Some of the most important questions that arise for people trying to make the world a better place are philosophical. What does it mean to live a worthwhile life? What are our obligations to future generations? And how do we decide what to do when we are uncertain about the answers to these questions?
In our view, investigating philosophical questions like these — as well as other questions in ethics, epistemology, and other subfields of philosophy — can be extremely valuable. Thus for some people it can be high-impact to pursue philosophical research as a career. Professional philosophers can sometimes also have a substantial impact via advocacy as public intellectuals. For example, the priorities of the effective altruism movement have been — and continue to be — shaped in large part by philosophers.
However, the academic job market for philosophy is extremely challenging. Moreover, the career capital you acquire working toward a career in philosophy isn’t particularly transferable. For these reasons we currently believe that, for the large majority of people who are considering it, pursuing philosophy professionally is unlikely to be the best choice. Almost all professional philosophers who have written publicly on this topic advise against aiming to become a professional philosopher unless “there is nothing else you can imagine doing.”1
We would recommend pursuing philosophy as a career only if you’ve tested your ability as a philosopher and you find that you are an especially good fit for it. Two tests we think are helpful here are: being able to get into a top-15 PhD programme, and being able to write a high quality research paper in philosophy before entering graduate school. Even among people who are able to do these things, we think most should only get a PhD in philosophy if they have already explored and rejected other career options.
- • Potential to do important research in a variety of neglected areas.
- • Potential for advocacy through teaching or public engagement.
- • If successful, a high degree of autonomy and intellectual satisfaction.
- • Extremely competitive, and job prospects are often dim even for PhDs who graduate from top programmes.
- • The PhD takes a long time to complete (4-8 years), and has poor transferable career capital compared to other similarly competitive options.
- • Highly autonomous work and long timelines for projects can be stressful or demotivating for some people.
Key facts on fitAll-consuming interest in important philosophical questions; strong writing, abstract thinking, and logical reasoning skills; ability to spend long periods of time autonomously doing research; ability to get into a top-15 philosophy PhD programme or write a high quality philosophy research paper.
Because philosophy is so competitive, we would encourage most people to explore other career options before beginning a PhD. A high degree of personal fit for philosophy may suggest a good fit for other less professionally risky and potentially higher impact paths as well, such as a PhD in economics or a career shaping public policy. We discuss more options below.
If you do decide to get a philosophy PhD, you should probably have a bachelor’s or a master’s degree in philosophy. Learn about PhD programmes by reading about them online and by talking to professors and current graduate students at your home institution or the programmes you are considering. We provide tips for getting into the best programme you can later in this article.
Contenders for the top-15 PhD programmes in philosophy include: New York University, Oxford, Rutgers (New Brunswick), Princeton, Michigan (Ann Arbor), Pittsburgh, Yale, MIT, University of Southern California, Columbia, Harvard, Stanford, University of California (Berkeley), University of California (Los Angeles), and Toronto.
Note that this advice relates most directly to careers in philosophy in the US and the UK.
We recommend this career if it is a better fit for you than our other recommended careers.
Based on a shallow investigation
Table of Contents
- 1 What this is based on
- 2 What is this career path?
- 3 Reasons to do a PhD in philosophy
- 4 Reasons not to do a PhD in philosophy
- 5 Is this path for you?
- 6 Earnings
- 7 I’ve decided to go into philosophy. What should I do?
- 8 What if you’ve already done (or are currently doing) a PhD in philosophy?
- 9 Should you do an undergraduate degree in philosophy?
- 10 Learn more
What this is based on
This article was first drafted by Oxford philosophy professor Will MacAskill in 2015, and then greatly revised by NYU philosophy graduate student Arden Koehler in 2019. It is based on desktop research, consultation with supervisors, conventional wisdom within the field, and personal experience. It was checked over by another six past and present philosophy graduate students.
What is this career path?
Becoming a philosopher almost always means becoming an academic who specialises in a subfield of philosophical research, such as ethics, epistemology, or decision theory, and who publishes and typically teaches in that subfield.
It is a subset of ‘academic research’ as a whole, about which we also have a detailed career review.
A common timeline for a successful philosopher is: 5-7 years in a PhD, 2-3 years in postdocs or other short-term positions, and 5-9 years in a tenure-track position before gaining tenure. Usually, these positions are at different universities, often in different parts of the world.
Professional philosophers divide their time between research, teaching, and administrative work. The distribution of your time varies from institution to institution: at prestigious research universities, you may spend over 50% of your time on research; at teaching-oriented universities, you may spend less than 20% of your time on research.
The topics junior professors and PhD students can teach are constrained by university requirements, but they still have considerable discretion with regard to the specifics of their courses. Senior professors, especially in research seminars, can teach on whatever interests them.
