Supporting Non-Academic Careers (guest post by Kevin J.S. Zollman)


In a field where more than half of our students won’t get academic jobs, we are actively creating a culture where most of our students will view themselves as failures. 

The following is a guest post by Kevin J.S. Zollman, associate professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University. It first appeared at The Philosophers’ Cocoon.


[Javier Riera, “Landscape Light Intervention”]

Supporting Non-Academic Careers
by Kevin J.S. Zollman

When I was a kid growing up in Kansas, someone asked me “what church do you go to?” While (perhaps) not intended, the phrasing of this question communicated volumes to me. The presumption of the question is that I go to a church, not a synagogue, mosque, or temple. What’s more, it presumes that I visit houses of worship regularly. Being raised atheist, it stayed with me: I was so unusual for my time and place that one should assume me away. Many of you reading this post have had similar experiences, especially those of you who are members of groups historically excluded from western philosophy.

We are sensitized to these micro-aggressions against marginalized demographic groups.  But we may miss how we do similar things to those who ultimately leave the academy. Just think for a moment about all the ways philosophical culture talks about getting a PhD. “Placement” means “academic placement”, “a job” is synonymous with “an academic job.” Even that phrase I just used, “leave the academy” implies something like abandonment or at least departure from expectation. Happy, important, and gainful employment outside the academy is treated as abandoning one’s path and is the equivalent to unemployment.

It doesn’t take much effort to realize how cruel this is. In a field where more than half of our students won’t get academic jobs, we are actively creating a culture where most of our students will view themselves as failures. Even those that manage to escape the self-hating trap may still worry that others view them that way.

While I still often make mistakes, I have tried to change the way I talk with students in our graduate program. I always preface relevant sentences with “For those interested in academic employment, …”  I ask students, when I first talk with them about employment, if they want a job in academia. I repeatedly reinforce the question (“are you still planning for a job in academia?”) giving students the opportunity to change their minds.

This way of talking not only creates space for them to see non-academic employment as a legitimate option, it also forces them to ask themselves the question that many of our students rarely ask: do I really want this life? Lots of people get into academia with Pollyannaish visions of a life of the mind. When they discover what our lives are really like, they should reevaluate whether this is what they want. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. Either way, many programs discourage this self-reflection.

While I have no hard data to back this up, I think that this culture is partially responsible for why so many people stay in tenuous academic appointments. They have been acculturated to see any job in academia as superior to a job outside of it. And, so they presume that work as an Adjunct Professor must be more rewarding that making far more money doing anything else.

Our language is definitely a part of this culture, but it isn’t the whole thing. When I asked a friend why he stayed in the academy despite years of moving from one temporary job to another, he said, “I’m not trained to do anything else.” I suspect no one ever told him that directly, but he picked up a common belief: once you have a PhD in the humanities you are now broken beyond repair for jobs outside academia. Somehow this is a common perception: philosophy PhDs are no longer equipped to work anywhere but the university. I suspect this is one of those beliefs generated through collective ignorance: everyone believes it because everyone believes it, not because it has any basis in fact.

Part of this belief may spring from how we think about specialization. When preparing for the academic job market, we compare ourselves against others with very similar skills. We emphasize those things which make us unique relative to other philosophers. I study game theory and philosophy of science, that’s what makes me rare in philosophy. But if that’s the only thing that graduate students are told about their skill set, they don’t realize how they are rare relative to the population at large. I am not a particularly efficient reader relative to other philosophers, but I’ll bet my reading speed and comprehension of dense technical material would blow your average person away.

How can we address this? By taking pride in our non-academic placements, by highlighting what they do and how their PhD is relevant. By having them back to talk about their experiences. By reminding our students that they have developed skills that set them apart from others who don’t have PhDs. And by working with career professionals at our universities to help our students see all that they might bring to the non-academic workforce.

We emphasize, over and over, how a B.A. in philosophy gives our students many important, desirable skills. We’ll say it to exhaustion to anyone with the patience to listen: while you may not use your knowledge of Descartes and The Wax at your job, we are nonetheless giving you skills that will be invaluable. It would be genuinely remarkable if our 300 level classes did this, but our 800 level classes did not. We should communicate the importance those same skills to our PhD students that we emphasize to our undergraduates

Even though I think our PhD programs provide marketable skills to our students, small changes to our curricula could make them even better. Some philosophy programs are leading the way. By introducing interdisciplinary requirements, where students learn an aptitude relevant to their philosophy, we are also giving students a second marketable skill. When I was a graduate student at UC Irvine’s department of Logic and Philosophy of Science, I was required to take three courses in a target science. Carnegie Mellon, where I am now, and Pittsburgh’s HPS department have similar requirements.

