This post is intended as a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of applying to PhD programs in philosophy, as a source of comfort for grad students who are having trouble finding their way, and perhaps a source of insight for faculty in PhD-granting departments (to help students find their way). I am simply going to tell the story of my experiences -- including second-hand experiences of other students' paths through grad school -- and some of the lessons I've drawn.
First things first. In my experience, almost everyone enter PhD programs in philosophy with dramatically unrealistic expectations of how things will go. Everyone is confident they will finish in five years. Almost no one actually does. It is far more common to take 7-10 years, and there is a real chance you will not finish at all. I'll begin with my own case.
I declared my undergraduate major in philosophy at Tufts University during my very first semester there. I actually had no prior intention of majoring in philosophy, but as a matter of pure luck I got enrolled in an Honors section of an intro-to-philosophy class taught by none other than Dan Dennett. Dan was a fantastic teacher and mentor, and he had me transfixed with philosophy from day 1. We worked our way through Descartes, Hume, Wittgenstein and a few others, and I remember very clearly sitting in my room working through drafts and redrafts of papers while most of my friends were partying. Anyway, a few years later, I had gotten "A"s in all of my undergrad classes, wrote an undergrad thesis on conciousness, and graduated...with every intention of getting my PhD. I had a good work ethic and thought I was pretty smart (though by no means "the smartest person in the room"). I thought getting into and through grad school would be a breeze. I was fairly certain, at least, that it would be a roughly linear experience -- with me moving incrementally but steadily toward my degree -- and that I would finish in five years or so. Oh how wrong was I.
I began my graduate career in Syracuse's PhD program (at the time when John Hawthorne, Ted Sider, Dean Zimmerman, Brian Weatherson, and Bill Alston were all there). I had expected to get into a more highly ranked program, but for whatever reason I didn't (perhaps it was my GREs, which I didn't bomb but didn't ace; perhaps it was that my undergrad papers weren't that great; I don't know). In any case, Syracuse was a dream. I developed great friendships with other grad students that I still maintain to this day, I received A's in all of my classes, and had the impossibly good luck of having my very first course be a seminar on vagueness co-taught by Hawthorne and the mercurial Jose Benardete (who is without a doubt the funniest individual I have ever met or seen, and whose book on infinity is ridiculously awesome). I was a budding little metaphysician, epistemologist, and philosopher of language writing on everything from epistemic contextualism to modality.
Half-way through my second year at Syracuse, Rutgers hired Hawthorne, Sider, and Zimmerman away. I immediately decided to transfer. There were only two well-ranked programs whose application deadlines hadn't passed: MIT and Arizona. I got into Arizona.
Things were a disaster for me almost from the first moment I stepped (well, drove) into Arizona. As easily as things had fallen into place for me at Syracuse, nothing fell into place at Arizona. I can't emphasize enough that my problems really had nothing to do with the department itself. It was a great, supportive place (and still is, or so I hear). Alas, I had just ended a 5-year relationship, and I didn't connect very well with the other first-year students in my cohort. I also felt out of place philosophically. There weren't many metaphysicians at Arizona, and the few there were worked in completely different areas than had experience with or interest in. So, I started my courses, but was rather distracted by personal problems and classes that, for some reason or other (probably mostly my personal issues), didn't engage my imagination in the same way that philosophy had always previously done.
Anyway, I just didn't kick butt my first couple of years at Arizona like I had as an undergrad or at Syracuse. I didn't bomb, but I wasn't great. And everyone knew it. Of course, I started to lose confidence in myself. I also made a few stupid mistakes, the worst of which was probably calling one of my profs' arguments "disingenuous" in one of my papers for her class, which did not exactly endear me to her. I still can't believe I did that. In order to escape a bit from the stress, I started playing in a rock-and-roll band -- and, while I passed my comp exams, I was playing a little too much rock music and doing far too little dissertation-preparing. I was floundering. Because I was floundering, I started getting a bit bitter. Why weren't my profs helping me and other grad students more, I thought? How in the world was I supposed to come up with a diss topic? More rock-n-roll and more floundering ensued. After about two years of wondering what the heck I was doing, I came up with a topic I thought was good -- and my committee canceled my prospectus the night before. I cried a great deal.
