Tenure and Jobs

August 24, 2010

Okay. Semester’s upon us. I’ve been slacking like a fishing line on my blog, but you guys keep coming back for more. Or, at least, my blog-hits are still on the high side. Apparently I can leave this puppy to sit for a while and people still come. Honestly, I’m flattered. Apologies for the delays. I’m working on a book and I’ve been deeply engaged in that project.

Here’s a thought that’s been irking me for a while. The philosophy blogosphere was a little nuts earlier last week with some garbage by Mark C. Taylor when he wrote on academic bankruptcy. I don’t agree with him about academic bankruptcy, and I think tenure is a pretty important institution, as I’ve argued before.

Today I read a piece on the philosophy job market. The author there rightly explains that it’s pretty dismal and that it’s nearly impossible to get a job. She laments this state of affairs as akin to sending out a message in a bottle.

Naturally, this raises a question posed succinctly by snwiedmann in the comments.  Here’s the thought that caught my eye:

When a small college offering only a one-year position receives 350 applications and a large university 750, isn’t time we began to examine the admission practices of our graduate programs?

My view is this: it is a pretty serious mistake to assume that the reason that people go to grad school in philosophy is because they expect (anticipate? feel entitled to?) a job on the other end. Surely, some people go to grad school in philosophy under the mistaken impression that they will waltz into a tenure-track job somewhere. I must assume, however, that these folks are in the minority. Most people enter grad school — or, at least, they should enter grad school — knowing full well that the likelihood of landing a job in philosophy, not to mention a good job in philosophy, is pretty slim.

It’s my attitude that just because there are few jobs available that this doesn’t at all call into question the admission practices of our graduate programs. I have two reasons for this:

1) I think there is intrinsic value in studying philosophy (or most other academic topics, though I’ll speak mostly about philosophy). If an undergraduate finishes her BA in philosophy and feels that she has only scratched the surface, feels that she would like to scratch deeper, who are we to stop her? Seems to me that we should encourage her to scratch deeper, to continue scratching, even if it involves living the life of a grad student for two to seven years or more. It’s a nice life. It’s rewarding. It’s fulfilling.

FWIW, this is exactly how I felt when I left my BA. I wanted more. I thirsted for more. And I entered my PhD knowing full well that the odds were against me ever landing a job. As it happens, the stars aligned in my favor, but I had no way of knowing this when I went to grad school. To hedge my bets, I got a professional degree that kept me sane; I carried at least some reassurance that I could always land on my feet. But even without the professional degree, my suspicion is that most graduate students can land on their feet if they really have to.

2) Accepting that there is intrinsic value in studying philosophy, but perhaps stipulating that the value is primarily extrinsic, I even still fail to see the logic in re-evaluating our admission practices. Why not instead re-evaluate the options at the back-end? Why not try to entertain, and even elevate, the status of non-academic positions? Or, perhaps seek to capture some more academic positions by creating new areas of study? Or, even more radically, push for philosophy to be taught at different levels, perhaps even in high school?

I, for one, feel that philosophy is deeply underutilized, and I think some (if not most) of the jobs crisis in philosophy falls squarely on the shoulders of a philosophical establishment that chastises innovation and deviation from a very small sample of questions.

My two cents. Discuss. I’ve got a book to work on.


  1. Great points, and I think your analysis should be extended to the natural and physical sciences. In my case, it’s that faculty at big research schools are only interested in creating replicas of themselves. I also think they’re often incapable–even if they wanted to–of taking some of the steps so scientists are better trained for careers outside academia.

    So while I like your idea of re-evaluating the options at the back-end, I’m not sure anyone is really interested in elevating the status of non-academic positions.

    There’s also the problem that academia really doesn’t have an incentive to change. At least w.r.t. nat./phys. sciences, these types of reports come up every few years. Everyone gets very excited for a bit, and then it’s forgotten.

    Finally, I also agree that intrinsic arguments should be stressed more.

  2. Ben,

    I agree that those who really want to study philosophy at the graduate level should. However, as a prof at a liberal arts college, my students rarely seem to “get” the job prospects, or lack thereof, afterward. My worry is that their future self will wonder why they spent six to eight years doing something that would not land them gainful employment even if it has intrinsic or extrinsic value.

    Similarly, we philosophers were raised believing that jobs were few and far between. However, I think the job market is far worse now that it was a decade ago. Thus, I don’t think we convey this is as well as we should.

    In my own case, I have felt very comfortable not teaching graduate students because I didn’t want the responsibility for their future well-being. However, I now feel the same for sending undergraduates to graduate school in philosophy.


  3. I am sympathetic to your defense of standing admissions practices. In fact I recently made the decision to turn down a job offer and stay in school. After some deliberation I saw the opportunity to continue to study and create philosophy quasi-professionally for 4-5 more years as more valuable than a different job with higher pay and a more robust career path. Yet I don’t think that a high estimation of the value of an advanced degree in philosophy (or rather, what it takes to get one) should make us indifferent to what happens to philosophers once they have advanced degrees. I am in full agreement with your position that back-end changes are more important than changes to admissions. One solution, as you suggested, is to try to find more venues for philosophers to do philosophy. But further, I get the impression that many of my peers either do not understand, or else undervalue skills that they have acquired through doing philosophy that are applicable to fields outside of philosophy. Spelling those skills out in workforce-ese and matching them with other professions would be a valuable institutional service, especially for the skilled, intelligent, and hardworking graduate students who, through not fault of their own, may never find a good job in academia.

