A lot of my professional-philosopher friends have been talking on social media about the Daily Nous post, "Grad Students: What Do You Wish You Knew?", that I discussed here the other day. In case there's anyone here who hasn't read DN post and comment thread, here's the short story: although some commenters in the thread report good experiences in graduate school, a lot of other comments were overwhelmingly negative. Although again there may well be selection effects (people with bad experiences being more apt to share), there have also been a number of disturbing studies on grad student mental health and well-being, not just in philosophy but for grad students in general. So, it seems, although grad school can be a good time in life for some, the data suggests that, for all too many students, grad school can be a really tough time. And, of course, that's just grad school. Then there's the academic job-market and post-PhD employment (in postdocs, VAPs, adjunct jobs, etc.)--all of which involve trials and tribulations of their own.
I am among those--and I think there are many of us--who believe that when it comes to the decision of whether to attend graduate school, people should make a well-informed decision. But, what does it take to make such a decision? Are "hard facts" enough--for instance, facts about grad program completion rates, average time-to-degree, and academic placement records? Certainly, hard facts can help a person make an informed decision. But, as we all know (and as anyone who does biomedical ethics will tell you), it is one thing for a person to be presented with facts; it is another thing for them to adequately understand and think rationally about them. First, "hard facts" are often abstract, just "numbers" as it were. It is one thing to know, at a factual level, that a good number of people never complete their PhD, or that many people with PhDs never get tenure-track jobs--and one might even understand, at an abstract level, that these are "bad results." But, as L.A. Paul argues, it can be another thing to appreciate what various outcomes are like at a subjective level, in a way that presents one not simply with numbers but the lived reality of different outcomes. This is important, I think, because there are reasons to think that understanding different lived realities may make a difference in the decision a person makes. It can be easy to succumb to irrational optimism with numbers alone. It can be more difficult the more one appreciates the lived experience of different outcomes.
This idea has come out in some of my philosopher-friends' online discussions of the Daily Nous thread. A number of people--including tenured faculty--have noted that it seems very difficult for would-be grad students to fully appreciate "the stakes" of grad school without having lived through it. One can, after all, tell someone all day long: grad school is tough, the job-market brutal, you may never get an academic job, and so on. Getting a person to appreciate the reality those facts describe, however, is a much more difficult thing to do. I should know. My undergrad advisor, Dan Dennett, while being complimentary of my philosophical abilities, advised me in no uncertain terms that I should not attend grad school, thanks to facts about the job market. I took his advice seriously for about five seconds before naively and irresponsibly deciding that wouldn't be me. I've seen and heard of this sort of thing happening all too often.
I've long struggled with how to respond to this problem. On the one hand, I don't like it when tenured faculty tell students not to go to grad school. That not only seems to me overly paternalistic; it also doesn't seem to me to work very well. It doesn't help would-be grad students understand the "stakes" of their decision--and so, again, all too often students just go on their way (as I did when I was told not to go). Truth is, I'm not sure there is an ideal solution to this problem. It's probably an inevitable fact of life that people--particularly young people--will make overly optimistic decisions, in some cases to their own advantage (but in many cases now), whatever we do. Consequently, the best I think we can do is give people the fullest picture we can of the stakes involved. But, how do we do that? The answer, I think, is by telling stories: true stories of different decisions, outcomes, and lived experiences.
Several years ago, I discussed and posted some passages from Ruth Millikan's wonderful Dewey Lecture. While Millikan made some really interesting (and I think important) points about philosophy and our discipline, the most eye-opening and moving part for me was reading Millikan's brief autobiography. As I summarized before, Millikan really went through a lot:
Her early career, as she recounts it, was full of great struggles. She had to walk out of an exam of Stanley Cavell's for personal reasons (p. 4). She entered grad school at Yale as only one of two women in a class of 22 students and one of only two students without a fellowship (pp. 4-5). Her dissertation supervisor (Wilfred Sellars) left her program before she had made any real progress on the dissertation (p. 5). While in grad school, she also had a serious back injury, two children, a divorce, spent a summer in mental hospital, and her dissertation took her 5 years (!) to complete, with basically no supervision (pp. 5-6).
