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Career: Philosopher

A Day in the life of a Philosopher

What is the nature of truth? The meaning of life? The ideal structure of a society? Philosophers spend their lives attempting to answer questions like these. A taste for intellectual debate is a must in this profession. If you enjoy abstractions, you'll probably enjoy being a philosopher, but be warned: It's a tough way to pay the rent. Most philosophers make their livings as college professors (see Professor), but there aren't many full-time teaching positions in philosophy, and philosophers do not have outside employment opportunities the way engineers or economists do. The French government has occasionally employed its own philosophers, once hiring noted philosopher Michel Foucault to serve on a committee to rewrite the French penal code, but the U.S. government is not known for this practice. For those who do find teaching positions in philosophy, the work is quite similar to that of other professors in the humanities. Aside from teaching responsibilities, which usually occupy approximately twelve hours per week, one's time is largely one's own. Professors stay busy, however; long hours are the norm, but the work is a pleasure if you enjoy reading and writing about philosophy, and why else would you enter the field? Particularly in the first few years, philosophy involves a lot of writing, as a young philosophy professor's publishing record is an important part of the tenure evaluation. Once tenured, however, philosophers can probably live the closest approximation of a life of pure contemplation in our society. You can become a philosopher simply by deciding to call yourself one. If thinking about life is practicing philosophy, who's to say that you have to be paid by a university to do it? Henry David Thoreau retreated from his fellow human beings, built a cabin at Walden Pond, and wrote books of philosophy. It helps to get published, of course, but you don't necessarily have to care whether other people follow and study your philosophy.

Paying Your Dues

Unless you plan on taking the Walden Pond approach, a Ph.D. in philosophy is a prerequisite in this field. This involves five to seven years of study after completion of a college degree, including two to three years of course work. The rest of the time is spent writing a dissertation, which must be an original manuscript analyzing some aspect of philosophy. More so than in many of the other humanities professions, philosophy departments specialize, choosing to have a majority of analytic philosophers, continental philosophers, comparative philosophers, or some other branch of the field. The young philosopher's choice of a dissertation topic, therefore, has a significant impact upon the institutions where jobs will be available at graduation. Like all the academic disciplines, relationships with senior faculty are extremely important in finding a job, as positions are often filled through recommendations from colleagues.

Associated Careers

People with training in philosophy turn up in a wide variety of fields. The training is flexible enough that philosophers can become bankers, writers, policy analysts, or almost any other profession imaginable. Perhaps because the training includes substantial elements of political philosophy, many people decide to go from philosophy to the legal profession. (Besides, lawyers have a better chance of making a living.)

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