Philosopher: Matt Drabek

 

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Matt Drabek received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Iowa in 2012. After an initial foray into the academic job market, he began a career as a Content Specialist for the educational testing company ACT, Inc. In this interview he discusses the educational assessment industry, the role of a philosophy degree in getting and doing his job, and his continuing engagement with academic philosophy.

DEREK: In your entry to the Philosopher’s Cocoon’s “Long Journeys” series, you talk briefly about your initial struggles with the academic job market before landing a position at ACT, Inc. Was applying for this job the first time you gave serious thought to pursuing a non-academic career, or did you have any “Plan B”s in mind during your time in grad school? Did you consider or pursue any other non-academic career plans?

MATT: Thanks. This is an area where I could have improved, and I hope people who read the Cocoon entry and this interview do more to prepare than I did! I hadn’t thought in any great depth about non-academic careers before applying for my present position. The possibility had always been at the back of my mind, but I didn’t do the kind of networking and career-related research that a person really ought to do. I don’t think that has been any great detriment to my non-academic career, but it could have been (and could still be in the future, I guess). I did look into things like technical writing, and I have enough of an interest in food to at least consider the possibility of starting a food truck or working in the restaurant industry, but I haven’t seriously pursued those things.

Part of what made me aware of my present company and job is that the company where I work advertised in the JFP. As many of you know, other than maybe Cycorp, it’s very rare for non-academic companies to advertise there. I wouldn’t advise anyone to only read the JFP for non-academic job ads!

DEREK: Your job title is “Content Specialist,” and I know you work on assessment design for the GMAT, which is used as an entrance exam by business schools and some graduate programs. You also develop assessment products designed to be used in workforce development. What does that translate into in terms of your day-to-day work? Are you mainly writing questions for these standardized tests? Is there a lot of the solitary writing and research that would be familiar to most academic philosophers?

MATT: My job basically divides into two parts: the design part and the content part. The design part is mostly a series of research projects around what the company can and ought to assess, and how to define and develop test constructs. I’ve produced research reports into educational markets, particularly postsecondary markets, and also workforce markets. I’ve also conducted research into what “critical thinking” means and how we might test it at various stages of a person’s student career and workforce career. The content part is the part where I’m writing questions for assessments. I’ve written questions for the GMAT test and for a workplace test called Graphic Literacy. As you’ve said, the GMAT is most often used by business schools as a part of their admissions process to graduate school. Graphic Literacy is one third of ACT’s WorkKeys Workplace Readiness Certificate. It’s designed to evaluate whether an entry-level employee has gained the skills needed to success in a wide range of careers. It’s used primarily by high schools and by government workforce development offices.

The design part of my job is much more collaborative and social than I think the typical philosophy grad student or professor experiences. Norms surrounding research, how it’s conducted, how authorship of papers and reports is determined, and so on are very different from what one would normally see in philosophy. It’s much more akin to what social science researchers do. X-Phi folks, I think, would find it far more familiar than the average philosopher would find it. The content part of my job, on the other hand, does involve a great deal of solitary writing of roughly the sort found in philosophy. That would be the smoother transition. My work schedule for the content part of my job, aside from quarterly item goals, is mostly self-determined.

DEREK: Your job was initially advertised in the APA’s Jobs for Philosophers, so they were clearly interested in hiring a philosophy PhD. Was the PhD an essential qualification for the job, and was it essential that it be a philosophy PhD? Could someone without a (philosophy) PhD do the job that you do?

