Do Philosophy Professors Tend to Come from Socially Elite Backgrounds?

To judge from the examples we use in our essays, we philosophers are a pretty classy bunch. Evidently, philosophers tend to frequent the theater, delight in expensive wines, enjoy novels by George Eliot, and regret owning insufficiently many boats. Ah, the life of the philosopher, full of deep thoughts about opera while sipping Ch√Ęteau Latour and lingering over 19th-century novels on your yacht!

Maybe it's true that philosophers typically come from wealthy or educationally elite family backgrounds? Various studies suggest that lower-income students and first-generation college students in the U.S. and Britain are more likely to choose what are sometimes perceived as lower risk, more "practical" majors like engineering, the physical sciences, and education, than they are to choose arts and humanities majors.

To explore this question, I requested data from the National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates. The SED collects demographic and other data from PhD recipients from virtually all accredited universities in the U.S., typically with response rates over 90%.

I requested data on two relevant SED questions:

  • What is the highest educational attainment of your mother and father?
  • and also, since starting at community college is generally regarded as a less elite educational path than going directly from high school to a four-year university,

  • Did you earn college credit from a community or two-year college?
  • Before you read on... any guesses about the results?

    Community college attendance.

    Philosophy PhD recipients [red line below] were less likely than PhD recipients overall [black line] to have attended community college, but philosophers might actually be slightly more likely than other arts and humanities majors to have attended community college [blue line]:

    [click picture for clearer image]

    [The apparent jump from 2003 to 2004 is due to a format change in the question, from asking the respondent to list all colleges attended (2003 and earlier) to asking the yes or no question above (2004 and after).]

    Merging the 2004-2015 data for analysis, 17% of philosophy PhD recipients had attended community college, compared to 15% of other arts and humanities PhDs and 19% of PhDs overall. Pairwise comparisons: philosophy 696/4107 vs. arts & humanities overall (excl. phil.) 7051/45966 (z = 2.7, p = .006); vs. all PhD recipients (excl. phil.) 69958/372985 (z = -3.0, p = .003).

    The NSF also sent me the breakdown by race, gender, and ethnicity. I found no substantial differences by gender. Non-Hispanic white philosophy PhD recipients may have been a bit less likely to have attended community college than the other groups (17% vs. 21%, z = -2.2, p = .03) -- actually a somewhat smaller effect size than I might have predicted. (Among PhD recipients as a whole, Asians were a bit less likely (14%) and Hispanics [any race] a bit more likely (25%) to have attended community college than whites (20%) and blacks (19%).)

    In sum, as measured by rates of community college attendance, philosophers' educational background is only a little more elite than that of PhD recipients overall and might be slightly less elite, on average, than that of PhD recipients in the other arts and humanities.

    Parental Education.

    The SED divides parental education levels into four categories: high school or less, some college, bachelor's degree, or advanced degree.

    Overall, recipients reported higher education levels for their fathers (35% higher degree, 25% high school or less [merging 2010-2015]) than for their mothers (25% and 31% respectively). Interestingly, women PhD recipients reported slightly higher levels of maternal education than did men, while women and men reported similar levels of paternal education, suggesting that a mother's education is a small specific predictor of her daughter's educational attainment. (Among women PhD recipients [in all fields, 2010-2015], 27% report their mothers having a higher degree and 29% report high school or less; for men the corresponding numbers are 24% and 33%.)

    Philosophers report higher levels of parental education than do other PhD recipients. In 2010-2015, 45% of philosophy PhD recipients reported having fathers with higher degrees and 33% reported having mothers with higher degrees, compared to 43% and 31% in the arts and humanities generally and 35% and 25% among all PhD recipients (philosophers' fathers 1129/2509 vs. arts & humanities' fathers (excl. phil.) 11110/26064, z = 2.3, p = .02; philosophers' mothers 817/2512 vs. a&h mothers 8078/26176, z = 1.7, p = .09). Similar trends for earlier decades suggest that the small difference between philosophy and the remaining arts and humanities is unlikely to be chance.

    [click picture for clearer image]

    Although philosophy has a higher percentage of men among recent PhDs (about 72%) than do most other disciplines outside of the physical sciences and engineering, this fact does not appear to explain the pattern. Limiting the data either to only men or only women, the same trends remain evident.

    Recent philosophy PhD recipients are also disproportionately non-Hispanic white (about 85%) compared to most other academic disciplines that do not focus on European culture. It is possible that this explains some of the tendency toward higher parental educational attainment among philosophy PhDs than among PhDs in other areas. For example, limiting the data to only non-Hispanic whites eliminates the difference in parental educational attainment between philosophy and the other arts and humanities: 46% both of recent philosophy PhDs and of arts and humanities PhDs report fathers with higher degrees and 34% of both groups report mothers with higher degrees. (Among all non-Hispanic white PhD recipients, it's 41% and 31% respectively.)

    Unsurprisingly, parental education is much higher in general among PhD recipients than in the U.S. population overall: Approximately 12% of people over the age of 25 in the US have higher degrees (roughly similar for all age groups, including the age groups that would be expected of the parents of recent PhD recipients).

    In sum, the parents of PhD recipients in philosophy tend to have somewhat higher educational attainment than PhD recipients overall and slightly higher educational attainment that PhD recipients in the other arts and humanities. However, much of this difference may be explainable by the overrepresentation of non-Hispanic whites within philosophy, rather than by a field-specific factor.


    Although PhD recipients in general tend to come from more educationally privileged backgrounds than do people who do not earn PhDs, philosophy PhD recipients do not appear to come from especially elite academic backgrounds, compared to their peers in other departments, despite our field's penchant for highbrow examples.


    ETA: Raw data here.

    ETA2: On my public Facebook link to this post, Wesley Buckwalter has emphasized that not all philosophy PhDs become professors. Of course that is true, though it looks like a majority of philosophy PhDs do attain permanent academic posts within five years of completion (see here). If it were the case that people with community college credit or with lower levels of parental education were substantially less likely than others to become professors even after completing the PhD, then that would undermine the inference from these data about PhD recipients to conclusions about philosophy professors in general.

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