Philosophers Who Have Found Success Outside Academia

Helen de Cruz talks to Philosophy PhDs outside the academy who most definitely are not “slumming it”.

What can you do with a philosophy PhD, except work in academia? As permanent jobs in academia become increasingly scarce, professional philosophers need to look for alternative career paths where their training and experience can be put to use. Philosophy is a discipline with transferrable skills; philosophers are independent, critical thinkers who can synthesise and handle large bodies of complex information, write persuasively, and they speak for diverse kinds of audiences.

To get a clearer picture of how philosophical skills translate into the non-academic job market, I conducted interviews with seven philosophers who work outside of academia. They are working as consultant, software engineer, ontologist (not the philosophical sense of ontology), television writer, self-employed counsellor, and government statistician. With permission of the seven interviewees, this is a short digest of their answers.

Zachary Ernst has a PhD in philosophy of biology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with a dissertation on evolutionary game theory in 2002, and has worked as an assistant professor at Florida State, before moving on to the University of Missouri-Colombia, where he received tenure a few years later. He left academia in 2013 "I decided to explore the private sector for other opportunities because I wasn't happy at my job at the University of Missouri. Surprisingly, I got a couple of excellent job offers right away, and took one with Narrative Science, which is a Chicago-based start-up with about forty employees. The company has a patented technology for transforming quantitative data into English-language narrative reports. My position is software engineer."

Eric Kaplan studied at Columbia and at UC Berkeley, focusing on phenomenology and issues in analytic philosophy, including philosophy of mind and philosophy of language with advisors Donald Davidson, John Searle, Bernard Williams, and Hubert Dreyfus. Currently he is a television comedy writer and producer, probably best known for The Big Bang Theory. "I have worked on such shows as Late Show with David Letterman, Futurama, Flight of the Conchords and the Big Bang Theory. I also have my own production studio - Mirari Films"

Claartje van Sijl obtained her PhD in philosophy at Utrecht University, working on Stoicism in its social and cultural context, in particular its relationship to the Greco-Roman religious and mythical tradition, as represented by, for example, Homer. After her PhD, she founded her own company, Van Sijl Counseling and Training: “About half way through my PhD project I knew I did not want to continue in academia ... After a lot of thought and self-reflection I realised I love to talk face to face with people about topics that they really, personally care about and see how I can make a positive difference in their lives. I also really like the curiosity and enormous intrinsic motivation of researchers. Hence the plan to combine the two and become a professional counselor for early career researchers."

Ian Niles studied at the University of California, Irvine, focusing on philosophy of language. He wrote his dissertation on Wittgenstein. "After I finished my doctorate, I wasn't much interested in teaching, and I was even less interested in teaching at colleges in small towns in the Midwest and Southeast, which is where my friends mostly ended up. After another year of soul-searching and hanging around UC Irvine, I decided that I was much more interested in doing something related to the Internet, which was just beginning to take off." His current position is senior ontologist at Microsoft, and his charter is to maintain and extend the ontology that is used by the Bing search engine.

Nate Smith did his PhD at UC Davis in philosophy, focusing on the philosophy of biology. His dissertation was "Essentialist Heuristics in Biology", which was an effort to make sense of why biologists seem to keep making essentialist assumptions. “I ... probably would have been able to find some kind of academic job, but I chose not to pursue it. I currently work as a quality assurance engineer for a network security company. I work on a small team of software engineers, and am responsible for the testing of our software products”.

Carl Baker received his PhD from the University of Leeds. "My philosophical work has mostly been at the intersection of philosophy of language and aesthetics ... My doctoral thesis was on the role of arguments from disagreement in the debate over aesthetic relativism." He started working as a statistical researcher at the House of Commons Library in February this year.

Emilie Prattico’s interest in philosophy started in high school in France, which she followed up with a study in philosophy and theology at Oxford, and then a PhD in Northwestern in 2012. "My field of research was political philosophy, specifically the role of science and experts in democratic decision-making." Currently she works as an independent consultant in sustainability. "I work with Fortune 500 companies, NGOs, and local governments."

