The Perils of Pursuing a PhD in Philosophy

From my very first introductory philosophy course in university, I was hooked. I loved the wild discussions, the crazy questions, the mind-expanding thought experiments. I especially loved the seeming possibility that anyone — regardless of age, sex, race, or class — could, through sheer thought, solve a thorny problem people have been wrestling with for thousands of years.

I was particularly drawn to questions about consciousness and its relationship to matter. Can the mind be reduced to the brain? What is qualia? How do we study it? What is a mental representation? Ideas like eliminative materialism boggled my mind: How could mental states not really exist when I was sitting in class experiencing the world around me? Is consciousness real? Is conscious experience really a hallucination? What, then, is reality? As I worked late into the night trying to solve the mind-body problem, I fell in love with philosophy. It was like a drug.

As a young person, the possibility of becoming a philosopher intrigued me. I loved the readings, the questions, the distinctive style of discussion. I poured my heart and soul into my thesis papers. I admired my professors, who seemed to be living the dream life: getting paid to think, write, and talk about philosophy all day long. I set my sights on graduate school.

After completing a master’s in philosophy, I was accepted into one of the top 30 PhD programs in the U.S. My program, which focused on empirical methods, is known for its excellent connections to the neuroscience department. For the first few years, I was in heaven, reading and writing to my heart’s content. I spent every day thinking and talking about philosophy.

Then, I started talking to some of the older graduate students. I heard their horror stories about the job market. They told me stories about sending hundreds of applications and getting one phone interview (if they were lucky). I read anonymous comments on the Philosophy Smoker blog about the Eastern conference, where young job applicants would be taken into small hotel rooms and awkwardly interviewed. I read women’s horror stories about sexual harassment, along with countless tales and rumors about predatory male professors. I sought out anonymous message boards where jaded grad students talked shit about everyone and everything, revealing what they truly thought about women and trans people.

As a student of empirical methods, I soon learned about problems of interview bias and how tricky in-person interviews are. The research suggests that interviewers’ conclusions are based on unconscious first impressions, and that they’re not generally predictive of actual abilities. Furthermore, interviewers tend not to favor you unless you “look the part,” which in the case of academic philosophy, means being young, male, white, and “quick-witted.”

The issue of wit cuts deep into the problems of academic philosophy. There is a cult of genius in this field. Philosophy departments are constantly looking for the next Wittgenstein, the next young rising star. These rising stars are usually quick on their feet in Q&A sessions and always very dominant in seminar discussions. The quiet, introverted scholars who prefer to think deeply and slowly before answering are unconsciously judged to be less gifted in “philosophical skill” — as if philosophy could really be boiled down to an issue of innate talent as opposed to grit, determination, and rigorous scholarship. Giving your job talk, but don’t seem “witty” in the Q&A session? Good luck getting the job. Not good at schmoozing over drinks after the job talk? Good luck getting the job.

The elders have all the power, and they do not want to retire.

And as I learned more about the perils of the job market, I came to understand how rampant the “publish or perish” problem really is. As a PhD student, you must not only publish many papers by the time you graduate to stand out against hundreds of similarly qualified applicants, but you must publish in top journals and compete against tenured professors, PhDs, and postdocs. These top journals usually have acceptance rates in the low single digits. It’s brutal. To be a philosopher, you must get used to rejection and constant criticism.

It’s not uncommon to work on a paper for a year, send it to a journal, wait anxiously for another year, and then receive a succinct rejection that patently misunderstands your thesis — a disconnect likely based on the biases of the reviewer. It’s not a fair system. And do you really think the process is “blind”? Hardly. It’s easy to tell who’s who based on their references, footnotes, writing style, topic, etc. Tenured professors get into editorial circle-jerks with their buddies who run the journals that publish their papers. The elders have all the power, and they do not want to retire.

