Are There Too Many Philosophy PhDs? It’s Complicated

Are There Too Many Philosophy PhDs? It’s Complicated


In light of the previous post, we might ask, are there too many philosophy PhDs? Some people think so, and take that as a reason to think that some departments should stop offering PhDs. Let’s talk about this.

First, a general point: though the number of PhD studentships is not the result of an open market, there are still good Hayekian reasons for caution about making claims about the right number of them.

That said, we can ask why we might think there are too many philosophy PhDs. There seem to be two kinds of complaints:

(A) Quantity: there are more people with philosophy PhDs than there are (the right kind of) jobs for them.

(B) Quality: the quality of the average philosophy PhD is too low.

We can, of course, ask:

(1) Is A a sound complaint?

and:

(2) Is B a sound complaint?

If they are, regarding A, we can ask:

(3) Will reducing the number of PhD studentships in fact address the quantity complaint (A)?

If the answer to 1 is yes, we can ask:

(4) Is reducing the number of PhD studentships a good way to address the quantity complaint (A)?

Regarding B, we can ask:

(5) Will reducing the number of PhD students in fact address the quality complaint (B)?

If the answer to 3 is yes, we can ask:

(6) Is reducing the number of PhD studentships a good way to address the quality complaint (B)?

To help answer 4 and 6, we can ask:

(7) By what other means, besides reducing the number of PhD studentships, could we address (A) and (B)?

(8) What are the costs of reducing the number of PhD studentships, and who bears those costs?

Our answers to many of the above questions will depend on our answer to another question:

(9) By what means is the reduction in PhD studentships to be accomplished? Is it by (9a) some PhD programs shutting down? or (9b) keeping most or all programs open but having them offer fewer PhD studentships? or (9c) keeping most or all programs open but having them raise admissions standards so that fewer students meet them? or (9d) discouraging students from seeking PhDs in philosophy? or (9e) some other option?

Of course, about each of these options we can ask a question about practicality:

(10) How, if at all, can the means by which the reduction in PhD studentships is to be accomplished be implemented?

And, we should note, that our answers about the feasibility and costs of implementation may feed back into our answers to questions 4, 6, 8, and 9.

Are there too many philosophy PhDs? And if so, what should we do about it? Let’s not pretend these are easy questions to answer.

too many phds

 

UPDATE: A post from last year on the role that terminal MA programs could play in addressing employment issues in philosophy may be of interest.

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Joshua Miller
5 years ago

I have not seen much evidence of sub-standard PhDs. If anything, I see many high quality candidates drop out of the process before completing a dissertation because of the job market.

In general, though, I prefer that we pursue strategies that increase demand rather than choke off supply.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Joshua Miller
5 years ago

What’s the case for pursuing strategies like that? It’s not something that’s generally done in other professional-training contexts, e.g. if too many doctors or lawyers are being trained, we don’t normally think that the remedy is to increase the demand for doctors or lawyers.Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

But the demand for doctors and lawyers is some function of what are the actual numbers of those who are sick or need justice or to be the subject of justice at a given time of our history. What Miller invokes is a preference for a better society that would value more philosophers as a necessary part of the improvement of social good. However impractical that may be, it is a goal that may well be desirable, which is his point. So his case is to try and improve society given that philosophy can contribute to its betterment. I’m on board with that as part of the role of the liberal arts in improving the human condition. Why would I not be?Report

the dude
the dude
Reply to  Alan White
4 years ago

When high schools are concerned with giving students an adequate liberal education rather than just technical preparation for the low skilled job market or preparation for university, then we will need those philosophers. In countries like France philosophy is a part of the high school curriculum.Report

adam
adam
5 years ago

Au contraire. This is actually an easy question to answer, and appears to stem from an overly narrow conception of the uses and value of philosophy. There is no reason why there should not be a lot more philosophy PhDs than justified by the natural wastage in the employment of Professors of Philosophy. One would only ask this question if one thought that being a Professor of Philosophy was the only worthwhile occupation for someone who had completed a philosophy PhD (and I speak as someone who did NOT complete a philosophy PhD, but spent a long time doing so). I think that the world would be a better place if more formerly philosophers, with philosophical inclinations, were doing other jobs. PhDs are worth doing in most subjects where the natural academic progression is not the only or common outcome.Report

recent grad
recent grad
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
5 years ago

I take Adam’s point to be more ideal: the current # of Ph.D.s wouldn’t be too many, even if it far outstrips the # of TT jobs, as long as there is enough fulfilling work for Ph.D.s outside the academy. But one of the problems is that there *isn’t* enough fulfilling work outside the academy. Have you tried to get hired with a philosophy Ph.D.? It’s possible, but not exactly easy. So Adam’s point, which I’m sympathetic to, is compatible with A’s being true at present.Report

LecturePig
LecturePig
Reply to  adam
5 years ago

It’s irrelevant whether a person thinks academia is the only “worthwhile occupation” for someone who has completed a philosophy PhD. Because, given the current non-academia marketplace, academia is the ONLY (middle class) occupation for which having a PhD in philosophy is seen as a sufficient qualification for employment. I have completed my PhD in philosophy, I work in a low paying (though thankfully full time) non-TT lectureship; believe me, I would love to have the option to get a non-academic job earning a living wage. But no one outside the academy sees the philosophy PhD as a qualification of any sort. So the only non-academic jobs I would be likely to get would be low-wage, entry-level, labor/retail positions with little to no room for growth or advancement (to the middle class). if I am going to be working perpetually in a low-wage, high-stress, situation, the best I can hope for is that I get to talk philosophy while I do it.Report

Some Person
Some Person
5 years ago

Given the actual human costs of the mismatch between jobs available and PHDs looking for jobs, we need to pursue every possible avenue: We need fewer PHDs, we need to do what little we can to create more full-time positions for PHDs, we need to find new ways to get PHDs jobs outside of professorships.

Decreasing the number of PHDs is going to be hard. We have a collective action problem: Everyone knows there is a problem but no individual department has an incentive to decrease their number of PHDs granted. Quite the opposite, I expect.

Creating more professorships and full-time positions is almost entirely out of our hands.