Research in philosophy normally involves a lot of time on your own. Collaboration on articles does happen, but is the exception rather than the rule. Philosophy research can also go quite slowly — although there is wide variation here, it is common to spend a year writing a paper before submitting it to a journal, and the time it takes for a paper to go from initial submission to publication is in most cases between six months and a few years.
We’re most excited about philosophers focusing on ‘global priorities research‘, which is an emerging field primarily in philosophy and economics that investigates questions about what causes are most important to pursue, how we ought to pursue them, and how we can know the answers to these questions. We discuss high impact research topics more below.
Reasons to do a PhD in philosophy
You can do important research
Philosophers can have extraordinarily large impacts on the world. A few examples from history illustrate the point: Aristotle’s influence on Christian ethics and medicine (among many other things!); John Locke’s influence on the founding and governance of the US; Karl Marx’s influence on communism; Friedrich Nietzsche’s unwitting influence on National Socialism; Ayn Rand’s influence on libertarianism; and Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell’s work on logic, which aided the development of computer science.
It can sometimes be hard to say whether a philosopher’s influence is positive or negative, but it is clear from some of these examples that negative as well as positive influence is possible. Unfortunately, whether or not harmful movements correctly interpret the views of philosophers that influence them is beside the point. The real risk of ideas being misappropriated by others lowers the expected value of developing them and is something that needs to be guarded against.
Examples of contemporary philosophers having broad, significant influence include: Judith Butler changing people’s understanding of gender and sexuality; Peter Singer shaping the animal welfare and effective altruism movements; and David Chalmers and Daniel Dennett reigniting debates around the nature of consciousness.
Global priorities research
What does it really mean to make the world a better place? The interdisciplinary field of ‘global priorities research’ within philosophy aims to break down this question and rigorously investigate the philosophical issues that arise in the course of answering it.
Because it can determine what we should aim to do morally, we think this kind of investigation can be extremely valuable. For example, even if we know we want to make things better for everyone, in trying to decide what we should do in order to achieve this goal, we run into questions like the following:
- How should we prioritise between interventions that improve human lives and interventions that improve non-human lives?
- What sorts of entities have the capacity for sentience, and how can we know?
- What should we do ethically, given uncertainty about the moral criteria by which we should evaluate our actions?
- What reasons do we have for and against thinking that we are living at an especially pivotal moment in history, such that our actions right now might have especially significant consequences?
- Is expected utility theory the correct approach for dealing with decisions that involve very small likelihoods of very positive or negative outcomes?
- What are the merits and drawbacks of the ‘longtermist paradigm‘ — the idea that because of the potential vastness of the future of sentient life, what matters most in ethical decision-making is an action’s impact on the long-term future?
Answers to these questions — among others — are crucial for determining which problems we should prioritise solving, and what actions we should take to do so. If we turn out to be wrong about which entities are sentient, for example, we could end up wasting a lot of effort trying to improve the experiences of beings that can’t feel, or, without realising it, we could do a lot of harm to beings that can in fact suffer.
The field of global priorities research spans multiple disciplines and subdisciplines. Philosophical subdisciplines linked to global priorities research include ethics, decision theory, political philosophy, epistemology, and philosophy of mind, among others. New research questions are still being uncovered, and interdisciplinary work may be particularly useful. Combining the analytic tools of philosophy with work in other disciplines — such as economics or biology — seems to us to be a fruitful and neglected type of research.2
For more details and additional topics in global priorities research, see the Global Priorities Institute’s website and research agenda, and check out the 80,000 Hours Podcast’s episodes with Hilary Greaves, William MacAskill, and Michelle Hutchinson
Research on artificial intelligence
Another category of potentially valuable philosophical research topics, which overlaps partially with global priorities research, is research relevant for creating beneficial artificial intelligence (AI).
Possible topics include:
- How should our current preferences or moral beliefs shape the development of AI, and when does it make sense for us to defer to the preferences or moral beliefs of other agents, such as future people or the AI itself?
- What decision theory should guide us in the development of AI, and what decision theory should guide the behavior of potential advanced artificial agents?
- Is it important for AI systems to be able to understand normativity or normative concepts? If so, how might we ensure that they do?
Philosophers may also be able to contribute to investigating the merits of specific proposals for helping to create beneficial AI. For example, in an episode of our podcast AI researcher Paul Christiano discusses a question about the strategy ‘AI Safety via Debate’ for which the tools of philosophy may be useful:
- If a less informed/intelligent human judge is observing a debate on some question between two more informed/intelligent artificial agents, what debate rules or dynamics (if any) will reliably allow the judge to be able to know which one is right? (See some recent work on this question.)
If you want to work on topics like these, you may be able to do so outside a philosophy department, for example at an AI lab, so it’s worth keeping in mind options outside of traditional academia.
Read more examples of potentially high-impact philosophy research topics.
We also encourage prospective graduate students to explore the possibility of doing valuable academic research on these topics or others in fields other than philosophy.
