So You Want to Get a PhD in Philosophy?
The other day, a friend of mine posted this on his Facebook page:
I read that and wondered, Where do I even begin???
I’ve no clue who he is, of course. Just one of many “lost generation” PhDs out there. Actually, “lost generation” should be plural, since there’s now more than one “lost generation,” and we’re not referring to the Hemingway / Fitzgerald generation, either. What’s a “lost generation” PhD? A group of cohorts who sought academic careers but earned their PhDs any time after the infamous academic job market collapse of the 1970s. There are few jobs now, but for a while there were virtually none at all. Most new PhDs had little choice except to pursue other lines of work.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s things opened up a little. The steady trickle of job openings continued into the ’00s for a while, but with the financial crisis of 2008–09, things fell apart again. Now, almost a year after Captain Covid came to call, things are worse than ever.
You can earn a PhD and not end up at a Wendy’s, but only if you plan with great care. And only if you realize that you have to seek out the information you need, because it’s not going to come to you.
Most academic advisors are motivated by self-interest, just like all of us at some level. They want to their departments to look good. The more graduate students, the better. That means enticing naïve would-be PhDs to go for it, and if that means handing out false hope, then so be it. Ethically shady, but common. Many academics, moreover, view student advisement as annoying committee work and neither know nor care what they’re talking about. So they just peddle BS.
For example, my generation (late 1980s PhDs) was told about a massive “wave of retirements” coming that never happened. Mandatory retirement was ended, for one thing. Then, when tenured professors did retire, their slots turned adjunct. This happened because those at the top of the institutions figured out they could save on labor costs. And boy, did they ever!
Since I have a PhD in philosophy, you can learn from a few of my mistakes as well as those of this poor guy above. (Just to note: unlike this fellow I had a real university teaching career for a while and walked away from it. But that’s a different article.)
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First, some really, really remote background. I kind of hate to bring this up, but I’m not going to lie about the system we’re all stuck in. If you’ve gotten that PhD and you’re at a Wendy’s, it’s not entirely, 100 percent your fault.
Subjects like History, Philosophy, Theology, one or two others, have been discouraged in industrial civilization for over 150 years now. The official reason is that they don’t offer usable or marketable skills to big business, or provide consumer goods. There’s some truth to this. (“How many Platonic forms or Cartesian cogitos have you sold in your life? Has being able to recite the second formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative improved your marketing any?”)
Philosophy doesn’t do that, but it does teach a person how to think. History (if taught properly) gives us context, showing how we got where we are, including unveiling the blunders that imply things could be different and maybe better.
So the cynical but sadly more accurate reason is that the ruling class of the day, 150 years ago, figured out that teaching such subjects to peasants could be dangerous. They might start to think. They might organize and demand actual democracy. We couldn’t have that now, could we? (“What? We ought to elect political figures who see their constituents as people and listen to their concerns instead of treating them as cattle?”)
So, maybe 150 years ago, the oligarchs started encouraging (and funding) a two-tiered education model: liberal arts learning for their own and vocational training for the peasants.
This still wasn’t enough. Even their own might develop a conscience. So the subjects themselves were drawn into academic departments and new specializations. Subjects like political economy were broken up into political science and economics with different methods and vocabularies. Historians likewise forgot how to talk to philosophers; philosophers forgot how to talk to anyone, as every specialized discipline developed its own esoteric language and methods that soon took years of study to master. The PhD was proof of mastery. It’s a research degree. Having one is supposed to be evidence you can do specialized research and participate in a conversation of micro-specialists.
This might include an obscure (to anyone outside the conversation) German philosopher such as Edmund Husserl (1859–1938).
The whole point was to ensure that those drawn to ideas would talk mostly to each other, and seldom look outside their academic cubicles at the structures surrounding them, including their own institutions. Thus were smart people professionalized and politically neutered. They got absorbed in trivial disputes that mattered little if at all outside their specialties. They’d go down rabbit trails assuring no threat to moneyed interests. Meanwhile, peasants of average intelligence could be taught manual labor, sales, paper-pushing, eventually data entry, whatever business and government needed. For the most part it worked splendidly, although there were a few glitches in the matrix like the 1960s which were also eventually put down. The job market meltdown of the 1970s was part of that….*
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All that said….
Ask me today, “Should I get a PhD in Philosophy?” and I’d give you the infamous mixed message: “Don’t. But if you must — if there’s a philosopher you really like, or school you want to learn about, or philosophical problem you really, really want to pursue — here’s what to do.
