Background: I have a PhD in philosophy. I’m a research analyst at Rethink Priorities. The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the official views of Rethink Priorities.
Effective altruism research organizations should consider posting job openings on philjobs.org. This is a good idea because (1) philosophers are well-suited to many aspects of EA research and (2) philosophers are desperate for work.
PhilJobs is a joint project of the American Philosophical Association and the PhilPapers Foundation. It is the premiere job site for jobs relevant to philosophers. The site is tailored to and frequented almost exclusively by graduate students and individuals who have already obtained a doctoral degree (or equivalent) in philosophy. While most of the jobs on the site are academic, there is no requirement that they be so, and there are some notable exceptions. For example, Cycorp, developer of the Cyc AI platform, has been successfully advertising on the site for years.
Philosophers are well-suited to many aspects of EA research
Someone who has completed a doctorate, in any field, has demonstrated that s/he is capable of working semi-independently on a daunting project over a period of multiple years. The combination of autonomy, determination, and vision required to actually finish a dissertation would be valuable in an EA researcher. However, philosophers are a particularly good fit for EA research organizations.
Philosophy is directly relevant to much EA research. A background in philosophy of mind would be helpful to someone gauging the distribution of sentience among nonhuman animals. A background in population ethics would be helpful to someone gauging the importance of the long-term future. A background in bioethics would be helpful to someone gauging the value of various transhumanist projects. A background in mathematical logic would be helpful to someone gauging the best way to mitigate the existential risk of artificial intelligence. And a background in formal epistemology would be helpful to just about anyone trying to gauge the cost-effectiveness of a complicated intervention.
More importantly, philosophers make for good generalist researchers. Compared to other fields, success in philosophy is less predicated on deep, specialized knowledge and is determined more by general-purpose reasoning skills. Studying philosophy at the doctoral level requires an eye for nuance, the ability to untangle good evidence from bad, and a mentality that prefers to question rather than accept the status quo. Philosophy also encourages creativity; it takes a good deal of imaginative thinking to discover a promising but unoccupied position in logical space or to develop a novel objection to a widely endorsed position. These traits would be valuable in an EA researcher.
Contrary to popular stereotypes, philosophers often excel at quantitative thinking. Many philosophy PhDs have an undergraduate background in math or science. For subfields of philosophy like formal epistemology, population ethics, experimental philosophy, decision theory, philosophy of science, and, of course, logic, a strong command of quantitative skills is essential. Even beyond these subfields, quantitative acumen is prized. In analytic philosophy in particular, papers with a lot of math and formalism are more likely to be taken seriously than comparable papers explained informally.
Again contrary to popular stereotypes, philosophers are not an intellectually insular bunch. Quite the opposite. Philosophers are intellectually curious and delight in engaging with other disciplines, especially scientific disciplines. A group of interdisciplinary scholars recently published an opinion piece in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) illustrating the way philosophers have contributed to cutting-edge scientific research. Indeed, research from subjects such as neuroscience, environmental studies, particle physics, evolutionary biology, and social psychology is frequently cited in philosophical articles and books. Thus, most philosophers are capable of reading and understanding work from other fields. This ability would be useful in an EA researcher who must compare disparate interventions or pivot from one cause area to another.
Philosophers are desperate for work
The academic job market in philosophy has always been competitive, but in the last decade the situation for applicants has gotten dramatically worse. These days, a research-oriented tenure-track position will attract 500-600 applicants. (To reiterate, that is for a single position.) Lower quality tenure-track positions receive 200-300 applicants. Even non-tenure-track positions will often hit triple digits. Newly minted PhDs in philosophy typically apply to 50-100 jobs, and many of them are never interviewed, let alone hired. This applies even to well-qualified applicants with multiple publications and good letters of recommendation. Getting an academic job of any kind is considered a major success.
The problem is that there are far more applicants than there are jobs. According to statistics published by the American Philosophical Association, the number of annual jobs for philosophers peaked at 1,273 in 2007, just before the financial crisis. By 2013, that figure had fallen by more than half to 588. The number has recovered somewhat since 2013 and stabilized at an average of 739 for the past four years for which data are available. However, it’s become clear that many of the pre-financial crisis jobs are not coming back. The financial crisis triggered a series of events that ultimately led to increased fiscal pressure on many universities, both public and private, and in response many of those universities instituted structural changes that limited the need for new professors.
Unfortunately, the supply of new doctoral graduates was not similarly reduced. In fact, the number of new philosophy PhDs has gone up since 2008. Grad students are cheap labor, and when the market is uniformly bad, departments don’t take a reputational hit when their students don’t find permanent positions. As a result, philosophy PhDs are desperate for work. Many of them bounce around from one temporary position to another or scrape by as part-time adjuncts. Most graduate departments do a poor job preparing their students for a career outside academia, so recent graduates often don’t know where to turn when their academic search comes up empty.
In the face of this adversity, EA research organizations are apt to look quite attractive. Because the academic job market is so competitive, philosophers are already accustomed to low salaries; EA research organizations may even be able to offer a higher salary than they would have earned in academia. Unlike most academic jobs, EA research organizations are either entirely remote, located in otherwise desirable places to live, or some combination of the two. Unlike academics, EA researchers don’t have to grade papers, sit on committees, or deal with university bureaucracy. And although landing a job at an EA research organization is hard, it is not significantly harder than securing a tenure-track academic position.
Posting job openings on philjobs.org is likely to bring talented individuals into the effective altruism community who otherwise would have pursued careers in different fields. If it’s true that EA is talented-constrained, posting jobs on philjobs.org is one small way to help close the talent gap.
Peter Hurford, David Moss, and Sam Fox Krauss provided helpful feedback on this essay. Any mistakes are my own.
I found the part about philosophers being well-suited to many aspects of EA research especially interesting. You said this:
Do you have any data about philosophy PhDs often having an undergraduate background in math or science? I, for example, have chosen a lot of courses in mathematical economics, data analysis, and social science research methodology to support my philosophy degree, but this is very uncommon in my experience. However, this depends a lot on the region and surely USA and UK are different than continental Europe on this matter.
Unfortunately, I don't have any hard data to back up that claim, just extensive anecdotal evidence from roughly seven years interacting with professional philosophers and philosophy graduate students. And my anecdotal evidence skews heavily toward the US, so I'm not in a position to even hazard a guess about the prevalence of philosophy PhDs with STEM backgrounds in continental Europe. Sorry!
Excellent post! Thanks for writing it.
I like this as one example of a more general idea: There are a lot of people and resources in the "outside world" that can be very helpful to the EA community, and we should be aware of them.
Given all the neat productivity tools, databases, and other resources created by people in EA, it can be easy to forget how big and versatile the world is. But sometimes, said world can give us an immediate, clear answer to questions like: "Where will we ever find hundreds of job-seekers who have talent X and passion Y?"
Another example that comes to mind: Researchers have done a ton of work trying to figure out which types of charitable marketing are most successful, but I rarely see this cited within EA (I wrote a thesis summarizing some of the more high-quality work in this area, though it's a little out-of-date by now).