Philosophy vs. programming

I used to be a PhD candidate in philosophy, but now I’m working as a software engineer, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when I got a Facebook message asking for advice for someone trying to decide between philosophy and programming as careers, from the point of view of what career will allow you to do the most good. I kept my reply short: go into programming unless you can get into the perfect program for pursuing your given philosophical interests. Now that I’ve got some time free, I want to expand on that answer.

For those not already immersed in the effective altruism community, it might seem strange that programming would be seen as an altruistic career choice—and no, the reason for this has nothing to do with writing iPhone apps for use by desperately poor people in the developing world. No, the reason is earning to give: programming is a high-earning career right now, and as I’ve discussed recently, donating to charity can be an extremely effective way of making the world a better place. If you have the potential to be either a programmer or a philosopher, the hard question is how to evaluate philosophy as a career choice.

One thing to emphasize is the contrast in the job prospects of the average programmer vs. the average philosophy PhD graduate. I started my first programming job less than a month ago, and I was by no means any employer’s ideal job candidate, with no experience and an irrelevant degree. Nevertheless, I managed to land a quite high-paying job in San Francisco. It took four months of searching, which felt like a long time, but that’s nothing compared to the job search troubles many philosophy PhD graduates have. There’s nothing particularly special about me that got me here—it was mostly a matter of my having any programming talent at all (which, admittedly not everyone does).

In contrast, right now there are too many philosophy PhDs chasing too few jobs. This is true of the humanities in general, but I’ll focus on philosophy, both because it’s the area where I have experience and because it’s what attracts people interested in the effective altruism movement. If you’re an undergraduate looking to pick a career path, you probably think “PhD’d philosopher” and think of famous philosophers like Peter Singer, or at least reasonably successful tenured or tenure-track professors like the ones who taught you philosophy.

The reality is much bleaker. Read this piece if you want the long version, but the short version looks like this: if you’re a newly-minted philosophy PhD, there’s a huge risk you’ll spend a lot of time making essentially minimum wage in adjunct (i.e. non-tenure track) positions. I had a friend like this when I was at Notre Dame, we ended up taking the LSAT at the same time because I had gotten disillusioned with grad school just as he was deciding that if he didn’t get a tenure-track job in the next season of hiring, he would quit philosophy and go to law school.

Even if you’re tenure track, you probably won’t end up at a top university. There’s a good chance you’ll end up at a small liberal arts college with a heavy teaching load that doesn’t allow a lot of time for research. And you’ll probably mostly be teaching students who don’t have much aptitude or enthusiasm for philosophy, but are just taking it because they had to cross off their elective somehow. Maybe you’ll manage to make an impact on a few of the better students, but on the whole there will probably be better things you could be doing with your life.

But if you’re reading this, you probably don’t need me to persuade you a heavy teaching load isn’t the best way to make an impact on the world. And here’s where I’ll go a bit beyond the link I just sent you to, and say that even if you graduate from a top philosophy program and get a great tenure-track job (the former being a de factor prerequisite for the latter), you may not be in all that great of a position to make an impact on the world. Academic philosophy just isn’t set up to foster work that makes a difference outside of its own little bubble.

Do some philosophers manage to make a huge impact on the world for the better? Absolutely. Peter Singer is the prime example of this, and you could make a case for others, such as Nick Bostrom. But I can’t stress enough how much Singer and Bostrom are oddballs within philosophy. Peter Singer is known for his utilitarianism, but rather than focus on framing grand philosophical arguments for utilitarianism, he pours a lot of effort into the relatively low-status discipline of “applied ethics,” i.e. dealing with specific ethical issues, and often sets aside philosophical argument in bombarding his readers with facts about how much it costs to save a life, how horrible factory farming is, how our definition of “death” has changed in response to real medical ethical dilemmas. Many philosophers, I suspect, would hardly consider such an approach to be philosophy.

Nick Bostrom, with his focus on specific future technologies he thinks are likely to be developed, is in some ways even more unusual by the standards of mainstream academic philosophy. Now, Bostrom and Singer are still relatively high-status within mainstream philosophy; they have plenty of detractors, but plenty of admirers as well. However, if you want to be the next Peter Singer, or next Nick Bostrom, you may find that a difficult road to walk, full of snares that will pull you towards a more “normal” philosophical career.

In my case, when I entered grad school, I was really interested in philosophy of mind, specifically consciousness. It wasn’t until my last semester there, before I dropped out, that one of the philosophy of mind profs at Notre Dame told me that Notre Dame wasn’t known for philosophy of mind, so if I wanted a job coming out of Notre Dame, I’d better do my dissertation on metaphysics or something.

If you read Robin Hanson’s blog (and if you don’t, what’s wrong with you?), you’ve read a lot about how academics are forced to play signaling games. I suspect the problem is worse in philosophy, because there’s no gradual process of finding out who turned out to be right in the end, and rewarding them for it. The rewards mostly go to good signaling. This doesn’t mean nothing good ever comes out of academic philosophy (see Peter Singer again), just that you’ll be up against challenges far greater than most undergraduates can grasp if they want to make an impact in philosophy.

If you do think you might have what it takes to be the next Peter Singer or Nick Bostrom, I recommend really scrutinizing each and every program you apply to, to figure out if it’s really going to be a place that’s conducive to doing the kind of research you want to do. If you get your application decisions back and your top pick out of all the places that accepted you is, on close examination, only kinda sorta suitable for the kind of work you want to do, don’t go at all. I mean it. It may be hard to give up your dream of being an influential philosopher, but if you’ve got the talent to be a decent programmer as well, you’re probably better off programming.


Some added thoughts based on conversation on Facebook: I wouldn’t necessarily discourage anyone from applying to graduate school in philosophy. It’s once you get in that you really have to weigh you’re options carefully. If you actually get in to Oxford—something not everyone can do—maybe it’s worth going. Oxford seems unusually well-suited for doing high-impact philosophy. But if the best program you get into is, as I said, only kinda sorta suitable for the work you want to do, that’s when I’d urge caution.

People who are skeptical of the bleak picture I painted of the philosophy job market should look at these statistics.

Also, I need to emphasize that none of this is about “status.” It’s somewhat debatable whether programmers are considered higher status than academics. But I don’t think the average philosophy professor with a heavy teaching load at a liberal arts college is as impactful as a programmer donating $20,000 / year to effective charities. There are indeed exceptional philosophers who are much more impactful than that. But unless you have good reason to think you’re likely to become one of those exceptional philosophers, and you have the option of programming, I say program.

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