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Hope this doesn't fall into the category of personal advice, but I just have a general question about academia today (particularly in Philosophy). I have read many articles on the internet indicating that it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find a tenure track position in a relatively highly ranked university (top 100 nationally, say) after completing a PhD in today's job market, even from a very highly ranked program. Is this true, and is it a bad idea to get a PhD if the only thing I'd be able to do with it is teach? Does the internet exaggerate how difficult the market is? Would I have to move across the country, potentially, to find a T.T. position somewhere? Thanks.

closed as off-topic by Jon Custer, PLL, Federico Poloni, Bryan Krause, user3209815 Oct 9 at 6:35

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    Welcome to Academia.SE. I suspect your question is too broad -- getting a PhD is a good idea for some and a bad idea for others. It will depend on your skills, country, interests, and field. The first chapter of Karen Kelsky's book gives an excellent overview of how dismal the tenure-track job market is. On the other hand, in some fields, there are research positions outside of the university. My advice is to have a realistic backup plan, particularly if you are not in STEM. – cag51 Oct 8 at 1:40
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    The articles are right, the market is extremely tough - lawcha.org/2017/01/09/…, insidehighered.com/news/2018/10/12/… – Poidah Oct 8 at 1:58
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    Is it a bad idea to get a dog? – user2705196 Oct 8 at 2:36
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    The target you set (top 100 nationally) is extremely small. Many of those institutions are, themselves, quite small with small faculties in any given discipline. You can have a rewarding career elsewhere. The US has more than 4000 colleges and universities. – Buffy Oct 8 at 10:57
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    Are you aware that you are asking a community of people where most of the members chose to get PhD or already have it? For sure, some may be regretting now buy still this is not a very representative sample of people. – Vladimir F Oct 8 at 13:21

10 Answers 10

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A PhD is a research degree; it’s a piece of paper that says “this person is a competent researcher”. If you want to go into a field where being a researcher is important (e.g. corporate R&D), then it’s worth your time to get one. If you’re not, it probably isn’t.

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    This answer could be improved by adding that a PhD also says in which subject the person is competent. I would think that if corporate R&D is looking for a PhD in Chemistry, they're more likely to accept an M.Sc in Chemistry than a PhD in Philosophy. – MSalters Oct 8 at 16:36
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    often the path is more important than the goal, i.e. the piece of paper at the end may be totally unimportant to a person, but the way to get there may be what makes the journey worthwhile. A Phd can be a pretty unique experience where you can do challenging scientific work with limited pressure regarding time schedule and topic selection compared to industry jobs (and a lot more resources than trying to do it as a hobby). – Frank Hopkins Oct 8 at 18:53
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You'll need to do your own research to answer most of these questions.

Is it true that it's very difficult to find a tenure track position in a relatively highly ranked university (top 100 nationally, say) after completing a PhD in today's job market, even from a very highly ranked program?

I'm not familiar with philosophy, but in other fields: yes. (Example)

Would I have to move across the country, potentially, to find a T.T. position somewhere?

Again, not familiar with philosophy, but in other fields: yes. There's actually a good chance you'll not just have to move "across the country", but also "outside the country". Example.

If you're unfamiliar with the job market in philosophy and can't find any good leads online, try asking philosophy professors at your local university. They can tell you more about what it takes to become one of them. If possible, talk to the graduate students in philosophy as well - they should have a more current perspective.

Is it a bad idea to get a PhD if the only thing I'd be able to do with it is teach?

This is only something you can answer. Can you see yourself making a career as a teacher? If yes then this wouldn't be bad (as long as you're willing to take on the challenge of finding a job as a teacher). If no then you should avoid getting a PhD - it's not worth it.

One more thing thing: whatever you choose, you're making a life-changing decision. Chances are, for most of your life, someone else (your parents/guardians) has been making these life-changing decisions for you. They can't do that forever, and neither can anyone else. At some point you become an adult and become responsible for your own well-being. Making these choices won't be easy, and it's often unclear what the consequences will be, but you're still the best-positioned person to make these choices. Do your research, sleep on it, make the decision, and deal with the consequences when they come.