MATT: The short answer here might be “it depends.” For the content side of things, the PhD really isn’t a requirement, either on paper or in fact. Most of the people writing questions for tests at ACT do not have PhDs, and many do not have any degree beyond a BA or BS. Most of my teammates who write questions for Graphic Literacy do not have a graduate degree, because a variety of workplace experience is considered more valuable for writing questions for a workplace assessment than the accumulation of degrees beyond the BA or BS. GMAT, as a graduate-level exam, is a somewhat different story. Several of the members of that team have PhDs in Philosophy. One section of the GMAT, the Verbal section, contains a number of critical reasoning questions where a Philosopher would have a distinct advantage at writing or answering the questions. And most of the people who write questions for that section of the GMAT do have a Philosophy PhD. If you were to move over to one of our more famous tests, perhaps the ACT College Readiness Assessment (known simply as “the ACT”) or ACT Aspire (a test for students in grades 3-8), you’d find that many of the people writing questions are former teachers who often hold Master’s degrees in Teaching or Education. Off the top of my head, I can think of only one person who works on those tests (out of perhaps 80 or 90 total) who has a Philosophy PhD.

The design side of things is a different story. I use my Philosophy PhD quite a bit when I’m researching the critical thinking test construct, and I’d say a Philosophy PhD is probably essential for that portion of my job. “Critical thinking” is something of an educational buzzword that’s used loosely and even inappropriately in various parts of the educational sector. Even serious academic research on critical thinking is of widely varying quality. Philosophers have done far more than any other academic field in nailing down and operationalizing the concept. And so the PhD is very important there. But most of my colleagues in design, who are doing research for areas like ELA, Math, and Science, do not have PhDs.

DEREK: Did you have any prior contacts or experience in the assessment industry, or any additional credentials beyond the PhD, which made it easier to transition into  your new career?

MATT: A bit. I spent some time teaching test prep for The Princeton Review while I lived in Minneapolis, but had no other real contacts with the educational assessment/management industry prior to landing in my current job. The test prep experience taught me a bit about how tests are put together, but I learned far, far more on the job than I learned teaching test prep. Connections are extremely important to finding a job, but one must take a wider view of what counts as a connection. Someone who was in your PhD program 20 years ago, whom you’ve never met, is employed at the company? That’s a potential connection, and that person is likely to look favorable on an application or a request for an informational interview. The company is located in the same city as you? Even that is potentially fertile ground for connections.

DEREK:I think many aspiring academic philosophers might be disappointed at the idea of working in the standardized testing industry. Philosophers often think that the things we’re teaching can’t be easily captured in a standardized, multiple-choice format. And there are also concerns that standardized tests reinforce existing inequalities by favoring those who are already good at formalized test taking and those who can afford test-prep tutoring tailored to specific entrance exams. Did you have any of these concerns when you started, and has your experience in the industry changed your perspective?

MATT: I did have those concerns when I started. I think the really quick answer here about the assessment industry is that the worries one should have about that industry are pretty much the same worries one should have in any major industry of the contemporary economy. Any large industry, very much including the higher education industry that Philosophers are most familiar with, carries a strong risk of exacerbating existing inequalities and creating new ones. My sense is that, if anything, the higher education industry does more than the standardized testing industry to exacerbate inequality, because it’s much larger in terms of revenue, it has more influence over a person’s life trajectory, and it’s relatively less accessible, especially higher quality educational institutions.

My experience in the assessment industry has changed my perspective somewhat, at least in the sense of being able to carve out distinctions I wasn’t previously aware of. Many of the companies people are most familiar with – Educational Testing Services, which produces the GRE; The College Board, which produces the SAT; and ACT, where I work – are mission-driven, non-profit organizations. This doesn’t mean they don’t do bad things or contribute to inequality, but I’ve generally found that those organizations are serious about self-examination and about trying to stamp out problems and biases. Generally these organizations take their missions seriously (ours is “helping people achieve education and workplace success”). So, for example, regarding things like test prep, ACT gives away quite a bit of test prep material to underserved learners. Some of the larger, for-profit companies in the same industry, such as Pearson and HMH, are much more directly accountable to shareholders or short-term profit. I think they have a more difficult time addressing social concerns from that sort of framework.

DEREK: Would you recommend the assessment industry to other philosophers who are considering non-academic employment? What advice would you offer to graduate students, prospective graduate students, or philosophy PhDs who are thinking about pursuing this line of work?

