Expectations and opportunities for Philosophy PhD students

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 20, 2015

There has been a lot of discussion about the deteriorating prospects of Humanities PhDs. Many insiders have argued that it is increasingly hard for those gaining a PhD in the humanities to find a decent job in academia – and that seems to be the place most humanities PhDs would like to end up.

In the Netherlands, we have also had discussions recently on whether there are not too many Philosophy PhD students (and more broadly humanities PhDstudents), and whether those pursuing a Philosophy PhD have realistic expectations of their chances of getting a job in academia. In those debates, one often hears the rough number that about 9 out of 10 PhD students aspires to have an academic job, yet only between 1 and 2 end up in academia. If that is true, there is a serious mismatch between expectations and objective outcomes. Moreover, there is also the impression that the situation has become worse due to the budget cuts for higher education.

I am setting up a small project in order to gain a better understanding of the expectations of Philosophy PhD students in the Netherlands. To the best of my knowledge, we totally lack any information on the career expectations of Philosophy PhD students in the Netherlands, and the career outcomes of those who acquired a Philosophy PhD in the past. At present, there is no systematic information about what Philosophy PhD students expect or hope for after graduating. Neither do we know the extent to which this fits with the opportunities they will encounter.

By collecting information on the expectations of current PhD students, and contrasting this to the realizations of those who received their Philosophy PhD in the past (and the expectations they had), we can gain a better understanding of the labour market for those holding Philosophy PhDs. We aim at conducting and analyzing surveys among three populations: (1) current Philosophy PhD students; (2) former Philosophy PhD students who dropped out; (3) the group who gained a Philosophy PhD in the Netherlands in the last ten years. Sine Bagatur (a PhD student of mine who submitted her dissertation and hence knows all about the relevance of those questions!) will conduct a survey and construct a database of those who received their Philosophy PhDs in the Netherlands in the recent past. Luckily, we have addresses of virtually all PhD students in philosophy, thanks to the fact that, two years ago, all academic Philosophy departments united in the Dutch Research School of Philosophy.

In addition to the survey, we will conduct a literature research so as to compare our results with the findings in other countries, or compare it with the situation of PhD students in other subjects in the Netherlands. This comparison will allow us to see how Dutch Philosophy PhD students’ situation differs from other groups, and also collect a number of suggestions on what could be done to address problems and issues that the findings reveal. If time permits, we also want to conduct a number of in-depth interviews, which would be helpful with interpreting the data, and also with gathering ideas on how to address problems that may emerge.

Given the readership of this blog, I thought it could be helpful to ask for your advice. If you happen to know of any similar research that has been done in your country, Sine and I would be very grateful for any suggestions. Also, if a similar survey has been held in some other country, it would be great if we could build on work that has been done rather than reinventing the wheel. Are there any specific questions you feel should be asked?

The entire exercise will be conducted in English, and in due course (hopefully by the end of this year) I will post a link to the final report on this blog.



Eszter Hargittai 04.20.15 at 10:37 am

I’m curious, is any of your or Sine’s work based on surveys? If not, do you have anyone with expertise in doing survey research on your team?


Fiddlin Bill 04.20.15 at 11:01 am

Here’s what I did with my philosophy degree, kids. I became a professional fiddler, then a professional stone mason. However, in all my endeavors my perspective was informed by the observations of Plato, Wittgenstein, and Hume. And ask Socrates about the prospects.


Manta 04.20.15 at 12:30 pm

This two seem relevant

(the latter, admittedly, is about graduates in humanities).


Justin 04.20.15 at 2:11 pm

What are the non-academic job options for doctors of philosophy? Of course there is the old joke about the field being useless in ‘the real world,’ but if 90% of candidates expect an academic job then apparently they have the same belief. However, the 80 to 90% of people who end up with a non-academic job have to be doing something (probably not many are playing the fiddle). I don’t know how detailed you planned on being with the realized outcomes, but it would be interesting to see what industries actually value a philosophy doctorate (as opposed to just a generic related/not-related to philosophy question).


Joseph Vukov 04.20.15 at 2:53 pm

I conducted a study of graduates of my PhD program in Philosophy going back about 25 years. I would be happy to share with you some of the questions I developed (and some thoughts about how I would change the survey, were I to conduct it again). You can contact me at the email I list here.


Ingrid Robeyns 04.20.15 at 3:29 pm

Eszter, I have experience with analyzing surveys, but not with conducting them. Same holds for Sine, though she also holds a graduate degree in economics. And so far the team is just the two of us, working on a shoestring budget. But if you have any advice on what to read in order to make sure the survey is constructed as soundly as possible, that would be great.

One person advised us to use a validated survey, but I don’t know of any on this topic.

