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This is really great advice from Marcus, and though I have had a very different experience, I wholeheartedly agree with the advice to guard against unwarranted optimism.

My own case is pretty different. I struggled as an undergraduate student for personal reasons and didn't get into any highly ranked PhD programs. I went to an unranked PhD program, finished my PhD in 6 years (including the MA), and got a TT job ABD and my second TT job at 29. I owe a lot of this success to luck, but I also did not fall into the optimism trap. I knew my chances at landing a TT job were terrible, and this motivated me to over-perform - and I know doing so helped me on the market. But I also over-worked myself at the cost of my mental health - anxiety, sleep issues, depression, social isolation, etc. I might be healthier and happier had I not worked so hard and found another career path instead. The cost of over-working oneself, alongside the persistent need to over-work oneself, cannot be overstated.

And not all TT jobs (as a previous thread suggests) are good ones. There are a bunch of awful jobs out there that might drain your love of philosophy. So, the goal of "being a professor" might end up being something more like "being a professor in a good job" which makes things even harder in the current market/climate of academic philosophy.

Trevor Hedberg

I think the student posing the question should be aware that the harsh realities of the job market and the isolating, difficult nature of graduate work could destroy their love of philosophy. Or it could send them on a collision course with mental illness. The sad truth is that a lot of people in academia are not very happy, and should this student find themselves in a position where they are no longer enamored with pursuing professorial life, they will need to guard against the sunk cost fallacy and other factors that could make it psychologically difficult for them to alter their career trajectory. For this reason, I think part of managing expectations is not getting too attached to pursuing an academic career and going to graduate school primarily for the experience of doing so rather than for the potential career that may (or may not) follow.


My main piece of advice can be garnered from the other advice above: find a career alternative as soon as possible. This "plan B" should be something that has pretty good career prospects and something that doesn't require much (if any) additional training after graduation. To make this happen you will most likely have to do training and/or internships while in grad school. Also be sure this career is something you would be happy about. I think if you have this, it removes a lot of the burden/stress of grad school. Not all of it, however, because even if you are well-prepared for an alternative career you might enjoy, it can be hard to escape the social pressure to care only about a TT job. So my other advice would be to, as much as possible, maintain an independent thought process outside of academia. Stay in close contact with non-academic friends, and keep in mind the social pressures of professional philosophy and academia are just a tiny slice of reality. Nobody outside of this small circle cares much at all whether you get a TT job or some other enjoyable, reasonably paid and secure, form of employment.


I also went to a MA, in part because I wanted to be sure this was what I really wanted before I committed 5+ years to a PhD. I did go on to get a PhD and I got very, very lucky with the ideal TT job for me in my second year on the job market. But it very nearly didn't go that way for me, and even though I intellectually understood that my identity shouldn't be tied up in whether I got an academic job or not, it was very hard for me to disentangle my identity from that. So, be prepared for that and do whatever you can along the way to disentangle those identities (having a clear alternate plan that you think you would enjoy would help a lot, I think).

Anonymous Wombat

Some good advice so far. I wanted to add one thing that's hinted at in a couple previous comments.

I was on the job market this past year, had many interviews, and got a TT job. So in that way the whole thing worked, at least so far, and I don't regret doing it. But the reason I don't regret it isn't because I was successful; it's because, during the years I spent doing my PhD, I lived in a place I enjoyed and was happy. My wife and kids were also happy, and we didn't have to make many real sacrifices. If none of this had been true, I now believe I would regret doing my PhD, even if the outcome I have now had still occurred (and that's a bit of an unfair counterfactual: a great part of my success, probably the majority of it, came exactly because I had such a great environment to work in).

So in addition to the good points mentioned so far, I would say, do not let your PhD come to so dominate your life that you neglect or abandon the relationships, hobbies, and experiences that make your life worth living in the first place. If you're able, take the location of your PhD institution into account in your decision. Many programs, for example, are in the NYC/NJ/Boston area, but I hate living in the city, so I would have been miserable at any of them. Make friends and join clubs outside of philosophy. All of these things will have an enormous impact on your mental health, and the better you feel about your life, the more clearly you'll be able to see when it's time to give up philosophy and move on.

And if philosophy is your entire life, may David Lewis have mercy on your soul.

