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PGR top 50

I doubt we'll accept a grad class next year, although not officially as a response to the pandemic. Instead, we had twice as many students accept our offers as we expected this year, and so - because we have a set number of stipend spots for the department as a whole - wouldn't have been able to take any more next year in any case. But did twice as many students accept as a response to the pandemic? Very possible. Good luck!

Mike Titelbaum

Regarding the factual question: I have a high confidence that fewer students will be admitted to PhD programs in general (including in Philosophy) next year than have been in recent years. This is not because I know anything about policies individual programs are going to adopt. It's because next year is going to be a terrible year for university budgets. So funding for programs will go down, which will decrease the funding available for graduate students. And since many programs have policies not to admit students they can't fund, the number of admits will go down. I'm sorry to be the bearer of such bad news, but I would be incredibly surprised if this weren't next year's reality.

another PGR ranked dept

We've been told that we will likely be able to admit students, but a smaller cohort than usual next year. Of course, things are changing rapidly and unpredictably, but I very much doubt that the graduate school would tell us this unless it was the best case scenario...

Leaving home

I left a PhD program in 2019 to apply out this cycle. I was waitlisted in several departments, but no dice because of COVID. My life is ruined. My ability to pursue academic philosophy is minimally stalled out for two years, during which I will probably not be able to keep up with student loan payments. But it’s also not clear that things will get better after the 2021 cycle. Why would things get better, when all signs point to things getting worse? Even if I were accepted, would I still be willing to uproot my family? Will I be able to afford $1000+ in application fees? So it looks like my time in philosophy may just be over.


Assuming slots will be reduced going forward, I would think about a factor Marcus didn't mention: how competitive will you be in the pool? Are you doing your BA at a top school? Do you have anyone famous writing a rec letter? What's your GPA and GRE score? Are you a member of an underrepresented minority? (These are questions for you to think about, not answer publicly here, of course.) It might be worth having a hard conversation with your advisor (or a trusted friend who's been part of grad admissions decisions) about your writing sample and just how strong it really is. If you're the kind of student who was likely to be admitted only to programs below 25 or 30 in the PRG, then perhaps it's not worth the effort of applying. If you'll honestly be competitive for a spot at a top 10 or 20 program, then it's maybe more worth staying in the pool.

Grad Applicant

How likely is it that this situation with grad schools will stay on beyond the next cycle of applications? Are the budget constraints this year going to leave a lasting impact on grad schools' abilities to take on new students for many more application cycles to come? Or is it just a temporary measure? If the next cycle is brutally competitive given the reduced number of spots, is it better to take a year off and reapply in 2022?

A Depressed Undergrad

I am yet another junior who was planning to apply next cycle. I am torn between not applying at all next cycle (to save some money) then applying a year or two later and applying next cycle (and the subsequent cycle) then giving up if I do not gain admission. It is a terrible situation. My philosophy professors told me to not go to philosophy graduate school, despite my excellent performances in their courses (and I am currently attending one of the top 10 USNWR undergraduate institutions), due to the uncertainty regarding the job market. This was last semester when I solicited advice from them. Now, if I ask them, I feel like they will strongly, actively discourage me from going or applying to graduate schools in philosophy given that the probability of one getting a job after grad school is converging to 0 these days.

Stubborn College Senior

As someone applying this dreaded upcoming cycle, I have several thoughts. I want to know if the universities will be forthcoming in their decision to limit or not admit a new class. It seems obviously unethical to accept application fees from hundreds of applicants if they only have no slots, or perhaps one slot open for someone working on Medieval philosophy.

I would love advice as to how to best go about applying anyways- for those of us who won't listen to any advice to the contrary. Do we apply to 30 schools? Do we apply to way more MA programs than initially thought if coming from a BA, or will the market be just as bad in two years and we're better off applying for every PhD under the sun? Can we reach out to every school on our list and expect an honest response as to how many slots they have? If not, what do we do?

Also, it is so paradoxical that prospective PhD students are both expected to love Philosophy and NOTHING ELSE otherwise we shouldn't pursue it, and yet simultaneously be totally okay with a bleak job market. I need to have a Plan B in case the job market doesn't work yet, and yet several people say that if you have a Plan B, you should just pursue that instead. Sounds like pretty destructive thinking to me.

What advice would you give to someone with a great Plan B (is totally okay going to an unranked program and not getting an academic job in philosophy and will have found getting a PhD intrinsically valuable should it not work out) who thinks being a philosopher is an even greater Plan A? I don't hear enough advice targeted for those people (I know we are rare, but we certainly seem likelier to end up happy than the person who views anything less than a tenure-track job as abject failure)

PhD Applicant

One question is whether departments will be transparent and provide information publicly on how many students they are looking to admit. This information will help people to plan accordingly and decide where to hedge their bets. Applying to schools is extremely costly for many of us. Also, those facing the two body problem would be able to avoid wasting money applying to departments who are admitting 1-2.

