Philosophy PhD

From 80,000 Hours Research
Jump to: navigation, search

This page contains all notes on doing a Philosophy PhD over and above what we put in our career profile. Read the profile first, here.

Profile type


Views of Professional Philosophers and Philosophy Graduate Students

This is a collection of quotes from professional philosophers or PhD students on whether undergraduates should pursue a career as a professional philosopher. This collection was found by searching for “Should I become a professional philosopher?” and “Should I do philosophy grad school?” It’s not complete, but it represents the main discussions of this topic by professional philosophers.

“Philosophy is not the most secure route to wealth and fame. But if you are philosophically curious, have demonstrated talent for philosophy, and think you might like to teach, you might want to consider graduate study in philosophy and an academic career. Academics get to pursue their intellectual passions professionally, often with considerable autonomy, and have comparatively flexible schedules. But you also need to be realistic. Graduate school is no picnic, and academic jobs, especially good academic jobs, are scarce and getting scarcer."[1]

“Here, then, is the crux of it: if you love philosophy; if you're willing to risk all of this, then go for it. Make no mistake: you may hate it someday, and you may hate yourself. But you may also wake up every day loving the fact that you get to do philosophy for a living. There's really no way of knowing in advance which will be the case. These are the risks. Know them. Do not fool yourself in thinking that you will be a magical exception to them. The choice is yours." [2]

“Once in a while someone will express a casual, not intense, interest, and I give the same "don't do it if you can think of anything else" speech my undergraduate professors gave me, and it's always dissuasive.” [3]

“If you want a model for the graduate school/job market process, think of it as a series of filters, each of which carries a probability of getting through it in one piece:

  • Getting accepted to a strong graduate program
  • Getting through qualifying exams and dissertation
  • Leaving graduate school with a strong enough track record (i.e. succeeding at work, distinct from your coursework and dissertation)
  • Landing a job
  • Getting tenure

The probability of getting through each filter ranges from moderate to crappy, depending on circumstances. And you have to make it through every filter in order to finally relax. As a game theorist and logician, my professional opinion is that probabilities are precisely: crappy.”[4]

“In sum: if philosophy is your passion, you are good at it, have an opportunity to pursue it for free at a good school, and would not consider the years spent in grad school wasted if no job materializes -- then go for it! Live your dreams! Don't squander your self for pelf!” [5]

“I advise students not to consider graduate school in philosophy unless (1.) they'd be happy teaching philosophy at a low prestige college and are willing to move almost anywhere in the country, and (2.) even if they never finished the degree they would have found the process of studying philosophy at the graduate level intrinsically worthwhile.” [6]

“Summary: Academia is glorious, but the odds of getting that glorious job are low. If an academic career is your passion, I encourage you to pursue it, but you must commit to doing what it takes to succeed.” [7]

“Should I become a professional philosopher? 'No', is the short answer offered at our yearly 'scare-away'- meeting whose intended audience is M.A. students eager to enter a Ph.D. program and become professional philosophers. The truth is that most philosophers who complete their doctorate and who are fortunate enough to land a permanent teaching job teach up to 3 or 4 courses per semester, they produce work of little importance which never gets cited or responded to, they earn less than 6 figures by the time they retire, and they spend most of their active years in the work force paying off the student loans they acquired at the mediocre Ph.D. program that ended up accepting them without funding. As my colleague Eric Wiland would put it, 'if you can imagine doing anything other than philosophy, do it'. I am not quite as pessimistic. But if you are an aspiring philosopher, you should know what you are getting yourself into. Philosophy is no paradise -- not always anyway. For the most part it is hard work disrupted by a noisy APA meeting full of flaky folks with no real life and then a very long summer break trying to meet deadlines which were postponed during the academic year. But there are also those rare occasions where you think (usually mistakenly) that you are onto something, or where the students are really getting what you have been trying to tell them for years. I tend to think those precious moments make it all worth it.” [8]

