Philosopher: Matt Drabek


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.