3 min read

Liberal arts professors and college presidents champion the study of the liberal arts as a preparation not only for life but for a wide range of careers and professional opportunities.

Here’s a typical argument for the liberal arts, in this case from Smith College president emeritus Carol Crist:

A liberal arts education is the most powerful way you can prepare yourself for professional life in the 21st century. If you think about what you need, a liberal arts education has it all. . . . Most people can expect in their career, not just to have five different jobs but really have five different careers, so it prepares you for that. Most complicated problems require multiple disciplines to solve, again derived from a liberal arts curriculum.

At parents’ weekends, professors reassure parents nervous about their child’s career prospects armed with a B.A. in philosophy with similar boilerplate.

Maybe one reason parents aren’t always convinced is that many professors don’t truly value work outside of academia.

The disdain for work outside of academia was the subtheme of a widely discussed piece, “The Repurposed Ph.D.: Finding Life After Academia – and Not Feeling Bad About It” that appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times.

The article featured people who had earned Ph.D.s but not become college professors—that is, people who had taken their liberal arts training (albeit more specialized and professionalized than undergraduate liberal arts training) and done exactly what liberal arts training is supposedly valued for these days: they’d gone out into the world and secured a challenging job—not just driving a taxicab—where they could use their education. However, in spite of their successes, many of these people struggle to “not [feel] bad about” about not being college professors; indeed, some of them seemed to feel ashamed of their “failure” not to become college professors.

For people who haven’t spent much time in the walls of academia, the depth of the shame and stigma that can be attached to not becoming a college professor might seem almost incredible.

But graduate programs’ ethos convey powerfully the message that the very best life is to be a college professor constantly thinking about the highest, most sublime, and most rarified things. To be outside of academia is to sully oneself with mundane concerns: practice rather than theory, action rather than philosophy, and work that demands compromises to reality rather than idealized hypothesizing.

Hence the deep shame attached to failing to secure a professorship, even in an era when there is such a glut of Ph.Ds that most graduates of doctoral programs cannot get a professorship. College faculty are sometimes called a “secular priesthood,” and, for some, quitting academia is almost as jarring as quitting a religious order.

It’s so hard for some people to get over this shame that they end up languishing for years in poorly paid adjunct positions rather than simply moving on by taking their excellent credentials elsewhere in the job market.

The true shame is not for someone with a Ph.D. to leave academia, but for many senior professors and leaders of graduate programs to continue to communicate, explicitly or subtly, that becoming a college professor is the only successful course for those who’ve earned a Ph.D.

After all, senior professors and college leaders are telling parents and undergraduates that the liberal arts prepares students for all sorts of careers—this applies not just to those who graduate with B.A.s, but also to those who graduate with Ph.D.s.

What does one do with a Ph.D. in philosophy? Turns out there lots of exciting options—and being a professor is but one of them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *