Non-Traditional Paths into Philosophy (Guest post by Oisín Deery)




This is the fourth entry in the Cocoon’s series, Non-Traditional Paths into Philosophy, a series of guest posts by people who entered academic philosophy later in life or otherwise took a non-traditional path into the field. Today’s post is by Oisín Deery, Lecturer and ARC DECRA Fellow Macquarie University and Assistant Professor (on leave of absence) at York University. If you took a non-traditional path into philosophy and are interested in contributing to the series, feel free to email me at!


My Path into Professional Philosophy

By Oisín Deery

I remember being at a certain conference as a grad student. The two well-known philosophers I was chatting with during a break asked each other whether they’d ever worked at other jobs. One scoffed and said he hadn’t, while the other said she’d spent part of a summer in high school working for a picture framer. I began to feel anxious. When they turned to me, I said I’d been a lifeguard once in my teens and left it at that.

Why had I felt so anxious? I was two years into my PhD program, I was 39 years old (which few of my professors or fellow grad students knew), and I somehow thought I needed to disguise my age and my unconventional background from those people on whom my getting a job—if I got one—might depend. I was trying to fit into a world I knew little about. As a result, I was anxious partly because I was afraid I’d be found out, that I’d receive puzzled looks from these philosophers whose work I admired and perhaps make them feel uncomfortable. I’d worked at many jobs. So, I worried that if I regaled them with stories of working on oil rigs or running a business, they’d not only regard me as strange, as though they’d suddenly noticed I had antlers growing out of my head, but also that they’d think I was mocking their relative paucity of experience.

Maybe it was just me. Perhaps they’d have been fascinated. But I wasn’t going to take that risk. I was playing it safe, trying to fit in, putting big chunks of myself into storage.

I’m now 51 and I’ve currently got two jobs—a continuing position (tenure-track equivalent) in the philosophy department at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and a tenure-track Assistant Professor position in the philosophy department at York University in Toronto, Canada. It’s all worked out for me in the end, even though it took me years on the job market in postdoctoral and limited-term positions before I landed my job at York in 2019. I’m so grateful and happy to be a professional philosopher.

How did I arrive at this happy state of affairs? How did I even get to be at that conference, feeling anxious about being found out? It’s a long story. But I’ll try to be brief.

I grew up in a small town in Ireland, before the internet and therefore isolated from the world. I attended a local school where everyone in my town went—farmers’ kids together with the children of doctors and lawyers. I fell somewhere in the middle. My dad was a doctor but my parents had separated when I was 12 (we didn’t have divorce in Ireland back then). My brother and I lived with my mother with no financial support from my father. My mum had previously been a housewife and mother with no professional training or skills. But she was resourceful. To support us, she turned our house into a B&B (long before AirBnB), ran a coffee shop, and baked bread and apple pies for local shops. My brother and I might literally have holes in our shoes, but we were happy now that my dad was out of the picture. My and my brother’s childhood had been marred by severe domestic violence and conflict. But that was over. Now, I went to school and worked as a lifeguard at a pool in the summer. Life was good. (I also became a successful competitive swimmer and national finalist in 200m breaststroke.)

There was, however, no money for college. Bizarre as it may seem to my North American friends, college was, in fact, free in those days in Ireland, as long as you had good enough grades to get in, which I did for at least some schools and programs. But there were still living expenses and rent. In the end, I was accepted to do a BA in English and Philosophy at University College Galway. I used student loans to borrow money for expenses and rent, since I wanted to focus on my studies without needing to work even part-time. I graduated in 1993 and promptly completed a certificate in Teaching English as a Foreign Language. With that in hand, I secured a job in Slovakia teaching English to adults who worked at a nuclear power plant in the town of Levice. Life in Levice was colorful and exciting for a young Irish lad. I was invited to visit my students’ families to pick grapes during wine-making season in the fall, or to a pig-killing before Christmas—events where a lot of Slivovice, a local plum brandy, was drunk. I even toured the nuclear plant. But I was paid in local wages and I couldn’t pay off my loans.

