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I just want to say that the performance/competence/readiness of graduate students is not a fixed variable. It is influenced by a great number of factors. One factor that definitely helps to produce the "I need 4-5 years to figure out what I'm interested in" phenomenon is this: schools treat you as someone who needs 4-5 years to figure out what you're interested in.

This is a general human phenomenon: ask less of people, and they'll ask less of themselves. I don't know about the specific workload in this program, but I really want us all to stop writing as though this variable were fixed. In my experience, an inability to discover, in three whole years, a topic you can write 150 pages on is *encouraged* by the actions of faculty who think it should take more than three years.

Justin Caouette

Marcus: this sounds *similar* to the program I am currently in; here is my timeline:

Year One - 6 courses (+TA 2 classes which consist of grading and 4 weekly lectures with 20+students in each)
Year Two - 3 Prelim Exams (+TA 2 classes...)
Year Three - Pass Candidacy early in year, preferably in summer between 2 and 3 (TA one class/ Teach one class)
Year Four - After teaching an extra course in the summer between 3 and 4 we are expected to defend our dissertations and apply for jobs and teach one course and TA another.

The program at UC Irvine would be an upgrade! Or so it seems.


What's the exact worry? That students are required to select their dissertation topic too early, without adequate preparation? Compare the British/Australian system: no coursework, topic selected at the outset of the three year program.


I agree with Justin. I would like to add that in most places outside of the US you are expected to have a good idea about what you're going to be writing your dissertation on WHEN YOU ENTER THE PROGRAM.

I realize that outside of the US it usual to enter a PhD program with an MA, but 1-year MA programs are also fairly common.

Finally, the stipend they're offering seems pretty substantial to me, and having fewer financial concerns would make getting more work done at least a bit easier.


the program looks pretty sweet, especially compared to programs outside the US. But even in the US, most only offer 5 years of guaranteed funding, right? this one gives fellowships for year 1 and 5, which not every program does. (Mine didn't, and I finished my program in 4 yrs, with 2 of coursework: but I was among the quickest.) This program gives you the chance of 2 years teaching post-doc as well, which might get one over that no-ABDs-get-interviews thing many of us dealt with.

what am I missing?


Aaron, in the UK and Australia, very few PhD candidates have MAs.

Marcus Arvan

Interesting that no one seems to share my concerns. While I realize that people getting through programs may look "sweet"--and that the UK system is similar--I have known at least a few people who received degrees in the UK who said they thought their philosophical training was too narrow, and wished they had received the kind of breadth of training that US programs have traditionally offered.

There are costs and benefits to everything. Efficiency has benefits (students getting through programs faster), but also costs (less breadth of training and less time to develop one's own philosophical identity). Similarly, longer times to degree have benefits (greater breadth of training, more time to develop), but costs (long times in grad school, etc.).

I personally don't see how it's possible for someone with a single year or two of grad school training to come up with a good dissertation topic--at least not one with the kind of breadth and depth that *I* think philosophy should want more of. I just don't see it. It takes several years of grad school--at least--to develop a truly broad and deep understanding of philosophy (as opposed to the ability to specialize in a single subfield). While many are okay with hyper-specialization, I personally think the trend is harmful, producing fragmented philosophical theorizing over the more systematic kind that has traditionally moved philosophy forward.

I also worry--as I have said many times before--about the push towards greater efficiency and "professionalization." Getting jobs is important, yes. But so is developing as philosophers. And it can take time and freedom to develop. Indeed, not everyone is alike. Some people develop quickly, others more slowly. I also don't think giving people more time is "asking less" of people. Quite the contrary, I think rushing people through to degrees quickly does that.

But, it seems I am in the distinct minority in having these concerns. I suppose we'll see how it turns out.


Marcus, I deliberately left it open whether one should go modus ponens or tollens on the comparison to the UK and Australian system. I think that a substantial coursework component is an excellent idea, so I am not trumpeting the superiority of my own system. If anything, I prefer the US system. But I don't think that the superiority of the US system lies the feature you've identified: delaying the dissertation topic. While our graduates come out with less breadth than yours, I suspect that the write a somewhat better dissertation, on average, because they devote themselves to it. In any case, I would be very surprised if they wrote a worse dissertation or if their topics were any worse.

