Quitting A Safe Job To Pursue A Career In Philosophy (Ought Experiment)

Quitting A Safe Job To Pursue A Career In Philosophy (Ought Experiment)

Welcome back to Ought Experiment, the column by Dear Ida that offers personal advice for your academic life. Today’s letter is from someone considering pursuing a career in academic philosophy.

Dear Dear Ida, 

 I ‘m 30 years old and this May I’m about to complete my undergraduate studies in Philosophy, which I started 3 years ago mostly out of curiosity. However, throughout these years my interest in Philosophy grew dramatically and I decided that I want to continue my studies at postgraduate level aiming for a Ph.D. and hopefully a new career in academia.

As a result, I ‘ve  been accepted in four top level UK universities for a Masters in Philosophy of Science next September, and thus I plan to quit my current safe and well-paying job in order to follow further studies. However, almost all of the people in academia I’ve talked to, appear to be quite pessimistic about my job opportunities in the future regardless of my academic capacities, and are skeptical about my decision of quitting a safe job to follow the obscure path of academic philosophy. It ‘s an ”uphill struggle” they say.

I would really appreciate any thoughts on whether my choice to start my postgraduate late will indeed affect my future, and I would also be grateful if any readers with similar academic paths (i.e. pursuing doctoral studies in Philosophy late) could provide some feedback from their own experience.

Kind regards,
A determined and confused philosophy aficionado


First, let me say congratulations on being accepted into those programs!

To be honest, I’m inclined to give you the same kind of advice I would give anyone considering graduate school.

The job market for academic jobs teaching philosophy is not very good right now.  And unfortunately it is not likely to get better, since how many jobs there are is partially a function of how well the economy is doing, and I think we have little reason to be hopeful about it improving.  I glumly predict that the academic job market will still be poor in five years, and five years is probably the earliest you would be finished with a Ph.D. program and entering the market.

Suppose you do amazingly well in a top Ph.D. program.  Even then, you will likely struggle on the job market. Right now people doing amazingly well are struggling with the market.  That’s how it is, and that’s how it is likely to be.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pursue your dream, but it’s worth going forward with your eyes open. Philosophy is wonderful and graduate school can be a very enjoyable experience. It’s not unreasonable to pursue graduate school for its own sake regardless of the academic job prospects that might or might not follow.

And you might have some advantages over your peers coming into graduate school straight from college. First, you might have some money saved up to cushion your otherwise low graduate student salary. Second, it might be that you take less of a risk since, if academia doesn’t pan out, you already have work experience outside of academia. And this might help both with acquiring a non-academic job, as well as helping you psychologically as you do so— because you know what the outside world is like, so to speak, whereas for a lot of graduate students, academia is all they know.  (And so, for them, searching for a non-academic job sounds like a daunting or scary endeavor.)

As for whether starting late will make a difference, I am inclined to think not substantially. Depending on how much older you are than your graduate cohort, perhaps social encounters will be less fluid, but perhaps not. I doubt your entering age will make a difference in your job prospects.  I would also be interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on this as well.

I hope this helps.  Good luck on your future endeavors.

Dear Ida

Have questions for Dear Ida? Write to [email protected]. Further discussion and comments welcome.

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7 years ago

Also, one may ultimately hope for a professor position in academia, which is the supreme safe job.

Sara L. Uckelman
7 years ago

I think it’s worth stressing the point that an academic position at a university teaching/researching philosophy is not the only career in philosophy open to someone who wants such a career, and that having had job experience outside academia will make it much easier to get back into an extra-academic position after grad school.

7 years ago

In terms of getting the most out of grad school, I think starting late is likely to be a plus. I entered a PhD program right after undergrad, where the rest of my cohort had worked “real” jobs and/or done terminal MAs in between. It’s not surprising, given their terminal MAs, that they were ahead of me academically at the start, but I was also aware that my work habits, self-discipline, etc. were comparably immature – I still had an undergrad’s bad habits. A healthy dose of adulthood before grad school would have done me good.

Did Something Similar
Did Something Similar
7 years ago

I made this sort of move myself–from a well-paying and pretty safe (but meaning-of-life-sucking) corporate job, back to school and a philosophy degree, then to grad school. I think the broader life experience and maturity I’ve gained is definitely valuable, though not in a way obvious in everyday life as a grad student. (In my view, grad school is rife with people putting on their best face every day, trying their darndest to look smart, look like they know what they’re doing, etc. Almost no one wants to show weakness. That’s a shame, for lots of reasons. But I digress.)

But, I’m also not sure how much of a bridge back to the well-paying corporate world I’ve got, should I ever get desperate enough to want it. It depends on what kind of work you did. If you worked in, oh, I don’t know, human resources, law, some areas of business teaching (well, that wouldn’t be well-paying), or something where the relevant skill-set doesn’t change much over time, you might have a path back. But if you worked in IT/IS, e.g., your bridge back will be pretty rickety after years of grad school, since the IT/IS industry changes rapidly.

I don’t regret the change and risk myself–at least, not yet–but it’s definitely something to do with eyes open, and backup plans in mind.

Also, even at your age, if your life situation permits it, I recommend considering taking an MA first (only if it’s a funded MA), even if you can get accepted at big doctoral programs. I tell this to everyone, even hot-shot undergraduate philosophy majors. Why? Because an MA allows you to get more coursework and experience doing graduate level philosophy, which can only help (in my opinion); it helps you figure out what area you’d like to specialize in (because, as much as I hate to say it, these days it’s best to start thinking about the dissertation as early on as possible); and it gives you an easier, less stressful, less time-consuming, and less expensive (for you and the institution) way of deciding “Y’know, I don’t want to do academic philosophy after all”, and yet still have a graduate degree in philosophy.

Greg Gauthier
7 years ago

There are other options. A PhD in philosophy need not end in a 5-figure associate professorship in rural poverty at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. The old single-file, school-to-school career track for philosophers is rapidly coming to an end. Many businesses are now looking explicitly for people with educations in the humanities, explicitly in philosophy even (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/05/why-philosophy-majors-rule_n_4891404.html and https://venturebeat.com/2011/05/14/damon-horowitz-moral-operating-system/).

Not interested in returning to corporate world as an employee? No worries, if you’re adventurous, you could become a philosophy entrepreneur. For example, you could start a consulting business focusing on bringing the benefits of philosophy to business clients (e.g. https://reasonio.wordpress.com/).

Or, if you have a little bit of panache behind the camera, you could start your own YouTube channel (e.g. https://www.youtube.com/user/schooloflifechannel or https://www.youtube.com/user/thephilosophytube). I know for a fact, that the best channels with a patreon account are earning 3-5k per month (with weekly uploads, and a decent subscriber base.

However, if that’s not your cup of tea, but you’ve got some background in psychology, you could repurpose the philosophy to providing counseling services. That seems to be an option as well (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-would-aristotle-do/201409/how-can-you-become-philosophical-counselor).

Or, you could turn to writing. Philosophical novels, or research works, or speculative philosophy have pretty good records (though modest, compared to other genres). This option, of course, may take more time to yield an income. But if you find traction with an audience (for example, the way Nigel Warburton has), you could easily replace your comfortable corporate income.

The world needs philosophy. The more thoughtful, empathetic, epistemically cautious, and committed to truth come-what-may, the less likely we all are to be at each others’ throats. Don’t let the discouraging prospects in the dying monastery of academia put you off becoming a philosopher. It is just one, among an entire menu of options, these days. And, with enough self-exploration, imagination, and courage, perhaps you will find a way to add another option to that menu. Never give up. The world needs you now, more than ever.