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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.

Present and Future

Contemporary philosophy, as it is taught in U.S. universities, traces its roots to the ancient Greeks, but other systems of non-Western philosophy find their origins in a vast range of sources, from the political debates of the Iroquois Confederacy to the Confucian writings of early China. Western philosophy is presently broadly divided into two camps: Continental, which concentrates on traditionally defined philosophical writers like Nietzsche and Hegel, and analytic, which owes much of its methodology to mathematics and theoretical physics. While this profession will likely remain limited in size, it should see the same increase that is expected for all the academic professions as the number of college age Americans begins to grow in the late 1990s. Over the last decade, however, the humanities have lost ground to the more professionally oriented fields of American academia, and this trend will likely continue.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

At this stage, the recent philosophy graduate is either in a tenure track job as an instructor or assistant professor, or is working as a part-time or adjunct professor and looking for a job which could eventually lead to tenure. The young assistant professor works long hours, teaching several undergraduate classes and beginning to establish the research and writing record necessary to advance in her field. In smaller and two-year colleges, there is often less pressure to publish, but these are busy years wherever the young philosopher teaches.

FIVE YEARS OUT

An academic career has begun to take shape at this point. The philosopher has probably published a couple of books or major research projects and has established clear areas of expertise. In addition, she has been promoted to associate professor, the final step before tenure. Associate professors have more control over their teaching schedules; they are likely to be teaching fewer low-level classes and more classes and seminars in their areas of specialization with older undergraduates and graduate students. In addition, as academic marketability is determined by a university's specific needs for expertise, professors become more able to move around between institutions as they establish themselves in their respective philosophical fields.

TEN YEARS OUT

By now, philosophers have either made tenure at the university where they started, found another university which will give them tenure, or left the profession. With tenure comes the rewards of the philosophical life: The ability to say, write, and teach what one wishes with almost complete freedom.