This is the first of a three-part series featuring in-depth interviews with philosophers who have left academia. This part (part 1) focuses on their philosophical background, the jobs they have now, and why they left academia. Part 2 examines the realities of having a non-academic job and how it compares to a life in academia. In part 3, finally, the interviewees reflect on the transferable skills of a PhD in philosophy, and offer concrete advice on those who want to consider a job outside of academia.
Does having a PhD in philosophy mean your work opportunities have narrowed down to the academic job market? This assumption seems widespread, for example, a recent Guardian article declares that programs should accept fewer graduate students as there aren’t enough academic jobs for all those PhDs. Yet academic skills are transferrable: philosophy PhDs are independent thinkers who can synthesize and handle large bodies of complex information, write persuasively as they apply for grants, and they can speak for diverse kinds of audiences.
How do those skills translate concretely into the non-academic job market? To get a clearer picture of this, I conducted interviews with 7 philosophers who work outside of academia. They are working as consultant, software engineers, ontologist (not the philosophical sense of ontology), television writer, self-employed counselor, and government statistician. Some were already actively considering non-academic employment as graduate students, for others the decision came later—for one informant, after he received tenure.
These are all success stories. They are not intended to be a balanced representation of the jobs former academics hold. Success stories can provide a counterweight to the steady drizzle of testimonies of academic disappointment, where the inability to land a tenure track position is invariably couched in terms of personal failure, uncertainty, unhappiness and financial precarity. In this first part, I focus on what kinds of jobs the respondents hold, and how they ended up in non-academic jobs in the public and private sector. Why did they leave academia? What steps did they concretely take to get their current position?
I hope this series of posts will empower philosophy PhDs who find their current situation less than ideal, especially—but no only—those in non-tenure track position, to help them take steps to find a nonacademic career that suits them. And even if one’s academic job is as close to a dreamjob as one can conceivable get, it’s still fascinating to see what a PhD in philosophy can do in the wider world.
What kinds of non-academic jobs do they have?
The philosophers I interviewed work in a variety of sectors, and have divergent philosophical backgrounds.
Zachary Ernst has a PhD in philosophy of biology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with a dissertation on evolutionary game theory in 2002, and has worked as an assistant professor at Florida State, before moving on to the University of Missouri-Colombia, where he received tenure a few years later.
He left academia last year "I decided to explore the private sector for other opportunities because I wasn't happy at my job at the University of Missouri. Surprisingly, I got a couple of excellent job offers right away, and took one with Narrative Science, which is a Chicago-based startup with about forty employees. The company has a patented technology for transforming quantitative data into English-language narrative reports. My position is "software engineer”."
Eric Kaplan studied at Columbia and at UC Berkeley, focusing on phenomenology (Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty) and a variety of issues in analytic philosophy, including philosophy of mind and philosophy of language with advisors Donald Davidson John Searle Bernard Williams and Hubert Dreyfus.
Currently he is a television comedy writer and producer, probably best known for the Big Bang theory "I have worked on such shows as Late Show with David Letterman, Futurama, Flight of the Conchords and the Big Bang Theory. I also have my own production studio—Mirari Films—and have done The Drinky Crow Show, Hey It's Fluffy with Gabe Iglesias there as well as other projects."
Claartje van Sijl obtained her PhD in philosophy at Utrecht University, working on Stoicism in its social and cultural context, in particular its relationship to the Greco-Roman religious and mythical tradition, as represented by e.g. Homer.
After her PhD, she founded her own company, Van Sijl Counseling and Training "About half way through my PhD project I knew I did not want to continue in academia...After a lot of thought and self reflection I realized I love to talk face to face with people about topics that they really, personally care about and see how I can make a positive difference in their lives. I also really like the curiosity and enormous intrinsic motivation of researchers. Hence the plan to combine the two and become a professional counselor for early career researchers. When I defended my PhD thesis, this was not so clear yet. I distinctly remember myself telling my former colleagues after my defense that I did not consider becoming self-employed ever in my life. One year later I was at the chamber of commerce to found my own coaching and training company."
Ian Niles studied at the University of California, Irvine, focusing on philosophy of language. He wrote his dissertation on Wittgenstein.
"After I finished my doctorate, I wasn't much interested in teaching, and I was even less interested in teaching at colleges in small towns in the Midwest and Southeast, which is where my friends mostly ended up. After another year of soul-searching and hanging around UC Irvine, I decided that I was much more interested in doing something related to the Internet, which was just beginning to take off..."
"My current position is Senior Ontologist [at Microsoft], and my charter is to maintain and extend the ontology that is used by the Bing search engine. Information retrieval is increasingly focused on entity graphs rather than document graphs for improving search relevance, and organizing the high-level structure of these entity graphs is really a philosophical undertaking. It's a matter of finding a complete, consistent conceptualization of everything that would be of interest to a search engine."