This is from a follow-up to the previous post: “The main message of the post was that you probably should only go into a Ph.D. program in philosophy and attempt to get a job in academia if you cannot imagine yourself being happy in a different kind of job. Some of the reasons listed included the difficulties of getting a job and the relatively low salaries that philosophers receive. Since I published the blog post, the prospects of getting a job in philosophy and a decent salary have only gotten worse.”[9]

"if I were to sit down with my young correspondent, I would press him on whether he seeks a career teaching philosophy in a college or university. If that is his goal, and I assume it is, then I would feel it my responsibility not to lead him astray. I would give it to him straight: it is very difficult to get a tenure-track job at a reasonably good institution where there is a good chance of tenure. I managed to get a good tenure-track job right out of graduate school, and I got tenure. But I was single, single-minded, hell-bent on achieving my goal, I have some talent, and I was lucky.

So to my young correspondent I would say this. If philosophy is the unum necessarium in your life, and your teachers tell you that you have some philosophical ability, and you are accepted at schools that pay your way, and you are willing to pay some serious dues living like a monk and foregoing the blandishments that most people in our society think essential, and you go into it with eyes wide open apprised of the very real possibility of having to re-tool later, then I say: go for it!” [10]

“If you do think you might have what it takes to be the next Peter Singer or Nick Bostrom, I recommend really scrutinizing each and every program you apply to, to figure out if it’s really going to be a place that’s conducive to doing the kind of research you want to do. If you get your application decisions back and your top pick out of all the places that accepted you is, on close examination, only kinda sorta suitable for the kind of work you want to do, don’t go at all. I mean it. It may be hard to give up your dream of being an influential philosopher, but if you’ve got the talent to be a decent programmer as well, you’re probably better off programming.” [11]

“Many philosophy students decide to attend graduate school, knowing almost nothing about the consequences of this decision, or about what the philosophy profession is actually like. By the time they find out, they have already committed several years of their life, and possibly thousands of dollars, to the undertaking. They then learn that their initial assumptions about the field were unrealistically optimistic. They continue in their chosen path, even though, if they had known the facts at the start, they might have chosen a different career path.

Why the hell would I want to become a philosopher?? You probably wouldn’t. Philosophy graduate school is only suitable for a minuscule fraction of the population. If either (a) you would enjoy teaching basic philosophical ideas to undergraduate students for most of your life, or (b) you are extremely intelligent and intellectually innovative and you eat and drink philosophy, and in either case (c) you would be satisfied with a much lower income than other people of your level of education and intelligence, then philosophy graduate school may be for you.”[12]

This thread comments on the advice given by Michael Huemer (including the previous quote):[13]

“Most people should run screaming from attempting a career in philosophy -- or any academic career; the prospects of success are fairly grim, and the rewards for success can be underwhelming (perhaps like some other competitive fields). But maybe it's not quite so bad for driven students who really like thinking about what(ever it is) professional philosophers think about.”

“The discouraging upshot of Prof. Huemer's piece is sensible, but I'm uncertain about numerous factual claims”

“I agree with most of this, but not the idea that a teaching-intensive load has to be the "plan B" job.”

“I think Huemer's remarks are sensible ones, and that the real facts about the profession can't be overemphasized to undergraduates enough.”

“I think we should temper Huemer's [negative] tone with more info about (1) the joys of teaching philosophy, (2) the possibility of becoming a very good philosopher, even if you are not currently able as an undergrad to read the hardest phil journals or spit out a 15 page original argument, and (3) the possibility of coming to philosophy from other backgrounds; and (4) we should try to create a culture where we treat more of the students who do 2-4 years of a PhD before realizing (or being forced to realize) they will not finish as a success rather than a failure--sure, they used up a 'precious spot', but they still got to study philosophy for a few years and they will in many cases use that training for good in their other pursuits.”

“I don't regret the path I've taken. I see it like this: I will have gotten paid to read and learn about stuff that I am very interested in for 7 or 8 years. Yes, I've had to do some teaching to get paid but I actually enjoy teaching and it has helped me develop a very useful skill set that can be employed in other professions. Furthermore, I have even taken out a small amount of loans. I don't regret this either. Worse case scenario I get started a bit later than most people in some other non-academic profession and I have to pay a small amount every month to pay off some loans that will not start gathering interest until after I finish the PhD. As far as I can tell, for me, doing the PhD in philosophy is a win-win situation.”

