Career Conversation Week: Philosophy Graduate Student
I’m a philosophy graduate student. Many EA’s are interested in philosophy. Some may be interested in a career in philosophy: this requires a graduate degree in philosophy. I will give a brief description of my situation first. I will then give a brief description of the possible impact through philosophy. I will end with a brief description of philosophy careers, and some practical advice for those considering a career in philosophy. I then conclude.
I am a graduate student in philosophy in the US. Before coming to the US for my graduate studies, I studied in Germany, my home country. US graduate studies are typically funded by a mix of teaching appointments (generally capped at 20 hours/week) and fellowships. Both pay the same amount of money, leading to a constant source of income. The exact amounts vary between universities. I would describe my financial situation as comfortable, but by no means luxurious. My current yearly pre-tax income by the university is around $36.000, and I receive roughly $8000 a year in external funding.
As a graduate student, teaching and research are the two main responsibilities. You will teach either as an assistant (i.e. teach discussion sections while a professor teaches the lecture), or as a primary instructor. The latter is significantly more work. Teaching is a passion of mine, but it is less important for my job prospects than research: hence, I am incentivized to spend more time on my research than on my teaching.
Research consists of trying to write papers that make it into good philosophy journals. Ideally, this is done in close cooperation with one’s advisor. Often, work is presented at conferences before it is sent out for publication. Philosophy is quite a prestige-driven discipline: the journal’s ranking matters a lot. A single top-3 publication is likely to outweigh 5 top-30 publications, for example. A publication outside of a top-30 or so venue matters comparatively little. This leads to a focus on few high-quality works rather than a “spray and pray” strategy.
Aside from teaching and research, it is expected that one takes up some service work in the department, such as organizing events, workshops, or reading groups. This does not take a lot of time unless you passionately organize things that take a lot of time.
Overall, I feel immensely privileged to be paid to teach and research philosophy. I also greatly enjoy the liberty I have in self-allocating my time, be it to research, teaching, service work, or my personal life.
Possible impact through philosophy is somewhat hard to assess. I did not choose to study philosophy because of impact considerations—it is simply the only career path that seemed bearable to me. Take the following to be my spontaneous considerations, rather than a detailed impact analysis.
There are philosophical works that have had a significant impact. Peter Singer or John Rawls are two ethicists that had a considerable impact through their writing. It strikes me as unlikely that work done outside of very specific fields (ethics/animal sentience/longtermisty stuff) will have a direct impact. Even if one works in these fields, the odds of achieving significant impact through research seem low to me: I think of such impact as a quite heavy-tailed distribution, with e.g. Rawls’ research impact likely dwarfing the impact of fifty good but non-famous political philosophers following in his wake. I do not hold this view with high confidence.
Examples of contemporary philosophers aiming for impact through public engagement or blogging are Richard Chappell and David Thorstad, both of whom do high-quality work that engages directly with the EA community, which I take to be taking philosophical worries much more seriously than other communities.
The main impact one can have in philosophy, I think, stems from teaching. Each year, one has the pleasure of teaching a hundred or so starry-eyed undergraduates who want to change the world. Helping these students find ways of changing the world by encouraging them, providing them with career advice, or helping them prioritize between different ways of changing the world has a significant positive impact. Some philosophers are especially good at this and have constructed classes that directly aim to facilitate helping students in such pursuits: At my institution, two good examples are David Manley and Anna Edmonds. I’d say someone who is good at teaching can easily help 5-10 students a year in making career changes that would not otherwise take place. It strikes me as comparatively easier to help people at the start of their studies than when they have already embraced on a career path, which is a benefit of teaching university students.
One can also attempt to have an impact through more indirect means. For example, I organize an international fundraiser for malaria prevention each year, which is held across philosophy departments. It raised $15.000 last year. I hope to continue to organize it yearly. This takes almost no time, and if you’re a philosopher wanting to team up on organizing this, do reach out to me.
Based on these considerations, from an impact perspective, I reckon that being a good philosophy teacher makes a bigger difference to one’s impact than being a good philosophy researcher. Of course, if you’re not a good philosophy researcher, you will not get a job as a philosopher.
When considering philosophy from an impact perspective, you should compare the impact you would have through philosophy with the impact of your alternative career paths that you are evaluating. For example, you may want to consider direct charity work, charity entrepreneurship, or earning to give. Note that all of these, too, provide you with possibilities for advising and mentoring other people. Given that my impression is that the main impact of philosophy comes through teaching, I believe that philosophy is unlikely to realistically outperform any of these alternative career paths unless you are a very effective teacher or mentor. I consider myself a pretty good teacher, but I still reckon I would have chosen another career path had I maximized for impact. Note that unlike in other career paths, a philosophy Ph.D. does not offer a fallback option: it is harder to do e.g. earning to give or a policy career with a philosophy Ph.D. than with an economics or comp sci Ph.D. This should factor into your considerations because the likelihood of not succeeding in the academic job market is high. This brings me to my next point:
The Philosophy Job Market
The philosophy job market is utterly f’d.