You might be able to become a public intellectual
If you’re successful as a professional philosopher, it’s also possible to have impact through advocacy rather than research. Although it’s hard to assess the impact of public intellectuals, and public engagement is not common among academic philosophers, the case for aiming to have an impact via becoming a public intellectual seems fairly strong to us. We suspect that public engagement among philosophers is rare in part because it’s rarely seriously attempted. There are philosophers who do regularly engage large, public audiences on ethically and politically important ideas. For example, Cornel West has a series of popular books, is a frequent podcast guest, and is a regular columnist for The Guardian; Peter Singer has a large readership through his popular books and newspaper columns, and Julian Baggini has appeared on dozens of podcasts and radio shows, as well as at events. These philosophers are able to engage so many people due to a sizable public appetite for philosophy. BBC Radio 4 has a philosophy feature, and The New York Times regularly publishes short essays by professional philosophers in its column The Stone.
Moreover, popular works by philosophers William MacAskill, Toby Ord, Singer, and Nick Bostrom have influenced and helped to grow the effective altruism community. The ability of these people to draw substantial media attention to their work suggests there is interest in philosophical ideas relating to effective altruism among the public, which other academics may also be able to harness.
Other contemporary philosophers who have been influential as public intellectuals include Jürgen Habermas, Martha Nussbaum, Thomas Pogge, Michael Sandel, Slavoj Žižek, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Damon Horowitz.
Of course, it is not easy to become a public intellectual. You must usually already be successful professionally to be credible with journalists; and you must be engaging and industrious to get public attention. Moreover, as we discuss below, the career incentives for philosophers generally discourage spending time on public engagement. As a result, it is hard to both do very well in academic terms and do effective public engagement at the same time.
However, having a professor at a respected university willing to comment on a topic is highly appealing for journalists at many magazines, blogs, radio shows, and podcasts. Thus, if you can comment engagingly on philosophical topics that are of interest to the public, and if you can become known within journalism, it seems possible to have considerable impact through public advocacy. This is a topic on which we would like to do more research; if you are an outstanding fit for this path, 80,000 Hours would be interested in talking to you about your plans.
Being a philosopher allows for a great deal of intellectual freedom
Philosophers have much more autonomy than is typical in other professions. You don’t have total freedom, because your future prospects are determined largely by where and how much you publish, and that’s in part determined by which philosophical topics are currently highly valued in the field. But how, with whom, and on what schedule you work is often completely up to you, and you usually have a great deal of discretion over your research topics.
Philosophy offers greater autonomy even than other areas of academia, because you aren’t generally working in teams or with a lab, you don’t have to apply for grants as often as you do in many other disciplines, and because it is such a wide-ranging discipline — if you’re interested in x, you can probably work on “the philosophy of x.”
Many philosophers also find their work highly intellectually satisfying. You’re working on very deep, abstract problems, which you are largely free to choose for their interest and importance, and you get to discuss them with very intelligent, intellectually curious people. Moreover, discussing a wide range of philosophical ideas in colloquia and at other events is traditional in philosophy, so you will likely end up engaging with arguments from most corners of the discipline even if your own research is highly specialised.
Reasons not to do a PhD in philosophy
Chances of success are low
The case for becoming a philosopher is dampened by the fairy low chances of being professionally successful. When professional philosophers discuss whether you should pursue a career as a philosopher, they almost uniformly refer to the poor odds of eventually landing a permanent academic position after a very lengthy training process.
Top PhD programmes have low acceptance rates. In general, you need strong grades, very strong letters of recommendation, and an impressive and original piece of philosophical writing to get in. Michigan Ann Arbor, for example, has an average acceptance rate around 6%; at UCLA, it is 8%; at Yale, 4 – 5% of applicants were accepted last year.3
The completion rate for students admitted to these programmes seems to be about 75% on average.4
Based on data collected as part of the Academic Placement Data and Analysis project between 2012 and 2016, the chance of getting a permanent academic post — including but not limited to tenure-track — at a research-focused university after graduating from one of these programmes approaches 30%.5
The odds of doing important philosophical research as a professor are a bit lower again, because you can get on the wrong research track, become disillusioned, be limited by academic incentives, or burn out.6 But by this point we would guess you have something like a 75% chance of contributing to useful research.
Multiplying each of these figures through, our very rough estimate is that at the point of applying to a top PhD programme someone has a 1-2% chance of becoming a successful and impactful philosophical researcher, rising to just over 20% if they’re admitted.7
About 25% of graduates from top programmes take roles at non-PhD granting institutions. However, these roles are often heavily teaching-focused and allow little time for research. If your goal is to have an impact through research, taking one of these roles may make that very difficult.
These figures should be compared with the fact that prospective philosophy PhD students have higher GRE scores for verbal reasoning and analytical writing than students in any other field, suggesting that they would be likely to have very good prospects had they pursued a different, less competitive, path.