MATT: Most of all, I’d advise Philosophers looking for a Plan B to look around. There are many things you can do with your degree, even in my industry. I jumped into the “test development” part of the assessment industry, but that’s well under half our staff. We have product development areas of the company, marketing, strategy, various IT departments, human resources, etc. Some of these areas would, of course, require additional training or skills. But a Philosophy PhD does impart skills that would be useful for many of these areas. I’d recommend figuring out what part of the Philosophy PhD most excites you (teaching? research?) and figure out how to abstract from that a set of skills that transfers well.

If you’re looking to get into my specific part of the assessment industry (i.e., test design and content development), there are a few things that would probably be helpful. Teaching experience is great. In addition to postsecondary teaching, there are other areas like K-12 teaching, summer/youth teaching and volunteering, test prep teaching, and the like. I’d recommend following the news in education and assessment. For design work, a basic working knowledge of social science research methods would be tremendously helpful.

Often when I see non-ac/alt-act discussions online, people speak as if there’s some kind of big “Plan B” career path out there – the career path – that philosophers can all jump into together. I’m sorry to say that this is nonsense. There’s no single career path or single position that all philosophers can or should train for.

DEREK: Would you advise undergraduates with a talent and passion for philosophy to pursue a PhD in philosophy? If not, what other outlets would you suggest for that passion?

MATT: This is a difficult question to answer. With the current state of graduate education, to be entirely honest, for most students probably not. The academic job market seems to be a total crapshoot right now. If your dream is a 2-2 teaching load at an R1 where you have graduate students, there are really only a few graduate programs that put people into those jobs with any kind of regularity. If that’s your dream and you can get into one of those programs, then there’s still some reason to do a Philosophy PhD. If that’s your dream and you can’t get into one of those programs, your odds are incredibly long and you’d probably be best served rethinking your career goals or plans for graduate education.

If, on the other hand, you love teaching philosophy, your dream is to teach philosophy, and you don’t mind having a high course load (i.e., 4-5 classes per semester), then there’s still some hope out there, from what I’ve seen. I’ve known plenty of people in that boat. Most have found work, though it may take you several very lean years after earning the PhD to find it. My advice to people who really love teaching philosophy would be to explore as wide a range of possibilities as you can. Start a summer program for high schoolers or undergraduates. Consider becoming credentialed to teach philosophy or social science at the high school level. Look into online teaching options. Look into community college teaching.

DEREK: What, if anything, do you think graduate programs can do to better prepare students for non-academic career paths like yours?

MATT: I think most graduate programs in the humanities should be working together and with their graduate college to do more here. Programs can put current students into contact with their own past students who have non-academic careers. Graduate colleges can hold job fairs or other conferences (note: The University of Iowa, where I attended graduate school, is already doing this. I’ve been a speaker at the conference twice now.). When philosophy graduate programs put placement data online, they could put detailed information out there about what the non-academic folks are doing, instead of writing a vague statement to the effect of “left the profession.”

DEREK: You’ve continued engaging with academic philosophy even after taking on work at the ACT, and you recently published a book, Classify and Label: The Unintended Marginalization of Social Groups. How has your career change affected your reasons for doing scholarship and/or your choice of research topics?

MATT:  I mean, it is and it isn’t difficult to make time for research. Having a university library at my disposal is very important for staying up to date on the latest work. It’s almost impossible to run a serious research program without journal access, and no one has the money to access that without a university or corporate sponsor. It’s possible to access many university libraries as a member of the general public, but universities often aren’t concerned about public service or opening their doors to non-faculty and non-students. At times when I haven’t been affiliated with a university, I’ve often found it very cumbersome to access research materials. For that reason (and, of course, for extra money), I’ve occasionally taught an evening course at The University of Iowa that allowed me full library access as a faculty member. The University of Iowa also offers much higher adjunct/visiting professor pay than surrounding community colleges.