Asia Ferrin

Congrats on the funded MA program Cautiously Optimistic! This sounds like the beginning of an exciting new chapter. And you are off to a great start (way ahead of where I was in your place) in thinking about expectations and setting yourself up for well-being and success. Like others here, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the challenges of the PhD, and hard lessons learned, after I finished. I recently put those thoughts in a post at Diverse Issues in Higher Education: https://diverseeducation.com/article/124210/

The post is not only about setting useful expectations, but also strategies and tools for making it through what for lots is a tough process!

Best of luck to you!


The idea that you can make a serious attempt at the philosophy job market while not allowing your identity to become wrapped up in the profession strikes me as unrealistic given human psychology, especially at these ages. Young people in particular are very social and define themselves socially. I'm not sure it's even psychologically possible for someone who is 21-30 to go through grad school and approach the entire thing seriously enough to bother and not come out with a self-identity of philosopher/academic.

Now maybe hard work really doesn't count for much of anything on the job market--from reading other posts and comments on this blog that does seem to be the position of many--but Marcus will tell you that as he published more, for example, he got more interviews. So, I do suspect that hard work and merit play some role, even if it's not as big of a role as it should be. So, probably if you want to bother with grad school, you rationally should work as hard as you can at publishing and teaching and just generally building the best CV you can. If you aren't going to do this, then what's the point really?

Once you come out of grad school and you identify as a philosopher/academic, which you most certainly will if you took the experience seriously at all, you will try for at least a number of years to get a TT job or similar. Once you fail, which the majority do, this is going to be very hard on you psychologically. You will likely see yourself as a failure, and you may at least to some degree feel as if you wasted many years of your life. I don't know what the at risk factors are for becoming particularly miserable, but it happens to many people. I developed major depression and had to be medicated, and it took approximately 4.5 years for my mental health to improve and for me to start feeling positive again.

So, my position is that I wouldn't recommend that you "go for it!" I think this is an irresponsible way to treating your future self and managing your life. Now, of course, there are a lot of conditionals on my recommendation. What if you get a full ride at Harvard? What if in your opinion it's either philosophy or no career at all? What if... I can't address all these potential complexities. What I can say is that I think your chances of being happy are much higher if you don't go to grad school in philosophy. That doesn't even mean you can't be an academic. Go do psychology instead. This field is much more employable.

Secretly Irrational

It is important to try and manage your expectations, but also understand that there is a chance you won't be very good at doing so. I'm extrapolating from a small data set (my own experience), so take it for what it's worth (not that much).

When I started grad school I said that I was willing to do the PhD even if it didn't lead to a TT job. I said things such as, "I know I probably won't get a job. I'll be disappointed if I don't get one, but I'm not getting my hopes up." But like many others I spent the greater part of a decade devoting my working life to philosophy--reading it, writing it, discussing it, teaching it. If you love doing this kind of work, and you spend that many years doing what you love, it is incredibly difficult to truly manage your expectations. Despite my best efforts, by the time I went on the job market I had secretly and subconsciously let my hopes soar high. I wanted a job in philosophy and I wanted it bad. And deep down I thought, "I'll beat the odds." To save face around others (and perhaps because I knew I was being irrational) I still insisted otherwise. But the truth was that despite my best efforts, my desire for a job and my belief that I would get had really gotten away from me.


Run now and don't ever look back! Save yourself while you still can...

If you cannot think of a non-academic life for yourself, maybe, and if you are interested, you can go for a programming-heavy social or cognitive science field, anything with the word 'computational' before it, then you may be cautiously optimistic about getting an academic job...
The "system" is slowly but surely murdering academic philosophy...
Again, save yourself! It is too late for the rest of us...


I've often thought that there might be a catch-22 of sorts involved here. During grad school, when I first got a real sense of the depressing chances of actually making it in academia, I considered doing a different degree part-time alongside my PhD. That way, if I didn’t make it, I’d have at least set myself up to pursue a ‘back-up career’. However, a number of friends (all grad students themselves) advised against this. The way they saw it, the less time that I spent reading, writing, talking, and doing philosophy, the less competitive I was likely to be on the job market. In short, the less *invested* I was in getting a job in philosophy, the less likely I was to *get* a job in philosophy.

