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Sunday, January 28, 2007

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.

27 comments:

Adam Arico said...

Ah, the annual Wiland smack-down. I still remember the first time I heard it, as an undergrad in his Senior Seminar. I was appalled, at first, that a professor would so flatly discourage his soon-to-be-graduating-students (the gall!!); but eventually I came to be comforted by the fact that even an earnest effort to dissuade me from pursuing philosophy was nearly completely ineffective. I've since come to appreciate Eric's blatant honesty for the genuinely good advice that it is.
I'm only a grad student, but every step in the process to becoming a professional philosopher has seemed exponentially more challenging than the one before it, and I suspect this trend will continue through the prospectus and dissertation stages, into the application, interview, and job talk stage, and throughout much of the actual profession. Given the relatively modest incomes most philosophers receive, the only rational justification for exerting all of the requisite effort and energy is that one simply wouldn't be happy doing anything else.
Should I be so lucky as to make it through this process and land a job in academia, I fully plan to give the "Wiland Lecture" to my would-be philosopher students.

Adam Taylor said...

With due represt both to Adam and Eric Wiland (who I know to be a terrific professor, bass player, and all around good guy) I would not give my students the scared straight lecture, for a couple of reasons.

1) By the time one gets far enough through an MA program to seriously consider Ph.D. study as an option, they have undoubtedly heard that spiel from mentors, friends, and family a hundred times, and one more voice (even though it be from a respected mentor/role-model) is more than likely to fall on deaf ears. Why cast your pearls before swine (to borrow a biblical metaphor)?

2) Knowing that (1) is likely to be the case with these unsavory sorts of students, I would rather focus my time (like a good drill sergeant) teaching them everything I can about the fundamentals of survival in their chosen career. Nothing fancy, just the things they need if they are going to live.

ck said...

'if you can imagine doing anything other than philosophy, do it'.

I've heard this comment several times from others--either in print or in personal conversations. One of the philosophers quipped that perhaps it was his imaginative failure that landed him in the field he was in as much as any love for the topic.

The one thing I would add to that is that part of an MA program's responsibilities (or better, I would guess, a BA, though I didn't do my undergrad in philosophy) is to extend the imaginative capabilities of its students. Obviously, as Adam (Taylor) says, students in an MA are probably determined to go on to a PhD, come hell or high water (whether they really should or not).

Perhaps one of the things students could also be told is that a philosophical mindset does not require *being a philosopher.* Combining this mindset with other loves, such as writing, the publishing industry, business, etc. etc. could yield you other career options that would pay better...and give you the free time to pursue what it is about philosophy you love. You could still read Descartes in your free time, and you would probably have more free time than if you went on to study & teach philophy.

Brit Brogaard said...

Thanks for these comments, guys. I should emphasize that it is the department as a whole that hosts these meetings. And with one notable exception, everyone is in agreement about this. Also, I think the advice given is very sensible, given the job prospects. I just tend to be (perhaps unduly) optimistic about these issues.

Robert Farrow said...

My own view is that philosophers need to do more to extoll the benefits of studying the subject outside academic circles. If the subject had better pr and philosophers were seen as highly desirable employees then people would see postgraduate study as less of a risk.

The obvious danger that comes with discouraging graduate study is a reduced demand for professional philosophers and hence, less philosophy, and even fewer jobs for philosophers.

We need to get away from the mindset that the only natural career path for a philosophy postgrad to take is academic, since there clearly aren't enough jobs to go around. While I'm sure few people would dispute the idea that philosophical training prepares you for a wide range of possible careers, philosophers themselves do very little to build links with, for example, the public and voluntary sectors. Compare this with subjects like law, accountancy, marketing, natural science, even social science. When was the last time you neard of a philosophy careers fair?

Perhaps things are different in the US, but this is my perception of it. With tuition fees rising rapidly here in the UK it's quite easy to forsee a situation in which admissions for studying philosophy plummet. If it's not going to help you find employment, why start your life by incurring thousands of pounds/dollars in debt?

There are lots of different ways in which the subject might be better sold to employers. It just seems that there is little or no will among professionals to take the initiative. It seems to me that this can only lead to a situation where philosophy is practised by a diminishing number of financially independent people. I don't see how this is good for anyone.

Brit Brogaard said...

You are absolutely right. But it is difficult for professionals to find the time to take the initiative. I don't think it is because there is no will. If professionals do not focus on their own research, they fall behind. It is hard enough to fit everything in (including book reviews, journal refereing, job searches, interviewing, faculty meetings, teaching, prep for classes, grading, office hours, oral examinations and defenses etc. etc.). The initiative should be taken by the administrators (e.g. deans and provosts). So instead of finding extra work for the faculty to do (e.g. assessments of the department's assessment procedures), they should build links with the private (and public) sectors. They would be much better at it anyway.

robert allen said...