Several of the interviewees already thought of leaving academia while they were still in graduate school or had just finished their PhDs. Dissatisfaction with academia, especially its increasing reliance on contingent labour, the pressure to publish, uncertainty about an academic future, no control over the geographic location where they would end up working, were decisive factors. Loneliness and lack of collaborative opportunities were also mentioned several times.

Nate Smith: "Somewhere around year 3 [in grad school], I realised that all the hard work to prove myself good enough to get an academic job had no end in sight. It was all pretty stressful, and getting a job was just going to be the beginning. I was looking at years and years before I'd ever even have a chance at getting tenure somewhere (maybe like 10!), and I was starting to dread it. I love philosophy, but I think I just didn't love it quite enough to be willing to subject myself to everything that was going to be required to be successful. I wanted to get on with my life, and pursue other things that didn't have anything to do with philosophy. Academic philosophy was totally consuming my life, and I just didn't like how unbalanced it felt. Then I realised, I don't HAVE to do this to myself. All this, and there wasn't even any guarantee of success."

For Emilie Prattico several aspects of academic culture increasingly dissatisfied her as she progressed through graduate school: "I had the expectation that philosophical studies would seep more clearly into the lives of philosophers, but it became obvious to me that academic philosophy was just like any other job. Moreover, I was disappointed to find that among people who devoted their lives to philosophy, there were so many who were dogmatic, petty, and not open to cooperation."

Carl Baker comments on the increasing precarity of people on the UK job market, for whom a string of postdoctoral positions is increasingly becoming the norm: "My decision to speculatively seek work outside of academia was largely related to the instability of employment for early career academics and a general loss of confidence in my academic work. I held a fixed-term postdoc, due to expire in 2015, and was beginning to have to consider my next move in the academic job market. The most likely trajectory was another fixed-term job, and probably another after that, with little prospect of a permanent job or the chance to live in a single location for more than a year or two. The sheer instability and unpredictability of all this had begun to damage my mental health."

Zachary Ernst left a tenured position: "I strongly believe that higher education in the United States is on an accelerating downward trajectory, and that it's not possible to reverse it for the foreseeable future. And my major complaints about academia are structural, not specific to any particular department. The combination of funding cuts, the invasion of short-term business values into universities, and union-busting techniques being applied to tenured faculty, are all working together to undermine higher education. So despite the fact that there are some significant drawbacks to working in the private sector, it's still the place where I feel I can have the greatest positive impact."

Even though for some respondents non-academic work was a plan B, it became clear that looking for employment outside of academia that capitalises on academic skills requires careful strategising and planning. All my respondents took active steps in terms of additional training and networking.

Claartje van Sijl: "Before and after my PhD project I had briefly worked as a student advisor. That experience, plus conversations with fellow PhD candidates showed me that I easily let people feel safe to open up and have deep, helpful conversations. I professionalised that by enrolling in a coaching and training program a couple of months after my thesis defense. During that program I realised that self-employment is a common and convenient working format for coaches and trainers, so I checked out the information available on the websites of the chamber of commerce etc. for formal requirements of owning a business. I learned that focus is key in business: clearly defined problems and clearly defined ideal clients. I have seen people adrift with ill or undefined target groups."

Carl Baker: "The main obstacle was becoming aware of how the skills I had developed during my time as a graduate student, philosophy teacher and postdoc could be transferred to other professions. If I had to highlight one weakness in my postgraduate training it would be the lack of discussion of how the skills developed during a philosophy PhD can be used elsewhere. It is often easy to think that someone qualified in philosophy is simply useless in any other area ... Beyond this I simply applied for positions which seemed to match closely with my qualifications, interest and experience. I also applied for a few posts at 'dream' institutions, like the House of Commons, and was lucky enough to be shortlisted for the latter.”

How does a non-academic job compare to an academic one in terms of climate, opportunities, work-life balance? Most of my respondents compare their current work very favourably with their experience in academia.

