The Career Move That Dare Not Speak Its Name (Guest Post by Josh Parsons)


The following is a guest post* from Josh Parsons, currently an associate professor in the philosophy faculty at Oxford University and tutorial fellow in philosophy at Corpus Christi College.


The Career Move That Dare Not Speak Its Name
by Josh Parsons

My sister works in advertising, an industry where high-pressure workplaces are at least as common as they are in academia, and remuneration is better. A few years ago she decided that her current employer was asking too many hours of her for the pay she was getting. It wasn’t that what they were asking of her was scandalous or unfair (at least by the standards of the industry); just that it was incompatible with her living the life she wanted to live. So she handed in her notice and approached other employers in the same industry, and got a new job more to her liking in a few months. She didn’t even have to leave Sydney, where her family is based, to do it.

Can you imagine that happening in academia? Maybe in the sciences, but in philosophy, in the humanities? I can’t—and that’s why for a long time I’ve stuck at my high-pressure job, which (obviously, to me, and everyone around me) doesn’t provide the kind of work-life balance that I want. My employer isn’t behaving scandalously or unfairly: it’s just that the local cost of living has massively outstripped academic salaries and university-wide pressures mean that everyone in my position is asked to work very long hours during term-time. It’s a type of position that suits more junior academics who want to prioritise their careers for a few years, and then move on, and that’s just not the kind of job I want—for one thing I’ve already done that.

I asked a number of my mentors and advisors in the profession what to do, and they all advised me that it would be best to sit tight, circulate rumours that I was “moveable”, and wait for a better offer to roll in. So I did, and I got a bit of interest, but no actual offers, from other universities in the UK. I’m grateful to my friends who put my name forward for those things, but on sober reflection, this was the wrong advice. It’s not very pleasant to keep doing a difficult job while plotting to leave it; and the practice of circulating your name and waiting for offers, and then receiving none, can be (even) more dispiriting than “going on the market” in a conventional way.

They also advised me to definitely not do what my sister did. That, they told me, would be career suicide—would be perceived (not by them, of course, but by others) as “leaving the profession”, or as lack of commitment. I’ve now come around to the view that (1) this perception is very much exaggerated; (2) well-meaning people perpetuate it by giving that kind of advice; and (3) who cares? It’s a fool’s game to be an academic because you like getting the approval of your peers! (Because academics, and philosophers in particular, are so good at giving approval). As we all know, the only sensible reason to be an academic is because you like doing it. So the only sensible thing to do if your job becomes a cross that you must bear, rather than a vocation, is to ditch it. That is showing commitment to academia—as opposed to a misguided fetish for academic employment.

Now I can imagine someone hastily reading the previous paragraph and storing for later gossip “Ah, Parsons has announced that he’s leaving the profession”. (If that’s you, read it again). I’m leaving my job. I expect that this will mean that I have more, rather than less, time for academia, because I’ll be in a better position to enjoy teaching and research, wherever I end up doing them. I plan to make my career fit my life, instead of the other way around—I’m going to move to somewhere I want to live, and where I can afford to have the lifestyle I want on an academic salary. I’ll ask the local university if they’ll have me, and if they don’t, it’ll be their loss, not mine. I’m under no illusions about the risk of not getting a university post under these conditions. But that’s a risk I’m prepared to take—better that than the certainly of living and working under circumstances I don’t like—and it shouldn’t be thought of as “leaving academia”.

Since no piece of writing by a philosopher is complete without an “objections and replies” section, I now anticipate some reactions you may have to this, and what I would say in reply:

(1) “First-world problems! How can you be upset about not being able to afford to buy a house when there is real poverty in the world…” Right: being a middle-class professional and feeling that your job is insufficiently rewarding is indeed a first-world problem. I’m talking about the solution to that problem, which is quitting the job. The result can hardly be that I spend less time working to end world poverty.

(2) “You’re very lucky that you are established enough to be able to choose where to live and let the jobs come to you. Spare a thought for more junior academics who do not yet have a strong track record of publication, and have temporary jobs with even higher teaching loads.” Yes; I’m lucky and privileged. But both are relative scales—no matter where you are as an academic, there are some people who have been more successful than you so far, and some people who have been less successful. It’s never feels qualitatively different, it never feels that you have finally arrived. Everyone who has a PhD is a highly qualified and intellectually capable person. We’re all sufficiently qualified and capable to be sure of getting a job that will keep us in a fair bit of comfort. No-one in the world is established enough as an academic to choose which city they will live in and be sure of getting a university position there.

Any academic who is dissatisfied with their job, be it permanent or temporary, is in relevantly the same position. The only reason it might seem otherwise is if you thought that a permanent academic job is an end in itself, and as someone who currently has one, I can tell you it’s not.

(3) “Isn’t this just awfully self-involved of you? Why do you think anyone cares about your life decisions?” Well, if you’ve read this far in, I must at least have been moderately entertaining. But seriously, there is an issue here that people need to speak up about. There is quite a lot of discussion and good career advice available on the web for junior academics. But there is very little advice around for mid-career academics—it’s a culture of silence, as if every associate professor, every senior lecturer in the world was perfectly satisfied with their job. If I’d read something like this piece a couple of years earlier, I’d be a happier man now, and I think, I know one or two people out there who, reading this, may feel enabled to make the same decision I have.

Imagine if we all just stopped believing that the only way to be an academic is to be constantly employed by a university. There—wouldn’t that make people’s lives a lot better? Let’s just do that.

Light at the end of tunnel.


[Editorial note: Josh Parsons died on April 11, 2017.]
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recent grad
recent grad
5 years ago

Please let me take part vicariously. Thanks.Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
5 years ago

I have no plans to be part of academia and am frustrated that academic jobs are not cushy *enough*.

these people are expected to create new knowledge on top of working 50-80 hour weeks. I would rather they have nearly all of their week to do this; in fact, I’d benefit more from this. and as a citizen, there is little I can do to make sure government funding of colleges goes toward faculty salaries and not administrative salaries.

further, making the culture of these environments more 21st-century-professional by inventing loads of new workplace norms and speech codes and whatever else probably amplifies self-censorship, reduces honesty and leads to a reduction in seriously groundbreaking ideas because they may be controversial and because fighting this controversy takes too much time given their workload.

yes it is a first world problem that their jobs are not nice enough and I don’t want any of the problems academics face to be non-first world problems. despite how annoying some academics may be, other than “independently wealthy hermit-author” this is about the most truthseeking profession you can be in and I’d hope that more people start to see the intrinsic value in that.Report

Sara L. Uckelman
5 years ago

Ditching your academic job in order to have a life only works if you have some other means of income that you can turn to that will (a) allow you to have a life (i.e., pays your bills and doesn’t take up as much, or more, of your effort).

Ditching this particular academic job because in order to have a life is a risky thing to do if you have any desire to get back into academia, because people on job committees, rightly or wrongly tend to be VERY suspicious of people with gaps in their academic careers — especially if the gap corresponds with a lack of publication.Report

ejrd
ejrd
Reply to  Sara L. Uckelman
5 years ago

I agree with Sarah here. It isn’t that leaving academia is a career move dare not speak its name, its that this career move seems all but impossible for most philosophers (and humanities PhDs) that I know. I know many who would leave the profession if they felt like they could. However, there is no direct or obvious way to move into the non-academic job market in the same way that there would be for more STEM oriented careers. We also don’t receive any kind of advice on how to do this (either in graduate school or beyond). So it isn’t that I think Parsons is doing the wrong but I think he misses the kind of privilege that his decision takes place in the context of.

Philosophy still seems to have many people from economically privileged backgrounds in it (maybe even dominating it) but some of us are looking at years of student loan repayments, health care costs, family expenses, and so on that we must pay for on our own. Although I’m fairly certain I could get *some* kind of job were I to leave academia, I’m doubtful that I could get a job that would cover all of these expenses (this is despite the fact that I agree with Parsons that most PhDs in the humanities are underpaid). So what’s a person to do? What kind of job is Parsons taking up instead? How did he make the numbers work?Report

FemaleAlmostPhD
FemaleAlmostPhD
5 years ago

Thanks for posting this. I am finishing my PhD in philosophy from a well-enough ranked R1 university. Some of us who read a bit too much Plato think that philosophy contributes significantly to living a good life. But I have grown increasingly concerned that a career in academic philosophy, at least at many institutions, is actually an at odds with a good life (under my conception of things, anyway). I keep wondering who it is for? I doubt that many of us are in it for the long hours, the constant pressure, the hostile environment (for a woman like me), and the mediocre salary. Kudos to Josh for making the decision to prioritize his well-being.Report

Frances Howard-Snyder
Frances Howard-Snyder
5 years ago

Good luck, Josh. I hope you get your heart’s desire.Report

Wesley R. Elsberry
5 years ago

In industry, this strategy turns out to be the most effective way to get a promotion. In the aerospace industry, I saw people quit one company, work for six months to a year at a competitor, then return to the first company, swinging pay raises that would have been impossible to achieve for time in grade. Since then, though, I think non-compete clauses in employment contracts have become more prevalent. Then you have the fiasco in tech companies where there was an industry-wide conspiracy to keep technical salaries low by eliminating “poaching”.

