Why I ... am better off outside academe

August 1, 2003

When I completed my PhD in philosophy seven years ago, I didn't want an academic career. Since then, I have at various times been tempted to revise my opinion and have even made a few speculative job applications. But at the risk of making a virtue out of necessity, I have settled on the view that if you are serious about your subject, as I am, and you have the opportunity to pursue it outside academe, as I do, you are better off staying where you are.

I believe this even though I can see some unique advantages of academic life. The most important of these was described by Ray Monk, when he talked about his own reluctant decision to re-enter the academy several years ago. He said: "It's where philosophy goes on." Universities are the only major centres of academic and scholarly life, and they offer the peer interaction and criticism that is essential to keeping one's mind sharp, arguments robust and scholarship up to date. It is all too easy to fall off the pace when working outside the academy.

However, the teaching and administration burdens I see my academic friends having to put up with make me doubt that they have any more time than I to do proper "research". After all, I too have published, and will publish again, occasionally in journals and edited collections.

What is more, the burdens of the research assessment exercise mean that academics in the humanities and social sciences are forced to keep up a steady output of papers, whether they have anything worth saying or not.

Ideas are not allowed to mature slowly and see the light of day only when they are ready and worthy. Any serious philosophy I do, in contrast, can be done in its own time. I do not have to worry about filling my CV with boring or irrelevant papers to keep my job. And I can stay in touch with academic peers at seminars and conferences as well as informally.

Other than the opportunity to conduct research, the other main attraction of an academic life is the chance to educate and inform. But this role is hampered because departments are so fixated on the RAE that they give academics little credit for teaching, writing introductory books or acting as ambassadors for their subject. I have written or co-written three philosophy textbooks and three texts for the general reader. I also edit a magazine read by lecturers, students and the public.

Were I in academe, to put any effort into this work would be career suicide, even though it is probably what I do best. It has certainly not put me in a good position to get an academic post because I have not written enough "footnotes to footnotes" material in journals, the only necessary and sufficient conditions for getting as far as a shortlist.

So academic life looks like a lose-lose situation. You get no credit for being a good teacher or communicator, nor do you have the time and space to really concentrate on the research that is rewarded. Life becomes a constant struggle to publish whatever you can in the little time you get to actually think, irrespective of its enduring value or interest to oneself or others. You become a conscript in an army of mediocre researchers, not a volunteer in an elite core of teachers or thinkers.

My concern is not to gloat over what I see as my fortunate position or claim that academe is suffering a great loss by my absence. It is rather that I believe the conditions that make academe unattractive to me cannot be optimal for those who really should be flourishing there. The greenhouse of higher education may not be the right environment in which I could ever bloom. The problem is that more robust and valuable species may be suffering too in its inhospitable atmosphere.

Julian Baggini. Editor. The Philosophers' Magazine ( www.philosophers.co.uk )

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