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Great post. A few thoughts on the first few things you said:

"a general formula for how to build one's CV and structure one's career so as to optimize one's chances for a tenure-track job would seem desirable."

1. Such a 'formula' will, paradoxically, only work if it is not generally followed. That's another weird thing about the situation. Also, if every grad student started optimizing their chances, the system would be utterly swamped. I get the sense that this is already happening, to some extent.

2. A question that might be worth asking ourselves, here, is: there seems to be a large number of grads/postdocs (particularly on the internet) who spend a *lot* of mental energy worrying about job prospects. I can imagine someone saying--though I am not myself in a position to say this--that your chances of getting a job will rise (ceteris paribus) if you make sure that you are not in this group. That is to say: if you try to concentrate on doing what you love and doing it well. As I understand it, a lot of modern psychology would back this person up: we are at our best and most creative when we are doing things because we love them, and not because we are worried about some future failure.


The stuff at the end sounds like good advice, but I wonder whether many undergraduate philosophy majors would really be in a position to seriously think about these questions. Suppose Joe Undergrad thinks "Yes, I would be happy teaching philosophy at a community college in the middle of nowhere" but doesn't understand all the administrative duties and department meetings involved or can't foresee that he will end up marrying someone who would be miserable in the middle of nowhere? Or what about Jane Undergrad who thinks philosophy is great on the basis of taking classes in a very narrowly focused department? She might go to grad school and become disillusioned by the grad courses she takes. I can imagine her saying, "I thought it would have been worthwhile even if I didn't get a job, but now the only good thing I can see coming out of this is gainful employment."

I don't disagree with the advice, but I don't think it's fool proof.

Marcus Arvan

Trevor: Thanks for the stimulating post. I have to say that I still disagree with the advice ("Only go if it would be worth it even if you never got a degree or job"), for the reasons I gave in my previous post.

I simply don't think a person *can* know if grad school will be worth it. To use LA Paul's recent paper on the rationality of choosing to have a child as a jumping off point, I truly believe that growing up is a transformative experience. You might think at *22* that grad school would be worth it if you never finished. Still, when you're actually 30 and failing out of grad school, your beliefs at 22 may be small consolation.

For these reasons, I think the most responsible advice is this: "You can't know whether going to grad school will be worth it. It may be a disaster. It may leave you 30 and alone with no career to speak of. You may feel that it wasn't worth it at all. There's no way to know. It's a *risk* going to grad school -- a grave risk. You have to make your decision knowing this."

Trevor Hedberg

Thanks for the first few comments, folks. Here are some brief replies.

N -- Both your points are well-received. I had not considered the fact that any widely known formula for getting a tenure-track job would quickly become too widely followed to be a successful formula. All the more reason to think no one-size-fits-all approach can be found.

Anon and Marcus -- I interpret you both as making a similar point. We have limited insight into what our future preferences will be, and naturally we can be wrong. Someone can think one thing at 22 and quite another at 25. But when we make these sorts of decisions, we have to make our best assessment at the time and make the decision that best fits with our evidence (in this case, our knowledge or our values, preferences, etc.). Though we never have the luxury of certainty, I think we have enough insight into our preferences that it is not a total crapshoot regarding whether graduate school will suit us or not. If I genuinely perceived graduate school in philosophy as a "grave risk" for everyone who attended it, I would probably fall back to Mr. Zero's position and discourage anyone from pursuing it unless they could not think of any other field or career that appealed to them.


Given the importance of pedigree on the academic job market, I think it's at least worth emphasizing to undergraduates considering going to graduate school that just *how* risky it is depends substantially on where you go to graduate school. I don't think it's an unreasonable attitude to be willing to go to graduate school, but only if you're going to a department with a good enough placement rate that, while you cannot be at all certain of finding academic employment afterwards (there's no place like that), the chances are good enough that you're willing to roll the dice. While it used to be hard to figure out just how placement rates varied from department to department, a lot of places now have relatively detailed information up online.

anonymous grad student

One piece of advice that I give to undergrads (I'm a grad student, but have a lot of contact with undergrad majors) contemplating grad school is to spend a year or more doing something else after college, before applying. This doesn't harm anyone in the application process (as far as I can tell), and a lot of the time, undergrads have never had any sort of real full-time job or done anything with *most* of their time and energy but school. It's a lot harder to think about your choices and what you enjoy doing if you haven't even tried anything but school. I feel like the reasons that I really value philosophy grad school, and the reasons that I have been able to be somewhat successful (at least so far), are tied up in the choices I made to a) work/do other things between high school and college and b) work/do other things between college and grad school. Though I also worked 30-40 hours a week through college, so perhaps even if undergrads are working at "real" jobs, there's something different about not going to school--I really think that for some people, obviously not everyone, it is the only way to figure out whether you actually like going to school.

I can't see taking time off harming anyone, especially if she does something interesting with the interim time. But given the state of the economy, maybe this is harder to put into action than it was when I had just graduated from college. Anyway, I think the advice to try something different for a while can be really helpful for at least some students who have been living in a world of overachievement in academics for basically their whole lives.

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