Bryan Caplan  

The Labor Market for Philosophers

Henderson on John Stossel's Sh... Complication vs. Complexity...
Michael Huemer isn't just my favorite living philosopher; he's also amazingly perceptive about the real world.  The latest example: His FAQ on "Should I Go to Grad School in Philosophy?"  Highlights:
7.    But I'm really smart, so I'll be one of the few at the elite schools, right?

Probably not. However smart you may be, when you apply for that coveted position at the University of Colorado, your application will go into a pile of 300 others, of which at least 20 will look about equally good. All 20 of those people will have been the best philosophy students at their colleges. Think about the smartest person you have ever known. Now imagine that there are 20 copies of that person competing with you for a job. That is roughly what it will be like.
12. Why the hell would I want to become a philosopher??

You probably wouldn't. Philosophy graduate school is only suitable for a minuscule fraction of the population. If either (a) you would enjoy teaching basic philosophical ideas to undergraduate students for most of your life, or (b) you are extremely intelligent and intellectually innovative and you eat and drink philosophy, and in either case (c) you would be satisfied with a much lower income than other people of your level of education and intelligence, then philosophy graduate school may be for you.
The tiny number of people who will be able to land--and keep--jobs as researchers in philosophy will have what may be, for them, the world's best job:

a.    You can work, for the most part, on your own schedule...

b.    You can spend the summers how and where you like.

c.    You get paid, in large part, for talking about philosophy.
Point (c) is the key point. If that sounds like an amazing deal to you, then philosophy might be for you; if not, then it isn't.
If Mike crushes your hopes and dreams, don't despair.  Just get a Ph.D. in economics instead.

HT: Katja Grace

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COMMENTS (17 to date)
Philo writes:

All very sensible, and, as a bonus, he spelled 'minuscule' correctly!

Elvin writes:

My mom started working as a secretary in a top ranked philosophy department about the same time I started my PhD in economics.

The difference between my experience and the stories she told me about the graduates students in philosophy were stark. I had to resist tempting offers for real world work in consulting, business, and the government. There is no real world work in philosophy. (I exaggerate. I think there are many ethical decisions in the biosciences, religion, business, politics and military that need to be explored. I just don't think it's a large market.)

Bryan, you are absolutely right. When in doubt, I tell people to go into econ.

Hyena writes:

His fifth point lines up with part of my reason for not having philosophy--or any other academic discipline--as a graduate option: I don't really want to become tied to a job in a backwater somewhere.

Choosing where I live is pretty important to me, an academic career would almost guarantee that the set of probable living arrangements would be small and undesirable.

Troy Camplin writes:

All his points are equally valid for humanities Ph.D.s. I'm working at a hotel at night writing papers on Hayek's spontaneous order theory. I haven't had a single job offer in academia. (Of course, maybe that's because I write papers on Hayek's spontaneous order theory.)

Joe Cushing writes:

what exactly does one learn when studying for a Ph.D in Philosophy? Isn't philosophy just thinking. Aren't people natural born philosophers?

Noah Yetter writes:

Aside from relative income, and the generally superior day-to-day usefulness of an economics education (99% of which you've got by the end of undergrad), what exactly is different viz. Philosophy? The above dilemma is the same one all aspiring graduate students face, regardless of field.

David R. Henderson writes:

Too bad that wages don't adjust to make more philosophers and more employers happy.

Frost writes:

Yup. Academia is great if your goal is to become a broke, suicidal 35-year old with decade-long gap on your resume. I just wrote about this today, too. Bryan, have you and Michael been reading my blog? Don't be shy...

Jason Brennan writes:

@Joe: One learns a whole lot of philosophy--which most people don't know--and how to do it well--which most people don't come close to doing.

volatility bounded writes:

The only 2 reasons I know of to attend grad school of any kind are (i) you are independently wealthy and enjoy it or (ii) it is required to get a job you want.

The same is true about a decision to drop out of college if attractive job offers open while you are there.

Jacob Oost writes:

PhD in physics FTW! Woo-hoo!


Anyway, I alternate between feeling really sorry for people who get humanities PhD's and feeling heapin' helpin's o' schadenfreude at their expense.

Am I a bad person because of that?

Silas Barta writes:

Who is buying philosophers' labor, why are they doing so, and is such a revenue model sustainable?

Ironman writes:
"If Mike crushes your hopes and dreams, don't despair. Just get a Ph.D. in economics instead."

Act now, supplies are limited!

Peter H writes:

I was very fortunate to be given this advice when I asked a professor I like about whether I should pursue a PhD. I declined, and now am happily working in patent law.

Scott Miller writes:

This is awesome!
My favorite line: "Many philosophy students decide to attend graduate school, knowing almost nothing about the consequences of this decision". You would think that said person could philosophize the logical outcomes.

I have a friend with a MA in Poetry that is equally angry and frustrated because he is an Admin Asst.

geckonomist writes:

Well, by stating the FAQ nr. 7, the person provides quite a lot of evidence that he/she is not very smart.
And certainly not wise.

Jack writes:

This reflects, I think, a more general lack of awareness among youngsters: Not all career paths are created equal. It seems a lot of students expect all fields to lead to more or less equal job prospects and pay, and that you just choose what you enjoy most, and then expect a job.

Compensating differentials, people! (Granted, it's a terribly named concept, but a useful one.)

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