Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Myth: Philosophers, Especially Academic Ones, Have an Easy Life

Let’s be frank. Non-philosophers, it is really difficult for us to understand how our philosophers, especially academic ones, have any right to complain about their work lives. After all, WE are usually the people who either work somewhere soul-draining from 8-5 and come home and do more work, or we take care of the house and raise the children, or (much less likely) we are working our dream job, but at consistent hours.  We see our academic philosophers hanging out in coffee shops all day reading or talking with friends about things they are excited about in their offices. They may teach two classes a semester, which is only six hours of work per week.  Hello, how is that difficult?

As with most things, things are not as they appear. Your philosopher actually lives a very difficult and stressful life; one that few would actually ever want to do if they actually knew what it entailed. It is worth it for you to understand this aspect of being a philosopher, as it will save you from lots of potential resentment.

I think that the best way to layout this information is as a timeline for your academic philosopher.

Phase One: The Undergrad Days

The undergrad days are exciting and vibrant times in your philosopher’s life. They have discovered philosophy and are clumsily wielding it like a child with a broadsword. This is the time when they may actually alienate quite a few of their friends and family members, as they have not learned how to control themselves very well yet. But they are so excited about philosophy. The undergrad life is pretty easy.

Phase Two: Applying to Graduate School

So, your philosopher decides that they like philosophy enough to apply to graduate schools. Be prepared because your graduate student is about to enter the first, fiery ring of hell.

Those graduate students who have been following philosophy blogs and/or have professors in tune with current grad school application practices know that (1) they must apply to as many schools as they can afford to apply to, (2) hundreds of students are applying to these schools, too, and the likelihood of them getting in anywhere decent is very slim, (3) they are going to have to be on top of their letter of recommendation writers to get things in on time, (4) they have to study for the most pointless test of all time (that is, the GRE) and try to learn all kinds of fancy testing methods just to get a high enough score to be considered at most schools, (5) on top of this, philosophy majors score second highest out of all other majors, on average, on the GRE, (6)they will have to wait for months to hear back from schools, during which time they be obsessively checking websites like whogotin and grad cafe.

If your potential grad student does not get into any schools with funding, then they have wasted hundreds of dollars and hours and have lost any faith in themselves. Your philosopher may end her/his career in philosophy here.

Phase Three: The Graduate Student Years

Congratulations; your philosopher is now a grad student and has entered the second level of hell. For the next few years, she/he will be stressing out over hours of work and trying to write papers for journals and conferences during most of their spare time. This is why many philosophers pick up drinking as an evening group activity.

Your philosopher may look like they have all of this extra time, but I can almost guarantee you that your philosopher is highly stressed about their future, a future that will require them to have several papers published in decent journals, teach several types of undergraduate courses (probably), and present at several conferences. These activities are, of course, on top of all of their regular course work and dissertation/thesis.  Many philosophers find that, in addition to drinking, anti-depressants are also very helpful at this time in their lives.

Keep in mind that they will be constantly dealing with non-philosophers (not you, of course!) thinking that they are worrying about either trivial problems or very dangerous and destructive problems (especially in social/political philosophy). Non-philosophers will also ask them “witty” questions like, “Or you’re in philosophy. What are you going to do with that?”

Phase Four: The Job Hunt

I don’t know how many people have said to my philosopher (who is a mid-term grad student), “Why are you worrying about finding a job NOW? Can’t you just find a university that you like and get a job there?”

Ha. That’s funny.

Welcome to the fourth level of hell (you just skipped the third level). Your philosopher will have to undergo some serious, ego-killing, demoralizing job interviews wherever they can get them, and knows that the likelihood of them landing that sweet, tenure-track research job is one-in-one-thousand.

Every year, there are only a few tenure track jobs of the type that academics lust after. Not only is every newly-minted Ph.D. student applying for one of these jobs, but every Ph.D. who graduated in previous years and did not get a job is also applying for these jobs.

If your philosopher does not land a tenure-track job, they will probably do one of several things: (1) apply for a post-doc position somewhere, (2) grudgingly agree to a non-tenured lecturer position somewhere (which will appear as a blight on their record and may keep them from ever landing a tenure track job), (3) leave philosophy, or (4) go back to school for another degree in another subject.

If your philosopher does land a job, she/he will probably have no choice about where it is located. You may even end up in Texas, which is the worst place of all.

Phase Five: Attaining Tenure

Don’t relax now! If you philosopher is in a tenure-track job, they will most likely be spending the next six years frantically trying to publish articles, attend conferences, and write at least one book. On top of this, they will likely be teaching two or more classes.