Several respondents mentioned that the workload, although high, was more manageable, especially because their work seemed to have more of an immediate, widespread and positive impact. Ian Niles, for instance, says, “Overall, I much prefer working in the software industry to working in academia. I like the challenge of trying to keep up with researchers who have PhDs in computer science and have an engineering orientation; I like the fact that the work that I do has an impact on millions of users; and I like the mobility that the software industry affords”.

Nate Smith remarks that his experience of time management in academia and his current job are very different: “I never felt like I really had a day off in grad school. There was always something more to be doing, always another paper I could be working on, another talk to prepare, another dissertation chapter to write. It was difficult to ever really relax. I think some of this might have been self-imposed, but it was how it always felt to me. I felt like I could never fully enjoy non-academic activities. My current job doesn't make me feel this way. There are certainly always things I could be doing, new technologies to figure out, more tests to write, but somehow it's not the same. I think in academia there was a constant pressure to stand out and be exceptional, because this is what was required for me to get a job, and, I was starting to worry, what would be required if I ever wanted to change academic jobs, or get tenure. Standing out and being exceptional is good for my current career, too, and I do try to do that, but it's also fine to just be satisfactory. I'd still have a job. It takes a lot of the pressure off and makes it feel like I have more time to embrace other interests.”

Emilie Prattico: “While I thoroughly enjoyed (and later missed) the special student-teacher relationship, the fact that philosophy was often a requirement for undergraduates, and that they were not familiar with the discipline from broader aspects of the culture, could sometimes make teaching rather arduous, and its rewards not easily attainable in a quarter or in a semester. In addition, there was a real customer culture amongst students in the US (which was very different to what I had experienced in high school in France and later at Oxford). As a teacher, this challenge could be stimulating but it was also dispiriting at times, since what one can do in one semester to change these perceptions is not enough. As a consultant, especially in sustainability, on the other hand, I find a lot more motivation in my clients. I understand that the economic dynamic is different and that this may have something to do with it. But I think it is mostly because once a project is sold, it is pretty much a given that we are all on board for a shared goal, even if we might have different understandings of how to get there, for instance.”

What are the downsides to having a non-academic job?

Ian Niles: “I don't miss grading papers, I don't miss the egos, I don't miss the navel-gazing, and I don't miss the nagging question of ‘what am I expecting to accomplish in a discipline where the best minds in the history of western civilisation have failed to resolve a single issue in 2,500 years of reflection and discussion?’... The only thing I miss about academia, and it's a big thing, is deep, foundational discussions about the world. I have lots of stimulating discussions with my industry colleagues, but these discussions are generally focused on creating or enhancing complex artefacts – engineers tend to be very pragmatic and to shy away from the ‘big questions’. Other than that I don't miss academia.”

Zachary Ernst: “There are downsides, of course. The most obvious is intellectual freedom. As a tenured professor, I could spend my research time pretty much however I wanted. This is definitely not true in the private sector. Although I do have a good deal of input into what projects I'm working on and how they're done, my workday is pretty much driven by the needs of our clients. For a lot of academics, that would be a deal-breaker. But fortunately, I happen to be very interested in this work, so it doesn't feel like I'm giving up much.”

What transferrable skills can former academic philosophers bring to the private sector? The responses of the people I interviewed clearly indicate that the skills that are transferrable are broad and fairly high-level.

Eric Kaplan, for instance, explores similar questions in his philosophical writings and his writing of scripts for Big Bang Theory and other shows. “I’m very interested in tension between life and theory and mind and emotions; I explore that both in philosophy writing and in script writing.” He continues, “As I think about philosophy and comedy writing they are quite close to one another because both require keeping two or more incompatible perspectives in mind simultaneously. As a consequence both of them require imagination, close attention to the phenomenology of human experience, skepticism about received opinions and group-think, and precision with thought and language, as well as some skepticism of prevailing intellectual orthodoxies, including the value of precision and skepticism.”