We might can find some jobs outside academia for those going out on the market, but I think realistically there is little we can do on this front.

The one real hope I see is that the number of people applying to PHD programs decreases dramatically due to more and more people realizing it is not an easy path.Report

Just a Guy
Just a Guy
Reply to  Some Person
5 years ago

Here’s a way to do that: PhD programs require an MA, rather than only a BA, for admission. This will deter non-serious applicants, and others will either not complete the MA or take the MA and move on to another profession (realizing philosophy is not for them). In general, PhD programs will be getting very good applicants, better on average than they do now. And incoming students will have a much better idea of what they are getting themselves into. And, there are plenty of funded MAs already, and if some PhD programs became quality MAs instead, this would also help the problem.Report

langdon
langdon
Reply to  Just a Guy
5 years ago

This seems a bit draconian, no? If a department determines that someone with a BA is good enough to join their program, then why should we prevent them from offering the student the spot? (this reminds me of there terrible NBA rule that high school students have to spend a year in college before they can be drafted). This suggestion would require one to likely move their entire lives twice. And why? I’ve been on several admissions committees. Sometimes it is very clear that an undergrad has what it takes (or at least that it is a very good bet that they do). If the undergrad thinks they can do it and the department thinks they can do it, then I don’t see why these adults can’t make the appropriate decisions.Report

Just a Guy
Just a Guy
Reply to  langdon
5 years ago

Perhaps PhD programs could also accept credit from these MAs so that the PhD is shorter. It doesn’t add to the time to degree. I don’t know that it’s draconian. Great undergrads could go to great MAs, then go to great PhDs. No extra time invested or anything. Look, attrition at PhD programs in the humanities hovers around 50%. Do we not think that students earning an MA is pretty substantial proof that they are serious about graduate school? Many people that start PhDs don’t finish, and many that do are unemployed or underemployed. Maybe we should try something new.Report

Grad Sockpuppet
Grad Sockpuppet
Reply to  Just a Guy
5 years ago

That’s typically how it works in Canada and the UK. What’s the production pipeline look like over there?Report

Nate Stout
5 years ago

It seems to me that the answers to both (1) and (2) are “No.” (B) seems not to be a sound complaint because, as Joshua Miller noted above, there is, by all accounts, no lack of quality PhD holders out there, and (A) seems unsound because it fails to account for the range of reasons that individual students might have for pursuing a PhD in Philosophy. There is, of course, the reason relevant to (A), namely, that one wants to have an academic appointment as a professional philosopher and having a PhD is a necessary condition for having such an appointment, but this is only problematic if it turns out to be the case that the vast majority of students are (non-culpably) ignorant of how unlikely it is that one will end up with a career in academia. Given the amount of information that’s available regarding the job market in academic philosophy, I’m very skeptical that this is the case (unless, of course, students are being actively misled by faculty members or advisors, but even if they are, closing down PhD programs or admitting fewer students hardly seems like the best solution to that problem).

There are a number reasons one might have for pursuing a PhD beyond wanting a career in academia, and (A) ignores these. The most obvious of which is simply that one wants to earn a PhD in philosophy. I’m currently a PhD candidate. I’m on the job market right now, and I’ve sunk a lot of time, money, and effort into applications. I sincerely hope that I can land a TT job because I genuinely love teaching, research, working with students, and talking philosophy with other philosophers. Honestly, though, my primary focus right now is on completing a dissertation that I can be proud of (and which can contribute something important to the field) and earning my PhD because that’s the reason I became a graduate student. When one is surrounded at all times by academics who have PhD’s, it’s easy to forget just how big an accomplishment simply earning the degree is. PhD holders make up a tiny percentage of the general population, and in philosophy less than half of those who enroll in a PhD program earn the degree. I went to grad school because (1) I wanted to study philosophy at the highest level, have an opportunity to research and write under the direction of some really good philosophers, and earn the highest degree in the field, and because (2) I want to be a professional philosopher. I’ll be happy with (1) even if (2) doesn’t pan out.

If we decide as a profession that we ought to confer fewer PhD’s simply because there aren’t enough jobs, then we’re implicitly claiming that getting a job is the only good reason to get a PhD in philosophy, and that makes me uneasy.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Nate Stout
5 years ago

If you’re studying philosophy primarily for purposes unrelated to employment, why do you need the institutional credential of a PhD?Report

Nate Stout
Reply to  Derek Bowman
5 years ago

Thanks for the question. I didn’t mean to suggest that simply earning the degree was my primary reason for studying philosophy. Indeed, I very much want an academic appointment as that’s my ultimate career goal. My point was that earning the PhD is a significant accomplishment and that seems to me a sufficient reason that one might have for pursuing it. Surely, one could study independently, but an institutional affiliation puts one at a considerable advantage (e.g. studying under the direction of professionals, having one’s work evaluated, receiving feedback, being a part of the intellectual life of a philosophy department, etc.).Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Nate Stout
5 years ago

Given the difficulty, wouldn’t successfully studying independently represent an even more significant accomplishment?Report

Tristan Haze
Reply to  Derek Bowman
5 years ago

Not trying to speak for the original commenter here, but one reason to have that credential would be to have your philosophy taken more seriously. You might easily want that even if you earn your bread some other way or don’t have to earn your bread at all. This is one of my main motivations for undertaking a PhD.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Tristan Haze
5 years ago

Well, there are a lot of philosophers that are taken quite seriously even though they don’t have Ph.D.s. It’s actually hard to determine whether someone has a Ph.D. or not. So I’m not sure “being taken more seriously” is a good reason to get a Ph.D. But obviously, getting trained in a graduate program is likely to make one a better philosopher, which is likely to lead to people taking your philosophy more seriously.Report

Anon
Anon
5 years ago

I’m going to ask a naive question: Why do we need PhDs? With so much emphasis on journal publication before going on the market, shouldn’t we turn phd fellowships into fixed-term entry level teaching jobs where you get a chance to teach and publish a few articles? And of it works out after that, great, but if it doesn’t you’re not perceived as this eternal student?Report