I totally feel the same way (or perhaps worst) than the reader who commented. My partner and I face a two-body problem. We're hoping to get into the same PhD philosophy programmes, or to programmes that are close by. We're also both international students and I assume no programme wants so many international students. So, if programmes are going to admit 1-2 students next year, it seems like there's little hope for us. It'll be quite a waste, especially since we've had some early successes (eg. a total of 5 published papers in our undergrad years).


(1) I think that we'll see fewer places next year and then it will gradually return to normal over of a few years. I started graduate school in 2008 and that was about the course after the financial crisis at the schools I know well. After all, the size of graduate cohorts tracks financial and prestige-based reasons, not optimal size given the job market, and those reasons tend to reassert themselves more quickly than expected.

(2) The advice that you should only go to graduate school if you cannot imagine doing anything else is stupid because it only selects for delusion. Still, the point is not that you should not have a Plan B. The purpose is to get you to consider seriously the differences between philosophy and more conventionally rewarding forms of employment. Academia in general, and philosophy in particular, is brutal, starting with graduate school and continuing until tenure at least. Graduate school is difficult and often demoralizing, competitive, not financially rewarding, and requires you to sacrifice control of things like where you live which most people value and take for granted. Early career philosophers, who more and more are post-docs and VAPs before they are tenure-track, is an extended period of transience and uncertainty where you try to find a permanent job in an opaque and capricious job market. None of it comes with a promise of any extrinsic payoff like desirable employment, or even continued employment, at the end.

Your advisors want you to think about whether you want to go on in philosophy given those facts and more which characterize the profession at this point in time. Is it really worth it for you?

two cents

Hi, Leaving home. I'm really sorry for such bad news. I just wonder why you decided to leave your previous program before this application season? I know some people who transferred out when they are still in some PhD program. That strategy sounds safer.

Marcus Arvan

Hey JDF: I have to take some issue with this: "The advice that you should only go to graduate school if you cannot imagine doing anything else is stupid because it only selects for delusion."

I think there are *very* good reasons to doubt whether it is a good idea to go to graduate school on the above grounds. But this is only because, as you note, academia is a brutal and incredibly uncertain path with (often enough) enormous costs to those whose careers don't go the way they hoped (viz. a tenure-track job, etc.). A choice to pursue an academic career is a *huge* risk, and anyone thinking of doing so needs to know that.

Still, all that being said, I don't think the advice merely "selects for delusion." I've known plenty of people in different walks of life--including artists (but also doctors, etc.)--who say (and I think they are right) that almost *nothing* makes them happy other than the thing they feel called to do. For example, I know artists who will tell you that not doing art for a living would be like "cutting off an arm." I even know someone who was a very wealthy X-er who made a lot of money, had a great career, and large family but who all the while *wished* he had pursued his passion of becoming a Y-er--and now who, late in life, seems to wish above all that he could go back in time to be a Y-er rather than an X-er (it seems to be a really huge regret).

Life is hard enough already without giving up on one's dreams or sincere felt calling on the basis of it "selecting for self-delusion." I think there are plenty of people who can be happy doing a lot of things. But I also know people who can really only be happy doing *one* thing. Is there something wrong with them? I don't know. Maybe. But, in my case at least, I did try working outside of philosophy for a time and I was absolutely miserable each and every day It was clear to me that something was *very* wrong, that the only things that made me really want to get out of bed in the morning were music and philosophy, and that choosing a safe route in life because trying to become a rock star or philosopher were "delusions" would have been a really sad way to make my life choices. (I'll be frank here: I've never been naturally disposed to be the happiest person in the world, so finding something I truly loved to do meant a lot to me--more so, perhaps, than people with naturally happier constitutions).

We only have one chance at life. My own attitude is: if you truly love something and have some talent at it, GO for it--not because it's particularly good advice, but because there are real risks however you choose and you kinda ultimately have to take a leap of faith and deal your best with whatever happens. The important thing is to know that a could turn out badly (as many artists do for example), and that if it does, you'll need to pick up the pieces and find another way. I have a ton of musician and artist friends (and philosophy friends to boot) who had to do this--leaving behind failed musical careers for gainful employment--and while I'm sure some of them wish they'd never followed their passion, I know from experience that many of them are at least happy they gave their dreams a real shot rather than giving up without even giving their dreams a shot at all.


Hi Marcus,

I don't think we disagree. I didn't say 'don't follow your dreams'. I said that the advice that you should go to graduate school (or anything else) ONLY IF you cannot imagine doing anything else is silly. In fact, I've said you should apply to graduate school EVEN IF you can imagine doing something else, so long as you think that it is worth it knowing what it is like and the sacrfices it requires. So all your friends are to the good in my book.

My point isthat the standard advice isn't useful because no one means it and as far as I can tell no one satisfies it. Consider: It says that your physician friend should not have become a mathematician, since clearly he could imagine doing something else. It would also have you not follow philosophy, since even in your own account you could have made a go of it as a musician (though perhaps those offering this advice would say the same about that course of life). So even those who we agree should follow their dreams will not count by this measure as correct in deciding to go into philosophy. That leaves precious few who would. Hence, my claim that it selects for delusion.

