Philosopher: Liz Swan

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Liz Swan received her PhD from the University of South Carolina in 2008 and was Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Mercyhurst University before deciding to leave the tenure-track. She now works as a freelance writer, writing consultant, and realtor. In this interview she talks about her life-long interests in writing and teaching, the difference between philosophy, and her decision to leave leave the tenure-track.

DEREK: What attracted you to the academic study of philosophy? In what ways would you say philosophy is still a part of your life?

LIZ: Philosophy came very naturally to me. I had been enjoying my conceptual classes in my major of Psychology, but getting C’s and D’s in the required Statistics classes, which my college advisor had (misleadingly) convinced me were essential to success in Psychology. But then I took a few philosophy classes and realized, wait, all I have to do is read interesting stuff and write papers? Sold. My GPA shot up. But my decision to pursue it further wasn’t just pragmatic; I was excited to find out that the questions I’d been thinking about my whole life, about minds, bodies, the world, and our place in it, were questions that other people had thought about hundreds and even thousands of years ago. It made me feel deeply connected to the rest of humanity and even the universe. During my senior year of college, while deeply entrenched in Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise (which was taught by the exquisite philosopher Paul Bagley, who regrettably just passed away), I had a strange and almost supernatural experience in my bedroom, where the ceiling lifted up above me and floated away into space. When I reflected on this experience later, in a different state of mind, I recognized it as the visceral experience of what was happening to me psychologically then, what philosophy was doing to me: namely, philosophy was lifting the ceiling of my mind. You just can’t go back to Statistics after an experience like that.

I feel like there are two kinds of philosophers — professional philosophers who thrive on the negativity of criticizing others’ work and taking the profession way too seriously, and natural philosophers, who are curious by nature, open-minded and want to learn from others. You kind of have to be the former to succeed in academic philosophy, which I struggled with always. But the latter kind of philosopher, I’ve always been.

DEREK: You’ve written that it took you five years on the academic job-market to secure a tenure-track position, and it was only after resigning from that position that you committed to a different career path. How much thought or planning had you given to alternative careers during your graduate education or at earlier stages of the job search? Did you do any non-academic or alt-ac work while you were seeking a tenure-track job?

LIZ: Since I was a very young child I’ve self-identified as a teacher. One of my earliest memories is being outside our first house in Connecticut with two neighborhood friends of mine. I had a long stick in my hand and was using it as a pointer, using it to tap the energy meter affixed to the outside of the house, explaining to my friends how this mechanism worked. Of course, I had no idea how it worked (I was 4 years old), but they were captivated, listening to me explain how these complicated dials and levers “worked”. I liked feeling like I could teach them something. I always enjoyed explaining things to other people and came to realize, maybe not until my college years, that I had a knack for it. Also, since high school, I’ve self-identified as a writer. So seeing myself as a teacher and a writer was always more fundamental to me than being a philosopher, which I more or less stumbled upon during my undergraduate liberal arts education (at Loyola University-Maryland).

While in graduate school, I did have the singular goal of being a philosophy professor. But after finishing my PhD program, when for a time it seemed like a TT job would never happen, I considered other options such as high school teaching, which I never followed through on, and government jobs in writing and editing, which I was really excited about for a while. I applied to maybe 50 of these and got close a few times (they work by a scoring system) but never got an interview. All I did professionally during those years was teach philosophy classes at local universities and teach yoga at various studios and the rec center in my town. During my TT job hunt, I was fortunate to get a one-year fellowship at Oregon State University where I taught one class and wrote a lot and enjoyed a very relaxed pregnancy. After my son was born, there were two years where I couldn’t even get one class to teach, but I am grateful for having had that time with him. When I started my TT job he was almost two and a half years old.

DEREK: You’ve also done freelance work as a writer, editor, and dissertation coach, and you’re a licensed realtor in the state of Colorado and a certified yoga instructor. Have you continued with any of these other forms of employment since leaving your TT job? If so, is that primarily because of financial need or personal interest?

LIZ: Yes, all of them. The past several years, friends and colleagues have asked me to give them feedback on something they’d written — novels, blogs, short stories, science manuscripts — and it finally dawned on me, hey, maybe I could do this for pay! I’ve had a handful of paying clients, and it’s work that I truly enjoy. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but somewhere along the way editing has become second nature to me and I love it. It’s a skill that I’ve honed and one that can generate some income. But unfortunately, this kind of work, at least for me, does not generate a livable wage, and neither does yoga, which I love too but see as a hobby and not a profession. Enter… real estate. While I was looking for alternatives to the academic career path, I took a full-time job as a proposal writer for a general contractor (commercial construction) in Colorado. Working M-F, 8-5 is not for me, I discovered, but learning about the planning and pricing phases of large-scale construction projects turned me on to real estate, which is currently booming in Colorado.