In a just society, which is what we should be advocating, instead of tinkering with injustice, the members would democratically decide whether to teach philosophy to undergrads or not. I’m guessing that once philosophers themselves testified to the futility of doing so it would be excised from the curriculum and taught the way it was in ancient Athens. (I’m so sick and tired of the charade that is attempting to teach disinterested and/or uncomprehending “students” that I for one would advocate doing away with it. What would philosophers do then? Like everyone else, they would spend 3 hours a day, which is all we really have to work, given our technology, helping to produce the Rawlsian “primary goods.” They could then teach their discipline, for a fee, to those willing and able to learn it, a la my children’s piano teacher.) But, should it be retained, fairness would dictate that the labor here be divided evenly amongst all philosophy teachers with each one receiving enough of the primary goods to take care of himself and his family. NO MORE ADJUNCTS.

The Brooks Blog said...

I do share both Eric's worries and Brit's optimism. I could imagine doing something else: I have a music degree and long planned my amazing rock god career that never took off. That said, I can't imagine myself happier doing what I do now.

It is certainly the case that there are many obstacles along the way. In the US, we have adjunct professors exploited left and centre (as Robert so rightly points out), teaching loads of 3-4 classes per semester are not uncommon (I met one fellow who teaches a 5-5 schedule), student loans are high, etc.

My recommendation to budding philosophers is simple: get out of the US! In the UK, life is much better. I teach a 1-1 schedule. We have guaranteed leave for a semester every 3-4 years (and then there is government money to apply for to buy yourself out for the year). Students who study philosophy at BA level do just that: they study philosophy. Liberal arts programmes are a great minority. Plus, the country is large enough to be home to several amazing universities and yet small enough that it is very easy to network with philosophers from coast to coast. Plus, the pay is far better (even if the coast of living is higher). It is true that there are far fewer jobs to go around, but I do think more fellow Americans should be trying to fill them. It is a much better deal (at least until you hit the starry heights of the profession). I am amazed each year during my annual pilgrimmage to the APA-Eastern at how difficult it is to break into the US philosophy scene and then the rewards of poor pay, perhaps no honest ability to secure tenure, and high teaching loads. Earn more in a country where tenure is almost automatic and the teaching loads are as good as they get---come to the UK!

robert said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
robert said...

Just to follow up on Prof. Brook's wise counsel, adjunct pay isn't so low- about $2500 per section- that a philosopher, who I am assuming needs only his "bread and philosophy," couldn't live comfortably on it, (putting other indignities aside, things like having your text assigned by a lackey who couldn’t interpret it to save her life). Moreover, even if you end up teaching 4 or 5 sections per semester, you would still have loads of time for research and writing. (It takes me longer to shave than to prepare for a class and all my tests are done with Scantrons. Plus, you get a month off for the Bowl games, a week off during and after the winter semester, and two weeks off after the summer one.) Thus, if you can secure 4 classes per semester, you are all set, which should be a cinch with the capitalists looking to rip off as many students-cum-customers as they can. Things would become problematic only if you were to decide to have a family: for that one needs job security and a much higher income. Still, all would not be lost, were financial considerations to compel a career change, as there are MANY opportunities for philosophizing available to non-professionals, this blog and others like it being one of them along with conferences, colloquia, and good old-fashioned correspondence- philosophers are a very generous bunch. And let’s not forget Heraclitus sitting all alone at his boulder-cum-desk. As Professor Kit Fine eloquently puts it, “(b)ut perhaps what is strangest of all (about philosophy) is the passion and intensity with which it is pursued by those who have fallen in its grip.”

Anonymous said...

It's also good to be honest with yourself. If you're only the second-best philosophy student in your school, think about how many budding philosophers elsewhere must be just as bright as you. If you have a 4.0 from Princeton, at least that's evidence you have the capacity to philosophize with the best. If you've a 3.8 from Whatever State, and you think you'll eventually succeed on a par with, say, the second tier of established scholars, you're believing against the evidence -- or at least the outward evidence (which isn't to say that you're belief couldn't be true).

Alan White said...