Nate Smith did his PhD at UC Davis in Philosophy, focusing on the philosophy of biology. His dissertation was "Essentialist Heuristics in Biology", which was an effort to make sense of why biologists seem to keep making essentialist assumptions.
"I...probably would have been able to find some kind of academic job, but I chose not to pursue it. I currently work as a Quality Assurance Engineer for a network security company. I work on a small team of software engineers, and am responsible for the testing of our software products. I come up with testing strategies, write test cases and run them, research new ways to test things efficiently, and do some light programming in automating our testing so I don't have to do the same thing by hand over and over. I have a lot of flexibility in how I approach things, and I enjoy figuring out cool new ways to do my job well."
Carl Baker received his PhD from the University of Leeds. "My philosophical work has mostly been at the intersection of philosophy of language and aesthetics. I was centrally interested in the notion of disagreement and its role in these two sub-disciplines. My doctoral thesis was on the role of arguments from disagreement in the debate over aesthetic relativism."
He started working as a statistical researcher at the House of Commons Library in February this year.
Emilie Prattico’s interest in philosophy started already in high school in France, which she followed up with a study in philosophy and theology at Oxford, and then a PhD in Northwestern in 2012. "My research evolved considerably as I spent time at Northwestern and I was very fortunate to study with some wonderful philosophers and teachers, including Jürgen Habermas. My field of research was political philosophy, specifically the role of science and experts in democratic decision-making. I started my teaching career during my second year of graduate school, which was challenging since I was only 21!"
Currently she works as an independent consultant in sustainability. "I work with Fortune 500 companies, NGOs, and local governments."
Leaving academia: Why and when?
Several of the interviewees already thought of leaving academia while they were still in graduate school or had just finished their PhD. Dissatisfaction with academia, especially its increasing reliance on precarious contingent labor, the pressure to publish, uncertainty about an academic future, no control over the geographic location where they would end up working, were decisive factors. Loneliness and lack of collaborative opportunities were also mentioned several times.
Nate Smith: "Somewhere around year 3 [in grad school], I realized that all the hard work to prove myself good enough to get an academic job had no end in sight. It was all pretty stressful, and getting a job was just going to be the beginning. I was looking at years and years before I'd ever even have a chance at getting tenure somewhere (maybe like 10!), and I was starting to dread it. I love philosophy, but I think I just didn't love it quite enough to be willing to subject myself to everything that was going to be required to be successful. I wanted to get on with my life, and pursue other things that didn't have anything to do with philosophy. Academic philosophy was totally consuming my life, and I just didn't like how unbalanced it felt. Then I realized, I don't HAVE to do this to myself. All this, and there wasn't even any guarantee of success."
Eric Kaplan: "I decided to work in the private sector in 1996 after I had completed my oral exam. I was worried about the tightness of the job market, and also thought it would be fun to try writing for a bigger audience."
Emilie Prattico does not feel she has an overarching reason, but several strands of academic culture increasingly dissatisfied her as she progressed through graduate school "I had the expectation that philosophical studies would seep more clearly into the lives of philosophers, but it became obvious to me that academic philosophy was just like any other job. Moreover, I was disappointed to find that among people who devoted their lives to philosophy, there were so many who were dogmatic, petty, and not open to cooperation."
"Also, I started graduate school just as the job market was becoming alarmingly saturated (which has led to the poor state of affairs it's in today, cf. the whole adjunct situation), which meant that it got more competitive and more stressful. There's nothing wrong with competition in itself, but I find it counterproductive to philosophical research if it means that you will churn out papers for publication before you have a good idea. The pressure to publish in order to get tenure seemed wholly artificial to me from a philosophical point of view. So to sum up I would say there was a personal dimension to my disappointment and a philosophical one."
For Claartje van Sijl, the initial plan was to become an academic, but she revised it "About half way through my PhD project I knew I did not want to continue in academia. I had no idea what to do, because all I ever pictured in my post PhD future was a happy ever after life as an academic. And so did almost everyone around me. At the start of my PhD I married my wonderful partner who also pursued a PhD in philosophy and an academic career after that. Our family life choices certainly impacted the direction of my career. Pretty soon into our PhD’s we realized that waiting for job security before starting a family made no sense with at least 10+ years of temporary projects ahead on the academic route. We got our first child about midway into our PhD’s, our second was born just after I handed in my manuscript (a planning I do not recommend to anyone who likes their sanity), and our third was born a year ago."
"During my PhD I felt lonely, despite the camaraderie with my fellow PhD candidates. In my work I was mainly involved with people who are dead anywhere between 50 and almost 2500 years. I struggled with issues such as finding the purpose and meaning of my work, fear and feeling stuck, so much so that I sought external help from a coach. This was one of the better decisions in my PhD."