“Thanks to Michael Huemer for providing this candid and thoughtful assessment…. he states that his goal is to provide a "more realistic picture" than what students tend to have when contemplating graduate school in philosophy. I'm certain that he has accomplished this, even if his generalizations are a bit too pessimistic and thus somewhat inaccurate, because students tend to be considerably more inaccurate.”

“I'm 29 years old, I have an MA in philosophy of religion (from an Ivy League school) and am about to begin my PhD dissertation (albeit at program that has more truck w/ the SPEP crowd than the PGR crowd) and I would definitely do it all over again. I have long been aware of the dim tenure-track job prospects, especially since I've chosen to write on aesthetics and philosophy of religion, hardly high-demand specialties. But here’s how the second half of my twenties has panned out: I’ve been paid a modest but livable wage to pursue questions of great personal import in considerable depth, read books I love, travel, talk with interesting people, become more learned, articulate and cultured…

I will say, however, that the majority of philosophy grad students I know are not so clear-eyed about the difficulty of the TT job market, and very few departments do much of anything to prepare their grad students for life outside of the academy.“

“My admittedly cynical but sober advice is to stay away from this profession.”

“What Prof. Huemer describes looks pretty much like career dynamics in investment banking or management consulting. It is interesting (but not surprising) that a profession like philosophy is not exempted from profane competitiveness. Prof. Huemer is right to make this aspect of the sociology of academic philosophy clear to prospective PhDs.”

“I am still pursuing philosophy, and I hope to get a tenure track job, though given how bad things are I am also pursuing non-academic options. Part of what changed were my life preferences along the way. It turns out I really do want a family, and that my significant other really can't (very easily) just travel across the country with me from VAP to VAP (assuming I can even land those) before landing permanently in some undesirable location. It also turns out I'd like to live close to my immediate family so my parents can enjoy spending time with their grandchildren, and their grandchildren can enjoy spending time with them. I have no money. I'm 30. My friends have all spent the last decade attainting some measure of financial security. I don't know if I'd say I have regrets, but I am quite ambivalent about my situation. My advice is not to go to graduate school unless you get into a top 10 Leiter program and don't have the preferences I have right now.”

“Professor Huemer has done us a great service by giving voice to the present state of the profession in terms of how prospective grad students should form realistic expectations about their futures.”

“do whatever you can to get into a top 10 or maybe 15 program, or at least a program that is top 5-10 in your specialty. This is the deal breaker. If neither of these happens, don't go to grad school unless you are willing to accept the strong possibility that you won't get a job in academia.”

“I think the philosophy profession does students a great disservice if it allows them to enter a many-year commitment to stress, poverty and debt with the impression that the "worst-case scenario" is a permanent teaching job at a university or liberal arts college - a scenario which many find quite appealing. This isn't the worse-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is finding yourself in your mid-thirties, unemployed, with a six-figure debt and no home to go with it, applying for jobs you could have walked into at 22 and being rejected because your PhD makes you overqualified (and not being considered for better jobs because you have no obvious marketable skills). And, for an increasing proportion of philosophy PhDs, that scenario represents their reality. My advice to prospective philosophy grad students? If you can get into a top-20 department, and know that this is what you want to do, go for it. Otherwise, find some other career you find enjoyable, and read philosophy for pleasure in your spare time.”

“The advice to rule out non-"top-20" departments seems mistaken to me. There are very many graduates even of unranked departments who have settled in successfully to tenure-track jobs. No doubt there is a particular risk involved in studying at a department with an inconsistent placement record, but while "pedigree" does make a difference in hiring there are many excellent and dedicated students for whom that risk is worth taking, so long as it doesn't involve taking on significant debt.”

