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Jason Chen

This was a very interesting post. In my view, it's extremely important to pursue your passion. In fact, I think a full human life requires it. I treat self-actualization (which is the term I use to describe passionate self-development) similar to how I treat love; it's just part of a flourishing human life. Accordingly, a life without it is simply less rich and more empty. That said, there are certainly other things to consider, such as financial stability. So if it is true that philosophy graduates will have a hard time finding a job, it's something that has to be dealt with. But given the importance of self-actualization, I think the risk is worth it, for me at least.

Rob Gressis

I usually tell my students to apply to a master's program in philosophy. If you go into a master's program, you'll have two years to figure out whether you like philosophy at a more advanced level. Moreover, you'll have some indication about whether you're cut out for graduate work (and beyond) in philosophy.

Marcus Arvan

Rob and Jason: Thanks for your comments. Here are some of my thoughts in reply.

Rob: I think it may be good to recommend a Masters first for those who aren't *sure* they want to do philosophy at a higher level, or who are not sure they can even do Masters level work.. I'm skeptical, however, that this recommendation serves any real purpose for those who *are* sure about wanting to do philosophy at a higher level and are justifiably confident about their ability to do Masters level work. Allow me to explain why. Most of the people I've run into who have serious problems finishing a PhD had *no* trouble doing Masters level work. Their problems almost always arise much later on: namely, completing the dissertation. I simply think there is *no* way to know going into a PhD program whether one will be able to navigate this stage -- the stage where most people wash out -- successfully. My own experience is that *nothing* (and certainly not Masters level work) prepares a person for what it takes to write a passable PhD dissertation. Accordingly, I think entering a PhD program necessitates a kind of "leap of faith." One cannot reasonably expect going in -- on the basis of anything one has done before -- that one will have what it takes to finish.

Jason: I appreciate your comment very much, as I place a great deal of value on something like "self-actualization" myself. Be that as it may, I don't think one can really know before things play themselves out whether "it is all worth it" in the end. This is part of what I try to emphasize to my students. One *cannot* know if it'll be worth it. Let me use our two own cases -- yours and mine -- to illustrate why I think this. You're a Masters' student, right? When I was in your position, I was quite sure pursuing higher education in philosophy was "worth it". I had a fantastic first few years in graduate school. But then, pretty much out of the blue, things went seriously downhill for a period of a few years. Personal issues interfered with my performance as a grad student, and I was "stuck" at the dissertation levels. Had I washed out of grad school at that point, I'm pretty sure
-- self-actualization and all -- that I *wouldn't* have considered it "all worth it." I think I would have considered graduate school a collosal waste of my life...and I don't think my long-term prospects of self-actualization would have been very good (I probably would have had to take up a job I hate for the rest of my adult life). At the end of the, I was *fortunate* to make it through an so think, as I now do, that it was "worth it." And things could still change. I might never get a tenure track job, or I could get denied tenure. In either of those cases, would I think it is "all worth it." Again, I'm not too sure. And because of this I don't think it's reasonable to into a PhD with any expectation that it will be worth it. One has to recognize that, fundamentally, one is taking an enormous risk...that pursuing a PhD in philosophy may *not* be worth it, and that one must deal with it of that's the way things shake out. I know this probably sounds depressing, but whatever, I sincerely think it is the truth. ;)


I'm a long time reader, first time caller. I really enjoy the blog!

Your advice to your students seems honest and reasonable to me. I've been thinking about the importance of loving philosophy in deciding about grad school. At least in my experience, a PhD program in philosophy functions like a pre-professional program; the implicit and sometimes explicit ethos is that everything you do is ultimately measured by its ability to improve your chances on the job market. You should use your coursework to ultimately get publishable papers and collect an impressive variety of AOS's and AOC's. Your dissertation needs to get you at least a couple publishable papers or a book. Make sure to network with people outside the department, because outside letters are valuable on the market. Don't worry too much about teaching; it typically won't really hurt or help you much on the market.

It's sometimes hard to square this with the idea that you should go to grad school if you really love philosophy. The naïve undergrad might say that she wants to go to grad school, because she wants to keep doing philosophy and doesn't care if it results in a job or not. But once you've spent a few years in grad school, it feels really hard to walk away. You've been sucked in by the professionalist ethos of the program, and you feel at the very minimum uncomfortable walking away from it empty handed. My thought is that some people go into graduate school, because they love philosophy, but graduate school is about finding employment as a philosopher, and when you spend some time in it, there can be a tendency to view yourself not primarily as a lover of philosophy but rather as someone striving for an elusive tenure-track job in philosophy.

I was also struck by this comment:

"Had I washed out of grad school at that point, I'm pretty sure-- self-actualization and all -- that I *wouldn't* have considered it "all worth it." I think I would have considered graduate school a colossal waste of my life...and I don't think my long-term prospects of self-actualization would have been very good (I probably would have had to take up a job I hate for the rest of my adult life)."

As someone in graduate school contemplating what to do afterward, I find myself unable to make a judgment like “If I leave professional philosophy, I probably will end up with a job I hate for the rest of my adult life.” I don't have that much experience in any other industries, and so I don't really know if the alternative is a job I hate. How did you come to this conclusion? For me, lack of knowledge and imagination would have made worthless advice like “Don't go to grad school unless you can't see yourself doing anything else beside philosophy.” I'm not even sure taking a year or two off after your undergrad can really give you the experience necessary to discern if professional philosophy is something necessary for your happiness.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Anongrad: I'm happy to hear you're a long time reader, and happier that you decided to comment! :)

I probably overstated things in that comment you quote. I actually think I've learned a lot of things in philosophy that have helped me live better and become a better person -- so, if I had washed out, I don't think I would regard it as a *complete* waste of time. Still, I wrote what I wrote out of the feeling that, at this point in life, I kind of know who I am. Besides my wife, my family, and my friends, there have really only been two things that I've loved in this life: philosophy and music. I did music professionally for a while and came to realize that it was not good for me (for a number of reasons). That leaves philosophy. I had jobs in high school and college, and worked in the mental health field for a year after college -- and I was pretty much miserable in every single one of them. Perhaps things would be different if I had to choose another career path. But, me being me, I doubt it. I know it sounds corny (or sad, depending on your tastes!), but (aside from my wife) philosophy is the love of my life. I can't see myself doing anything else.

Anyway, here are some other thoughts I had while reading your comment. I don't know if you read the posts I liked to in this one, but I have found the ethos you mention to be very counterproductive. I firmly believe that "the ethos" tends to demoralize many people. It certainly demoralized me. It made philosophy a *drag*. Just think about it schematically. If your focus in doing research is something like, "Can this get me closer to a job?", are you going to do work that *you* truly find exciting? Or, are you going to try to do work that *others* are likely to find exciting? Not that there's anything wrong with actually *doing* work that others find exciting. My claim is simply that *trying* to do work that others find exciting can really take the magic out of doing philosophy. It sure did for me. I only started doing work I truly find exciting when I explicitly set the ethos aside, and essentially said to myself, "To hell with it. I'm going to try doing whatever I think is interesting and let the cards fall where they may." Whether this works for me, of course, remains to be seen. ;)

Anyway, as for the following part of the ethos, "Don't worry too much about teaching; it typically won't really hurt or help you much on the market", I really think this is one of the worst parts of the ethos. While it certainly *is* a part of the ethos of research-oriented grad departments, there are a lot of good jobs out there that *are* teaching oriented.

Thanks again for your comment!

David Morrow

Thanks for drawing attention to that Smoker thread, Marcus.

Personally, I like the sports metaphor that some people invoked in the comments on the Smoker: Getting a PhD in philosophy is like playing football in college. It's a necessary step to doing philosophy/football professionally, but it is certainly not sufficient. Many people who go through the program will not secure a career as a philosopher/football player, partly because the system "produces" would-be professionals more quickly than it employs them. Everyone who goes through the system is incredibly talented and smart/athletic, so the fact that you were the best philosopher/football player your college/high school has produced in the last decade is not necessarily evidence that you'll excel at the next level. If you do land a job, you'll have to move to wherever your new employer is located. Furthermore, only some of those who initially land an initial job in philosophy/football will actually make a career out of it. And if you try to transition to a career outside of philosophy/football, you will struggle against the perception that you are over/undereducated; people will not appreciate the perseverance, discipline, and dedication that you have demonstrated.

Anthony Carreras

I'd just like to add that I think we have a duty to very strongly advise our students against taking offers from Ph.D. programs that do not come with a standard funding package. I've seen people take out loans to pay for their Ph.D., which I think is insane. (An exception to this rule might be if the student is independently extremely wealthy.)

Also - is it reasonable that it takes 7-9 years to get a Ph.D. in philosophy? Law school takes three years. Medical school takes four years. Why can't our model be more akin to those? Might students finish the degree more quickly if departments took a less-laissez faire and more hands-on approach to graduate education? (I do not ask these questions rhetorically.)


