When folks ask me whether they should do a PhD in philosophy (or theology, for that matter) I typically respond, “Yes, if you’re okay with being the smartest barista at Starbucks.” I then go on to describe the bleak prospects for humanities PhDs generally, and philosophy (and theology) in particular.
Since you might not have heard my lecture, let me give you the abbreviated version now.
We can start with this sobering fact. Jobs in the humanities have been shrinking for the last forty years along with student enrollment in humanities programs. (By contrast, programs in business and STEM disciplines are doing very well.) The future is in medicine, not metaphysics; it’s in robotics not Rousseau; it’s in engineering, not epistemology. You get the idea…
But let’s say you went ahead and did your doctorate. So what now?
The sad fact is that post-graduate programs have been producing an excess number of humanities PhDs relative to supply for years. So when you finally enter the job market, you’re already competing against a crowded field.
To make matters worse, many humanities departments are attempting to make do with less. In practical terms that often means a greater dependence on adjunct faculty who teach sessional courses.
There is an upside to this increased dependence on sessionals: you have more opportunities to “get your feet wet” teaching sessional courses and thereby to build your CV. Initially it is a thrill to be in the classroom. A couple of the schools you teach at are well known and you relish telling folks you teach at X or Y University.
Alas, the sheen of that lifestyle wears off quickly. Initially you naively hoped teaching a course at X University might help you “get your foot in the door.” But your application never went anywhere as they hired that dynamic and prolific young scholar from England.
So now you find yourself trying to make ends meet as a sessional prof, shuttling between schools and working for peanuts with no job security or health benefits. But beware, the longer you’re a sessional, the more you tend to get stigmatized as a classroom mule and the harder it is to get a job.
You need to get in the game!
So what’s the solution? You need to publish buddy like that prolific young scholar from England.
But when are you going to find the time? After all, you’re teaching nine courses a year at three campuses plus two more online. To be sure, you’re still happy to have the work. However, most nights you’re prepping new courses and marking papers until 1 am. After all that you’re understandably exhausted: good luck with writing anything that is suitably “academic.”
Then someone else volunteers further advice: You need to start presenting papers at conferences. Sure, you think to yourself, but how can you afford a thousand bucks for the conference fee, hotel and airfare? After all, you’re still struggling to pay off $70,000 in student debt.
You see a “dream job” advertised. It’s in your area and you’d love to live in that city. So you stay up extra late to rework your CV and write up a profound teaching philosophy. You send off everything the next morning with high hopes.
A month later you receive a polite email thanking you for your application but stating that they are candidating a couple other scholars. Nobody told you that more than a hundred qualified applicants applied for that same position. Your application — the one you thought was so brilliant — went in the recycling bin on the first pass.
You’ve now been struggling as a sessional for three years. But the courses are harder to come by: this semester you only have two. You did get two book reviews and three papers published last year. But that’s a mere drop in the bucket. Remember that prolific young scholar from England? He’s published three books in the same time and he was just promoted to associate professor.
Finally, you make a decision: You print off your CV and drive down to the university. You park outside the Student Union Building and walk into the Starbucks on the corner. “Hello,” you say with the most cheery voice you can muster, “I’m looking for a job.”