Whether in industry or academia, the bean-counters hate anything that interferes with the efficient running of labor treadmills. I might have loaded myself into one of those treadmills but for chronic illness, which enforced seeking jobs with better work-life balance. It’s much simpler to chose that when too much stress and too little sleep will lead to a hospital stay.

Best wishes to you, Josh, and good luck.Report

Edward
Edward
Reply to  Wesley R. Elsberry
5 years ago

Non-compete agreements are unenforceable in many states, especially those who legally claim to be right-to-work states. The contacts are often a violation of those states’ laws. Employers try to use them to intimidate workers but often it’s all bluster.Report

Corey
Corey
5 years ago

This was an excellent read for me. I was accepted into several graduate programs but ultimately decided to pass. The ROI and horror stories I heard from faculty about life in academia dissuaded me. I’m a bit bummed I didn’t go for it anyway but must admit that I’m in a good place as far as being “in a contented state of being healthy, happy and prosperous.” Good luck and happy hunting for eudaimonia.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

I have an academic career at the expense of having a life. Fortunately, I love my job and feel passionately about it. I am very aware, though, that professional philosophers who are not satisfied are generally stuck. Jobs are terribly scarce and most of us simply don’t have the skills to move into another profession. The brutal truth about philosophy grad school is that you get trained to do only one job well, and there are far too few of such jobs for everyone to get one. My advice to philosophers unhappy with the job is that unless you are already in high demand, stick with the job you have at all costs and be glad to have found it. The alternative is almost certainly a lot worse.Report

Merely Possible Philosopher
Merely Possible Philosopher
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
5 years ago

I want to push back against this: “Jobs are terribly scarce and most of us simply don’t have the skills to move into another profession.”

I think the idea that there are no other options because philosophers lack other skills is simply wrong. People get jobs out of undergrad, after all, and very few of these people actually get training for that job in their undergraduate education. As one example, consider the people that work in HR. There is (at most places) no “Human Resources” major and no major that provides training for such a job. The skills required can be picked up in a number of majors (any major?).

But HR is just one example. The basic point is that most jobs don’t require or expect the people they hire to come to the job with all the skills needed. Maybe they want you to demonstrate some general skills (e.g., the nebulous “critical thinking skills” or “skill at communication”), but there’s no reason to think philosophers are particularly lacking in these departments. Sure, you can’t jump into an accounting job or become a computer programmer without picking up some skills you wouldn’t acquire in philosophy grad school. The vast majority of jobs, however, don’t seem to be like that.

I think that the idea that philosophers aren’t qualified to do anything but philosophy is wrong, and leads to a lot of negative outcomes and unneeded stress. Grad students would be best served by reminding themselves that there are other jobs they are qualified for as well as jobs they could transition into with some on-the-job training.Report

ejrd
ejrd
Reply to  Merely Possible Philosopher
5 years ago

I think yours is an uncharitable reading of Nonny Mouse’s point. I take it that NM is claiming that a PhD in philosophy is only directly translatable into a job teaching philosophy. For any other possible job, the PhD is either an anti-qualification (having it will decrease your chances of getting the job) or a neutral one. In this sense, a job teaching philosophy is the only one (barring some truly specialized philosophy PhD in logic, mathematics, physics, etc) for which one’s hard work will directly translate. There is a lot of self-esteem bundled into this that cannot be ignored.

Second, as you yourself note, the kinds of work that are most accessible to a PhD in philosophy looking into work outside of academia are those that may require only a bachelor’s degree in the first place. It isn’t that these jobs don’t exist. However, it is that these jobs are:

1) nearly as competitive as the academic job market
2) typically the type of job that requires prior work experience to be competitive at. This means that the gap in a PhDs employment will put them at a disadvantage and/or only make them viable candidates for entry level (low paid, low security) work.
3) ones where a PhD in philosophy is likely to find themselves competing against much younger people with a more plausible story to tell about how their degree translates into a position in that market. In a world where age-related discrimination exists, this is important to keep in mind.