“But let me warn you. You’re taking a major risk with your whole future, since there are no guarantees even the smartest strategies will work.”
First, realize that academia is not a meritocracy — assuming there are any meritocracies anywhere. It doesn’t matter if you publish four to six papers in your specialty before you have the PhD (I did). In these days of Captain Covid in particular, you can publish and still perish. You could before.
What matters is where you get the degree, who your contacts are, and if they are able and willing to go to bat for you. Then there’s your added ability to network assertively. And finally, some academic jobs are had through just plain blind luck — which always favors the prepared!
The above Philosophy PhD doesn’t say where he got his degree. I wonder if it was at some football factory in the South, or the Midwest.
There are a dozen or so PhD programs in Philosophy worth considering. If you want a PhD in Philosophy and can’t get into one of these programs, that’s when I’d jump ship, learn to design websites or something, and keep Philosophy as a hobby.
The programs to take seriously (in no particular order): University of Pittsburgh, University of California at Berkeley, Harvard University (obviously), New York University, Columbia University, Yale University. A few others deserve mention: Stanford University, University of Arizona, MIT, University of Pennsylvania (maybe), University of Colorado at Boulder (perhaps), University of Chicago (perhaps).
Those are the “ranked” programs. Look up department websites that list faculty and see where they got their degrees. You’ll find those schools well-represented. In the U.S. anyway, those are the majors. Outside the U.S. there’s Oxford, Cambridge, University of London, University of Paris, a few others, and if I was interested in Husserl, I’d go to Europe because on that side of the Atlantic he’s a major figure; over here, not so much.
Not that there aren’t good people stuck in football factories. But as a former colleague of mine who spent his career in such a place put it, “If you start in the South, you’re stuck in the South.” You will get labeled based on the program you come out of, and where you found your first job or two or three (if you did). That’s not “fair,” but that’s how academic philosophy works.
There is a website known as the Philosophy Gourmet Report that did not exist when I was in school. Like everything else in academia these days, it is controversial. It used to list “ranked” departments and major figures in them along with their specialties, to give prospective students information about who is doing what, where, and where a prospective PhD student might go to pursue a given school or topic. If you really want a PhD in Philosophy, I’d at least have a look at it even if it comes marked handle with care.
The point is to connect with someone who can help you stand out in a ridiculously overcrowded job market — and assuming you haven’t pissed off too many folks in the meantime, you can get three solid letters of recommendation from people who know your work and whose names (and addresses!) will carry some weight where you apply to teach.
If possible, go to professional meetings, read a little of your work, meet people those on your examining committee admire. It’s called networking. Getting your name in front of a department’s movers and shakers is no guarantee. But if you don’t network effectively, you’re at a disadvantage because others will.
These — not publishing or even teaching experience — are what sends you to the front of the line and gives you the best hope of landing that coveted tenure-track job. Almost all serious job adverts ask for three current letters of recommendation.
You need to get this kind of job as quickly as you can, because if you are “adjunct zoned” for any length of time, that, too, works against you. Which brings me to something absolutely essential — having a viable and thought-out Plan B.
Accomplishing anything in life requires intelligent planning. Getting a PhD in Philosophy calls for hyper-intelligent planning!
I can’t emphasize this enough: to embark on getting a PhD in Philosophy without a Plan B is ludicrous — especially these days!
Your Plan B, obviously, is what you’ll do to put food on the table in case you don’t land that coveted tenure-track job within two or three years out of school. Otherwise, your applications will elicit this kind of reaction behind closed doors: “She’s had her PhD this long and couldn’t find anything better than that? Must be something wrong with her.”
Into the “circular file” goes your application.
Again, not “fair,” but that’s how the system works. And it’s good to keep in mind, search committee members are human, they’re going to be extremely busy going through hundreds of applications for every decent job opening, and they’re looking for the slightest reason not to consider any given application further.
(The only reasons I can think of why people stick with adjuncting, moreover, are: (1) they were handed hope BS by advisors or senior “colleagues”; (2) they just absolutely love teaching and don’t care what happens down the road, especially if they get sick or something; (3) they have no Plan B and no idea what else to do; or (4) all of the above. Or maybe they’re scared of the world outside the halls of ivy although it’s probably less hostile than the world inside.)
“Unfair” again and again, but academia is permeated with injustices about which nothing will be done because the world, in or out of academia, is based on incentives, and there are no incentives for most institutions’ oligarchs to do anything different than what they’re doing now.
