By Trevor Hedberg
In a post I wrote four years ago, I noted that certain discussions in our profession seem to resurface every year. One of these discussions is what we should tell undergraduate students who are interested in studying philosophy at the graduate level. Some views on this subject can be found elsewhere on the Cocoon, on the Philosophy Smoker, on Michael Huemer’s personal website, on Bleeding Heart Libertarians, on Goodbye, Academia!, and on plenty of other sites if you’re willing to dig through the search results. Since the job market is so tough and the attrition rate in graduate programs so high, there’s a fairly strong case for discouraging students from pursuing graduate study in our discipline.
Now that I have completed my graduate studies and my first full stint on the job market, I want to share how my views on this subject have changed. The last time I wrote about this issue, I largely echoed the criteria that Eric Schwitzgebel put forward in the opening post of his series on applying to graduate school in philosophy. He writes, “I advise students not to consider graduate school in philosophy unless (1.) they'd be happy teaching philosophy at a low prestige college and are willing to move almost anywhere in the country, and (2.) even if they never finished the degree they would have found the process of studying philosophy at the graduate level intrinsically worthwhile.” I read this advice for the first time in 2009 – when I was considering whether to apply to graduate school myself. I still believe that his second condition is the most important question for prospective graduate students to ask themselves.
No one – no matter what program they are admitted to and no matter how brilliant they may be – is so special that they are guaranteed to finish their degree and get a tenure-track job. Not under current circumstances, at least. In fact, the majority of graduate students fail to land tenure-track positions. (Only about half actually finish their doctoral program.) Because of this dreary reality, would-be graduate students need to ask themselves the following question: “Would the experience of studying philosophy for many years be worth it even if I did not finish the program or find permanent academic employment?” If the answer is anything other than yes, then I think going to graduate school is unwise. Admittedly, it may be difficult for some people considering grad school in philosophy – especially those who are still undergraduates – to be confident in their answer to this question, but you have to make a serious effort to answer it nonetheless. It’s too important to neglect: if you go through graduate school with an urgent need for a stable career at the end of the journey, you are likely to end up disheartened and frustrated.
Now let’s suppose you answer this first question in the affirmative – you think the grad school experience will be worth it even if things go unfavorably for you sometime during the program or during your time on the job market. The next question to ask – one that I did not consider when I was contemplating whether to go to graduate school – is this: “Do I deeply enjoy writing philosophy?” Like the previous question, if you cannot answer this one with a sincere yes, then I think going to graduate school is unwise.
If you enjoy reading philosophy or talking philosophy, that’s great. But what really matters to your long-term success in graduate school is whether you will write philosophy. You will be writing multiple term papers every semester that you are taking courses. If your aim is to be competitive on the job market, then you will be revising some of these papers for a long time after initially completing them. You will present shorter versions of these papers at conferences and prepare some of them for publication (often after many revisions are made based on the feedback you receive). Even after all that, you may have to keep submitting a paper to journals for years to secure a publication. You may have to write a Master’s Thesis, and unless you get admitted to one of the very rare programs that allows “star papers” to substitute for a dissertation, you will have to write one of those as well. When you finish graduate school, your ability to achieve tenure (should you land a tenure-track job) will often hinge in part on your ability to produce publishable research.
Now you might think that you enjoy writing philosophy enough that this doesn’t sound all that bad. But let’s test that hypothesis a little. Imagine the following scenario:
It’s Friday night. Earlier in the day, you taught two discussion sections and attended a talk in your department given by a distinguished guest speaker. In between these events, you read an article for one of next week’s seminar meetings and graded a few papers. You’ve had your eye on a call for papers for a regional conference with a keynote in one of your major research areas. The deadline is 5:00 pm tomorrow.
Just then you receive a text message to join a few other graduate students for drinks. You decline the invitation and spend the evening revising a recent term paper so that you have something suitable to submit to this conference. Although it takes you all night and most of Saturday, you send off an email to the conference organizers at 4:30 pm with your paper and abstract attached.
How do you react to reading this anecdote? Does this sort of weekend sound dreadful? Tolerable? Pleasant? If you don’t think that you would like doing this sort of thing on the weekend, then grad school in philosophy is probably not the best thing for you. (I’m not saying you would have to do this every weekend, but situations like this will happen with some regularity.) Your commitment to philosophical writing has to be stable and powerful. If it isn’t, then you will likely abandon this commitment at some point in your graduate career. There will be moments where you are sorely tempted to neglect your writing, and if you don’t enjoy this part of doing philosophy, you are more likely to succumb to this temptation. Should that happen, you may not have the publication record needed to be a competitive job candidate or your dissertation may remain forever incomplete.
