Here’s a blog post I just read, plus the things linked from it, about undergraduates wanting to go into academic philosophy, such as me. I’m currently working on the assumption that this is what I am going to do: hopefully go away to Korea to teach English for a year, and emerge from that ready to face graduate study. What this also does is give me a year outside of the academic world to become more sure, or otherwise, that this is what I want to do. So I don’t have to make any decisions now, since only the next year is relevant for the moment. Even so, having read the things I’ve just read, I want to review my reasons for wanting to pursue academic philosophy and the alternatives to this I have in mind. This is all in the context of careers-pressure from friends applying for and obtaining jobs, and what a young Oxford graduate is expected to do etc.

Firstly, here are the alternatives I am currently considering, for context. The first and most obvious is teaching. Aside from the potential difficulties of getting more experience than the paltry amount that I have now (though of course gap year plans will help with that, if they come to fruition), I think that it would be relatively straight-forward for me to get onto a PGCE course and then start teaching. Since I like Getting Things Done, I could end up doing jobs like head of department, head of year etc. after some years of experience. I enjoy teaching, and I feel that it’s something worthwhile to spent one’s life on. Further, the holidays are long, which means that you don’t have to sign twenty years over to the job, if you like: you can pursue other things too. On the other hand, there is the grim state of our education system, and the fact that so few teachers are really into their jobs (in the state sector, where I would be). Even at a school like mine which was high-performing and had a lot of really engaged students that were great to teach, I met only a few teachers who were as engaged as I would want to be engaged with a career.

The second alternative is to go into some graduate computer programming job, and start right away on £30k or something similar. This is very standard for graduates of Oxford maths. I know that this is something that I enjoy doing, and I think that it would be perhaps even easier to get into than teaching. I’d actually have to learn how to code and so I could get into contributing to Free Software projects online, and make my casual interest in computing into something much more solid. On the other hand, am I actually that interested? It is hard to tell because I have never written any software of sufficient complexity. There are of course all the other career options for maths graduates, that all my friends are applying for, but I’ve yet to hear of something that I am interested in outside of computing stuff, so I don’t think it’s worth spending a lot of my time investigating such things.

The above two options are both pretty cushy compared to the third, that is, pursuing philosophy. I’d be joining the Oxbridge gravy train, essentially, using the name of the institution where I did my degree to get a comfortable existence rather quickly. Let’s assume that I get onto a high-ranking, fully-funded graduate programme for philosophy: if not, I will switch to one of the above. There’s no point in pursuing an academic career without a really strong start, since it’s hard enough even given that. Then I’ll have a decade or so of trying to get myself established. Either I end up with an actual job, or I give up on (academic) philosophy and then consider one of the above options, or perhaps by that point something completely different, having “lost” quite a lot of time (will come back to this notion of losing time). And really, the chances of the former are rather low, as will be grasped from the blog posts I referred to at the beginning of this entry.

So why would I possibly want to go for this? Two reasons, speaking very generally. Firstly, I feel that I would be killing off a large chunk of myself of by not pursuing philosophy. In my tutors I see an understanding and outlook that I feel I must acquire. I am stuck in the Cave. I feel that to at least some degree they are out in the sunlight. When I think about growing and changing in my life, I have a list of ideas of what I might become, and developing my philosophical understanding is right there at the top. This is quite unlike my attitude to the above options. Learning how to educate people, and learning how to write software, are routes along which to develop your character. But there is a very strong sense that I get from my undergraduate studies that I am very far from being finished: I appreciate that it’s cliched to say, but, the more I learn the more I realise I have to learn—but I don’t think this is neverending. Secondly, I think that the above discussions of teaching and software development sound good only because they mean having money, and having it relatively easily. I don’t think this is worth the cost of the bitterness of having given up my passion—my one passion—for, because I am happy with having not very much, materially. A clean and modestly tooled-up kitchen and bedroom and bathroom, a computer and Internet connection, maintenance of my Internet “infrastructure” (~$50/year), a small collection of inexpensive bits and pieces. The only other thing is money to travel around the country to see various friends, which is something I don’t have now and would really love, and that is a significant cost.

Here are reasons to doubt the above two reasons. Firstly, I know that my sense of self is much more malleable than it can often appear. I am good at getting stuck into things and making them my own, once I grasp onto something valuable about it. I could definitely envisage this happening with teaching; it’s harder to do so when thinking about computer programming. It’s this matter of getting a greater perspective on my situation and on how important philosophy is to me that is a big part of my reasons for wanting to go abroad for a year. Secondly, maybe I care more about comfort more than I think. My standards are perhaps quite high, based on how I’ve been brought up—they’re certainly high relative to the poverty I can expect while pursuing academic philosophy. And of course there is mental comfort, that is, peace of mind. I won’t have this in philosophy for a very long time, if ever. Can I live with that? I feel as though I ought to be able to, that is, it is important to me that I can learn how to. Because if I don’t, if I get stuck with worrying about getting a job etc. for long enough, then I reckon I’d throw away twenty years just as surely as I would if I followed my friends into the City.

My feelings and predictions on the above options fluctuate a great deal. Certain people I know who are a few years older than me give me impressions of their lives and I get strong desire/aversion for something like that. It makes sense to be wary of your thoughts about careers you haven’t pursued, especially when making comparisons with others whose lives you don’t live, but I feel like I’m in even deeper uncertainty than this general warning should have me in, since my opinions on the above three options change so much.

One thing that I can know about is about my study of philosophy now. Let’s take my recent work on my extended essay as a starting example. This is hardly research, but it’s closer to that than my normal tutorial work is, to be sure. Reading philosophy is hard. You are never quite sure if you’ve understood. It’s difficult to compare things against each other when you find that you are totally convinced by each of a set of mutually inconsistent authors (this is very common feeling). The task is to sort it all out. Sometimes you come across a quite brilliant thought, and that’s great, but you know from previous experience that it could well be something that turns out to be wrong, and showing this can be done in three sentences. So nothing is clear. Until you start to write. You write out a paragraph, trying to say something, read it a few times, realise that you’ve made a foolish assumption or neglected something, so you delete it, and you try again, and again. The structure of your essay starts to come together in your mind. Gradually you become convinced that you might have something half-convincing here. The Truth dances just out of reach, but you’re on the right path. Then finally you get some clarity (perhaps after a bunch of revisions and discussions with others), and the accompanying humility. Your argument flies straight as an arrow and you feel as though you can see straight through the world, and the people in it. People really like this and we’ve got a bunch of ways of getting this feeling e.g. religion, new age superstition. But philosophy is all about doing it right; it’s slow and careful.

One could very easily think that I’m attached to a false ideal here. But there does come a point when you have to trust your experience; I’m almost at the end of a four year degree and I’m writing this, so, I think it’s reasonable to go along with it.

Edit 27/i/2013: Didn’t come back to something I said I would come back to, that is, the thought that many people have that you’ve lost a chunk of your career-building life if you don’t get anywhere. My thought here is that philosophy is the only career-career, if you like, that I want to do, so nothing is lost. Indeed I think I’d get a lot out of it.

comment VW16YDU5I5B039CU

We really should talk about this some time: I’m having similar sorts of thoughts myself.

Comment by salavant Tue 29 Jan 2013 12:49:12 UTC