The Cocoon's Long Journeys series and my post, "How can grad programs best prepare students for the long haul", gave rise to some animated and ongoing discussion about (a) whether we should discourage people from trying enter into the profession (i.e. discourage people from going to grad school in philosophy), (b) how long PhDs should stay on the market before giving up, (c) whether our Long Journeys series is wrongly encouraging people to stay on the market, and more broadly, (d) whether we should be encouraging people to stay on the market or give up.
As someone who received my BA all the way back in 1998, started grad school in 1999, received my Phd in 2008, and finally obtained a tenure track job in 2015 after 7 years on the market (and 16 years after starting graduate school), these issues resonate with me personally. There were many times--both during my struggles in grad school and my struggles as a Visiting Assistant Professor--when I regretted ever going into philosophy, and several times over the years I came very close to giving up (at one point, I looked very seriously into career opportunities outside of the academy). And of course, as recent discussions here and elsewhere indicate, I am far from alone.
With this bit of background, I'd like to offer up some thoughts on the four issues mentioned at the outset of this post.
With respect to (a), I think we should discourage people from entering into the profession, where by "discourage" I mean giving prospective grad students the fullest and most frank information we can about the profession. When my students come to me saying they are thinking of grad school, I not only give them the brutal data on the academic job market and info on the adjunctification of higher education; I also talk frankly about just how difficult--and tenuous--my own path was to becoming their professor. I was given such a talk by my undergraduate advisor, Dan Dennett, and although I didn't actually listen to him, I never felt "lied to" by the profession because, even though I was young and naive, I always felt like I knew what I was getting into. More importantly, I've seen such frank talk work. I've had a number of talented students express interest in going to grad school for philosophy--but once I showed them the job data and talked about my own experience, most of them changed their minds pretty much on the spot. They made an informed decision--a decision not to enter the profession, based on good information.
Let us now turn to issue (b)--that is, how long one should stay on the market before giving up. In the comments section of my recent post on how grad programs can best prepare their students for the long haul, "Lady Professor" writes, "If you haven't gotten a TT job, quit and do something else with your life! There is a whole world out there!" I think that blanket statements like this are unjustified, and that how long one should stay on the market is a deeply personal question, the rationality and morality of which are highly case-specific, depending on context. In my own case, I stayed on the market for seven years because (1) I was in a relatively stable, decently compensated temporary position (a VAP), (2) I kept doing "better" on the market year by year, getting more interviews and flyouts each year, (3) my staying on the market wasn't setting back my wife's career, and (4) my wife gave me her blessing and support each year (though we both did agree that it would be unfair to both of us for me to continue trying much longer). In short, my wife and I agreed that it made sense to not give up yet because I seemed to be getting closer to my goal, and we agreed (for the time being) that it was fair to us, and our relationship, to keep trying for a few years.
Other situations are different. If one's performance on the market doesn't improve (if your number of interviews and fly-outs is not on the upswing), if one is in a position of extreme financial hardship, if staying on the market is harming one's marriage or family, is unfair to one's spouse or children, etc., then of course it can make sense to give up. In short, I think whether one should give up really depends on one's situation, and that as long as one is honest with and fair to oneself and one's loved ones, the question of whether it is rational (and moral) to soldier on is a personal question.
Which brings me to issue (c): is our Long Journey's series wrongly encouraging people to stay on the market? Here again, Lady Professor advanced some strong views:
Giving students false hopes or strategies for success for a multi year search is irresponsible.
I don't think encouraging people to stay on the job market for multiple years is a kind or supportive recommendation. People in that situation need more encouragement to leave than to stay. Because it isn't going to have a happy ending for most. And there is plenty of interesting and important work that one can do outside the academy.
As I explained in that earlier post, I don't think we are encouraging people to stay on the market here at the Cocoon. Our Long Journeys series merely aims to provide a full, honest picture of the hazards and possibilities of remaining on the market--and, as we see in the following comment by "Ambivalent PhD" here, our series seems to have discouraged at least one person enough so as to plan better for a "Plan B":
Thank you so much for sharing - I'm going into the second year of my PhD and starting to consider working on back up plans after seeing the experiences of early career researchers around me.
More to the point, I think that in order to evaluate whether our series is wrongly encouraging people to stay on the market, we need to answer question (d): the question of whether we should be encouraging people to stay on the market or give up. I think this question warrants a nuanced answer. Indeed, there are really two issues here: (1) whether we should encourage/discourage people publicly, and (2) whether we should encourage/discourage people privately.
When it comes to public discussion, I think we owe people neither encouragement nor discouragement: we owe each other a full, open, frank discussion of the facts and issues, including the question of who should give up, when, and why (which is what posts like this one aim to do). The reason I don't think we should go further than this--the reason why I don't think we should encourage or discourage "people" (in the plural) is simple: each person, and each person's situation is different. Some people should probably give up--and the facts may lead them to give up or seek a Plan B. But other people--people who are doing better and better on the market by the year, whose families support them, etc.--do not deserve discouragement. Telling them publicly that "they should quit, because few stories turn out well", isn't kind or justified: it is diminishes them as a person, for again, these candidates may have good reasons to continue on. They mightn't be the usual case, but they are a relevant case.
Similarly, when it comes to private discussions of whether a person should quit, on the other hand, I think once again we should be sensitive to a person's situation. If you know a person who is in a low-paying temporary job, not getting many interviews, is miserable, and whose relationships are suffering, it may well make sense to have a frank talk with the person as a friend, telling them why, in your view, they are being unfair to themselves and/or others by not quitting. On the other hand, if you are engaging with a person whose performance has been improving on the market, who isn't "beaten down" yet, and who is managing to maintain good relationships and a physically and mentally healthy situation, then encouraging them to quit, once again, seems to me precisely the wrong thing to do. It wouldn't have been kind (or epistemically justified) to encourage me to quit when I was on the market, for--although it was very hard at times--I had good reasons to keep on going, as well as the support of my loved ones.
Long story short, aside from the first issue this post is about--discouraging people from attempting to enter the profession to begin with (which I think we should do)--I think we should avoid answering the three other issues this post is about with overly broad pronouncements about what people should and should not do. The fact is, there are a lot of different types of job candidates, with different personal and professional situations, their own values, their own families, etc. Some people should probably give up, others should probably not, and for others still it's probably unclear what they should do--and the decision should be up to them. Similarly, some people should probably be encouraged to give up, others encouraged and supported, and others still engaged with in personal discussion about what is best for them, given the full reality of their situation. Given that we are all individuals, each with our own situation, the responsible thing--or so it seems to me--is to be sensitive to these differences, discussing carefully, both publicly and privately, the nuances of different types of situations, and what makes sense (e.g. soldiering on or quitting) given one's actual situation.
Anyway, that's what I think--and I'm happy to open it up for discussion. What do you think? When should someone continue on the market? When should someone stop? When should we encourage people? When should we discourage them? I expect there are more than a few people out there who might benefit from an open, nuanced discussion!