In response to this problem, I made what some will think an odd decision. Despite my having grown up in Ireland with both sides of my family going back a thousand years as Irish, I’d been born in Canada, where my parents had lived during the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when Canada needed doctors and my dad got his first job upon graduating. With no opportunities for me in Ireland in the early ‘90s, my Canadian citizenship gave me options I’d never have had otherwise. I quit my teaching job and through contacts I started work at Chateau Lake Louise in the Rockies, driving a team of horses taking tourists on sleigh rides around the frozen lake. I’d ridden and worked with horses in Ireland (not a privileged activity in a small Irish town in the 1980s). Driving sleigh at Lake Louise was fun and I made good tips. Yet still, it wasn’t enough.

I needed to make more money. Through the outfitter who ran the sleigh rides, I got a job the following summer working at the Kananaskis Guest Ranch, taking care of the horses, building fences, taking guests on trail rides over Yamnuska Mountain, which towered over the Bow River Valley leading to Banff National Park. I also worked for their sister outfit—Brewster Mountain Pack Trains—taking supplies on horseback into camps deep in the high country of the park. My memories of that time will haunt my dreams forever, so awe-inspiring and exhilarating was my life during that summer.

Even so, I couldn’t pay off my loans. So when winter rolled around, I did what many of the cowboys working at the ranch or packing in the mountains did—I traveled north to the Alberta oil patch where the real money was. Thus, in my second winter, I worked on a seismic exploration crew. We were searching for oil and gas reserves. Straight lines were cut for hundreds of kilometers through the forests and mountains of northern Alberta and British Columbia, along which dynamite was planted at intervals. Geophones or jugs were laid out on these lines and connected to a portable lab where a geophysicist sat waiting for readouts. We’d blow up the dynamite, and the geophones would pick up differences in how the shockwaves passed through the earth beneath us. This process was akin to underground radar and the hope was that we’d locate deep reservoirs underground that might warrant later exploratory drilling. Finally, pickup crews would remove all the geophones, which would be brought forward in bags by helicopter to be laid out farther down the line. Later, I worked as a shooter’s helper, blowing up the dynamite, and as a bag runner sprinting in the snow from one bag of geophones to another and attaching them to or detaching them from a carousel on the long line a helicopter would drop down through the trees. If we were lucky and found a clearing, at the end of our shift the chopper might land and fly us back to camp. Otherwise, we’d hike back to where a truck would pick us up on a forest track.

Mostly, I worked as a jughound, laying out and picking up the long lines of geophones, working 12-hour shifts—often nightshifts—at the most repetitive task imaginable. It was regularly as cold as –50 degrees Celsius (–60 Fahrenheit). But overhead every night I’d see the Northern Lights swirling in vivid green, red, and purple.

The money was incredible to a 25-year-old. We worked 7-day weeks on a 4-week rotation, before being flown out to Calgary or Edmonton for a week off, when I’d stay with friends. We were fed and housed in camps while working, so I saved all of my money. I completely paid off my loans during that first winter of working in the oil patch.

For several years, I led this lifestyle, alternating between packing horses in the mountains during summer, including into hunting camps deep in the wilderness of northern British Columbia by the Yukon border, and working winters on seismic exploration crews, or as a roughneck on drilling rigs in Fort McMurray, or as a welder’s helper on oil pipelines, and even once driving a bulldozer building logging roads into the bush.

I made a lot of money and when I wasn’t working I’d spend months by the beach in La Manzanilla, a small village on the Pacific coast of Jalisco, Mexico, with people I’d met working with horses in Alberta. Or I’d backpack around Mexico and Central America. Those years were adventurous and wild and I’d never swap them for anything.

Finally, though, I tired of that life and returned to Ireland. Casting about for what to do next, I used some of the money I’d saved to assist my mother in opening a bookstore in my hometown of Birr, County Offaly. It was a romantic idea, I suppose, given that market research had shown that Birr was only barely large enough to support a bookstore. It worked for a few years, and anyhow I had only intended to stay in the business long enough to set it up for my mother before I’d move on to do something else. Yet despite the fact that I loved reading books, selling them was far less exciting than I’d hoped. It was simply a retail business. I might as well have been selling toothbrushes. It was also the wrong time. We opened in 1998, which was precisely when Amazon was in its ascendency and increasingly dominating bookselling worldwide.

