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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Academia vs the Independent Scholar: Advice to Undergraduate Philosophy Majors

Anyone who is familiar with the current situation of philosophy in America knows that there is dissatisfaction all around. On the academic side, the "market" is terrible. Undergrads complain of being unable to get into a grad program, grad students complain of being unable to get a job, professors complain of meager wages and being unable to get a "tenure track" position, etc. (A good place to hear them voiced is on Leiter Reports). Meanwhile, the public at large in America remains largely ignorant of philosophy. How can it be that there are more philosophers than ever (employed and unemployed), and yet the public at large receives none of this philosophical knowledge and instruction? It is the result of another gripe that people have: the institution of the "peer reviewed journal". Professors seek publication in peer reviewed journals like so many mice in pursuit of cheese. Publication improves the resume, and the resume improves chances of tenure. But, the often cited problem with this is that, while everyone wants to be published in the journals, no one wants to read them. The evidence for this is simple: the journals don't make any money. The professors do not get paid for the articles, and, if a layman wanted to read one, he would find the journals themselves are ridiculously overpriced. In reality, the economic situation in academic philosophy is closer to Communism than Capitalism, with predictable results.

Of course, there are many who do work for universities and who do make a living off of philosophy, and, if you ask them, there's nothing whatsoever wrong with the system. But these are the minority. The majority end up dissatisfied.

The situation is probably not unique to philosophy. I am certain that similar results obtain in other parts of the humanities (English lit, for example), but I think that the situation is exacerbated in philosophy in particular because, unlike say English and History, philosophy is generally not taught in secondary schools. Year after year graduate programs produce new Ph.D.s, but there is no corresponding increase in market demand for them.

What is one to do? One possible solution to the dillemma for those who have sufficient training in philosophy is to become an independent scholar. The independent scholar circumvents the whole institution of academia and the headaches that go along with it, and the price paid is stricly economic. The independent scholar must earn his living by other means or simply already have those other means. His reward is independence. But, for him to be a philosopher he must publish. If he is not content to simply be a guy with a webpage, then he must enter the equally formidable book publishing market. Without credentials, publishing will prove difficult as well. But, with time and effort, one can accomplish a lot of things.

In general, my advice to undergraduate philosophy majors is not to rely on your major to sustain you economically after graduation. Get a second major in something that has a market such as a computer related field (computer science, IT, library science, etc.). This will improve your resume if you choose to go to grad school and will open up other possiblities in the job market for you if a life of academia does not work out for you. Even if you are a top student in a good program, you will most likely be glad that you did.

If you have already graduated with a philosophy major and you are not sure what to do, my heart definitely goes out to you, because I have been there before. If you are one of the many that is in a state of limbo, my advice to you is to attend a local technical school and to learn a skilled trade. These degrees can often be obtained within a year, and while the "white collar" job market is increasingly flooded with people, the "skilled trade" market is increasingly depleted and in need of workers. Perhaps the skilled trades do not have the "prestige" of being a "professor". But, you can take pride in the fact that you are doing something that people actually want and need. You will feel secure in your job and not subject to the whims of the economy. Something to think about, and best of luck to you.