Teaching is not as easy as most people think it is, especially in philosophy. My philosopher spends about 20 hours per week on his class, which includes preparing to engage apathetic students in discussion, grading, teaching, and hosting office hours (and most students do not abide by the “office hours only” rule and come whenever they want to).

Your philosopher will also likely have annual and third year reviews with the department head, Dean of the college, and some university council. They will have to prepare large packets of material they demonstrate that they are on track for tenure.  They will feel objectified and, likely, be chastised for not publishing enough.

On top of this, your philosopher will have to attend meetings, be on committees, and maybe even do some undergraduate advising.

If your philosopher does not attain tenure, they are usually fired at the end of their contract. Until their contract ends, though, they will be living in humiliation as the object of pity and awkwardness in their department. Then, when this term is up, they will have to find another job elsewhere, which will be a step down from their current placement (or they will not be able to find a job at all and leave philosophy).

Phase Six: Tenure

Your philosopher has made it, right? Now they can just relax and ride the easy boat of tenure.

Not likely.

Your philosopher will be trying to publish and present papers and win grants, on top of teaching, for the rest of their philosopher-lives. They will have to move up in the ranks until they obtain the title of “Professor.” This will take 6-ish more years. After they reach this rank, your philosopher will be under pressure to keep publishing and attending conferences, as their performance influences the prestige of their program. They will still have to attend meetings and be on committees and will also have to work with grad students on their dissertation and thesis committees.

Phase Seven: Death

Enough said.

Now, it is true that your philosopher likely enjoys their work, but the life of a philosopher is anything but easy. Spread the word.



  1. Well said. This is my life more or less.

  2. I'm at that critical juncture, figuring out if I want to go into academia or not. I've heard all this stuff a thousand times before, and I always wonder if it's really that bad.

    I mean, assuming I spend 50% of my time on teaching and 25% on admin and 25% on research... I mean, that's still a decent amount of time. Even if I'm working beyond actual "working hours". I'm doing what I want to be doing - philosophy - for the most part, more than I could in any other field.

    The way you, and others, describe it, you make it sound like this constant, mad, frantic rush, with stress and anxiety always at the door. I find it hard to believe that it's really *that* bad.
    Also, is it really considered a blight on your record to start off with a low-level job? In what other field is the fact of holding an entry-level position considered an impediment to your advancement?

  3. Rory, Thanks for your questions. I actually work in a philosophy office at a research university, so I would consider myself somewhat of an observational expert on this, as least as far as research universities go.

    The graduate and professional life is hectic, but if you really love philosophy then you will make it through the tougher periods. The problem comes if you realize that you don't really like writing papers or giving presentations at conferences or teaching classes. Being in academia is just plain hard work for anyone.

    Even summers can be pretty stressful, if you want to get paid. A lot of grad programs don't provide summer funding, or only do fund you if you teach some classes. There are several large conferences in the summer, too, and if you are working on an M.A., then you will have to be working on your thesis during the summer.

    As far as starting off with a low-level job goes, perhaps this illustration would be best. Because there are so many philosophers applying for jobs, schools only want the best. If you take a lob as a lecturer somewhere, hiring departments will just assume that you were probably not as good in the first place, and this will discriminate their opinion of you. They would rather take a young, fresh Ph.D. candidate with promise, rather than a not-so-accomplished candidate who might bring their department down in the ratings.

  4. Thanks for posting this, it is important stuff for the non-philosophers in our lives to understand. Having just gone through the fourth circle of hell (the job search), I wish you had emphasized more just how miserable that is. Six months of alternating agony, excitement, defeat, humiliation, hope, despair, optimism, and drinking - not to mention the THOUSANDS of dollars your broke-ass graduate student philosopher has to spend on it all. I have a sneaking suspicion your philosopher hasn't gotten to that stage yet.

    Rory: As someone who long ago though, as you do, that maybe it's "really not that bad," I can tell you right now that it is. My entire philosophical career after undergrad has been nothing BUT a "constant, mad, frantic rush, with stress and anxiety always at the door." Believe me: it really is that bad. Friends I have now who are thinking about applying to doctoral programs, I advise them in no uncertain terms that unless they are good enough to get into one of the top 10 Leiter schools, it would be about the dumbest thing they could do - unless they really, really, really love philosophy SOO much that they are willing to spend the next 5-8 years engaged in that "constant, mad, frantic rush, with stress and anxiety always at the door" and being flat broke through the entire process.

