What Is the Real Point of Graduate Programs in Philosophy?

An edgy essay by Z

With a Follow-Up Critical Discussion by Z, W1, and Y

Originally published 1 May 2015.


1. Until recently, I was a tenured full professor of philosophy at a public university somewhere in North America, and as I say in my APP site-blurb, nevertheless I still managed to escape with my life.

It’s therefore somewhat ironic that my former department hasn’t yet purged me from their e-mail lists, and that I continue to receive unsolicited e-mails from them, which I inspect like dead bugs under a microscope.

But a week or two ago, I saw two e-mails, one from the current Graduate Placement Director, and another from the Graduate Program Director, that awakened me from my entomological slumbers and triggered my critical attention.

2. This is what the Graduate Placement Director wrote, with most of the bullshit edited out:

“….I would like students who enter our graduate program to be very clear about their options, from the moment they begin here. And I think that it’s very important that those who want to explore other options not feel like it’s stigmatized, or a taboo subject, or will make you seem less than serious about philosophy, or that there’s any suggestion that those who didn’t pursue T[enure]T[rack] employment in philosophy somehow must not have been very good philosophers in the first place. Nothing could be farther from the truth…. [G]raduate students grow and develop, from the time they enter the program, til the time they leave, usually though not always with an advanced degree in hand. We do not measure success narrowly in terms of landing a tenure-track job…. And of course, simply bringing up this subject of non-academic or non-TT employment is not meant to imply that you — i.e., the students in this program — are not good enough to get a TT job in philosophy. Let us openly acknowledge the fact that people might want to keep their options open, given the realities of the job market, without implying anything about the abilities and ambitions of those who are in the program. The fact that we mention alternative career possibilities should not be taken personally, to imply that you, the reader, are not good enough. Clearly, our primary focus and objective in graduate education is to teach you…. We can do this without wishing to imply that getting a TT job in philosophy is and should be the ultimate final goal for anyone doing graduate work in philosophy.… Finally, for those of you who are in the program, we suggest that when you talk amongst yourselves, you be respectful of other people’s career choices and options. The topic of employment outside academia, or outside the TT career path, should not be taboo. It is not helpful to denigrate other career choices, or to talk to others (or to yourself) as though anything but a TT job would amount to failure.”

In other words, what the Graduate Placement Director really meant by what s/he said is:

(1) that even despite the fact that graduate students in XXX Philosophy Department are really smart and hard-working, most of them are NOT going to get tenure track jobs (“[l]et us openly acknowledge the fact that people might want to keep their options open, given the realities of the job market”), although the XXX Philosophy Department will be more than happy to exploit their teaching labor as TAs or GPTIs even if they drop out (“graduate students grow and develop, from the time they enter the program, til the time they leave, usually though not always with an advanced degree in hand”), or, once they have PhDs, as temporary non-TT instructors/lecturers, or non-TT adjunct instructors, as long as they’re living there in XXX; and

(2) that, if they do indeed manage to stay in the graduate program long enough to finish and defend their dissertations and obtain the PhD, and are willing and able to move away from XXX, then other philosophy departments all over America will ALSO be more than happy to exploit their teaching labor as a non-TT temporary instructors/lecturers, or non-TT adjunct instructors, until they get so depressed and fed up with it all (“[i]t is not helpful to denigrate other career choices, or to talk to others (or to yourself) as though anything but a TT job would amount to failure”), that they quit and try to find a better job outside of academia.

