Please note that this advice primarily relates only to careers in philosophy in the Anglophone world: USA, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand.
What is this career path?
Becoming a philosopher almost always means becoming an academic who specializes in philosophy. A typical timeline for a successful philosopher is: 7 years PhD; 3 years adjuncting or doing postdocs; 6 years in a tenure-track position before gaining tenure.
Professional philosophers divide their time between research, teaching, and administrative work. The precise allocation varies from institution to institution: at good research universities, you’ll spend over 50% of your time on research; at teaching-oriented universities, you’ll spend less than 20% of your time on research.
What’s life like as a philosopher?
Philosophy normally involves a lot of time on your own. Collaboration on articles does happen, but is the exception rather than the rule.
Philosophy involves much more autonomy than most other professions. You don’t have total freedom, because your future prospects are determined in part by where you publish, and that’s in part determined by which philosophical topics are ‘hot’ at the time. But you can often work from home, you’re generally your own boss, and how you work is up to you. Philosophy has greater autonomy than other areas of academia, because you aren’t generally working in teams, you don’t need to use a lab, and because philosophy is such a wide-ranging discipline (if you’re interested in X, you can probably work on “the philosophy of X”).
Philosophy is much more intellectually satisfying than most other professions. You’re working on very deep, abstract problems and discussing them with very intelligent people.
Almost all philosophers find the administrative side of their work very tedious; attitudes to teaching vary greatly. Insofar as philosophers are are generally judged on the basis of their research output, they can feel resentful of the time they have to spend time teaching.
Philosophy can be very stressful prior to gaining tenure, because your future (where you’ll be, who you’ll be working with, and even whether you’ll get a job), is very uncertain. After gaining tenure, philosophy has exceptional levels of job security.
The culture of academic philosophy is currently dominated by white men, which can make women and minorities feel out of place, though active work is being done by the philosophical community to improve this.
People who do well in philosophy are highly intellectually curious, and in particular are drawn to the philosophical way of thinking, which involves a willingness to think abstractly, to state arguments very clearly and logically, and to challenge assumptions that most people take for granted. By far the best ways to find out whether philosophy is of interest to you is to take classes in it, or to read about it independently: some good introductory books are “Think” by Simon Blackburn and “Normative Ethics” by Shelly Kagan.
The positive impact one has as a PhD student in philosophy seems small. Most groundbreaking research comes after one has finished a PhD; one normally does a small amount of teaching. Some people have been able to use the fact that one’s time on a philosophy PhD is very flexible in order to do valuable side-projects.
Certain areas of philosophy seem to us to potentially be high-value research fields. There are historical examples of philosophers with extraordinarily large impact on the world. However, it’s important to bear in mind that there has been both highly positive and highly negative impact. Some examples of historical figures who have allegedly had a considerable influence include: Aristotle’s influence on Christian ethics; John Locke’s influence; Karl Marx’s influence on Communism; Nietzsche’s influence on National Socialism; Ayn Rand’s influence on libertarianism; Frege and Russell’s work on logic that helped the development of computer science. (Note that whether or not the negative 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). More recent examples include Peter Singer’s influence on the animal welfare movement, Peter Singer’s influence on the effective altruism movement, and Nick Bostrom’s influence on concern for extinction risks and artificial intelligence.
There are also a number of topics within philosophy with clearly very large practical importance. Some of these are listed here.
However, within science most of the value is generated by a small number of papers from a small numbers of scientists.1 Our perception is that philosophy follows a similar pattern – a small number of works of philosophy have enduring significance, whereas most are almost never cited or discussed.
It’s hard to judge ahead of getting your PhD whether you’ll be among the most able philosophers, as success is achieved through a combination of intrinsic ability, hard work and luck (with the latter two being extremely important). We would expect undergraduate success to be correlated with success as a professional philosopher, but academic philosophy is sufficiently dissimilar from undergraduate study that we would expect the correlation to be only moderate or weak. We think that a reasonable heuristic is that if you can get into one of the top twelve PhD programs, then you have as good a chance as anyone of being among the very most able philosophers.
The impact you could have via donations is reasonable, but probably quite a bit lower than other options available to you. In the US and UK your salaries are approximately as follows. PhD students typically get paid very little (about £14,000 – £20,000, or $22,000 – $32,000, per year), postdocs on a bit more (typically about £20,000 – £30,000, or $32,000 – $47,000, per year). Tenure-track professors typically start at about £32,000 – £50,000 or $50,000 – $78,000 per year), and gradually progress up to about £80,000-£130,000 or $125,000 – $200,000 per year.2 The most well-paid philosophers receive over $300,000 per year. In general, you get paid a bit more in the US than in the UK; for more senior philosophers, pay is considerably better in the US than it is elsewhere.
The case for having an enduring impact via teaching seems weaker to us than the impact via research: one can’t branch too far away from the core syllabus (which would have been taught to the students by someone else, even if you weren’t working there); the most interested students would probably pick up the most important ideas (such as Singer’s arguments that fighting poverty is obligatory rather than supererogatory); and, at most universities, students just aren’t that passionate about their studies and it seems the impact one has on them is limited. However, this isn’t an area that we’ve yet investigated thoroughly.
If one is successful as a professional philosopher, the case for impact via becoming a public intellectual seems fairly strong to us, though it’s very difficult to quantify the impact public intellectuals have. Academic incentives in philosophy are aligned with producing original research; pursuing public engagement risks being positively detrimental to your career by creating a perception that you’re shallow or not focused on research. Because of this, few professional philosophers attempt to become public intellectuals. In contrast, for journalists, magazines, and blogs, having a professor at a respected university willing to comment on topical matters is highly appealing as it is an easy way to build or extend an article; the key bottleneck is simply being known within journalism. This is an area 80,000 Hours can help you with.
