I would like to continue my new series responding to readers' suggestions for "Topics for the New Year", by dedicating this post to Matt Dewar's request for advice for undergrads. Given that it has been..ahem...a while since I've been an undergrad, I am not sure I'm the best person to offer advice. Accordingly, I'll just offer a few thoughts I have and then offer up the issue to community discussion. Hopefully, some of you are better placed to offer good advice than I!
In any case, here are a few things that occurred to me (if people disagree, please do chime in):
- Undergrads looking to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy should not underestimate the importance of the GRE: I learned in grad school (in both of the programs I was in) that GRE scores are incredibly important. Grad programs -- particularly PhD programs -- are invested in their students' success. As such, they want to admit students they think are likely to succeed, and not just succeed mildly, but really do well. In part because likelihood of success is hard to quantify -- and undergraduate grades and rec-letters are often quite inflated -- programs place a great deal of weight on the only "objective" measure they have of a candidate's overall intellectual abilities: the GRE. Although some of you might object to the GRE carrying such weight, it is, in my experience, a fact of life that it does carry such weight. You need excellent GRE scores -- not just good ones, but excellent ones -- if you want to get into a top program (there's an online website, GradCafe, where people report their GRE results and acceptance/rejection/wait-list stats -- and the GRE scores for people getting into top philosophy programs are super high). As an aside, I would not let this discourage you; if anything, it should push you to prepare hard for the GRE (and you can improve markedly: my wife for instance [who is not a philosopher], improved her score several hundred points in a few months of studying).
- Undergrads wanting to go to grad school should know the "lay of the land" in professional philosophy: although I hate to admit it, when I applied to PhD programs (right out of undergrad), I simply had no idea what was going on in the discipline. I'll never forget: when I was flown out to a couple of programs for their "visiting weekends" and told people that I was super into Wittgenstein (and Heidegger, and Husserl), more than a few people gave me sideways glances and said things that implied, "Well, you can forget about that if you come here." The idea that Wittgenstein and Heidegger weren't considered super-awesome to work on came as a complete surprise to me because, well, they were two of the figures I studied as an undergraduate, and I just assumed the people I was being taught as an undergrad were, well, considered super-awesome by everyone. Silly, silly me! As naive as I was, I had no idea I was so naive. As an undergraduate, I thought it was only natural to assume that I was being educated in mainstream stuff. Big mistake. Now, don't get me wrong: I don't mean to suggest that one should -- as an undergrad or otherwise -- care for "what everyone else cares for", or that Wittgenstein or Heidegger aren't worth doing work on. Far from it, I still hold Wittgenstein and Heidegger in very high estimation, and some other famous mainstream philosophers in far less esteem than (or so it seems to me) many, if not most, of my colleagues in the discipline. At the end of the day, I think one can (and should) make up one own darn mind about what one is interested in (though of course I also think it is worth taking seriously what others think, and why they think it). My point is not that, as an undergrad, you should look at what philosophers in Leiter-Awesome departments are working on and decide you should work on that. No -- my suggestion is simply that you should be aware of what's going on the discipline, so that when you think about where to go to grad school (if that's your aim), you have some idea of what is considered mainstream, what's not, etc.
- Undergrads should know exactly what they are getting into: I know many professional philosophers who actively discourage their students from going to graduate school in philosophy. Although I get why some do this, I have explained before why I don't do this. Long story short, I just don't think it is my place to decide for another adult human being which risks they take with their lives; I do think it is my place to put them in a position to make an educated decision. To this end, I always make it a point to tell my students -- as frankly and scarily as possible -- that going to graduate school in philosophy (and seeking a PhD in particular) is very, very risky. Here, in brief, is what you need to know: (1) A good proportion of students who enter into PhD programs (even in top places) never make it through. Yes, that's right, a good proportion of students who enter into philosophy PhD programs spend something like 7-10 years of their lives working toward a degree, making $10-15K a year as a teaching assistant, only to never receive the degree (see here for a program-by-program report on graduation/attrition rates); (2) No, you cannot reasonably expect yourself to not fall into the proportion that never finishes: I cannot emphasize this enough. Many of the people who never make it through the PhD are some of the smartest, most diligent people you will ever meet. I say this from experience. Everyone who enters into a good PhD program is you (viz. they all have your grades, your GRE score, etc.). And, just like you, they all think they will not only finish, but of course finish in 5 years. Despite this, 25%+ of people just like you never finish. Because of this, you should not enter into grad school with any allusions: you may well be one of those who never finish. You should only go to grad school if you are very, very sure you want to risk this; (3) Even if you finish your PhD, there is a very significant chance you will never get a full-time, tenure track position: you would think that if you got the PhD, you would have a job just waiting for you, right? Wrong. Full-time, tenure-track professor jobs are incredibly difficult to get, and some people never get them. Scared yet? You should be. You need to know that graduate school in philosophy is an incredible risk, one that very well might not work out in your favor. Again, this isn't to say that you shouldn't do it. I love what I do, and am happy with the decision I made to do this with my life. But, truth be told, my own journey has often been very touch and go, and there were many, many times whether I seriously doubted whether grad school was a good move. Whatever decision you make, these are things that I think you should know.
- Learn to love philosophy for its own sake: I've written about this before, but I can't emphasize it enough. Philosophy (and grad school) have become so competitive and ultra-professionalized that, sometimes, it can all feel more like a competition than an inquiry into things that really matter. There are not only a lot of forces -- competitive people, competitive programs, etc. -- that serve to reinforce this. It's also easy enough to fall into competitive thinking oneself. Try not to. In my experience, it is a recipe for anxiety, bitterness, and "falling out of love with philosophy." It took me a number of years, but it was really only when I put this kind of stuff out of my mind and pursued the craft for its own sake -- doing philosophy because I loved it, competition be damned! -- that I really felt like I started flourishing and enjoying philosophy as the important, personal, and enjoyable intellectual journey I always thought, deep down, that it should be.
Anyway, these are just some of my thoughts. Anyone disagree? Anyone have better ones?