Getting a PhD in philosophy is a huge investment in terms of time and money (not money spent — my PhD program cost me nothing — but in terms of the money you’re not earning while you’re in graduate school) with a small payoff in terms of income (and potentially also life satisfaction) if you stay on the narrow academic path. Real estate is exactly the opposite. It took me about six weeks to take a real estate course online, pass the exam and get my license. I didn’t have to move, and in my first year I made close to what many are making teaching college full-time. Not great, but real estate income grows exponentially, and I could potentially double my income this year, and double it again next year (which never happens in academia!). Real estate is not for everyone, but if you enjoy working with people, have an interest in design and architecture, and desire a generous income, it’s awesome. I’m an ENTP (Myers-Briggs personality type), and we love an engaging, dynamic environment where we’re in charge and having fun. And what’s more significant is that working in real estate has enabled me to return to writing and teaching, part-time, as a luxury. It doesn’t matter anymore that the Chronicle of Higher Education pays me only a couple hundred dollars for an article, or that CU-Boulder only pays me a few thousand to teach a class because I’m not relying on these gigs as major sources of income. It’s very freeing.

DEREK: How have your academic training and credentials helped or hindered your ability to find work? How does that training help or hinder your ability to do the work that you do? Do many of your peers or co-workers have PhDs or other academic degrees?

LIZ: I credit my undergraduate liberal arts training with helping me to become a more curious and open-minded individual who is willing to learn and work hard for pursuits I feel passionate about. And I credit my graduate training in philosophy with making me a much better writer, stronger thinker, and more confident teacher and public speaker. Though I’ve somewhat fallen out of love with the content of philosophy, I am completely committed to its processes and methods of expression: thinking, reading, writing, debating, and teaching. With these two natures working together, open-minded and sharp skills (a heart and mind united, this Rush fan would say), I’ve felt prepared to try out new career paths and pursue them as far as they interest me and seem worthwhile. I’m not at all averse to changing directions and starting over (which also is characteristic of ENTPs) — I think it keeps life interesting. I’m the only Realtor I know with a PhD (though I have seen some with MAs) but I also teach at CU-Boulder so I’m in a world of PhDs there, of course.

DEREK: What advice would you offer to graduate students, prospective graduate students, or philosophy PhDs who are interested in working as a Writing Consultant, or engaging in any of the forms of freelancing you’ve done?

LIZ: I certainly don’t believe you need a PhD in philosophy, or any discipline, to be a writing consultant, or editor, or something related. In my case, because I more fundamentally identify as a writer rather than as a philosopher, it’s natural for me to want to help others improve their own writing. Many freelancing gigs will only require the ability to write (or edit), but it is difficult to make a living this way unless you do a ton of it. I think the most salient piece of advice I can offer here is to identify with your skills instead of a narrow career goal or even a professional title. Meaning, I wanted badly to be an “Assistant Professor of Philosophy”, and when I achieved that goal, I discovered that it wasn’t everything I’d made it out to be. A lot of my soul searching after resigning from that position has been focused on getting back in touch with the fundamentals of who I am: teacher, writer, communicator. I didn’t need that title or that position to exercise these fundamental aspects of who I am. Now, two years after resigning, I am teaching again, a different subject matter in a different venue and, most meaningfully to me, with a very different mindset. Finding a way to make a good income doing what I’m good at is the new goal.

DEREK: Based on your own experience, would you advise undergraduates with a talent and passion for philosophy to pursue a PhD? If not, what other outlets would you suggest for that passion?

LIZ: This is such a difficult question and I don’t know how to answer it. If someone had told me not to pursue a PhD in philosophy (and some did! not my parents though, thankfully) I would have said, “Whatever, I’m going to do it anyway.” It’s a decision only the individual can make for herself or himself. I might even invoke Socrates here: know thyself! Even though I’ve left the professoriate, I don’t for a second regret my PhD, for all of the reasons I’ve cited above. It was an excellent way to enjoy five years of my life, and it’s given me skills and expertise that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Prospective and current graduate students in philosophy have to be aware of the difficult job market and the dearth of promising prospects there. But if they’re willing to weather that storm because their commitment is that strong, then they’ll make their way and who’s to stop them? Certainly not me.

I think people are drawn to philosophy initially because they love to think and argue and maybe even love to write. So it’s important to keep sight of what drew you to philosophy in case you could find it in other disciplines in academia or in other industries entirely.