“Please forgive me if this sounds disrespectful. I don't intend it to. The fact that "many" graduates of non-top 20 schools succeed does not justify the claim that going to a non top-20 school is wise or reasonable. By analogy "many" people returned from WWII unscathed out of the very many who went, but that doesn't mean it was safe to go. (Indeed, it should've been avoided at almost all costs.) Many people make it as NHL players, but that doesn't make spending your teen years trying to become an NHL hockey player a wise, reasonable, or good plan. There are very many graduates of top 20 schools. If only "many" succeed, it might still very well be that the very many who remain are, well, screwed.”

“That said, it seems to me that the problem with graduate school in philosophy is that it takes so much time, usually between 5-8 years, before you learn whether you'll get the decent job you're aiming at. That's the real problem here.”

These quotes are from a survey of philosophers:[14]

“If there is anything else that you can do and be happy, do that. If there is nothing else that you can do and be happy, then come join us. You'll love it. But being a graduate student is a very difficult way to live.”

“Consider the decision with great care. Graduate school takes more time, energy and thought than new grad students ever thought possible. A Ph.D. is a massive undertaking that exceeds all predictions and estimates concerning the resources you have and will need.”

“Reconsider your decision to pursue a Ph.D. The job market in most fields is poorer than your professors will lead you to believe. You could be making a decent living or making the world a better place in the years that you'll be scraping out a living doing arcane research and teaching for a fraction of what professors are paid for the same work.
Also, in writing your dissertation, prepare to be alone.”

“You should enter graduate school because you enjoy whatever it is that you are studying and be fully aware of the difficulty in finding jobs in academia. You should ask yourself whether you would want a doctoral degree in your field of study even if you could not get a job directly applicable to what you got your degree in? If you would not want the degree without the assurance of a job in your field you should probably not go to grad school.”

“Be very clear and realistic about your employment opportunities after graduating, both within and without academia. Make sure you have a dissertation topic you are willing to pursue each and every day, because it will consume most of your time for at least 2 years. Answer the following question honestly: When I have some spare time, do I enjoy thinking about (fill in discipline and dissertation topic) or is there something I would rather be doing? Use three faculty members at three different stages of a full career as models for your own development: Learn about their backgrounds, assess where they are in their careers, and how they got there. Then, answer following question: Is this the kind of career I want for myself? Attend professional conferences in your area to decide if you can imagine yourself participating in them for many years.” “Be sure to be interested enough in the subject to guarantee that you don't regret time spent in its pursuit. Employment in the field is not guaranteed, but the pursuit of the graduate program can be an invigorating experience.”

“You must be aware that job placement is both a lottery and an enterprise that requires careful preparation.”

“Be aware of the lack of job opportunities on graduation and the real possibility that one will not be able to find a job after being awarded a Ph.D.”

“Develop a knowledge- and skills-base that is as broad as possible, since the availability of employment opportunities (especially in the academy) are uncertain at best.”

“Do everything you can to get off campus: either to advance your academic career (present papers, do research elsewhere, teach at other schools, meet colleagues and publishers elsewhere) or to advance your non-academic career (do internships, explore alternative career options, etc.). The myth that all grad students can and will find full-time tenure-track jobs in academia is still alive and well for many, many older faculty who walked right out of grad school to the academic jobs they still have. It is close to a fair generalization to say that they will not give you good advice about finding such jobs (if they exist any more) or pursuing alternatives (which they take to be an admission of defeat). Seriously consider dropping out after getting an MA and pursue a line of work less fraught with risk (personal, professional and financial). It is easier to retrain for a future career change at the MA then at the Ph.D.”

“Know the job market for your discipline. Be prepared for little choice when it comes to location of future job.”

“Have a healthy careerist attitude from the start (unless you're not planning on getting an academic job).”

“Do this only if you love to do it; you'll be lucky if you can find a job in a place out of the backwaters doing it.”

Remaining issues

Because professional philosophy does not seem a particularly promising path for the vast majority of potential candidates, we do not plan to research this career path further. The following questions remain extant:

What does the philosophy job market look like outside of America, Canada, Australasia and the UK?

How exactly has philosophy in the past contributed to (and hindered) moral, social and intellectual progress? What was the nature of the influence of the most influential philosophers?

To what extent do we at the moment need more philosophers rather than other sorts of researcher?

What’s the value of teaching philosophy at university level?