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I think this is exactly right. Give the student the information they need to make an informed decision (including informing them about how competitive admissions alone are!), give them your support (provided you want to!), and let them decide. Don't decide for them.

Frankly, I'm not convinced that the 'don't' spiel dissuades many prospectives. I *am* pretty sure it sets them against you, feeds the 'I'm an exception' narrative, and degrades the quality of the information they take away from the meeting.

SLAC struggler

"Still, this advice ignores the journey of the PhD and the amazing privilege that comes with deep intellectual study." Two objections to this (from someone who teaches at a liberal arts college and who also is recovering from the journey it took me and my family to land this job, despite how lucky I've been):

1. The "Just don't do it, etc." response to a student doesn't really take away anyone's agency; that is hyperbole. Such a student will still go do it if they want to, but they will at least have been warned in appropriate terms. I've often wished that I'd heard such advice, because the long struggle I endured to get into a PhD program, and then to finally land a TT job, was not one I could've envisioned, and I probably would've reconsidered it if I'd heard it could be that bad. (And again, I'm one of those who 'won' by getting a TT job.)

2. The idea that the journey is itself worth it apart from its outcome is very romanticized, and ignores the fact that sometimes, the journey ends up not seeming worth it (especially if one would like to do some standard things like, Idk, find a partner and start a family, afford a decent home, etc.). If you're on a road and never get to your intended destination, that journey will usually be very stressful, and it may even change you into someone who is deeply unhappy and disaffected because now one has to find a new journey/destination, when you haven't been prepared for that. There are many people who end up feeling that the journey was not worth it even with the intended outcome; these are among the many who leave academia even after getting TT jobs.

So I've begun to think that realism is more important than you're letting on. (Surely, there are more balanced ways to put it than simply "Don't go, it can be horrible!" But in some cases it can be better to be stark.)


I wholeheartedly disagree.
Students deserve our honesty about the prospects of a future in academia and the adjunctification of higher ed.

I am not sure where the lines get crossed in terms of violating agency but providing information is not necessarily coercive, though I'll admit that's tricky.

There are so many valuable skills a philosophy BA provides that are applicable across many fields that we're better served telling students about this.


Agree with SLAC struggler on both counts.

1. The advice "don't do it" is generally given to someone who's either on the fence and asking for advice or pretty much already committed and giving them the warning of what journey they're actually committing to - the journey isn't a tenured position at a cushy R1; a good outcome is a 4-4 at a SLAC worse than where they went themselves.

2. not all journeys are worth it -- just ask the people who died on the Titanic. Cf. the romanticized vision of this making a movie with little connection reality.

best job in the world

An excellent post, and I entirely agree (and also with Michel above).

I worked a low-paying, blue-collar job for over a decade before beginning an MA philosophy program, then PhD, and then taking a series of non-TT but good jobs at good schools. Every step of the journey was worth it, and if any one had wound up being the end of the road, it still would all have been worth it.

anon (01/13/2022 at 07:42 PM) above is of course right that higher education and its adjunctification is bad and getting worse. The university is a multi-level marketing scheme making admins and some senior faculty wealthy through the labor of an exploited lower class of contingent faculty and grad students. And, of course, a philosophy BA is indeed valuable for many other things in this world.

I am honest and explicit about all this with my students who ask about grad school in philosophy. And I also explain to them that this journey is one of the best that one can take in this world. I tell them that, were my own career to end tomorrow inexplicably and I to go back to my blue-collar job, right back where I started, it all would have been entirely worth it.


Might be interesting to interview those who had relatively bad outcomes and see how they feel about their grad school journey.

Weed lover

I think it is essential to tell students who want to pursue this career that academia (and the humanities in particular) works through cooptation. Assuming a bare minimum of necessary philosophical skills that mostly everyone who go to graduate school develop (being good at teaching, being able to publish something), then the rest is done by your network, which depends a lot on where you go to graduate school.
I don't think it's honest to say that "it's hard", because it gives the impression that if you work hard, then you can make it. You cannot control most of the factors: that's the message

Tough Talk

Getting into graduate school and then getting a permanent job are very, very difficult. They are not quite on the level of becoming a professional athlete, but that is the closest analogy I can come up with.

