What can you do with a philosophy PhD?

by Kino

The glorious path

The “expected” career choice for philosophy, as it is for many humanities fields, is still the professorship. Professorship comes in different degrees of prestige, too. At the top of the ladder is someone who has job security (“tenure”, which is a status that makes it extremely difficult for a university to fire you) who works at a research-focused university (colloquially called an “R1”). More concretely, an R1 university for a philosopher is one where its philosophy department trains PhD students. There are also departments that only train master’s students. Those are rare and will be discussed in more detail here. Those are sometimes referred to as “R2″s, but are also sometimes not distinguished from R1s.

Other than these, there are also universities that do no have graduate programs. They tend to be liberal arts colleges, or LACs (sometimes SLACs for small LACs). The term “LAC” is also often loosely applied to universities that aren’t exactly “liberal arts”, but grant 4-year degrees without having graduate students. One can also hold a tenured position at a community college (CC).

In general, professors at R1/R2s are expected to spend most of their time researching — publishing papers and attending conferences — and secondarily on supervising graduate students and doing administrative work. Most of them are not rewarded for undergraduate teaching. If you have had bad professors as an undergrad in a big research university, this might be why. In contrast, LACs and CCs place a lot more emphasis on teaching.

Traditionally, the highest-regarded job is the tenured R1 professorship. Many graduate programs (especially prestigious ones) still assume that R1 is the obvious goal of their graduate students. Some academics still believe that choosing a teaching job (i.e. LAC or CC) over an R1 when one has the ability to pursue R1 is a waste of talent. Graduate students who find themselves enjoying teaching more than research often feel the need to hide this from others.

It is my impression that more programs are starting to recognize and respect the desire of philosophically talented students to pursue teaching careers. However, teaching jobs are very different from research jobs and, by definition, professors at graduate programs hold research jobs. Consequently, not all programs go out of their ways to provide students with adequate teaching training. If teaching is something you are seriously considering, it is worth some effort assessing the degree of openness and support a department has on this front. More on this here.

The shadowy isles

Not all teaching staff has tenure. In fact, if you come from a big research university, chances are that some lower-level classes you took were taught by “adjuncts”. Adjuncts are teaching personnel who work on a contract basis. They hold PhDs just like tenured professors, but are often paid less than a fraction in salary, sometimes putting them below the poverty line. In fact, the “adjunctification of higher education” (the increased use of adjunct staff over full-time staff) is a huge social justice problem right now. If you are interested, just google “adjunct crisis”.

The problem (one of the many problems) adjuncts face is that, while most people take on adjunctship as a temporary financial solution in the search of the tenure track, many end up being stuck as adjuncts. This is because adjuncts often have to work extreme hours to keep financially afloat, leaving no time to build a competitive research profile.

Another form of temporary employment is the post doctoral fellowship (or “post-doc”). Post-docs differ vastly, with some offering great salary with no teaching duty and others being essentially the same as adjuncts.

According to the 2017 report by the Academic Placement Data and Analysis of “graduates between 2012 and 2016 … 36% are in permanent academic positions, 40% are in temporary academic positions”. In other words, being a professor in the way that your undergraduate professors are is far from guaranteed by a PhD from even the best programs. In fact, it is perhaps more rational to approach the “should I pursue a PhD?” question with the assumption of not able to land a professorship.

The rest of the world

What about the world outside of academia? The situation is similar to that of teaching jobs, except many times more extreme. That is, many academics still consider jobs outside of academia (also known as “industry” jobs) as a sign of professional failure and last resort. Students who have such aspirations often have to hide them from their departments, as departments sometimes withhold resources, intentionally or not, from students who are “wasting talent and education” by not pursuing academic jobs. In general, alternative to academia (or “alt-ac”) career path is still a delicate issue.

I believe the situation is improving, if only slowly. Graduate students, including some of the founders of wonderphilosophy, are calling attention to alt-ac acceptance and support. I know of a number of professors who are supportive of alt-ac. Nevertheless, since successful academics tend to be life-long academics, it is difficult for them to provide alt-ac support. I believe the APDA (mentioned above) is trying to contribute in that direction.

If alt-ac is something you’d like to consider, it is also important to assess the general attitude a department holds in this regard. Alt-ac attitude is, in my experience, easier to assess than teaching attitude, since academics tend to be less apologetic at declaring their contempt (if they do hold it) towards industry jobs than towards teaching.

And the chaos in between

Many things can happen during the 5, 6, 7 years it takes (Note: do not go to a program whose normative time to degree is more than 6 years) for you to complete a PhD. It is probably unwise to plan to stick to one plan.

Still, PhD training is, at the core of it, a professional training. It trains you for a specific profession, and all statistics show that this specific professional demand does not meet the trained supply, and PhD training has been slow to adapt to this fact. While I certainly think it’s not true to claim (as some do) that graduate training in philosophy is a “waste of time” if you do not go into professional philosophy, I think it’s wise to keep your eyes, minds, and options open during the entirety of this process.


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