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.

DEREK: At what stage of your career did you first think about pursing a non-academic career path?

BEN: I thought about pursuing a non-academic career path in graduate school.  I was finishing my PhD just as the financial crisis was taking hold.  Academic opportunities seemed to be disappearing and seemed fairly slow to return even after the crisis began to abate.

By and large, I enjoyed academia though.  I was interested in staying, which is why I took a Lectureship at Queen’s University Belfast when it was offered to me.  As anybody sensible appreciates though, one’s life at work is not the totality of one’s life.  I think my life was enriched by spending a few years in the UK, but there came a point when my wife and I needed to make a decision about whether we wanted to settle there permanently.  After looking more carefully at our options, eventually (after some initial confusion) it dawned on us that it made more sense for us to go back to the US.

Even still, I was interested in finding opportunities in academia that might be a fit for me.  At some point, though, you have to be pragmatic and survey the whole range of options available.  It became clear that it was time to devote time and resources to creating non-academic career opportunities because prospects for a well-balanced life just seemed better outside of academia.

DEREK: According to your LinkedIn profile you focused on quantitative business analytics for your MBA, including doing internships at media companies like Viacom and Lionsgate. What attracted you to this field? How (if at all) does your previous training and work experience in academic philosophy help you in this line of work?

BEN: I’m not sure that my academic training in philosophy was especially key to learning business analytics—but it wasn’t entirely irrelevant either.  Philosophy has helped me become a more flexible and rigorous thinker, and flexibility and rigor help in both qualitative and quantitative areas of business.

Citing some specific instances in which philosophical concepts arose may help make this claim more plausible.  I definitely saw counterfactual analyses—e.g. of when a merger between two firms should be undertaken—and, having philosophical training, those meant something more to me than they probably did to others.  One time, my professor taught truth tables as a technique for formulating linear constraints on optimization problems.  (When my professor suggested that we were borrowing them from computer science, I let him know that philosophers had had their hands on them before there really were computer scientists.)  In fact, when it comes to optimization generally—a regular theme in business—some additional familiarity with the distinction between bad outcomes and impermissible ones is useful.  Finally, as someone who had spent some time thinking about anti-luck epistemology, I was interested (although not necessarily surprised) to see that it is standard practice in corporate finance to evaluate whether to proceed with a particular project by considering whether a projected good outcome is “safe,” i.e. also obtains in a neighborhood around what is expected.  (Somewhat confusingly for epistemologists, finance professionals call this “sensitivity analysis.”)

These are not the only examples that come to mind, and, with more time, I could probably find even more examples of instances when my training in philosophy provided a framework for me to think about business issues or problems.  That said, in all probability, the ways that my philosophy training aided me were largely more subtle.

As far as media and entertainment is concerned, I wouldn’t say that philosophy is especially helpful at getting into those areas.  What helps there—at least on the business side—is a more specific understanding of the way that these companies make money and some specific skills to help them do that.  On the other hand, if the question is about interest rather than preparation, I might say that there is a thread between media and entertainment and philosophy.

In some sense, what differentiates one industry from another is the wants or needs of the customer.  Consequently, when you’re thinking about what sort of industry you might want to get involved with, it can help to think about what kinds of wants or needs you want to spend time trying to help address.  Media and entertainment companies are largely in the content business; fundamentally, that means they are in the business of addressing very high-level cognitive and emotional wants and needs of consumers.  Content is an important way for us to explore what we value and better appreciate human foibles; it turns out to be a very complex product because the humans that consume it are cognitively and emotionally complex.  I think that’s ultimately why I like media and entertainment.  Trying to understand what makes content work from a business perspective often leads you to think about many of the same aspects of people I found interesting to think about as a professional philosopher.

DEREK: Do you work with many academics or former academics in your field?

BEN: As it happens, I do currently (although I hadn’t previously).  One of the people on my current team has a PhD in social psychology, and another has a PhD in linguistics.  I think PhDs in the social sciences are becoming more valuable to businesses because of the proliferation of data from people’s digital activities.  Businesses are spending more time analyzing structured and unstructured data (primarily text) as a way of trying to understand their customers.  (Philosophers of language and cognitive science may find some of this analytical activity interesting.)

DEREK: Why did you decide to get an MBA? Did you know going in what kind of work you wanted to do or what industries you wanted to work in?