However, if you think you have a considerably better than average chance of being able to do excellent research, and that the impact you can have as a professional philosopher is high relative to your other options, it may well be worth applying to top programmes to see if you can get in. (We discuss some ways of assessing your prospects below.) And if, after testing out some alternatives, you still think it stands out as the most promising path for you, you may want to accept an offer as well.
Outside of the better PhD programmes, the chances of having a successful academic research career decline substantially. Out of 133 institutions surveyed as part of the Academic Placement Data and Analysis project, 90 had a placement rate at research-focused institutions under 10%, and 41 had a rate of 0%.
It’s worth noting that, although disciplines vary significantly in this regard, most other areas of academia are also extremely competitive.
The transferable career capital you gain is relatively poor
Getting a philosophy PhD is weak in terms of transferable career capital compared to other options that are likely open to someone who can enter a top philosophy programme.
A philosophy PhD is a big time commitment: in the US, a PhD with a concurrent master’s degree typically takes 5 to 7 years; in the UK, the PhD typically takes 3 to 4 years, but you are expected to have completed a master’s degree before starting.
In a PhD you develop clear writing, reasoning, and communication abilities that are very useful in many areas. However, you will also need to spend much of your time gaining skills and knowledge that are very specialised to academic philosophy and not transferable to other areas. The credential you’ll receive and personal connections you’ll build are also substantially less useful if you decide to leave philosophy academia.
If one completes a PhD in philosophy and then pursues a different career, it becomes very difficult to re-enter academia. This is because hiring committees care a lot about your recent publication record and consider a “stale” PhD to be a bad sign.
In contrast, having worked outside of academia for a few years after your undergraduate studies is not in general counted negatively at the PhD application stage. This generates a very strong case, in our view, for exploring other career options before entering a PhD programme.8
All that said, a PhD in philosophy is an impressive credential. Because it is difficult to get into a strong programme and because it requires talent, grit, and hard work to complete, a PhD in philosophy is a strong general signal of aptitude and dedication. Though it doesn’t seem that common for people who have finished a PhD in philosophy and gone on to a non-academic career to regard the PhD as the best thing they could have done with the time they spent on it, it does provide a way to stand out when applying for other jobs.
One unique reason for doing a philosophy PhD may be that it can help you think in a clearer and more critical way about important topics, including how you should live your life. Which problems you choose to focus your career on radically affects the value you are able to add to the world. And in our view, the choice of which causes to support is highly dependent on which views in ethics you think get closest to the truth. It’s possible that studying philosophy can help you think more rigorously about these kinds of important questions.
However, this seems to be a relatively weak reason to do a philosophy PhD. For one thing, the evidence that studying philosophy improves critical thinking in particular more than other fields is lacking.9 And even if studying philosophy can improve your thinking on important topics, it seems likely that you can get much of this benefit from reading and discussing philosophy while pursuing a different career, or from studying philosophy as an undergraduate.
Doing a master’s course in philosophy is a shorter time commitment than a PhD, and if your credentials are not good enough to get into a top PhD programme at the end of your undergraduate degree, doing well in a master’s can improve your chances. But master’s degrees can also cost a lot: £11,800 — £55,000 or $15,000 — $70,000 depending on the programme.
The Oxford BPhil is widely regarded as the best master’s programme in the field, and many people continue on from it to top PhD programmes. Many BPhil students obtain financial aid of some kind, but without it the BPhil costs £25,140 for EU citizens and £50,765 for people from outside the EU.
It is usually possible to leave a funded PhD programme after 2 years with a master’s degree, though not all programmes support this option. And it is not considered appropriate to begin a PhD programme if you plan to leave after 2 years.
Career incentives often do not support impact
The professional incentives you face as a philosopher rarely push you toward more socially impactful work.
The main thing that helps your career in philosophy is publishing lots of rigorous papers arguing for theses that are novel, especially on topics that are interesting and intellectually challenging. Defending conventional views, supporting others’ work, or researching applications of existing work is less prestigious, even if in many cases it is more socially valuable.
Seeking to do high-impact research means being less focused on doing work that is inherently interesting to others, novel, and intellectually impressive. Since these qualities are highly prized in philosophy, it may be especially hard to succeed professionally working on questions that are chosen for their practical importance.
On the other hand, interest in and funding for global priorities research seems to be increasing. This is particularly true at Oxford, which is unusually supportive of applied ethics and which houses the Global Priorities Institute and the Future of Humanity Institute, both of which employ and support global priorities researchers. But because it is a new field, the prospects for global priorities research elsewhere in academia are not as clear.
Interest in philosophical research relevant to AI is also clearly growing. For example, the Cambridge-based Leverhulme Center for the Future of Intelligence supports philosophical research related to AI safety and ethics, and a new Institute for Ethics in Artificial Intelligence will be a major part of the forthcoming Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities at Oxford.
There also seems to be an increasing focus on social impact at the institutional level that may enhance incentives for highly practical research. For example, the Research Excellence Framework — which drives considerable funding for research in the UK — now bases 25% of its assessment of university research on the potential for social impact.