Reading Millikan's story reminded me of just how powerful stories can be. It is one thing to hear that grad school is tough, the job-market devastating, etc.; it is another thing to see these things through the eyes of others, through their stories. On the one hand, I found Millikan's story simultaneously comforting (viz. "If someone like Millikan faced so much, I'm not alone"!), but, on the other hand, terribly disturbing (viz. "If someone like Millikan struggled so much, what hope do I have?"). I was reminded of the power of stories like hers when, a year or two ago, I had a couple of bright philosophy majors come to talk to me about graduate school. Neither of them were sure they wanted to go to grad school in philosophy (both of them were torn between a couple of alternatives), but they were interested. First, I did what I've always done when students approach me with this kind of query. I gave them facts: about grad school completion rates, average time to degree (7-10 years for a PhD), the horrific job-market, etc. The facts I gave them clearly shook them a bit, but then (as in my experience, many appear to--including my past self!), they appeared to kind of shrug the facts off. Then, for the first time, instead of stopping with facts, I told them a brief story: a story of some of my struggles as a grad student and job-marketeer. Yes, I kept things entirely professional. I didn't tell them personal things, but rather just described some of the (very) unexpected twists-and-turns--as well as time and deep uncertainty--I faced as a student and early-career faculty member. Unlike the cold-hard facts alone, the story I told seemed to make a real difference with them. I don't remember exactly what either of them said, but it was sort of on the order of, "Wow...that sounds really hard. I don't know if I want to take the chance of going through something like that."
Because stories can be powerful--and because I think, as I hope most of us do, that it is crucially important for anyone making such a profoundly life-altering choice to thoroughly understand different possible directions their life might go if they make the choice--I am going to propose that those of us who are willing to do so share our stories. Obviously, since this is the Cocoon, I am going to ask that anyone who chooses to share do so in a manner that conforms to the blog's safe and supportive mission (so, no "outing" programs or individuals, etc.)--but, otherwise, the floor is open, so to speak.
I suppose I will begin. I will try to keep my story mercifully short and professional, focusing on some major twists and turns in my career, as well as a few details here and there that readers may find relevant--and, as I mention again below, I tell the story not because I think my story is particularly interesting or important. I tell it simply because it is a story that happened--one that might help anyone considering grad school develop a fuller picture of potential ways things can (unexpectedly) go.
My first exposure to philosophy was a summer school course on philosophy and literature that I took at Stanford University as a high-school junior, at the age of 16. The course, taught by Taylor Carman (now at Barnard), wasn't a standard philosophy course: we read short-stories, novels, and also some existentialism. I was hooked. Later that summer, I took a trip with my mother to visit some universities I hoped to attend. On the plane to the East Coast, I read The Republic for the first time. I was hooked even more. I ended up attending Tufts University, and somehow found myself in a twelve-student honors intro to philosophy class taught by Dan Dennett. God, was I hooked. I loved philosophy.
I ended up a philosophy and psychology double-major, and took a lot great courses, including courses on phenomenology and existentialism (I had no idea of the analytic/contintental distinction). I loved philosophy. I finished my undergrad with an honors thesis on consciousness under Dan. I wanted to defend dualism, but Dan (naturally) was having none of it. Dan told me not to go to grad school for philosophy, as there were no jobs. Naturally, I ignored him. I took the GRE, didn't get into any of the schools I wanted, and spent a year working in a group-home for a mental health organization. I applied again the next year and got into two programs: Rochester and Syracuse. I attended Syracuse, largely because it was ranked slightly higher at the time and because Robert van Gulick worked there (as an undergrad, he was one of the few names I recognized, as he worked on consciousness).
When I got to Syracuse, things were brilliant. At the age of 22, I was the youngest PhD student in my program, and made some fantastic friends among the grad students. I naively thought I would have my PhD and a tenure-track job well before my thirtieth birthday. A lot of us grad students lived in the same building, which we called the "grad student house", and we spent most nights talking philosophy til the early hours in morning. It was fantastically fun. I learned that our department had a bunch of up-and-coming metaphysicians: Ted Sider, John Hawthorne, Brian Weatherson, Dean Zimmerman, etc. I did very well in all of my courses, developed good relationships with department's faculty, and focused on metaphysics and the philosophy of language. Things we great. Then, in the Spring of my second year, all four of the faculty I just mentioned got hired by other universities (Rutgers and Brown). All of us grad students panicked--we were not only losing our mentors, but worried that our department would plummet in the Leiter rankings and we would never get jobs. As I had been at Syracuse for two years, I felt it would be best for my career to move immediately. There were two programs whose application deadlines hadn't passed: Arizona and MIT. I got into Arizona.