If you’re the sort of person who writes philosophy just for fun or for your own intellectual enrichment, then you might well have a deep enough interest in writing philosophy to enjoy your time as a graduate student and be reasonably successful at the end of it. In contrast, if you need to be “forced” to write philosophy (e.g., by term paper deadlines, by pressure from your professors), then the odds are good that graduate school will ultimately turn into little more than stress and toil for you.
Thus far, I’ve identified what I consider the two most crucial questions to ask when considering graduate school in philosophy. What else should be considered when making this decision? Schwitzgebel identifies two other important factors (which he lumps together into a single condition): whether you would enjoy a teaching-oriented position at a low-prestige college and whether you are geographically flexible with your life plans. These should both be taken into account, and I think at least four others warrant consideration as well: the placement record of the institution you plan to attend, your funding situation at the institution you plan to attend, your family plans, and your intended area of specialization.
How should each of these factors affect your decision about whether to go to graduate school? Well, let’s break them down in a bit more detail.
Would you be happy with a teaching position at a low-prestige college?
Not all jobs in philosophy are teaching-oriented positions, but most of them are. If the answer to this question is no, then it’s going to be a lot more difficult to find an academic job that would enable you to have a fulfilling career.
Would you be willing to relocate far away from where you currently live to find a suitable job in academic philosophy?
If you meet the very first condition that I discussed, then your decision to attend grad school in philosophy does not hinge entirely on whether you can get a permanent academic position in the field. But most likely, you would prefer to get such a position. Greater geographic flexibility means a larger pool of jobs that you will be able to apply for. Of course, very few of us are willing to relocate anywhere in the world, but the pickier you are regarding the region of the world that you would like to live in, the more limited you will be in what jobs you can apply for every year.
Does the institution you plan to attend have a strong placement record?
Like the previous consideration, this is only relevant if you would prefer long-term academic employment. If so, then your institution’s placement record should factor into your decision. How often to people with PhDs from this institution get tenure-track jobs, and are the kinds of jobs they tend to get ones that would be acceptable to you?
Note here that I am emphasizing placement record rather than prestige. This runs counter to a claim that I have heard many times over the years: “You should only go to graduate school if you get into a program that is in the top 25 of the Philosophical Gourmet Rankings.” (Sometimes, the ranking number varies; the first time I heard this – about 8 years ago – I was told not to go to any programs outside the top 50.) I am not convinced that this advice is sound.
The assumption is that going to a low-prestige program puts you at such a disadvantage on the job market that it cannot be justified. Of course, there is some evidence that where you get your PhD affects your job market prospects, and placement record often correlates with the prestige of a program. But there also plenty of exceptions. Some schools that are unranked according to the Philosophical Gourmet report have surprisingly good placement records, and some ranked programs do not have great placement records. Thus, I don’t think it is sound advice to look exclusively at a program’s ranking to determine your likelihood of being able to get a job with a PhD from that institution.
Have you secured a funding package from the institution to which you have been admitted? And will the stipend be sufficient to cover your living expenses?
Getting a PhD in philosophy takes a lot of time (usually 6-8 years and perhaps longer if your time in graduate school spans multiple institutions), and the stipends associated with work as a teaching assistant are usually pretty meager. Given the opportunity costs involved in getting the degree and the uncertain career prospects, you really don’t want to be racking up debt during graduate school. If you do not secure any funding, I would advise reapplying in the following fall semester and hoping for better results: the tuition costs, especially for out-of-state students, are usually too high to justify.
If you secure funding but will not be able to make ends meet with the stipend alone, then this is a strike against accepting the offer. Everyone has to meet their basic needs, and so you’ll be incentivized to either adjunct at nearby institutions (which will reduce the amount of time that you can devote to your graduate studies) or take out loans. Neither is an ideal option.
Are you single or in a relationship? If you are single, do you hope to start a long-term relationship during graduate school? Do you have any children? Do you plan to have any children during graduate school?
One thing you need to consider before going to graduate school is how doing so would fit with your broader life plans. Attending a graduate program usually requires relocating at least once to start your program and probably 2-3 more times (possibly even more) if you seek long-term academic employment. If you have a family, is it feasible to uproot them this many times to pursue an academic career? Will doing so impede your partner’s ability to find and maintain a satisfactory job? If you have or plan to have children, do you think you’ll be able to be both the kind of parent and kind of graduate student you want to be?