During this time, I also began to write. I wrote a bi-weekly column for a local newspaper about interesting characters living in the Irish midlands, including a few famous novelists whom I interviewed. I also wrote a series of articles on my most recent travels in West Africa—through Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. But I had greater success with poetry. I published a small book of poems based on my childhood and on the time I’d spent working in Canada and traveling in Mexico. The book was endorsed by several renowned Irish poets and I was invited to various literary festivals to give readings. It was a fun time. Yet with the bookstore struggling, I had to move on.

My mum ran the bookstore for a few more years—it could pay her salary even though it couldn’t pay me too. So, I moved to Dublin to work as a waiter in the bustling Temple Bar district. Later, I worked with an old friend who ran a business restoring plasterwork ceilings in Georgian buildings. Ireland was suddenly awash with money from the emerging “Celtic Tiger” economy and there was funding available for restoring Dublin’s crumbling architecture. For two years, I worked painstakingly on ceilings in the Italian Embassy, at Farmleigh House and Estate in Phoenix Park (which became the official Irish State Guest House for foreign dignitaries), among many other projects.

I met my wife, Katherine, in 2001, a few days after 9/11. Katherine had soured at her office job in Dublin and felt she needed a change. My dad had recently died in Spain and although I hadn’t seen him for years, it affected me deeply. In these circumstances, Katherine and I left Ireland in 2003 to travel. We motorcycled around Sri Lanka, backpacked through Mexico, got married in Belize. We ended up in Canada, where we tried our hands at novel pursuits. Katherine completed training as a car and motorcycle mechanic and even worked for a short time in this capacity, while I did a massage therapy course, vaguely thinking I might become a Registered Massage Therapist specializing in sports injuries.

But we didn’t continue those things. Back home, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. We moved home so I could offer her whatever support I could. For several years, my mum was in and out of hospital while I took care of her at home and looked after her house and dogs when she was in hospital. When she died in 2005, I found myself taking stock of my life in a way I’d never done before. I enrolled in a 1-year counselling course and a bridging course to an MA program in psychology at University College Cork (UCC). My plan was to complete the MA and become a psychotherapist. Studying Freud, Jung, Adler, and all the rest, however, drove me crazy. They seemed like cult leaders with mindlessly loyal clinical adherents. My prior philosophical training and my interest in the philosophy of mind made me critical of these theories and their incompatibility with one another. On the day my application was due for the psychology MA program, I biked across campus to the philosophy department where I knocked on Professor Des Clarke’s door. He received me and I described my situation, making it clear that instead of psychology I wanted to do an MA in philosophy. He was supportive but noted I only had until 5pm that day to submit my application. Down to reception we went for an application form, which Professor Clarke helped me to fill out. I submitted my other materials the following week.

The rest, as they say, is history. I completed my MA with first-class honors. While preparing applications for PhD programs in North America, which I’d been advised to do, I worked as a full-time tutor in philosophy and politics at UCC, making just enough to get by on. I made all kinds of silly mistakes in my applications to the PhD programs, since I was naïve and coming from so far outside of academia that I had limited ways of knowing even how to go about preparing such applications. Nevertheless, I was fortunate enough to get full funding for a PhD program at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. A new chapter had opened in my life.

Two years later, I was at that conference—my first Pacific APA, in California—where a senior philosopher scoffed at the idea of anyone’s ever having worked outside academia.