And a day or two later, this is what the Graduate Program Director wrote, again with the bullshit edited out —

“I’ve recently heard a number of questions from grads and faculty about our recent placement results. The current academic year’s placement process is still in progress, but I can share the … results from AY 2013–2014:

-two-year at [Upscale Liberal Arts College] (Recent PhD recipient’s name elided)
-one-year at [Tier 1 State University] (Name elided)
-tenure-track at [Non-Upscale Liberal Arts College] (Name elided)
-tenure-track at [Tier 3 State University] (Name elided)
-tenure-track at [Tier 1 Military Academy] (Name elided)
-two-year at [Tier 2 State University] (Name elided)
-lecturer at [Tier 2 British University] (UK equivalent of tenure track) (Name elided)
-one-year … at [Tier 2 State University] (Name elided)
-one-year … at [Non-Upscale Liberal Arts College] (Name elided)
-one-year … at [Tier 2 State University] (Name elided)”

In other words, in 2013–14, amongst those recent PhDs in the XXX Philosophy Department who got ANY sort of job, 70% of them did NOT get TT jobs in the USA, although one of them did get a TT equivalent job in the UK.

Notice we’re not told how many OTHER recent PhDs in the XXX Philosophy Department did NOT find any academic employment in 13–14, and are still looking for jobs, nor are we told how many of THOSE were (barely — see below) surviving on adjunct instructor teaching during 13–14.

But in any case, during 13–14, fully 60% of recent PhDs from the XXX Philosophy Department were being exploited for their teaching labor in non-TT temporary instructor/lecturer lines by other philosophy departments all over America.

These data, of course, directly support what the Graduate Placement Director was really saying.

All this made me ask myself: what’s the real point of graduate programs in philosophy?

3. Here are some relevant thoughts.

First, since the 1960s, the total number of TT positions in higher education, including philosophy, has sharply declined, and the percentage of total jobs that are TT lines has even more sharply declined, as reported in the New York Times

and The Chronicle of Higher Education


My working hypothesis is that departmental and university administrators have realized that they can almost endlessly exploit the labor of graduate students and recent PhDs without TT positions, and pay them doodl(e)y-squat, almost always without any standard TT-line benefits.

Indeed, incredibly, the majority of adjunct faculty now live below the poverty line, as The Atlantic Monthly reported a year ago

And a recent UC Berkeley Labor Center study

reported in the New York Times just two weeks ago

showed that

[e]ven some of the nation’s best-educated workers have turned to taxpayers for support; a quarter of the families of part-time college faculty members are on public assistance, the Berkeley researchers found.

“I’m very proud of my doctorate, it was well-earned, but in terms of the work force, it’s a penalty,” said Wanda Brewer, who lives in Maywood, a Chicago suburb, and teaches at DeVry and Concordia colleges. She is paid $2,700 for each 15-week course she teaches. She and her 4-year-old daughter are both on Medicaid; they also receive $390 a month in food stamps and a child care subsidy.

She has applied for other jobs at chains like Walmart, Home Depot and Menard’s, but says she can’t even get a call back because such employers consider her overqualified.

“When I apply for anything outside education, they laugh at me,” Ms. Brewer said. “The term professor immediately commands respect. The assumption is you’re making a fair wage, a living wage, but that is not necessarily so.”

If my working hypothesis is correct, then the most recent economic downturn (pick your favorite) is NOT the real culprit in creating the recent and currently very bad TT job market, and terrible times for non-TT faculty.

The real culprit is administrators, who take the money they save and spend it on raising their own salaries, and on bread-and-circuses for prospective undergraduates shopping for schools (e.g. cool new rec centers, and coffee shops), and for the non-university mass consumers of university products (e.g., high profile sports programs), and other bullshit.

In this, of course, the administrators are silently aided and abetted by people with TT positions at “research universities,” who enjoy their low teaching loads by riding on the backs of graduate students and non-TT faculty, almost all of whom also have much heavier teaching loads, receive a small fraction of the TT-level pay, rarely or never get sabbaticals, rarely or never have any other standard TT-line benefits, and might well be in poverty (if they’re adjuncts), but almost certainly are almost all now living lives of more-or-less quiet desperation.

Second, TT jobs are very nice, other things being equal. They make it possible for you to do the thing you love, real philosophy, for your whole working life.

But unless they’re fully recognized to be mere means for real philosophy and living the real-philosophical life, then they become the Holy Grail, and by the end of graduate school, people who went in thinking they loved real philosophy, love TT jobs instead.