I think everyone says I am in love with philosophy. It's true! Still, I can imagine doing something else, as can everyone I know (even Chris Korsgaard!). Most safe jobs would lead me to the ledge, but there are some I could stomach. I still think I made the right choice, as I imagine you did too. I likewise think my friends who went to graduate school, finished, and head off for different lives were probably right to do it as well. As I said in a comment on another blog, life is not to be lived as mere preparation for your next planned stage of it. They were in philosophy for the right reasons and got out of it for them as well. But live should be lived with awareness of what you're doing and why you're doing it, and the standard advice doesn't help people do that.

Marcus Arvan

Hi JDF: I see your point, and agree that you and I probably don't disagree as much as my comment suggested. But let me still push back on a few things.

I guess I've always interpreted "could not imagine" here less literally than you do--instead as meaning (at least as an implicature) something like "if you could not imagine yourself being *happy* doing anything else." Maybe people who say the above advice really meant it literally (viz. inconceivability!). However, this seems to me hard to believe given how patently absurd it is when taken perfectly literally (as you nicely illustrate). Given how absurd a perfectly literal interpretation is, it seems to me the most charitable interpretation is the different one (about what one could imagine oneself being *happy* doing, where "could" here is in turn interpreted as indexed to a person's own psychological constitution).

Anyway, when it comes to this interpretation, I think there are plenty of people who don't satisfy the condition. Your say, "I think everyone says I am in love with philosophy. It's true!" I know for a fact that this is false. I know someone personally who told me in conversation that they went into philosophy because they sorta liked it but really because the lifestyle of a professor (summers off!) sounded attractive to them. I also know people in other fields who said the same thing to me. These, it seems to me, are especially bad reasons to hazard the risks of pursuing a PhD in philosophy. *These* people aren't called to the craft. They could *easily* be happy doing something else. They just figured being an academic would sort of be cool. In contrast, some unhappy souls (like myself) really only seem to be made tolerably happy by a few things. I *sincerely* cannot imagine myself being happy doing anything other than philosophy or music. Lord knows I tried!

Consequently, I'm still inclined to think there is *something* to the advice as I interpret (viz. risk grad school only if you really, really can't imagine doing anything else and being happy). I entirely agree with you that "life [sic] should be lived with awareness of what you're doing and why you're doing". I also agree that the above advice can be dangerous *by* leading people to engage in self-delusion. I don't mean to deny that. But, for all that, I still don't agree that "the standard advice doesn't help people do that" (making choices with awareness). For reasons I gave in my last comment, I think the advice *can* help people (specifically, those who really *couldn't* be happy doing anything else). The important thing is for a person giving such advice to not stop there. They should add in addition (as I do to my students!): "You know, you REALLY need to understand the risks. Let me give you the horrible data about attrition (only 50% of PhD students finish), the job market data (only 37% of those who do get permanent academic jobs), AND tell you my own horrible, horrible personal story as a grad student and job-marketeer..." I've told undergrad students who said they wanted to go to grad school in philosophy all of this. Almost NONE of them decided to hazard grad school. In that regard, I think by giving them the full advice--both the (1) "only do it if you can't imagine" advice and (2) let me tell you horrible, horrible data and stories advice--I served them well. I think that's how we help people make these kinds of decisions with awareness.


Yes, we are. And we are doing better financially than a lot of places. However, everything is on budget next year, and we are likely to have grad students on the market longer who we will want to try and support. This year we ended up cutting admissions by about half because we didn't go to the waitlist, and next year we plan on admitting half our usual number


Hi Marcus, I also have issues with your advice. I tell my undergraduates who want to become academic philosophers that they should think about alternatives from the beginning. Having no alternative is problematic given the lottery called job market. For me, your advice sounds a little like: if you want to become a pilot, you need the dedication of a kamikaze. I do not think this is good advice.

I got my TT job after I had began to develop an alternative because of the terrible situation on the job market. I had partly lost my belief in becoming a professional philosopher (something I wanted since high school). The same holds for a colleague who got a TT job very recently. I have to admit that I find it a little odd that you suggest that we did want it as much as you because we could imagine ourselves as something else than academic philosophers. I do not see why having an alternative means that you do not want it so much as the ones who have no alternative. Isn't this more a difference in "need" than in "desire"? I actually think that being that "needy" is not a good situation when it comes to your profession. And this is what academic philosophy is at the end: a profession. No academic philosopher is Diogenes in the barrel.

Mike Titelbaum

To Grad Applicant and JDF’s first point: What happens after this upcoming year will depend on how quickly the economy recovers, what happens to state budgets, and what happens in the higher education sector in general. I can’t predict those things, so I wouldn’t be comfortable making any assumptions about the situation going forward.