BEN: To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know much about what kind of industries I might be interested in when I went back to school.  I did think that I wanted to transition into something a bit more quantitative than I thought I could get on the basis of my undergraduate and graduate degrees in philosophy, and an MBA can help with that.  It also occurred to me (although not in these terms) that philosophy has a bit of a “branding” problem that an MBA would help with too.  (This is definitely true in the US; the problem may not be nearly as bad in the UK.)  Jeffrey Carr—a marketing professor I had at Stern—tells his classes regularly that a brand is a promise of a repeatable experience.  Unfortunately, people tend to have either incorrect or vague associations with philosophy with the result that a degree in philosophy doesn’t promise much to most people.  A PhD has some “brand equity” (as an MBA would say), but having one in philosophy doesn’t do much more for you outside the discipline (in my experience at least).  An MBA on the other hand—well, everybody at least thinks they know what that is.

So, those were at least two reasons that led me to start thinking about an MBA.  When I made the decision to move away from academia, I was lucky enough to be able to connect with a few thoughtful and knowledgeable people about my options going forward.  I talked to them about the MBA.  My sense was that they felt that, given that I already had a PhD, it might be better if I were able to find something without getting an MBA.  The problem was that it just wasn’t very clear to them or to me what that would be.  I do think you can find opportunities just having a PhD in philosophy, especially if (1) you happen to have some connections that work in areas that you’re interested in or (2) you already have some additional skills relevant to jobs you might be interested in.  Even if you meet neither of those conditions, there may be some good opportunities if you’re not especially picky about what your role or industry will be.

Finally, a brief word about MBA degrees: A primary purpose of many MBA programs is to allow people to make career transitions.  So, if you aren’t especially sure what you want to do or where you want to get to is very far from where you are now, an MBA might make sense for you.  The degree is fairly malleable; in the more flexible programs, you can make what you want of it to a large extent.  MBA programs also provide an opportunity to gain experience and get placed—and that can be pretty valuable for people who need a lot of help on those dimensions (like I did).  Given that a lot of the value comes from the alumni network and the name recognition though, I would definitely suggest going to one of the best MBA programs if you’re going to go to one at all.  The best MBA programs are, of course, expensive.  So, it’s worth exploring other options if at all possible.

DEREK: Philosophers and other academics in the liberal arts are sometimes dismissive of the intellectual value of a business education. Indeed, I think some of us cling so hard to the academic world because we want to avoid the world of “business,” in favor of “the life of the mind.” Did you have to face any of these negative attitudes when you decided to go to business school? Did you face any reciprocal prejudice from your teachers or colleagues in the business school because of your philosophy PhD?

BEN: I didn’t talk much with other philosophers before going to business school.  I asked a couple of friends to write me letters of recommendation as part of the application process, but one of those friends is too politic to say anything even if he did disapprove and the other is generally supportive.  So, I didn’t meet with any resistance there.

In fact, after I had already committed to go to business school, I didn’t hear anything especially negative either, but I’m not sure I would have.  I had already left Queen’s University Belfast, so the academics I engaged with at that point were primarily of my own choosing.  My own view is that it’s not proper decorum to offer uninvited critique on career or life choices of friends and acquaintances—particularly when they have already made them.  I suspect that the friends and acquaintances I keep may have similar views, so I’m not sure that I would know if they thought especially negatively of what I’ve done.  I can say that several philosopher friends and acquaintances have seemed to have reactions suggestive of curiosity or bafflement when they found out that I was going to business school, but I didn’t catch anything indicative of especially negative sentiment.

To the extent that this occasional-to-frequent curiosity or bafflement is genuine, it may be because philosophers don’t have an especially strong grasp on either business or business school.  As a subject matter, business is very broad.  Business problems are diverse—some are more mathematical in nature while others are fundamentally about managing relationships with people.  Given this wide scope, there’s a lot that a person could be doing while still be doing “business”; there’s a lot of possibility when it comes to finding interesting projects to work on or problems to think about.  I suspect that, if they knew more about the range of problems, many philosophers would find at least some aspect of business intriguing at least from an intellectual standpoint.

In addition, the interests of many people pursuing “business” extend well beyond running large corporations or banks.  Many MBAs are interested in smaller firms in the private sector or even organizations in the non-profit or government sectors.  In fact, most institutions—whether government, non-profit, or for-profit—have need of some understanding of some or all of the basic business functions (which include marketing, operations, finance, accounting, strategy, and organizational behavior), so gaining that understanding is potentially a way of helping whatever kinds of institutions you happen to care about.  (I suppose that someone could be skeptical of all institutions, but I’m not sure how much sense that makes.  Some worthwhile endeavors are just too big to do without organizing people into an institutional structure, and once you do that, you start to benefit from business understanding of some sort or other.)

