I want to make a difference. Should I become a philosopher?

To most people, this question sounds like a joke. I think that’s the wrong reaction. (Full career profile on philosophy PhDs here)

I think research into philosophy (certainly, at least, moral philosophy, and some other areas in political philosophy, epistemology and decision theory), is potentially extremely valuable. The impact of philosophy on the world seems to me to have been vast. Aristotle, Aquinas and Augustine shaped much of Christian ethics. Locke heavily influenced the American constitution. Peter Singer helped give rise to both the animal welfare movement and to the effective altruism community, and Nick Bostrom has catalyzed concern for existential risks, in particular risks from artificial intelligence. If you include aspects of the Bible (such as the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule), the writings of Budda and the writings of Confucius as philosophy, as I think you should, then most people for most of civilization have had large chunks of their lives shaped by the philosophical views of the time.

Some of the impact philosophy has had, though, has clearly been negative. Marx’s ideas were referenced in the rise of Communism, which was a Bad Thing; Nietzsche has been cited as an influence on National Socialism which was a Very Bad Thing; Ayn Rand gave rise to Objectivists who are, like, really annoying. (Note that whether or not these movements correctly interpreted or acted upon the views of these philosophers is beside the point – if your aim is to have an impact, you need to bear in mind the risk of your ideas being appropriated and corrupted). You could argue that means we need fewer philosophers rather than more; but I suspect if there had been more, better arguments, and if people in general had been more skilled at assessing arguments, then the negative impacts would have been less likely to arise.

However, the main reason why I think that philosophy is a high-impact area for research is that there are so many open questions that would radically change the value of all our activities. If non-human animals have similar moral status as humans do, or if we should think it’s morally important to create happy people, then the world’s moral priorities look radically different than we might have thought. We might be living in a moral catastrophe and not even know it; we need people to try to figure out if this really is the case. There are few other fields where conclusions in those fields can radically change your views on how you should live your life in the way that moral philosophy can. Moreover, compared to other areas of intellectual inquiry, the number of philosophers is very small. In some areas, at least, there seems to be significant potential to make progress on topics that would not otherwise have been addressed.

Of course, the chance of you being the next Aristotle or Locke is tiny, as is the chance to make an enduring contribution to the frontier of philosophical knowledge. But that tiny chance has to be multiplied by the scale of the upside; and the fact that most of the value comes from the most successful people doesn’t make philosophy very different from, say, politics, or entrepreneurship, or other areas of research.

So: does that mean you should become a philosopher if you want to make a difference? Sadly not. Even though philosophy itself is very important, the institution of academic philosophy is in a bad way.

In researching the career profile, I was pretty stunned by how consistently negative philosophers’ advice was on becoming a philosopher. Even the most positive conclusions are incredibly hedged:

Here, then, is the crux of it: if you love philosophy; if you’re willing to risk all of this, then go for it. Make no mistake: you may hate it someday, and you may hate yourself. But you may also wake up every day loving the fact that you get to do philosophy for a living. There’s really no way of knowing in advance which will be the case. These are the risks. Know them. Do not fool yourself in thinking that you will be a magical exception to them. The choice is yours.

And this was coming from people who had themselves been successful in the field. If you dig into the darker corners of the philosophy blogosphere, where the people who have struggled at securing a career in professional philosophy, you get dialogues like this:

Question: Does it make sense for Phillis [a hypothetical bright student at a well-ranked program] to continue pursuing philosophy professionally, given the awful state of the job market? Why or why not?…

[First commenter] To me, it seems like Phillis might be better off if she bailed on philosophy. Tenure line jobs are hard to come by, and it’s even tougher if one is picky about being on the coast. If she can find a tenure-line job at all, she’s probably going to wind up in Evansville or Des Moines or someplace. And if she wouldn’t mind it too much, and wouldn’t have a crushing sense of failure and regret that she didn’t stick with it, and if there are other things about philosophy she finds unsatisfying or frustrating, and she can find something else on one of the coasts, maybe she ought to bail….

[Additional commenter] Personally, I regret having finished the Ph.D. I have taught ethics for 10 years and am thoroughly disillusioned with the field, especially the people with highly unethical characters who decide to become ethicists (as well as journal editors and heads of associations/societies). So, I’m trying to move on to a legitimate profession that pays better, but at every turn I’m met with skepticism and rejection because I’m “over-educated” and yet “under-qualified” (perhaps they mean too many academic credentials, including those in the professional field, not enough practical work experience). Phillis should give up on the Ph.D. and instead pursue a professional degree. Even a Masters in Library Sciences would give an incredible boost to her job prospects.

And comments like this:

I would suggest that anyone who can drop out drop out.

If you have any other options in your life that you feel would be personally rewarding or satisfying and they are things you can pursue then it will probably be good for you to pursue those instead of philosophy.

Or this:

If you find that the quality of your life is lowered by having a profession where you constantly feel mediocre, like you’re not doing enough, like others are better than you, like your work is valueless, GET OUT NOW. No, seriously. It only gets worse after grad school, in my experience. You’re looking at a lifetime of rejections. That’s what professional philosophy is: an incredible string of rejections, with rare successes in between. And even if you DO avoid rejection (your paper is accepted to a conference! It gets published! You even write a book!), guess what? The best you can hope for is for others to attempt to prove that you’re wrong.

(For a representative sample of quotes, I created this list. My perception is that philosophers regard a career in philosophy much more negatively than how other professionals regard their profession.)

The main issues are that (i) there are far more philosophy PhDs than there are academic philosophy jobs; (ii) philosophy attracts the very brightest students (judging by GRE scores) so the field is exceptionally competitive; (iii) a philosophy PhD is a big time commitment that doesn’t particularly help with options other than professional philosophy.

This means my best advice is: go into philosophy only if (but not if and only if) you’ve both extensively explored other options, and you get into a top twelve school (where my best guess is that the top twelve, for the purposes of getting a good academic job in the English-speaking world, are Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Oxford, NYU, Pittsburgh, Princeton, Rutgers, Stanford, UCLA and Yale).

For more, see our full career profile on philosophy PhDs.