    • I agree. I feel that being able to translate (or identify) the skills that we have acquired as graduate students into ‘workforce-ese’ would be a valuable institutional service.

  4. Interestingly a correspondent with Leiter picked this up recently. He refers to a blog (links below if they are allowed) and book that promotes the thesis that the only way to arrive at understanding the shortage of jobs as a supply issue (ie., # of grad students) is to misunderstand the nature of the “job market” for academic instructors. The fact is that this isn’t a job market in the real sense because its built on an unending supply of cheap, contingent labor. As a result the demand side (college administrators) have already altered their consumption of talent in harmful ways to the university, but beneficial for their budgets.

    This is a bit like the argument that recognizes terrible working conditions and low wages in the meat-packing industry, and then calls for shutting down the borders of illegal immigrants. Obviously, what has happened is that a labor supply that was never meant to be a labor supply (contingent faculty) has satisfied the demand for instruction. Thus, making all those PhDs worth less in the “market.”


  5. To respond to JOdenbaugh, I agree that we do a disservice to the students if we send them on their way without explaining, in excruciating detail, the state of the job market. I also agree that the current job market is worse than it was even four years ago, when I was on the market. Even still, I think it’s overly paternalistic to encourage undergrads not to attend grad school in philosophy on job market grounds. Who are we to say whether they should go to grad school? Who are we to say whether we should offer slots? We can give some helpful advice, and maybe even point them in the direction of some extremely painful statistics, but what else can we do? It seems completely insane to cut them out of an opportunity to study something they find really interesting.

    Here are two quick arguments for this point:

    1) Suppose that Joe is independently wealthy. Some people are independently wealthy, so this shouldn’t be a difficult proposition. Suppose also that Joe just wants to study something frivolous, like blacksmithing. Maybe the demand for blacksmiths is completely non-existent; and maybe Joe is entirely aware of this. Are we in a position to argue that he ought not to study blacksmithing? I say no. He’s independently wealthy. What should we care?

    Or worse, are we in a position, as blacksmiths, to say that we’re not taking on any more apprentices because there aren’t enough blacksmithing jobs out there? I say no again. We would be doing Joe a serious disservice by prematurely eclipsing an important life-option for him.

    Now suppose that Sue is not independently wealthy. She’s poor. Despite her poverty, Sue wants to study blacksmithing too. Seems like a dumb career move, but she really likes blacksmithing; and at minimum, if she doesn’t get a job, she can do other stuff, like make delicious mustard. Are we then in a position to cut off her opportunities to study blacksmithing? Again, I say no.

    Both Joe and Sue want to study blacksmithing… probably not for career reasons.

    Now then, what would be a big mistake, or unacceptable, would be to say, “There is a big wave of retiring blacksmiths, so perhaps you will be able to ride that wave into a great job as a blacksmith.” Or “you may not get the best blacksmithing job in the world, but you can probably get a blacksmithing job.” That, I think, would be dishonest.

    Better, perhaps, to show the substantial downsides of sitting on the market forever; that only one out of five people are likely to get a job. Those are pretty terrible odds.

    2) Okay, here’s another argument:

    There are many other fields in which the odds are worse than in philosophy. Acting is a field like this. Arguably it’s the case that actors who make it, really make it… so the payoff is huge. Maybe there’s a simple benefit/cost calculation to do here. (Andy stands a .0005% chance of becoming the next Brad Pitt; If Andy does become the next Brad Pitt, he will be rich beyond his wildest expectations; therefore, it’s worth it.) But I don’t think that’s actually accurate. What drives people to enter acting, and what makes it all worth it, is that this is the kind of life these people want to lead. It would be insane to say, as a result of this difficult job market, that we should therefore shutter our schools of acting.

  6. Ben, Thanks for keeping this blog.

    A good bit of perspective might be had by remembering ancient philosophy -Epicurus’s commune comes to mind. Philosophy got its start as a vocation, not as a profession, and with good reason. To love wisdom is not to have a career; it’s to enjoy a way of life.

    The large issue behind these frantic discussions is the way professionalism has put blinders on living a wise life, or trying to.

    If you don’t have a job in academic philosophy, this doesn’t mean you can’t do philosophy, even academic philosophy. My favorite example of the latter is Johann Klaassen, who is a businessman with First Affirmative Financial and who continues to publish in serious scholarly philosophy journals. He’s inspiring.

    But more to the point, there’s a sad irony in thinking that people fortunate enough to have spent years focusing on the pursuit of wisdom might feel deep down inside that without an academic job, their pursuit will have been pointless. I hope that isn’t so.

    • I completely agree. Thanks Jeremy.

  7. If any field of study is an avocation it should be

    a. A lifelong activity. Take the occasional course
    b. A retirement activity. Geezers like Eli need something meaningful to do.
    c. A delightful delay before getting on with life. d. Grad school applications go up in bad times. Give us shelter and a TA they say.

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