An average graduate applicant in philosophy will be beset by untold number of setbacks, problems, and calamities. It took me two application seasons to get into a good PhD program, and then five go-arounds on the job market to get a permanent TT position. While in graduate school, my father died, I went through two serious breakups, our funding was unexpectedly pulled (and then reinstated?!) while I was trying to finish up, I suffered many physical injuries, etc. While on the job market, I moved every year for five straight years, tried (and succeeded!) to sustain a long distance relationship, suffered from depression, lost a "permanent" job due to budget cuts, etc.

If a professor advising you against pursuing graduate school stops you in your tracks, then you might not have the resilience necessary for succeeding in academia.

Greg Stoutenburg

While I agree with the sentiment that there are a lot of personal pros to pursuing graduate school in philosophy, it is definitely hyperbole (as SLAC Struggler noted) to suggest that giving advice removes agency. Indeed, receiving advice on such a thing is a prerequisite to exercising agency over such a choice.

It would be wise to warn students of the likely career outcomes, but help them strategize for how to make the move make sense if the student is interested. Recently, I advised a student who was determined to go to graduate school on ways to steer some courses and activities in such a way that fit the students deep philosophical interests but would also incorporate knowledge- and skill-building for a wide variety of rich and well-paid careers that are hot right now. We can certainly do both things.

Of the extreme choices--advising, "yes, you can do it!" or "no, just don't!"--the affirmative one is, for almost everyone, an almost certain career trap.


Just a quick response to some of the above: it seems to me that a frank explanation of what it's like is what's important. That includes talking about how hard it is to get in (worse than med or law school), how hard it is to finish, and how impossible finding a job is. It includes being honest about the job you have not being the one you wanted, about not having any control over where in the world you live, etc. It includes giving them the numbers: 350 people applied for four spots in my grad program. I applied to hundreds of jobs and only ever got two first-round TT interviews. The job I have is only permanent because a colleague died, and it's thousands of kilometres from both my family and my partner's. And so on.

I don't think saying 'don't' offers anything that saying all this doesn't. What it does do, I think, is pit the student against the instructor in a manner that's not productive. (I say this from my own experience.)

And, frankly, for those who do advocate the 'don't' spiel, that it's sufficient to stop a student in their tracks doesn't indicate that they aren't "resilient" enough (I don't think any of us is a good judge of that for most of our students); it indicates that they're being coldly *rational*.

But in any event, I don't think it's my job to stop anyone in their tracks, or to nudge them along to grad school. It's my job to inform them as best I can.

Assistant Professor

Perhaps the best approach is not to tell a student what they "should" or "shouldn't" do at all, but to ask them what they hope for from going to graduate school and beyond, ask them how much they know about graduate school or what they would like to learn to help inform their decision, and how to support - giving them information, putting them in contact with people, etc.

I worry that in addition to faculty giving advice to not go to grad school because the job market is hard, giving this advice risks (in at least some cases) that faculty project their own biases onto their undergraduate students: their assumptions about what a philosopher looks like, or what a philosopher's job ought to be. Perhaps their students have more expansive imaginations and potential than they can even imagine.

I went to graduate school after leaving a career I no longer wanted to pursue but knew I could be employable in again if needed. For me graduate school WAS a journey: I was paid (albeit not a lot - but enough to not go into debt), I got to explore my interests, I discovered a pathway that is rich and fulfilling to me now as a faculty member that I couldn't have imagined at the outset but that I discovered along the way. I think deciding to go for the journey rather than seeing graduate school as a means to a narrow end made it enjoyable and successful for me, personally.


The post only says the student *might* want to do this for a living. Are there really no other possible career routes that a grad degree in phil would help with? That seems like the underlying assumption.


The best way to "preserve the agency" of an advisee--anyone, really--is to be honest with him. If he comes to you for advice, and you believe that he should not go to graduate school, then that is what you should tell him. Now, if the whole of your advice is, "don't go to grad school"--that is, without explanation or elaboration, or an alternative suggestion--that is bad advice. But it is bad advice because it is unhelpful, not because of any concerns about "agency".

