Greetings from Cambridge! Traveling around Europe and the UK, I am struck by the extent to which different countries have relatively pyramid-like vs relatively tube-like academic systems. This has moved me to think, also, about the extent to which US academia has recently been becoming more pyramidal.

Please forgive my ugly sketch of a pyramid and a tube:

The German system is quite pyramidal: There is a small group of professors at the top, and many stages between undergraduate and professor, at any one of which you might suddenly find yourself ejected from the system: undergraduate, then masters, then PhD, then one or more postdocs and/or assistantships before moving up or out; and at each stage one needs to actively seek a position and typically move locations if successful.

In contrast, the US system, as it stood about twenty years ago, was more tubular: fewer transition stages requiring application and moving, with much sharper cutdowns between each stage. To a first approximation, undergraduates applied to PhD programs, very few got in, and then if they completed there was one more transition from completing the PhD to gaining a tenure-track job (and typically, though of course not always, tenure after 6-7 years on the tenure track).

Philosophy in the US is becoming more pyramidal, I believe, with more people pursuing terminal Master's degrees before applying to PhD programs, and with the increasing number of adjunct positions and postdoctoral positions for newly-minted PhDs. Instead of approximately three phases (undergrad, grad/PhD, tenure-track/tenured professor), we are moving closer to five-phase system (undergrad, MA, PhD, adjunct/post-doc, tenure-track/tenured).

This more pyramidal system has some important advantages. One advantage is that it provides more opportunities for people from nonelite backgrounds to advance through the system. It has always been difficult from students from nonelite undergraduate universities to gain acceptance to elite PhD programs (and it still is); similarly for students who struggled a bit in their undergraduate careers before finding philosophy. With the increasing willingness of PhD programs to accept students with Master's degrees, a broader range of students can earn a shot at academia: They can compete to get into a Master's program (typically easier to do for people with nonelite backgrounds than being admitted to a comparably-ranked PhD program) and then possibly shine there, gaining admittance to a range of PhD programs that would otherwise have been closed to them. A similar pattern sometimes occurs with postdocs.

The other advantage of the pyramid is that being exposed to a variety of institutions, advisors, and academic subcultures has advantages both for the variety of perspectives it provides and for meeting more people in the academic community. A Master's program or a postdoctoral fellowship can be a rewarding experience.

But I am also struck by the downside of pyramidal structures. In Europe, I met many excellent philosophers in their 30s or 40s, post-PhD, unsure whether they would make the next jump up the pyramid or not, unable to settle down securely into their careers. This used to be relatively uncommon in the US, though it has become more common. It is hard on marriages and families; and it's hard to face the prospects of a major career change in mid-life after devoting a dozen or more years to academia.

The sciences in the US have tended to be more pyramidal than philosophy, with one or more postdocs often expected before the tenure-track job. This is partly, I suspect, just due to the money available in science. There are lots of post-docs to be had, and it's easier to compete for professor positions with that extra postdoctoral experience. One possibly unintended consequence of the increased flow of money into philosophical research projects, through the Templeton Foundation and government research funding organizations, is to increase the number of postdocs, and thus the pyramidality of the discipline.

Of course, the rise of inexpensive adjunct labor is a big part of this -- bigger, probably, than the rise of terminal Master's programs as a gateway to the PhD and the rise of the philosophy post-doc -- but all of these contribute in different ways to making our discipline more pyramidal than it was a few decades ago.