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    @user1729 OP did say philosophy, and according to my Googling, PhDs in philosophy generally become teachers. – Allure Oct 8 at 8:31
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    A PhD in philosophy may make it much harder to get many jobs then not having a PhD, it is not a subject well respected by "normal people". – Ian Oct 8 at 13:30
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    @Ian Not just that, but having spent 4-7 years in postgraduate education in Philosophy, it also means that, if you're looking for work in any other field, that, as a candidate, you effectively have very little practical experience doing anything else of direct value. A PhD is a signal to an employer that you have devoted intense personal time and resources into learning highly specific skills in a narrow field, necessarily at the expense of other skills in that time. – J... Oct 8 at 15:41
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    @Ian For example, I've seen Physics PhD's that barely knew how to operate lab equipment they relied on for their work - being so focused on the models and theory that they effectively relied on others to actually make their equipment work. If you can leave physics with a PhD and no idea how to actually work in a lab, what hope does a Philosophy PhD have for an expectation of useful transferable skills? – J... Oct 8 at 15:44
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    I would recommend asking recent graduates of the PhD program about job opportunities, not professors. Many professor's info can be out of date or biased (they were the lucky ones who got the tenure position after all). Recent graduates may have a more realistic perspective. – Barker Oct 8 at 21:54
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You need to think about this extremely important question: Why do you want a Ph.D.?

There are good reasons and bad reasons to pursue a Ph.D. You need to understand that a Ph.D. isn't a badge saying you're smart, but rather an apprenticeship towards becoming a professional researcher.

Good reasons to get a Ph.D. include:

  • You genuinely love philosophy and want a career working with it
  • You want to become a professional researcher
  • You've looked into what a typical academic career looks like and decided it's the kind of life you want to live

Bad reasons to get a Ph.D. include:

  • You want to prove you're very intelligent
  • You want the prestige that comes with an advanced degree
  • Everyone around you seems to be going into grad school
  • It just seems like the most obvious next step after undergrad

These "bad reasons" aren't bad in the sense that you're a bad person if they're what you're thinking. They're bad in that getting a Ph.D. locks you into a very specific and frankly demanding career path. You don't want to be halfway into your Ph.D. before you realize that you don't really enjoy the work you're doing.

You're very right that the job market for academic research positions is incredibly competitive. Your fears that you'll likely have to move to find a good job are right. Your expectations that you'll be able to get a job in a top 100 university, while possible, are going to be extremely difficult to achieve. Do you want to be a researcher so dearly that you're willing to accept those downsides? If so, then getting a Ph.D. is the right decision. If not, there are many other things you can do with your life that are just as worthwhile, just as honorable, and likely more along the lines of what you personally value.


I decided myself that I didn't want a research career. After I finished my master's degree, I left academia for industry. I am very happy now and can't imagine how stressed out and miserable I would be if I were forcing myself to go through years of a Ph.D. just to be able to say I had done it.

This was my personal decision. You need to make this decision for yourself.

  • Actually, for many of us, getting a doctorate was a kind of compulsion. There were no options for us. Even when it was hard and the future looked dim we soldiered on. – Buffy Oct 8 at 22:45
  • @Buffy Unfortunately, I think that's a significant factor towards what's lead to the incredibly difficult academic job market. There aren't really any new academic jobs opening up, so if only the students who already knew they truly wanted a research career went into academia, the job market would still be challenging. Add the large number of students who go into academia because they don't think through the other options, and the situation has become fiercely competitive. – Kevin - Reinstate Monica Oct 9 at 0:42
  • Actually, the job market is very cyclic but the cycles vary by fields. The year I finished (math) it was essentially impossible to get a decent job. Two years earlier it was a great market. Ten years later the pall had lifted. I managed to hang on and wound up with a great career - especially the last 20 years of it. But nobody gets a guarantee. – Buffy Oct 9 at 0:48
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The 100 best universities or programs aren't the only places where research happens. In fact, doing research will be part of most jobs at universities, regardless of whether that university is in the top 100 or not.

If you choose a career in academia you can expect to have an initial phase where you have to move from university to university to pursue postdoc positions and the like followed by a more stable phase. You will be unlikely to end up at a top university, but research will be part of your job, just as teaching and management duties.

However, there is no guarantee that if you choose to pursue a career in academia that academia also chooses you. In particular, the number of open positions, and thus the degree of competition, tends to be quite cyclical; there are periods where it is easy to start a career and periods where it is very hard. Luckily the cycles don't always match up across countries. So many work around bad periods by moving abroad.