This is not hyperbole. Most philosophy PhD’s do not find a permanent position in academia. This is despite them desperately trying to find a permanent position in academia, and despite them being good philosophers. It is common for even a top-30 program to have only one graduate of a given cohort’s year to find a job. It is common for a non-top-30 program to not have any graduates of a given year find a job. It is common to see extremely talented people drop out of a career in their mid-30s or 40s. There is no alternative career path for philosophy PhD’s in the way that there is for economists, neuroscientists, or computer scientists.
There are simply far fewer jobs than there are graduates. Generally, a successful applicant to any university will come from a top-ranked US or UK institution, have a few top-ranked publications, and a few top-dog letters of recommendation. All of these are incredibly hard to achieve.
Career paths differ between countries. On the European market, it is typical to be working in several short-term Postdoc positions before (hopefully!) receiving a permanent job. This makes it very difficult to e.g. plan your life, have a long-term relationship, settle down, or have kids. On the American market, this is similar, but there exist tenure-track positions for earlier job safety. These positions are extremely competitive. There also exist rare non-university jobs, such as at think-tanks. These positions are extremely competitive.
I could continue on this harp for a long time, listing sacrifices involved in studying philosophy. I myself have left my home country and am spending 2/3rds of my life far away from my partner, friends, and family to pursue my dream career. I am happy to discuss more aspects in the comments section. But the practical takeaway is:
Unless you have independent means of financing your life without a job, a career in philosophy comes at great sacrifice and involves great risks. I recommend to only do philosophy graduate studies if you are accepted at a top 10 program, or have strong independent evidence.
What is a top 10 program? They are listed here.
What is strong independent evidence? Look at other PhD students your advisor had. Look specifically at how many of them have achieved a permanent position. Look specifically for how many of them have not: note that this second number is harder to establish. If it looks like most advisees got a permanent position at some point, this may be strong independent evidence for job prospects. Do not trust official data on this: departments are incentivized to undercount people that did not find permanent employment.
If you are an undergraduate student considering a career in philosophy, you need 3 things.
An amazing writing sample by the time you apply. This is generally a 15-20 page article showcasing the very best work you are capable of.
A faculty mentor who is willing to advise you in applications and revise your writing sample, by providing quality comments.
To be a stellar student (4.0 GPA or very close to 4.0 GPA).
(Optional) A top-20 journal publication. This is nigh-impossible to achieve while being an undergraduate student.
If you do not have 1-3, strongly consider alternative career paths or do a master’s to have more time for 1-3.
Some other factors affect applications: for example, if your letter-writers are well connected, that helps. Counterintuitively, demographic factors may also help: philosophy has long been lagging behind significantly in matters of diversity and is trying to correct that trend. As a consequence, the job chances for people from marginalized communities currently look better than for e.g. straight white males. I would expect this to affect grad school applications similarly, but I have not seen data on this. It is unclear whether this trend will continue. It is also noteworthy that the experience as an e.g. black philosopher or female philosopher may be negatively affected by the fact that fewer of your colleagues and mentors will be e.g. black or female. A third factor I want to address is that, by my current best understanding, having a writing sample that is legibly EA (e.g. “mentions the word Effective Altruism”; “Cites EA sources”; “is on a topic only EA’s engage with”) is more likely to hurt than help your chances. I would currently advise undergraduate mentees to not be legibly EA in the writing sample. I have made similar decisions myself in the past when thinking about what areas to specialize in before entering graduate school. It is fine to be legibly EA otherwise (e.g., have EA stuff on your CV). You will, however, be able to “respec” and focus on whatever you want in graduate school.
Here are some resources that may be helpful
1. Leiter Ranking: https://www.philosophicalgourmet.com/overall-rankings/
2. Phil Cocoon, a blog that has a fair amount of advice on applying to grad school https://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/
3. Alex Guerrero’s advice https://dailynous.com/2021/10/29/advice-for-applying-to-phd-programs-in-philosophy-guest-post
4. More advice, Eric Schwitzgiebel http://schwitzsplinters.blogspot.com/2019/06/applying-to-phd-programs-in-philosophy.html
5. The compass programs are helpful resources that can mentor your applications. https://michigancompass.wixsite.com/compassworkshop/apply-to-compass-2021.
I love philosophy, and am happy as a graduate student in philosophy. I think it is an immense privilege to be paid to do philosophy. However, pursuing a career in philosophy comes with great risks and costs. These costs are typically not clear to undergraduates considering a career in philosophy. Practically speaking, I would advise you to only pursue such a career if you successfully apply to a top-10 program in philosophy for your graduate studies.
I thank Wrenata Sproat for feedback on this post.
I will try to monitor the comment section and am happy to receive questions via message if I can help with any questions.