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I’ve said that writing and publishing don’t help you until you’re on the tenure line, but if you feel compelled to do it, don’t write “biographies” of historical figures “1,500 page long.” No one’s going to publish a thing like that, because harsh though it sounds, no one cares. Not even Husserl scholars are going to be interested in a biography of the guy — as opposed (maybe!) to a carefully targeted and specialized (again) treatment of this or that aspect of his work.
Fortunately, that can be accomplished in a tract of maybe 60,000 words (guess-timating here). I don’t know how many pages 60,000 words is, but it’s nowhere near 1,500!
By all means, learn to write clearly, concisely, and cogently. That can’t hurt you in most places. But not too clearly and too concisely beyond necessity, because this, too (“More bad news?? Ugh!!”) can hurt you — with aging senior faculty who can’t write their way out of a wet paper sack and resent the hell out of anyone who can (I encountered one or two of those!). Just like finding academic work, publishing involves strategy. Again, networking is your best bet. Get to a meeting. Chase down an editor at a journal where you want to publish. Buy him a drink if you dare. Engage him (or maybe it’s a her) in intelligent conversation about your topic. (I oughtn’t need to say, but probably do: keep this professional!) Then when he (or she) sees your paper and your name on it, you’ll have a slight edge.
Otherwise publishing, too, is a crapshoot. Most academic journals are flooded with submissions and accept about 5 percent of what fills their inboxes.
These are all effects of their being “too many PhDs.” (One reason there are so many PhDs is because so many people stayed in school to avoid the crappy “gig economy,” but that, too, is an article for another day.)
And by the way, don’t move to a university town where you applied unless and until you have a contract in hand. Going to a place under the assumption you’ll be hired is as grade-A stupid as not having a Plan B! Especially if it’s a place where the only other employers are fast food joints, bookstores (do those still exist?), and the local Walmart.
The last thing I’ll get into here that stood out when I read the sad story at the outset is the 450K he says he owes.
Sadly, public schools don’t teach budgeting or financial planning. On purpose, I suspect, because again, corporate types prefer peasants who are clueless about money and will spend themselves into debt oblivion. (You didn’t think all those Walmart discounts were there to help you save, did you?)
I say this because no PhD program in Philosophy costs $450K, not even in these days of skyrocketing tuition, administrative bloat, and easy student loans to pay the university president’s six-figure salary plus perks or the dean in charge of campus beautification.
So I’d ask this fellow, “How often do you eat out? Did you buy the most expensive smartphone out there? Do you have a room-sized flat screen TV? Cable? Netflix?”
Anyone smart enough to get a PhD in anything can distinguish needs from wants, even if marketers are constantly trying to blur the two (the best are very good at it). Your needs are what you have to have to stay alive and keep a roof over your head and your life together, especially if you’re struggling financially. Everything else is a want. Plan accordingly. It’s not rocket science, but many PhDs are notoriously impractical when it comes to money and seem not to have figured this out. Develop a system showing you what’s coming in and what’s going out. If there’s less of the former and more of the latter, you’ve got a problem.
You should learn all this before you ever start that Philosophy PhD, of course, so you’ll have these habits before you get jammed up. You’ll be light years ahead of the pack, because most of the pack won’t have done it and they’ll be the ones paying for their mistakes, not you.
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Summing up: I’ve written this for the psychologically-compelled who feel they must get a PhD in Philosophy: they won’t be whole without one.
There are such people, and I don’t mean to make light of them. I was one.
Just know that the academic job market is terrible and is likely to get worse, especially with Captain Covid ensuring that a lot of lower-tier institutions are going to close their doors before this is over. That means even fewer teaching positions for the foreseeable future.
Know, too, that neither businesses nor government especially care to hire PhDs. The word is overqualified. What their recruiters fear — not unreasonably — is that you’ll be bored out of your socks and quit as soon as something more interesting comes along.
Frankly, though, with Anglo civilization tottering on the brink, I don’t think much of that kind of specialized research will be needed much longer, even for those who find jobs. There are plenty of things you can learn online. The way things are going, were I coming out of high school today, I think I’d learn everything I could about agriculture and nutrition. One thing society will always need is people who know how to grow, distribute, and store food.
There will still be time to study and room to practice Philosophy. But be assured, it will have to be Philosophy that speaks to human life and real conditions, not abstractions. Most of the academic philosophy of the past hundred years has almost nothing to do with real life and revels in the fact.
If you want Philosophy that speaks to human life and real conditions, start with the Stoics. And by the way, you don’t need a PhD to appreciate them.