As I noted in my earlier comment further upthread, it isn’t that PhDs can’t get work outside of academia. The problem, as I see it, is that UNLESS a philosophy PhD is independently wealthy (and I know quite a few who come from wealth), then given low pay of most non-tenure-track employment, most philosophers who would like to get simply cannot AFFORD to take the two, three, four, or more months to find employment. They simply don’t have the luxury of living off of savings that their current employment makes impossible to accrue.Report

Overworked in Oxbridge
Overworked in Oxbridge
5 years ago

Good for you, Josh. I think about doing what you’ve done EVERY DAY during term.Report

Mary
Mary
5 years ago

Bravo. I did *exactly* this. I got out, did home remodeling work for two years, totally on my own terms, and got back in to academia when I wanted to. My new university was fascinated by my “real world” adventure, it did not hurt me on the market. I may be an anomaly, but I tend to think not.Report

Helen De Cruz
Helen De Cruz
5 years ago

Josh – Some of the problems you mention are Oxford-specific. Oxford University has a higher teaching load compared to many universities, and on top of that, lots of meetings and committees. It is a mystery to me how Oxford academics manage to be so productive given that just teaching, admin and meetings are already a more-than-fulltime job. Moreover, Oxford is very expensive, £500,000 for a decent 3-bed house, very few people can afford to buy here. Ultimately, this is a problem that Oxford University and other employers in the area will have to do something about…
In general, though, you are right work-life balance is something that is a big issue for academia, and in particular the sense that it’s never enough. I interviewed 7 philosophers who left academia, and one thing all of them agreed on was their much better work-life balance (in spite of most of these jobs requiring full-time office presence, which academic jobs do not require).Report

Anne Jacobson
Anne Jacobson
Reply to  Helen De Cruz
5 years ago

But Oxford terms amount to less than half a year. Four months in the summer for research is surely helpful. Clearly Josh doesn’t find the amount of vacation much compensation. I’m supposing term duties spill over?Report

John Schwenkler
John Schwenkler
5 years ago

I am really grateful for this post, but also very grateful that my own academic job isn’t at all high-pressure, and that my work-life balance is entirely in order. Maybe more philosophy departments could try to be like mine, so that people like Josh don’t have to leave them?Report

David Rudge
David Rudge
5 years ago

Goodness, from the title I thought for sure this was going to be an article about a faculty member choosing to become part of the administration at his or her university. It is certainly more lucrative than persisting as a faculty member, but at what cost…Report

Jared
5 years ago

Thanks for this Josh. Academic philosophy has a worrying monopoly on the idea of philosophical community, and we need to open people’s minds to the idea of being a part of the philosophical community while not working for a university. Academic philosophy’s monopoly is worrying because it is a monopoly, but also because academe has (I think) many flaws: exclusionary, overworking, combative, insular, etc. As a PhD student, I often ask: Why are we scrambling for inclusion in this kind of community? For many other crafts (e.g. engineering), the aim of a PhD is not to join the academic community, but the larger non-academic community. The problem for philosophy grads is that there is hardly any such community where we can make a living, and continue to do research or teaching. I think it falls on those among us who are relatively more secure to take the risk involved in discovering, establishing and growing these non-academic communities for the betterment of those who love philosophy but are currently excluded from or averse to joining the academy. Good luck to you.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Jared
5 years ago

“…academe has (I think) many flaws: exclusionary, overworking, combative, insular, etc. ”

And apart from all these concerns, inclusion in academe is dependent upon administrators and agencies whose funding decisions are (perhaps quite reasonably) not generally based on considerations of philosophical excellence or the health of philosophy as an area of inquiry.Report

Axel Barceló
5 years ago

RIght on Josh, you deserve a better life. We all do.Report

Gary Bartlett
5 years ago

I sympathise deeply. As many have noticed, academia has a nastily cult-like element in that once you’re in it, there is tremendous pressure to stay in it, no matter how bad things get. And as in cults, that pressure works in an insidious way: you come to feel that you really have no other option than to continue. Anyone who manages to break the conditioning deserves applause.

But I also think there’s a crucial flaw in the piece. Sara Uckelman, above, almost put her finger on it. The problem is the claim that leaving one’s job will give one “more, rather than less, time for academia, because [one will] be in a better position to enjoy teaching and research, wherever [one ends] up doing them.” Josh said this of himself, of course, but he seems to intend it to apply to everyone, so I’ve made the appropriate substitutions. The problem is, as Sara said, that for a lot of academics this plan will not work if you do not have some other means of supporting yourself.

Note: I am NOT saying that academics can’t get non-academic jobs. I fully agree that they can. (The idea that they can’t is one of the aforementioned cult-like beliefs.) But Josh is claiming that one could follow his plan — that is, leave one’s current job and move to somewhere you would like to live — and still stay in *academia*. As he emphasizes, he’s talking about leaving one’s current job, not leaving the *profession*.

