Main room of the École nationale des chartes, Paris. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5. From Nick Byrd's "Grad School, Part 2: Academic Jobs"

Grad School | Part 2: Academic Jobs

The value of a PhD is hardly about job prospects. So if your reason for getting a PhD in philosophy is the prospect of getting a particular job, then you might want to rethink things. Maybe you dream of comfy academic jobs. If so, it’s time for another reality check.

Part 1 | … | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

There is a reason that academics worry about the state of academic jobs. The good ones are increasingly rare …and they aren’t always dreamy. And the bad ones? Well, they’re pretty bad.

1.  The Basics

First of all, professors work up to 60 hours a week. At least, that’s what the data since about 1940 suggest (Charters 1942Ziker et al 2013).

Here is a preliminary description of what professors do with their 60-ish hours:

  • Teach a handful of classes each semester.
  • Grade and comment on papers/tests (in the best case scenario, you will have a student to help with some of your grading, but probably not early in your career).
  • Advise a bunch of students.
  • Write letters of recommendation for potentially lots of students (not all of whom are actually recommend-able).
  • Attend department meetings.
  • Assume potentially time-consuming roles for your department (e.g., chair a committee about [whatever], give talks to people outside the university, organize conferences, put on workshops, etc.).
  • Try to convince grant committees that non-experimental research about old philosophical puzzles is as valuable as experimental research.
  • Write stuff.
  • Revise what you write.
  • Submit your writing to conferences, journals, grant committees, etc.
  • Receive rejection notices about your writing.
  • Revise your writing again.
  • Resubmit your writing.
  • Receive more rejection notices.
  • Review other philosophers’ writing.
  • Occasionally, present your writing at conferences (often in non-ideal locations, at times when you might otherwise be visiting family —e.g., Christmas, New Year’s, Easter, etc.).
  • Do some work on vacations and “sabbatical”.
  • Worry about whether you will be rehired and/or promoted at your next review.

This might not fully capture the breadth — or banality — of some of the duties of academic jobs. But that’s not the point. The point of this list is to dispel the caricature of academic philosophers as people who get paid comfortable salaries to do all and only the following:

  • sit in comfy armchairs
  • read
  • write
  • think only about interesting things

In reality, these activities make up only a small fraction of academic jobs.

Pro Tip: If you want a better idea of what professors do, then ask them. Email them, go to their office hours, or just raise your hand in class one day and—actually, that last one isn’t a good idea.

2.  Compensation

To be clear, none of the duties mentioned above are likely to earn you any extra money. I mention this just in case a reader is under the impression that professors make side-money from their writing, presentations, etc..

Let’s get a few things straight: academics do not make money for writing or reviewing articles for journals. And the vast majority of professors make a pittance from their books. Further, when they speak at a conference, they are often reimbursed only for their costs — or maybe only some of their costs. So, conferences are not a money-making enterprise. And while we’re on the topic of money…

Some data might give you the sense that academic jobs pay loads of money [The Chronicle of Higher Ed]. However, you should consider the fact that

  • positions in the humanities pay significantly less than positions in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and
  • the vast majority of the teaching positions offered by universities these days are adjunct positions.

Importantly, reports about professor’s income often don’t include the data about what adjunct professors’ income. So next time you read about how much professors make, take a close look at the data to see whether (or how) they analyze adjunct professors’ compensation.

3.  Adjunct Teaching

Adjunct jobs pay very little. Seriously. You could make more money and receive better health insurance than an adjunct professor by working at a grocery store [Business Insider], at the Gap [Vitae], or as a pet sitter [The Guardian].

And adjunct jobs are the new norm! Most existing and new academic jobs are adjunct jobs [Inside Higher EdOnline PhD Programs].

Why is this bad news? Let’s start with compensation.

Adjunct job postings I’ve seen offer $2000 – 4000 per course. And courses can easily take up to 20 hours per week depending on the size of the course, your experience, and the commute. And many adjunct jobs don’t include benefits like health insurance. Oh, and academic job contracts usually expire in one or two semesters.

So if you can find work as an adjunct professor, you might make only $4000 – $8000 per semester. And your free time will be spent (re)applying for your next job. And you won’t necessarily have health insurance.


Let’s review.

  • Desirable academic jobs are by no means ideal.
  • Desirable academic jobs are rare. And they’re only becoming more rare.
  • Undesirable academic jobs (i.e., adjunct jobs) are the norm.
    • Adjunct jobs can be precarious (since pay is low, health insurance is not always included, and opportunities for promotion are very scarce).
    • Adjunct jobs provide little or no time for research (since that time is spent applying for next semesters’ jobs).
    • Adjunct professors might not have enough time or money to raise kids, or to live (what many people think of as) a comfortable lifestyle.

Don’t get me wrong: academic jobs can be a great gig for a select few. But your chances of landing the ideal gig in philosophy are low (and steadily decreasing). This brings us back to the main point of Part 1: the value of a PhD in philosophy just isn’t about job prospects.

Does this leave a bad taste in your mouth? For many, it will. But you’re better off thinking about this stuff sooner than later. It’d be a shame to find out about all of this after you’ve spent 5+ years forgoing better opportunities while you get a PhD.

But maybe you’re not phased by all the doom and gloom about academic jobs. You don’t care about getting the dream job. You just want to continue studying philosophy. That’s fine. But remember: there is more than one way to study philosophy. Graduate school is just one way. You might want to consider the alternatives. To do that, you’ll need to learn about grad school itself. That’s what Part 3 is about.


Featured Image: “Main room of the École nationale des chartes, Paris.” © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. When he is not teaching, in the lab, writing, exercising, or relaxing, he is blogging at