Although this is only my third year of graduate school, I've already noticed a pattern that emerges in the blogosphere during January and February. At this time of the year, online discussions of the same basic issues resurface: the competitiveness of the job market, the seemingly arbitrary nature of the selection process, the financial and emotional toils of applying for jobs, and the despair created by all of these factors. (I don't mean to imply that these issues are only discussed in January and February: these are just the months where the frequency of such discussions seems highest.) There are a lot of important questions that arise from these discussions, but I want to focus on just two. First, is there a one-size-fits-all formula for getting a tenure-track job in academic philosophy? Second, in light of the poor career prospects, how should we advise undergraduates about whether to pursue graduate study in philosophy? (Notably, Marcus offered some personal insight into the second question in a recent post.)
Based on the many anecdotes I have read in the blogosphere and heard from fellow philosophers in person, I think it's fairly clear that the answer to the first question is a resounding no. The process includes three stages. First, from a large applicant pool (of at least 100+), 8-12 people are identified to be interviewed (over the phone, via Skype, at the APA Eastern, etc.) based on their CVs, letters of reference, etc. Second, 3-4 people from this smaller pool are designated as finalists and get to visit the university's campus, meet with that university's philosophy faculty, give a research talk to the department (or teach a class, depending on the university), etc. Finally, an offer is made to one of the finalists. Given that different schools are looking for philosophers with different research interests, different personalities, different degrees of teaching experience, and so on, it's inevitable that the criteria for who makes the cut at which stage will vary substantially from school to school. Applicants are not likely to have much insight into what particular criteria a given school considers important beyond vague generalities (e.g., a teaching-oriented university will value your teaching experience more than a research oriented university), so it's pretty difficult to know what one's chances are of getting past each stage, even if (for instance) you feel good about how well you interviewed.
When you add to the picture above that there are far more people with PhDs in philosophy than there are academic jobs, it is unavoidable that many very qualified, very capable philosophers will be denied a tenure-track job. This fact is a source of great stress and despair for many people, and a general formula for how to build one's CV and structure one's career so as to optimize one's chances for a tenure-track job would seem desirable. The problem is that beyond fairly obvious generalities that everyone knows (e.g., it's good to publish an article in The Philosophical Review, it's good to present a paper at the APA, it's preferable to come from a highly ranked school on the Leiter Report), there's just not much more to say. And even here, there are exceptions - people from top programs who don't get interviews, people from lower ranked programs that snag excellent jobs, people with multiple publications that can't land a permanent position, and people with no publications out of graduate school who glide smoothly into tenure at a Reseach I university. Given the plethora of variables involved in what a particular school is looking for and who one is competing against in the applicant pool, I suspect the search for any one-size-fits-all formula for getting a job is a futile one.
So what does this mean? What should we tell our undergraduates who are contemplating graduate studies in philosophy? Surely we're obligated to be honest and forthcoming with them about their career prospects since a decision to attend graduate school and pursue a career as a philosophy professor could make a big difference in their future quality of life. Simultaneously, I can't help but think that Mr. Zero's outlook on graduate school in philosophy - "don't do it if you can think of anything else" (recently discussed here) - is too bleak. I suspect the best advice is an intermediary between overly optimistic (i.e., unrealistic) advice to pursue your ambitions and overly pessimistic pleas to avoid graduate school in philosophy at all costs. Eric Schwitzgebel already articulated this message several years in his opening entry in a series of 2007 blog posts about applying to graduate programs in philosophy, a resource I consulted when first pondering whether to apply to graduate school in philosophy. To quote him, "I advise students not to consider graduate school in philosophy unless (1.) they'd be happy teaching philosophy at a low prestige college and are willing to move almost anywhere in the country, and (2.) even if they never finished the degree they would have found the process of studying philosophy at the graduate level intrinsically worthwhile."
In trying to capture the heart of this idea, I once advised an undergraduate major to ask himself the following question: "If I pursued graduate school in philosophy and never finished the degree or never found a stable job after finishing the degree, would it have been worth it?" I encouraged him to study philosophy only if he could give an affirmative answer to this question.
I think the study of philosophy is too valuable for us to adamantly discourage undergraduates from pursuing it, but we need to make sure they understand that they should not pursue it for its career prospects. Anyone have differing opinions or additional insights regarding this matter?