and brings up something that I do think I didn’t clarify very well in my piece.

I think to take a job outside academia and do philosophy “in one’s spare time” is a disservice to the value of the subject. Philosophy is too valuable to be a hobby, and I think it’s high time those in the business of, well, business, see that. That’s kind of what I was getting at in my second question under the “My Advice” heading in the article.

I think that I am more interested in taking significant aspects of philosophy, as we learned it in academia, and smuggling it into the business world. Once smuggled in, I think a good amount of room exists for the current business practices to be molded around a more philosophical mindset and approach. Perhaps 40 years ago, this may have been viewed as less possible. However, in an age where the startup is the preferred type of business for many investors, it seems much easier for a wily philosopher to step into a small, growing company and make philosophical inquiry one of its core values.Report

Demonax
Demonax
5 years ago

I’m not sure what’s worse: first anon’s obtuse sense of history, vacuous rhetoric, or the silent support of so many thumbs-uppers. Clearly ‘the message’ has not been received. How otherwise to interpret the staggering fatuousness of the following remark: “It seems like little to no job security, low pay, etc. is just the nature of the beast.” 40 years ago roughly 75% of academic labor was characterized by excellent job security, decent pay, etc. For at least the last decade or so we’ve moved to the other end of the pendulum, with roughly 75% of academic labor characterized just as first anon puts it. Now, it’s pretty strange to characterize this obvious historical contingency as ‘just the nature of the beast’. Strange ‘nature’ that becomes its opposite in a mere generation or two. Even stranger ‘beast’, where the normalization of precarious un- or underemployment is normalized as the expected outcome for even excellent PhDs. First anon’s claim seems reducible to a mafia-ontology: the terrible ‘job market’ ‘just is what it is’. And I guess anyone who thinks otherwise, who is at all critical, should just shut their mouth and ‘get with the program’ or ‘get out’. I took Mike’s confessional to mean that the pursuit of a philosophy PhD can no longer be described as a rational enterprise, and is at the very least imprudent. I think it’s up to us to either collectively change that through organized resistance or else just walk away, find something else to do, and preserve our sanity. This insight dawned on me while recently applying for jobs where I’d have to move across the country for temporary work, with conditions such as: teach twice as much as tenured faculty while earning half their salary and still having to maintain a robust research agenda and even perform university service. I soon realized that it would actually be better for me if I didn’t get such jobs at all. Or maybe, strictly speaking, as it is written in the Book of Ecclesiastes: better to not be an academic under such conditions but best of all never to have been an academic, never to have seen the evil that is done under the sun (my paraphrase). If that’s the normal outcome for even exceptional graduate students then maybe it’s time to put the ‘beast’ down rather than reflexively appeal to its nature.Report

ordinal
ordinal
5 years ago

The meritocratic rhetoric would have a reserve army of academic laborers waiting in the wings to take over any academic function. This is the presumption behind, “If you don’t get with the program, then get out.” I got out, and last year I turned down four offers to participate in National Science Foundation grants, and this year so far I have turned down three. After leaving, I’ve received peremptory, last minute demands to edit grant proposals. I wasn’t even included deep in the et als of the publications of these groups when I was working for them. Where is the reserve army of highly cultivated academic laborers to replace me? Let them find a Nobel Laureate to exploit. Perhaps the humanities are different, but the university system would collapse without its 75% precariat labor force.Report

Marie
Marie
5 years ago

Ugh. The academy isn’t shrinking. It just isn’t growing nearly as fast as the population of PhDs. I realize philosophers aren’t empiricists, but I do so wish they’d fact-check their published stuff.Report

Kate Norlock
Kate Norlock
5 years ago

I am not understanding Marie’s comment at #20. Sturm says “The academy may be shrinking from what it once was,” very shortly after commenting on “a job market where good positions keep getting whittled down” and at the end of a piece lamenting the situation of “institutions who are being told to hire more and more adjuncts and offer fewer tenured positions.” So this isn’t a statement about the numerical count of members of the academy. It is pretty clearly a statement about the proportion of employment in the academy that offers job security and/or good positions. That proportion in the Humanities is certainly not what it once was.Report