Just a thought
Just a thought
5 years ago

I’ve read from reputable sources that back in the 70s approximately 75% of humanities courses were taught by tenured or TT faculty, with only about 25% taught by contingent academic labor, and that at this point those numbers have basically flipped, with about 75% of college courses taught by contingent academic labor and only 25% taught by tenured or TT track faculty. It seems to me that if we could get back to having about 75% of college courses (or even more) taught by faculty with job security, decent pay, and benefits, with the rest taught by those who voluntarily opt for part-time work or are in training, then this whole problem goes away (and this is a feasible goal though it would probably take unionization and collective bargaining, and a great deal more solidarity between tenured and TT faculty on the one hand and grad students and adjunct faculty on the other). In other words, rather than accepting the dictates of the so-called market, which is really just a way of obfuscating the corporatization of the university at the hands of administrators ruthlessly redistributing resources toward non-academic things like their own pockets, endless building projects, athletics, and a variety of questionable ‘services’ for students – dictates which demand accepting the widespread replacement of TT jobs with contingent labor – we might want to consider the possibility that there is already enough work to go around, enough teaching to be done. The problem might be that administrators have made most of it about as low-paying as working a register at a Barnes & Noble. There aren’t too many PhDs, and there is not too little work, even in academia. There is too little dignified work, and that strikes me as a labor issue that can only be rectified the same way such things always are – through struggle and agitation.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Just a thought
5 years ago

I’ve seen this theory a number of times, but I’ve never managed to find solid quantitative data to support (or refute!) it, i.e. to show that if we returned to 1970s work patterns there would be enough work for everyone. If you have, I’d be interested to see a reference. In the meantime, the lack of data here makes me nervous- after all, even if this was true in (say) 2004, where we’ve just been told there were 350-odd PhDs per year, why think it’s true in 2014, when there were 450-odd?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
5 years ago

A modest proposal:

Let’s stipulate that (a) the main (no doubt not the only) reason people do philosophy PhDs is because they’re after a tenure-track position in philosophy; (b) there are substantially fewer tenure-track jobs than there are PhDs; (c) there’s no reason to expect the supply of positions to increase in the short or medium term.

What to do? Distinguish two possibilities:

The happy possibility: There is a rough hierarchy of departments such that candidates from the best departments can be fairly confident of good jobs, candidates from middling departments can be fairly confident of reasonable jobs, and candidates from weak departments have a quite limited chance of good jobs. Furthermore, this hierarchy is universally known among prospective graduate students. As such, people who want to do a PhD as a route to an academic job can reasonably predict, before starting graduate study, what their chances are. Those who don’t get into a good department can realistically expect not to get an academic job, and can make their own assessment as to whether they want a PhD even so. Those with a place at a good department can feel reasonably secure in their prospects. If in fact most PhD candidates want a tenure-track position, we can predict in due course that weak departments will have to shutter their PhD programs for lack of applicants.

The unhappy possibility: Either there is no hierarchy of departments, or else applicants don’t reliably know what it is. Now grad school is a crapshoot: getting offered a place in no way helps you judge whether you are likely to make a career in academia, and so you are left having to gamble six-to-eight years of your life for an uncertain reward.

How can we ensure the happy possibility? Off the top of my head, something like a global ranking of departments – by speciality, and possibly overall – is the way to go. And because placement data is backward-looking, we can’t rely on placement data alone, so we’ll need to use some sort of qualitative process to rank-order departments. Peer assessment by experts in the field, imperfect though it is, is probably the best we can hope for. Overall rankings could be provided perhaps every 2-3 years and widely disseminated among prospective grad students.

I assume it’s uncontroversial that a scheme of this kind would be a good idea; the only problem is that administering it would be a lot of work and I suspect we’d be unleikly to find a volunteer.Report

Kevin H
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

The ‘rough hierarchy’ obscures what I take to be the facts about job placement, not to mention that what makes for a ‘good job’ might differ according to different people. Studying in the best (‘Leiterific’) departments might be a necessary condition for getting jobs in those departments, and a nearly necessary one for some other jobs. But from what I’ve seen it doesn’t increase your chances of getting secure TT employment. So the real scenario is one of your ‘unhappy ones’. But it’s not obvious to me that it’s so unhappy. Why should prospective students know how well they will fare before they embark on the degrees? Presumably there’s more merit in post-PhD selection (i.e., the job market) than there is in pre-PhD selection (i.e., graduate admissions), even if both are largely crapshoots.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Kevin H
5 years ago

“Why should prospective students know how well they will fare before they embark on the degrees?”

So they can make reasonable and informed decisions about whether to so embark?Report

recent grad
recent grad
5 years ago

In answer to question 9, what about something like the following: have program’s register their job applicants with the APA and then devise some connection between a program’s recent placement success and the # of students it can admit.

This is not perfect, of course. Placement is backward-looking; many people don’t trust the APA at present, etc. etc. Getting programs, esp. weaker ones, to sign up would be difficult, as would establishing an enforcement mechanism. But no solution to the problem will be easy or perfect. And I think the above proposal has some things going for it. First, it ties the solution to A to a program’s capacity to place people. And lack of placement is the whole problem. Second, it does not patronize any particular applicants. Anyone can still apply to any program they want to. Third, it gives an official and concrete way to improve “the discipline”. Because I for one am tired of hearing what’s good or bad for “the discipline” and then having people complain when one tries to create an official mechanism which would improve “the discipline”. The invisible hand isn’t exactly doing a great job with the discipline.Report

Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
5 years ago

David Wallace:
(1) leaving aside the many difficulties with schemes of global evaluation (biases towards particular styles of philosophy/apples and.oranges problems come to mind, as well as preselection of the evaluators), if this is a ranking by research productivity, what reason is there to think it will correlate with the sorts of skills sought in most tt jobs (not at research universities) — ability to teach undergraduates across a wide range of subfields, for example?
(2) Your “happy” scenario discounts the ability of human beings to hide from the truth when they really want something (I got into Podunk U, and one of their graduates from the last ten years got a good job, so I can do it too!) as well as the temptations to exploit this for the sake of getting a pool of available cheap labor.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Michael Kremer
5 years ago

Much as Swift’s, my “modest proposal” was not entirely serious (hint: “unleikly” is not a typo).