Another important element of being a good advisor is supporting your advisee. If you advise him not to go to graduate school, and he follows that advice, you should do what you can to help him succeed on another, better path. That is your duty. If he does not follow your advice, and goes to graduate school, then you must support that decision how you can, even though you think it to be a mistake.

K M I Schutte

I would give the advice I'm about to describe to any student residing in California. My advice might be different for students outside CA.

I had a good example to follow as my mom was a first-gen college student who was able to earn her degrees (BA, MA) as a single mother with three children (one having significant disabilities) while working full-time.

She encouraged me to take as much as I could of my lower-division general education coursework in community college while pursuing and working a full-time job avoiding student loans. From 1997-2000 I maximized the IGETC requirements that transferred to a UC/CSU. I had no debt. This was a smart move.

I then transferred to my local CSU, and maximized the philosophy cousework I could take while continuing to work full-time avoiding student loans. It was hard to maximize philosophy my first year, but I was lucky enough to get a switch to evening shift on my job which made this much easier the subsequent years (2001-2003). I completed my BA with all the coursework to meet the requirements to get both of the available concentrations on the major at my Uni. BA degree and no debt; it couldn't have been better. Following my mom, I would have continued with my MA, but there was no MA in philosophy at my Uni.

This is where I wish I had gotten better advice. I applied to the ten PhD programs in the state, got accepted to one, and ended up getting my terminal masters in 2007 rather than attempting to submit a qualifying paper, which I had significant doubts would be approved if I had attempted it.

The advice I wish I had been given: Wait on the PhD. Apply to terminal masters programs (perhaps Cal State L.A.?) and get your MA first. While in your terminal masters program, also do at least one of these two: (1) maintain a full-time job continuing to avoid those student loans, (2) concurrently pursue earning one or more credentials from the Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

Had I been given that advice strongly enough, I think my journey would have been more successful. I would have gotten the extra two years of preparation for Ph.D. work and would have completed the entry level requirements for a backup career in elementary/secondary teaching. I might have gotten wise enough to not attempt the Ph.D. or might have improved my philosophy/writing/study skills to make my Ph.D. applications better and might have even gotten invitations from more than one Ph.D. program.

I'm not unhappy with where I've ended up, but there were a lot of years I went through significant depression when I was failing to find any personal successes.

Thanks for linking the Tracy Evans piece. Maybe there's hope my education isn't over.

about to start a non-TT position

Just to echo David earlier. We really need to hear the stories of those who "did all the things right" (e.g., awesome publication and teaching records etc.) but failed to even get a single offer over two or three rounds of job application.

The stories of the successful are already somewhat discouraging. But even these stories may be from a very biased sample. We wouldn't want to advise prospective grad students with survivorship bias.

another prof

I've tried to be honest with my students without discouraging them. I have fond memories of grad school--the intellectual broadening (so much time to indulge curiosity), exciting conversations with mentors and friends, and even the ramen dinners and carpools to conferences and the like. But the way graduate education is presently established exacts a cost. Willie Jennings recently analyzed the modern academy as a plantation structure wherein the values and expectations of the white male master are inculcated as the 'excellence' sought: competitiveness, self-sufficiency, domination, productivity, grit, hierarchical gate-keeping, etc. It's an abrasive analogy, but not unwarranted. I struggle with this kind of academic formation in myself, and in the business as a whole. As long as academia reproduces itself in this way (here, inside the slippery gears, agency matters very little), I find it hard to recommend.


Maybe things are changing for the better but when I was working on my MA I don’t really remember anyone being honest with us about the job market. Generally the message was it’s really competitive and you need to go to a good PhD program. But my young brain interpreted that information incorrectly. I saw it as a challenge. My parents taught me to rise to meet challenges. So I saw the challenge as a positive to overcome. Despite doing everything right and publishing numerous papers I got few interviews. The job market caused me to develop major depression and other mental health issues. So I guess I needed to hear different advice. I needed someone to explain to me that it’s likely that no matter how hard you work and how well you do that you will not be able to succeed in this discipline.

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