Philosophical Resignation

How cool. The Daily Nous website has a page where people who earned graduate degrees in philosophy can post the non-academic jobs they have landed. I never made it past a bachelor’s in philosophy, but my brain dances with the possibilities for my betters: jobs in government, media, any realm that requires ethics and clear, careful thought. I think fondly of all these employers who value the study (literally, the love, philo) of wisdom. So many jobs would benefit from reflection, analysis, and a mind that takes nothing for granted, refuses to copy blindly or follow nonsensical bureaucratic rules without question, digs deep and unearths the universal principles that connect various ideas. … I settle back in my chair to read the entire list, which stretches from 2013 to 2020.

In one of the earliest entries, a philosophy grad has been rehired by Atlas Fibre as a sales engineer after doing warehouse work.

Quite a few people left academic positions reluctantly, often when the philosophy department shrank or tenure dried up. A former tenured full professor of philosophy and division chair lost his job when the undergraduate program shut down altogether; he now works for something called Noodle Partners. Another guy left academe to become a policy specialist for Google. Several are teaching philosophy—adjunct. One teaches high school English and when he sent in his post, he was hoping against the odds to create an Intro to Philosophy elective for his students.

French high school students sit for a rigorous philosophy exam, answering such questions as, “Does culture make us more human?” “Is desire a mark of imperfection?” “To prove an injustice, do you need to know what is just?” Here in the States, we prefer more practical endeavors—hence the 9,600 undergraduate degrees granted in philosophy in 2017-18, just slightly fewer than the 386,000 granted in business.

In the sixth century BCE, the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus wanted to prove he could do business, because he was tired of being mocked for frittering away his time on ideas. He predicted a bumper olive crop, bought up all the olive presses, and scored a huge profit. So there. He went right back to philosophy, preferring the luxury of thinking things through.

Philosophy makes a habit of asking why. Border collies do not ask why; nor do blue whales. Humans ask why, and the answers can be revealing.

On the other hand, Ambrose Bierce defined philosophy as “a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.”

Which seems a little harsh, given that a postdoc philosophy fellow is now Head Brewer at Carrig Brewing Co. in Ireland. Beer is not nothing. A man with a doctorate in philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology has started his own writing company to jazz up corporate messaging. Someone else with a doctorate in philosophy is now an equity derivatives analyst. A man with a Ph.D. in ethics and social philosophy from Washington University grew tired of being a gypsy professor and joined Horizons Sustainable Financial Services as chief investment officer. A former visiting professor is now a “content specialist” for the ACT exam.

Tons of philosophy Ph.D.s seem to wind up in tech: A former associate professor at the University of Missouri Columbia is now a software engineer. A postdoc who is a member of the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy is now a web developer. I note a JavaScript engineer, a data conversion specialist, a content developer, an instructional designer, a tech researcher, tons of software developers, a hardware engineer. A scholar from the University of Edinburgh works part-time as a technical and marketing writer for a software company. A woman with a doctorate in philosophy from Rutgers manages data research for a nonprofit.

Other entries on the career page are the sort I envisioned: director of research and strategic initiatives at the Mexican National Commission of Bioethics. Statistical researcher for the UK Parliament’s House of Commons Library. Senior researcher in policy at the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town. Corporate director for clinical ethics at a hospital system. Analyst at the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Professor at Hawaii Pacific University and state representative.

Meanwhile, the Daily Nous news section chronicles the collapse of Liberty University’s philosophy department this past May. When a British university also killed its philosophy department, a philosopher wrote a scathing commentary in The Guardian, bemoaning “the crude pursuit of what is ‘practical, ‘efficient’ or ‘useful” and the emphasis on degrees that hold “value,” or in other words, provide a financial return.

This explains the streak of humility that runs through the posts, with references to past gigs delivering pizza or driving a truck in a refrigerated warehouse. Not even the Sixties flower children were as countercultural as philosophy is today, and philosophers are clever enough to know their odds. A woman with a master’s in philosophy is now an administrative assistant; another manages an engineering education program. There are marketing coordinators, a production editor, and—that fine occupation where people land after muddling through limited options themselves—a career coach.

If you train your mind to think deeply, you are not predestined to be a blazing success in our culture’s material terms. You are likelier to wind up juggling data in the tech world or doing slightly blurry, multipurpose work supporting a nonprofit.

If you are really lucky, you might get to brew beer.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.