Josh attempts to address this objection, but his response does not convince me at all. He says that “We’re all sufficiently qualified and capable to be sure of getting a job that will keep us in a fair bit of comfort”. If by “a job” he meant “some well-paid job or other, no matter the field”, then I’d agree. But that’s not what he seems to be saying. He claims that one could get an *academic* job. But for a lot of (and perhaps most) academics, the only sense in which that would be true would be if you were prepared to accept an adjunct job (or, perhaps more likely, *jobs*). But most adjunct jobs will quite definitely *not* keep one “in a fair bit of comfort”. Nor will most of them leave you much, or any, time to enjoy research; and it is dubious that will even enjoy the teaching any more than you do in your present position, since as an adjunct you’ll be doing an overwhelming *amount* of teaching, which will wear down even the most committed teacher.Report

Josh Parsons
Reply to  Gary Bartlett
5 years ago

I meant “some well-paid job or other, no matter the field”. I don’t have a specific plan for myself beyond this September, but one option is to combine adjuncting with another, better paid but non-academic, part-time job. I wouldn’t recommend to anyone that they try to make ends meet as an adjunct indefinitely.Report

Gary Bartlett
Reply to  Josh Parsons
5 years ago

Oh! In that case, I completely agree with you, and I apologize for the misreading. (I think I was misled especially by the bit where you remonstrated with the reader who drew the conclusion that you were leaving the profession, and made it clear that you wanted to remain in the profession and felt you had some sort of reasonable expectation that this would be possible. I then took you to be recommending that precise view to everyone.)Report

JuniorPhD
JuniorPhD
Reply to  Gary Bartlett
3 years ago

I had the same reading as you, Gary, and I appreciate your articulation of it, as well as Josh’s clarification. As a recent Ph.D. graduate who has been offered her first (non-tenure track) full time faculty position in a town that I don’t really want to live in, I am struggling with/against many of these specific objections, mainly the idea that doing *any* job other than an academic one is viewed as failure. But the wear that adjuncting takes on a person is very real and not one that is particularly comfortable, as an adjunct is often a stranger even in the building in which they teach.Report

Jack James
5 years ago

A few considerations for you Josh.

1. There seems to be something about philosophy which suggests that a great sacrifice (your life) is required on your part to practice it. You must serve this “special” knowledge. Here it is like the sad poet, you are only a good poet if you live a sad life. This probably shouldn’t be the case. Indeed its lends to those who seek to criticise philosophy from a functional view. However what is a job outside academia really? It is the summation of sufficient profit to maintain that profit (low paying non profit roles aside). Thus if academics want more money, then alas they must play the profit game that the world outside academia plays. Should more funds be channeled into academia, esp philosophy, – absolutely- perhaps you can try to influence this somehow.

2. I work outside academia and I have done my PhD in philosophy on the side because of my interest in philosophy. In my work I am afforded the pleasures of a higher income for less work than you are doing. But it is work. It is not philosophy. Philosophy (to me) doesnt feel like work, work feels like work. But sometimes it all melds into one. If philosophy feels like work for you, then you may as well work for more money. However I think you might quickly miss what brought you to philosophy in the first place, which perhaps validates 1. in a way.

3. Brave to write this, well done.Report

Josh Parsons
5 years ago

Sarah L Uckleman and others: I quite take the point that I’m privileged (“lucky” as I say in the blog post). But I don’t think I’m more so than any other white male PhD. I’m not independently wealthy. I’ve had an academic career for long enough (16 years) to pay off my student loan and build up a solid CV – but then if I hadn’t gone into academia, I probably would have earned more (if not been as happy) over that period. I’ve no savings, and my moving costs are going on my credit card. Oxford will pay me until September, the end of the Northern academic year (that is one term’s sabbatical and the vacation). I am moving back to my home town in New Zealand where rents are considerably cheaper, where my partner can also get a job, where we do not have to fork out regularly for immigration costs, and if worst comes to worst I can stay with my parents. I agree there’s a risk I won’t be able to get an academic job, but it’s a risk I’m prepared to take.
Another point that people have made to me (that may help here) is that both the UK and NZ have public health systems where health care is not tied to employment. I don’t fully understand the US system, but I agree it could be more difficult there.Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
5 years ago

Provided you are willing to work on a part-time or adjunct basis, it is certainly feasible to simply move to the city of one’s choice and apply for teaching positions at local universities. Having become established in a particular community (depending on the community in question) and known to local departments, one would be a in a good position should something more permanent open up at a local university. Obviously, this works better in places that prefer to hire those with a commitment to the local community.Report

Nick Munn
Nick Munn
5 years ago

I hope this works out for you, Josh. It will be good for Philosophy in NZ to have you back in the country. I’m sure we will be pestering you to come and talk Philosophy with us when/if you have the time.Report

Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel
5 years ago

I have long-admired and benefited from Josh’s work in metaphysics, value theory, and philosophy logic. His writing is a model for others to emulate —so clear, precise, and always interesting! — and his style as a philosophical interlocutor is also be praised. I personally have gotten a lot of our conversations in the 10+ years I’ve known him.

I do not doubt that I will continue to benefit from Josh’s future publications, regardless of where Josh is working.Report

HighFive!
HighFive!
5 years ago

Congrats. I know I will rather work part time near where my parents’ and my partner’s parents live, than chase TT on the other side of the world. Even if that means I have to supplement my income with tutoring gigs, or who knows what. I know I will have fewer regrets that way.Report

M.G. Piety
5 years ago

When I first began working at the university where I am now tenured, I was what is called a “teaching professor.” I had twice as heavy a teaching load as tenured and tenure-track faculty and I made less money. I did that for three years, after which time I was completely burnt out. I was also engaged to an attorney who made enough money to support us both. I applied for a tenure-track job that had opened up, but I confided to several friends who were also academics that if I didn’t get the job I was going to quit my teaching professor position and become an adjunct so that I could teach as many, or as few, courses as I wanted. Don’t do THAT they all responded in horror, that will be he end of your career! THIS job will be the end of my career, I was forced to explain over and over. When did scholarship cease being a vocation and become a career?Report

David Rodin
5 years ago

It is also possible to make money from philosophy outside the academy. I founded Principia Advisory a consulting firm staffed entirely by active research philosophers. My team and I make several multiples of an academic salary by using philosophy to assist organisations in making better decisions. It is exciting and engaging work. It is crazy to think that the only compliment of a research career is teaching at a university – there are many other possible compliments. It is a matter of imagination.
http://Www.principia-advisory.comReport

Possible
Possible
5 years ago

I quit an academic job at Oxbridge that I found unsatisfying and had no backup plan. With similar reasoning. After doing a bit of teaching and short term research funded through contacts at ‘a local university’, the local offered me a full-time position (and at a higher level/higher pay). I’m really enjoying it! Good luck 🙂Report

tenuredprof
tenuredprof
5 years ago

As a long-tenured professor in the rapidly changing context of the university, I find that the degree of overwork (resulting in lack of time for anything at all outside my work life, including, most crucially, family life) and the increasing external control on how we do our job has indeed brought me to a situation where I would rather change professions (partly because there is next to no chance that I could move to a job at a different institution). But doing so is not a realistic option, since my work experience would not allow me to get a different kind of job at comparable pay. Prof. Parsons and others: What are the backup career options that you see available to you as a university professor? Do they require a substantial reduction in pay?Report

M.
M.
5 years ago

Interestingly, there is an article in the Guardian today that makes a point about this (though only toward the end): http://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/mar/15/why-philosophers-make-unsuitable-life-partnersReport

Alan White
Alan White
5 years ago

Look, I’m a nobody in the profession, but I’ve been an observer as well as a part of it for almost forty years. News flash: things have changed drastically. Yeah like you haven’t noticed, no matter what your term of experience.

When I started at my lower-status teaching institution in my state institution–University of Wisconsin–I still had incentives to make it worthwhile. Although 4/4 even in 1981, I had excellent benefits that countered a lower wage structure. My position as educator was publicly touted and respected at the state level, and certainly locally in my city, Manitowoc (and no, don’t ask me about “Making a Murderer”–as people did at a recent conference—-Avery killed Halbach, and any local who’s familiar with the case can tell you why beyond doubt). Professional development funding was, while not lavish, sufficient to advance my scholarship. And yes, as people like Gregg Caruso show us even today, it is possible to do that while teaching multiple classes–but only with support and understanding from family, colleagues, administration, and the public. And that’s changed for most all of us.

I have many tenured colleagues who have only ever seen a net decrease in take-home pay from their hired salaries because now they have to pay half their pension contributions and contribute significant premiums to their health-care. Not only that, their tenure has been significantly diluted by statutory act and Regent action (as largely appointed by a Conservative governor). The state no longer cares, using the politics of resentment to turn the public to regard us as “the haves”, enticing them to ignore actually becoming the for-real have-nots the state’s policies have relegated them to. Many in the state are actively calling for closing campuses, now viewed as some bastion of privilege and excess and liberal insurgency.

Younger colleagues have families and face challenges I never did through the formative parts of my career. I don’t know how they do it.

But I listened to one new TT colleague–in chemistry–today address new inductees to our local honor society. She spoke passionately about how she almost failed organic chemistry only to realize that she got road-blocked–and realized it–and reset her goals to not only succeed in that course, but finally obtain a PhD in it, and discover her passion for teaching. Someone above mentioned that our profession may also be a vocation–she between the lines made a case for teaching as a calling. I know what she meant–I read between the lines. She still reflected a small part of my old soul as a philosopher–I have always loved what I do, and am grateful for it.

But what if society shifts so significantly to the right that liberal-arts higher ed is not just discouraged, but even more vilified? How much more pressure to succeed can academics stand under that assault?

This post showed me that not only is this an issue here in Wisconsin, but–at Oxford!? That’s some sort of systemic sickness of larger society, and globally. Where is our analogous House when you need such a crucial diagnosis for the real illness, and thus the right cure?Report

Nicky Drake
Nicky Drake
5 years ago

For what it’s worth, Josh, PhD and MA students from Vic (where I’m a PhD student) have no difficulty at all in getting jobs in government ministries and departments.Report

patrick
patrick
5 years ago

I left academic philosophy with no backup plan, and have not been able to secure significant employment in over a year (160 job apps and counting). FWIW I come from a working class background in an economically depressed area with no networking or connections in non-academic fields. Experiences of others likely will vary.Report

Cathy Legg
Cathy Legg
5 years ago

Josh I salute your honesty. Welcome back to NZ!Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
5 years ago

Hoping to be an exception to Josh’s sarcastic generalization (‘academics, and philosophers in particular, are *so good* at giving approval’), let me say that I approve tremendously of Josh himself who was a wonderful colleague when he was with us at Otago. His was the most valuable philosophical friendship of my entire life, made all the more so by the fact that we shared many non-philosophical tastes and interests. When we talked philosophy I found it both exhilerating and exhausting since it was sometimes rather difficult for me to keep up with him. Luckily we could relax into such topics as synth bands of the eighties or the rhythmic qualities of Attenborough’s prose. When he and I were discussing a possible Marsden (a kind of research grant available in New Zealand) I wondered what we should put in the methodology section. What would have been honest would have been something like this: ‘We will up on the literature, go for some long walks together in the hills, kick the issues around over a few (probably Belgian) beers and then write up the results’. But somehow that did not sound sufficiently impressive. When Josh and Hannah left us for Oxford, I was desperately sorry to see him go, but I did my best to put a brave face on it, thinking that our loss would be Oxford’s and Philosophy’s gain. Josh himself would have more interesting philosophers to talk to (by which I don’t mean that the philosophers would be individually more interesting but that the *class* of interesting philosophers would be larger) and greater opportunities to develop his massive talent. What I did not anticipate was that Oxford’s gain would be Josh’s and perhaps Philosophy’s loss. It seems to me that a large part of the point of elite institutions such as Oxford is that they should provide an environment in which top academic talent can flourish. If a top talent such as Josh fails to flourish at Oxford, then something is sadly amiss. What worries me in particular is that Oxford may have diminished not only Josh’s joie de vivre but also his joie de Philosophie, which used to be so infectious. If so, that is very sad indeed.

