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Why I'm Leaving Academic Philosophy

An empty lecture hall

Last spring, I came to the realization that I was putting more emotion, energy, and effort into academic philosophy than it was giving me in return.

I’ve been lucky as a grad student – I’ve had great advisors and committee members, numerous academic awards and fellowships, and excellent grad student colleagues and friends. I’ve also had my fair share of academic horror stories (this is just a sampling):

  • To get through graduate school this far without debt, I have needed parental support for housing and transportation, an education fund that I hadn’t used in undergrad, multiple fellowships and monetary awards, a roommate who paid me rent, and extra jobs. Money is still tight, and I have little to no savings.

  • Another friend of mine had to leave the PhD program in part because he couldn’t afford it any longer.

  • Other grad student friends have foregone necessary medical treatment because it was too expensive.

  • Only one visiting professor was able to give me a good answer to the question “what do you like doing outside of philosophy?” Most everyone else answered “nothing, really.”

  • In a college-wide dissertation writing group I joined, attendants would express deep anxieties and concerns about imposter syndrome at every session.

  • Friends who have decided to leave academia or who find themselves with no job offers have felt as if they failed as academics and simply weren’t good enough.

These horror stories alone don’t cover the full breadth of issues I witnessed in my time at graduate school.

Structural Issues

There aren’t enough long-term jobs to support the number of PhD graduates, leading to greater competition for the jobs that are there. Philosophers seeking academic jobs find themselves stuck in a publication arms race—the more articles published, the better chances of getting a job.

At the same time, journals are overwhelmed with the number of submissions, which have to be reviewed by at least two professional philosophers. This has clogged up the publishing system, and sometimes it takes more than a year to hear back from a journal. Each paper usually takes several rounds of submissions at different journals before it’s accepted.

This means more work for both grad students and employed philosophers. Beyond the work of keeping the department running, which is often borne disproportionally by select faculty members, there are more requests to review papers and more pressures to publish.

On top of these issues, the university works on a fairly exploitative model not unlike a multi-level marketing scheme:

For a while, I thought I could work to fix these issues. I realized, though, that I would be so overwhelmed trying to survive in the system that I would have very little energy left to fight to change it.

Interpersonal Issues

Those who do get tenure track jobs often find themselves stuck in a department where conflicts can flare and simmer over the course of years. Combine the stuck-ness of tenure with the fact that a lot of philosophers do not have robust community support outside of the department, and things can get toxic very quickly.

The competition for a select number of jobs also contributes to philosophical dick measuring, because a lot of grad students (myself included) feel pressure to perform in order outcompete others looking for tenure-track positions. In philosophy talks, audience members often try to ask the most devastating questions, not necessarily the most helpful ones.

Quality of Life Issues

As you might imagine, these structural problems lead to a host of other issues: feeling guilt for not working as much as humanly possible, lacking clear boundaries between work and non-work, not having enough time or energy for hobbies, and feeling like if you didn’t make it that you’re not good enough.

Add to that little to no ability to choose where you want to live, and it can be hard to live the life you want to live, unless that life is devoted entirely to doing academic philosophy. Spouses who are both academics often have a hard time landing jobs in the same place, and it can be difficult to find the time to have kids.

Effects on Doing Philosophy

Since academic philosophers don’t have as much contact with people and experiences outside of academic philosophy, sometimes their philosophy feels disconnected from real problems and concerns. Since the academy moves very slowly, it can be hard to speak on issues that are happening right now (and there’s also a tendency to see activism as counterproductive to doing good philosophy).

Finally, the reason many of us got into philosophy was to live the good, reflective life. If all we ever get to do is think about the good life but never actually live it, then something has gone deeply wrong. We need time for philosophy, but we need time for other pursuits as well.

On balance, I realized that academic philosophy wasn’t a place where I could flourish and be happy. The reward for doing great work was always going to be more work, and I need time to rest and do other things besides philosophy.

I still believe in philosophy, but I have to say that my faith in academic philosophy has been shaken. Here’s to finding productive ways to do philosophy outside of academia, even if I’m not totally disconnected from it.

Photo Credit: Nathan Dumlao

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