To that extent, they’ve made themselves into professional-philosophy-robots: see, e.g., the hilarious “scumbag analytic philosopher meme”

and therefore have become enemies of real philosophy.

Third, so, what’s the real point of graduate programs in philosophy?

Is it (i) to be a great source of cheap, exploitable, non-TT labor for the benefit of departmental and university administrations, and silent partner TT-line holders at “research universities”?

Is it (ii) to be a professional school for producing people who get (fewer and fewer) TT jobs?

Or is it (iii) to be a place where people can learn, do, and teach real philosophy together?

If it’s (i), then it is definitely in the interest of admininstrators to pretend that they’re reallyreallyreally interested in, say, (ii), without the parenthesis, or (iii),

but keep things essentially just as they are, freely exploiting the non-TT “losers,” and also very carefully controlling the input and output mechanisms of the professional lives of the TT “winners,” and then as regards (iii), we’re, well, fucked.

And if it’s (ii), then we’re all really just robots of the TT job system, destined to be either endlessly exploited non-TT “losers” or well-programmed, well-controlled “winners,” and again then as regards (iii), we’re fucked.

By sharp contrast, if it’s (iii), then since TT jobs are a mere means to real philosophy and living the real-philosophical life, then of course it’s also an instrumentally good thing to help all serious graduate students in philosophy get TT jobs, and also a very good thing to increase the total numbers and percentages of TT jobs, without exploiting ANYONE.

Fourth, how could this amazing thing be done?

One possibility: By overt collective action, e.g., noisy public protests, and threatening to withhold the cheap supply of exploitable labor (strikes? gasp), in order to to force administrations to create new TT lines, phase out non-TT lines, and convert every current full-time non-TT position into a TT line if they’ve employed someone in this position for, say, 3 years, etc.

Fifth, but in any case, it needs to be re-emphasized that TT jobs are mere means to an end and not the Holy Grail.

The Holy Grail is real philosophy and living a real philosophical life. It’s entirely possible to be a real philosopher totally outside of academia. See, e.g., this fairly recent New York Times article.

4. So I conclude that the authentic point of graduate programs in philosophy is to be a place where people learn, do, and teach real philosophy together.

And I further conclude that, in conjunction and conformity with that primary aim, faculty and graduate students should undertake collective action to force administrations to stop exploiting graduate students and PhDs in non-TT lines by creating enough TT lines to accommodate the total supply of real philosophers who graduate from their graduate philosophy programs.

(There’s an important ancillary issue here about what to do about exploiting graduate students who do lots and lots of teaching for departments, yet don’t ultimately finish their dissertations and get PhDs. That’s addressed under 5. below.)

And I even further conclude that, again in conjunction and conformity with the primary aim of realizing real philosophy, faculty and graduate students should undertake similar collective action to force administrations to make salaries, benefits, and teaching loads for all TT lines basically equivalent across all colleges and universities, with pay raises based on years-spent-in-post and cost-of-living, for equity’s sake.

5. As I partially anticipated in the parenthetical comment under 4., there’s another very important issue lurking here, very nicely raised by Robert Paul Wolff in his now 40-something year-old book, first published in 1969, The Ideal of the University, as to whether graduate programs in philosophy should be training graduate students primarily (i) to teach philosophy or (ii) to do original research in philosophy?

Wolff radically proposes that the PhD in philosophy be abolished, and be replaced by a three-year program that would qualify all philosophy graduate students to be philosophy teachers, and also that only those who showed special aptitude for original research, and were personally driven to do it, would then be funded to do it by competitive research fellowships, and eventually publish their original research.

In Wolff’s scheme, as far as I can see, there is no reason why someone who originally opted for the teaching track alone could not also do original research, and publish.

But the crucial points of Wolff’s radical proposal, for our purposes, are:

(i) that dissertations would be abolished and replaced by general philosophy training suitable for teaching,

(ii) research and publishing wouldn’t be required for TT jobs, and

(iii) that being a well-trained good or great teacher who knows and cares lots about real philosophy would be necessary and sufficient for a permanent TT philosophy job.