Marcus Arvan

Neil: Thanks for your reply (and clarification)!

I did not mean to identify the main benefit of delaying time to dissertation topic with writing better dissertations. Far from it. UK graduates may write better dissertations. But, as I see, the *point* of a dissertation is (surprisingly) not be to write a great dissertation. Dissertations, as I understand them, are better thought of as springboards to better things: namely, a long-term research program. Allow me to explain.

Consider, on the one hand, a very excellently argued dissertation that leads to a series of papers in nice journals. That's nice. Now consider a bad dissertation that--because of its breadth and depth, which eluded the grad student's grasp at the time--leads, ten years later, to "A Theory of Justice" (or some such). The former student wrote a better dissertation than the latter, but that's not the *point*. The latter dissertation generated a better long-term research program.

I give this as an example because it seems to me indicative of a certain kind of (all too common) myopia. We all have an understandable tendency to focus on the present (was X's dissertation awesome?). But, it's not the present that matters. It's the *future*. Rawls' dissertation, as evinced in "Two Concepts of Rules", was not very awesome. But that project led to something--nearly twenty years later--that *was* awesome: a project of amazing breadth and depth. The point is not to "write a great dissertation." The point is to have a great idea--one of breadth and depth--that can turn into something great or even game-changing.

This is what I think the US system--as it traditionally was--was good for. It's important not to be beguiled by immediate results. We should care very much about giving people time to develop breadth and depth of understanding, as well as their own identity. As Einstein famously said, "An academic career in which a person is forced to produce scientific writings in great amounts creates a danger of intellectual superficiality." (Isaacson, p. 79)

Anthony Carreras

"Okay, so let me get this straight. Students in this new program are expected to take one year of coursework before identifying an advisor and dissertation committee in year two. Then, in year three, the student is expected to complete their comp exams and dissertation prospectus."

I don't find this so unreasonable. Although not too many people actually stuck to this timeline, this was basically how things were supposed to go in my program at Rice. Two years of coursework, then in year 3 you take your comps in the first semester, and defend a dissertation proposal in the second semester. Then the next two years were supposed to be spent writing the dissertation. But it isn't enough to just have a timeline like this. The faculty need to take an active role in shaping and directing the process.

Getting a Ph.D. in philosophy takes too long. Consider that a law degree and a medical degree are typically done in three and four years respectively while philosophers take on average eight years to get their degrees. In my experience, this has more to do with the fact that there is very little structure and guidance in Ph.D. programs than with the nature of the subject. If U.C. Irvine's approach makes it more likely that students transition smoothly and in a reasonable time frame from graduate school to a functional adult life, I think that it is a very good thing.

"In short, although only time will tell, I highly doubt that this new program will succeed, and even if it does, I believe it is likely to have unexpected costs on students and the discipline more broadly, undermining philosophical development once again for the sake of faster 'professionalization.'"

Maybe there will be unexpected costs, but I highly doubt they will be worse than the costs of taking eight to ten years to finish a Ph.D. Marcus - I appreciate your concerns, but I think you are focusing too much on a very small aspect of the profession, namely, that small sliver of the philosophical population that is able to produce groundbreaking philosophical work and get a job at a R1 institution. I don't doubt that this is important. We need really smart and motivated people to write great books and articles. But the vast majority of us aren't going to be doing this kind of work. Most of us are going to spend most of our careers teaching. If U.C. Irvine's approach leads to more people getting jobs in a more reasonable time frame, and a few less instances of the next John Rawls, I consider it a win.


Ah, okay. I misunderstood. I have to think about your main claim. I worry that in this market if you don't get a couple of high quality articles out of the dissertation, you won't get a job (unless you want to a top ranked school: then a different, and more forgiving, set of rules apply).

Marcus Arvan

Hi Neil: Cool. But doesn't your worry sort of illustrate my point? The job-market has incentivized "getting a couple of high-quality articles" out of one's grad training as something like the be-all and end-all of grad school. It's all about being "marketable" now, not about giving grad students the time and freedom to develop truly unique ideas that might take a long time to develop but be the kinds of deep, broad game-changers that have historically pushed philosophy forward.


"I personally don't see how it's possible for someone with a single year or two of grad school training to come up with a good dissertation topic--at least not one with the kind of breadth and depth that *I* think philosophy should want more of."

