Dear Future Philosopher

Robert Koons

Dear Future Philosopher,

I write to a “future philosopher” and not to a “future philosophy professor,” because I don’t want to presume that the latter is the only possible career for the former. That being said, I have found the life of the philosophy professor to be a remarkably rewarding one. First, because you can spend almost all of your time thinking about the most interesting subject of all. Philosophy is a field that can barely be mastered in a lifetime, much less in the few years one can spend in college and graduate school. And, second, because of the astonishing degree of autonomy one enjoys as a tenured professor. You are held accountable by your peers, but it is a fairly large group to whom you are accountable, and you can to a very large extent define that group for yourself. There is no one who can dictate to you what to focus on or what to say on your chosen subjects.

As a field, philosophy has done relatively well resisting the worst of the trends toward political correctness, dogmatic multiculturalism, and fashionable Franco-German agitprop disguised as serious scholarship. A strong tradition of clarity in writing and rigor in argumentation creates opportunities for the exceptionally bright young person. That’s the good news. The bad news is that philosophy is under increasing pressure within the academy precisely for these reasons. Sexually misbehaving male philosophers have not helped the situation, needless to say.

Back to the good news. Philosophy teaching is relatively immune to outsourcing and to disruption by technology. I can imagine a world in which robots or artificial intelligence systems replace lawyers or even doctors, but not philosophers. In addition, Americans who pursue academic degrees in philosophy are largely protected from overseas competition. Academic philosophy is essentially limited to the English-speaking world (plus Scandinavia, Holland, and some bits of Austria and Germany).

In addition, demand for philosophy is strongly supported by the many religiously affiliated colleges that either require philosophy coursework as part of the core (almost all Catholic schools) or strongly encourage philosophy as a major (many evangelical and conservative Protestant schools). Demand for philosophy courses in the United States has remained constant over the last forty years, in contrast to the inexorable decline of the rest of the liberal arts, including especially English and history. Studies show that philosophy majors do well in admission to professional schools (both law and medicine) and in business careers (outpacing business majors within ten years of graduation).

Nonetheless, the future of the traditional academic career, even in philosophy, remains uncertain. The trend toward vocational training threatens to destroy nearly all of the smaller liberal-arts colleges, as well as liberal arts programs at many of the regional state universities. The oversupply of philosophy Ph.D.’s continues. Most seriously of all, colleges continue to rely more and more heavily on non-tenure-track instructors, with little job security and salaries at roughly half the level of their tenure-track peers. My guess is that this is somewhat less advanced among philosophy departments, but non-tenure track (NTT) instructors are now in the majority in most academic fields.

In light of these mixed and uncertain prognostications, I would recommend the following (on the assumption that you will be aiming to break into a traditional academic career):

1. Limit your search for graduate schools to those with tenure track (TT) placement rates after three years of over 75% (this information is readily available now on department web sites), except for programs with a strong position in a niche that you’re interested in, whether a sub-field such as applied philosophy at Bowling Green or a market segment such as Baylor’s connection to Christian colleges. Recognize that admission to good programs is highly selective—hardly easier than admission to Harvard Law School, for example. If you can't get into a top school, consider entering a good master’s program for a year or two, such as Western Michigan or Talbot Seminary, and try again.

2. Carefully investigate grad schools’ placement records, especially for students in areas you’re interested in and with your demographics. Look at the students of supervisors you’d like to work with. Where have they been placed? Would you be happy with similar placement?

3. Do not go into debt for graduate school. Make sure that you are fully supported, at least by teaching assistantships, along with good health insurance and affordable housing. This is the norm at all respectable departments.

4. Consider ethics, and especially applied ethics (medical, business, professional, environmental), for which the ratio of supply to demand is relatively favorable. This can also be combined with a specialization in history or metaphysics: for example, business ethics and social ontology, or medical ethics and Aristotelian theories of science. (But, balance this against point 7 below.) Don’t disdain to think of your future career in a cold-blooded, even mercenary way, with due respect for marketing and networking. At the same time, recognize that you are more likely to do excellent work in areas in which your interests are keen and abiding.

5. Be keenly aware of the opportunity costs involved in each additional year of graduate study. Familiarize yourself with your program’s requirement and make use of synergies whenever possible. Be disciplined, and don’t let teaching responsibilities absorb all of your time and energy. Every term paper you write should be written with the possibility in mind of submitting it to a journal or a conference.

6. Don’t postpone marriage or children but make sure that your spouse is extraordinarily patient and 110% supportive before embarking on the academic track. Be prepared to live simply and to move frequently.

7. Avoid taking provocative (that is, obviously conservative) public positions on politics or culture. Be very careful about what you post under your own name on social media or blogs—assume that future admissions committee and hiring committee members will have access to all of this. Although philosophy is relatively open-minded, there are definite limits to this, especially when a committee is looking for reasons to turn down any one of the 200 applicants for a single position or a handful of admission slots. Focus on some sub-field in which your intellectual deviance from the “herd of independent minds” will not be in evidence, such as logic, philosophy of language, epistemology, or deep issues in metaphysics. Recognize that it is dangerous and probably somewhat arrogant to try to overturn some deeply held prejudice (such as physicalism, atheism, Darwinism, or compatibilism) in your dissertation or early-career publications. You should have plenty of time to change the course of philosophical history after you’ve obtained tenure. Don’t specialize in medieval philosophy (unless you’re at Catholic U. or St. Louis U.) or philosophy of religion, at least not as your primary focus.

8. Don’t spend more than three years in non-tenure track appointments (except for postdoctoral fellowships with light teaching duties). Don’t join the ranks of the academic lumpenproletariat, the reserve army of the underemployed. And don’t assume that there is a tenured position out there waiting for you—be prepared to cut your losses and leave academia, when it becomes clear that the tenure-track is beyond reach.

What can you do with a philosophy Ph.D. if you can’t find a tenure-track position in academia? Fortunately, there are alternatives. First, there are many secondary schools, especially private and charter schools, which will look favorably on your application. With a Ph.D. in hand, you will be well qualified to advance to a headmastership. Even if you can’t teach technical philosophy, you can teach logic, political thought, and intellectual history at a high level.

You can pursue work with think tanks and academically oriented foundations, many in the conservative constellation. There is also journalism, political and business consulting, software engineering, and writing—at least as a supplement to one’s regular income.

It is very likely that higher education will succumb in the next thirty years to significant disruptions from innovation, partly driven by communication technology. It will become far easier to re-create the proverbial ideal situation for philosophy: Socrates sitting on one end of the log, a student on the other. Thanks to the internet, the two ends of this log can now be half a world apart. Investigate and strategize about ways to be on the winning side of future disruption. This might include: MOOCs targeted on introducing Western philosophy or culture to students in developing countries, quality distance learning in philosophy for adults (including retirees), or the development of certificates, badges, or portfolio services in philosophy and other liberal arts—which are more and more needed as grade inflation erodes the value of the BA.

Short of an apocalyptic disaster, interest in Western philosophy will endure. You have formidable allies: Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, and Russell. Be hopeful, but be well prepared for adverse circumstances.

Image: The Thinker by Joe deSousa // CC BY

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