Starting a family or staying involved with the one you have already established is not incompatible with being a productive graduate student, but it does pose some additional challenges. It’s tough to balance parenthood and an academic life. And unfortunately, this balancing act is likely to be more difficult for mothers than fathers. It can be done, of course, as many people in academia regularly demonstrate, but you will need to consider whether the sacrifices that academic life may require are compatible with how you prioritize spending time with your family.
What is your intended area of specialization?
Your area of specialization matters a lot to your employment prospects. Why? Because some areas of specialization have more job openings than others. The current trend in the profession is that jobs in value theory are more common than most other AOSs, and jobs in the “core” areas of philosophy – epistemology, metaphysics, language, etc. – are less common. Jobs in ethics, applied ethics, and political philosophy are likely to remain in higher demand than other areas of philosophy because undergraduate course offerings in these areas are much more common than offerings in most other areas. In some cases, you area of specialization may be far more important to your chances of employment than your institution of origin. (A person from an unranked program with a value theory AOS, for example, may well have a much better shot at a tenure-track job than a person from a distinguished program whose AOS is aesthetics.) So one thing that you must consider is what the employment prospects are like in your intended AOS. That doesn’t mean that the desire to pursue an AOS outside value theory implies that you shouldn’t go to grad school in philosophy, but the (even greater) scarcity of jobs outside value theory should be given some weight in your deliberations.
Of course, one caveat here is that people’s interests often change during graduate school in philosophy. There’s no guarantee that your intended AOS will remain the same during your many years of graduate school, and given the difficulties presented by writing the dissertation, you do not want to try to write one in a subject area you aren’t passionate about just to increase your probability of employment when you finish. That’s a recipe for dropping out at the ABD stage, and even if you pulled it off, you’d then be applying for jobs where you would teach and/or research in an area you weren’t deeply interested in. All that said, you’ve got to decide whether to go to graduate school based on whatever information is at your disposal – if you want to study epistemology, you shouldn’t just expect that your interests will shift as your studies progress. You’ve got to assume some level of consistency in your philosophical interests, even if that assumption ends up being mistaken.
Now that I’ve presented all this information, it can be condensed down to a relatively simple decision procedure.
1. Would the experience of studying philosophy for many years be worth it even if you did not finish the program or find permanent academic employment?
If yes, proceed to question 2; otherwise, you should not apply to graduate school in philosophy. (Answers like “maybe” or “I don’t know” do not count as “yes” answers.
2. Do you deeply enjoy writing philosophy?
If yes, proceed to items 3-8; otherwise, you should not apply to graduate school in philosophy. (Answers like “sort of” or “I don’t know” do not count as “yes” answers.)
3. Would you be happy with a teaching position at a low-prestige college?
4. Would you be willing to relocate far away from where you currently live to find a suitable job in academic philosophy?
5. Does the institution you plan to attend have a strong placement record?
6. Have you secured a funding package from the institution to which you have been admitted? And will the stipend be sufficient to cover your living expenses?
7. Are you single or in a relationship? If you are single, do you hope to start a long-term relationship during graduate school? Do you have any children? Do you plan to have any children during graduate school?
8. What is your intended area of specialization?
In my view, no particular answer in 3-8 offer a decisive reason against going to graduate school in philosophy (though I think failure to gain funding to a program where one is admitted comes very close). But these questions can generate “red flags” that should carry weight in your deliberations. If you aren’t willing to take a teaching job, then that’s a red flag; if you aren’t willing to move too far from home, that’s a red flag; if your intended AOS is metaphysics, that’s a red flag.
I don’t think there’s a magic number of red flags that make it unwise for a person to go to graduate school (provided that questions 1 and 2 have been answered affirmatively), and they can be mitigated by other factors. For example, an intended AOS in metaphysics shouldn’t carry as much weight in your decision regarding whether to pursue graduate studies if you can gain admission to NYU or if you don't care at all about academic employment. But fewer red flags will usually correlate with a higher probability of personal enjoyment during graduate school and professional success afterward.
I know it might seem silly to try to reduce a significant life choice such as whether to attend graduate school in philosophy to a point-by-point series of questions like this. These kinds of decisions tend to be too context-sensitive and complicated for this to work. But if I were to advise an undergraduate student about whether they should pursue philosophy at the graduate level, this is more-or-less exactly what I would ask them and how I'd advise them based on their answers.
Now I’m curious what you all think. Does this seem broadly right? Have I omitted anything really important? Have I given something too much or too little weight? How would your advice to undergraduates match up with what I’ve presented above?