Oh, come on. You don't see how it is _possiible_? Suppose a student spends her first two years on fellowship, including summers, as many students now do. Suppose, too, upon recognizing that they only have two years to come up with a dissertation topic, this student diligently works 40 hours a week. Now imagine that this student's program pairs her up with a faculty advisor on the first day she walks into the department, as many programs do - a first year advisor that helps her to see that, given some of the things that have struck her as interesting in the well crafted seminars on offer in her program, it would be best for her to work more with professor x, who, as it turns out, is wonderfully encouraging.

You really don't see how it could be that this student manages to come up with an interesting dissertation project over the span of 166,400 hours of diligent work, in consultation with thoughtful advisors?

I know it is hard to believe, since a lot of philosophy programs have the structure of "let's throw a bunch of smart people in a room for eight years and see what happens," but there are lots of other philosophy programs out there that take graduate student education very seriously.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Eugene: Thanks for your comment. A couple thoughts.

First, the scenario you describe seems to me almost-impossibly optimistic. You describe a situation where everything goes *perfectly*: a student shows up on campus, immediately finds an advisor, immediately discovers their philosophical interests, and so on. But real life is much messier than this. Things rarely go according to plan.

Second, no, I don't think 166,400 hours of diligent work is enough to develop a truly broad and deep understanding of philosophy. I worked *very* hard my first two years in grad school--I was very diligent--but if I'm honest with myself, I knew pretty little after that amount of time. I certainly had nowhere the philosophical depth and breadth of understanding I did after 5 or 6 years. Having gone through grad school, I just don't see it. I knew what I--and the other students I went to school with--learned over two years, and it wasn't anywhere near a broad, deep understanding of philosophy. At least not the kind that I think is really the mark of a good graduate education.


Grad school is an apprenticeship, Marcus. I don't expect it to do more than give people a set of skills and a database of problems and approaches. It's not about developing unique and game-changing ideas. I doubt we know what kind of environment best conduces to such cultivation. A priori, I see no reason to prefer any of the available options for *that* goal.

I suspect we have different metaphilosophical views, and our disagreement here reflects a deeper difference in outlook. I see philosophy - knowledge production more generally - as an essentially collective enterprise, with geniuses playing a less important role than is typically thought.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Neil: Thanks for your reply. Perhaps we have different metaphilosophical views--though I'm not sure. I too see philosophy as a collective enterprise. My worry is not that there are not enough "geniuses", but that the collective enterprise itself has become too fragmented by overspecialization. I worry that overspecialization has tended to lead to very isolated, "clubby" discussions on extremely narrow issues and arguments, that it is important to incentivize everyone (not just "geniuses") to think about bigger philosophical pictures, and that giving people more time to develop their knowledge base and own identity in grad school would help with the latter. This was, as I always understood it (from the mouths of my grad school professors) the purpose of traditional book-length dissertations. The purpose was not to ensure that everyone becomes a genius, but rather to encourage a certain broadness and depth of philosophical horizons.

In other words, I agree that grad school is an apprenticeship that should give people a "set of skills and a database of problems and approaches." My point is simply that some of the skills grad school should give one is breadth, depth, and ability to autonomously develop one's own philosophical identity.


Hi Marcus,

You write, "First, the scenario you describe seems to me almost-impossibly optimistic. "

But I was describing several actual scenarios.

"You describe a situation where everything goes *perfectly*: a student shows up on campus, immediately finds an advisor, immediately discovers their philosophical interests, and so on. But real life is much messier than this. Things rarely go according to plan."

I don't describe any such scenario. The student in my scenario didn't "find" an advisor, she was assigned one during her first year. In consultation with a first-year advisor, she then chose someone whose developing philosophical interests closely aligned with hers to work more closely with. The point here is that it wasn't a fluke that the student ended up with a dissertation idea at the end of two years. Rather, she ended up with one because the program she is in was well-designed.