Brit's original overall question has been lost in this exchange--should one become a professional philosopher? And her original answer has been blurred as well--most who become philosophers in the US are primarily teachers and not researchers, and thus do not stand out as successful in terms of remuneration or legacy, and those others that fulfill the latter category often have lives dominated with drudgery and very hard work with some small promise of fulfillment by adequate compensation and recognition by peers in the highest echelons of the profession. She closes by saying that there are rare instances of fulfillment of a personal variety--insight, for one, with that great moment of intellectual conquest of unexplored territory, and/or what I can only call Socratic accomplishment (well, from Plato's view--not that of Socrates' interlocutors in the dialogues!)--a rare acknowledgement from students that they have benefit from your instruction. Please note that these are completely personal in terms of fulfillment. They may be accompanied by more public and perhaps objective markers--footnotes galore, ala Gettier counterexamples to JTB, or awards from prestigious institutions for research or teaching--but there are no guarantees that these will be forthcoming. So the basic question to me is whether you as a prospective philosopher will be defined by personal measures of success or something outside you that you allow to define who you are. If you genuinely love pursuing the truth, either for its own sake or encouraging others to do so, then only you can measure your success in attempting to do that (please note I push aside basic pragmatic questions of economic survival). If you love something else, then good luck in finding whatever it is that might outwardly validate your conviction that mirror images of citation, compensation, awards, and the like provide the clearest reflection of who you are.

robert said...

"So the basic question to me is whether you as a prospective philosopher will be defined by personal measures of success or something outside you that you allow to define who you are." Alan White

I take it that this is a rhetorical question; that anyone who WOULD allow other human beings to define him is not fit for philosophy. But I understood Ms. Broogard's question to be whether a young person with an interest in philosophy should try to make a living teaching it? And to answer that question, you certainly cannot "push aside basic pragmatic questions of economic survival." That this is her concern is suggested by the genesis of her original post: "the annual Wiland smack-down," necessitated by the poor job prospects facing philosophy instructors.

Alan White said...

There are any number of prominent philosophers who allow themselves to be defined by approbation--but they are excellent philosophers nonetheless. Do not distort my point--we all know what we're getting into, professionally. What we get from the profession is largely due to our realistic expectations. I only recommend that our expectations, if we proceed in the profession, be realistically relativized to our gifts and circumstances. And if they are so relativized, with perspective and reflection, our eventual places in the profession can be very rewarding. We need not be envious of so-called "elite" institutions; we need not be ashamed of teaching freshman. There is excellence to be had at all levels of our profession--and pride in attaining such. If I conveyed anything other than that, I apologize.

The Brooks Blog said...

Perhaps I should be more convincing then, Robert. Typical jobs I suppose are similar to mine where everyone is given time for teaching, admin, and research. Time for research comes by way largely of one semester off every 3-4 years. A semester is only 10 weeks of teaching (rather than, say, 16 in the US). Starting pay is often no lower than £25-30,000 (US$45-55,000) as well. It is true that the top end of the pay scale levels off around £55,000 or so (about $100,000) and so at the top the US is clearly best with pay. But not so at the bottom or in the middle.

robert said...

Thom and Alan,

Thank you for corresponding with me. I shall include you and all philosophers in my daily prayers. I got a big kick this week out of my son telling me that there is a patron saint of philosophers, St. Catherine.

Anonymous said...

As an undergraduate who's just finished applying to Philosophy Ph.D. programs, I want to say a few things about these attempts to instill us young prospective philosophers with a sobering picture of our dismal futures...

First, I realize that this is usually done with good intentions. There are far more people who want to be philosophy professors than job openings, and it seems like it would be better for everyone if more students stopped pursuing the profession sooner rather than later. Striking us with a bit of bleakness and terror seems like a good way of sorting out those of us with a real passion for philosophy from those who just haven't figured out anything else to do.

Be that as it may, however, I'm inclined to think these scary stories do more harm than good. First, let's get some perspective here: it's true that the philosophy job market is competitive, especially when it comes to securing jobs at prestigious institutions. But that's true of all sorts of professions: screenwriters, professional musicians, investment bankers, artists, journalists, etc. all face even worse odds of getting those couple of jobs that everybody dreams about. Except for a few at the top, most everyone has to settle for something less, or shift to another line of work. But that's okay. We start off with a hazy picture of where we're headed, and, as we go along, the psychologically healthy among us learn to set our goals for places we can reach. Philosophy-scare-stories are often told as though getting a good job outside of philosophy is a breeze, but by and large that's not true. Big ambitions are hard to reach, in philosophy or out. Smaller ambitions are easier to reach, in philosophy and out.