Anyhow, if we combined that radical Wolffian scheme with the conclusions I drew under 4., then we’d have decent-paying TT lines for all real philosophers well-trained in graduate philosophy programs, and all and only those who were personally driven to do original research and publish would do so, and there wouldn’t be the same level of (or any?) winner-takes-all competition for fewer and fewer TT jobs in philosophy, hence many fewer “scumbag analytic philosophers.”

6. And now, on the horizon, I can also see another set of very hard questions about the very idea of a PhD, about tenure, and whether it’s anything but a certain measured amount of job security, provided you never rock the boat, and not actually any sort of serious protection for “the right to think the unthinkable,” as the famous C. Vann Woodward report about free speech at Yale put it, recently resuscitated by Yale’s current President, Peter Salovey, about criteria for tenure, about promotion, about academic ranks, etc., etc.

But I’ll leave those all-too-tightly-tied philosophical and political knots for another day.


Y: I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said, Z.

But unfortunately, it’s not just Philosophy that’s fucked.

It’s all of higher ed.

And the more attached we become to a corporate model in which administrators are CEOs, students are customers, and people care more about money than they do about actually providing (or getting) an education, the more fucked it becomes.

Z: Absofucking-lutely —

[Here, an image of my former university’s logo for “branding” purposes, complete with TM trademark.]

But more seriously, do you think it’s possible to change graduate programs in philosophy significantly for the better, without wide-scale radical change across higher education more generally?….

Y: Hmmm…. perhaps particular philosophy departments can make small changes.

But it seems as if there are plenty of people who are perfectly happy with the way things are now.

It seems like it would be difficult to make significant changes to the field as a whole without a widespread desire for such change — and not just among philosophers, but also folks from other disciplines.

And it also seems as if existing economic factors/structures make it difficult to move away from a model in which grad students and adjunct faculty are exploited.

I was at a faculty meeting yesterday, and we were discussing the large pay gap between faculty and administrators.

One of the professors from the sociology department started talking about how this was an established trend in “the market” and could not really be challenging all that much.

I guess the idea is that since this is “how it’s done” everywhere, we can’t really question it at our own institution (which is a small liberal arts school, where one would think that the need for administrators actually is rather minimal).

When I hear even faculty members saying stuff like this, it makes me highly doubtful that significant change is possible.

Z: So you think:

(i) that it’s NOT possible to change philosophy graduate programs significantly for the better, without making wide-scale radical change across higher education more generally, and

(ii) that this sort of wide-scale radical change will be extremely difficult because of the entrenched economic (and of course also class-status) interests of academic fat cats, both inside and outside of philosophy, especially administrators, yes?

Sadly, I agree with you completely.

The only hope, then, would be for critics of the system to connect with academic skinny cats (angry TT-track people, angry exploited grad students, angry exploited non-TT instructors/lecturers, and especially angry exploited adjunct faculty), and help them engage either in overt collective action, as per the above, or else in sub-radar collective “passive” insurgency (“weapons of the weak” stuff — footdragging, lateness, unpredictability, non-communication, evasion, etc.), to the point where the system would start to implode, and the only fix would be change for the better.

So, perhaps, what worked for peasants in Malaysia in the 60s and 70s, as brilliantly described and analyzed by James C. Scott in Weapons of the Weak — could be creatively adapted to graduate programs in philosophy?….

W1: Here’s my take-away from what Z and Y have said:

Z: There’s a specter haunting philosophy departments and academia more generally–the specter of the exploitation of graduate students. The culprits are administrators and their overlords who have recognized that they can tap into the cheap labor of graduate students in order to keep the teaching machine of universities running at minimal cost. This specter is further manifest in the fact that graduate students are trained to think that it is TT jobs that are intrinsically good and that it is philosophy that is merely instrumentally good w/r/t that intrinsic good. Even further, there are two legitimate functions of graduate programs that are getting all mixed up and confused with one another: the creation of researchers and the creation of teachers. The way to call attention to and demand an end to this exploitation is collective action of some sort on the part of grad students and their allies.

