Thursday, October 21, 2021

Disability, Sexuality, Political Leaning, Socio-Economic Background, and Other Demographic Data on Recent Philosophy PhD Recipients

... hot from the Academic Placement and Data Analysis project, run by Carolyn Dicey Jennings. (I'm on the APDA board of directors.) The APDA tracks the job placements of PhD recipients in philosophy from PhD-granting departments in the English-speaking world plus selected programs elsewhere, with over 200 universities represented. Every few years, the APDA also surveys PhD recipients concerning their satisfaction with their PhD program as well as selected demographic characteristics.

The full report is not yet publicly available, but Carolyn Dicey Jennings has reported on placement and satisfaction at Daily Nous. (UCR ranks #3 in student satisfaction rating and #13 in 10-year placement rating, go team!) Marcus Arvan has reported on placement into non-academic careers at Philosophers' Cocoon.

In this post, I'll highlight some of the APDA's demographic results.

Response Rate, Race, Ethnicity, and Gender

The APDA contacted over 10,000 recent PhDs (>90% 2006 and later) for whom email addresses were available, achieving about a 10% response rate, with the majority of respondents having received their degrees from programs in the United States. A 10% response rate naturally raises concerns about non-response bias, though low response rates have become common in opinion surveys in general, and recent research suggests that low response rate might be less of a concern than often feared.

APDA results on race, ethnicity, and gender approximately match results on recent philosophy PhDs from other more complete sources like the National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates, for example as reported here. Philosophy remains disproportionately White, with 82% percent of the APDA's U.S. respondents describing themselves as in that racial/ethnic category and no other (85% of all respondents).

As in other surveys, the APDA results show Black respondents to be enormously underrepresented: 2% of U.S. respondents (also 2% overall), compared to 13% of the general population. It will be interesting to see if this remains the case in 10-15 years, since recent data from the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) (reported here), shows a dramatic recent increase in interest in the philosophy major among Black students entering college.

The APDA results also show the typical gender skew among PhD recipients in philosophy, with 70% of respondents selecting "man" as their gender, 27% selecting "woman", 2% selecting "non-binary", and 1% selecting "other" (these percentages are identical in the U.S. and overall).

The similarity of these numbers to numbers from other sources makes them less novel than other parts of the APDA report, and for that reason I don't recount them in detail here. The similarity also reassuringly suggests that non-response isn't interacting in a worrisome way with these demographic variables.


Overall, 744 respondents provided information about their sexuality, with 79% selecting "straight", 8% selecting "bisexual", 5% selecting "queer", 3% selecting "gay", 1% selecting "lesbian", and 4% selecting "other". In a separate question, 1.6% of participants identified as transgender. Limiting to the 575 respondents from programs in the U.S., the numbers were overall similar, with 78% selecting "straight", and 1.1% identifying as transgender.

Gallup finds that 5.6% of U.S. adults identify as LGBTQ. In the HERI database of first-year undergraduates, 92% of students intending to major in philosophy identified as straight and 0.6% identified as transgender.

If the APDA data are accurate and representative, recent philosophy PhDs in the U.S. are much less likely to be straight and non-trans than the general U.S. population or even the population of first-year philosophy majors.


Good data on disability and philosophy are difficult to find, partly because disability is so various and reported rates of disability can differ markedly with the content and context of the question. In 2013, Shelly Tremain presented evidence of the underrepresentation of disabled people in philosophy and systemic biases against them.

The APDA questionnaire asked:

Which of the following best describes your disability status, treating disability according to the ADA definition: "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity"? Please choose all that apply.

Overall, 67% of participants selected "no known disability" (also 67% among U.S. respondents). Including those with multiple answers:

  • 24% selected "mental health condition (e.g. depression)"
  • 5% selected "long-standing illness or health condition (e.g. cancer)"
  • 3% selected "specific learning disability (e.g. dyslexia)"
  • 2% selected "social/communication impairment (e.g. Asperger's syndrome)"
  • 2% selected "physical impairment or mobility issues (e.g. difficulty using arms)"
  • 1% selected "blind or visual impairment uncorrected by glasses"
  • 1% selected "deaf or serious hearing impairment"
  • none reported "general learning disability (e.g. Down's syndrome)"
  • 4% selected "other type of disability"
  • For comparison, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 10% of the non-institutionalized U.S. population aged 18-64 has a disability.