Having said which, I am serious that a certain rough hierarchy of departments is actually good for students, though I do agree with your (2). I wasn’t intending in seriousness to (re)open the question of how one defines and determines that hierarchy!Report

Grad Sockpuppet
Grad Sockpuppet
5 years ago

I have to say that I’m pretty tired of people suggesting that “some” programs (“we all know which ones”) should shut their PhD programs and convert to MAs (at best). It’s not that I don’t think there’s a grain of truth to it, but because it strikes me as a lazy platitude. Nobody is willing to put their money where their mouths are and actually name some programs and give reasons for selecting those names. Nobody is ever forced to defend their opinions on this matter, and so they get to offer them as an empty panacea.

I understand that people are wary of an internet backlash. But here’s an exercise for you: get together with a couple trusted friends/colleagues one afternoon, make some suggestions, and pull out your laptops to actually have a look at all of the suggested departments. Consider likely counterarguments, and see where you end up. Or, hell, just do it by yourself. I suspect you’ll find that you’ve only got good reasons to close a very few programs, and that most of your middling reasons apply much too generally (so that if you’re using them consistently as selection criteria, you’re closing way too many programs). You might also find that you’re hampered in setting a global cap on the number of PhDs by things like national interest (e.g. it’s not going to be acceptable to folks in the UK or Canada that all their philosophy faculty come from Oxbridge or Toronto).Report

the Onion Man
the Onion Man
5 years ago

Philosophy, like the writing of poetry or the painting of canvases, used to be something that was done either by wealthy people in their spare time or else by the clients of wealthy people who served as their patrons. I know it’s “classist,” but the reality is that the current model is unsustainable, and whether we like it or not we’re probably going back to the prior model (to the extent that we aren’t there already, when you consider the relationship between individual net worth, student debt, and graduate degree acquisition).

The root of the problem is that the ideology of egalitarian democratization has combined with the credentialism of late industrial capitalism to produce a situation where “everyone” can be a philosopher, except “being a philosopher” now means “getting your paper published in Philosophical Review” or at least trying to. The problem in other words isn’t that we are producing too many Ph.D.’s in philosophy, though of course we are. The problem is that Philosophy is being (mis)understood as a path to middle class economic security in and of itself, rather than as a pastime of plutocrats on the one hand or a spiritual exercise for penniless mendicants on the other.Report

William Lewis
William Lewis
Reply to  the Onion Man
5 years ago

I can’t quite understand why the productive relations of earlier economic systems should constrain present or future relations.Report

the Onion Man
the Onion Man
Reply to  William Lewis
5 years ago

Lewis

I’m not sure I completely understand your question, but let me say first off that history is a constraint, whether or not it ought to be.

Beyond that, my point is that the root of our problem is with the idea that philosophy could or should be something that pays the mortgage for a nontrivial number of economic actors. Like the art world or the “literature” world, we have developed economic structures that parallel the professional tracks of medical doctors and engineers. The problem is that art and philosophy are fundamentally unlike medicine and engineering, first and foremost because of the need for professionalization.

The reality is that you don’t need a PhD to philosophize any more than you need an MFA to paint. You need a PhD to be able to teach in a university Philosophy department (which is not the same thing as philosophizing), and–arguably–to get your work taken seriously by other philosophers. But we have so thoroughly conflated the acquisition of capitalism-approved credentials with the work of philosophy that it’s difficult to even articulate what “being a philosopher” means apart from getting a PhD and teaching in a university Philosophy department.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  the Onion Man
5 years ago

@the Onion Man:

“The problem is that art and philosophy are fundamentally unlike medicine and engineering, first and foremost because of the need for professionalization.”

As someone who has PhDs in both physics and philosophy, I don’t actually think there’s a major difference here. In both fields,

(a) significant postgraduate taught work is generally necessary to have sufficient mastery of the material to be able to teach it to smart undergraduates. (Yes, there are (vanishingly few) successful autodidacts in any field, but most people don’t learn that way.)
(b) significant postgraduate taught work, and a significant time developing general research skills and a familiarity with the literature, is necessary to be able to contribute meaningfully to the current research frontier. (Yes, vanishingly rarely you meet a successful autodidact, in either field.)

“The reality is that you don’t need a PhD to philosophize any more than you need an MFA to paint.”

“Philosophise” is ambiguous here. You don’t need a PhD to be thoughtful, or to think carefully about any number of issues. You do (generally) need a PhD to contribute meaningfully to most contemporary philosophy research. If you want to meaningfully advance our joint understanding of (e.g.)

– the status of the gauge principle in classical and quantum field theory
– the relative merits of homotopy theory, category theory and ZF set theory as foundations for mathematics
– the various grains of functionalism salient to an appropriate philosophical foundation for cognitive science
– the extent to which recent military conflicts fit within various conceptions of just war, and the resultant implications for just-war theorising
– compatibilism and libertarianism in the light of our increasingly detailed psychological and physiological conceptions of the brain
– the current state of the semantics/pragmatics distinction in natural language

then in 99.9% of cases you are going to need significant professional training (in most cases including postgraduate study of fields overlapping with philosophy, as well as philosophy proper) to do so.Report

the Onion Man
the Onion Man
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

I think you’re speaking somewhat past my point. Yes, clearly, academic philosophy as taught and practiced by academic philosophers requires significant amounts of postgraduate instruction. But there’s a whole system of economic relations undergirding the practice, and that system of relations is crumbling. Why?

I am arguing there is something fundamentally unsound in the conception of philosophy as a career path like medicine or engineering or even, yes, physics. There will always be a need for teachers of the philosophical canon (however defined), and there will always be people writing texts that can be more or less accurately described as “philosophical,” some of which will work their way into the canon. But the idea that you can produce philosophy the way you produce widgets, that there is a scalable industrial process with a well-defined progression scheme, is at the heart of the present impasse.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

@the Onion man:

“But there’s a whole system of economic relations undergirding the practice, and that system of relations is crumbling. Why?”