Thanks to Matt for taking the time to share his thoughts and experiences. You can find his academic research at his PhilPapers site. For more information about careers at ACT, see here.

Philosopher: James Chansky

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James Chansky is the Assistant Dean of Summer Session & Pre-College Programs in the School of Professional Studies at Brown University. After earning his PhD in philosophy from Boston College he taught in a prison-based degree program run by Skidmore College, where he gradually transitioned into more administrative roles. In this interview he talks about the rewards of teaching prisoners, how he made the transition to academic administration, and the ways in which philosophy is still part of his life.

DEREK: At what stage of your education or career did you first think about doing something other than holding a traditional faculty position? Did you consider or pursue any alternatives other than academic administration?

JIM: I didn’t so much decide to move away from seeking a traditional faculty position as gradually come to realize the decision had effectively been made without my quite realizing it till it was settled. My first teaching job with a PhD (this was in 1985, when job prospects in Philosophy were quite bleak) was in a maximum security prison in upstate NY, through a degree program run by Skidmore College.  I began teaching two courses a semester, and the following year was hired as an Academic Advisor and continued teaching.  It was by far the most rewarding teaching experience I have ever had – before or after.  The students approached the study of philosophy – which I taught historically as a series of efforts to make sense of things, whether metaphysics and epistemology or political theory and ethics – in the way I thought it should be studied: as raising issues of deep significance not only personally but socially and politically: how one is to understand one’s self, one’s way of living in the world, and doing so with other people.  Over the years, I gradually took on more administrative tasks involved in running the degree program (and so taught less), but also filled in as a sabbatical leave replacement one year in Skidmore’s Philosophy Department, and taught campus courses for the department now and then, usually one a year. While for a few years after earning my PhD I continued to apply for full time teaching positions as they came up in my area (continental philosophy, history of philosophy), it was pretty clear that the path to a “regular” tenure line position had been effectively closed, given the combination of my non-traditional prison teaching, administrative work and my areas of specialization and my dissertation topic – Schopenhauer, in between Kant and Nietzsche (in which there seemed to be little interest, if not downright hostility) – or so it seemed to me.

DEREK: What attracted you to academic administration, and specifically to administering pre-college programs? How long have you been?

JIM: It wasn’t academic administration per se that was attractive as my commitment to the degree program in the prisons, given the extraordinary students we worked with and the tremendous impact that education has upon them.  My work as an academic administrator involved student advising and working to recruit faculty to teach in the prison program, and in the process I learned how to be a successful administrator.  Initially it was very much like teaching in that the core of the work is talking with students about what they know and guiding them to learn what they don’t yet know but do need to learn, and then locating faculty to teach them.  The satisfactions there – even though it involved the full range of the liberal arts and not just philosophy – were, sans the actual content, much like those that come from teaching.  In 1995, after working in the prison program for a decade, state and federal funding for education in prisons was eliminated, and so the program was shut down.  A retirement in another area at the college enabled to me avoid unemployment and move on to a position developing and supporting a wider range of programs – a Writers Institute, residencies in Judaic and Middle East Studies, a Studio Art program, and academic programs for high school students. While I was still able to teach one course a year to Skidmore undergraduates for a while, in effect this move meant leaving direct teaching to arranging teaching and learning opportunities for instructors and students. My responsibilities in those years were hugely varied, but all involved creating opportunities for faculty to teach and students to learn in both traditional and non-traditional settings.  My engagement with the pre-college audience was initially a small part of what I did (beginning in 1995) until I came to Brown in 2011, and it is now the bulk of what I do.  Working with faculty and students to create opportunities for teaching and learning is enormously satisfying, even if a good part of the satisfactions are vicarious.

DEREK: What are some of your main job responsibilities? Do you ever get the opportunity to teach your own classes?