Is it really your view that no graduates students are producing good dissertations in five-six year programs? If so I would encourage you to take a closer look at the work from graduate students of such programs.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Eugene: Okay, but being assigned an advisor and then choosing someone "whose developing philosophical interests closely aligned with hers to work more closely with" during the first year or so seems to me stultifying. How is one supposed to know what one's philosophical interests are *before* developing a broad, deep understanding of philosophy? My interests my first two years in grad school were M&E, and language. Then I got exposed to ethics and political, and my interests changed. If I had been encouraged/incentivized to focus on M&E from the outset, I never would have developed much broader horizons I did. This is my point. The scenario you describe may "work"...for developing people with very narrow interests. But my point is that developing narrow interests is the exact opposite of what a good graduate education should do. It should give one time to develop a breadth and depth of understanding, and time to *survey* many areas of philosophy so that one does not select one's "area of interest" too narrowly or preemptively, before one has any broad understanding of the field as a whole.


"If I had been encouraged/incentivized to focus on M&E from the outset, I never would have developed much broader horizons I did."

Why do you believe that you "never" would have developed such interests later on? You were curious enough to wade into ethics during graduate school, so why do you think that same curiosity wouldn't have led you to it eventually, after having written a dissertation on M&E?

"[Graduate school] should give one time to develop a breadth and depth of understanding, and time to *survey* many areas of philosophy so that one does not select one's "area of interest" too narrowly or preemptively, before one has any broad understanding of the field as a whole."

Why? Why should anyone agree with you that that graduate should develop such wide interests _during graduate school_? You seem to be assuming that if we don't develop wide interests in graduate school then it won't happen later on. But that's just false for any minimally curious philosopher. Or perhaps you're assuming that it is necessary for writing something of deep value that we start out with wide interests. But that seems false, too. Don't you think it is possible to write something of deep value after having developed a few narrow projects?

Philosophical development is ongoing, and need not be condensed to a few years in graduate school, as you seem to be suggesting.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Eugene: Actually, I was never very curious about ethics. If I recall, I took my first ethics course in my first year at Syracuse, and then only took an ethics course late in my second year at Arizona and (I believe) my first political course in my third year--all (if I recall) because I had requirements I had to take. I may have eventually developed an interest in ethics on my own, but I expect had I focused only on M&E I probably wouldn't. In terms of why I think grad school should develop breadth and depth, it is because of my views on habit--views which I think are well-supported by common sense and cognitive science. There is a common saying, "You need to teach good habits early", and a similar saying in cognitive science: "most of the time, intelligent agents do what they do most of the time." If a child were raised to care only about themselves, the probability that they will simply wake up one day caring about others is small (we know this, I think, from the behavior of poorly raised children later in life, not to mention analogues in poorly socialized animals, e.g. feral cats and dogs). Similarly, if someone is only taught to focus very narrowly all through their graduate education, the probability that they will just wake up one day and develop broad interests is small. People tend to do in the future things they have practiced in the past. More generally, people tend to respond to incentives. If grad school and professional incentives reward narrowness of focus and do not reward broadness, there is little incentive to develop broadness later on. Finally, grad school professors--being experts in the relevant areas--are far better positioned to provide one with a good, broad background in the relevant areas than one is by oneself. Yes, there are auto-didacts like Dennett in this world, but generally speaking, teaching oneself an entire speciality on one's own is very hard to do. In any case, I suspect you and I have different views on habits, incentives, etc. Youe remarks suggest that you think someone can develop breadth later in their career. I don't disagree that they *can*. I just believe that human beings being what they are--creatures of habit and incentives--that if incentives for breadth are not set up early, the probability of people developing breadth later on is small. If you disagree with this, that's fine. I do think it is an area of legitimate disagreement. Yet the above are the rationales I was given by my professors in grad school, and I think they were right. Indeed, I think we see the results of hyper-specialization in journals, and, as noted in my recent post, so do some leading figures and journal editors: habits of focusing narrowly rather than broadly appear to be manifest in the kind of work that is actually being done.

anonymous grad student

My department doesn't have comps, but we have something somewhat like a hybrid dissertation proposal/exam (which is a significant amount of work). We're required to have finished all of our coursework and taken the exam by halfway through our third year, and hence be working on our dissertation starting at that point. Almost everyone finishes the program in five years (except people working in history, who have a bit more time to the proposal/exam, but also more requirements before it).

anonymous grad student

UC Irvine students have to do more teaching than we do, but I strongly disagree that this is unrealistic. Also, I would describe many of our recent graduates as both well-grounded (I think we truly get a good 'generalist' education) and as visionaries.

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