I think I reject the premise. But rather than get into a detailed analysis (which might founder on the fact that I know the UK system much better than the US) let me make the case indirectly. You suggest that back in the day, philosophy was mostly done by “wealthy people in their spare time or else by the clients of wealthy people who served as their patrons.” Put aside the former (who aren’t doing it for a living) and suppose that you were a wealthy person in the 21st century who wanted to support academic research (in philosophy, or in the liberal arts more generally, or perhaps in academia more generally). What should you do? I take it it’s pretty obvious what you should do (and what people in practice in fact do): you’d donate to a university or to a department within a university. That is: the “patron-driven” model you describe, translated into the 21st century, pretty much is the business model of research-intensive universities, where teaching income and government support by no means pay the bills and where the balance is made up by private philanthropy.Report

the Onion Man
the Onion Man
Reply to  David Wallace
5 years ago

Wallace

I’ve answered you below, in order to avoid the confusion that might come from sub-nested replies.

Thanks for the illuminating discussion!Report

Jonathan Ichikawa
5 years ago

We should be more serious about career prospects outside of academia. I think that (a) we probably have a tendency to underestimate the job prospects for philosophy PhDs outside academia in the status quo, and (b) raising the public profile of the value of a philosophy PhD can improve those prospects.

It’s just not true that if you leave academia, your philosophy PhD is worthless. It is true that if you leave academia, then you won’t get the job that you were probably most specifically being trained for; but many people in the world have good jobs that they weren’t specifically trained for in their degree programs. A philosophy PhD is strong evidence of exemplary analytic thinking and writing ability, as well as the ability to achieve a large project over an extended period of time. These should be—and to at least some degree, are—highly marketable skills.

I found this piece from The Atlantic last year interesting: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/03/what-can-you-do-with-a-humanities-phd-anyway/359927/Report

the Onion Man
the Onion Man
Reply to  Jonathan Ichikawa
5 years ago

You’re ignoring the costs, including both debt and opportunity cost, of getting a Ph.D. Tenure Track or Starbucks is, obviously, a false dilemma. But what exactly is the point of getting a Ph.D. if you’re just going to end up marketing for a winery or directing a hedge fund? This interfaces directly with my comment above at 6:39. Why can’t a hedge fund manager read philosophy–or, hell, write (even potentially excellent) philosophy–in his spare time? Spinoza ground lenses for a living. What is the value added from a Ph.D.? Why is it a good investment of time and money?Report

DC
DC
Reply to  the Onion Man
5 years ago

A hedge fund manager, at least without a philosophy PhD, can write excellent philosophy in his spare time but he is going to have a lot of trouble finding an outlet to publish it. If those of you with PhDs (or those pursuing PhDs) met the hedge fund manager at a party and he told you he was working on some aspect of philosophy in his spare time your reaction would likely be (at least internally) “that’s adorable!” You would almost certainly consider him an amateur whose philosophical pursuits you might consider a worthy goal as a matter of personal self-improvement for him, but you would not believe you were engaging with a peer. You’d probably have the urge to assert your professional status by offering advice or trying to explain what he’s working on to him.Report

the Onion Man
the Onion Man
Reply to  DC
5 years ago

DC, you speak to me as if I were one of Them. Yes, I study epistemology and phenomenology and the philosophy of mind, but the texts I am most concerned with were written in Sanskrit and Tibetan, so there is no place for me in a university Philosophy department. I study “Religion.”

The provincialism of the guild is a huge self-inflicted wound on academic philosophy, absolutely, I agree 100%.Report

DC
DC
Reply to  the Onion Man
5 years ago

I did mean the archetypical you, not the personalized you, and not every “you” out there so I should have been more clear.Report

postdoc
postdoc
5 years ago

It’s pretty simple what’s going on. The supply of PhD far outstretches demand. This is for a few reasons. The prime reason is that our universities have been hollowed out. It used to be that 70% or more of courses were taught by tenured faculty and the rest PhDs in training and a few adjuncts. Now it’s the reverse: 70% of courses are taught by poorly paid adjuncts with no job security. This is the cause of the demand problem. The other side of the equation is the supply problem. There are 400-500 PhDs produced in the US alone each year. This year so far there have been well less than 200 tenure-track jobs in philosophy in the US. So, each year the backlog of PhDs trying to find tenure-track employment grows. Tenure-track jobs now have 500 applications. It’s not a realistic situation for job candidates. The solutions are also simple. 1. Faculty and adjuncts need to unite and go on strike across the country and demand that the admin be reduced and that adjunct faculty be given tenure-track jobs. 2. PhD programs need to stop pumping out so many applicants. We should agree on a rule: anyone admitted into a PhD program who meets x criteria is guaranteed a tenure-track job. Easy. Done. Solved. It just takes organisation. Ultimately, what’s lacking is the will to solve the problem. The solutions are easy.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
5 years ago

I’m surprised how many commenters are missing some basic economic realities here.

Yes, the prospects for getting a desirable tenured position in the profession after earning a PhD are dire, far worse than a few decades ago, and worsening steadily. And yes, the growing proportion of courses taught by underpaid, contingent instructors is a major cause of this. But both those things in turn are clearly caused, to a large degree, by the myopic over-saturation of the market with PhDs. To put it more bluntly, it’s our own fault as a profession.

While some commenters here seem to take tenure and good pay for most professors for granted, these features are relatively recent developments in the history of the university. The AAUP’s Declaration of Principles, generally considered to be the beginnings of official tenure, were produced exactly 100 years ago, and the battle for no dismissal of a professor without cause was only officially pressed by the AAUP in 1940. The boards of trustees did not bestow these favors easily, but their hand was forced in the late 1940s by the fact that the GI Bill required a huge increase in the number of university professors. There simply weren’t enough qualified people for all the (new and old) colleges and universities to hire, so the boards had to choose between jumping on the tenure bandwagon or else seeing their scarce resources migrate elsewhere without easy means of replacement. This scarcity, and not strike actions or the moral high ground, is what got PhDs good job prospects in the first place, and it sustained that good fortune throughout the continued growth and expansion of higher education (often with strong public support) over the next few decades.

But as often happens when people come of age during times of plenty, those who joined the profession during the great expansion didn’t see or heed the warning signs when the situation became less favorable, and we have been reluctant to restrain ourselves even now, when the evidence is staring us in the face. The job market has been worsening steadily for as long as many on the market today have been alive, and for several years now it’s been just terrible. And yet our programs have blithely continued to pump out more and more PhDs all the while with no real opposition against this or even against the initiation of new PhD programs. This makes about as much sense as having the mint print up trillions of dollars in new currency as a way of dealing with runaway inflation, or as a company increasing production of a status-conferring luxury item when sales are low. But nothing is being done to stop it, and we’re sitting here scratching our heads about why the job market isn’t getting any better.

Going on strike or doing things to raise public awareness will not solve this problem. The fact is that university degrees are in high demand and, no matter how much members of the public could possibly be made to care about this, they’re not going to agree to not go (or not send their children) to university in protest. They’re also not going to agree to pay far more in tuition or taxes on it, unless they have to. And they don’t have to. There are enormous amounts of fully qualified people who are desperate to take on the work, even at starvation wages, for a chance to stay in the game just a little longer. And why? Because there are just that many more PhDs than there are jobs that those PhDs are interested in taking. The mere fact that there are so many adjuncts is itself clear proof of that. If we didn’t have way too many PhDs, there would be at most a handful of adjuncts.

Some on this thread have suggested that we have just enough, or even too few, PhDs in philosophy, because more people should be taking philosophy courses and PhDs in philosophy should be preferred or required for a range of non-academic positions. Well, _if_ far more job opportunities can be created for PhDs in philosophy that could not be filled by just, say, a BA in philosophy, then wonderful. One thing, though: rather than naively mint more and more PhDs in an oversaturated market and encourage our talented undergraduates to take that path, and _then_ see if we can generate thousands of new jobs only for philosophy PhDs (“Oops! I guess we were wrong. Sorry, thousands of people we just encouraged to go into debt earning PhDs that can’t even pay for themselves!”), let’s exercise some minimal consideration for those people by trying to generate those new philosophy-PhDs-only jobs _first_. Then, once we’ve seen that we can really do it and that it’s not just a pipe dream or a rationalization for the status quo that incidentally makes the career prospects of thousands of PhDs even more desperate, let’s wait until the highly-qualified PhDs who can’t get anywhere on the job market and have been earning starvation wages for years now as adjuncts can get absorbed into these new positions. _Then_, and only then, we can in good conscience keep minting PhDs at the rate we are now.

Until then, what we have is a classic tragedy of the commons problem. Departments with active PhD programs get the benefit of prestige and cheap TA labor, so there’s an incentive for everyone to overproduce PhDs to the detriment of all. To make it worse, those within the profession who make the decision to maintain or initiate PhD programs are tenured, so they are not at any personal risk of harm from market oversaturation. If anything, tenured faculty members stand to _gain_ personally from market oversaturation, since it improves the quality of applicants to their TT positions. Particularly for relatively undistinguished departments or those in undesirable locations, this is a significant benefit.

As with all tragedy of the commons problems, what’s needed is some mechanism for resource allocation and sanction of violators. A body like the APA naturally suggests itself. In addition to determining a reasonable number of PhDs to produce each year to reduce and later avoid market oversaturation, and how those PhD-producing opportunities should be distributed, the APA can and should have as one of its main goals to generate interest in philosophy majors and the usefulness of philosophy PhDs in the broader workforce. This last point will be a tricky one, since a plausible case will have to be made that someone with a PhD in philosophy is substantially better at doing some non-university work than someone with only a major (perhaps with distinction) in the discipline.

If we do nothing at all to curb the number of PhDs being produced, and if we do nothing more than talk vaguely about the great other jobs that philosophy PhDs are _specially_ qualified to do, then the horrible job prospects and growing debts facing an ever-increasing number of our new PhDs should be no surprise to anyone.Report

postdoc
postdoc
Reply to  Justin Kalef
5 years ago

I agree with a lot of this. But it’s important to point out the the growth of adjuncts at universities isn’t just due to too many PhDs. Universities have changed for other reasons too. For one, public funding has become less and less and tuition higher and higher. Universities think of themselves as businesses now more so than they think of themselves as public institutions of learning and research. They want to attract students first and foremost to increase income. So, money is spent on amusement parks and fancy swimming pools, on admin student advisors, etc. Part of the problem was that the faculty gave their universities away to the administrations. We need to take our universities back.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  postdoc
5 years ago

Hi, Postdoc. I think all that is correct. But the fact that ‘the faculty gave their universities away to the administrations’ seems to have resulted from the very economic factors I was discussing.

For most of the history of universities over the past several centuries, the reins were held by boards of trustees who were almost universally ideologically conservative and would have strongly opposed academic freedom and faculty governance as we understand those things today. Things only turned in favor of the faculty in this past century, and at most North American colleges and universities the faculty only began to have real power in the late 1940s. The transfer of power to the faculty came about precisely because qualified faculty members were so scarce, the colleges and universities had to agree to these concessions in order to stay afloat and competitive. Since then, we’ve taken that one advantage — the scarcity of the credential — and thrown it away. Or, rather, we keep throwing it away more and more with each passing year as we add to the oversaturation of the market with PhDs while predictably worsening the prospects of those holding those PhDs. This is also what continues to threaten the retention of our own powers within our institutions. We didn’t get those powers for free, and there’s no reason to think we’ll maintain them indefinitely.

It’s also true, as you say, that universities have become run more like a business, that tuition has risen considerably, that governmental support has declined, and that money is being wasted on some huge administrative salaries and seemingly frivolous expenses. However, many of those things cancel each other out. Reducing the salaries of the administrators and stopping the spending on new arenas, etc. would free up more money, but lowering tuition would tighten the budgets again. And it’s hard to be hopeful that government subsidies on higher education will return to peak levels anytime soon, if ever. If anything, we seem to be in the middle of a long trend of reducing that sort of government spending, and neither major political party seems to show the slightest interest in turning that around. Moreover, there’s a far greater proportion of the population attending university now than a few decades ago, and the newer ranks of students tend to be from less affluent families and less able to make up the difference.