    Based on personal experience, anecdotal evidence, and Tremain's and others' work on disability in philosophy, it seems to me unlikely that disabled people are as dramatically overrepresented among philosophy PhD recipients as these numbers might superficially suggest, though certain types of mental health conditions (such as anxiety and depression) might be fairly common. In my view, we remain far from fully understanding the prevalence of disability in academic philosophy, its relation to the prevalence of disability in the wider community, and the disadvantages that disabled philosophers face.

    Political Leaning

    You will be unsurprised to learn that philosophers lean left. This has been well known since at least Neil Gross's work in the late 2000s. In 2008, based on voter registration data from five U.S. states, I also found that among philosophers registered with a political party, 87% were Democrats and 8% were Republicans (the rest with minor parties), compared to 73% and 22% respectively for professors overall. This was, of course, before the "Tea Party" movement and Trump era, which shifted U.S. academia even more against the Republicans.

    The APDA added a new question in 2021 concerning political leaning. Among 769 respondents, 50% selected "very liberal", 33% selected "liberal", 12% selected "moderate", 3% selected "conservative", and 1% selected "very conservative". Considering only the 596 respondents from U.S. programs, 83% selected liberal or very liberal, 12% selected moderate, and 5% selected conservative or very conservative.

    One percent very conservative! Could this be representative? It might be worth checking out Uwe Peters' interesting discussion of hostility to conservatives in philosophy.

    I worry that there's a vicious circle here: Academia, especially the humanities and social sciences, shifts left -- right-leaning politicians criticize and defund academic work, especially in the humanities and social sciences -- people in the humanities and social sciences understandably react by associating even more with the left -- and so forth.

    Socio-Economic Background

    The APDA also asks a few interesting questions about socio-economic background.

    One is "What was your family's socioeconomic status (SES) growing up?" Overall, 8% selected "lower", 24% "lower middle", 36% "middle", 28% "upper middle", and 3% "upper". Among respondents from U.S. programs, 32% selected lower or lower middle, 35% selected middle, and 33% selected upper middle or upper.

    This makes it sounds like philosophers hail from a fairly ordinary sample of families. However, regarding parental education, the story is very different. When asked "What is the highest education level obtained by at least one of your parents/guardians?" 78% reported bachelor's degree or higher (80% of respondents from U.S. institutions), and 56% reported that at least one parent had an advanced degree. Among people born in the United States overall, 36% of the population aged 25 and over have a bachelor's degree.

    If take these data at face value, we might conclude that philosophers tend to hail from families of the overeducated and underpaid. Perhaps that's so. Or perhaps respondents are erring toward the low side in reporting the SES of their families of origin.

    Lots more interesting data in the full report! Keep an eye out for a publicly available version before too long.



    "The Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Diversity of Philosophy Students and Faculty in the United States: Recent Data from Several Sources", Eric Schwitzgebel, Liam Kofi Bright, Carolyn Dicey Jennings, Morgan Thompson, and Eric Winsberg. The Philosopher's Magazine (2021).

    "The Philosophy Major Is Back, Now with More Women" (Sep 2, 2021).

    "Diversity and Equity in Recruitment and Retention", Sherri Conklin, Gregory Peterson, Michael Rea, Eric Schwitzgebel, and Nicole Hassoun. Blog of the APA (Jun 7, 2021)


    image adapted from here


    Kelly James Clark said...

    "I worry that there's a vicious circle here: Academia, especially the humanities and social sciences, shifts left -- right-leaning politicians criticize and defund academic work, especially in the humanities and social sciences -- people in the humanities and social sciences understandably react by associating even more with the left -- and so forth."

    Seems like post-hoc rationalization to me.

    Makes it sound like people freely choose.

    Not a conservative myself but what about the more obvious explanations: peer pressure, prestige bias, hiring bias? Conservatives self-select out.

    Kenny said...

    Seeing the difference in responses about sexual orientation among intended majors when going to college, vs people who completed PhDs, made me think first about how many people end up declaring philosophy after they are already in college. But then I remembered that I would have shown up in these data in two ways - I declared philosophy as a major well after I came to college, but I also didn't come out until after I came to college! I hear that these days, a large fraction of people who eventually come out do so before the end of high school, but I would not be surprised if there's still a large fraction who do so later.

