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Do Not Hire a PhD Student, Hire an Illustrator

Written by

Mandi Astola

Published on April, 11 2022

Do Not Hire a PhD Student, Hire an Illustrator

do not hire a phd student

For all senior academics working in the philosophy of technology, here is a wild idea. Next time you have a project, and you can hire someone;  don’t hire a PhD student, hire an illustrator. Here’s why.

First of all, an illustrator (or graphic designer) can communicate your work. They can bridge human intellects from different backgrounds through the magic of visual representation. They can make a complex philosophical argument comprehensible, not just to other philosophers but to everyone.

The Power of Visualizations

Have you ever tried to draw your argument? If you try, you will discover flaws in your reasoning that you did not see before. If you work with an illustrator, you can fix these flaws and make the picture complete. An illustrator can make you think differently. Visualizing  a concept or a relationship  between two things, can help you understand them  better.

Visualizing  a concept or a relationship between two things, can help you understand them  better.

Most work that goes into philosophy is spent on trying to understand yourself. You might be used to doing it in text or speech. But if you  can explain it to a graphicdesigner, and review their visualizations, then you have probably understood yourself better than if you had just written the argument down. An illustrator does not just translate your work into visuals, or make it pretty. An illustrator can make your work stronger philosophically.

Whatever you do, do not hire another PhD student. Because there are not enough jobs for academics. Universities are underfunded everywhere. Tenure track  and post-doc positions are  scarce, compared to the number of PhD graduates. A PhD is training for an academic job. Why train hundreds of PhDs for academic jobs they will never have?

Of course, the matter is complicated. Many job markets are competitive. People who choose academic careers chose it themselves, knowing that it is competitive. So what is wrong with hiring more PhDs if it benefits your career? Furthermore, what’s wrong with a bit of competition? Does it not drive excellence and select the best people for the job?

The Illusion of Meritocracy

The academic job market pretends to be a meritocracy. As Michael Sandel argues in his 2021 book The Tyranny of Merit, when reality does not match the meritocratic ideal (which is most of the time), meritocracy becomes problematic. Academics do not necessarily attain permanent jobs only through hard work and merit. Connections, relationships, age, gender, ethnicity and country of origin play a role.

What if we created pictograms, shareable images, comics, videos, or academic papers with pictures?

The reality is that academics get the positions they get largely through luck, but there is a pretense that it is through hard work. This causes what Sandel calls “meritocratic hubris” in the winners who end up in the best positions, and humiliation in the losers[1]. If you have ever been on Twitter, you will know that academics are currently very dissatisfied. The fact that so many PhD students show signs of depression and anxiety is not surprising [2] [3]. The responsibility for senior academics, then, is to NOT succumb to meritocratic hubris and imagine that landing an academic job is a coveted prize won through hard work. You should strive to build a culture where it is equally good to land a job outside of academia.

Perhaps you, as a senior scholar, can also do your part by reducing this toxic, competitive culture and train PhD students for jobs outside of academia. It does not make sense to uphold a culture where academic jobs are just as good as non-academic ones, while only training your students for academic jobs. Why not collaborate with designers to give your students the skills they need in the labor market? Then they can confidently enter the job market outside of academia.

Philosophy of technology should not be like the internet in the 1990s anymore.

How about supervising a student together with an illustrator and teach them to become an academic illustrator? Or, instead of hiring a PhD student, you could hire another type of junior designer who will benefit from working with you. Like an illustrator. Illustrators are needed everywhere. Why not hire a junior and have them leave as a senior? It probably won’t cost any more than a PhD student. And they might be better off in the job market.

The Future Is Graphic Design

Lastly, here is the real reason why you, especially as a philosopher of technology, should hire an illustrator. Before we get to that reason, bear with me for a moment and think: do you remember what the internet looked like in the 1990s? It was incomprehensible, ugly, and unusable (A bit like the papers we sometimes write). Do you think people would be glued to their screens if the internet still looked like that?

The reason the internet became so important in our lives is because of a revolution in user interface design, graphic design and visual communication. Most people do not read academic papers, because they are PDFs locked behind paywalls, riddled with jargon, and complicated sentences. What if we created pictograms, shareable images, comics, videos, or academic papers with pictures? This would make our work more accessible, shareable and understandable for the people we want to reach, including decision-makers involved in the governance of emerging technologies.

Don't Hire a PhD Student. Hire an Illustrator.

When you do philosophy of technology, you are probably not writing treatises that will sit on the shelves of every philosopher for centuries to come. You are most likely writing about technologies that will be obsolete in 7 years. Or, you are speculating about a future that will never happen, and likely engaging in “criti-hype”[4]. Tomorrows philosophers will wrap their fish and chips in your papers. If your work does not make an impact in the world now, you might be writing it for nobody.

Philosophy of technology should not be like the internet in the 1990s anymore. It is time for the next step. It’s time to reach the people that need to be reached. And it’s time to stop training people for jobs they won’t have. It’s time to stop hiring PhD students and hire an illustrator.

References

[1] See Sandel, J. M. (2021) The Tyranny of Merit: What’s become of the common good? Penguin.

[2] See this article from Nature, summarizing various surveys showing the worrisome mental health issues among graduate students: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03489-1

[3] Additionally, see this article summarizing the worrisome results of a survey conducted by the OZSW PhD council on Dutch philosophy PhD students: https://www.ozsw.nl/external-news/het-welzijn-van-de-filosofie-phd-schokkende-cijfers-en-levendige-discussies/

[4] See this article on “criti-hype” in ethics of technology: https://sts-news.medium.com/youre-doing-it-wrong-notes-on-criticism-and-technology-hype-18b08b4307e5

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