Marcus Arvan

Recent TT: I think your comment infers things I didn’t say or mean to imply. One of my own biggest regrets during the period that I struggled to finish my PhD program, and then during my 7 years on the market, was that I didn’t have an alternative (i.e. “Plan B“). The reason I didn’t have an alternative is simple: no one I knew in grad school had one. It just wasn’t something people seemed to consider back then. I think that was a very, very bad norm and from what I can tell people in grad programs these days are increasingly realizing that and working more to ensure that they do have Plan B’s. I think this is really great. Indeed, I think this blog has emphasized the importance of backup plans a lot. So I’m definitely not advocating being a “kamikaze pilot” provided you’re a dedicated one—nor have I meant to that someone who has a backup plan “wants it less” than someone who does (again, I wish *I'd* had backup plan). My only point—to be clear, the only one!—is that I just don’t think the advice, “Only go to grad school if you can’t imagine anything else making you happy” is bad advice (provided, again, it is conjoined with other important advice). I think it is good advice because it emphasizes the gravity of the decision and the stakes involved. Backup plan or no backup plan, 7-10 years in a grad program without finishing or getting a permanent academic job can be a huge sunk cost in terms of years, stress, disappointment, and lost income, among other things. The advice in question in effect conveys to someone, “Be really, really sure this is that important to you before you risk all of this.” To me, that still seems like sound advice.


Thank you for the clarification, Marcus. I agree with most of what you say in your answer to me. But yes, I worry about the implications of your advice. I believe that it causes students to think about philosophy as the only thing that makes them happy. I also believe that your advice implies that the ones who are graduate students or faculty members think about philosophy in this way. I believe that this ideology is a reason for some of the problems you describe in your answer and you work against with this blog.


I am a bit skeptical of the artist who couldn't be happy doing anything else. There are just so many careers in the world, that I find it hard to believe that it is true of anyone that there is only one thing in the world they could be happy doing. Especially since all the evidence shows happiness is largely constitutive of, (1) making enough money so you don't stress about paying bills, (2) having good relationships, (3) natural disposition. Maybe you mean, Marcus, "enjoyment while working/being employed" rather than what I would call "happiness" which is more about an overall state of satisfaction and fulfillment about one's life. Either way, I still find it very implausible anyone could only be happy with one career, and even more implausible that they could ever know that. There are thousands of careers we have never heard of or considered. So how could anyone possibly be confident in saying that they could only be happy in one or two careers? That's like saying I know I could only be happy marrying this one person, when there are thousands, millions, of potential partners you have never met. It all sounds very romantic and a good movie script, perhaps, but not something that is likely to bear out in real life.

Moreover, I think philosophy is one of those careers where it is especially implausible. That is because philosophers have all purpose skills in critical thinking/creative reasoning, etc. that can be used in such a wide variety of employment opportunities. For instance various types of law, think tanks, journalism, tutoring, high school teacher, etc. I bet there are lots of careers that use very similar skill sets. If so, then is "being a philosopher" really about the particular form of academia, "summers off", etc? But that is just what you said people shouldn't consider important.

Anyway, I think the issue of contention is the suggestion that if someone "couldn't imagine themselves doing something else that makes them happy" that this makes them somehow more fit to go to grad school, i.e. more fit than those who *can* imagine themselves happy doing something else. This seems problematic to me, as I think those the most fit for grad school are those mature enough to accept, and work toward, a plan B. You say this too. But a plan B for these "happy doing nothing else" students would be a plan for a career in which they couldn't imagine themselves being happy. I suspect if someone can't imagine themselves being happy, they are not going to be very motivated to put time and effort into this possibility. Why would they? They are going to be unhappy, after all. So they might as well put all their eggs into the "happy career" basket. What do they have to lose? I guess someone might argue there are different levels of misery...


Hi Marcus,

I think we disagree on whether “Only go to grad school if you can’t imagine anything else making you happy” conveys “Be really, really sure this is that important to you before you risk all of this”. I think it conveys something more like “Go to graduate school only if nothing is anywhere near as important to you, and no other life is anywhere near as potentially fulfilling, before you risk all this”. To put it as it were prospectively, it engenders a 'philosophy or bust' attitude, not the 'philosophy first but X if philosophy does not work out' attitude we all actually think is correct. That is why the comment to which I was originally replying thought there was something *paradoxical* about someone offering the standard advice while also advising graduate students to have a considered Plan B.

I think it is much better to just lay out the risks and rewards of academic life and try to help students make cleareyed and informed decisions about whether and how to maturely pursue it.

Marcus Arvan

Hey JDF: I definitely get that concern. I definitely try to make the risks and rewards as clear as can be for those reasons. Like I said, I've actually deterred most of my undergrads who wanted to go to grad school from going. Making the risks clear and vivid to them is critical!


I think the precise meaning of “Only go to grad school if you can’t imagine anything else making you happy” is being overthought here, or at least thought about much more carefully than the average undergrad will do. I suspect Marcus is right in thinking that this advice, plus all the data, will convey the right message to undergrads. It sounds like for many the message was effective too, although I worry that it might be less effective for some.

This discussion has me thinking about the kind of student who would say they "can't imagine anything else making me happy". I'm sure many potential students are older and at a more mature place in their life when they contemplate graduate school, but many were like me. I took my first philosophy class in high school, then entered college as a philosophy major. I was laser-focused on philosophy as the thing to do, and as a career. If asked, I would have said I couldn't imagine anything else making me happy, not because I had carefully thought through alternative careers, but because the spirited part of my soul was just *captivated* by philosophy and the rational part of my soul didn't yet have enough experience or self awareness to do the sort of reflecting required to really consider the question seriously.

