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).