I would like to stress one point that some other posters are missing. This is primarily an Oxford problem. It was Oxford specifically rather than academic philosophy in general that was getting Josh down. So although there are no doubt similar problems in other places, it is Oxford in particular that ought to be worrying. For Josh is not the only philosopher I know of (nor even the only philosopher known to me) who has left an apparently plum position at Oxford because he was not happy there. But what exactly is wrong? There are probably several factors in play. Josh himself is careful to say that his ‘employer [was not] behaving scandalously or unfairly’, but attributes the problem to ‘university-wide pressures [which] mean that everyone in [his] position is asked to work very long hours during term-time’. Thus the suggestion is that at least part of the problem is the tutorial system. As a former beneficiary of this system (though I went to Cambridge rather than Oxford) I would be loath to argue for its abolition. At its best this can be wonderful way not only to learn philosophy but to learn many other subjects, though it is, of course, very labour intensive for the teachers. After my first two terms at Cambridge I stopped going to lectures (they weren’t very good) but I hardly ever missed my supervisions (aka tutorials) since it was there (and in conversation with my peers) that my real education took place. (For an interesting reminiscence of Oxford including an enthusiastic endorsement of the tutorial system, see Liam Hudson’s *The Cult of the Fact* ch. 2.) The question is why the system seems to have become so much more oppressive for present-day dons than perhaps it was in the past. I left England for New Zealand nearly thirty years ago and I prefer not to follow the British news as I find the ongoing triumph of Thatcherism (mildly mitigated by the feeble-minded folly of ‘Third Way’ Politics ) too painful to read about. But I recall that some years ago the extra subsides paid to Oxford and Cambridge were withdrawn, and that both universities vowed to continue with the tutorial system nonetheless. It may well be that in an effort to provide the same service but for less money, the younger dons are being required to do a lot more teaching than their predecessors were in past. If this is (part of) the problem (and this may be a pretty big ‘if’) , then one solution might be to restore the special subsidies. But that is only going to be politically acceptable if Oxford and Cambridge become much less the preserve of the educationally and economically privileged than they tend to be at present. Tax-payers might be willing to subsidize a couple of elite institutions at an especially high rate but only if they are readily accessible to boys and girls who do not come from privileged backgrounds. Though it is of course, possible for a sufficiently talented person from a less privileged background to get into Oxbridge, as things stand the dice are heavily loaded in favour of the rich.

At all events led me add my voice to the many welcoming Josh back to his native land. Josh, it’s great to have you back – but I wish you had had a happier time when you were away.Report

Steven
Steven
5 years ago

I don’t know anything about Professor Parsons’s own situation, but as someone currently here in Oxford, I can tell you that something indeed is rotten in Denmark.

Many of my fellow philosophy students agree, though they’d never dare say so in public.

I myself am reluctant just to say what I have here, but my consolation is knowing that there are worse fates in life than choosing to speak the truth when there might be bad consequences for doing so.Report

SJ
SJ
5 years ago

Dear Josh, THANK YOU for this truly inspiring article. I congratulate you for being so courageous, and I am sure you will find a nice job that will allow you to have a life AND to continue publishing excellent philosophy. Hopefully you will be the first of many academic philosophers who reject living under life-negating conditions.Report

EDobg
EDobg
3 years ago

While I agree with this article whole-heartedly I have to point out that PhDs are not the only scientists that have to deal with disappointments in academia. I have a masters degree and have struggled with squaring my passion for infectious disease research with repeated layoffs due to funding cycles. I’d really like a PhD but my friends with doctorates insist a masters degree is more flexible, employable.
It’s not just graduate degrees either- my friends with bachelors degrees had to leave academia for private industry to get a fair salary and frankly, respect.Report

ConfusedJuniorAcademic
ConfusedJuniorAcademic
3 years ago

Why not apply for a job elsewhere first and then once you have an option hand in your notice?Report

Alison L Neilson
Alison L Neilson
3 years ago

I didn´t read all the comments, so I appreciate the time any one took to read mine. I am writing here, since I have decided after 12 years post-phd and now in my early 50s and having left Canada for Portugal, that I must escape academia. I am trying to leave the institutions of academia because they are preventing me from doing the very things that my institution promotes – doing work that resists things which work against helping to create environmentally just societies. I keep getting seduced by the ideas that my institution promote, but continually hurt by the way that they (and me, as complicit) work against these ideas and instead simply reproduce the injustices and violence.
Thankfully I am seeing role models of people who left tenured jobs to instead be public scholars. When we have the privilege to be able to leave, I think it is the just thing to do, because 1) it opens spaces in the institutions for others who want to be there, and perhaps who are better than us in helping to transform the institutions, 2) it may help the collective group of people who still work in and manifest the institutions to push harder for changes, and 3) as Josh has written, we have more time to do scholarship. I think the third point is particularly important, as it requires more time to collaborate, including inviting and mentoring junior academics to be part of writings (something social science and humanities do not do well), this in turn can make it more possible for a single parent to share their scholarship without sacrificing their children, as well as open up possibilities to help scholarship from the south either infiltrate “high impact” journals, or create “journals” or other communication forms which better serve images, creative communications and knowledge systems which are based on respecting all our relations (a strong idea shared by many indigenous scholars from indigenous ways of knowing and being, Thomas King, Tompson Highway, Marie Battiste – lots more – where “scholarship” does no harm to other people, communities, trees, cultures etc).
I am struggling with the “how” to leave because I do not want to necessarily hurt, offend, or be seen to reject the idea of scholarship, but at the same time, (knowing my personality and history), “burning the bridge” is the only way to prevent myself from being seduced by the groundless ideas and my strong faith in “academia” , and actually leave!!Report