Claartje van Sijl: “My education as a philosopher has taught me to continue inquiring at levels where others normally don’t; to question (hidden) assumptions and implications; to suspend judgment; and not in the least it has familiarised me with the greatest philosophical thoughts of 2500 years of history that I can now use as a sounding board for my clients’ and my own reflections. PhD research experience has offered a chance to learn things like complex information, project- and time-management; writing (in English); independence, responsibility, pro-activity, perseverance. I use the personal PhD experience to recognise and empathise with my clients.”

Zachary Ernst: “As a professional philosopher, if you haven't gotten over-specialised and narrow, then you've got really good analytic and communication skills. So you've got the ability to learn quickly and efficiently. You're also in the habit of being very critical of all sorts of ideas and approaches to a variety of problems. And if you've taught a lot, then you're probably pretty comfortable with public speaking. Those skills are very rare in almost any workforce, and they're extremely valuable."

Ian Niles: “My job does involve some technical concepts and skills, but I think the most important ability that it requires is non-technical, viz. the ability to think abstractly and analytically. I think philosophy is the best training possible for this ability, because philosophical problems are foundational, boundless, and extremely challenging. The technical concepts and skills that are relevant to my job include computer programming, database theory, discrete mathematics, and information retrieval. I didn't have much of a background in these things when I started my career, but they are to a large extent an application of formal logic, and here again my background in philosophy, I think, allowed me to come up to speed in these areas relatively quickly.”

The interviewees offered their advice to seekers of non-academic careers.

Eric Kaplan: “There's an illusion that comes from being in school too long which is that life is a series of predetermined tasks and hurdles and there's a linear ranking of people according to how many hurdles they've all hurdled. Recognise that ASAP – life is both much more chaotic, and has many more opportunities if you can be honest about what it is you really want.”

While a PhD provides valuable transferrable skills, it requires a careful balancing exercise to point to these skills and yet not appear overspecialised or arrogant.

Nate Smith: “Employers generally aren't going to be sure what to make of your PhD and previous career. Be prepared to explain why you're leaving and what you were up to in a way people can understand. Some will be a little worried that you’re just going to leave and go back to academia again since you've trained so much for it, so you want to be able to speak to that. It's good to convince them that the PhD is an asset, but don't overdo it. Use the skills you've acquired to make yourself competitive, but don't point to the degree and expect people to think it has value. Some will, and some won't. I had one interview in which the interviewer said, "We like PhDs, this is great", but another in which I noticed the interviewer had literally crossed out the parts of my resume that described my academic career; I suspect he saw it all as completely irrelevant."

Claartje van Sijl offers specific advice for academics who are thinking about starting their own business “hone the entrepreneurial skills you already have as an academic: you are a creative thinker, self-starter with perseverance, used to positioning and presenting yourself as an expert. Most important of all is your great capacity for learning new stuff quickly: allow yourself to be a novice and make a lot of mistakes. Then just go and expand your horizon.”

Several philosophers I interviewed caution against seeing a job outside of academia as a sign of failure or a fall-back option. For instance, Ian Niles: “Don't consider a job outside academia as "slumming it". Academia, for all of its virtues, instils a fear of the "real world" in students, particularly graduate students. This attitude is often reflected in applications that philosophers submit for jobs outside of academia, and of course it does nothing to endear them to hiring managers".

As these interviews illustrate “academia is not the only way to have an intellectually satisfying professional life. For many of us, it's not even the best way. Keep an open mind.” (Zachary Ernst) At the same time, it requires careful planning, additional training and networking to be successful outside of the academic job market. For that reason, Nate Smith also cautions “If you're lucky enough to have a secondary skill or previous career, don't let it atrophy (especially if you're still in graduate school). Do at least a little with it now and then just to keep up. This really helped me out a lot.”

HELEN DE CRUZ IS A LECTURER IN PHILOSOPHY AT THE VU AMSTERDAM. PRIOR TO THIS SHE WAS A BRITISH ACADEMY POSTDOCTORAL FELLOW AT THE UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD.