Why I Chose to Give up on Academia

Anyone who has been through the process of applying to PhD programs can attest to the fact that so much of the process makes you question everything about yourself. You start questioning your intelligence, your credentials, your love for the subject you’re applying to study, your employability once you get your doctorate (if you get your doctorate), and so on. The process is exhausting. Once you send off your last application, you leave your fate in the hands of the gods (here, that is the admission committees at the various departments at which you applied).

In late December of last year, I submitted applications to philosophy programs under pretty unusual circumstances. I am nearly a decade older than most people going into PhD programs. I have a wife and a 1 year-old child. I have a job that pays decently, and has opportunity for advancement, insurance and a 401(k). I have, by all accounts, economic security. And yet, I was perfectly willing to give that all up in order to chase the dream of a tenured position as an academic philosopher. I applied to quite a few schools, and spent the next few months agonizing over my inbox. I ended up receiving 3 offers with full funding — one of them from a Philosophical Gourmet top 50 program.

You see, I began the application process very (probably overly) optimistic about the job market in academia. I believed in myself, my abilities, and I took to heart the encouragements of my mentors in academia, using them to propel through my increasingly quixotic venture.

My wife and I began to discuss what would be involved, looked at how much money we’d lose in selling our home when we moved, and went through the death of my grandmother right before the April 15th program offer deadline. I began seriously questioning the decision that I had previously made.

I am not sure what I expected when I applied to PhD programs. But when April rolled around, I began to ask myself what kind of future I was signing up for, and how different it would be from numerous other paths. After all, horror stories abound about the process of getting a PhD, and the terrible job market afterward.

There was also a high probability that we’d have to pick up and move at least a few more times before I landed anything like a tenured position. This would only serve to disrupt my child’s (and future children’s) life, and in service of what? A short-term visiting professorship at a small state university? In a field belonging to a consistently disrespected and maligned academic area of study (the humanities)?

I Won’t Sink With the Academic Ship

Becoming a father has changed my thinking quite quickly and radically. I want a great career for myself — one where I will make a real impact with my ideas and my words. However, I can’t in good conscience subject my family to the kind of risks involved with an academy that is basically crumbling, and would continue to do so under our feet. I decided that I would not build a house on loose sand.

I’m also not sure that they have the energy to go to bat for most other PhDs, either. This is because I am quite unsure that most of the people responsible for making education policy really recognize the difference between mindless job-training and truly enriching education. With thinking like theirs, we’ll end up killing the liberal arts within the next generation — and it will be an incredible tragedy.

The academy will likely never provide me with security; the only thing it could ever promise me is an outlet for creative and innovative thinking and writing, as well as the ability to talk to others about those innovative and creative thoughts.

I already have job security, at the non-academic job I’ve had for the past 5 years. I am already in a position where I seem to have a bright future, and some of my ideas matter. I have opportunities to come up with innovative and creative ideas, and I can talk about them with people who care about them. I can’t throw that away and face a very daunting, impoverished immediate future just because it’s not exactly what I had dreamed of, in the exact environment that I dreamed about. At best it would be selfish, and at worst, it would be foolish and shortsighted (whether I had a family or not). It took fatherhood to help me realize that, but I’m glad I have now, rather than 6 years from now, when I have a PhD, but I’m struggling to make ends meet for my family, and I struggle to get anything published and recognized.

My Advice

As a mentor of mine in academia said, philosophy is in my DNA, so I’ll always be doing it in some way. I am positive that that is true, and what is more, I see no reason why I must be pigeon-holed by an increasingly exclusive academy in order to pursue wisdom in earnest. Sure, my time may be divided (with the partition devoted to philosophy being quite slim), and I may never publish prolifically and be the next John Rawls. But I can certainly continue my earnest pursuit of wisdom, and it most certainly can be done outside of the academy.

What’s more, I can garner an audience of similarly-minded people, who can give me feedback, and collaborate. Technology has made this easier than it has ever been, and I intend to leverage that technology against the ever-disappearing opportunities in academia.

When i declined the offers I received, I felt a small sense of loss, to be sure. But people lose things all the time. If one is fortunate enough to be able to choose what they will lose, as a sacrificial step toward an immediate better life for them and their family, well that is good fortune indeed. Very few losses are of that kind.

My advice to those looking to throw themselves headlong into the academy is to ask yourself two questions:

  1. Am I willing to live on $25,000 per year for the next 20 years of my life, and have only year-to-year contract gigs at small colleges?
  2. Is there no other way I could ever be doing all the things I love and making a living other than having a PhD and teaching?

I don’t believe the answer to that second question can ever really be “no”. Because of that, I would advise that those not in the STEM fields look outside the academy — as much as is possible — to find work about which they can be passionate and *gasp* that they can make some money doing.

I have probably come across as a bit jaded, and perhaps I am, but please don’t misunderstand my message. I don’t mean to discourage those who wish to study for a living. To do that is a very noble and worthwhile pursuit, and society needs scholars — it always will, whether it wants to admit it or not. It will just simply continue to lose respect from most people outside of academia unless it can be direclty traced to creating some successful commodity or commoditized service. Accept that, and be prepared to face it head-on.

A Final Note

I won’t be getting a PhD in philosophy, but I will never stop learning, and I will never stop doing the things that motivated me to aim for that degree. Those who think that the academy is their only refuge from a dizzying capitalistic jungle, take heart — the business world is not as bad as you think. There are places where your enthusiasm for learning, thinking, and teaching can be of service. They won’t be easy to find, but when you find them, you might just find yourself way more appreciated than you would be in a job market where good positions keep getting whittled down to nothing.

Often times our ideals go unrealized as we move through life. There is no shame in continuing to strive for them, but there is shame in dismissing other avenues when you've done little to explore them. The academy may be shrinking from what it once was, but perhaps there is still a place for us thinkers, if we work to make it.

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Author of “The Wabi-Sabi Way” and “Be, Think, Do”. Subscribe to my newsletter “Woolgathering”: https://goo.gl/UhzUYL.

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