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Yes, it's a bad decision to get a PhD in any humanities discipline if you value things like any degree of stability. Something like 50+% of humanities PhD's will never get a tenure-track professorship ("there's jobs in research" and "the skills and discipline you learn during your PhD program are 'transferable to other areas of industry'" propaganda you'll hear from your advisors and graying professors notwithstanding) -- which is the only job you're reasonably qualified for after most likely being six figures in debt and burning most of your younger years slaving away for minimum wage and trying to get published in obscure academic journals [which almost NO ONE ever reads -- ditto your thesis, which will most likely promptly do nothing but collect dust once completed].

Please take a few minutes to read the likes of William Pannapacker's two-part series: "Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go" before you decide to commit many years and thousands of dollars to something that could very well be the antithesis of an activity designed to produce long term satisfaction and fulfillment. It still amazes me after all of these years and the availability of information on the Internet that "career students" STILL commit themselves to years in a PhD program without doing even a minute of common-sense evaluation as to its long term career feasibility.

  • Saying a PhD in humanities is always a bad idea is just as misleading as saying that it is always a good idea. You seem to have a bad experience with people giving you wrong advise (or "propaganda"). This is not what I experience. The advise I have received, I give, and I see others give is pretty realistic. – Maarten Buis Oct 9 at 9:11
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If you want to be an academic philosopher, then getting a Ph.D. a good idea because it is required. But it is no guarantee; you have to be prepared for a high probability of not ending up in academia at all. It is a gamble.

Academic job searches are generally national or even international. Every metropolitan area has lots of openings for doctors, lawyers, accountants, and chefs, but only a handful (or fewer) for philosophers or theoretical physicists. If the thought of having to move across the country for a job is a problem for you, then maybe you don't want to be a philosopher badly enough to justify the time and effort of the Ph.D.

On the other hand, the experience of getting the degree is not all bad. If you really like doing philosophy, then it's a chance to spend five or six years doing something interesting, in hopes of possibly making it a career. If that career doesn't work out, you are close to where you would have been if you were just getting out of college.

This is all assuming you can get TA-ships and possibly (if you're lucky) fellowships to support you. If you have to pay tuition the whole time then it's really not worth it.

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There was an article called "should you go to West Point" by an old colonel. His short answer: "probably not". (The long answer was the measured, negative article.)

So...short answer "yes, probably a bad idea". Better off getting an MBA.

This is a little bit different if you are in a field (e.g. pharma) where large amount of Ph.D. hiring occurs. But corporate central research is under pressure as well.

In some cases, you may find that things are not quite as bad. For example if you are (really truly) in that upper 10% (maybe even upper 5%) of grad students. Then you have the potential to win the tournament position. But otherwise...look at music or acting. Supply and demand reduces the earnings of all but the superstars to a low level.

Of course if you're happy raising a family on a postdoc salary, fine. Some people are, (mostly immigrants, in the US). Also if you really have the goods...than fine...go for it. You don't quite need to be Albert Einstein, either. But you should have a pretty damned good feeling that you are better than almost every single classmate. Don't expect reasonable rewards if you are in the middle of the bell curve (let alone the left side).

P.s. Moderators, don't delete this answer. OP needs to hear different views, not just the "it's gonna be OK" view.

Edit: Just saw that you are going for a philosophy Ph.D. Yikes. Very little use of that in industry. I would be very concerned about the supply/demand picture. The one good thing is you don't have grants incentivizing masses of lab students (as cheap technicians). But you also will have a worse funding situation during your degree and almost no industrial positions to apply to. Just go research the numbers on graduates and job postings.

  • Why would you assume the poster is trying to raise a family? Why would you assume that they have any interest in an MBA when they’ve said nothing to indicate that they’re interested in business? – Shalop Oct 9 at 1:30
  • I didn't "assume" that he was. Just told him/her/it to consider the downside, if he happens to have this somewhat common desire of the human animal. I have no idea of his interest in an MBA. I do have an idea of the earning power. Big picture: learn to think in probabilities and possibilities. More Bayes, less Euclid. Maybe this fellow can avoid academic failure: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/108543/… – guest Oct 9 at 2:10
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My personal opinion is that you don't take a degree of any kind and then see what you can do with it, but rather the opposite: first you need to know what you want to do in your life, what makes you enjoy it, etc., and then you do what it takes to achieve it, including taking a PhD if needed.