I struggled from almost the moment I got to Arizona--not terribly, but just enough that I slowly began to lose enthusiasm. It wasn't the program's fault. It was a series of events and choices of my own that got in the way. First, I was dealing with a number of personal issues at the time, most of which I will not mention, but not the least of which was that I profoundly missed my Syracuse friends. Second, it didn't help that the university's academic rules strictly limited transfer credits. I ended up having to take philosophy courses on material that I had already learned at Syracuse, and didn't apply myself as passionately to the material as I had the first time around. Third, I began to get competitive and frustrated with academic philosophy, as this was around the time that the internet became an increasingly large part of the profession. Whereas before philosophy for me had always been about philosophy, now for the first time it was about competing for jobs, not embarrassing oneself by saying something stupid at a talk or on the internet, networking with people, publishing in only the best journals, etc. All of which depressed me. I was young and idealistic. I wanted to enjoy philosophy for its own sake, and for the first time in my life I wasn't. I was looking at my fellow students as competitors, and faculty as gatekeepers to impress, rather than as the friendly colleagues I had always treated them as previously.
Because of my diminishing enthusiasm, I didn't work as diligently or perform as well at philosophy as I previously had. I also had trouble making friends and forging connections with faculty--again, my fault, not theirs. Anyway, I didn't do terribly, but I also didn't do much to distinguish myself. In time, I (barely) passed my comp exams, almost published a few papers in some very good journals (but screwed up R&R's each time, never publishing any of them), and moved onto the dissertation stage. That is when things went very bad. At that point, I had not only failed to publish anything. I had no real philosophical focus at all. Whereas I had focused on consciousness at Tufts and was Mr. Metaphysics at Syracuse, I now found myself without any clear philosophical focus. I had sort of transitioned into moral and political philosophy at Arizona, but didn't have any very good ideas--at least not any befitting a dissertation. I read, came up with ideas, tried to work them into something viable--but each time I got nowhere. Months passed. I got down on myself, and decided to take up a hobby--playing music in a local band. More months passed. Although I was still working on dissertation ideas, my attention was split: I spent more time on my music hobby and non-philosopher friends than I should have. After about a year and a half of working, I finally had a dissertation prospectus ready to go. My committee rejected it the night before my scheduled proposal defense. I was devastated.
It had been seven years. I was 29 years old, without a clue how I would ever finish my program, let alone get an academic job. As I didn't know what else to do, I finally got over myself, reached out to faculty for help, and slowly began to crawl out of a number of grad-student traps I'd fallen into. My dissertation advisor expressed confidence in me, telling me that I had done good work from in the past, so he knew I was capable of it. I also approached another professor I had TA'd for several years before. He gave me some great advice, telling me to read widely, even in areas that I hadn't been thinking about. Miraculously, I read a bunch of Rawls (TOJ, Political Liberalism, and Law of Peoples), and finally lucked out with a viable dissertation idea. Eight months or so later I had written a dissertation. Like all dissertations, it was what any good dissertation should be: a done one. I was also starting to enjoy philosophy a bit again. Miraculously, I got offered a 2-year Visiting Assistant Professor (VAP) position at the University of British Columbia, and moved to Canada.
I had always struggled with sleep during grad school, and sleep disturbance runs in my family. But, I don't think it was just that. My spouse is now a grad student in another field, and now she can't sleep well either--and she reports a lot of her fellow grad students having similar issues. I think it is probably stress. Anyway, I struggled to find my feet at UBC, and my sleep problems got really bad, but I finally published something. As my spouse (fiancee at the time) couldn't move to Canada, I applied for jobs and got offered a renewable one-year VAP at the University of Tampa. My sleep problems initially worsened (such that I would sometimes not sleep for three or four days straight), but after a year I finally received effective treatment, started to publish more, and worked hard to develop as a teacher.