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

LIZ: I really don’t think it’s up to graduate programs to worry about preparing their students for life after graduation; that’s the students’ job. Graduate students are by definition adults and adults should be willing and able to think about how they will make a living after graduate funding runs out. What’s the plan? A postdoc? Teaching? Business? Can I be self-employed? Who in my networks (of school, community, hometown, religion, life, sports, hobbies, clubs, past jobs) does something interesting that I might pursue if I don’t get a TT job? What’s my Plan A, B, and C? Can I live on $30K? For how long? Or do I need $55K? What’s my ultimatum to myself? Graduate programs are run by professors who are busy making their own careers, teaching, publishing, applying for grants, and making a reputation for themselves. I think their job is to be available for consultation with their graduate students and to teach their graduate classes well, not to prepare their graduates for life after graduate school. Philosophy might be peculiar in this way, but I would say the professors in my graduate department at the University of South Carolina did a good job of pushing me to be a better philosopher, which in turn made me prepared for that job and others, since the skills in that profession are highly transferrable to related cerebral and investigative pursuits. Also, almost every university has a Career Center or something like it that can help grad students network and think through post-graduation options.

This is paradoxical advice for grad students in philosophy, but I do believe they’d do well to diversify themselves. I say paradoxical because, graduate training in any discipline but perhaps especially in cerebral disciplines like philosophy prepares you to know a ton about your hyper-specific area of expertise, such as Kantian ethics or Plato’s metaphysics. You can see (I hope) how these kinds of expertise, in isolation, would be disastrous on the broader Job Market of America. So grad students will do well to discover not only their unique academic skills (e.g., teaching, writing, presenting, debating, coaching, organizing conferences and events, etc.) but also their talents beyond academia. I like the Myers-Briggs personality test and found it helpful when I was trying to ‘rediscover’ myself after leaving my TT job. It can help you identify what else you might be good at besides being a philosopher. One of the career paths well-suited to my personality type (ENTP), for instance, is real estate! Bingo!

DEREK: While you were still on the tenure-track job market, you described yourself as “committed to an academic career, no matter the challenges.” Looking back, do you think that commitment was a mistake, even at the time? What is it about the prospects of an academic career that engenders such commitment?

LIZ: I don’t think that commitment was a mistake, no. At the time, I really felt that way. It’s weird but I was way more committed to getting a TT job, than keeping one. I think what engenders such commitment on the academic job market is that if you don’t commit with all of your being, stopping just short of insanity, it will never happen to you. I imagine it’s like competing with all of the other college football stars for a slot in the NFL. Except it’s not as glamorous. And the pay is terrible by comparison.

I actually don’t think, in retrospect, that a commitment of this caliber makes sense for what you get in academia, even if you get a TT job. It’s obviously not worth it, at least financially but likely in other ways too, if you remain an adjunct your whole career (unless you have an alternate source of income). But even if you get a TT job, you might be living somewhere you hate, or teaching too many classes, or getting paid a terrible salary, or having no time to write — let alone play and enjoy life (see my “So You Think You Want a Tenure-Track Job?”). Furthermore, and something I’d like to write about, is the misery you sometimes encounter in academia. Not everyone loves the path; in fact some people seem to hate it. Just like all jobs, sometimes it’s all you (believe you) can do, and you get stuck. I think the job hunt was all I knew ten years ago but I could never do it now — with a husband and young son now in my life, having experienced different career options that are more financially promising and more satisfying overall.


DEREK: One of the major advantages you list to giving up on the tenure-track is that you can now write about what matters to you. During your career you’ve published in a number of different venues, including academic journals. What kinds of philosophical writing have you been engaged in since leaving the tenure-track, and how connected is it to your prior academic work?

LIZ: Mostly what I’ve published since leaving a formal academic track concerns my transition of leaving academia — almost in the vein of post-war memoirs, stories of climbing out of the trenches and recognizing, in retrospect, so much of what’s wrong with college teaching and academia in general. In that sense, my recent short articles, and my Psychology Today blog, “College Confidential,” are connected to my academic life, but are not academic, per se. I haven’t been interested in publishing in academic journals since leaving my TT job. It is exciting when someone contacts me on Research Gate and asks me for a paper I’ve written or engages me about my work in philosophy of mind or philosophy of science, but I do feel somewhat disconnected from it now. I was always writing those articles with the intention of getting a TT job, or getting a better TT job, etc., and now that I don’t have those goals, the work that’s involved in publishing an academic article in a journal that’s respected in my field, etc., feels so futile. I am, however, enjoying writing for a broader audience, and have the goal of publishing more in popular magazines and newspapers. I also think about writing a book someday, on an interesting topic and for a general audience, of course! TBD.

Thanks to Liz for taking the time to share her experience and advice. Her forthcoming blog, “The Philosopher Is In: Prescriptions for sanity in an insane world,” will offer a philosophical take on relationship advice, hosted by Psychology Today. You can read her existing column “College Confidential” online and find her scholarly work on her Research Gate profile.