JIM: I’m currently not able to teach, and indeed earlier in my career when I did, I found that the increasing demands of my administrative work made it difficult to give the students in the various classes I taught the attention they deserved, and so I did less and less teaching as my responsibilities grew.  My primary responsibilities now are, in a nutshell, working with instructors across all disciplines taught at Brown to develop courses for high achieving high school students.  This involves working with instructors – most of whom are graduate students – in developing courses and supporting their teaching, and reviewing student applications and guiding them to appropriate courses, but also a lot of work that involves getting deeply into the weeds regarding processes, data management, marketing, program development and so on, all the while trying to ensure that the primary purpose of all this – getting teachers and students together – doesn’t get lost.

DEREK: Is having a PhD a necessary credential for your current position? And, beyond the credential, are the skills and knowledge gained during your graduate education helpful in doing your job?

JIM: A PhD is an essential credential on two levels: most simplistically, and somewhat trivially but not insignificantly, it’s a sort of “membership card” that puts one in company with faculty and academic administrators simply by possessing it.  One is granted a degree of credibility in working with colleagues, students and their parents just by having it.  More substantively, because the work requires a deep understanding of the values and culture of liberal arts institutions, having been a scholar and a teacher, one is better able to be an effective administrator.  Of course, graduate school education per se, back in the late ‘70’s to early 80’s, so far as I recall, was all focused on studying and on scholarship, which in and of themselves were not skills that were passed along with any view of their value beyond perpetuating the discipline and the way it functioned in academic institutions.  I suspect the possession of competencies other than one would acquire in graduate school are more pertinent to my work – things I learned on the job over the years – what I think of as “unhappy competencies:” things I am good at but in any other context I would never do.

DEREK: Would you recommend academic administration to other philosophers who are considering alternative careers? What advice would you offer to graduate students, prospective graduate students, or philosophy PhDs who are thinking about careers in administration?

JIM: I do not believe there is anything particular to Philosophy per se that would prepare one for academic administration.  The skills and talents that are of value for administration are likely those that come from advanced study in the humanities in particular, and likely also in some of the social sciences:  an interest, above all, in the impact of what a student learns on what he or she does and how he or she chooses to live; a delight taken in learning outside the discipline of Philosophy, essential in working with instructors from all academic disciplines; an interest in understanding how things work and a willingness to invest energies into the practical and technical processes the outcome of which is an instructor meeting with students in a class; and an ability to find satisfactions vicariously.

DEREK: Would you advise undergraduates with a talent and passion for philosophy to pursue a PhD in philosophy? If not, what other outlets would you suggest for that passion?

JIM: I’ve become quite disenchanted with the discipline over the last 30 years or so, given the dominance of analytic philosophy and the shift in interest away from the history of philosophy and the discipline as belonging in the humanities.  So I am not one to answer this question.

DEREK: What, if anything, do you think graduate programs can do to better prepare students for careers like yours?

JIM: Fundamentally, academic administration – done well – requires a kind of temperament that is a matter of personality, or personal taste, rather than training:  one has to enjoy figuring out how things work and how to make things work more effectively, and be able see the importance of processes and infrastructures as the sine qua non of teaching and learning in an academic institution.  If teaching can be compared to enjoying fine food, a good administrator has to enjoy being in the kitchen, and not in the dining room, and getting satisfaction from the happiness of those who eat without eating him/herself.  To the degree that graduate programs can help students see into the kitchen and invite in those with an interest in being there, that would be a good thing.

DEREK: What originally attracted you to the academic study of philosophy?

JIM: I read a lot of Nietzsche and Camus in high school, along with a lot of late 19th and 20th century European literature, and became very interested in reading in the history of philosophy and related areas to get a better sense of the various ways of seeing the world and being in the world. I had little interest in the sciences, as the questions raised and answers provided always seemed to me to stop short of what I was really interested in thinking about, and more interested in history and in the social sciences because these, approached philosophically, seemed to me the best way to encounter the variety of experiences that constitute the answers to the questions I had about the meaning of being a human being.