If the United States had research and/or teaching needs that far exceeded the current capacity of instructors and researchers, then one could perhaps imagine a modern-day Vannevar Bush effectively mobilizing the government to vastly increase subsidies to universities again, and pressing the universities in turn to offer competitive and appealing contracts to all in order to induce more people to take the PhD and make up the shortfall of professors. But there is no shortfall, and everyone knows it. So why would the government decide to invest millions or billions in subsidies to secure tenured, well-remunerated positions for all the contingent labor when those qualified people are already ready to work on the cheap and there are thousands more just waiting for an opportunity to do so?

The only thing we control is also the most important thing: the faucet that releases PhDs into the hiring pool. If we leave that running free, then we have only ourselves to blame that there’s a flood.Report

DC
DC
Reply to  postdoc
5 years ago

Public funding of universities has generally gone up over the past few decades; the problem is universities have pushed up their enrollment tremendously. What “slashed funding” frequently equates to is “the legislature won’t keep increasing their funding to keep up with our desired increases to student enrollment.”Report

postdoc
postdoc
5 years ago

I mostly agree. But, how would we control the ‘faucet of PhDs’ if the admin is in control? I’m not sure I completely follow or buy your APA proposal.

I think any solution requires that the majority of tenure-track faculty agree on it and work together to achieve it. There is power in numbers. As was the case with almost all social improvements that come about via large number of people committing civil disobedience.Report

Christopher
Christopher
5 years ago

I have just completed a PhD in Philosophy. I did it for my own purposes, namely to get critical feedback and support while I got my arguments down on paper (so to speak). I did some teaching during the process.
I was fortunate enough to be supervised by one of the best scholars and thinkers in the Northern Hemisphere, with a very wide range of achievement, and a most supportive approach to PhD students.
But I was indeed lucky: I felt the atmosphere in the Department was hardly at all collegiate. With the exception of my supervisor, other tenured staff were reluctant to engage with my theme and seemed anyway to work in their own bubbles. There was a nagging sense of intense competitiveness. As for PhDs, there was a ‘complete or bust’ policy which, I am afraid, probably led to a few feeble theses being approved for the degree.
Philosophy is nothing if it is not a creative and collegiate discipline (even misanthropes like Descartes or virtual recluses like Spinoza shared their work with others). Yet there is little creativity or collegiality on show. Any University website will reveal that the pressure to publish causes many to publish nearly the same article several times…and then to put an expanded version in book form. The lack of collegiality arises in part from competitiveness but also from over-specialisation.
The institutional structure I describe introduces its victims to the academic treadmill by means of the solitary PhD which is a sad way for a young person to spend 3 or 4 years, only to find academic life arid and inhuman.Report

the Onion Man
the Onion Man
Reply to  Christopher
5 years ago

Hi Christopher, I have a somewhat personal question that you should of course feel free not to answer. My question is, did you have any debt when you entered the PhD program or accrue any debt during it?

The reason I ask is that while it is of course lovely that you were able to finish your doctorate “for your own purposes,” this is an unrealistic plan for the vast majority of people seeking a PhD in Philosophy. A PhD is a professional credential that has one and only one purpose: enabling its recipient to teach in a university Philosophy department. It’s wonderful for people to be able to study philosophy at a high level for their own reasons, and entering a PhD program is a great way to do that, but this has little relevance to the career paths of professional academic philosophers.Report

Christopher
Christopher
Reply to  the Onion Man
5 years ago

I worked and saved so that I could, while supporting a family of four, study full-time (but still working a few hours a day to have some financial lee-way). I did not ask for any public funds and paid the full fees which were excessive in my view because the University of my choice has a poor library with very limited resources for research students (even though the University is over 50 years old). In the end I do not resent paying for the excellent guidance from my supervisor which I got. I may do some teaching but I have been reluctant to displace others who need the income it generates: I shall teach only if – as last time – invited to do so.Report

PeteJ
5 years ago

I’m not sure I understand the logic of the article. In regard to B there is no suggestion that quality can be improved except by reducing numbers. I cannot see why we cannot ask ‘How can we raise the quality and increase the number of PhDs?’Report

Anon
Anon
5 years ago

Justin is entirely correct. What are the difficulties in reducing the number prof PhDs? I see these (1) There is a serious cost to the status of PhD granting departments both inside and outside their universities if they close their departments (2) It worries me that only the ‘successful’ departments should grant PhDs. How do we determine this? Taken seriously, it might give wealthy private universities the most power in sending out PhDs and also empower the current monopolies. (1) Is the structural problem. The only thing I would question in Justin’s absolutely essential argument is that ‘we’ do it–no–the system has done it. A university attains status in the larger world through its PhD programs. A department attains status & resources within the university through its PhD programs. Individuals attain status by having a job within a PhD-granting program. Everyone in academia is very captive to certain ideas about what their own status hangs on. They are also, more understandably, motivated by a desire to have a certain quality of life as an academic researcher. They get this quality of life within the system. They are sure they have earned it. If we think of it as a cooperative system they are benefitted by others’ burdens, some of which are substantial on the part of those who are unemployed or adjuncts. Unsurprisingly, no one in philosophy but those on the bottom want to see it as a cooperative system where they have responsibilities to others and do not attain their positions via pure merit. And most definitely no principles of justice can be enforced. So, it would seem, we require altruism on some people’s part to ever think sensibly about whether their department should be granting PhDs. Philosophers are very confident they are entitled to their privilege and rarely altruistic. Surely there are some people who are aware of the problem in their own departments. Don’t they see their students rarely or never finding decent employment? But of course, those students are also quite wonderful and do benefit from the education–so ‘why not?’ they must think. Hence, collective action problem. Everyone takes the shortcut on the grass and the unsightly dirt pathway is born. What, given these incentives for a PhD program and extreme disincentives against no PhD program–could possibly motivate any department to cut their own PhD program willingly? As someone who is doing just fine within this winner-take-all system with the moral luck of having zero causal or moral responsibility for any of the losers in it I say: it can’t go on. It shouldn’t go on. But I expect it to go on until some other systemic forces stop it.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Anon
5 years ago

“What, given these incentives for a PhD program and extreme disincentives against no PhD program–could possibly motivate any department to cut their own PhD program willingly?”