So maybe, at least for younger students, a good idea is to be that missing rational part of the soul. Help them imagine alternatives to philosophy: suggest to them working in policy, or law, or bio and security ethics, or whatever. Really make those options vivid, discuss how they just as much involve doing philosophy, and try to find connections with whatever excites the student.

I'm not sure discussing the raw data on risks (e.g., 50% drop-out rate, 37% TT rate) would have phased me in that stage of my life. But, if someone I had respected had vividly sketched for me alternative careers in philosophy and discussed those with me with excitement and conviction, I think that would have gotten me to reconceptualize myself and my options a bit.

Marcus Arvan

Mike and Amanda: I think Mike is right about the psychology of many young people, and I'm glad that Mike at least agrees with my general approach. But I'd also like to broaden the scope of our discussion of how people's psychology is relevant here, so as to address some of Amanda's concerns.

Amanda writes: "I am a bit skeptical of the artist who couldn't be happy doing anything else. There are just so many careers in the world, that I find it hard to believe that it is true of anyone that there is only one thing in the world they could be happy doing. Especially since all the evidence shows happiness is largely constitutive of, (1) making enough money so you don't stress about paying bills, (2) having good relationships, (3) natural disposition."

I am well aware of facts (1)-(3), yet I do not find it hard at all to believe that some people can only be decently happy (let alone very happy) doing relatively few things. One important thing to note here is that the research on (1)-(3) is statistical. That is, as a matter of statistical regularities across populations, (1)-(3) seem to be the best predictors of happiness (to the extent that such a thing is measurable). However, in any population and distribution of qualities, there are severe outliers. Indeed, nearly all things in nature are observed to fall along a normal statistical distribution, with most falling toward the center of the bell curve and outliers becoming ever more rare the further away from the center. Nevertheless, some people are outliers in ways that can be important to be sensitive to. In particular, I think that for some people, (3)--their natural psychological dispositions--may have an outsized influence on their happiness.

At some risk of oversharing, let me share some of my own life experience. Ever since I was a very young child, I have been an uncommonly shy, introverted, sullen person. To paint a picture for you, the cartoon character I identified with most as a young child was Eeyore: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eeyore . Oddly enough, the other cartoon character I identified most with was Schroeder from the Peanuts cartoon, the pianist who loses himself in playing the piano: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schroeder_(Peanuts)

In other words, from a very young age, I've been very strongly disposed to (A) not be very happy, except when (B) engrossed in art. I'm not ashamed of this in the slightest. I tried to fight it for many years throughout childhood, adolescence, and beyond--and like other people I know with a similar temperament, I am fairly good at 'putting on an act' in everyday life, putting on a smile and going about my business. Yet, despite fighting it for so long, I recognize that it is simply who I am, and I am largely at peace with it (trust me, it was a hard-won battle, though like all people I still struggle with who I am from time to time).

Anyway, here's what my life was like as I grew older. As a shy, introverted person, I was never very good at developing close relationships. I've only ever had a couple of close friends, and am fortunate to have a loving spouse. But that's about it for me. I spend the vast majority of my time alone. So (2) is mostly out. Then, when I worked in normal jobs--in high school, college, and afterwards--I was deeply unhappy. I dreaded going to work every...single...day. And I tried a bunch of jobs, including two jobs in another area I studied as an undergraduate (clinical psychology). So (1), money, as nice as it is, was no panacea for me. That leaves (3): natural temperament.

Over the course of my life, I have learned that I am simply one of those people (and I've known others) who are, by natural temperament, strongly disposed to unhappiness. Throughout it all, there have only ever been *two* things that make me feel 'happy and alive' to spend my days doing: philosophy and music. When I wake up in the morning to this day, I can't wait to do either one of them. If you talk to me about these things, I will get excited. They give me happiness and purpose. Without them, I am left unhappy and listless. The other other thing in this world that gives me happiness is a person: my spouse--and unfortunately, I can't make a living just being her husband.

Am I an unfortunate person? Quite possibly. Throughout my life, I have vacillated between regarding the constraints of my natural temperament as either a terrible curse or a wonderful blessing. I suspect, in reality, it is roughly equal parts of both. It is terrible to have so few things capable of making me feel joy. But it is *wonderful* to have two things that do. I wouldn't give that up for anything (well, maybe life in heaven with my wife and family).

I tell this story because I think I am not alone. I've known other people (artists, writers, musicians, philosophers) temperamentally inclined to unhappiness who find that *one* thing that brings them joy. When you're this kind of person and find that one thing, my own experience is that, yes, it can be very difficult to imagine living a happy life otherwise. Can people like this pursue a Plan B? Sure. I've known many who have. But, for all that, I also know they would sincerely say it was (proverbially) like cutting off an arm. In any case, I think it's these kinds of people to whom the advice in question here may be appropriate. I *almost* failed out of grad school and *almost* never got a tenure-track job. But, now that I have one, I spend my days doing philosophy and making music. I am happy now--after 43 years on this planet--in a basic way that I was never able to achieve before. We should not deter temperamentally unhappy people from pursuing the one thing they find joy in, even if the risks are terrible. We should inform them of the risks in the starkest possible way--but we should, I think, encourage them to pursue their dreams. But what do I know?