In my case I have a MsC on Computer Science and while I've always loved computers since I was a kid, and I also have my small personal IT projects once in a while, I find myself happy with my daily work challenges + playing and creating music during my free time. I don't have a PhD on CS nor any degree in music, the knowledge that I have is enough for me to achieve what I want + when I miss any knowledge I know where to find the resources to learn what I need (learning of course never ends when you finish BsC, MsC or PhD, it's a constant thing).

Therefore if a PhD will help you to achieve what you want, it's - of course - a great idea. If you are not sure if it will help you or you are actually sure that it won't, then what for will you spend a significant amount of your life taking it? You'll be better off (in my opinion) doing other things that you like the most. Each one of us has his/her own needs.

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You can approach this as a math problem. I'll demonstrate with some round numbers, modify the numbers if you have more realistic estimates.

Say the average tenured career lasts 30 years (start at 35, retire at 65).

Say the average department has 20 tenure track faculty.

So in the top 100 you'll have 67 tenure track job openings per year.

Random Google source says that approximately 500 doctorates are awarded in Philosophy every year.

So the first year, you have 500 people applying for 67 positions. The second year, you have 500+433 = 933 people applying for 67 positions. And so on, until people start just giving up.

Say the average person is willing to spend 5 years trying to get a tenure track position before they give up and do something else instead.

So there will be 2232 people applying for 67 positions every year, or roughly a 3% chance that one person will get any position in one year.

Or over five years, one person has a 15% chance of getting any position. Even if you are twice as likely to be hired in any year as average, your chances over 5 years are still only 25%.

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    This is a very good analysis, but, I would say 'conservative'. On a worldwide scale it is much more difficult with the 'immigration' agenda. The number of doctorates issued in India, China, etc are huge. So, as per my answer, unless you have some 'patronage' it is hard. Sadly 'patronage' works in EVERY country for the top jobs. – Mr. de Silva Oct 9 at 5:11
  • 5 times 3% chance does not equate to 15%. – hkBst Oct 14 at 11:52
  • @hkBst I'm not sure I'm following your logic... – user3067860 Oct 14 at 13:11
  • 5 years of trying with 3% success chance equates to 3% + .97*3% + .97*.97*3% + ... + .97^4*3% < 15%. – hkBst Oct 14 at 14:11
  • @hkBst Actually, I’m pretty sure that it’s 1-(.97^5), which is about 14%. – nick012000 Oct 15 at 0:30
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This may border as an 'opinion'...

I have built businesses since 1989 for Entrepreneurs and I found the following to be true:

  1. There are no self-made men/women.
  2. None of the 'super-rich' have college degrees (Asia to the U.S.A).
  3. The 'super-rich/entrepreneurs' however do prefer to employ 'paper' holders.

Getting a PhD early in life may limit your job opportunities. It, actually, may hinder your path to 'riches' unless you want to do politics (or a hot political topic...).

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    “none of the super-rich have college degrees” This simply isn’t true. The billionaire college dropout is the exception rather than the rule. – nick012000 Oct 15 at 0:33
  • Trace ANY 'billionaire's' money path and you will find a 'trace' of political money, sometimes disguised as 'VC'. In other words 'paper' alone wont make you rich unless you have political patronage. Do you really believe that even 'Greta Tunberg' is not backed by politicians/connections (and is NOT a simple 'activist')? – Mr. de Silva Oct 15 at 1:56
  • I googled the top 5 richest people in the world. Forbes recently published a list. 4/5 had degrees. Did you mean to say that the richest people do not have PhDs? – schroeder Oct 25 at 14:55
  • There are Stock/IT billionaires and real billionaires (honorary degrees don't count) Just because they are not on the Forbes list does not mean they don't exist. Also, I am talking about CASH/Fixed-Assets rich, not value based on stocks, etc. I know (of) over 1.5 million+ Indians (I am not Indian) who can buy a country with a CASH cheque... we did an informal study in 1996. – Mr. de Silva Oct 25 at 15:32
  • Again with the leaps in logic and bold, unsubstantiated claims. This is getting silly. – schroeder Oct 26 at 7:52

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