What Do Philosophers Do?

Outside of academia, that is.

Library of Congress

The romanticized version of what it's like to be a philosopher must be one of the most appealing careers possible: read great thinkers, think deep thoughts, and while away the days in a beautiful office, surrounded by books, an Emeralite lamp, a hot mug of coffee, and perhaps a cat curled up by your feet. For the very few, your profound thoughts could revolutionize whole fields, herald new political ages, and inspire generations.

Of course, for many, academic philosophy proves a disappointment—an endless slog to publish, the tedium and heartache of departmental politics, and a dismal job market that tends to  people to far-flung college towns, far away from family and friends.

So what is a budding philosopher to do?

An informative series of posts by Helen De Cruz of New APPS: Art, Politics, Philosophy, Science features interviews with seven philosophy Ph.D.s who have left academia for the private sector. There's a software engineer, a television comedy writer, a statistical researcher, a consultant, a network-security engineer, and a search-engine developer. None of them are what would traditionally be thought of as a "philosopher."

In a few cases, they've found that their new jobs provide surprising platforms for further philosophical examination, such as the television screenwriter Eric Kaplan, who said, “I’m very interested in [the] tension between life and theory and mind and emotions; I explore that both in philosophy writing and in script writing.” Similarly, Claartje van Sijl, who now runs her own consulting and training company, says that the philosophy she studied informs the advice she gives. Her philosophy training, she explains, "has familiarized me with the greatest philosophical thoughts of 2500 years of history that I can now use as a sounding board for my clients’ and my own reflections."

But, for the most part, the philosophers aren't deploying their firm grasp of Kierkegaard in their private-sector work. Rather, it's the skills that philosophers are trained in—critical thinking, clear writing, quick learning—that translate well to life outside of academia. As Zachary Ernst, a software engineer at Narrative Science, puts it, "As a professional philosopher, if you haven't gotten over-specialized and narrow, then you've got really good analytic and communication skills. So you've got the ability to learn quickly and efficiently. You're also in the habit of being very critical of all sorts of ideas and approaches to a variety of problems. And if you've taught a lot, then you're probably pretty comfortable with public speaking. Those skills are very rare in almost any workforce, and they're extremely valuable."

This is not to say that the transition from academia to industry was easy. A few of the philosophers report that the dim view of private industry inside academia can stifle an exploration of what else might be out there. Ian Niles, the search-engine developer, advises, "Don't consider a job outside academia as 'slumming it.' Academia, for all of its virtues, instills a fear of the 'real world' in students, particularly graduate students."

To that end, another one of the philosophers noted that for all the training he received, very little of it led him to conclude that he might be able to make it outside of a university. Carl Baker, who is now a statistical researcher at the House of Commons Library, said, "If I had to highlight one weakness in my postgraduate training it would be the lack of discussion of how the skills developed during a philosophy Ph.D. can be used elsewhere."