The real destructive force of these stories, however, is that I think they tend to promote a stance toward philosophy (and life) filled with angst and dread. Grad school, in this account, is a very long tunnel, which gets worse with every step, and on the other side stands a gray and desolate landscape with maybe a tiny flower or two. Okay, but I think we could paint the same objective facts in much more positive ways. 50% attrition rate and 30% of Ph.D.'s don't get a job in academia? Let's say it's a wonderful way to spend your early 20s, pursuing the life of the mind. As for the majority of Ph.D.s who end up at middling institutions and whose work seems often to be spoken into a vacuum... Again, I think there's room to tell happier stories. You might have fallen into a bleak narrative of hard work, tempered only by occasional delusions about getting through to students. But I don't think that's the sort of narrative you should be trying to spread.

Anyhow, I say give us students the hard facts and statistics. But let us make sense of them on our own. Don't launch us into stories of fear and gloom.

Brit said...

As you can see from my post, I am not quite as pessimistic as some, and I do think I'm privileged. Who can spend most of their day thinking about philosophical issues and playing mind games, except professional philosophers?

But I also think my colleague Eric is onto something when he says that if you can imagine yourself doing something else, do it. When I went to grad school, I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else. I still can't. There are many things I can live without but I can't live without philosophy. When I get up in the morning, I can't wait to get started. It's the last thing on my mind before I fall asleep.

But part of Eric's point is that if you don't feel that way now, you will most likely never feel that way. And if you don't, then it just isn't worth it. I agree with that. And I think that every student thinking about joining a Ph.D. program should think about this well in advance of actually joining (of course, if you are Mr. Wonderboy who gets into a top 1 or 2 school and you get picked as the department's favorite the year you are on the job market, then I guess your future is set. You won't need the enthusiasm that you would otherwise. You will do just fine without it.

For the rest of us ... well, we survived and landed TT jobs with reasonable 2/2 course-loads, and we are publishing and going to conferences, and we are having one hell of a good time. We were reasonably successful because we belonged to the group "can't live without it -- it's going to work no matter what", and so the post's message does not, and never did, apply to us. I can gather from your comment that the message doesn't apply to you either.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough, and I should repeat that I can see some appeal in the sort of perspective you're endorsing... But I'm still inclined to take a stand against it.

Like you, I've decided to pursue philosophy as a profession, but it seems disingenuous for me to claim that it's the only thing I can imagine doing. I can imagine getting on a bus to California today and trying to get a job on a fishing boat. I can more vaguely imagine what it might be like to be president of the United States, a business executive, or a homeless man.

When you say you can't imagine doing anything other than philosophy, I think what you mean is that you refuse to imagine doing anything else. Such a refusal could, no doubt, provide motivation for getting through grad school, since it effectively makes philosophy into a do or die proposition (e.g. "I can't live without it"). But I think it's wrong to encourage students to set philosophy in stone in this way--to demand that they take a do-or-die mentality, if they're going to go on in philosophy. Such a stance I think tends to encourage an approach to life where you're just sort of grinding away at things, while trying to suppress the suspicion that your choice was never really between philosophy and death--repress the knowledge that you might very well have chosen another path that would have been easier, happier, and more fruitful.

No, I say people are flexible, and we ought to let them be. In my own case, I currently suspect that philosophy is a way of life that's going to work for me. If it doesn't, I'll have to move on. If you think philosophy won't work for (some of) your students, try to convey this to them and suggest other ways of life you think might work better. But it seems to me that exactly the wrong thing to tell such students is that they must be totally inflexibly, nose-to-the-grinder committed to philosophy if they want to get anywhere.

Brit said...

Yes, of course, I can imagine (in the literal sense of the word) being an astronaut on a space ship to Mars, being a man rather than a woman or being a zombie. But that was not the intended sense. When understood as a figure of speech, 'I can't imagine doing anything else' just means 'I wouldn't be as happy doing anything else'. So, Eric's advice should be understood as: if you would be as happy doing something else, do it. If you would be as happy being a lawyer or going into politics, do it.

I would never demand that you take a "do or die" mentality if you're going into philosophy. If you read what I said carefully, you will see that I do recommend this approach.

What Eric suggested (and I agree with this) was that before you devote 5-7 years of your life to a minimal life-style in a graduate program (perhaps accumulating debts), you should figure out whether you would be as happy or happier doing something else.

You say: "it seems to me that exactly the wrong thing to tell such students is that they must be totally inflexibly, nose-to-the-grinder committed to philosophy if they want to get anywhere".

Yes, that would be the wrong thing to tell students. But you seem not to have read my original post or my comment very carefully. For, what I said there was the exact opposite. You need enthusiasm and passion and not "inflexibility" and "nose-to-the-grinder" commitment. If *you* are not passionate about philosophy, it will be a bad idea trying to pursue a career as a professional philosopher. You will most likely not succeed.

Brent Silby said...

I have an Masters in Philosophy, and currently teach the subject at highschool level. Its great! The students are awesome, and we have some wonderfully engaging discussions.

I've written lots of essays, some of which have been published in journals. I self-publish the rest (on various websites). As long as your material is well written and accessible to general audiences, people will read it. More people read my self published articles than my journal articles.

Sure, you're not going to get rich doing this, but it can be very rewarding. Far better to do Philosophy than be stuck in some faceless corporation all day.

Brit Brogaard said...

I like your spirit and enthusiasm. And I completely agree. Being a philosopher is worth it all. I am happy to hear that you found a job and are publishing your work in journals and online. Good luck with it all.

Anonymous said...

I'm an MA student with an assistantship just finishing up the program and starting the application process for PhD's. This thread died a long time ago, it seems, but I only just read it and thought I'd give my thoughts, for what they're worth.

I'm proceeding through grad school with blinders on, which is really the only way to do it. It's important to take them off, look soberly at the statistics and the data and think it all over, but that's never dissuaded me and I simply go about the process of getting to where I can do philosophy for a living.

One thing that struck me about the posts is the seeming acceptance of how Intro students are just going to blink their way through class without any engagement. I went to a small state college of no particular note that had a spectacular 5-professor department. There was a deep sense of community between the majors, and it gave the impression of doing philosophy with about 60 other friends. Beyond that, because the professors did not have to "publish or perish" as they might at a more "elite" institution, they were able to engage with teaching. The fact that they had to do their own grading was in fact helpful...at my current school I'm baffled by the way professors seem surprised at the lack of rapport in the classroom when I'm the only one reading their work. One professor in particular, an astoundingly good teacher, regularly converted business students to the department...his Intro classes were filled with riveted freshmen convinced this was the most important thing they could be doing.

Perhaps this is unique and it's unrealistic to think it can happen often. But more likely I think it was a great department because they didn't ask themselves "Do I want to be a professional philosopher?" but "Do I want to teach philosophy?" In an environment that was supposedly less "elite," they were able to engage deeply with freshmen, develop a real sense of community within the department, and really manage to be successful and happy at what they want to do. I asked myself the same questions...my conclusion was that, insofar as being a professional philosopher involved checking the Philosophical Gourmet for rankings, hobnobbing at conference, publishing or perishing, and that sort of thing, I did NOT want to be a professional philosopher. But I can't imagine wanting to do anything but teach philosophy, and that's what I'm pursuing...provided I can do it somewhere, I'll be happy, "professional philosopher" or no.

Brit Brogaard said...

Thank you for your input. I appreciate your thoughts on this, and I agree with you on almost all of these issues. I do find teaching enormously rewarding. Unlike in any other area of your job as a professional philosopher, you get instant closure from teaching: Challenging responses to your ideas, fun discussion, grateful students (in the best of cases). I like teaching. I think people who dislike teaching should not consider philosophy as a career. I also think it's important that Intro courses are taught by TT or tenured faculty who are enthusiastic about these courses. When they are taught well, it's a good way to recruit new majors, and it's important that those going into philosophy acquire a solid foundation to build on.

I agree with you on all these issues. However, I think it's important that students do not apply to a Ph.D. program without being aware of just how tough the job market is. Getting a TT job in a philosophy department in the English-speaking world has been exceedingly hard for the last ten years, and it's only getting worse now in the wake of the financial crisis. It helps to have a Ph.D. from an elite department but even that offers no guarantee. This is why it is important to ask yourself whether you would be just as happy doing something other than philosophy. If you would, and the job prospects are better in this other area, then pack your bags and run as fast as you can without looking back. But if you choose to stay, then from me to you: a warm welcome to a wonderfully exasperating world of philosophy.

Alan said...

"I also think it's important that Intro courses are taught by TT or tenured faculty who are enthusiastic about these courses."

Amen and amen Brit. These are our most influential courses in our profession--I could not agree more!

Charles said...

It's funny how all philosophy is based on schooling. I would think in most part, too much schooling would take away from being able to think differently then what has been done. The sad truth is you have to teach to become a professional philosopher, the world cares very little for great minds anymore and there is no-one to finance them. Society is more impressed by inventing the microwave or a new remote control. I have studied daily for decades on philosophy and feel the great minds of our age are neglected because of politics and the need to pay bills.

Brit Brogaard said...

Hi Charles. Yes, I agree that it would be nice if there were more of a use for philosophers outside of academia. Of course, teaching is also a good thing. The great Socrates philosophized solely through his teachings. So, there is something to be said for that too. Then again we cannot all walk around bare-footed in the streets of Athens and talk about all the big questions.