Y: Yes — The underlying problem, though, is the corporate model on which the university is run and philosophy departments and their graduate programs can’t be fixed without fixing the entire model on which the university is run.

I’m in general agreement with much of this.

However, I think the problem is much deeper than either Z or Y has identified.

Allow me to put on my Adorno and Horkheimer hat:

Instrumental rationality and systems built to promote and develop merely instrumental goals are just fine and dandy so long as we remember that that can be no instrumental goods without intrinsic goods.

Academia as an institution has forgotten this.

Thus we have the lionization of STEM, the split between teaching and research, the tenure and promotion system, the exploitation of graduate students.

Universities are producers, what they produce are goods in the form of human capital, and what they take in is money.

This is the real crux of the problem: Academia can’t be both the place where the intrinsic good of knowledge and understanding is sought and a place whose barriers to entry rely almost entirely on capital.

This is especially disheartening for the true philosopher since philosophy is supposed to be a way of life.

There is no divide for the philosopher between teaching and research, student and teacher, work and life.

But the university instrumentalizes the philosophical life and alienates the philosopher from philosophy, thus demanding inauthenticity.

Capitalism and the legitimate goals of a university are at odds with one another in a deep way — their foundational concepts are contradictory.

Thus we can either have a university or we can have an institution run on capital.

This is not to say that there aren’t other institutions what are properly runnable on capitalistic models (trade schools, for example — this is why many universities have essentially turned into trade schools; if someone can tell me how business is a legitimate university subject….); it is just to say that we can’t buy and sell intrinsic goodness.

Z: I agree completely with W1’s deeper Frankfurt-school-critical-theory-style analysis.

That’s why I think we should create a system of “higher education without commodification,” i.e., a worldwide, internet-linked system of communities of free inquiry and teaching not in the vice-like grip of capitalism and Statism.

But as always, the huge fucking problem is, how to get there from here?, and in the shorter term, how to make things better by decreasing the distance between the fairly shitty way things currently are in contemporary professional philosophy/across the board at universities, and the ideal?

More specifically, how can we make philosophy departments SIGNIFICANTLY LESS like factories for producing undergraduate humanoid “critical thinking” (actually, minimal knowledge of informal fallacies easily adapted for use as debater’s tricks + competence in manipulating the sentential calculus, and a little first-order predicate calculus) robots for smooth integration into the corporate capitalist State?

And even more specifically, how can we make philosophy departments SIGNIFICANTLY LESS like factories for producing TT scumbag-analytic-philosopher “winners”, fully serviced (as per the sons of the technological masters in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, lolling about in sunlit gardens/faculty lounges high above the city) by the “losers” who live underground, i.e., highly exploitable graduate students and more-or-less desperate, long-suffering non-TT PhD-holding teaching-slaves, who in turn are all compelled by the current graduate philosophy program System to produce ever more humanoid “critical thinking” robots for smooth integration into the corporate capitalist State?

I mentioned two possible solutions above: overt or covert collective action by skinny-cat graduate students and faculty.

Big Worry: Sadly, if you step out of line overtly, departmental and university administrators will quickly find a way to fire you, or otherwise get rid of you.

And equally sadly for the covert option, the surveillance system that they have in place is reallyreallyreally effective — regular evaluations by supervisors, security cameras (filming your classes, online courses with filmed lectures, etc.), e-mail tapping, internet surveillance, spies, etc. — so maybe the radar goes all the way down, and it’s hopeless.

But here’s a third possible option: Skinny-cat graduate students and faculty find even more creative “weapons of the weak,” and beat the radar.

What do you think? Are there in fact some such weapons? If so, what are they?….


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, and Z, Wednesday 24 May 2017.

Against Professional Philosophy is a sub-project of the online mega-project Philosophy Without Borders, which is home-based on Patreon here.




Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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Mr Nemo

Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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