Despite the fact that I hadn't done much to earn it (besides, or so he later told me, a great paper I'd written for one of his classes a few years before), my dissertation supervisor still found it in his heart to support me. I am still grateful for this more than words can say. Another prof, Mark Timmons, took me aside and told me to just read. I did. I read stuff in areas I had little experience with at all. I had been focusing in Ethics (no, not metaphysics -- I had already given that up!). But instead of reading ethics, I picked up Rawls' A Theory of Justice, Political Liberalism, and The Law of Peoples, and found...a real topic. Rawls, I discovered, had written almost entirely on "ideal theory" (i.e. theorizing about fully just conditions). I had the idea of applying his original position to nonideal theory (i.e. the real world). My dissertation -- "A Nonideal Theory of Justice" -- was born. Well, after about another six months more of thinking. I stopped playing rock-n-roll. I dissertated. It was hard. The end result wasn't great. I think I barely passed my defense. From what I could hear during the half-hour I waited outside of the room in which my committee deliberated, someone had to fight for me. They might have been wrong. In retrospect, I don't think the diss was quite ready. The fact that I've written well upwards of sixty full drafts of my dissertation's foundational chapter, had it rejected by a dozen journals (with one very close call, and lots of positive reviews :/), and am still sending it out, attests to that. Whatever, I still believe in it...and, in any case, in December 2008 -- nine years after I began graduate school, and in reality coming very close to washing out -- I received my PhD.
What did I learn from all of this? Many things. I will only mention a few here.
First, I learned that I am by no means an aberration. Almost all of the people I went to grad school with (both at Syracuse and Arizona) believed they would finish in 5 years. Almost all of them took between 7-10 years. A few of them, sadly, never made it. I think about them quite a bit. So, first lesson for would-be philosophy grad-schoolers: if you intend to go to grad school, no matter how smart you are or how good of a work ethic you have, you will almost certainly not graduate in five years, and you may not finish at all. Everyone I started with was smart and had a good work ethics. Smarts and good work ethics can get side-tracked by failed relationships, rock bands, losing one's confidence, and a thousand other things. I found out the hard way.
Second -- and this is the part actual grad students and grad departments probably don't want to hear -- I am grateful for my floundering. For although grad students like to finish fast and grad departments (in part due to funding issues) want to get grad students out the door, I am by no means alone in believing (in spite of and because of my experiences) that floundering can be crucial for one's development. Here's how I think about it. Had I actually "been on time" through grad school, I probably would have had a servicable dissertation topic. But...I think I would have been deprived of two crucial things. (1): I would have been deprived of an incredible amount of adversity. Yes, I do believe adversity is good. If you think grad school is hard, you have no idea how hard it is to be a professor. Imagine from going from having to write a dissertation to feeling that you must publish several papers a year while teaching 2-4 classes a semester with hundreds of students and advisees. Grad school still sound like hell? Trust me, I've been both places. Being a prof is harder...way harder. (2) My difficulties publishing my diss work aside (I've published several non-diss things), I truly believe that floundering leads to better diss topics. I believe in my topic. I might have found a servicable topic had I finished in five years, but I think I found a great one. Whether or not I ever make good on its promise is, of course, another story. :/ Anyway, that's the second lesson (the second lesson I learned, at any rate). Struggling -- almost failing -- really does suck...but I do believe I'm the better for it. And I do believe that departments should support the floundering, not push them out or marginalize them. My department (Arizona) did support the floundering, and I have them to thank for my life. I have also seen many other floundering students turn things around and have spectucular careers. Other departments, evidently, are not as supportive. If you are looking to apply to grad school, I advise you to choose a department that supports the floundering, not one that weeds them out.
Okay, I'm tired telling stories...I hope some of you found them helpful. I truly know how hard it is, and I hope this post will find, and speak to, at least one person who thinks they can't make it through. I also hope it will knock some sense into undergrads looking to try for a PhD. But of course it probably won't. Wisdom is wasted on the old.