“Should I Pursue a Doctorate in Philosophy These Days?”

Should you even consider getting a doctorate and going into academic philosophy today? Even if you find the subject endlessly fascinating, and you have talent for it?

The question comes up occasionally on forums. Someone I am “friends” with on Facebook floated the idea. He posted that he was seriously considering it. (I’ve not met him, just read a few of his writings, thought many of them were both interesting and good whether I agreed or not, and he responded favorably to a friend request.)

I don’t often comment on his page, as I don’t really know him or his circle of real friends, but this time I felt moved. I advised against.

It has since struck me that others might find these reasons of interest, assuming those others happen to find their way to this humble, low-traffic philosophy blog — which includes not just philosophy but also the business of philosophy.

No, I would NOT recommend going into academic philosophy.

I speak as someone who did, obviously. In many respects I am still paying the price.

(1) The first and most obvious consideration is the job market for philosophy PhDs. It was horrible when I started (1980s), improved a little (not much) in the 1990s and early 2000s, and collapsed again with the financial crisis of 2008-09 during which a number of vulnerable people not in tenure track positions lost their jobs — in the state where I was then working (South Carolina) at least. Maybe things were better elsewhere, though I have no reason to think so.

The gradual replacement of tenure track jobs with part-time, adjunct positions has attracted some attention, moreover. Neoliberal administrators like hiring adjuncts because they save the institution money — so that they can spend it instead on that new building or pay for the latest campus beautification project while their corporate board (it might as well be) pays them six figures plus perks.

Media attention paid to adjuncts happened mainly because some were discovered to be, for all practical purposes, homeless, a handful had died from treatable conditions, and groups were forming attempting to unionize and bargain for better wages and working conditions (most do not have their own office space or computer terminals, which surely helps them build credibility with students who these days are going massively into debt to go to college).

Eons ago (back in saner times), adjunct faculty were usually retired professionals, willing to share their years of hands-on expertise on a subject by teaching a class. For this they may have received a small honorarium. There were retired professionals who did such things just to keep busy.

Most of today’s legion of adjuncts, many of them newly minted PhD’s and not retired professionals, will not find decent-paying academic employment. Many, if eventually saddled with family responsibilities, will be forced to leave academia in search of decent-paying work, as was the case after the job market initially collapsed in the 1970s.

(2) Long-time readers of this blog know my view that academic philosophy is basically a mess. Many of those in the profession would say otherwise. There are, after all, plenty of books published by academic presses, plenty of conferences held, an abundance of backslapping at national events, and every so often someone makes a splash in the waters of intellectual life with something that gets read and discussed. No one says there isn’t an abundance of activity. But when push comes to shove, these are not the days of truly first-rate minds like W.V. Quine and Ludwig Wittgenstein, or even Michel Foucault if you lean Continental. These are not even the days of Thomas S. Kuhn and/or Paul Feyerabend or Richard Rorty. These philosophers did not merely make ripples with their works. Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” caused a tsunami, as it were. As did Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and (much to the chagrin of their critics) Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Feyerabend’s Against Method.

Those days were gone by the 1990s. “Feminisms of the week” had ensued; and while the field had always been prone to fashions, the latest owed more to their conformity with rising political agendas than they did the kind of intellectual prowess of the above-listed works. If you are in an officially designated “marginalized” group, now expanded to include sexual minorities, you’ll receive at least some added attention from search committees that could lead to a tenure-track job. This could cut the other way, however, since most committees do not want to hire someone they fear would be disruptive, or might turn their department into an ideological war zone (yes, it does happen, I was there and I saw it).

What you’ll also risk is being “branded.” That is, you’ll be expected to contribute to the “literature” of your tribe, as it were. Today this includes not just “feminisms of the week” but philosophy “from a queer perspective” or now from a “transgender” perspective. And if you step out of line, e.g., by “misappropriation,” not writing from within the unique perspective of the tribe you’re writing about — even inadvertently, having written something well-intentioned — you’ll be punished. If you don’t believe this, “google” Rebecca Tuvel’s name (or go here).

You’re end up walking on eggshells around the politically protected — or just the administratively favored. Academia is not a place where you want to make enemies, something very easy to do. Conceivably, this is because so much of the work is of so little importance.

Let me qualify this. It is not as if pivotal historical figures like Aquinas, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein are being driven out by professionalized agitators seeking to “expand the canon.” That’s an exaggeration. But the writings of “dead European white guys” are clearly overshadowed these days, deemed less relevant in an age of “inclusion” or simply as “unexciting” (i.e., hard). While I’m in no position to take a survey and find out, I would love to know how many “feminist philosophers” of whatever stripe, or “gay philosophers” or “transgender philosophers,” or whatever next year’s favorite “marginalized” group will be, can outline and evaluate, from memory, Aquinas’s cosmological argument, or Hume’s criticism of miracles, or the second version of Kant’s categorical imperative, or offer coherent thoughts on what Nietzsche might have meant by “God is dead,” or offer some original, informed, and thoughtful commentary on the strengths and limitations of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. These are things my generation needed to be able to do. Questions about such figures and their key contributions were on my prelims (a series of both written and sometimes oral exams doctoral students have to pass before advancing to actual candidacy).