Why had I been so anxious when he asked me whether I’d ever worked at a non-academic job? It was partly because, by contrast with him, that’s pretty much all I’d ever done. This contrast freaked me out, and I stupidly tried to mould myself into a one-dimensional creature when in fact I was multi-dimensional. I did so to fit in. I stuffed parts of myself out of sight in trying to navigate this new world. I felt a pressure to suppress or disguise aspects of myself or my past that didn’t cohere with what I thought was the traditional image of a philosopher (an old dude with a pipe?). I’m sure some of this pressure came from my own insecurities. But not all of it. Many budding philosophers who don’t fit such traditional images know these pressures far more intimately than I did and are impacted by them in worse ways than I was. But socio-economic or cultural background and non-standard life or work experiences also function like that. It’s a shame. Philosophy should be—and hopefully is becoming—much more welcoming to people of different backgrounds. Such backgrounds should be acknowledged and valued so that even one’s own insecurities don’t pressure one to “fit in.”

Thankfully, I don’t worry about all that now. I’ve published and taught enough to know I can do the job—which is what it is: a job. I don’t hide or stuff parts of myself away now. Or at least not as much as I did. I try to integrate them with being a philosopher.

I also think philosophy as a profession makes a mistake by failing to benefit from philosophers who have varied backgrounds. Especially in teaching, I find I’m often more able than some colleagues I’ve worked with to understand where students are coming from. At York in particular, the student population is extremely diverse not only culturally and ethnically but also in terms of life circumstances and work experiences. Many students work at part- or full-time jobs, or care for family members, or have children, or are themselves first-time university students in what may well seem to them an alien world, with professors who appear alien. I hope that my own experiences make me a little less alien, a little less intimidating and weird. At bottom, I want my students to see me first as a person, not completely unlike themselves in more ways than they might imagine, though clearly I’m different in other ways too. I believe my varied experiences have helped me to facilitate this sort of connection. I rarely mention my past experiences. But sometimes I do talk about them, whenever it seems appropriate or helpful. And, in any case, I always try to have who I actually am, all the parts of myself that I stored away in drawers for too long, inform my interactions with students.

No one needs a particular background to do well at university or even to become a professional philosopher, despite what all the messaging, implicit or explicit, suggests.

And it’s not over for me yet either. I’m still becoming new people. Right now, I’m completing my Divemaster training to become a professional SCUBA diver (diving has long been a pastime of mine). I also plan to do qualifications in technical diving and to get my offshore skipper’s license so I can retire somewhere warm, lead dives, and work my own boat taking people out on diving trips. In Ontario, I frequently dive shipwrecks in the cold waters of Lake Huron, up in Tobermory, and my favorite skipper there is Captain Rich, a retired Professor of Marine Biology and an avid diver. That’s who he is now: a diving skipper. And recently, while waiting to board a flight to Ireland, I overheard a man discussing career paths with another passenger standing in line. He described how he himself had been a professor of history for many years, had gotten tenure, but had later left the profession to work as an editor of a newspaper and later still for an NGO focusing on climate change. As he listed still further career changes he had made before he retired, I thought, “Yes, that’s the sort of person to be.”

Maybe I won’t do any of the things I imagine. But I hope someday I can say, “I used to be a professional philosopher,” and be doing something else. Of course, in a sense I’ll always be a philosopher. But it’s not all I am or can be. It’s certainly not all I’ve been or have worked at. Though I’m deeply grateful and humbled to currently be a philosopher.

There should be no “unconventional” route into or out of professional philosophy. You’ll need a PhD to get in. You’ll have to be able to write, publish, and teach. You’ll need a dose of luck. But that’s all. In my case, as I’m sure in others, it’s not as if much of what I did before led obviously to philosophy. I had an undergraduate degree and I taught English for a while. But there was no obvious progression from one thing to another leading clearly to professional philosophy. That’s okay.

And if you do snag a job, be grateful and do it if it gives you joy. Don’t be a fly-by-night. It’s a serious thing. Stick with it and do your best. Nonetheless, you don’t need to be the next upcoming star. You only have to be good enough. There’s no need to think otherwise (though good luck if you aim higher—that’s fine too). Being a philosopher needn’t (and perhaps shouldn’t) define you, certainly not forever. If your life takes a twist where you really think you’d be happier doing something else, do that. Be unapologetic. Step into that new life purposefully and with a buoyant heart. It’s your life.

Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More