Fresh on the job market? Good luck competing against the postdoc with five times the publications as you — who also has yet to find a job. There is a backlog of highly, highly qualified candidates and there are very few job openings every year. Not from a top 10 graduate program? Your chances of success are slim unless you want to slog it out in the adjuncting/postdoc world for years, waiting for a job to open up in the middle of nowhere.

According to a recent analysis, roughly three-quarters of teaching positions in higher education are not on the tenure track. This leaves the typical philosophy student working for six years to get a PhD, only to become an adjunct carrying a brutal course load, making maybe $30,000 a year, with no job security or benefits, no union, disposable, all while constantly hoping to get a job. You’re hopping from one shitty job to the next, moving to bumfuck nowhere, and happy you even have a source of income — all because you’re “doing what you love.”

You don’t know what academic philosophy is really like until it’s too late.

Except you’re not. Because by this time, you have no work-life balance and you’re sick of your research topic, which is essentially your dissertation stretched into 30 tedious papers over the next decade. The only way to advance your career is to become an expert on an incredibly narrow topic that nobody else has bothered to care about because its significance is so exceedingly small in the grand scheme of things.

Forget about writing papers on meaty topics you’re really interested in. Philosophy journals only want mind-numb, nitty-gritty logic chopping. The dense prose and needless logical formulas make it impossible to read without wanting to bash your head against the table.

I never did finish the degree. I got six years into the program and threw in the towel halfway through my dissertation. Some would say that I just wasn’t cut out for it, that I’m suffering from sour grapes, or that I’m bitter and jaded. Some would say that you should only consider a PhD program in philosophy if you truly love it, if you couldn’t imagine yourself doing anything else. So, really, I’m an idiot for doing it because I should have known all this before going into it. Except no one teaches you about the reality of academia in undergraduate philosophy courses. You never know what it’s really like until it’s too late.

Today, I’m 34 years old with very little in my 401(k). Luckily, recently found a career in the tech industry as a product manager. But I imagine where I’d be if I’d gone into the workforce at 22, right out of college, and begun contributing to my retirement accounts from the get-go. The opportunity cost of lost compound interest is staggering. It has literally cost me tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds of thousands.

It’s true that my PhD program made me a smarter and more interesting person. But what was my return on investment? The intrinsic joy of reading about philosophy? I could have done that on my own. Academic philosophy has an iron grip on the outpouring of useless knowledge locked behind the paywalls of academic journals and university libraries. What is society getting from this research? Sure, go ahead and teach critical thinking skills to young people. That’s important. But I question private universities paying full professors salaries of over $100,000 to research obscure metaphysical problems that no one — except academic philosophers — really cares about.

Sure, philosophers often talk about more “applied research,” but usually it’s just talk. “Applied research” often turns into a bait and switch; the actual researchers do all the hard work and the philosophers merely talk about theoretical implications. The philosophy of consciousness is a good example: Philosophers will propose to study free will and consciousness, but their contributions never amount to more than verbal debates. The real work comes when we can agree on an operational definition, but that is outside the realm of philosophy. Sure, there are exceptions to these patterns, but they’re exceptions.

Am I jaded? Probably, but for good reason. I caution anyone interested in spending six years of their life pursuing a PhD program in philosophy. And for heaven’s sake, don’t go into debt to do it! If you’re going to do it at all, make sure you have a stipend that covers all your living expenses. Otherwise, you will be a miserable, miserable person.

My PhD program provided some interesting conversations with interesting people. It expanded my mind in a way few people ever get to experience. But goddamn, I wish I had just gone into computer science. I would be heading toward early retirement by now, instead of just starting to save at the age 34.

So, did I enjoy my time in the PhD program? Absolutely. Was it all worth it? Probably not.

1 thought on “The Perils of Pursuing a PhD in Philosophy”

  1. I am planning to get into a Ph.D. philosophy program and I very much appreciate sharing your experience. I am neither white nor witty. I don’t know how I would manage – if I manage to get into it. Again, really enjoyed reading the post and I couldn’t agree more with you on the problems in academic philosophy.


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