As I was (and am) in a very small department at UT and was struggling on the job-market, I felt a bit isolated and so started the Cocoon in the hope of forging some positive relationships with other early-career people in the discipline. I then went on the job market for seven years straight, and for those seven years I subsumed just about everything else in my life--friends, family, enjoyment--to a single goal: getting a permanent academic job. Although I got more interviews and fly-outs as time went on, each year on the market was a gauntlet--working on my dossier, applying for jobs, preparing for interviews, doing interviews, dealing with their aftermath, and so on. Until my final year, each year ended in disappointment--and each year was incredibly hard not only on me, but more importantly to me on my spouse, who had to bear the market with me, sharing the few good moments (interviews going well), bad moments (interviews going badly), truly disastrous moments (fly-outs I fell flat on my face at), and repeated disappointments (including coming in "second place" more than once after fly-outs). Each time it felt like a good future for me and my family was just beyond my grasp, slipping through our fingertips. Perhaps the biggest saving grace (aside from having a loving, supportive marriage) was that we lived in a nice place and I had a relatively stable job with decent pay and benefits (which I recognize I was lucky to have). Another really big thing that kept me going was that I found my love for philosophy again. I was so sick of competing, and of the market, that at one point I just decided, "The heck with it. I'm just going to try to do the best research I can the best way I know how, and try to improve as a teacher and colleague the best way I know how, and let the cards fall where they may." Of course, doubts and disappointment were difficult to keep at bay. I thought many times of leaving academia, looked into non-academic careers at numerous junctures, and had difficult conversations with my spouse and loved ones how much longer it made sense (qua fair to me and fair to them) for me to stick it out on the market. But still, I increasingly found happiness in doing philosophy again, and teaching--and it made an enormous difference in my well-being and productivity.
Finally, last year, at the age of 38--sixteen years after I had started grad school--I finally got a tenure-track job. It was the result of a lot of hard work, but I would also be the very first to say that a lot of luck and good fortune were involved. I am very grateful for my job, and do my best to deserve it. And, for what it is worth, I still philosophy as much today as when I started. Despite sharing many concerns about academia, the profession, etc., I feel very lucky to be able to do philosophy for a living. I wake up in the morning looking forward to what I do. I love writing and doing research, and derive life-meaning from teaching (I really do). At the same time, making a career out of philosophy has required a lot of tough choices, including giving up a lot of myself, as it were--things I used to enjoy, care about, etc. The details aren't important, or at least not ones I want to share. The relevant point is simply that, even if one reaches the proverbial promised-land--a tenure-track job--the process of getting there and remaining there, like many professions and life choices, can change one, and require one to change, in deep and far-reaching ways. I suppose I will just say that I now feel like I finally understand the famous Biblical passage, "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." (1 Corinthians 13)
Anyway, that's my story in philosophy (the short version, anyway). I tell it not because I think my story is particularly interesting or important, nor to bemoan my lot in life, nor to try to impress with "how hard I had it." On the contrary, I recognize there are countless people out there who have exponentially more difficult lives than I--and I would be the first to admit the many respects in which I have been privileged, lucky, and fortunate more than I deserve. I tell the story simply because it's one way a life philosophy can (and did) unexpectedly go--a data-point of sorts for anyone thinking of pursuing a career in philosophy to consider when making their decision. Would I have made a different decision about grad school had I read this story then? Truth is, I don't know. What I do know is that I didn't have any stories to go on, and that at many points after making the choice to go to grad school, I wished that my previous self would have had a better idea of the way his future might turn out. That, in brief, is why I tell the story--so that anyone who is where I once was can better appreciate some of the unexpected twists and turns, joys and regrets, etc., a decision to attend grad school in philosophy can result in. That being said, my story is only one--and there are many other possible directions a life in philosophy can go, as well. Such as? I don't know. The only story I know is my own. Which is where you (potentially) come in. Your story, if you went to grad school (and or beyond) in academic philosophy, is a real life in academic philosophy as well--and, if you are are willing to share, there might be someone out there who might benefit from it. Indeed, perhaps we all might benefit, in that we might finally get a better idea of what different lives--the lives of our students and colleagues--in our profession are really like.
So, then, if you are willing to share, what is your story? You may share publicly or anonymously, whatever you are most comfortable with. You may also contribute a short story in the comments section, or, if you would like to tell a longer story, submit a story to me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a post of your own. The only requirement is to respect the Cocoon's safe and supportive mission.