Chances of success as a professional philosopher
Importantly, all of the above should be mitigated by the chances of being successful as a professional philosopher. When professional philosophers discuss whether you should pursue a career as a professional philosopher, they almost uniformly refer to the poor odds of successfully landing a permanent academic position.3
We haven’t investigated this in as much depth as we would like, and we’re not convinced about the reliability of the data, which is often patchy. However, we estimate that the chances of ending up in a tenure-track or equivalent academic post if you enter a top-12 PhD program to be about 60%.4 We take the top 12 PhD programs to be: Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Oxford, NYU, Pittsburgh, Princeton, Rutgers, Stanford, UCLA, and Yale. We came up with this list by taking the product of the Philosophical Gourmet Guide’s mean scores of departments (as a measure of quality of position obtained after receiving the PhD) multiplied by the probability of entering a tenure-track or equivalent position according to Jennings’ placement data. We then added in Oxford (which wasn’t included in Jennings’ placement data but would certainly have made the top ten if it were), and Pittsburgh (which performs well in a ranking of departments by how many junior philosophers in top-20 Gourmet guide departments the department has placed). This isn’t intended to be a definitive top-12 ranking; if you’re considering doing a PhD in philosophy it’s worth consulting the Jennings data, the Gourmet Guide, and finding out as much as you can about the individual departments to see what’s a good fit for you.
Even if one manages to get into a top philosophy PhD program, you are still therefore by no means guaranteed to find work as a professional philosopher. If you thought that the impact you would have if you could become a professional philosopher would be very great compared to your other options, however, then it could be worth taking the risk.
Getting a philosophy PhD seems extremely weak in terms of career capital. This seems to us to be the most important consideration.
It does poorly at keeping your options open: your alternative job options will not look substantially different after completing the PhD than they will beforehand. Moreover, if one completes a PhD in philosophy, then pursues a different career, even for one year, it becomes extremely difficult to re-enter academia. In contrast, having worked outside of academia for a few years after your undergraduate studies is not counted negatively at the PhD application stage. This generates a very strong case, in our view, for exploring other career options before entering a philosophy PhD.
Moreover, a philosophy PhD is a big time commitment: in the US, it typically takes 6 or 7 years; in the UK, it typically takes 4 or 5 years (including Master’s study).
One does build useful skills in clear writing, careful thinking and time management, but few other transferable skills like team-work, management, leadership or concrete skills like coding. The connections one builds are generally within professional philosophy, which are not that useful outside of professional philosophy.
In general, a philosophy PhD should be regarded as vocational training for becoming a professional philosopher, rather than a useful general-purpose first step.
Doing a Master’s course in philosophy scores better, because it’s a shorter time commitment. One can do the Master’s course in one or two years and gain a better sense of whether philosophy is the right fit for you. One can also do a Master’s course, explore other career options, then come back to do a PhD, without much detriment to your academic career. However, most Master’s courses aren’t regarded very highly by PhD-granting institutions. An exception is the Oxford BPhil, a two-year teaching-and-research course, which is very highly regarded. It’s also known as an exceptionally demanding course: insofar as you might want to ‘stress-test’ your passion for philosophy, doing the BPhil seems a good option.
The best case, in terms of career capital, for doing a philosophy PhD is to better understand how you should live your life. For example, in our view the choice of which cause to support is highly influenced by which views in moral philosophy you endorse, and changes in which cause you should support can lead to radical changes in how you live your life and the value you think you add to the world. It may well then be worth the investment of many years in order to have better values that guide the rest of your life. However, one can get much of this benefit (though probably not all the benefit), from reading and discussing philosophy while pursuing a different career.
I’m going into philosophy whatever you say. What should I do?
Focus on moral or political philosophy: these are the clearest cases where philosophical research can have an impact; there appear to be more jobs in these areas than in other areas (such as metaphysics, epistemology, history of philosophy, or philosophy of language), especially if one has at least a side-interest in practical ethics or medical ethics; and on average the very best people tend not to go into these areas, so you have a better chance of standing out. If you are sympathetic to effective altruism’s approach to ethics, you’ll probably feel more at home within moral philosophy than within political philosophy.
Get into the best possible PhD program. If you don’t do well the first time around, take a year out, work on your writing sample, and try again.
Focus, during your PhD, on doing the best possible philosophical work, and start sending out articles to top-tier journals as soon as you can. If you can, find a PhD topic that’s both potentially of great value to the world, and that also will look good when you apply for jobs.
Test out writing for a popular audience during your PhD.
I’ve already done a PhD in philosophy, what should I do?
Good options include:
- Continuing in traditional academia if you can get a good job and trying to focus your research on the highest-value topics
- Continuing in traditional academia if you can get a good job and trying to focus your time on public engagement.
- Working for non-traditional academic centers that look for philosophers, such as The Future of Humanity Institute.
- Working for effective non-profits such as GiveWell.
- Working for think-tanks or in policy.
- Journalism or other non-fiction writing.
Should I do an undergraduate degree in philosophy?
In our view, philosophy is a good subject to study at undergraduate level if it’s taken in combination with a quantitative subject, like maths, computer science, or economics, because it teaches you how to write clearly, how to think clearly, and because certain issues in moral philosophy seem to us to be crucial in determining how to live your life. It’s a weaker all-purpose qualification than quantitative subjects, so we’d encourage undergraduates not to single-major in philosophy if they have the option of also majoring in a quantitative subject.