    Anonymous said...

    Thanks for all your work!

    Regarding future surveys, it seems like the most relevant political distinction in academia today is not left/right, or liberal/conservative, but between support versus opposition to “social justice”/“woke-ness” (I don’t know what the non-loaded terms would be).

    Anonymous said...

    Black Philosophy PhDs are 2% of respondents vs. 13% of the general population. That's a factor of 6.5x. Above, they are said to be "enormously underrepresented."

    Conservatives are 5% of respondents, vs. 30-40% of the population. That's a factor of 6-8x. The headline? "Philosophers lean left." LEAN. ��

    Also, I read above that maybe it's kinda their own fault! "I worry that there's a vicious circle here: Academia, especially the humanities and social sciences, shifts left -- right-leaning politicians criticize and defund academic work, especially in the humanities and social sciences -- people in the humanities and social sciences understandably react by associating even more with the left -- and so forth."

    That's "victim blaming," as they say. ("See what you made me do??")

    Surely a better explanation, as Kelly James Clark wrote above, is peer pressure, prestige bias, hiring/admissions discrimination, a hostile working and learning environment, etc. etc. etc.

    Conservatives self-select out, because they perceive that they're not welcome in this profession, despite its aspirations to "diversity and inclusion."

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Thanks for the comments, folks!

    Kelly/Anon Oct 21 07:09: I didn't intend that remark as suggesting a monocausal explanation. Very likely those other factors are as important or more important, and of course something needs to get the process started in the first place. Once the process is in place, the vicious circle could well further aggravate it. Anon Oct 21, I am also concerned about political diversity in the profession, as I hope would have been clear by my emphasis on the lowness of 1% -- the only italicized sentence in the post -- and my link over to Peters.

    Kenny: Right, good point!

    Anon Oct 21 01:45: I agree that the "liberal"/"conservative" labels as they are now typically used to some extent are misnomers, e.g., classical liberals are in some sense conservative and the radical right is in some senses not very conservative at all.

    Dr Savage said...

    My experience with tolerance and understanding of mental health in academia would make anyone's hair stand on end. If you want deets. Contact

    Arnold said...

    Is there a section for PHD recipients toward global truth and wisdom methodology... understanding living via senses, via observation, via both, via many more...

    The liberal concern on our populated planet has been watching for 10,000 years...
    ...have we been looking for an end to chaos...

    Have we been looking for methods towards global purpose...
    ...Its a privilege to read about your work...thanks

    Kelly James Clark said...

    thx Eric

    Kelly James Clark said...

    thx Eric

    Jake said...

    I think it’s very likely that people in the Gallup poll are under-self-reporting as LGBTQ. Most LGBTQ people go through a period in which they are strongly motivated to believe that they are cisgender and straight. Even if my peers are extremely welcoming of LGBTQ people, I might remain in denial for years before adopting an identity that makes better sense of my experiences (e.g., I persuade myself that I don't really have a crush on someone when I obviously do). I imagine that it’s much more tempting to self-deceive if your social group is mostly conservative. The inverse seems to be comparatively rare—-I think that very few straight and cis people are strongly motivated to believe that they are queer. I am reluctant to say that someone is “actually gay” etc. without their realizing it, but I think that the number of people who would be best served by an LGBTQ label is probably significantly above 5.6%.

    I’m bringing this up because I think it changes the apparent significance of this data. I would expect LGBTQ people to be “overrepresented” in any population where those identities are destigmatized enough for people to comfortably adopt them. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt to be highly educated. If a person would be well served by identifying as gay or trans, then I think they are more likely to realize that in a philosophy PhD program than in most other jobs. (I don’t mean that this explains the entire disparity. I’m sure that there are other factors, such as that people are more likely to prefer liberal environments. Another possibility is that introspective people are more likely to become philosophers and more likely to realize that they are LGBTQ. In any case, I think that our baseline expectation should be above 5.6%.)

    Likewise, we should expect there to be some gap between professors and first-year majors, since many of those freshmen will later identify as LGBTQ. It’s very common for students to realize that they are queer during college and to retain those identities after they graduate. In order to know whether this gap says anything about the discipline, we would have to compare philosophy PhD recipients to other people of the same age who started their philosophy majors at the same time.

    Eric Schwitzgebel said...

    Thanks for that comment, Jake. That makes a lot of sense to me!