Summation: academic philosophy has declined. The decline may be irreversible. Those able to reverse it are either struggling to survive in multiple part-time jobs leaving them little or no time for sustained scholarly endeavors (this is what I would deem marginalized in an accurate sense of that term). Or they have left for greener pastures and taken their talents with them.

(3) These are not days when subjects like philosophy are taken seriously at the administrative level, or necessarily by average students. In this neoliberal age, there is no money in them. If anything, they use university “resources” and don’t give anything back. The department I was in when I lived in South Carolina was the most poorly funded on campus. I felt supremely lucky at the time to have escaped the axe in 2008-09, because at the time I needed the job! Today, entire philosophy departments are actually being closed down at some institutions (Wisconsin Stevens Point is an example; Western Illinois I think is another; more are likely to follow). Those with tenured positions at such places are losing them!

In my experience, the majority of students do not take the subject especially seriously. I had many students who appeared to expect good grades just for showing up. In a sense, I get it. As mentioned briefly in passing earlier, students are now paying through their noses to attend a university, or going massively into debt. Doubtless most are conscious of this, and want to make sure they graduate employable. They come to a philosophy class and wonder what studying Aquinas or Kant contributes to their future employability, and when they come up empty, they grow restless. They’ve been indoctrinated to think of themselves as consumers as well as students, future inhabitants of our mass-consumption paradise. With them having grown up in a media-saturated and entertainment-saturated culture, the professor who is a cross between Socrates and Seinfeld has something of an advantage in class. Can you do that? is a question I would ask a prospective academic philosopher. Are you willing to do it?

Let’s take note of another obvious sea-change of the past 20 years: the rise of mobile devices. There is probably no one in any advanced nation in the world that doesn’t own at least one. A recent study shows that social media has greatly shortened the average attention span (it has been measured as less than that of a goldfish). Students are now addicted to instant gratification, and the addiction is borderline-physical. We have other studies that have documented that checking Facebook on your phone and seeing the latest “likes” on your posts actually supplies a dopamine rush to your brain that reinforces the behavior. This means that millions of social media addicts are literally unable to go more than a few minutes without checking their phones. Tell students at the start of a class to turn their phones off, and by the end of a 50 minute class they may actually be feeling physically uncomfortable — the discomfort of the addict who needs his fix!

This is the landscape you’ll have to navigate if you decide to embark on a doctoral program in philosophy (or in many other subjects, for that matter). Incidentally, it will begin with not pissing off the wrong people when you’re still a graduate student. I knew a guy who did this simply by being an outspoken Republican, and eventually rose to being president of the campus Republican Party group. That was the 1980s. Reagan was president. The situation is magnitudes worse today, with Trump in the White House. Today, on some campuses, outspoken Republicans are called “Nazis” or “fascists.” They risk being physically assaulted. Cases are too numerous to link to individually, and there are likely many cases we don’t know about.

(4) Obviously, if you want to navigate this minefield, it’s your decision. It’s your life. In that case, choose a “ranked” doctoral program you’ll be hired out of. There are programs where you can learn a great deal, of course, and avoid most of the trendy rubbish. University of Pittsburgh seems to be such a place, or at least it still was a decade ago. University of California at Berkeley may seem zoolike because of all the adverse publicity surrounding conservative speakers there, but graduates of the school’s philosophy doctoral program tend to find good jobs. Numerous important recent philosophers have taught there: John Searle, Hubert Dreyfus, and the above-mentioned Paul Feyerabend, are just three examples. The department continues to have a top-flight reputation.

If you must embark on getting a PhD in philosophy, do your homework. Interview those in a prospective department, even as they are interviewing you. Presumably you are there because you have some idea where you want to specialize, and what will be your AOS (Area of Specialization) is well-represented there, and known by others to be well-represented there. Ask for the ratio of those who eventually found tenure-track jobs out of their program to the total number who sought jobs, which would include part-timers or those forced to take nonacademic employment.

Keep in mind, too, that if you end up in this final category, you’ll have to get used to being told you’re “overqualified” for whatever bullshit job you might find yourself applying for, increasingly out of desperation. Entrepreneurship is a possibility, but getting a doctorate in philosophy will not give you entrepreneurial skills. It might even do the exact opposite, by encouraging you to write for the tiniest and most academic of audiences material that will be light years over the heads of average readers. Let’s note in passing that the number of people who read books has also fallen off dramatically during the social media era.

(5) Given the World Wide Web, there are plenty of venues for discussing philosophical problems — and for all I know, some of them might be monetizable (for those who have asked, this blog doesn’t get enough traffic to make it worth the effort).

You can lecture on a YouTube channel if you’re so inclined (again, I’m not).

You can do podcasts.

My point is, there are ways of involving yourself with philosophy, and with other philosophers, that do not subject you to the abuses of academia, and to a discipline that is arguably slowly and painfully killing itself.

As I said, though, it’s your decision. Good luck. And remember: you were warned.

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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