First, thank you Amanda for your argument. I completely agree with you. Second, I appreciate that you share your personal experience with us, Marcus. I do not want to offend you, but the more I hear about your life, the more uncomfortable I get with your advise. You basically tell students that they have to be the type of person you are to go to grad school. I hope you see it as fair that I conclude this from combining what you say in your initial post with how you describe yourself in your last post. Where do take this entitlement?

Although Amanda has expressed what is also my opinion so much better, I would like to add something that might be helpful for students. I tell my students that they should think about the following questions before they decide to apply for grad school in philosophy:
1) Is academic philosophy the right and the only place to fulfill what you love in studying philosophy?
(Since I work in Continental philosophy, this is an important question.)
2) Do you feel comfortable in the social context?
3) Can you cope with the psychological stress that comes from the very competitive context (insecurity, mobility etc.)?
4) Can you afford the risk of grad school economically?
Wealthy parents who support you is the best situation, but it can be also sufficient to be the national of a welfare state that gives you a second chance in case you need it (like in my case, coming from a working class background). Having a good and realistic alternative in mind can also help. This point actually brings me to COVID19: Philosophy will not be that different from other sectors of our societies. The global pandemic highlights the social inequalities of societies. Less students will be able to afford the risk of studying philosophy economically. And yes, I believe we should talk about the influence of social and economic factors on your success in philosophy.


Just to add to what Marcus says, anyone with an academic PhD is already in the top 1% (?) of the population in terms of education. They are an outlier. Similarly, I suspect many of the people seriously considering getting one are likewise outliers in many ways. You would have to be, to have the temperament, grades, and perspective needed to find the general idea of philosophy graduate studies appealing at all.

So, while there are many types of people who pursue philosophy, I suspect many of them are outliers in the way Marcus describes.

Marcus Arvan

Recent TT: I think there must be some kind of misunderstanding here. The point I am trying to make is that there is a certain kind of person that the "only do this if you can't imagine being happy doing anything else" may have a unique and important resonance with. I don't imagine this is the *only* kind of person who may have reasons to consider graduate school. As an advisor, I can't peer into my students' minds (or souls) to know their life story or what their deepest psychological needs are. That's not my place to know anyway, at least not if they don't volunteer it in a moment of frank honesty.

As an advisor, when a student comes my way, my task is to advise them well--to give them information that (as Mike says) helps them to make the decision with relevant information and reflective awareness. So, when a student comes my way, there are multiple kind of people they could be for all I know:

(1) They could be someone who really likes philosophy a lot but could be happy doing other things.
(2) They could be temperamentally more like people like me (who seemingly can't be happy with many things).

My suggestion in this thread is that the "only do it if you can't imagine being happy doing anything else" may be helpful for both of these kinds of people (and everyone in between). First, the advice (or so I think, and Mike seemed to agree) conveys the gravity of the choice. For example, when I convey this advice to type-1 students, their reaction often is, "Why? Isn't being an academic fun?" Then I share the statistics, tell them my own story of 8 years in grad school before spending 7 years on the market. Then, they often seem to get it. They say things like, "Wow, I had no idea academia is so tough!" At which point I say, "If, knowing all of this, you still want to go to grad school, I fully support you." My experience thus far is that my (seemingly) type-1 students often then decide against it, figuring they *could* be happy doing something else. However, in at least a couple of cases, students that appeared to be of this type chose grad school anyway. So, I think the approach does type-1 students a service.

Then there are type-2 students (people rather like me, who struggle being happy with many things). Again, I don't know how many of my students are like this--but having lived it, my sense is that the approach may speak to their lived perspective as well.

So, none of this is to suggest that only people like me should go to graduate school, or that I have some "entitlement" to decide those things. No, my only aim is to be a good advisor to all of my students--and the only point I've been trying to make in responding to Amanda and others is that there *are* students out there who are quite different in their psychological constitution and narrative life-history to think about. That's all!

Given what I have just said here, are you still uncomfortable with my approach advice? Again, it is not supposed to presuppose anything in particular about my life, but rather be advice that (I think) can be important and relevant in different ways to different kinds of people.


Yes, I am still uncomfortable (although again: I agree with a lot you say). You are actually describing with what I am uncomfortable. You present your own psychological disposition as the first standard by which students should decide whether they are fit for grad school. I believe this is a false approach because it prefers the students who are like you (only 1 of the other students went to grad school!). Let me us an example: If I would tell students that you "have to be the person that can be happy with other things" to be fit for grade school, the type of person you are would be disadvantaged. Your preference of your type is only based on your example and on anecdotal evidence.
Put differently, as advisers we set a norm whether we want or not. And in your case, the first norm is your own psychological disposition. This is what I am uncomfortable with, actually because of both things it is a (contentious) psychological disposition and it is your own!

But it might be smaller difference than it sounds like. I agree that we should tell students that this is a grave and important decision. But I do not think that the psychological disposition "only do it if you can't imagine being happy doing anything else" is a good way to express this.