The professional incentives around being a public intellectual are likewise murky. If you are very successful as a public intellectual, this seems to be good for your career as a philosopher; but getting there may be risky. Since philosophers are professionally rewarded primarily for producing original and often quite specialised research, pursuing public engagement risks being detrimental to your career, both by taking time away from this kind of research and by potentially creating a perception that you’re less intellectually rigorous or focused in your work.
Is this path for you?
People who do well in philosophy are very intellectually curious and are drawn to a philosophical way of thinking, which involves a willingness to think abstractly, to state arguments clearly and logically, to approach problems from new perspectives, and to challenge assumptions that most people take for granted. Strong verbal and writing skills, as well as a capacity for independent research, are essential. For some sub-areas, you need strong quantitative reasoning skills as well.
If you haven’t already, you will want to learn about philosophy independently — from books, podcasts, and other sources — in order to explore the subject. Some good introductory books are Think by Simon Blackburn and Normative Ethics by Shelly Kagan. One of the most influential books among philosophers thinking about how to do the most good is Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons. Popular philosophy podcasts include Philosophy Bites and Partially Examined Life. Pea Soup, Daily Nous[http://dailynous.com/], and The Philosopher’s Cocoon are helpful blogs for learning about professional philosophy. For a broader and more advanced introduction to topics in philosophy, you can read articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is an unusually comprehensive and well-respected online source for philosophical issues, positions, and debates.
You can also listen to the 80,000 Hours Podcast episodes with Hilary Greaves, William MacAskill, and Amanda Askell to learn about their research and experience as professional philosophers working on global priorities research.
Academic philosophy is still mostly male and mostly white, which may add challenges for women or people of colour10, though active work is being done in the philosophical community to improve this. Two organisations working to improve diversity and inclusiveness in academic philosophy are Minorities and Philosophy (MAP), which has chapters across the UK and the US, and the New York Society for Women in Philosophy (NYSWIP).
Testing your fit for philosophy
Unfortunately, it’s hard to judge ahead of getting your PhD whether you’ll be a successful philosophical researcher. However, we think two reasonable tests are the ability to write a high quality philosophical research paper and the ability to get into a top-15 PhD programme.
Try to write an original piece of philosophical research before graduate school — as a term paper for an advanced course, as part of an undergraduate thesis, or in your spare time. If you can, work the piece into a thorough, polished research paper between 4,000 and 10,000 words — the length of a professional journal article — and discuss it with professors you know, especially any who are recently tenured or who are interested in high-impact research. Ask them to tell you honestly what they think. If they say that the piece has the potential to be published at some point in a respected journal, that is a good sign.
If you are writing an undergraduate thesis, you also might also try submitting it to the undergraduate thesis prize offered by the Forethought Foundation for Global Priorities Research, which also offers funding opportunities for PhD students.
If you do decide to apply to PhD programmes, you can use this piece of writing, or a part of it, as your writing sample.
As for getting into a top programme, we discuss that more below.
Other indicators of personal fit for philosophy that you can look for before you begin a PhD include:
- Being obsessed with working out answers to important and difficult philosophical questions
- Being able to work mostly without guidance from others
- Doing well in graduate courses — professors will sometimes let you take these as an undergraduate if you ask
- Having established relationships with professors who are fans of your work
Some suggestions for how academics in general can assess their fit at different career stages can be found here.
What are the best alternatives?
People who are able to enter a top PhD programme in philosophy are likely capable of doing well in a number of other careers, many of which have high expected impact and better chances of professional success.
One area to consider is jobs in policy. We think these careers are well worth considering for someone who wants to maximise their impact. Someone with the strong verbal skills needed to succeed in philosophy could likely succeed in many of the options in this area.
Another path to consider is retraining to enter another academic field. If you did well in mathematics in high school (as many philosophers did), then you may be able to enter economics or machine learning, which are two of our most recommended paths due to their relevance to global problems and their strong back-up options. This will usually involve studying maths on your own and then applying for a master’s degree in the area.
See below for more career options outside academia.
Based on this summary and a quick check with professional philosophers, salaries for philosophers in the US and UK seem to be roughly the following:
- PhD students: about £15,000 – £28,000, or $19,000 – $35,000, per year
- Postdocs: about £24,000 – £47,000, or $30,000 – $60,000, per year
- Tenure-track professors typically start at about £33,000 – £75,000 or $42,000 – $95,000 per year, and gradually progress up to about £99,000 – £158,000 or $125,000 – $200,000 per year (though these higher salaries are generally only offered in the US).
The most well-paid philosophers receive over $300,000 per year, but this is very rare. In general, you get paid more in the US than in the UK.
I’ve decided to go into philosophy. What should I do?
Talk to professors and current graduate students who know your work about going into philosophy. They can help you get a sense of your chances of getting into a strong programme, as well as help you develop a plan for where and how to apply.
Getting in to the strongest programme you can
The most important factors for getting in to a philosophy PhD programme are:
- Your grades from philosophy courses — these should be almost entirely A’s
- Your letters of recommendation from professors
- Your writing sample (which should be approximately 3,750-5,000 words)
Your writing sample is the single most important part of your application. You should seek extensive feedback on it from graduate students and professors, ideally as part of a thesis or an advanced course.
You will also have to write a personal statement and submit GRE scores, but these are less important. A sub-par GRE score or a bad personal statement can hurt you, but a very good one won’t help you much. For top philosophy programmes, GRE scores in Verbal tend to be in the 95th percentile and above. Quantitative GRE scores should be similar if you intend to do something more technical, but can be in the 80s if not.
If you aren’t sure about applying for a graduate programme in the last year of your undergraduate degree, it may be wise to spend a year trying to write a piece of research in your free time and getting feedback on it. If you find this to be very unpleasant or unreasonably difficult, this might be a sign that you should pursue other options. On the other hand, if writing the piece goes well, you can use it as a writing sample.
Choosing a programme
Throughout this article we’ve referred to the ‘top-15 PhD programmes’ in philosophy. Which are those?
There are a different measures you could use to evaluate PhD programmes, but we think the most useful single measure in this context is an assessment of faculty quality. Faculty quality rankings track programme prestige generally and are highly correlated with placement into jobs at the best research-oriented institutions. For faculty quality ratings we turn to the Leiter Reports, which gives us the following top 15 programmes for philosophy in the English-speaking world:
New York University, Oxford, Rutgers (New Brunswick), Princeton, Michigan (Ann Arbor), Pittsburgh, Yale, MIT, University of Southern California, Columbia, Harvard, Stanford, University of California (Berkeley), University of California (Los Angeles), and Toronto.
While we think this is a helpful guide, it should not be taken as a definitive, all-around top-15 ranking. When you look into faculty quality in just ethics or applied ethics, for instance, the list looks somewhat different.
It’s also worth noting that you don’t have to go to a top-ranked programme to have a successful academic career, and some programmes that are not as highly ranked stand out in terms of doing research on important problems. For example, we know of several students at The Australian National University who have successfully focused their work on topics in global priorities research.
Finally, while they are correlated, faculty quality doesn’t perfectly predict programmes’ placement of graduates into research-focused institutions. If we ranked programmes by their placement rates into these universities, we would get a top-15 of: University of California (Berkeley), Pittsburgh, University of Sydney, Rutgers (New Brunswick), University of Cambridge, Princeton, University of California (Irvine), MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, Harvard, New York University, Oxford, University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), University of Pennsylvania, and then Yale, University of York, and University of Chicago tied for 15th.11
All that said, attending a programme with a top faculty quality ranking does provide significant research and professional opportunities. And because these programmes are typically the most competitive, being able to get into one of them seems to us to be a useful concrete test of your fit for philosophy.
Other things to consider when choosing where to apply, or where to go if you get into more than one program, include: how much teaching it requires (this can range from 4 semesters to 10), how many years of funding it guarantees (which can range from 5 to 8 at US universities; funding is generally not guaranteed at all in the UK), and the range of research areas faculty and graduate students there are interested in. Also consider carefully whether the programme will be a good environment for pursuing high-impact research. Faculty and peers who consider social impact to be a compelling reason to pursue one research question over another won’t be available everywhere.
To the extent that you intend to work on an unusual topic — and many topics within global priorities research are still somewhat unusual to work on — the openness and flexibility of your department matter more. This is especially important if you have an interest in doing cross-disciplinary work, such as research that uses both empirical methods from economics or social science and philosophical analysis.
Ultimately, graduate students and professors at a prospective programme, particularly if they are less than 10 years out from their PhD, are your best resource for finding out if a particular programme will be a good fit for you.
During your PhD
While you are a PhD student, you should focus on writing the best possible dissertation and sending out articles to top-tier journals for publication as soon as you are able to. When you are on the philosophy job market, your publication record will be very important. Often it is easiest to adapt your first articles from chapters of your dissertation.
According to the Leiter Reports, the most prestigious general philosophy journals are: Philosophical Review, Mind, and Nous. For ethics and political philosophy in particular, they are: Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs, and the Journal of Political Philosophy. Getting an article published in a highly-regarded journal is an extremely competitive process, but it can help you a lot on the job market.
If you can, find a PhD topic that’s both potentially of great value to the world, and which will also look good when you apply for jobs. Fortunately, topics in ethics and political philosophy often fit this profile. There are a number of important questions in these areas, and there are also more jobs available in ethics and political philosophy than there are in other subfields. Some useful advice for finding a high-impact research topic can be found here.
Currently, the best university for pursuing global priorities research specifically is the University of Oxford. The Global Priorities Institute at Oxford hosts seminars and talks on global priorities research, and PhD students from other institutions can visit during their degree through Oxford’s Early Career Conference Programme. Visiting Oxford though participation in this programme or by other means can be a great way to get to know the issues in global priorities research and the people working on them.12
If you might try to become a public intellectual, test out writing for a popular audience during your PhD, for instance by keeping a blog or by submitting to online magazines, such as Aeon or The Conversation.
What if you’ve already done (or are currently doing) a PhD in philosophy?
If you want to stay in academia, you can probably have greater impact by focusing your research on the kinds of topics in global priorities research discussed above, or on other socially impactful questions. However, insofar as shifting your focus to socially important research seems likely to derail your professional advancement, it may be advisable to wait until after you have tenure to do so.
Another possibility is focusing your time on public engagement, such as by talking to journalists or podcast producers, or by writing books for popular audiences. Even if most of what you talk about in public forums is different from the focus of your academic research, this can be a high-impact option. Many ideas that are mainstream within academic philosophy and thus unlikely to impress fellow researchers, such as arguments for the moral status of nonhuman animals or against pure time discounting, remain relatively unknown among the general public. Although, as we noted above, pursuing public engagement in your career is not without risk, popularising these kinds of important ideas is one path to impact.
You may also be able to have an impact though teaching, as there are many ideas in philosophy that are important for young people to think about. Although your best students will often learn about these ideas from somewhere else if they don’t learn about them from you, if you focus on teaching the ideas you think are really important you may be able to have a significant impact on what some members of the next generation of thinkers and leaders do with their lives. Check out this syllabus to see an example of a philosophy course designed for teaching high-impact topics.
One path that philosophy PhDs sometimes fall into if things don’t go well on the job market at first is adjuncting part time while applying for full-time jobs. As many universities are hiring fewer full-time faculty, a greater proportion of available jobs are adjunct jobs. But these positions tend to pay very badly, allow very little time for research, and often do not help or can even hurt you on the tenure-track job market. If you find yourself deciding between adjuncting and exploring options outside academia, we think you should seriously consider choosing the latter.
Options outside academia
If you want to work outside academia, there are a few possibilities for which the skills you built in philosophy may be helpful. The array of people with PhDs in philosophy (or who started a PhD but dropped out) who are pursuing other, potentially high-impact career paths is somewhat encouraging. You can see a few examples we’ve heard about here.
We discussed some careers above that might be a good fit for people who are attracted to philosophy. Here are some more options outside academia in which having a PhD in philosophy might prove helpful:
- Working for an effective nonprofit (Indeed, one of our own staff members, Michelle Hutchinson, has a PhD in philosophy!)
- Working in journalism or other non-fiction writing
- Working in a policy role
- Research outside academia, such as in a think tank or foundation
We think work on issues related to AI safety or AI policy have the potential to be particularly high-impact for someone well suited to them. Some AI labs, including DeepMind and Open AI, have divisions for research on philosophical questions about AI. And some research projects at AI safety organizations like MIRI, the Center for Human Compatible AI, and AI Impacts also make important use of philosophical thinking and expertise.
Check out this 80,000 Hours Podcast episode with Amanda Askell to learn about her transition from Philosophy PhD to policy researcher at Open AI, and this 80,000 Hours article for the case for working in AI policy.
Should you do an undergraduate degree in philosophy?
In our view, philosophy is a good subject to study at the undergraduate level because it teaches you to write clearly, makes you practice thinking logically and abstractly, and encourages you to consider certain issues in ethics that seem to us to be crucial in determining how to live your life.
However, for most people we are more excited about them studying philosophy when it is combined with a major in a more quantitative subject, such as maths, computer science, or economics. Of course not everyone who would excel in philosophy will do well in more quantitative classes, and — especially if you plan to go to law school or another graduate programme — grades can be important. But if you think you might enjoy a more quantitative subject, we encourage you to explore it: it will provide you with valuable career options you likely won’t otherwise have. Moreover, the tools that philosophy provides you with can often help you think more clearly and deeply about issues that arise in other disciplines.
If a joint option isn’t available, then lean toward doing something more quantitative all else equal. It’s usually easier to enter philosophy after your undergraduate degree than it is to do philosophy and then transition to a more quantitative subject later.
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- Our career review of academic research as a whole
- Examples of promising philosophy research topics
- PhilPapers — an online archive of published academic philosophy
- How to be a high-impact philosopher, Part I
- How to be a high-impact philosopher, Part II
- How to be a high-impact philosopher, Part III
- Utilitarianism.net — an online moral philosophy textbook cocreated by William MacAskill
- Video: Talks from the Global Priorities Institute
- Problems in AI alignment that philosophers could potentially contribute to
- Should you become a professional philosopher (now)?
- Should you go to grad school?
- Should we discourage undergraduates from going into philosophy?