Even focusing very narrowly on private sector business activity, I’m not sure that anybody should be especially skeptical—at least in principle.  The basis of business is probably the market transaction—which essentially just a (kind of?) voluntary and mutually beneficial exchange between two parties.  Business is, at bottom, about trying to create value through those sorts of exchanges.  Of course, there are various ways in which value might not be created through these kinds of exchanges.  Moreover, it is certainly theoretically possible (probable?) that, in certain cases, market exchanges will turn out to be bad or wrong for a variety of reasons, and it may also be that market activity sometimes or even always needs to be complemented by government or non-profit activity in order to achieve better or necessary outcomes for society.  However, so long as one thinks that there is a wide range of cases in which market transactions are good—precisely because they are at least very often bringing about mutually beneficial exchanges—one doesn’t have a lot of reason to be especially negative about business per se.  So, I guess I think it’s pretty silly if there are people who feel that way about it (or even feel that way about MBAs).  It seems a little like feeling that no one should ever be involved with the law in any way simply because legal systems are imperfect in a variety of ways.  Of course, it’s true that legal systems are imperfect in a variety of ways, but probably the right response is not to take a stance against laws and lawyers generally.

As to the flip side of the question: I suppose I did occasionally get reactions from some members of the Stern community that were also in the range of curiosity and bafflement.  Generally, though, I found the Stern community to be very supportive.  People tended to see it as a positive—something that would help me stand out.  I’m sure that some professionals (outside of Stern) would view my academic background in philosophy negatively, but that actually doesn’t matter very much.  Having a background that’s a little unusual—and maybe even a bit polarizing—is, on the whole, an advantage.  Ultimately, what matters is that some people find your background intriguing enough to give you an opportunity to prove yourself whether or not everybody thinks you’re especially worthy of that opportunity.

DEREK: In advocating for the value of undergraduate education in philosophy, philosophers often use business majors or businesses classes as a foil against which to highlight the critical reasoning skills taught in philosophy classes. Having some insight into both worlds, what do you think of these comparisons? Did you notice any differences between students in the MBA program with undergraduate business degrees as compared to those with degrees in the liberal arts?

BEN: Of course, I did notice some differences between people at Stern that seemed to relate to their educational backgrounds.  Mostly, I would say that it wasn’t really a matter of some background being especially better or worse than another, but there are advantages and disadvantages.  I think that undergraduate business majors tended to have a much better sense of why they were doing an MBA and what they wanted to get out of it.  They also have an obvious advantage when it comes to pursuing certain subject matters in further depth.  Perhaps more importantly, I think they may find it easier to secure opportunities that interest them outside of the university (e.g. internships) because they already have developed some of skills generally associated with having an MBA (and also have a relevant track record).

Having said that, a traditional liberal arts background has its benefits as well.  I’m sure some of my friends from and at Stern aren’t going to be very happy about my saying this, but since you brought it up—I don’t think teaching critical reasoning skills is a strength of business education at either the undergraduate or MBA level.  I think philosophers probably are better at teaching critical reasoning.  The strength of business education seems to me to be in providing students with a range of specific frameworks, tools, and concepts that they’ll be able to apply across a wide range of real life situations.  To my mind, that’s much different than critical reasoning—which, at least in the way I’m used to thinking about it—is much more general in nature.  (In fact, my view is that critical reasoning skills are so general that people have a hard time getting a grip on what they are and how widely it can be applied.  This may be a partial explanation as to why they sometimes fail to appreciate what someone with training in philosophy and other similar disciplines have to offer.)

On the other hand, philosophy is pretty poor at doing what business education does.  Critical reasoning may be (even more?) important to long-term career success and overall life satisfaction, but my impression is that business education is actually much more valuable when it comes to getting someone into entry-level and intermediate-level positions because the people recruiting at those levels mostly just want to know that you can serve the immediate needs for which they are recruiting.  Moreover, education is only a piece of being part of a business school community, so if someone is really interested fairly evaluating the advantages and disadvantages of studying one versus the other, they need to look beyond the curriculum.

I sometimes heard discussion from faculty members and administrators at Stern about wanting to teach critical reasoning as part of the MBA program, but I’m not sure that business schools should even really be trying to emphasize the teaching of critical reasoning per se at the MBA level.  I think that Master’s programs should tend to presuppose that some critical reasoning skills are already in place and put a little bit more emphasis on mastering the skills and body of knowledge most relevant to practicing in the field.  (The emphasis should probably return a bit more to critical reasoning at the PhD level.)  At the undergraduate level the story might be different; I do think that developing critical reasoning skills might be more important as an undergraduate.

So, I guess that I would still be fairly sympathetic to the idea—assuming philosophy is something you find interesting—that it’s sensible enough to study it as an undergraduate and then try to complement those studies by acquiring more specific professional skills in whatever way seems most expedient (including, possibly, by going to business school).  Having said that, I would still encourage undergraduate philosophy students to look into the possibility of acquiring more immediately marketable abilities, skills, or knowledge while they are still in school.  It’s not a bad idea to take a few courses in a subject that is more widely seen as having more immediate practical applications—e.g. cognitive science, computer science, economics, or statistics.  In the same vein, I would also encourage MBAs to continue to try to find and take some courses with more abstract subject matter that will help them hone their critical thinking skills even though I don’t really think that doing so either is or should be the emphasis of an MBA program.

DEREK: Would you recommend your own career path 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 going into quantitative business analytics?

BEN: I’m not sure how much this advice is worth, but these days, I tend to encourage people to be as decisive and focused as possible.  Sometimes you can’t be; sometimes you need to work to try to keep a variety of options open.  But, to the extent that you can, I think you should try to concentrate your resources.  As one example, I think it’s pretty hard to try to be preparing yourself for an academic career in philosophy and also a non-academic career outside of philosophy.  Most likely, if you try to do both, you’ll do neither well.  You’re probably better off devoting yourself as much as possible to one and then subsequently devoting yourself as much as possible to the other if and when you decide you need to change course.  So, for graduate students (in philosophy or other disciplines) who think they might still want to have an academic career, my advice would probably be to work as hard as possible on that and try to do only the minimum of what’s required to keep other options open.  That probably means not doing much at all that might prepare one for going into business analytics or business-related data science.  If you realize that an academic career probably isn’t the right path for whatever reason, my advice would generally be to work as hard as possible on creating an alternative path and do the minimum possible to finish whatever stage of the graduate program you’re in.  There may be things you can do at that stage to efficiently transition into business analytics or business-related data science if that’s something that interests you.

Having said that, it’s a good idea to look for opportunities to pursue multiple aims at once.  As a relatively simple example of what’s possible—I took a probability course while I was a PhD student in philosophy, which both was useful in thinking about epistemology (one of my research areas) but also allowed me to take a more advanced statistics course in my second semester of business school.  That latter advanced statistics course has proved useful in a couple of my internships.  I didn’t exactly accomplish this modicum of success on purpose.  In fact, while I was a philosophy graduate student, I wasn’t very clear on what I would want to do if I weren’t doing philosophy.  Had it been clearer to me, I think I may have been able to find more opportunities like that one where I was wholeheartedly pursuing philosophy while affording myself some flexibility.  Philosophy is, in fact, particularly amenable to those kind of opportunities because you can almost always get interested in areas of philosophy that abut disciplines that it may be useful to know something about down the road.  So, if you are one of the lucky philosophy graduate students that understands what you might want to do if you aren’t doing philosophy, you might well try to take advantage in a way I very often didn’t.

As to whether philosophy graduate students should consider getting into doing business analytics or data science in a business context—I think there will be opportunities in the near-to-medium-term in these areas.  If analyzing data sounds interesting to you, then you might look into it.  In terms of how to get into these areas—you may not need to pursue an MBA.  In fact, if what you love is data science or quantitative problem-solving more generally, then an MBA may not even be the very best degree for you to pursue.  (On the other hand, if you envision managing a team of people involved in data analyses or think you might like to be the person who makes decisions on the basis of the data analysis, then doing an MBA may be exactly the right thing for you.)  Ultimately, what matters in this area is having the right combination of some computer-related skills (Excel, Python, R, SQL, Tableau, etc.), some understanding of statistics and machine learning, and some business knowledge and acumen.  How much of each of these elements you need is determined by the kind of role that you have, but everybody working in this general area probably benefits from at least a little of everything.  There are all kinds of ways to make progress with respect to each of these elements, particularly these days when there’s so much training available online.  So, I’d really encourage people to research what makes sense for them rather than assume that they need to pursue another degree.

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?

BEN: I don’t think that a PhD in philosophy is an especially great career choice, but you don’t really pursue a PhD in philosophy for that reason.  You pursue one because you feel really passionate about philosophy—to the extent that it would hard for you to let go of it.  It helps too if you value having interesting life experiences over getting ahead in your career—or, at the very least, if you’re up for starting over if the academic route doesn’t work out.  On the other hand, if those kind of ideas make you uncomfortable, then a PhD in philosophy may not be the right thing for you.

Frankly, I think many other disciplines—including some related to philosophy—have slightly better career prospects when it comes to PhDs.  So, one possibility is to consider getting a PhD in something else that would still permit you to do a little philosophy.  But, probably the thing to do is to try to satisfy yourself with an MA in philosophy (assuming you can find a way to get one from a decent program at a reasonable price).  By the time you finish that degree, you should have enough understanding to keep up with philosophical debates that you find interesting.  In fact, I think I would encourage people beginning PhD programs in the US to take seriously the possibility of dropping out after the first couple years—when (hopefully) they’ve secured that MA.  If you’ve discovered early on in the PhD program that you probably won’t have success as a professional philosopher (even if you still love philosophy), you’re probably better off leaving at that point (as hard as that might be).

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

BEN: It’s going to be pretty tough for philosophy graduate programs to effectively prepare students for non-academic careers.  Careers of any sort seem to require (1) developing a reputation, (2) developing a network, and (3) developing skills and abilities.  However, what tends to matter most are reputations, networks, and skills and abilities within the field or industry where you’re seeking employment.  Largely as a result, philosophy graduate programs aren’t especially well positioned when it comes to helping their graduate students find non-academic employment.  My impression is that most academics have fairly weak networks outside the field, and I think it’s pretty hard to develop a reputation for something else while studying philosophy.

I’m certainly not saying that there aren’t things that philosophy graduate students themselves can do in order to prepare if they’ve come to see that professional philosophy isn’t where they’re headed.  Moreover, philosophy programs could try to emphasize coursework or develop interdisciplinary relationships with other parts of the university that might turn out to be useful when it comes to easing students into non-academic routes.  I think it would help if faculty—and the community at large—did more to show that they valued students who decide to leave the field.  However, improvement is likely to be limited unless philosophy programs reorient themselves considerably more towards addressing the needs and interests of people outside the field.

DEREK: Since leaving your last academic position, you’ve successfully published a few journal articles, and you’re co-editor of a forthcoming collection on “Knowledge-First” epistemology. What are some of the specific challenges and benefits of writing and publishing as an independent scholar? Based on your experience, do you think it’s possible to give up on an academic career without giving up on serious philosophical engagement?

BEN: I’m not sure I know the answer yet, but at this juncture, but my sense is that it is possible to give up on an academic career without giving up on serious philosophical engagement.  Publishing and presenting philosophy are skills that may be hard to learn without being a full-time scholar for at least a time, but it probably isn’t necessary to stay a full-time scholar to maintain those skills at a reasonable level.  Probably the toughest part of being independent is finding time to keep up on trends and developments in the field.  Obviously, you have your non-academic career to look after—as well as other obligations to family and friends—so you have limited time to keep up.

On the other hand, I was always surprised when I was working at QUB how little time I had for research given teaching and administrative responsibilities.  So, it’s not like I would have to find that many extra hours now to be able to do a small portion of what I was doing then.  I also believe that there may be some advantages to not working full-time in the field for a while.  I fully expect that, in the future, I will know considerably less about central areas of philosophy than I would have had I stayed working as a full-time academic, but I’m also fairly certain that I will know considerably more about other aspects of the world—including some that should be of interest to philosophers.

That said, it hasn’t been and it’s not going to be the same for me when it comes to doing research.  I just won’t be focused enough to generate the same quality and quantity of material.  If what you care about most in life is being able to do philosophical research, then a non-academic career path is not going to satisfy you.

DEREK: Do you plan to continue your philosophical work as an independent scholar? Do you think your new career will be a source of philosophical insight or examples?

I certainly plan on reading philosophy.  I suspect I may actually read from a wider range of areas of philosophy than I would have had I continued in the field.  (That’s been true to date.)  It’s actually much more enjoyable to read philosophy now that I don’t feel any pressure to maintain expertise or publish.

I do have some plans to write a few more papers in the next year or two—further out than that, it’s harder for me to say.  I’m not sure whether I will try to publish the papers I write.  When and if I do write though, I’m sure I will draw on knowledge from my new career.  In a lot of ways, it’s more interesting to think about some of the areas in philosophy I used to work on in my current context where people around me are actually trying to implement evidence-based decision-making in real life situations—in some cases, using artificial intelligence technologies that are becoming both more powerful and more accessible.

Thanks to Ben for sharing his experience and reflections. You can find Ben’s philosophical work, including the introduction to the forthcoming Knowledge First: Approaches in Epistemology and Mind, on Philpapers and on his profile. For more about the Stern MBA, including a schedule of informational events outside the New York City area, visit their website