    Just my 2 cents ~

  5. Anonymous, Well said! I do need to do a post about the job search, about which I have heard many horrific stories. I thought it was intense enough to make it its own post (I should have said something in the post about it).

  6. I think the anonymous poster is right; the job search phase is even worse than you've described (I sincerely wish your philosopher luck with it).

    I came out of a unranked program and got a tenure-track job as an ABD student after my fourth year, but I AM THE EXCEPTION, NOT THE RULE (and it was 100% luck for me, because I'm a mediocre philosopher, at best, but happen to have graduate degrees in other fields that helped me land this job). Also, my job is at a very small community college in the middle of nowhere (fortunately, it is exactly what I want, but, again, EXCEPTION, NOT RULE).

    I'm at the end of my first year teaching, and I have never put more hours into any job I've held. I've averaged 16 hours a day, seven days a week for almost 10 months now. I have to admit, though, I FREAKIN' LOVE IT. It's hard; there is very little family time, but I love my students, my colleagues, my administration, and my work. Eventually, I'll be able to slow down (a little; I've observed those who've been around longer), which I'm looking forward to, but tenure is pretty much a given in community colleges as long as you're not a slacker.

    It's a very tough job. People will accuse your philosopher of being an armchair academic who doesn't know anything, but it's a great profession, especially when you have a great partner (as I have and as Katie definitely seems to be to "her philosopher").

    Great post. Thanks for helping non-philosophers understand us.

  7. I am writing a funding proposal and personal statement right now. Ironically, my Dante is on the bed on the other side of the room. I may go and check who Virgil takes us to meet in my particular circle of hell.

  8. I think you forgot the part about being super-broke for a long time because the philosopher has to relocate 2000 miles across the country twice in a year for said postdoc/lecturer/VAP/TT position to various locations that do not have any jobs for the non-philosopher.

    But: Despite being a demoralized and mentally ill recovering alcoholic with no money, no credit, and friends all around the country who I get to see once every year or two, at best, I've got a cool job that I love *and* actually uses that silly degree that I went to school for. I honestly couldn't ask for anything better. Win!

  9. Yep, if you're an aspiring grad student/academic, do not deceive yourself. The job market is worse now than it's ever been and they've been pumping out PhDs in droves for the last 20 years, so it's not going to get better. You're lucky if you can get sessional work. Not to mention that if you decide to give up academia and go back into the private sector, no one wants to hire a PhD level philosopher, regardless of your skills. You've been out of the work force for too long, you're perceived as either too qualified for permanent employment or simply too academic. Whatever you do, don't mention your PhD on your résumé (but then you face the problem of accounting for your activity during that period of your life...)

    Absolutely stay away from humanities grad school unless you have great funding at a top 20 department with an excellent placement record.

  10. My philosopher just finished the grad application process and it was exactly as you said! He was always on the grad cafe and whogotin and would report to me exactly which days certain schools sent out their acceptances.

    As for the rest of the life, it sounds like the life of most academic-track people, not just philosophers. Understandably, chances of getting a job in a different field may be a little higher, but there is still the constant stress of writing papers, applying for grant money, and proving yourself to be worth the position that you currently have.

  11. Katie, I wonder your take on those of us in the MA program where we are both in graduate school AND applying to PhD programs. Seems like a very special level of hell.

  12. Anonymous 21:22, That is a good suggestion! The MA problem is very post-worthy.

  13. Man, thanks for your responses guys.

    Way to bum me out. :T

  14. Rory, think of it as a warning instead. How dedicated are you to philosophy? If you want to make it your life, then become an academic philosopher.

    My philosopher is rather dissatisfied with the whole process and plans to look for a position where he doesn't have to worry about tenure and such. Since I plan to pursue my Ph.D. and become a professional academic in the near future, he can afford to do what he wants.

  15. I've heard it all a thousand times before, so I ain't mad. I appreciate the honesty.

    I wouldn't be too sad to end up in Texas though. Although I'm from the
    UK, everything about Austin (the Uni and the city) makes it sound like it'd be a dream place for me.

  16. Rory, Austin is a very cool city, but the rest of Texas sucks. I would leave Austin behind for a ticket to get out of Texas.

  17. I lived in ATX for 6 years and loved it! I was very sad to leave, and I think most of the rest of Texas is beautiful, with some exceptions. Though, obviously politically it is one of the scariest places on earth. Still I find myself needing to defend that dear old goon of a state, however my Philosopher might beg to differ.

  18. Lauren, I love your reference to Texas as a "dear old goon of a state."

  19. I have a philosopher myself, who I met during phase 3. I can say that this post accurately describes my 2nd hand experiences as well. I also agree with thosed who have expressed the horror that is the job market.

