Jobs in Philosophy, and Why You Can’t Get One

Since complaining about the current job market in philosophy/academia is such a fun and productive activity, I thought I’d highlight some recent discussions about it. This article by William Pannabacker (whose pen name is Thomas H. Benton) about how dreadful the job market in the humanities is sparked a comment from the almighty Brian Leiter, and Leiter’s rather hostile remarks are now being discussed at the The Philosophy Smoker.

Here are a couple of excerpts from these discussions, firstly from Pannabacker’s article:

I don’t think the current crop of humanities graduates can claim that they were not warned about the weak job market, but the situation is actually much worse now, if you are finishing a Ph.D., than you had any reason to expect when you started. If you once thought that a 40-percent chance of finding a tenure-track position was a risk worth taking (after maybe eight years of graduate school), then how do you feel about a 20-percent chance?

Well, I can say that I don’t feel particularly optimistic. Pannabacker goes on to criticse some of the current trends in academia, and many of his comments seem entirely reasonable to me; he for instance recommends that rather than aspiring to eventually get a tenured professorship, graduate students should pursue their degrees ‘simply out of a desire to learn’, and not succumb to the pressure. However, Leiter accuses Pannabacker of lying about the job market and goes on to effectively say that those who can’t get jobs should blame themselves, or their undergraduate teachers:

It is a shame that a lot of those who echo Pannabacker’s reckless generalizations do so under cover of anonymity. Each time the veil of anonymity has been lifted, in my experience, it turns out that the person complaining that there are no jobs for really good candidates is a graduate of a mediocre or worse PhD program. Some of these people may really be good candidates; that’s very hard to know. But what is often easy to know is that they have the albatross of a not very good graduate program around their neck, and their difficulties on the job market are, alas, predictable. It is a shame these people were misled, either by the programs in question or by their undergraduate teachers, and it has been one of my aims to make misleading students this way harder. But the fact that there really aren’t jobs for PhDs from weak programs does not mean one shouldn’t get a PhD in philosophy. It means a student should not get a PhD from a weak program.

So what Leiter is saying is that you shouldn’t do a Ph.D. unless you can do it at a top program (he quotes the placement records of seven top philosophy programs in the US). Now, there is the issue of factual accuracy here, as it’s not clear that even graduates of top programs always manage to land on a job, or a good job anyway. There’s a lot of discussion about this at The Philosophy Smoker, here’s a passage which rings true to me:

Some people are whiners, I agree. I hate people that blame their job hardship on women and minorities. And [some] people do crap work. Fine, I may be one of them. But claiming that the job market is anything other than a crapshoot is just dishonest. When places get 400 job applicants, your application is not going to receive careful review. It’s not anyone’s fault, per se, it’s just how the market is. Some people get lucky and get a lot of attention. Great for them. Most people don’t. Let’s stop lying and start realizing that the job market is just too noisy to guarantee that the best people get the best jobs, and the worst people get no jobs. Sometimes people do better than they expect, and most of the time people end up worse off than anyone would expect. But we currently have people telling us that good people don’t have to worry and they will land great jobs. This, post facto, is a great justification for those with jobs to announce that the system is very good at finding the best people. But it’s not the most honest story to tell.

Now, one issue that hasn’t come up here is that even if you’re roughly aware of how the philosophy job market works and would be able to get into a top program in the US, this doesn’t mean that everyone would want to do this, or that it would be anything like the best choice for them in terms of their philosophical development. And this is a key issue: shouldn’t we be looking into getting the best possible philosophical education rather than choosing a program because it has a good placement record? For one thing, not everyone can, or wants to, go to the US (or Oxbridge etc.), for obvious reasons. Secondly, I’ve always felt that what matters for doing a Ph.D. is who you work with, that is, you go where the person is who is the best expert in the area of your primary research interest.

For me, the choice was obvious: I wanted to work with E. J. Lowe, and he is here in Durham. Ok, with hindsight, maybe I should’ve gone to NYU to work with Kit Fine, since it happens to be the number one department in philosophy in the world and I’d really like to work with Kit Fine as well. But there were other things to take into account too: the UK is much closer to Finland than the US, and perhaps a nicer place to be anyway. So it seems to me that the discussion here is ignoring some rather relevant factors for choosing where to do a Ph.D. — if all you care about is getting a high paid position at a top university in the US, then listen to Leiter. But if you’re looking to do philosophy, the kind of philosophy that you want to do, then you’d better think in terms of the best possible supervisor for you rather than the placement record of the program.

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