James Gibson -- Software Development in Biotechnology

Software Engineer at Human Longevity, Inc., a biotechnology company in San Jose, CA

What stage of your academic career were you in when you decided to seek work outside of philosophy?

It was the summer after my third year at the department from which I would receive a doctorate, having also spent three years at another graduate program. I had completed the department “Portfolio” requirement, which was the department’s equivalent of a comprehensive exam. I spent the winter, spring, and summer working on a dissertation proposal. I had a committee with an external member, an interesting research project with a pretty clear trajectory, and a lack of confidence in being able to obtain a tenure-track position coming out of the department. At the end of the summer, I decided to leave academia.

I may have given the impression that when I decided to leave academia, I had merely considered the chance of landing a tenure-track position, and seeing that the prior and posterior probabilities were low, that was sufficient to motivate me to leave. That was not so. Most graduate students know by the end of their first year, I suspect, that the job market is bad and has been bad for quite a while. Although my colleagues and I were told it is good to have a “Plan B,” through my third year I took up the view that believing less of one’s own ability to land a job decreased the chance of getting one. Concocting a backup plan, I thought, would contribute to my own academic demise, or at least make it more likely. But as my credence leveled more closely to what my evidence supported (given, for instance, department placement over the last five years, how well colleagues who I sized up as similar enough to me did on the job market, etc.), and given my other goals (e.g., being in my 30s with a mortgage, the desire of my wife and I to start having children, and so on), I decided it was time to consider what other options there could be. It was only after considering that I had serious alternative career options together with what I thought of my job prospects in academia that I decided to leave. There were other reasons I chose to leave, but this was the main motivating factor for me.

What kind of work did you find, and how did you find it? What do you do now, and what’s interesting about it?

I mentioned that I believed there were serious alternative career options for me. When I decided to leave academia, I also decided to pursue one of those options full-time. Several friends of mine had left academia to become software engineers. They seemed very happy with their jobs and claimed that they found them to be intellectually fulfilling. In addition, they claimed that the transition from philosophy to programming was going to be easy for me. So immediately after I left my doctorate program, I enrolled in community college courses on programming. Fortunately, my wife had a well-paying job and we saved enough money to last a while. In my experience, enrolling in these courses was a waste of time and money because I could have learned everything on my own and at a faster pace.

There is also something to be said for learning by practicing a craft rather than merely studying a craft. So by the end of the semester, I started applying to internships and junior level positions. Although I had some bites after submitting my resume and tailored cover letters, I ended up taking a job with a web development agency. I obtained this job through a friend recommending me to the CEO. We worked out a deal in which I would work for free as an intern for three months, and then reassess financial compensation if I could prove myself to him and work well with the team. This worked out for fifteen months and was great experience for me because as a “full stack developer” with only three other team members, I had to learn many skills quickly.

I now work for a genomics and cell therapy-based diagnostic and therapeutic company. My current title is Software Development Engineer in Test (SDET). I’ll explain. There are software engineers who develop software. But what they build might break when put into a production environment. This can cause all sorts of havoc, e.g., selling bad data to clients. And in my field, giving a client bad data could mean giving data that might result in an incorrect diagnosis of cancer. So their software needs to be tested. Testing their software might require checking literally tens of thousands of fields and values returned from an API. Tests of this sort can be automated, and so I work as a software engineer (in Test) to make sure that the software works correctly. Aside from automating tests, I have to ensure that we are shipping quality products and good data. So I have to consider the possible and probable ways that their software might not work.

This brings me to the issue of overlap between what I do now and my academic research. In the specifics pertaining to my research project, there is very little overlap. I was working on a theory of how we know when another acts freely and what consequences that would have for lots of theories out there (e.g., event-causal libertarian views, historical compatibilist views, etc.). There’s very little discussion about agency at my work. But consider what I am doing as an SDETer. I am taking a system and thinking of the ways to break it. That’s quite a bit like thinking up counterexamples.

Another overlap: when a request comes in for the development team to build a certain feature, the given description of the feature is often vague and full of ambiguities. These have to be teased out otherwise the development team members won’t understand what they are building. Just as when your student asks you an apparently confused question, you have to empathize as much as you can and use critical reasoning to see what the student is really after. So it is with building features for clients or product owners.

Concerning programming more generally than what I do as a SDETer, there is a much longer story about the conceptual overlap between philosophy and programming, some of which I describe here.

The interesting thing about my work is that it can be intellectually challenging; I have to continually learn new technologies and ways to improve upon what I already know. My employer explicitly encourages learning from colleagues and will pay for employees to learn at conferences (e.g., Amazon’s AWS re:Invent). I get to work with other smart people from software engineering as well as from other fields (typically bioinformatics scientists, but also statisticians, physicists, chemists, among others). I get to hear talks from top scholars – recently Dr. James Watson (the Watson from Watson & Crick) came to my company to give a talk on cancer. I get to architect and design applications that will improve our testing. And I get the benefit of knowing that my work will impact millions, possibly billions, of people in a positive way.

How did you figure out what work projects you wanted to take on outside of academia? By extension, what advice would you offer to philosophers who want to leave philosophy, but who haven’t figured out what work they would pursue in its place?

For me, it was as simple as being convinced that there is conceptual overlap between philosophy and programming, seeing friends of mine who made the switch, and then trusting them when they said I would find it interesting and financially rewarding. For philosophers considering looking elsewhere, I would also recommend programming. There are literally thousands of jobs available in the United States; it is an employee’s market. Data science and machine learning are also in increasing demand.

But aside from recommending particular career paths, I’d say that the best thing you can do is start talking to people about what other jobs you might consider. You should talk to people who know you well, and whose opinions you value. I do not recommend talking to your academic friends about it, unless you trust them. That is because you might be looked at like a deserter. Your discussions should aim to bring to light features of those alternative careers that philosophy shares and which make your life fulfilling and meaningful. Or if you are skeptical of the concept of meaning (in the relevant sense), you might look for features that make you happy. Identify concrete steps required to break into one of those alternative careers.

It is important that you talk to as many people as you can, provided the investment of your time in these conversations yields good returns. The reason that I say this is that you are likely to get conflicting information from different sources. When I considered going into programming, I spoke with the computer science department at the university where I was enrolled for my doctorate. The CS department counselor strongly insisted that getting a degree was necessary to get hired by a good company. But when I spoke with a friend who hires IT and software engineers for a good company, he claimed that universities often teach technologies that are behind the time. So, for example, you might have courses in Java in your undergraduate program but all the jobs in your area are building applications with Node.js. Gather as much info as you need to make an informed decision about what steps you need to take.

More generally, what advice do you have for philosophers who are considering leaving philosophy?

My advice here is mostly psychological and sociological because I see them as giant hurdles for some people in philosophy and whether leaving academic philosophy is something worth doing.

First and foremost, you should recognize that you already have skills that are beneficial outside of academia. You might lack skills that are necessary to breaking into another field without doing a good bit of work (e.g., I had to learn some programming fundamentals before obtaining an internship). But you know how to learn difficult stuff, and you are probably able to learn subjects outside of philosophy. Companies want people with potential and who have excellent communication skills. When I interview a job candidate, I am looking not just at what this person knows and how well he or she expresses an answer, but also the person’s ability to be creative and learn new skills. If your philosophy experience was like mine, you should feel confident that you got this part. As a result, you are not stuck in an academic job if you do not want it anymore.

Second, you should realize that philosophy is probably not the only thing you can do and be happy doing. Occasionally, I have seen people on some of the more popular philosophy blogs say that “doing philosophy is the only thing that could make me happy.” I highly doubt the truth of this claim, and suspect that any such speech act results from ignorance of the very large set of interesting problems that philosophers do not work on. My co-worker famously worked on the following problem: how can I build an application that allows users to enter a set of sentences from some common natural language and output a semantically equivalent set of sentences in another natural language? It’s not obvious how to do this, but it has been done, and the result is something you have probably used: Google Translate. If you do have the view that I am criticizing, I’d encourage you to really consider what evidence you have for the truth of that view. As a side note: working outside of academia does not stop you from working on the philosophical problems that currently interest you. It may be a bit more difficult to get academic papers from Springer, but it is not impossible. I still read philosophy and get to talk philosophy with academic friends. And when an APA meeting happens near me, I try to go.

Finally, it is important to recognize that there are brilliant non-academics who are just as smart as any of your academic friends. You know this; you know that Elon Musk is damn smart. If you have accepted the silent whispers that it is in academia (psst, academia alone) where the real intellectual discussion happens, you will be in for a pleasant surprise. Depending on the career path you choose, you can find the full spectrum of people who will intellectually blow you away and those who will underwhelm you, just like you find any APA meeting. Working with other smart people should not be a reason for staying in academic philosophy.

What’s your perspective on academia today? Is there anything you miss about academia that can’t be replicated at your current job?

That is a big question; I’ll limit my answer. For some fields, academia is a good and necessary thing. I am glad my oncologist went to medical school. For other fields, academia is overrated for anyone with the ability to learn and the motivation to do so. The degree is often a gate for entry-level positions like a high school degree used to be. For example, my current job listed having a bachelor degree in computer science as a requirement. I only hold philosophy degrees. So how did I get the job without the CS degree? Really, the presence of a degree is some evidence for the employer to believe that you are smart (however that’s measured) and that you know something related to the job. If you hold a MA or PhD in philosophy, that will be enough evidence for the employer to think that you are smart. The only relevant question, then, is whether you have enough domain specific knowledge to do the job. Academia might have prepared you for that, and it might not have. It will depend on the details of the job.

One thing I cannot replicate in my current job are the specific philosophical conversations I was concerned with in academia; I mean, I cannot have those conversations as part of doing the job I am paid to do. I still have to do research. I still have to write documents with arguments for why we should do something a certain way rather than another. There are still long debates with arguments and defeaters (mostly about software architecture). I still have to do presentations to teach other co-workers about how to use a tool that I built. There are certainly less presentations with Q&A and reading groups, but those things do happen. There is one other thing that I cannot replicate in my current job: daily reading on the couch for three months of summer.

What does your career offer that wasn’t available to you as an academic philosopher?

Mobility. I currently live in Silicon Valley and I work with a team that is located in San Diego. I can join meetings with them in their offices – even though I am physically located in Northern California – by driving a robot into their offices by using my laptop. I kid you not: I drive a robot equipped with video/audio capabilities, which is located in San Diego, in order to hold meetings with them. One more thing that I get in my career that academic philosophers do not get: stock options.

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James's Background

M.A. in Philosophy
University of California, Irvine