Joseph Vukov: thanks, I will write to you directly.


Sheri Oberman 04.20.15 at 4:32 pm

At McGill University, in Canada a new approach to doctoral study as described in The White Paper of the Future of the Ph D in the Humanities (Google this) seeks to orient doctoral study toward work outside of academia.
Some Ph Ds in philosophy, like Martin Kronberger ( U of Vienna) who wrote Brand Society, take up successful careers through the training provided by their doctoral study of philosophy which is highly transferable.
Stephen Downes in Canada puts his philosophy training to use in his work for the National Research Council and in exploring and developing an epistemology/ontology as described in learning through massive open online courses. Downes departed his doctoral work before the oral defense, but achieved the quality of mind a Ph D in pphilosophy bestows in my opinion. He is highly respected, valued and productive.


Dean C. Rowan 04.20.15 at 4:58 pm

Read Earl Babbie’s “The Practice of Social Research.” Latest edition is the 14th.


Tom West 04.20.15 at 9:30 pm

Unless the supply of philosophy jobs in academia is increasing, isn’t any supply greater than ~1 Ph.D student per professor’s career going to result in broken dreams? (Or more accurately, only 3-4 Ph.Ds from professors at elite universities, and near zero from everyone else.)

I’ve always assumed that planning to become an academic (in any field) is like planning to become a professional athlete. Given the long odds, you want to ensure that there’s a decent fallback position.


Tom Hurka 04.20.15 at 10:04 pm

I don’t know how much of the current problem the following is responsible for, but I think it’s responsible for some of it. There’s a demographic issue. At least in North America, there was a huge wave of academic hiring in the 1960s and early 1970s, followed by a marked cooling off in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The 1960s/early 1970s generation reached normal retirement age in the late 1990s/early 2000s, and there were a fair number of new tenure-track jobs in that period, because of all the retirements. (That was certainly true in my department.) But now it’s getting to be normal retirement age for the late 1970s/early 1980s hires, and there just aren’t as many of them, because there wasn’t as much hiring then. So there aren’t as many new positions, in philosophy as well, I suspect, as in other disciplines, as there were just ten years ago. And of course this has all been exacerbated by the 2008-and-after financial crisis.

This doesn’t mean no other factors have been relevant, or that it’s not worth asking whether too many philosophy PhDs are being produced. But I think you should be cautious about extrapolating too immediately from facts and ratios now, just because this may be an especially bad time, demographically, for new academic hiring.


Eszter Hargittai 04.21.15 at 7:21 am

Ingrid, I don’t teach a survey methods course so I haven’t thought much about what texts are good for this, but here are a couple that may be helpful. Given the various details of the project, I suspect question construction will be one of the areas on which you would want to do some reading. Floyd Fowler has a book on Survey Research Methods that has relevant sections. There is also Survey Methodology by Groves et al. (Groves was the Director of the US Census Bureau a few years ago.)

And sure, using validated surveys can be helpful, but it’s not always an option when you are doing work in an area that has not been explored much before. As you research existing instruments, consider going past Philosophy PhD programs since presumably several questions that may be relevant are agnostic to the specific discipline. US schools often administer exit surveys to graduates (or those leaving programs) although I’m not sure how common this is at the graduate level vs undergrads. But perhaps some undergrad-focused surveys have relevant questions as well. For that, start here: http://www.heri.ucla.edu . For example, this looks like it may have relevant items (this one is actually administered to faculty):


FedeV 04.21.15 at 8:02 am

Ingrid, you might be interested in Andrew Gellman’s notes on surveys: http://andrewgelman.com/2014/01/18/course-sample-surveys-political-science/

There’s lots of good information there you might find helpful. Good luck with your project!


Karthik 04.21.15 at 9:32 am

Bernard’s Research Methods in Anthropology is the go-to reference, IMO. It’s sprawling but the chapters on survey design are concise and good enough.


Ingrid Robeyns 04.21.15 at 9:54 am

Thanks all for the references, that’s most helpful!

Tom Hurka, I agree we have to be very careful with drawing conclusions for the reasons you mention – and in fact, in this particular study we aim at collecting data and describing them, rather than drawing any conclusions regarding the alleged oversupply of PhDs in philosophy. Yet the Netherlands (and some other countries) face an institutional set-up which is quite different from the British and NOrth-American situation, which is that the vast majority of our Philoosphy PhDs are decent jobs, where the funding comes either from the Dutch Government, or the European Research Council. And about 5 years ago the Dutch government has re-allocated part of the lump-sum funding that goes straight to universities (and that they can allocate as they want – for professors or support staff or buildings or management) to the National Science Council, where this money can only be used for PhD or postdoc positions. The effects has been that the Faculty/PhDstudent ration has gone down considerable. So given the structure of the funding of higher education/science research in this country, more money for PhD positions funded by the Dutch government implies less money to hire supervisors and teachers (lecturers/professors). And that’s the position most PhD students ultimately aspire to gain… So some thinking about balancing may be good, but our study has very limited ambitions, namely to aim at starting to fill the gap of the lack of data, and collecting views and ideas that people have, without making our own recommendations (at least, at this point, that’s not an aspiration I have with the study, but I may change my mind….)


