Realistic Expectations

(July 2009)

This discussion assumes you are contemplating an academic career in Chinese philosophy, that you plan to adopt a specifically philosophical approach to the subject, and thus that you strongly prefer to study in a department of philosophy, rather than history, religion, or East Asian studies. We’ll also assume that you have some philosophical ability, as demonstrated by good grades in undergraduate philosophy courses, for example.

It’s become obligatory to preface advice on academic careers in the humanities with a caveat urging prospective postgraduate students to think twice about their plans. Here’s mine.

Before committing to a career in Chinese philosophy, carefully consider the difficulties and risks. You’ll need to invest five to eight years of work with little short-term material return and no guarantee of later securing a job you consider ideal. If you are from an English-speaking country, specializing in Chinese philosophy is particularly challenging, because you must master a body of arcane source texts in a difficult foreign language, along with the associated secondary literature, while also becoming conversant in mainstream subfields of philosophy such as ethics or epistemology.

(Why study these other subfields? You need the philosophical training, and a key to outstanding work in Chinese philosophy is a broad grounding in both Chinese and Western thought. Moreover, the future development of the field lies in establishing connections between it and topics of interest to mainstream philosophers.)

A career in philosophy is generally not a path to wealth or high social status. You should pursue a Ph.D. in Chinese philosophy only if you find studying the subject intrinsically worthwhile, such that you’d enjoy your work even if you end up teaching a heavy courseload at a small college you’ve never heard of before. And even if that’s the case, you should still think twice. If there is another career path that you can reasonably expect to find equally or more satisfying, seriously consider pursuing that instead.

Be aware that as a specialist in Chinese philosophy, you will have fewer job opportunities than specialists in most other subfields of philosophy. (Moreover, for the time being, there are unlikely to be any openings at all at the top thirty or forty programs at Anglophone universities.) On the other hand, you will have far fewer competitors for the positions that do open up. Also, since the field is small, if you are talented, you are more likely to achieve recognition for your work.

In my view, Chinese philosophy is an exciting area with much room for further development. Interest in Chinese thought will surely grow in the next several decades. If you do decide to pursue a career in the field, however, you should do so with realistic expectations about the difficulties and prospects. In particular, you should be aware that job opportunities in philosophy have been limited in recent years and that the outlook for growth in the academic job market is uncertain. These problems may be less severe for specialists in Chinese philosophy than for those in other subspecialties, but they remain significant.

For a realistic overview of academic careers in philosophy and the humanities more generally, be sure to browse the discussions and comments available through the links on this page.