I ended up taking their advice: I put absolutely everything that I had into philosophy. (And I mean everything. Though I had a decent social life, I worked long hours, rarely if ever took any days off and had no hobbies unless we count daily gym routines/running.)

I did get a job straight out of grad school, so what I say in what follows could very well be biased/clouded by my good fortune. But looking back, I think that those who advised me to put all my eggs in one basket were onto something. If I’d been studying/doing something else while writing the PhD, I would likely have written fewer papers, submitted the papers that I did write to journals later on (perhaps too late to be accepted for publication in time for the job market), and networked less/attended fewer conferences. My point here is obviously not that it’s impossible to get a job in philosophy without leading a balanced life/doing another degree at the same time. But it seems difficult to deny that dividing one’s time/resources in significant ways lessens one’s chances of success.

The reason that I say that this is a kind of catch-22 is that by taking the course of action that maximises one’s chances of securing a job in academia, one thereby makes it far more difficult to pursue an alternative career if things don’t work out. On the flipside, by taking the course of action that makes it easier to pursue an alternative career if things don’t work out, one seems to make it more likely that things *won’t* work out. Sad—but I fear it may be true.


I've just finished my MA, and I wish I had received some of this insightful advice beforehand. From quite early on in my program, I was intensely focused on gaining admittance into a top PhD program. Fortunately, I achieved that goal, but throughout the program, I tried to focus on what an incredible opportunity it was to spend two years of my life reading, writing, and teaching alongside several brilliant and supportive colleagues. This helped me cope with the possibility of not getting into any schools—or at least the schools I would have most liked to attend— because I stopped thinking of an MA experience that didn't land me a great PhD offer as a waste of time. I realize that many faculty members and colleagues might not be as supportive or enjoyable as the ones I experienced, but I think it's generally quite easy to fail to appreciate an MA or PhD program because its value is measured merely as an instrument for achieving the next step in the TT dream.

elisa freschi

@Humanati: Thanks, makes good sense. I wonder whether one could create an alt-ac implicitly. Suppose you work wholeheartedly on Kant. If you fail to find a job in philosophy, you will probably be able to work as a translator (which is, by the way, what I did for some years at the end of my PhD). In other cases, you might end up having enough skills as a DH-experts and the like.



Google suggests that the median income for a German translator is $30,000, which is probably roughly equivalent to adjuncting


@Elisa: I like that suggestion! I agree that it would be helpful to have some idea of promising alternatives in the back of your mind. It would certainly be good to have at least some implicit sense of how the skills developed during grad school might make you well-suited to alternative career paths.

Greg Stoutenburg

Congratulations, Cautiously Optimistic!

As many have pointed out in this thread and elsewhere, the odds of success measured in a certain kind of way are against you. Part of the reason, I think, is that figuring out what to do prior to engaging in the PhD pursuit is a really difficult matter. (I told my own story with partly that idea in mind on this blog recently: https://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2019/05/sweat-equity-on-the-philosophy-job-market.html)

Personally, though, I don't want to live the kind of life where the question of whether or not to embark on a course of action is determined by the value of what happens at the end. I recommend thinking of it this way: if you knew, right now, that you will not get a job in philosophy at the end of your PhD, would you still want to do it? Keep in mind that you'll spend several years making close friends, visiting cool places, having amazing conversations that may never be repeated in your life, and generally doing lots of things that you actually care about. And it's also important, as with any choice, to consider what the alternative option is. Is it philosophy PhD or the deli counter? Or is it philosophy PhD or something else at least close to as enriching as the philosophy PhD, but safer?

elisa freschi

@Anon and Greg: Personally, I think you are highlighting the right points (the value in itself of the PhD experience as opposed to its instrumental value as a way to get a job as a philosophy professor).

@gradstudent: Sure, I am not claiming I became rich as a translator. But it was a good solution for a while and it could be done at home (no expenses for commuting, moving to a new campus, renting a place close to the campus you are adjuncting at, etc.).



Anyone in the position to do a PhD in philosophy has an alternative option other than deli counter. Also, many find grad school quite stressful and tiring. Sure there are good aspects to it, but it’s not entirely a positive experience for most. Personally, I worked really hard and found it exhausting with the constant judgement and pursuit of excellence. Mental health issues are rampant for grad students for a reason.

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