Maybe it is unclear why I have problem your reference to a psychological disposition, based on self-knowledge. Here is the reason: Some scholars deny the reliability of psychological self-knowledge in principle (e.g. Eric Schwitzgebel, ‘The Unreliability of Naïve Introspection’, Philosophical Review, 117:2 (2008), pp. 245−273). Even advocates of the significance of first person self-knowledge mostly restrict its scope to the phenomenological content of basic emotions like the feeling of pain(e.g. Annalisa Coliva, The Varieties of Self-Knowledge, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan 2016). I believe that Amanda said this already, but here again: your advice is based on a kind of knowledge we probably can't have.

Marcus Arvan

Recent TT: I don't think it's true that, "You present your own psychological disposition as the first standard by which students should decide whether they are fit for grad school."

As I said above, I give the advice I do to students with one real purpose in mind: to impress the gravity of the choice upon them--that grad school is an immense risk (which I think is absolutely relevant to anyone considering grad school). I then give them hard data and some stories of how many people I know who finished grad school, got permanent jobs, didn't, what my path was like and so on. On the whole, I think this gives any student who comes my way relevant information to make the decision themselves. But sure, if you think the advice "only go if you can't imagine doing anything" else problematically stacks the deck, I'm happy to give that up. My sense is that it's the hard data that (rightly) scares away prospective students more than anything else!

In terms of the things you listed about the limits of introspection, that's all well and good. I would be the first to agree that our introspective accuracy is limited. But in my experience there is a world of difference between that general claim (sure, we can make introspective mistakes) and living an entire life and one's ability to learn important things about oneself--not just from introspection, but from one's consistent psychological, emotional, and behavioral reactions across vastly different kinds of events, across many years and life stages (from childhood through adolescence to adulthood). Whatever limitations our introspective accuracy may be, I take it that a reflective person should make life decisions bearing their best evidence of their psychological constitution in mind. I would think it bizarre for anyone not to think this.


Since you are getting more polemically in your words:
I find it bizarre that you expect from students in their early twenties to think about philosophy as "the only thing that could make them happy". Who knows, especially in their 20s? And this what we are talking about: What do we say to young people in their formative years. Why do not you tell them the risks and gravity straightforward? I see and appreciate that you also tell them hard facts. But your starting point is, in my opinion, a psychological mystification. And yes, mystifications can be very widespread and important for our self-understanding. I do not take this away from you. But why passing it on to young students for whom you are an authority? This is why I say it is a standard: you set the norm in this context. Moreover, you are the norm.

Marcus Arvan

Recent TT: I’m happy to do what you say. I think it’s pretty much what I already do. The “only do it if...” advice always seemed to me to be pretty sound. But I’m happy to give it up for the reasons you give.

Marcus Arvan

Anyway, apologies if my language got a bit polemical. I've always felt that it's important to be sensitive to the fact that different students can be different (in important ways that often go unacknowledged and unspoken), and have always thought that my approach to giving students grad school advice does that. So, I've been a bit surprised at the pushback--but I appreciate your concerns a bit more now.


No need for an apology, Marcus. I am happy that you understand my concern with your framing a little better now. It is actually rooted in the same concern about how to consider best that students are different in many ways. I believe that this is one of hardest issues for our profession: how can we promote a plurality of students (in different respects) despite the bad prospects for an academic career.


Thanks for the reply Marcus. I have more to say on this, so I will comment when I have the time, and respond to RecentTT too.


Marcus, how you describe yourself sounds a lot like me. I think I would say basically all of those things about myself. I have gotten less shy as I've gotten older, at least in certain circumstances. I've learned to act much more socially skilled that I used to be able to. However, I have very low endurance for it. It is not natural and exhausts me, so if I have to do it for very long my performance rapidly diminishes. And there are certain situations where I am still terrible and horribly shy, and I tend to just avoid those circumstances all together.

So anyway, that is just to say it's not like I don't know what this is like. It still bothers me everyday how hard it is for me to make friends. And up until a year ago, I didn't have a relationship either! (through the age of 33 I had spent less than 2 years in relationships.)

That being said, I guess I am still baffled by how you could be epistemically confident that only philosophy and music make you happy. Sure you tried other things, but there are far, far, more things that you didn't try. Coming across philosophy for most people was an idiosyncratic occurrence. Most students took a class and loved it and felt like they belonged. It seems to me it is very likely there are other things that make even those disposed to unhappiness, happy. Or a the least, *as happy* as philosophy. I just think that there hasn't been the idiosyncratic event that has introduced someone to that other career. There are thousands of careers where you don't need to be great socially and that provide intellectual stimulation, etc, thousands of them that you and I have never considered. So supposing you are correct that only philosophy and music would make you happy, I'd say it's basically an accident that you are right about that, not one for which you have epistemic justification.

For myself, I tend to think I would be happier studying psychology or psychiatry if I could do it over, although philosophy is a pretty damn good choice, and I'm grateful for it. I think it might be my number one choice if people in the profession weren't so mean and critical. But they are. And from what I can tell psychology is much better in this respect.