Two informants only came to the non-academic sector later. Strikingly, Zachary Ernst, left a tenured position. Next to his dissatisfaction with the position he held, he also observes: "I strongly believe that higher education in the United States is on an accelerating downward trajectory, and that it's not possible to reverse it for the foreseeable future. And my major complaints about academia are structural, not specific to any particular department. The combination of funding cuts, the invasion of short-term business values into universities, and union-busting techniques being applied to tenured faculty, are all working together to undermine higher education. So despite the fact that there are some significant drawbacks to working in the private sector, it's still the place where I feel I can have the greatest positive impact."
Carl Baker comments on the increasing precarity of people on the UK job market, for whom a string of postdoctoral positions is increasingly becoming the norm "My decision to speculatively seek work outside of academia was largely related to the instability of employment for early career academics and a general loss of confidence in my academic work. I held a fixed-term postdoc, due to expire in 2015, and was beginning to have to consider my next move in the academic job market. The most likely trajectory was another fixed-term job, and probably another after that, with little prospect of a permanent job or the chance to live in a single location for more than a year or two. The sheer instability and unpredictability of all this had begun to damage my mental health."
Actively seeking non-academic employment
Even though for some respondents non-academic work was a plan B, it became clear that looking for employment outside of academia that capitalizes on these skills requires careful strategizing and planning. All my respondents took active steps in terms of additional training, networking.
Claartje van Sijl "Before and after my PhD project I had briefly worked as a student advisor. That experience, plus conversations with fellow PhD candidates showed me that I easily let people feel safe to open up and have deep, helpful conversations. I professionalised that by enrolling in a coaching and training program a couple of months after my thesis defense. During that program I realised that self-employment is a common and convenient working format for coaches and trainers, so I checked out the information available on the websites of the chamber of commerce etc. for formal requirements of owning a business. I learned that focus is key in business: clearly defined problems and clearly defined ideal clients. I have seen people adrift with ill or undefined target groups."
"I took a summer to write texts for my website and marketing materials. I am glad I did, because after 3 years they are still valid and I get compliments for their clarity and authenticity... With all formalities and signboards in place I told a lot of people in my network about my company, especially those who professionally meet a lot of PhD’s and postdocs and could recommend me to them. This took some courage because it felt like I was kind of disowning the academic standards of philosophical quality as well as accusing academia for not providing their PhD’s with the support they need. Moreover, I was reinventing myself and presenting myself as an expert I did not yet truly feel I was...Nevertheless, I was very happy when the first clients came in."
Ian Niles "I enrolled in the Library School at Syracuse University..., and after I graduated I went to work for a start-up that had just been founded by one of my professors at the Library School. I was a researcher at the company, and I focused on applying computational linguistics and information science to improving search relevance. There were a lot of interesting problems to solve, and I actually found that my philosophy background allowed me to come up with solutions that hadn't occurred to other researchers at the company. After this job, I worked for several other software companies before coming to Microsoft in 2006."
Zachary Ernst: “When academics have asked me how my skills transferred over to the private sector, they typically are thinking too narrowly -- looking for a specific skill (like programming) that I might have acquired as an academic philosopher"
"I've been programming off and on since I was ten years old, but never professionally. I was a competent programmer by the time I applied for jobs, but I was not at a professional level. Although I had studied some math and a lot of formal logic, almost none of that is directly applicable to my current job. And I was totally up-front with potential employers that I would have to learn a lot before I could fully contribute to their projects."
Carl Baker "The main obstacle was becoming aware of how the skills I had developed during my time as a graduate student, philosophy teacher and postdoc could be transferred to other professions. If I had to highlight one weakness in my postgraduate training it would be the lack of discussion of how the skills developed during a philosophy PhD can be used elsewhere. It is often easy to think that someone qualified in philosophy is simply useless in any other area. I found this piece by Mike Steiner a very useful starting point in reflecting on the 'transferrability' of my skills... Beyond this I simply applied for positions which seemed to match closely with my qualifications, interest and experience. I also applied for a few posts at 'dream' institutions, like the House of Commons, and was lucky enough to be shortlisted for the latter.”
Emilie Prattico, who quite early on in her graduate study at Northwestern felt she did not want to become an academic, took steps already during that time to increase her skills and marketability in the private sector “As my doctoral research was coming to an end, I became more and more passionate about the practical implications of the issues I was writing about: the obfuscation of issues of justice by so-called scientific discourse, to put it succinctly. This made me look at concrete cases concerning, for instance, climate change. From there, my interest in corporate sustainability and the link between policy and corporations grew stronger and stronger. At the same time, I was pretty sure that corporations would be reluctant to hire a philosopher without more corporate/business/private sector experience. For me, the best way to acquire that without going for yet another internship was to go to business school -- so that's what I did! It allowed me to meet many actors in the field, to build a network, and to read a balance sheet and learn how to calculate an R.O.I. I then entered the private sector at a very prestigious strategy consulting firm, which I thought would further strengthen my assets as a sustainability consultant. After a few months, I left the firm since it was time to focus more on sustainability. I've been working independently for ca. 18 months."
Stay tuned for part 2, where the philosophers working outside of academia discuss the everyday realities of their work, and how it compares to their previous academic experience.