Failure to get sufficiently many students. Which can be facilitated (assuming most students wouldn’t apply if they knew they were unlikely to get a job) by more and better information – qualitative and quantitative about how likely job prospects vary between PhD programs.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
5 years ago

Postdoc, there are many ways of trying to avoid oversaturating the market with PhDs. Here’s one possibility: the APA (or some other body) determines a reasonable maximum of PhDs in philosophy that should be produced each year so as not to flood the market and seriously harm the job prospects of everyone looking. Individual departments are encouraged to reduce their admissions levels to the PhD program or to eliminate those programs entirely; but if there are still too many PhDs being minted, then the body could determine which departments get to admit x many PhD students in the following year. There are many ways that determination could be done. One (egalitarian) extreme would be for all the departments that want to produce PhDs get their chance on a rotating or lottery basis. A more reasonable option, and probably better for the discipline and the students, would be for departments with a track record for excellence in placement, or what have you, to be given most of the spots automatically, with the rotation or lottery system in place for maybe 10% of the other PhDs that get offered. We could have a good discussion, as a profession, about the proper method if it comes to that. But there doesn’t seem to be any reason for thinking that it would be impossible or worse than the alternative of an ongoing flooding of the market.

As for how the decisions of the body could be enforced, there are again many plausible models. The APA already has a practice of sanctioning departments that engage in practices deemed to be against the interests or morals of the profession (e.g. against departments in universities whose hiring practices explicitly preclude non-heterosexuals). In this case, a very easy expedient would be a general policy among all search committees of not hiring PhDs from violating departments. If department X irresponsibly produces ten PhDs every year despite the fact that few of them get placements, and if the allocating body has already deemed that department X should limit itself to two new PhDs every three years, then everyone will agree in advance to hire on the graduates from cooperating programs, or long-term adjuncts/repeat VAPs who have been putting in their time, before the graduates of department X. This information could be circulated to all students considering grad school. This alone would presumably give department X a good reason to play by the rules, and would also make it harder for them to irresponsibly scare up applicants.

Others in the thread have indicated that there are personal, non-professional reasons to take a PhD. Personally, I’ve met very few people who have got as much personal satisfaction and development out of a PhD in philosophy as they have out of their BA. Wouldn’t it be much better for these people to just develop philosophy clubs or reading groups, perhaps among their old friends from their BA, than to uproot themselves and travel to distant places, etc.? And if they don’t plan to use their degree in _any_ professional capacity, is it entirely right for them to receive the same funding as departments grant to those PhD students who are likely to be an investment in the future of the profession? I personally enjoy playing chess from time to time, and there are many clubs around the world where I can stop in for some casual games or tournaments. The people who frequent these clubs seem to be lifelong learners, and make steady progress through their interactions with each other. Some offer private lessons to those who want to improve their game. This system works very well at sustaining the intellectual work and enriching everyone’s lives, but it doesn’t involve enrolling at a university for graduate work or putting your career on hold. I also know some writers who have remunerative day jobs but attend writers’ workshops and literary events in their spare time. These things work perfectly well for those interested in pursuing a personal interest in chess and writing to a high level. Again, university degrees are no part of this. Why can’t the same thing be done for philosophy? I’m all for promoting philosophy as much as possible and getting people to spend more of their lives doing philosophy. But I don’t see any reason why this should involve a PhD for those not aiming at a professional track. If someone has the financial means to put his or her career on hold and travel to a distant department to spend a few years studying with some great thinkers, wonderful. And I would be glad to see some professors devote their time to working with those postgraduate devotees. But why can’t we come up with a new category for those presumably rare cases? I don’t see why those devotees need graduate degrees or why their wish to continue to study philosophy after their BAs for personal edification should weigh significantly against the strong reasons I’ve already given for limiting the number of PhDs.Report

anon
anon
5 years ago

apologies if some of these comments are redundant, as I haven’t poured through all the thread, but:

short of asking departments to axe their own programs (which for many reasons, none will be inclined to do..), couldn’t departments simply fund one fewer student per year? What are there, 100 PhD programs in the U.S.? That’s a nice dent in the over-saturation problem.

I get that this is unlikely to happen because departments will bring in all the PhD students they are given funding for, but really, why? Some lower-ranked or unranked departments are having to admit people who are not prepared to do a Ph.D. I can only imagine that it is incredibly frustrating to have to try to shepherd such students through the program. I can only imagine that such faculty feel terrible for contributing to these students’ Ph.D.s, knowing that they won’t get a job (hell, their great students won’t get jobs).

Or, if axing programs is to be seriously discussed, here’s a standard we could start with: departments that have failed to place a single student into a TT job in the last 5 years (3 years?) should be considered as non-placing. Either they should close (ideal world), convert to an MA, or if they must remain open, they should tell their incoming students that they’re non-placing. In fact, placement data is easily enough available, some volunteers could likely create a wiki of Non-Placing Departments. Prospective grads who do so much as google the name of the department would at least have some warning about what they’re getting into.Report

the Onion Man
the Onion Man
5 years ago

Wallace

“That is: the ‘patron-driven’ model you describe, translated into the 21st century, pretty much is the business model of research-intensive universities, where teaching income and government support by no means pay the bills and where the balance is made up by private philanthropy.”

I can’t speak about the UK any more than you can speak about the USA, but here private gifts generally make up less than 10% of annual revenue and often less than 5%. Generally more prestigious institutions will receive a greater proportion of their revenue as income from endowments, though even at the most prestigious institutions tuition is usually the single biggest revenue source. In other words, gifts are important (I wouldn’t want to have to cut my budget by 10% overnight), but hardly running the show.

You’re right that the “patron-driven” model still exists to an extent in the form of endowed chairs paid for by a single wealthy benefactor. Again, however, I have to question the relevance of this practice for the PhD pipeline. Most “successful” full professors never get anywhere near an endowed chair. As I said above, the problem is in conceiving of philosophy as a way to pay the mortgage for a non-trivial number of economic actors; the number of endowed chairs is trivial when we’re talking about jobs for people with PhD’s in philosophy.Report