"Why would you want to encourage anyone to enter philosophy anyway?"

Updated: Jan 27, 2019

A year or more ago I was telling another academic philosopher – an employed one – about MAP UK and my part in it. Among other things, I mentioned the need to lift some of the barriers that prevent members of certain groups from getting into professional philosophy. Jokingly, he responded: “Why would you want to encourage anyone to try to get into academic philosophy anyway?”

He was referring, I think, to the terrifying difficulty that anyone seems to face if they want to get a job as an academic philosopher. And this is something that most of us are familiar with. As a student you can’t even hint that you might attempt to pursue it as a career without a sympathetic grimace and a warning from those around you. (Unless I’m just about to find out that that was just specifically aimed at me becoming an academic philosopher…)

As a slight aside, I remember one time that one of my supervisors told me that she loved academic philosophy, and that it can be a great job to have. A minimal thing to say in many ways, but I was so amazed to hear someone say something positive about the thing I was trying to do that it actually really surprised me. I was so used to the warnings and the negativity, it knocked me back a little to hear something good.

I’m not saying that there’s no reason for that negativity. There obviously is. The fully automated luxury utopia we’re dreaming of hasn’t arrived yet, and there are far more people trying to become academic philosophers than there are positions for us to take. For every success story, and for every person who has made it into a position to give this kind of advice to the next generation of students, there are stories of their friends and colleagues who try and don’t succeed. It can be really bad. It can be heart-breaking. It can seem like a kind of ‘failure’ even though you’ve done nothing wrong. And it can be like losing a weird but integral part of your identity.

Academic philosophy, after all, is weird. It can be something we do all day and then carry on doing all night. Sometimes we end up spending our spare money and time on conferences, on meeting other people in our weird bubble, and get more and more caught up in the strange life that we simply don’t know how to leave. (There are also more issues about how much pressure there is on philosophers to work long hours that I won’t get into here.)

So how should we – as a discipline – balance encouraging our students, bringing new people and needed people into the discipline (particularly those whose perspectives are under-represented), with protecting them from, and preparing them for, a significant chance of failure?

Although there’s some need to balance it with other parts of life, I still think there’s something valuable in participating in philosophy for as long as you choose to do it. And I mean valuable beyond what it might bring to a future career. This includes the more obvious ways it might be valuable, (pursuit of knowledge, self-improvement, opening our minds, etc.) but also some of the less obvious ways, like attending conferences and getting to discuss our ideas, making friends, trying to publish our work. I hope that I’m not just deceiving myself when I say that I’ll still feel good about the work I put into philosophy, the conferences I went to and the friends I made, even if I part ways with it all at the next job cycle.

But we need to encourage these values and sharing in that life in a way that makes it easier to leave academic philosophy. Whether it's leaving through choice or not.

One suggestion moving forward is to do our best to remind everyone of how great a life outside of academia can be. It’s tough – because in a way, the people who have the most obligation to do that are in the worst position to do so. To remind grad students, for example, that if they get a job that suits them then that’s great, but if they don’t then they haven’t failed. That the other options are there and are both valid and valuable.

When I was studying for my PhD my university started offering regular ‘development sessions’ to its postgrads. These tended to be on topics like philosophy job applications, on getting published, on the REF, etc. But there was also one on non-academic jobs. A live reminder to everyone in the room that lives exist outside of the bubble, and that they can be great. It wasn’t an attempt to crush the dreams of the students in the room but to allow them all to have more dreams.

I don’t know how to fix philosophy yet, but that seemed like a good start, and something we should aim to do more of. At least until the fully automated luxury utopia finally arrives.

Lizzy Ventham has just finished her PhD at Southampton University, and is currently a Teaching Fellow at Trinity College Dublin. Follow her on Twitter here.


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