Lizzy 04.21.15 at 1:26 pm

“In those debates, one often hears the rough number that about 9 out of 10 PhD students aspires to have an academic job, yet only between 1 and 2 end up in academia. If that is true, there is a serious mismatch between expectations and objective outcomes. ”

I’m not sure if this is necessarily the case. It’s possible that 9/10 students might aspire to academia while all (or mostly) still being aware that they’re unlikely to get one. I think this is the case at my institution, and it’s certainly the case with me. I would really like an academic job at the end of my PhD, and I’ll work hard towards one, but I’m still aware that no matter what I do my chances of success are low. In this way it’s not so much a case of a mismatch between expectations and outcomes.


Sheri Oberman 04.21.15 at 4:37 pm

Here are some resources. Both concern finding a a job outside of academia with a Ph D in Philosophy.


Orient the Ph D in Philosophy program toward the world outside of the Ivory Tower…


Frank de Libero 04.22.15 at 4:44 am

I think helpful both for info and sources, would be the new book by William G. Bowen & Eugene M. Tobin, “Locus of Authority,” especially chapter 3 which is a post war II history of Higher Ed in the U.S. Chock full of useful information and insights. Two famous knowledgeable authors. I bought the book just for chapter 3. Also, I suspect those two authors would be interested in what you’re doing, probably worth contacting them.

Good luck, Ingrid, on your quest!



engels 04.22.15 at 12:34 pm

A related question: if you create a class of professional intellectuals who are each aware that nine other people would like to have their jobs, would you expect this to influence the content of their enquiries in any way, particularly where these concern fundamental normative questions about the existing political order?


Manta 04.23.15 at 12:36 pm


“Should people in History Ph.D. programs stop taking students because of the job crisis? American Historical Association president Vicki Ruiz is making that decision: … “I have placed a personal moratorium on Ph.D. recruitment.””


Manta 04.23.15 at 1:27 pm

Lizzy@15: what do you plan to do after finishing your PhD? Will you apply for postdoc positions? If so, what will you do if you get one?

What I mean to say is: it’s quite unlikely you will get a tenure track position straight after finishing your PhD.
Thus, you will have (essentially) two choices: either leave academia, or stay in a limbo for years.

More generally, I think one of the things that screws new PhDs with an aspiration for academy is that they have to stay in a state of uncertainty for years AFTER finishing their PhD with low possibilities of actually getting what they want.


Sheri Oberman 04.23.15 at 5:58 pm


Here is a creative cross-pollination of architecture and philosophy. A doctoral student in philosophy goes to live in a piece of near-living architecture…and a new hybrid in born..and philosophy student provides value and insights for the architects. The university is calling it practical philosophy…


kidneystones 04.25.15 at 11:27 am

Academic institutions require funds. Students of all levels provide these funds directly from fees, or from public and private funds. I’ve been in and around humanities and social science graduate programs for a very long time and have to meet a single doctoral candidate who did not want a full-time, tenure-track position, ideally with a very low teaching load and a very big research budget. If this surprises anyone, then I’m surprised that you’re surprised. The old chestnut about standards slipping is trotted out easily enough, but the fact is a very large number of doctoral programs meet the funding needs of the department first/only.

I read far fewer doctoral dissertations than I once did, but the standards of scholarship do seem to be slipping. Verbosity is in, clarity and simplicity are out. And why not, when most dissertations will not be transformed into books and departments care most about keeping the funding wheel turning? My guess is that standards continue to vary discipline to discipline, and country to country. I’ve read a few very well-researched dissertations in the last year, but even these new scholars cannot find full-time positions.

Raise the bar for admission, progression, and graduation at all levels. Fire/ cut the pay of the administrators. Stop spending money on new buildings, parking, and computers. Use the money saved to hire the best full-time to teach smaller classes, and to produce the next generation of social science and humanities scholars.


SusanC 04.25.15 at 11:50 am

In science subjects, I’ve known plenty of PhD students who had no intention of becoming academics. “Join a start-up company that’s developing a cool new product” being closer to the typical ambition; and indeed, many of them did just that.

(Whereas losers like me got a faculty position with a big research budget and not much teaching load, rather than joining a start-up and cashing in the stock options when the company was bought…)

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