- The Philosophy Smoker
- The Philosopher’s Cocoon
- Karen Kelsky’s blog
- You and Your Research — a famous talk by the mathematician Richard Hamming about working on important research topics
- Master’s degrees for Economics PhDs
Episodes of The 80,000 Hours Podcast that cover academic philosophy and research careers
- Hilary Greaves on harnessing the brainpower of academia to tackle the most important research questions
- Will MacAskill on moral uncertainty, utilitarianism & how to avoid being a moral monster
- Will MacAskill on balancing frugality with ambition, whether you need longtermism, and mental health under pressure
- Tackling the ethics of infinity, being clueless about the effects of our actions, and having moral empathy for intellectual adversaries, with philosopher Dr Amanda Askell
- Dr Owen Cotton-Barratt on why scientists should need insurance, PhD strategy & what if AI progresses fast
- Prof Yew-Kwang Ng on anticipating effective altruism decades ago & how to make a
much happier world
- Dr Hutchinson on global priorities research & shaping the ideas of intellectuals
- Andreas Mogensen on whether effective altruism is just for consequentialists
- Alan Hájek on puzzles and paradoxes in probability and expected value
Notes and references
- A collection of views from professional philosophers on becoming a philosopher can be found here.↩
- Doing high quality interdisciplinary work is challenging and uncommon, partly because it requires mastery in multiple disciplines, and partly because there are few institutional resources available for it. However, this may be changing. The Global Priorities Institute, for instance, fosters cooperation between philosophers and economists. If you are determined to work with thinkers in other disciplines, you will likely be able to do so.↩
- Yale received over 300 applicants last year for its PhD programme; Michigan Ann Arbor has received a 5-year average of 256 per year. Most programmes do not publicize the number of students they admit each year, but in typical cases the figure ranges between 10 and 16. This yields acceptance rates of around 4% or 5% last year for Yale and an average of around 6% for Michigan Ann Arbor. UCLA has full programme statistics here.↩
- Most programmes give no data on completion rates, some that do give incomplete data, and rates vary considerably from programme to programme and from year to year. This estimate is therefore very uncertain. It is based on information from five top programmes: New York University, Michigan, MIT, University of Southern California, Stanford, and UCLA. You can see our data and calculations here. It’s also worth noting that in general, completion rates are likely higher at more prestigious institutions, and that it’s not true of everyone who drops out of graduate school that in retrospect they shouldn’t have started — though this seems to be the more common case.↩
- These estimates are based on data from the ADPA project from the period of 2012-2016, adjusted to take account of post-docs leading to permanent positions, for the Leiter Reports‘ top-15 programmes in philosophy. Some errors have been found in the APDA data in the past. For that reason and others, the figures here should be taken as highly approximate. You can see our data and adjustments here.↩
- It’s also worth noting that even at PhD granting institutions it can be hard to get much research done if the teaching load is too great. Many find it challenging to find time for research if they are teaching a 4-4 (that is, four courses each semester). A 5-5 would make research close to impossible.↩
- These estimates involve a lot of uncertainty. If your chance of going to a top programme conditional on applying is somewhere around 0.07 (most people who apply apply to more than one programme; however, many top programmes have admission rates slightly lower than 7% and acceptance to different programmes is highly correlated), and your chance of getting a permanent position at a PhD granting institution conditional on being accepted into a top programme is close to 0.22 (this is the nearly 30% approximate chance of such a job conditional on graduating, multiplied by an approximated 0.75 programme completion rate), and your chance of being a successful and impactful researcher in the long-term conditional on having a permanent position — meaning you are able to stay in the profession and your research turns out to be useful — is something like 0.75, then your chance of doing all this conditional on applying is somewhere close to 1%. This estimate should be adjusted somewhat upward however based on the chance of doing very successful research while coming from or working at a wider range of universities.↩
- However, if when you are at the end of your undergraduate degree you think you might pursue a PhD in philosophy later on, it can be a good idea to talk with professors and ask for letters of recommendation before you leave, while their memories of you are fresh.↩
- Some argue that it has not been established that studying philosophy improves reasoning outside of philosophical questions at all. For discussion, see this Daily Nous article.↩
- The data here are a bit spotty, but the percentage of tenure or tenure-track positions at top-50 departments held by women looks to be about 25%. Women get around 30% of philosophy PhDs. People of colour made up around 10% of full-time faculty at all degree-granting institutions in the US in 2003 (the most recent year from which we could find data) and currently get around 15% of PhDs. Compare: people of colour make up an estimated 40% of the US resident population. These dynamics can sometimes make women and people of colour in academic philosophy feel out of place.↩
- If you are applying to PhD programmes, it is probably worth exploring more the data available on different programmes. You can find the full results of the Academic Placement Data and Analysis project here, and the Gourmet Report here. Two alternative programme rankings can be found here and here.↩
- Note: one author of this piece participated in the Global Priorities Institute’s Early Career Conference Programme in summer 2019.↩