DEREK: In what ways (if any) would you say philosophy is still part of your life? Are you still doing – or do you have any plans for – philosophical writing? How often do you read or engage with philosophical texts or conversations?

JIM: I am told by my colleagues that I do approach much of my work philosophically, perhaps because I am always asking “the reason why” behind any action or policy, and because of a habit of connecting disputes over these things with correlating disputes in the history of philosophy: it’s the language I know, and it continues to find a place, even if others are sometimes more amused by my references than actually enlightened by them.  I think my training in philosophy has also provided me with a flexibility in thinking that’s enabled me to avoid the rigidity and rule-boundedness that often makes administrators obstacles rather than facilitators.

As for writing and reading…. No, I don’t think there’s much audience for the kind of scholarship I’d be most interested in doing, and much of current philosophical writing is not to my taste.

Thanks to Jim for taking the time to share his story. You can find more information about Brown’s pre-college programs, which include a number of summer philosophy courses, you can visit their website, or connect with them on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram

Philosopher: Amy Leask

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Amy Leask received an MA in Philosophy from McMaster University and has taught philosophy at both the high school and college level. She is co-founder of the educational design company Enable Education and author of a series of children’s philosophy books which she publishes through her company Red T Media. In this interview she talks about the value of the MA, her reasons for not pursuing a PhD, writing philosophy for children, and the transition from teacher and to entrepreneur.

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Philosopher / Business Analytics Professional: Benjamin Jarvis

Benjamin Jarvis received his PhD from Brown University and was a Lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast before leaving academic employment. He recently earned his MBA from the NYU’s Stern School of Business and now works in the field of business analytics with a focus on the media and entertainment industry. In this interview he discusses the decision to pursue an MBA, the comparative advantages of business and liberal arts education, and the challenges of writing and publishing as an independent scholar.

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Philosopher: Nancy McHugh

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Nancy McHugh is Professor of Philosophy at Wittenberg University. In addition to the usual academic duties she teaches philosophy in prisons, has served on the board of a local women’s shelter, and is active in other forms of community engagement. In this interview she talks about discovering her interest in philosophy as an undergraduate business major, the decision to become a professor, her work with the Inside-Out Prison Exchange program, and the relationship between philosophy and social engagement.

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Public Defender: Max Pines

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Max Pines received a PhD in Philosophy from Brown University before earning his JD from the University of California at Berkeley. In this interview he talks about his initial plans to become a lawyer, his exciting detour through philosophy grad school, the challenges of finishing a dissertation while applying for law school, and the rewards of practicing law as a public defender.

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Philosopher: Tom Wartenberg

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Tom Wartenberg is Research Professor of Philosophy at Mount Holyoke College. In addition to the usual teaching of undergraduates and writing of academic books and articles, Tom has been a tireless advocate for bringing philosophy to children. In this interview, we discuss the difference between philosophy and critical thinking, the connection between academic philosophy and philosophy for children, and the prospects of a career in philosophy education outside of a university setting.

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Philosopher-Designer: Kelly Heuer

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Kelly Heuer received her PhD in philosophy from Georgetown University. She then held a postdoc at the Kennedy Institute for Ethics, and from there she transitioned into a permanent position as the Head of Communications and Project Development. In this interview she discusses this transition, talks about her academic experience and her previous work as a freelance designer, and explains how her current position allows her to combine both of her passions as a philosopher-designer.

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Philosopher: Bharath Vallabha

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Bharath Vallabha received his PhD in philosophy from Harvard University, and he held a tenure-track position in philosophy at Bryn Mawr College before leaving academic employment. In this wide-ranging interview, we talk about the experience and challenge of integrating his familial introduction to Indian philosophy with his academic training in Western philosophy, the philosophical necessity of pluralism, his reasons for leaving a tenure-track position, and his take on the challenge and promise of being a philosopher outside of the academy.

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