Also, I agree with RecentTT that you seem to be suggesting that only people like you should go to grad school, which is one of the reasons I think people were getting frustrated in the first place. The point, I think, is that many of us just don't believe this: "If a student can imagine themselves being happy doing something other than philosophy grad school, then this student should not go to philosophy grad school." That seems to be what you were saying, and you seemed to justify it by appealing to your own psychological disposition. But even if you were right that some people cannot be happy doing anything else, it doesn't follow that only they should be the ones to go to philosophy grad school. Actually, I tend to think academia would be a worse place if it was only filled with extremely introverted anti social people like myself.

Mike, I think that your description of the average undergrad's psychology is probably right. However, I do not think that most students who are considering a grad philosophy program are the average student. They are much more likely to think about things deeply, and more likely, I think, to take the "can't imagine doing anything else" literally.

Marcus Arvan

Hey Amanda: That's really interesting! It's good to hear there's at least one reader out there who identifies (as it were) with that kind of psychological profile.

I guess I have a few thoughts in response to this: "I guess I am still baffled by how you could be epistemically confident that only philosophy and music make you happy. Sure you tried other things, but there are far, far, more things that you didn't try. Coming across philosophy for most people was an idiosyncratic occurrence."

(1) I'm not sure it's confidence that only music and philosophy can make me tolerably happy. Rather, it's *lack* of confidence that something else might. Let me explain why, at least for me, this difference seems relevant. When you've spent your life listlessly bouncing around--trying different things, not finding any of them very engaging, and all of the jobs you've had soul-crushing--and then you find something that (finally!) brings you some joy, the psychological importance of that (at least for me) can seem overwhelming. Sure, if you experimented around enough, maybe you could find something else. But, at least up to that point in your life, the inductive and abductive evidence you have makes that seem quite unlikely. So, since you need to make some life-choices or other--after all, even in your early-to-mid 20's you really do need to pursue *some* career or other--the options are these: (1) bouncing around, trying on different careers in the hope that you might find something else that really turns you on, or (2) pursuing the thing you KNOW makes you truly happy, bringing you joy. I've known people who did (1)--in fact, out of worry that their passion was too risky--who found themselves in one unhappy job after another. I've never wanted that to be my fate. So, it seemed to me, the rational thing to do--given the fact that I needed to make a decision--was to compile all of the inductive and abductive evidence I had to that point in my life. And all of that evidence seemed to point in one direction (well, two): philosophy and music. Again, is it *possible* I could happen upon something else that could make me happy? Sure, anything is possible. But was that a rational supposition given my life circumstances and psychological profile? I don't think so.

(2) I've always been somewhat intrigued by evidence that some people seem psychologically compelled to choose particular lines of occupation--even from a relatively young age. For example, there are some interesting identical-twin studies I came across a while back finding that identical twins separated at birth chose similar (in cases, identical) occupations--such as police officers, etc.--and otherwise made strikingly similar life choices, despite having never met each other. In my family, music seems to be "in our blood." My uncle is a professional musician. So is my brother (who started playing guitar at like 3 years old and was a teenage progidy). Anyway, I have no idea how much of what we can derive happiness from may be in one way or another 'encoded' into us. But one of my mother's famous pictures of me at a toddler is of me holding at a stick in my hand and looking at it quizzically with a frown on my face, evidently trying to make sense of its existence. This is the same look I have on my face when doing philosophy. And, even as a young child (a toddler), my mom will tell you that I was obsessed with sitting in our living room with big headphones on listening to music on the record playing, belting out Beethoven's Ode to Joy over and over again at the top of my lungs (apparently, it was my favorite song--and still is one of them, in fact!). In fact, as you can probably guess I don't think it's a coincidence that it's my favorite song. Music is one of very few things that *brings* me joy, and Beethoven's song expresses that joy I feel in a way that still, to this day, I don't think anything else does.

Anyway, if you put these two things together (i.e. inductive and abductive evidence regarding other things not making you happy plus strong and consistent evidence that two things in particular somehow do)--while also recognizing that one must make major life choices--it can become very difficult, I think, to imagine other things likely making one happy. Maybe it's unjustified. I don't know. But, at least from the inside perspective of having lived that kind of life, it seems to make sense to me. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

In any case, I better appreciate Recent TT's concern here (viz. "Also, I agree with RecentTT that you seem to be suggesting that only people like you should go to grad school"). That was never my intent--but I now see how the advice "Only go if you can't imagine..." conveys that. My plan now is to *just* go with more objective evidence about potential risks and rewards (statistical facts, stories, etc.). This was always at the heart of the advice I give my students--but moving forward I think I'll just stop there.


Maybe we were just talking past each other Marcus. If you think that it would be very difficult for you to find a career besides philosophy and music that would make you happy, that sounds reasonable. I agree with you about psychology and some people being compelled to find a particular occupation. I'd just phrase it like, "Some people are biologically (constitutively? psychology?) disposed toward certain careers, insofar as they find those careers significantly more meaningful and fulfilling than others." Anyway, perhaps I was just taking your claim too literally all along. I would have agreed with a claim like, "Go to philosophy grad school if you are truly passionate about philosophy in a way in which you have not been passionate about anything else (or at least not anything else that makes a viable career option.)"

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