Can’t get a philosophy job? Why not go out and try to change the world?

I think the question “Why not change the world” can look quite irresponsible, so I’m going to try to make it sound more sensible than it might at first.

Some background: There’s a non-obvious link between two recent posts, the one on the AWID Istanbul conference and that on Homophobia. The link is actually Elizabeth Reid, with whom I’ve been meeting up in Oxford. We were grad students together at Somerville College, and she has a B.Phil. in ancient philosophy, with special emphasis on Aristotle.

It is Elizabeth who has just been to the Istanbul conference. It is also Elizabeth who has tried to reconnect virtuous behavior and eudaimonia in her work in developing countries on topics such as women’s welfare and AIDS. Some things she has done are spectacular, I think. She was the UN Development Program’s first Director on AIDS in developing countries and from about 1986 advocated what is now a standard opinion: AIDS is as much a social problem as a medical problem.

Advocating new approaches can make one’s life difficult, but I am certain Elizabeth thinks she has been extremely fortunate to bring philosophical and feminist positions to her now quite long period of advocacy.

So of course I have been wondering about the comparative quality of a life as, say, a UN official working for things that are probably more important than, e.g., developing a better account of the mind’s cognitive relation to its environment. Such as working on alleviating the suffering of millions of people.

Going into work on global problems is not especially easy. Entry points today are very often internships, Elizabeth tells me. That is, exploited labor, even with the UN. Still, when we think of what we might do other than teach philosophy, it might be worth shaking things up for a bit and looking at something entirely different, as Monty Python might say. Elizabeth does say one should start with some area one would really like to affect. But she did have a clarity of insight that might have provided unusual motivation.

I can hardly believe I’ve raised this topic, but I probably believe it is true that there are more important things than being a philosophy professor. One answer to “Why Stay?” could be “Don’t”. Mind you, thinking about trekking around Africa to hold workshops on AIDS prevention does make staying in philosophy seem like an easier option.

6 thoughts on “Can’t get a philosophy job? Why not go out and try to change the world?

  1. Even if you *can* get a job in philosophy, it’s not an easy choice to stay in academia given the other things you could do with your career. Most philosophy graduate students could choose to go into finance or law, with the ability to earn a lot of money and donate it to cost-effective charities. And it is a bit depressing to think that you’re pursuing an intellectually fulfilling career in academia at the expense of another career that could alleviate a lot of suffering. That’s not to say that you can’t do anything: if I stay in academia, I hope to donate a significant proportion of my research time to high impact research (as well as, of course, a significant proportion of my earnings!). Perhaps more and more people who decide to stay in academia will start to do this. But it’s certainly true that you might do a lot more good by leaving academia altogether. There are lots of options for pursuing an ethical career that don’t involve trekking around Africa to hold workshops on AIDS prevention though (like earning so much money that you can hire several other people to do this in your stead).

  2. While weighing the pros and cons of staying in academia or not, let’s not forget how desperately needed the teaching of critical thinking is, and remember how little it is taught outside of philosophy. I consider that my primary contribution: getting students to think and question, getting them to consider reasons for their beliefs, getting students to ask for reasons when others try to get them to believe something. In addition to thinking about doing what is most worthy, we also need to consider what each of us is best equipped to do.

  3. Amanda, thanks for adding texture to the contrasts I was trying to draw. I don’t think one should automatically blame oneself for not choosing the career most beneficial to others. I get very concerned when people speak of doing the best one can; that seems a potentially dangerous demand on a life.

    Justanotherfemalephilosopher: of course I agree that there are things one can do of considerable value in a philosophy career. I do get worried about the near discounting of service. E.g., work to very significantly improve opportunities for other faculty and students can get lost under the rubric of “service.”

  4. This is an issue I think about almost daily. I wonder, though, how feasible a transition it is from philosophy graduate student to real-world-changer. I plan to finish my PhD in two years at which point I will be over thirty, have relatively little work experience outside of teaching and a series of part time jobs, and not in a financial position to take an unpaid internship. I am strongly considering applying for both teaching jobs and public sector positions, but am not sure how to go about applying for non-academic jobs or if anyone would view me as a desirable job candidate.

    Are there resources available for those considering a transition out of academia? Lists of positions for which philosophical training would be a plus? Organizations with a track record of hiring PhDs? Places to look for relevant job openings? Any information of this kind would be extremely helpful.

  5. Something that people might consider is joing the Peace Corps. I left my first PhD program (after 2 years and writing an MA thesis) to join the Peace Corps, and even though I went back to academia, it was one of the best things I’ve done. It pays essentially nothing, of course, though many (maybe all?) student loans are deferred during the time. And, it’s a chance to gain some experiance that’s very different from normal academic life (even if, like me, one mostly teaches as a primary assignment.) There’s no guarantee that it will lead to specific jobs afterwards, but it can help open things up. (I might add that I’m not very sure that I made much of a difference to the people I worked with, but I’m sure that they made a huge difference to me.)

  6. annejjacobson: I don’t really see how doing the best one can is a potentially dangerous demand on a life. Can you tell me more about why think it would be? It also seems to me that these issues will come up even if you think about leading a moderately good life. If I become an academic then my expected earnings will place me in the top 1% of world earners (on my graduate student stipend I’m already in the top 3%). Given the amount of resources I have at my disposal, I think that if I were to donate very little of my time and money to reducing the suffering of others now and throughout my career, then I wouldn’t be living a life that’s even moderately good. I suppose that’s not true if you think that our moral obligations are incredibly minimal (e.g. don’t kill anyone, respect people’s property) but I find these views implausible.

    female grad student: I think there will be options available to those who want to improve the world that don’t involve things like unpaid internships. You might want to contact people at organisations where people have done this kind of thing before, or are doing research into it. One organisation that I know about (and am totally biased with respect to, so sorry for the plug) is 80,000 hours. There might be people that you can contact there who will be able to tell you more about transitioning from a philosophy PhD into an ethical career outside academia, if this is what you want to do. But I hope other people can recommend more resources with the kind of information you’re looking for.

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