Public Philosophy in the PhD

Posted on June 4, 2017 by


We in the philosophy blogosophere (especially) frequently discuss whether activities like blogging, podcasting, and other public philosophy activities or projects should count toward tenure. I fall squarely in the `yes’ camp – engaging audiences outside of our professional circles is vitally important for the discipline. And the APA officially agrees. It is also important for people with other backgrounds to have access to the work philosophers do, and the methods we use to do that work. That said, as a graduate student, I don’t have (much) standing in the debate about tenure requirements, nor should I. Instead I’d like to talk about a different process that is relevantly similar to tenure in certain respects, but where I have a good deal of experience: the PhD. Before anyone gets too up in arms, here’s a caveat before I get into more detail. Obviously PhDs and the tenure process are very different. As such, not all of the same considerations will be important.

Here’s are the very general similarities between PhDs and tenure as I see them. Both are processes required to progress professionally in the discipline with fairly strict time constraints, and research output requirements. Additionally, as I see it, in both cases there is a strong sense in which a candidate is giving formal evidence of their academic value and their commitment to the profession.

Now given these similarities, the thought is that if public philosophy, at least in some of it’s forms, should count towards tenure, then some of those same things (plus some others I’ll talk about below) should also be relevant to gaining a PhD. Before I go into more detail about how I think that might work, I’ll say a bit about what the purpose of a PhD and the associated requirements are, in my view. Apart from what I’ve already mentioned, and by far the most important purpose of the PhD is to show that you are capable of sustaining and completing a higher quality, original, long-term research project. This is undoubtedly important, but there are many ways to be successful in, or useful to the profession that don’t involve writing monographs (for interesting discussions about graduate students involved in professional service, and especially refereeing for journals, see here and here). In some programs this is acknowledged by by allowing candidates to submit a collection of publishable papers on a common theme. This still shows the capability to engage in a long-term research project, without requiring that something monograph-like be produced.

But what about PhD students who go beyond the required dissertation or the expected conference presentations, articles and teaching? The post popular post on this blog, Justin’s post on personal identity, has been viewed over 63,000 times (!) since it was published in 2012. That post has surely made an impact, but has no direct bearing on Justin’s PhD track. Now I’m not saying that successful blogging, podcasting, etc, should should supplant a dissertation or similar large research project, only that such things should count for something.

Here’s one way we might consider more things towards the PhD, noting first that the is may not be the best solution, and certainly isn’t the only one. I’m hoping here just to get the wheels turning, not argue for a particular answer.

First, we need to have a “PhD by paper” policy. For concreteness lets say a minimum of four publishable papers on a common theme totaling a minimum of 150 pages. That’s our baseline; that’s enough to submit on its own (maybe with a philosophical introduction). Now we have our list of non-directly dissertation related activities/output. Certain combinations of those (see below) will reduce, incrementally, the minimum page and/or paper requirement down to an absolute minimum of, say 3 papers/90pp. Perhaps we will even require at least two substantively different non-dissertation projects for any particular level of reduction. One way to make this precise would be to assign numerical values to each project category, and then use a pre-designed formula to work out the details. That would be fairly easy to picture, though I think ultimately the wrong way to go.

Again this suggestion should only be taken as a starting point. Workable proposals will likely vary among institutions , and probably won’t end up looking very much like the above proposal. Suggestions for improvement, or different strategies are encouraged in the comments below.

A (Partial) List of Non-Dissertation Projects

  • Blogging
    • Perhaps a certain number of words or posts with a certain minimum reach
    • Likely more highly valued when related to the dissertation topic
    • Should differentiate between running a blog and contributing
    • Probably the most important medium for public philosophy outside of syndicated programming
  • Podcasting
    • Similar requirements to blogging, though metrics would be a bit different
    • More difficult to launch and produce than a blog, and requiring different skills
  • Conference organization
    • Not necessarily “public” in the relevant sense, but a huge value to the profession; most of the inter-departmental interaction is centered around conferences, or at least gets started there
    • Different kinds of conferences, sizes, etc, as well as different organizational roles should be distinguished
    • Presumably running a successful conference as a graduate student shows that you would be able to do this for another department or association, contributing straightforwardly to the progress of philosophy
  • Public lectures
    • There’s a lot of variation here, but I think this is fundamentally different from regular talks and conference presentations
    • Again, probably more relevant when closely related to dissertation research
    • Probably the canonical way to show that you can present your research to non-specialists, which we certainly claim to value
  • Co-authoring a published paper
    • This is something that I think should be encouraged anyway
    • Collaboration is often a great way to move forward in less-than-obvious ways, but sometimes discouraged in monograph-centric (sub-)cultures
    • Supervisors and/or committee members should usually be able to confirm that a grad student has done a fair portion of the work
  • Grant writing (successful?)
    • At some institutions, particularly in Europe, this is an extremely important skill
    • Yet another way to present your research to a (usually) more general audience
  • Articles or Columns in Popular Magazines/Newspapers
    • An important way to apply philosophy and philosophical skill to “real world” issues
    • Broad reach
    • Often more longer, more philosophically involved, well-referenced, etc., than blog posts

Disclaimer: I have been involved in all of the above activities, except the last, in at least some capacity.

Two notes about this list. First, I don’t take it to be in any way definitive, but would love to get your suggestions for additions or modification in the comments. Second, most or all of the things on this list are likely to be valued on the tenure track job market, which certainly means that they’re implicitly encouraged. However, given the sorry state of that market, as well as the varying preferences of departments means that we ought not (I think) rely on those external preferences to encourage different valuable skills among graduate students. That brings me to one final thought.

It is occasionally suggested that there should be different teaching and research PhD streams. It strikes me that a more modular approach like the one I’ve sketched here would make it much easier implement programs like that.

I look forward to your reactions and suggestions.