Justin at Daily Nous posted a question today from an undergrad at a crossroads:
I am a philosophy student in my last year of undergrad studies in need of some advice. I am about to apply to graduate studies in philosophy but not sure what I should choose to focus and research on...I’m caught at a crossroads. Should I go for what I find most amusing now (the metaphysics-y stuff) and risk ending up as a philosopher whose work none except my students and colleagues are interested it or can appreciate; or should I follow the more practical philosophy route and aim to have a broader impact and take up more current issues...?
I found some of the comments that followed interesting--including some that sit very well with my own experience--but I also found a few comments distressing. Here's a distressing one (AnotherGradstudent 10:20am):
If you want to feel like what you do has either immediate or lasting consequence, and if you are young enough to have a good shot at something else, leave philosophy.
There are many reasons to not pursue a graduate degree in philosophy (foremost among them, the awful academic job-market). But, or so I think, AnotherGradstudent's advice is not among them. There are not many jobs in this world that have an immediate or lasting impact on people's lives. Philosophy is one that does. First, it can deeply enrich your own life (I wake up every morning loving what I do, and feel like philosophy has helped me better understand myself and the world I live in). Second, and perhaps more to the point--as another commenter points out--it can make both an immediate and lasting impact on students (indeed, thousands of them over the course of an academic career). Teaching philosophy can get students to challenge their own preconceptions about the world, and--all too often--it can inspire them. Great philosophy teachers changed my life, and I've heard many students say that studying philosophy inspired and changed theirs too (for the better!).
I love research. I really do. I love writing about philosophy. And I recognize that what I write is unlikely to have an explicit, lasting impact with philosophers or public debate. However, this doesn't prevent it from being rewarding, or even from making a lasting impact in much more subtle ways. For, if one merges teaching and research, as many of us do--if, that is, the things you teach in the classroom engage with your research--then your research can make an immediate and lasting impact...by influencing how your students think about philosophical issues in their own lives, both now and in the future.
Let me now turn, finally, to some other comments in the Daily Nous thread that I think warrant emphasis:
"Your interests will change over the course of your time in grad school. Let me repeat that, because it’s important: your interests will change." - by Midwestern Grad Student
"Without wanting to dismiss the importance of asking and struggling with this question, let me suggest that you not place too much weight on trying to predict your future." - by Lauren Swayne Barthold
I'm a perfect example. As an undergraduate at Tufts, I was obsessed with philosophy of mind, specifically consciousness. I was "sure" I wanted to work on consciousness as a grad student. Then I went to a grad program (Syracuse) that just happened to have a bunch of (then-)up-and-coming metaphysicians, and...what do you know, I wanted to focus on metaphysics! Except that when I transferred to the University of Arizona, I took some amazing courses in moral and political philosophy...and my interests changed yet again, and I ended up writing my dissertation in political philosophy.
Long story short: one's philosophical interests can change immensely throughout one's career as a student (and professional!). One needn't decide which area of philosophy one wants to focus on before going to grad school. On the contrary, deciding preemptively can be a bad idea. For example, what if you enroll in a metaphysics-heavy PhD program, only to find out halfway through that moral philosophy is your passion? What then? If you enrolled in a program with few moral philosophers, you may be out of luck! As in most areas of life, it can be good to keep your options open.