There's a discussion going on right now over at the Smoker on whether we should discourage students from pursuing a career in philosophy, and I couldn't help but get curious about what you, my fellow Cocooners, think about it and deal with the issue in practice. It is, I think, an important issue to discuss thoughtfully.
I'd like to share some of my thoughts, beginning with some personal history (I'll explain why I've chosen to share so much shortly). I was a Philosophy/Psychology double major at Tufts University in the 1990's. My undergraduate advisor, Dan Dennett, despite being quite complimentary about my philosophical abilities, nevertheless gave me "the talk" when I approached him about graduate school. He told me in no uncertain terms that I should not seek a PhD in philosophy -- not because I couldn't cut it, but because of the job market. There are, he said, just way too many PhDs and not enough jobs.
Of course I paid no heed to Dan's words. I knew I wanted to be a philosopher, so grad school it was. And at first I loved grad school. I did well, and loved the work. Then, however, like (too) many grad students, I struggled. Indeed, for a few years, I grew to hate my career choice. Somehow, though -- thanks in large part to some supportive people and some great advice -- things turned out okay. While I still don't have a tenure-track job -- and so, like many people, face a great deal of residual uncertainty -- I at least made it through grad school, learned to love philosophy again, and wake up every day thankful that I get to do this for a living.
I've chosen to tell my personal story for a few reasons: each individual life is its own sort of thing. Each person has their own strengths and weaknesses, their own values, their own life to live. And many different careers are incredibly risky. My elder brother, for example, has been in the music business for over two decades now -- a business in which I have had some experience as well, and which is at least as risky (in terms of career prospects) as ours. I know there have been many days he has hated the choices he has made. And again, there have been many days that I have hated mine. Further, if I had failed out of graduate school, I might have become bitter. Then again, I might not have. I might have also grown to hate life if I had chosen a more "normal" career. Then again, maybe not. I just don't think there's any way to know any of this stuff beforehand.
Because of this -- because of the great uncertainties attached to everything in life (heck, a "normal" career can be stable but absolutely soul-crushing) -- I don't think it's my place to tell students, "Don't go to grad school in philosophy." Yes, it can be a very hard road (it has been for me). Yes, it can be a disastrous road. But it can also be a wonderful road. Such is life. Here's what I think I do know, and so it's what I tell my students,
"You have to know what you're getting into. Some PhD programs promise applicants they will finish in 5 years. Don't believe it. Everyone thinks they will finish in five years. Almost no one does. A few people -- very few people -- finish in 5-6 years. Some people never finish. Some people take ten years to finish. Then, for those who do finish, some get jobs, some don't. And you can't know which of these people you'll be heading in to graduate school. Everyone thinks they'll be one of those who coast through and be a professor by age 30. But almost no one gets that result, and it's basically impossible to predict which grad students will do well from those who won't. Just about every grad student admitted to any program worth its salt is about as super-smart and hard-working as you are. You know why some people don't make it? Sometimes crap just happens to them: unexpected personal problems (failed relationships, failed marriages), unexpected health problems, loss of confidence -- there are just too many variables to count. Here, then, is the crux of it: if you love philosophy; if you're willing to risk all of this, then go for it. Make no mistake: you may hate it someday, and you may hate yourself. But you may also wake up every day loving the fact that you get to do philosophy for a living. There's really no way of knowing in advance which will be the case. These are the risks. Know them. Do not fool yourself in thinking that you will be a magical exception to them. The choice is yours."