Philosophers who work outside of academia – part 1

A couple of weeks ago Helen de Cruz conducted in-depth interviews with philosophers who work outside of academia. This is a selection from the interview she had with me. Helen published the complete interview series at the New APPS: Art, Politics, Philosophy, Science group blog: part 1, 2, 3.

Philosophers who work outside of academia – Part 1: How and why do they end up there?

This is the first of a three-part series featuring in-depth interviews with philosophers who have left academia. This part (part 1) focuses on their philosophical background, the jobs they have now, and why they left academia. Part 2 examines the realities of having a non-academic job and how it compares to a life in academia. In part 3, finally, the interviewees reflect on the transferable skills of a PhD in philosophy, and offer concrete advice on those who want to consider a job outside of academia.

Does having a PhD in philosophy mean your work opportunities have narrowed down to the academic job market? This assumption seems widespread, for example, a recent Guardian article declares that programs should accept fewer graduate students as there aren’t enough academic jobs for all those PhDs. Yet academic skills are transferrable: philosophy PhDs are independent thinkers who can synthesise and handle large bodies of complex information, write persuasively as they apply for grants, and they can speak for diverse kinds of audiences.

How do those skills translate concretely into the non-academic job market? To get a clearer picture of this, I conducted interviews with 7 philosophers who work outside of academia. They are working as consultant, software engineers, ontologist (not the philosophical sense of ontology), television writer, self-employed counselor, and government statistician. Some were already actively considering non-academic employment as graduate students, for others the decision came later—for one informant, after he received tenure.

These are all success stories. They are not intended to be a balanced representation of the jobs former academics hold. Success stories can provide a counterweight to the steady drizzle of testimonies of academic disappointment, where the inability to land a tenure track position is invariably couched in terms of personal failure, uncertainty, unhappiness and financial precarity. In this first part, I focus on what kinds of jobs the respondents hold, and how they ended up in non- academic jobs in the public and private sector. Why did they leave academia? What steps did they concretely take to get their current position?

I hope this series of posts will empower philosophy PhDs who find their current situation less than ideal, especially—but no only—those in non-tenure track position, to help them take steps to find a nonacademic career that suits them. And even if one’s academic job is as close to a dream job as one can conceivable get, it’s still fascinating to see what a PhD in philosophy can do in the wider world.

A short methodological note: All interviews were conducted via e-mail or instant messaging. They have not been edited, except for some added ellipses and a few corrections of typographic errors. I am very grateful that the philosophers interviewed here devoted their time to giving such detailed answers.

What kinds of non-academic jobs do they have?

The philosophers I interviewed work in a variety of sectors, and have divergent philosophical backgrounds. […]

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 e.g. 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 realized 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. When I defended my PhD thesis, this was not so clear yet. I distinctly remember myself telling my former colleagues after my defence that I did not consider becoming self-employed ever in my life. One year later I was at the chamber of commerce to found my own coaching and training company.”

Leaving academia: Why and when?

Several of the interviewees already thought of leaving academia while they were still in graduate school or had just finished their PhD. Dissatisfaction with academia, especially its increasing reliance on precarious contingent labor, 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. […]

For Claartje van Sijl, the initial plan was to become an academic, but she revised it “About half way through my PhD project I knew I did not want to continue in academia. I had no idea what to do, because all I ever pictured in my post PhD future was a happy ever after life as an academic. And so did almost everyone around me. At the start of my PhD I married my wonderful partner who also pursued a PhD in philosophy and an academic career after that. Our family life choices certainly impacted the direction of my career. Pretty soon into our PhD’s we realized that waiting for job security before starting a family made no sense with at least 10+ years of temporary projects ahead on the academic route. We got our first child about midway into our PhD’s, our second was born just after I handed in my manuscript (a planning I do not recommend to anyone who likes their sanity), and our third was born a year ago.”

“During my PhD I felt lonely, despite the camaraderie with my fellow PhD candidates. In my work I was mainly involved with people who are dead anywhere between 50 and almost 2500 years. I struggled with issues such as finding the purpose and meaning of my work, fear and feeling stuck, so much so that I sought external help from a coach. This was one of the better decisions in my PhD.”

Actively seeking non-academic employment

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

“I took a summer to write texts for my website and marketing materials. I am glad I did, because after 3 years they are still valid and I get compliments for their clarity and authenticity… With all formalities and signboards in place I told a lot of people in my network about my company, especially those who professionally meet a lot of PhD’s and postdocs and could recommend me to them. This took some courage because it felt like I was kind of disowning the academic standards of philosophical quality as well as accusing academia for not providing their PhD’s with the support they need. Moreover, I was reinventing myself and presenting myself as an expert I did not yet truly feel I was… Nevertheless, I was very happy when the first clients came in.”

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