Contrary to the "only go if you can't imagine doing anything else" advice, I find that the most stable and happy people in grad school are those who aren't *in love* with philosophy, and are prepared to walk away if things don't work out. It's the people who *can't live* without doing philosophy who seem most susceptible to being squashed be the realities of the job market.


Great post. Long time reader, but this post has really resonated with me.

Anyway, in regard to Bob's suggestion of getting a MA, there is a danger of setting the students up for committing a sunk cost fallacy. When I was in my MA program, among my peers there was a tendency to think: well, given that I have sunk 2-3 years of my life into this philosophy thing, I should see it through. As a result, many applied for PhD programs (which already costly as well) for no reason other than "seeing it through."

Worse yet, MA programs often don't give out fundings, so students have to either (1) pay out of their pockets, or (2) incur debts. While (1) is bad, (2) is worse since it makes applying for PhD programs for the wrong reason even more attractive, as it is the most straight-forward way to defer one's student loans.

Jason Chen

Thanks for the response. I think we can all agree that we have to weigh the risks of pursuing one path over another. If you have another passion in life, then this makes it a lot easier. But for those who don't, like me, if I don't pursue my passion, I have zero chance of self-actualizing. Furthermore, there's no way I'm going to starve; that's just not going to happen. If I have to, I can get a job that will pay enough for me to live a decent life. And this I think is possible no matter which path I take. Given that, I would say pursuing a PhD is the right choice for me.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Jason: point very well-taken. That's why I went into philosophy too. It's one of the only things in life that seems to me to fit with my nature. Sure, people like you and I could do other things. But philosophy is a part of who we *are* (I believe this is true of me, at any rate). I was just trying to highlight the fact that I think it's hard to know if pursuing one's dreams -- or taking the risk that you may never be able to *successfully* self-actualize in the way one wants -- is "worth it" until after the fact.

Rob Gressis

Hi all,

WRT my Master's suggestion, I should have added one other point: I teach at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), a state school that, so far as I know, has never had a student go straight from CSUN to a top 10 program. (Indeed, so far as I know, no student has *ever* gone straight from any CSU or SUNY to a top 10 program.) So, my master's advice is directed to that population: if you want to get into a top ten program, go to a master's program first.

In addition, a lot of the students at CSUN already work while doing their undergraduate degrees, and a lot of them go to CSU, LA which, so far as I know, has a relatively inexpensive master's program.

Penultimately, I think it's worth their going to a master's program not so much because it prepares them to do a dissertation -- of course, it doesn't -- but rather to prepare them for the graduate student atmosphere: being surrounded by a lot of academically gifted students who are very excited about philosophy. Seeing whether you like that atmosphere -- which (I could be wrong) is substantially different from the atmosphere for undergraduate philosophy majors at a lot of programs across the nation -- is also important for determining whether you'll thrive in a Ph.D. program.

Finally, I also often advise my students to work in the private sector for a year or three before going to graduate school. I don't know that this is good advice, but I tell them that they should do this so that they can (1) see whether they actually like working in the private sector; (2) save up some money before they go back into academia so that they have something of a nest egg.

Marcus Arvan

Rob: I think it is very good advice to spend a couple of years in the private sector before pursuing a graduate degree. As someone who went this route myself and *hated* in the private sector, it very much helped me put to rest certain thoughts I had during graduate school (thoughts that I know other grad students entertain as well): namely, "how nice it would be to have a normal job". As we all know, the grass is always greener...except when you've seen it in person. ;) Seriously, though, I really think experience in the private sector helped me stick graduate school. If I'd truly thought a "normal job" is better than the risks of a career of academia, I might have left academia. But I didn't. Why? Because I knew from experience that I want no part of a "normal" job.

Mike D.

I am bascially at this delima in my life, and have been for the past 5 years. I went to undergraduate school and studied business because it was "safe" and because my company was paying for it, which was great. But, now I've been working for several years and I still fill unfulfilled and unaccomplished. I feel that I have something in me and would benefit from studying Philosophy more indepth than just a few classes in University. When I was 16 (or, 17) I read Plato's The Republic and have been completely inthralled with Philosophy ever since, however, I have not persued it seriously in academics. I read Philosophy books and have a pretty decent collection, however I feel that I need guidance in my writing, analysis and comprehension. I don't plan on being a Philosophy "professionally" I plan to write my own musings and compositions, but may eventually get back into the "business" world or even go into medicine. But, I think if I don't follow my "bliss" or my heart, I will always have a "what if" and feel like I failed for not even trying.

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