Notice, none of these programs are slouches when it comes to academic placement or professional reputation. Some think that reforming their curriculum to better suit non-academic placement is “giving up”—it will harm their academic placement. But, I see no reason why that should be so. Would it really be so bad for a moral psychologist to learn some psychology? Or for a metaphysician to learn some physics? Or for an epistemologist to learn some statistics?

An important idea from economics is to pay attention to marginal gain. How much did you grow as a philosopher by taking your twelfth graduate philosophy class? A little, perhaps, but not much. On the other hand, taking a first graduate class in computer science or mathematics or political science might contribute enormously in both academic and non-academic careers. Encouraging our students to take classes outside of philosophy will improve their philosophy and their employment prospects wherever they go.

With an ever tightening job market, I’ve seen lots of calls to shrink our graduate programs. But I think this is a mistake. Just as producing thoughtful, smart, and critical undergrads will improve our world, so too will producing philosophy PhDs. Like our colleagues in the sciences, we need to recognize that not all of them are bound for the academy. With relatively small social and institutional changes, I think we can build programs that move the world in a more positive direction.


Related posts: Daily Nous Non-Academic Hires Page; Grad Programs and Non-Academic CareersDuties to Graduate Students Pursuing Non-Academic CareersProgram Funds Non-Academic Internships for Philosophy PhD StudentsNew Site Interviews Philosophers With Non-Academic CareersProfiles of Non-Academics with Philosophy DegreesAPA Issues New Guide For Philosophers Seeking Non-Academic Jobs

guest
30 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mercado
Mercado
1 year ago

This seems right. But, I wonder how the job market would differ if universities committed to having their sections taught mainly by full time faculty instead of adjuncts.

Report

J. Bogart
J. Bogart
Reply to  Mercado
1 year ago

Universities are not going to commit to that. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Mercado
1 year ago

Do you mean

(a) if universities committed to all teaching being done by full-time faculty, with no decrease in course numbers and no increase in per-faculty teaching loads; or
(b) if universities committed to all teaching being done by full-time faculty, with no change in the teaching budget,

(a) would be great for academic employment, as a special case of the principle that people spending tons of money hiring lots of people in area X is good for employment in area X. But as a strategy, it does rather require identifying where the tons of money is going to come from.

(b) frees up little in the way of resources, and I don’t see why it would make much difference to available jobs.Report

Kevin Zollman
Reply to  Mercado
1 year ago

This is part of a larger concern that I have. I think a lot of universities are shifting to non-permanent faculty because (a) they are under severe financial pressure and (b) there is a large pool of qualified people willing to do that work for very little financial compensation. I conjecture (with very little by-way of proof) that this pool exists in part because of the culture that we create: people underestimate how happy they will be in non-academic work.

If we made non-academic work more attractive, universities might not have the pool of workers willing to take temporary jobs. This story involves a long chain of reasoning, with little evidence at each stage, but I conjecture that improving how we treat non-academic work might actually create more permanent academic jobs. Please, however, take this as the random speculations of a dude on the internet that it is.Report

Brent Saindon
Brent Saindon
Reply to  Kevin Zollman
1 year ago

While I’m not a philosopher, this principle is universal. I have colleagues that complain a lot about overload pay (I work at a heavy teaching institution). Many use overloads to supplement their pay, but are angry that the marginal extra work carries little remuneration. Meanwhile, overload classes taught by full time faculty are valuable to change the ratio of full time/part time instruction of hours in accreditation paperwork. In essence, they are being paid poorly to make the college look better on paper and to reduce incentives to hire more full time faculty (and redistribute the service burdens).

Until faculty refuse to sell their labor for less than its market value, administration will continue to create a terrible business model. First, faculty need to unionize at all levels and to see their struggles as linked. Second, graduate faculty need to help the labor market become more efficient by teaching students to sell their rare skills to non-academic employers that could use them.Report

James A DeHullu
James A DeHullu
1 year ago

I was pleasantly surprised by this post. As someone who majored in philosophy as an undergrad and finished two graduate degrees in areas other than philosophy, I have always felt that I abandoned my true love and failed to do something I should have done.

My own way of dealing with this situation has been to continue to read serious philosophy and to write on philosophical topics for an internet audience. (I call my website Ariadne’s Thread.) This allows me to feel, in more reflective moments, that I have been able to make a very small contribution to a broader conversation outside academia.

For others who did not finish a doctorate in philosophy and do not teach at the university level, I urge them not to feel that they have failed. At the very least, we can all try to introduce philosophical methods and arguments into daily conversation. This is especially relevant today, when our country is so divided politically and ridicule is often substituted for argument.

Jim DeHullu

You can check out my website, Ariadne’s Thread, at http://www.CriticalThought.info

or at http://www.ariadne.x10.mx/

(The site was designed for a desktop or laptop, not a mobile phone.)

Report

Derek Bowman
1 year ago

While I certainly agree that academic philosophers need to better acknowledge and normalize the result that large numbers of grad students will fail to secure permanent academic jobs, I don’t see how these considerations count against the call to shrink or eliminate graduate programs.

Prof Zollman’s own point about diminishing marginal returns provides a good reason to be skeptical about his prior inference from the practical value of an undergraduate education in philosophy to the practical value of a graduate education.

I think there is much to be said about the variety of careers those who are already pursuing a PhD should consider and prepare for, but it’s hard for me to see the sens in pursuing a philosophy PhD where one’s plan A is another career. It would seem to make more sense to spend less time and commitment getting an M.A. before (or while) pursuing other training/credentials that are more directly job related.

So I applaud Prof Zollman for continuing to work or a change in how academic philosophers see our colleagues and students who pursue other careers, it’s important that this not be done in a way that encourages the profession to ignore the predictable problems that come with overproduction of PhDs. Report

Kevin Zollman
Reply to  Derek Bowman
1 year ago

This is a good point, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

I don’t completely agree. In particular, PhD programs teach a number of skills that one rarely encounters in undergraduate and masters programs. Writing a dissertation involves a lot project management skills: digesting and synthesizing large literature, defining a project and timeline, and self-motivation. (Witness how many students struggle with this stage.)

I think completing a PhD provides a opportunity to develop a whole range of not-philosophy-specific skills that most people don’t learn until they are at a job. And many don’t even learn it then.

It’s a further question whether it’s worth doing a PhD for those skills alone. I don’t even really know how to tackle answering that problem, much less have a clear intuition about it. Report

Derek Bowman
Reply to  Kevin Zollman
1 year ago

Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

I agree there are some things learned writing a dissertation that go beyond what’s learned at earlier stages. But this is very different -indeed almost the opposite – of the inference I was challenging. (“We should communicate the importance those same skills to our PhD students that we emphasize to our undergraduates”). And it’s not at all clear that 5-10 years in a PhD program is an efficient way of acquiring those general skills, in comparison to either on the job experience with project management and/or training (and networking) related to one’s chosen field. Report

Alexandra Bradner
Alexandra Bradner
Reply to  Derek Bowman
1 year ago

I agree with Bowman: promote and expand the MA as a wildly useful degree for a number of other professions and radically shrink PhD programs, limiting admission to those who have a talent and passion for research.Report

grad student
grad student
1 year ago

Thanks for this. I’m currently in my last year of the PhD and not planning on going into academia. I genuinely think that the philosophy classes my undergrads take will make them better thinkers and more prepared to address complex issues both in their personal lives and in whatever career they go into (though I think the former is a skill more distinctively cultivated in philosophy). But you’re totally right, about me in particular and about the graduate communities I’ve been a part of–we do not recognize that those same skills might be cultivated in graduate school.

The way I see it, I’ll have about 40 years or so of a working career. I spent 6 of those years becoming an expert in a field that is very important to me while gaining some kind of skills. I’ll also have a lifetime’s worth of enjoyment from reading and engaging with philosophy, in a way that is not possible with just an undergrad degree. I was able to get paid and support myself while doing it too. I think that’s totally worth it? Yeah you might be starting a career later than most people, and yeah it might take you a few years to get up to speed and get into a career path you are happy about, but even if all together it takes 25% of your working life, that still leaves you with 75% left. Anyway, this is the kind of line of thought I use to get out of that self-hating hole.Report

Curtis Franks
Curtis Franks
1 year ago

One thing is clear to me. The idea that the reason to be in a philosophy PhD. program is to be able to obtain a job as a philosophy professor is not introduced to today’s students in graduate school. I have read about 1500 graduate school applications in the past few years, and I think in most of them the applicant says outright that this is their reason for applying. That means that someone else is telling them this. It also means that the burden of helping students understand that they have not failed in the event that they do not secure academic employment (which I agree is a worthy burden to shoulder) is not just a matter of no longer suggesting things along those lines. It is a matter of dissuading students of something they believed before you met them, something that might in fact be a main reason that you ever had a chance to meet them.

Another complication is that many of our students will in fact seek employment in today’s incredibly competitive job market. When Kevin and I were in school (not /that/ long ago) I don’t think I ever even heard the phrase “job market.” We didn’t have mock interviews. No one ever suggested to me that I consider sending work to a journal for publication (in part because none of it was particularly good, but also … ). And when I did decide to apply for a few jobs, no one other than my wife offered to read over my cover letter or other materials, all of which I wrote and stuffed into envelopes in one afternoon based on what I read in the advertisements. School was about learning stuff, and no one talked about these things. However romantic it all was, it seems like it would be ill-advised for any program to revert to that mode nowadays—not because academic employment is the purpose of PhD. studies today any more than it was in the past, but because the same mutually supporting relationship that has always obtained between humanities PhD. programs and academic employment continues to obtain today. Because academic employment credentials have changed so radically, a PhD. program would to some extent abandon all of its students—even those who, like my graduate student self, have never given any serious thought to the prospects of academic employment and for whom the opportunity for such employment has no antecedent value—by not providing some explicit training for academic job seekers. The mutual support would just collapse. The reason this is a complication is that there is surely some tact involved in gearing students up with dedicated seminars for journal publication, a rigorous schedule of mock interviews and practice job talks, Departmentally controlled deadlines for dossier review and feedback, etc., together with an abiding conversational tone that academic employment is one among many reasonable things to do with a Philosophy PhD, and that we have no particular hope that it, rather than some other opportunity, will materialize.

As for abrading the Pollyannaish vision, I cannot recommend highly enough occasional reminders that a large part of academic life involves reading the worst writing that humans produce, namely, writing done under duress. Just as most of this stuff would never be written without an explicit injunction to do so, neither would it ever be read. Still, it is a good life, worth some real concessions. As I tell our graduate students every few years when asked whether it’s true that I’m a chess grandmaster: “No, no, I’m not a grandmaster. Believe me, if I were a grandmaster, I’d be somewhere else right now making even less money.”
Report

Sam Kampa
1 year ago

Having spent two years on the academic job market, I transitioned into full-time non-academic employment about four months ago. In my case, finding a non-academic job was challenging, but not nearly as challenging as finding an academic job. For first-time non-ac job seekers, I *strongly* recommend exploring the start-up market. Start-ups tend to be small (duh), and so they require people who can do a lot of different things and learn new things on the fly. Perhaps my sample size is too small, but the philosophers I know are interested in and adept at many things. The trick is convincing your employer (and perhaps yourself) that you’re not just some narrow-minded academic. To do that, you may need to acquire some “hard skills”, which is not as daunting as some academics make it out to be. If you can do first-order pred logic, you can learn to write salvageable script in Python. Give yourself some credit.

If you’re interested in the startup market, here’s a great place to start: https://angel.co/.Report

Ned Hall
Ned Hall
1 year ago

Thanks for this excellent post, Kevin! I’m curious what you think about this strategy that a department might pursue: First, follow your advice, in emphasizing to incoming grad students that part of what will happen to them over the course of their graduate studies is that they will come to a better understanding of what sort of career is best for them, and that the department *fully supports* non-academic options. Second, make it automatic (if it’s not already) that Ph.D. candidates who pass certain milestones are awarded an MA. Third, at the time of this award, arrange a formal-ish conversation between the grad student and some appropriate committee (advisor, placement officer, etc.) to revisit her/his hopes and expectations about employment, raising the option of whether she/he wants to seek (presumably non-academic, or at least non-TT) employment *now*. The thought is that (i) students will typically get their MA after 2 years; (ii) by that time, both they and their advisors will be in a much better position to assess whether aiming for the standard academic track is the right way to go; (iii) if it looks like it’s not, then they have something valuable to show for the time they’ve spent in grad school – but, obviously, they’ve spent only *two* years, instead of five-plus. Of course, a grad student could go all the way to the Ph.D., and decide *then* that non-academic employment is best. But explicitly building in this alternative structure may make it easier for them to avoid a kind of sunk-cost fallacy, when they face the decision whether to go non-academic.Report

Kevin Zollman
Reply to  Ned Hall
1 year ago

Ned –

Thanks for your comment. Yeah, I think that’s a reasonable structure. There is definitely a lot of sunk-cost fallacy going on with students who stay on the academic job market longer than really makes sense. (I think there are a lot of different things going on, too.) And I do think it’s important to give them realistic expectations, and give them the chance to leave. I am largely in favor of “graceful exits” in graduate school.

As I mentioned in my discussion with Derek above, I am genuinely uncertain about how valuable a PhD might be for certain types of non-academic jobs. There are a lot of skills that one learns in tackling a big project like a PhD and these skills will definitely be valuable to certain types of potential employers. Whether or not a PhD is the best way to get those skills is unclear to me. But, if you have a student who has some (possibly small) chance to get an academic job, it might not be so bad to encourage them to finish the PhD but with a serious non-academic “backup” plan.

Regardless of the structure, I fully support having honest and frank conversations with students about their prospects on the academic market. This is something I personally struggle with. My thoroughly midwestern upbringing makes it very hard for me to say things to people that they don’t want to hear. But, I’m trying to get better at it.

Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  Ned Hall
1 year ago

“Third, at the time of this award [an M.A.], arrange a formal-ish conversation between the grad student and some appropriate committee (advisor, placement officer, etc.) to revisit her/his hopes and expectations about employment, raising the option of whether she/he wants to seek (presumably non-academic, or at least non-TT) employment *now*.”

Hi Ned: I think your suggested strategy is good on the whole. But I’d like to register just one note of caution about the kind of formal conversation you suggest in the passage I quoted above: namely, that somewhat ‘underperforming’ students shouldn’t be pressured by faculty to leave the program after the MA. Some students go through difficulties during graduate school and turn out to be ‘late bloomers’. For example, in her Dewey Lecture, Ruth Millikan notes a variety of serious struggles during grad school, including having to walk out of a final exam, a divorce, and time in a mental-health institution: https://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2014/04/millikans-dewey-lecture.html

Similarly, Rae Langton notes on her webpage that at Princeton, her dissertation was initially failed: https://www.newn.cam.ac.uk/person/professor-rae-langton/

Obviously, their careers went okay. I myself went through rough times in grad school where I underperformed mostly for personal reasons, and have known others who went through similar struggles who have since fared well as academics.

I think grad students should prepare themselves for alt-ac options, and I very much like your suggestions for how programs might support them in this regard. I just want to caution programs against a presumption of “showing underperforming students the door”, as it were. Many people attend graduate school at a time in their lives (early to mid 20’s) when they are first encountering many challenges of adulthood. Many of them struggle for a time only to eventually find their way. In short, I want to suggest that programs should be supportive of alt-ac options, but also patient with students who are meeting a minimum bar of satisfactory achievement.Report

Ned Hall
Ned Hall
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
1 year ago

That’s an excellent point, Marcus. (I could add myself to your list. I barely managed to get through my generals, and then took a year off from grad school, genuinely uncertain about whether I would or should return.) Report

KGin
1 year ago

I’m a software engineer with a PhD in Philosophy. I have no regrets about leaving academia, but at the time it was the most difficult decision of my life because I thought failing to succeed in academia would somehow make me a failure — so I resonate with this post.

In hindsight, I wish I would have been required to do an internship at some point in my studies. While a graduate student, I would have never volunteered to do this on my own. But this would have exposed me to a culture outside of academia much earlier, along with getting something valuable on my resume.Report

Avalonian
1 year ago

I’m a little concerned that the justifying reasons we give for maintaining the current level of PhD admissions won’t be the ones that explain why we are actually pursuing this policy. We can tell pretty stories to each other about how we are helping to create a more thoughtful citizenry, and about how we are giving students marketable skills (only if we ignore the obvious counter, which is that these returns on this particular investment probably diminish rapidly after a BA). And now we can even, per this suggestion, keep students posted about non-academic paths that will be open to them but which would have been just as open to them before we admitted them.

But why, *in fact*, will departments not cut their PhD admissions down to match expected job market openings? Well, I’m not an authority on this, but I think one strong actual motivator at a lot of places is: departments need cheap teaching and grading, and they need bodies to fill seminar rooms. Powerful institutional pressures which have very little to do with the long-term well-being of grad students are explanatory here, and not the justifying stories we are telling.

So I’d suggest that if we are going to collectively decide to stay the course in the midst of the suffering and despair we are collectively creating, that we’d better be really sure that we are staying the course for the reasons that actually justify staying the course. And forgive this old skeptic, but it seems to me that the status quo will be maintained for the reasons it has always been maintained, and that arguments such as Kevin’s, sincere though they may be, will mainly be wheeled out in order to soothe guilty consciences. Report

Kate Norlock
Reply to  Avalonian
1 year ago

Just to confirm what Avalonian is saying, when I started at Wisconsin in the 1990s they were still in the habit (since discontinued) of admitting large classes of first-year grads, funding almost none of us, and waiting to see who drowned. Like most, I took out massive loans instead. When I asked my advisor why they didn’t change this practice to admit smaller classes of entirely funded students, she replied instantly and without thinking about it, “Oh, but if we did that there wouldn’t be enough students for our seminars.” After I patted around on the floor for a while, I found my jaw and put it back on, but I was rather speechless at the sincere and true statement of reckless disregard for the foreseeable results (for students) of such a self-serving policy (for extremely well-employed professors).
Semi-happy epilogue: The practice changed by the time my grad stint ended, almost entirely because one of my classmates dropped out and filed a large and complex complaint against the department that motivated changes. I regularly think of that person as one who, in leaving academia, probably made it possible for future philosophers to succeed. But the experience also convinces me that change of the sort needed is probably going to have to come from the bottom up and not the top down, from brave individuals and groups who leave and/or who lodge complaints, and not from salaried and tenured professors who expect to be spared undergraduate teaching.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Kate Norlock
1 year ago

Kate, that story manages to be both shocking (for being a new way in which institutional morality goes wrong under these pressures) and sadly in keeping with so much else I’ve seen and heard about. These stories need to be kept before our eyes of reminders of what’s going wrong.

Unfortunately, defenders of the high minting of PhDs tend to encounter far more survivors the job market than those who have had their lives torn up by it, since the latter tend not to appear all that much at philosophy events. Also, as your story illustrates so clearly, tenured professors all tend to know which side their bread is buttered on. I don’t think they should feel guilty for having succeeded — congratulations to them — but they should at least have enough introspection to acknowledge that they have a vested interest in promoting this rosy view of grad school, and that that can have pretty awful effects on those who make the system possible.

Like others here, and perhaps you, I think the only humane way to address this issue involves greatly reducing the number of PhDs that are minted each year, and making sure that those that are minted come from schools that can reliably place graduates in sustainable jobs. Also, we need to stop ignoring the outcomes and the stories of those who have been exploited by the current system, and (I think) be mindful of the ways in which our praise to our strong undergraduates can come off as suggesting that they can safely go to grad school in the expectation of a career in philosophy.

When I’ve spoken with others in the profession about the times when they’ve had the most fun doing philosophy, I’ve often heard people point to moments in their undergrad years. There really is nothing like the intellectual excitement at coming upon a world of rigorous argument and counter-argument, and the realization that so many things we take for granted contain deep puzzles, for the first time. What I find undergraduates tend to assume is that the longer one stays in philosophy and tries to make a career of it, the more of those exciting moments one will have, and the more engaging they’ll be. The possibility of burnout or an increasing amount of mind-numbingly dull work never seems to occur to them. I wonder how much of this is due to the ways in which we hype the career rather than the discipline.

One thing I try to do now is to help the students see their undergraduate years as complete in themselves — a place to learn some important skills, make philosophical friends to last them the rest of their lives, and milk all the joy they can get out of immersing themselves in philosophy. I let them know when I think they’re fantastic at it. But I never move from there to suggesting they should have a career in philosophy, no matter how great I think they are (though I might occasionally urge them to try to get something published if it’s really outstanding), and I give them ‘the talk’ if they indicate that they plan to go on. To me, in the current state of the job market, and given how small an advantage a PhD seems to confer on someone not in the profession, I wouldn’t feel right doing otherwise.

I don’t think our individual actions will be enough, though, in the end. The strong incentive of even departments with terrible placement records to keep admitting students far in excess of those placements will help them find ways to find more and more bright young people to chuck into the meat grinder. I would have said before that I don’t know how that problem can be solved, but your story of the person who brought about change by bringing a complex complaint against the department gives me hope.Report

Rick
Rick
Reply to  Justin Kalef
1 year ago

Seems like the APA (and similar organizations) could apply some pressure by, e.g., banning conference participation (maybe even attendance) from faculty at PhD-producing institutions where not all grad students are fully-funded with a stipend. Schools want the prestige of research faculty without paying for all the work that supports them. Faculty want the prestige and luxury of research careers without worrying too much about their grad students. Well, make it hurt. If the incentives don’t change, neither will behavior.

I’m not really committed to that particular solution, FWIW, but it seems like the kind of thing that might have an effect.

In the meantime, I think Jason Brennan’s advice for grad students (from a blog post elsewhere) is good: do not attend a program that won’t fund you fully. If—even *entering grad school*—you’re already not able to get someone to pay you for doing philosophy, you (likely) won’t get them to do it later on the job market, either. Report

maple
maple
1 year ago

I agree with this post to the extent that it points out a kind of cultural elitism that exists in academic philosophy that’s harmful to our students. However, I do not agree that we should continue to pump out double or triple or quadruple the number of PhDs actually needed. There are two reasons I think this:

1. It does a lot of harm to people. Young and bright, intellectual high achievers will believe that they can beat the odds and so dedicate a decade of their lives to a goal that they are likely to not succeed at. This can cause major depression and even self-harm. It doesn’t help that parents and professors almost always encourage ambition in young people. The idea that people can psychologically simply move on or do all this work while maintaining a reasoned and healthy stance that the odds are against them is unrealistic. That’s not how (most?) human minds work. I had to believe I would succeed to do the work.

2. A PhD in philosophy is not nearly as marketable as some let on. I have a PhD and since giving up on academia I have really struggled to find satisfying employment (that is, anything other than entry level boring jobs). You don’t need a decade of education to get these jobs. People who disagree need to carefully consider the kinds of jobs actually available to someone with a PhD in philosophy leaving academia, especially someone who doesn’t have a STEM background. When you consider this, don’t just rely on antidotes and the rare cases but look at what the degree actually qualifies someone to do. Afterwards ask yourself, “Did they need a PhD in philosophy to get this job or to be competitive in this field?” In fact, often when someone with a PhD in philosophy finds a rewarding alternative career this is not due to their PhD but in spite of it: one’s chances might have been better without the baggage of a PhD to explain and justify.

Sure, programs can do a lot to make it less awful for those who end up leaving academia after dedicating years of their lives to the profession. They can do this by being less elitist and maintaining connections outside academia and so on. I support such efforts. However, none of this is going to solve the problem: the philosophy job market is horrible; many people currently dedicate a decade of their lives to the profession to only be kicked out in the end or relegated to “half-citizen” status. Report

maple
maple
Reply to  maple
1 year ago

I meant “anecdotes” not “antidotes.” Auto correct led me astray due to my horrible spelling. Report

justonce
justonce
1 year ago

Interesting aside, somewhat relevant to the present context: one of the papers in this years Philosophers Annual was written by someone who has since left academia.Report

skeptic about cynicism
skeptic about cynicism
1 year ago

I’m embarrassed (by ignorance) to ask this, but are we sure there’s this huge amount of teaching by grad students, and the reason is so faculty don’t have to do it? (Kate Norlock’s very sad experience in the 1990’s is clearly truthful, usually the claims made are less specific and about 2019 when this comes up, on this site and elsewhere). I’m at this huge Big 10 school. In philosophy I know of two graduated PhD’s who taught intro before they left for jobs elsewhere…otherwise the grad students are TA’s, and it’s still old, tenured professors teaching these huge intro sections, major classes, everything. In biology, grad students aren’t allowed to teach any of the undergraduate courses…it’s seen to lower the credibility of the institution (and I assume this is true in philosophy, hence “graduated Phd’s”). I think Math probably has some grad students teach, but they are offering ten (or more) times the sections of biology or philosophy, and they don’t (I don’t think) have the job market problem under scrutiny (or they have different problems). Those are the departments I know well.

And, if my huge big 10 school is the exception in that regard, even then would the numbers add up? You can sort of calculate the teaching load of exploited grad student teachers, and that’s tracking the surplus of PhD’s on the market? I’m not against lowering the number of grad students admitted. And yes, the situation is bad. But I wonder if it has the nefarious roots some claim. I think I have an embarrassingly naive, less-sinister view…it has to do with things like people doing something they love, sort of not thinking clearly about the consequences, how people make decisions but then think better of them in hindsight, etc. I’m naive!
Report

Avalonian
Reply to  skeptic about cynicism
1 year ago

Hi SAC, you’re certainly right to point out that actually teaching classes isn’t something that grads do everywhere, and it’s really institution-dependent. Most (though not all) schools could replace grad student instructor with an adjunct and no-one would notice. But you’re forgetting about two other crucial factors this old cynic mentioned: (1) grading, and (2) warm bodies for seminars. In faculty meetings, I’ve heard these being explicitly given as reasons to maintain a grad student population. The realities of (1) are particularly stark: it is my impression, from talking to tenured faculty at top-30 institutions, that if just about any of them were forced to grade papers and exams for, say, 60 students per semester, they’d treat this as a powerful incentive to seek employment elsewhere. This is one of those Truths about the field that is widely known but rarely spoken: having underlings who will do your grading for you is a non-negotiable part of the job for a wide array of faculty. I have once, and only once, floated the idea of our collectively taking more grading in order to shrink the PhD class, and I’ll never forget the bemused reactions of fellow faculty–this is simply not an option that is on the table at most institutions.Report

