I've been meaning to write a post on this recent discussion over at Leiter's blog on "how to dissuade students from pursuing graduate studies in philosophy." Although, again, the issue was amply discussed over there, I thought it might be good to have a friendly discussion of it over here.
I have come across a surprising number of people who seem to think it is appropriate to dissuade some (or even all) students from pursuing graduate work in philosophy. Indeed, I've had many people come right out and tell me they have a standing practice of doing so. I say this is surprising because, well, I'm just not convinced it is ever a good thing to do.
I do think it is right and good to be honest and frank with students about the (considerable) hazards of pursuing graduate studies in philosophy. Life in academia is not for everyone, jobs are tough to come by, some people fail out of graduate school and regret ever having attended, etc. And, of course, there are obvious reasons not to go into debt to pursue graduate studies in philosophy. Telling students these kinds of things frankly and honestly, however, is very different from actively and intentionally dissuading them from going -- and I am not sure that dissuading people from pursuing graduate studies in philosophy is ever right or good. Allow me to briefly explain why.
In my experience, more or less two arguments are given for dissuading students from graduate school. I'll call these:
- The unlikely-to-succeed/waste-of-time argument: the student in question is judged to be "not cut out" for academic philosophy, and therefore, judged to be appropriately discouraged from graduate studies in philosophy so as to "not waste their time" doing something they are no good at.
- The hazards-of-going-into-academic-philosophy argument: because academic jobs in philosophy are so scarce, one judges the student is likely to regret pursuing graduate studies in philosophy (viz. no tenure-track job, debt, time-wasted, etc.), and therefore, appopriate to discourage.
Of course, sometimes these arguments are held in tandem (viz. this student should be discouraged because they are (a) "not cut out for it" and (b) academic jobs are scarce). But, is either argument any good?
I balk at the "waste of time argument" because -- like others in the Leiter thread -- I balk at the idea that we are appropriate judges of any particular student's promise. As Doug Portmore explains over there in discussing his own life, he was a rather lost, irresponsible undergraduate, and yet he has gone onto a successful career in philosophy. The simple fact is, people can grow. They can go from being clueless, distracted, somewhat dim undergraduates to bright, motivated graduate students. I've seen it happen in many cases myself.
This brings me to what I take to be a rather unfortunate general feature of our discipline: namely, that is a certain tendency (among some) to categorize a person's "promise" as though it is a kind of immutable feature. In my experience, although many people quite naturally engage in these kinds of judgments, there are just too many counterexamples to consider such judgments very reliable. I've seen too many "unpromising" people -- undergraduates and graduate students like -- turn into promising people after a time, and too many "promising" people wash out, to think that judgments of "promise" are very accurate.
By my lights, the "hazards of going into academic philosophy" is a more worrisome argument. Given that I am one of the many who struggle a significant amount in graduate school, I think I appreciate the hazards -- and risks -- of graduate school more than most. The hazards are real, and serious. Graduate studies in philosophy are not a career move to be entered into lightly, or without serious reflection on the risks. That being said, I am unpursuaded that it is our place (as faculty) to dissuade students on the basis of our judgment of hazards involved. Risks abound in life, after all -- and there are risks in choosing "safe" career choice as well. I've personally known too many people who are unhappy with their "normal" jobs to feel at all confident that going into philosophy, for all its risks, is a "worse deal" than going into some other safer line of work.
Finally, of course, all of these concerns -- concerns about the risks of going into philosophy -- can be effectively conveyed without actively dissuading people, letting them make their own choices without untoward discouragement by us. For instance, I tell my students who are interested in pursuing philosophy quite frankly about my own struggles, and about the fact that some people I know spent over a decade in graduate school without ever finishing. Again, this is soberig stuff, and it may well dissuade some people from taking the risk. Still, at the end of the day, I want to say it should be their choice. Their lives are theirs. We can, and should, make the considerable hazards of graduate studies in philosophy clear -- but we should go no further.
Or so say I. What say you, my fellow cocooners?