    As to hose who wonder "is it really that bad?" I would answer with two things: a) compared to what? Most philosophers no nothing else, so there's no baseline for them to compare it against. b) Yes, it is that bad, and probably worse. Speaking as someone who works in the non-academic world and has a good idea about the job search both academic and non-academic, I say yes. The academic job search process is beyond inefficient, especially for the job seeker.

    It makes me wonder, especially for the philosophers, why they haven't figured out a better approach. Or maybe they have thought about it and the problem is in implemementing it.

  20. I think the dire picture painted is truly important, since the minority succeed in this profession. Yet let me say a few positive things. Full disclosure: I got a TT job this year. But the scary job search process had me reflecting on the past six years of grad school and whether it was all worth it. I like to think that even if I didn't succeed on the market, I would not regret the choice to get a PhD in philosophy.

    Here's why: I spent my twenties engaging in hard core intellectual activities that have shaped who I've become, made me a better thinker and a better person. I do not know who I'd be if I hadn't studied philosophy at the grad level and I am grateful for the intellectual tools I have now. I have no debt from doing so. (Yes, there is opportunity cost, however). Despite the hard work load and there is lots of time for socializing and meeting awesome people. I think I had way more fun and freedom in my twenties than I would have had in a traditional job. So I think that if you can imagine not regretting it all when it's all done and you haven't gotten a job, then you might be a candidate for philosophy grad school. You should definitely try to get into a top 20 program, and absolutely must have full funding. I think too many philosophers focus on how they are victims--but full funding to get a PhD is a true privilege and if you can score this, then it is worth consideration.

  21. Just stumbled across your blog. The truths here made me laugh. And cry. And then, contemplate leaping from some very high place. But who would take care of my books?

    To those fancying a PhD run in these days of degenerate dharma, I really have to say: Don't do it!

    Keep up the good work.

  22. Perhaps this should be concluded with: Don't bother becoming a 'philosopher'. You can philosophize all you want at home, and the same number of people will read your works.

  23. You forgot the most all consuming part of the grad school application process: the writing sample. The writing sample, which you are told over and over again is by far the most important part of your application, which is somehow supposed to be representative of your life-long potential as a philosopher, which is supposed to be the very best thing you are capable of producing... and which is subsequently seemingly impossible to write.

    Along with the truly staggering competition one faces, and the total absence of any reliable indicator of one's chances of admittance, I think the pressure of producing a writing sample sets the philosophy grad school application process apart from those of many other disciplines. I've heard from many hopeful philosophers that this can be difficult for their family/friends/etc. to understand.

  24. Why do you hate Texas so much?

  25. Although I already knew all of this, I had been in denial for some time until it was shattered by your post.

    Now I'm going to read some papers to make myself feel better.

  26. RC, I hate Texas so much for several reasons (1) The weather is terrible, (2) the vegetation is unattractive and terrible, (3) half of the creatures here could kill me, (4) huge, flying cockroaches, (5) everything we try to plant in the killer-ground dies, (6) Rick Perry, particularly his education policies, (7) the self-righteous "Texas is the greatest place EVER" attitude that almost every Texans has, (8) conservative politics, (9) open racism.


  27. Rory, I know how you feel. I love philosophy, but I don't know if I'm that much of a masochist for grad school, nor am I certain that I want to be a teacher. Although my college professor is seems to be dead set on it. I think if she could afford to pay the tuition for me, she would, lol. Making that much of a commitment is rather terrifying.

  28. Haha it's not self-righteous if it's true.

  29. Surely all of these stages apply more generally to the academic job process? I'd be interested to know as to what about these stages is specific to philosophers...?

  30. I took ten years to finish a phd at a non-top tier Leiter school with no funding and graduated 170k in debt. It took ten years and by the end I was teaching eleven courses a year. It was incredibly hard, brutal at times and therapy helped. But I spent and now spend my life doing what I love and persevered. I ended up getting a tenure track job the the year I finished at a respectable small liberal arts school. I remember a realization I once had that I shared with an older philosopher at that school who went , funded, to a top-tier school. It occurred to me that, even if I hadn't received a job in philosophy doing what I love, I still would have done it all over again. To spend ten years of my adult life reading, discussing such fundamental issues with brilliant colleagues, and to have all of that time to actually become educated in ideas... what an amazing gift. I can't believe I was haunted by not choosing law school during the harder moments. And you kids are bitching about going to grad schools where you are funded? You probably shouldn't go into philosophy...