skeptic about cynicism
skeptic about cynicism
Reply to  Avalonian
1 year ago

Avalonian, thank you for the nice, thoughtful reply. I am sure what you report is common and important, but I still wonder how sure we can be it is driving the problem of too many graduates struggling (I’m not sure if that calculation can be done; it can’t be done by me). For speculation’s sake, yes there is some obscene number of papers graded each semester. However, out of the (let’s say) 20 or 30 grad students, only some fraction are going to do that grading. I’m not claiming I know what it is, but there are usually not 30 TA spots for the big 60-paper intro classes, and not everyone is a TA for their whole graduate career. Rather than say I know (which I don’t), I’ll just say how much of this problem is driven by the faculty needing graders is probably related to whatever that fraction is…if all 30 are doing the grading, all the time, your hypothesis would look very good. If only 5 or 6 have TA’s at a time, and only for a few semesters of their graduate career each, then there may be something else going on, at least as far as the faculty’s contribution to the problem goes. And then cases in between, as well.

And I wrongly read the “seminar” hypothesis, by both you and Kate Norlock, as being about teaching. I now see you both meant literally being in the graduate seminars and graduate classes and department seminars. If true, that is shocking and depressing. But I read that part wrong…I will think more about that when this issue comes up, in the future.Report

John
John
1 year ago

Thanks for this post. I’d like to chime in from what might be a different angle worth chewing on.

It strikes me that the post’s basic crux is that we can encourage graduate students to feel pride taking up non-academic jobs/careers by emphasizing the transferable skills a PhD in philosophy gives them. Surely that is right, and I don’t at bottom take issue with it.

But I want to suggest that there is more going on here than just /job skills/.

For one, an institutional/human resources hurdle: many people in academia have very little–and sometimes absolutely none–experience working in non-academic jobs. Sure, your adviser might regale you with that story about the time s/he ‘slugged it out’ for six weeks in the campus cafe before starting graduate school. But working in a cafe is a job, not a career, and most academics (like anyone in a professional career) have no experience with more than one career. So this means that, if we’re to be honest, most of us are completely unequipped to give non-academic career advice to students, undergraduate/graduate alike, and this trickles down to our difficulty genuinely speaking to transferable skills.

For another, we should be careful to not overemphasize the importance of these putatively transferable skills. Independence of mind, clarity of thought, analytical rigour and so on are great things. But how many of us academics can sincerely say we exemplify these intellectual virtues /within/ the academy, never mind whether we would exemplify them outside of it? Let’s be real: employers (including academia) want workers, not boat rockers. But good philosophy (like many things) rocks the boat. Part of the challenge here, then, is that emphasizing the ‘transferable’ skills a degree in philosophy gives us risks dissimulating the very thing philosophy should give us: genuine intellectual independence. Good luck exercising that in the academy, never mind outside of it.

The final hurdle, in my view: this isn’t about job skills. It’s about identity. Joining a professional guild of any kind–academic, medicine, law, the ‘professions’, in other words–is not just a job for most people. It’s who they think they /are/. I’m quite open to debating whether this is justified or appropriate. But I’m not sure there’s much room to debate that it’s real.

So not only do these fields, in virtue of the role our identities play in our participation in them, naturally feel siloed if not outright clubby. By design, they make it difficult to take a transactional, let’s-take-stock-of-these-sweet-skills attitude when looking for non-academic jobs. Indeed, many people who go into philosophy I would conjecture were not motivated by this transactional, let’s-build-skills approach to life. Instead, many of them are wanderers, people who like to explore, and thrive precisely in an environment that encourages free-flowing inquiry.

Take that wandering personality to the private market and you better hope you’re either Steve Jobs status, or you’re going to have severe identity whiplash. Employers don’t give a sweet damn about your ideas. They want actions, and clear paths to monetization. And rightly so.

Hence the therapy, the existential struggle, and feelings of worthlessness that accompany so many people who leave the academy. It’s not that they don’t know what their skills are. They don’t know who they are. Report

Brent Saindon
Brent Saindon
1 year ago

One more thought: in undergraduate education, we have the language of vocation and avocation to talk to students about how they engage the world. What does the world need from you? What skills do you have? What matter to you? What makes you happy? These questions form the basic matrix of working through these issues for students. They also speak to the need for a broad, liberal arts education that prepares people for the workforce, but also makes your life richer and more meaningful/fulfilling. I wonder whether it would be useful to work through these questions with graduate students. Are the questions that you are pursuing necessary? Are you well equipped to pursue them compared to others? Are their other problems and issues that will ignite your desires to learn and create? Are those questions matched with any worldly needs? Report