Should I Go to Graduate School in Philosophy?

(I wrote this several years ago, when I was still a professor.)

About two or three times each year, an undergraduate philosophy student asks me whether he or she should go to graduate school to get a PhD in Philosophy. These students are typically very smart, hard-working people who could be very successful at a lot of different occupations.

I don’t have anywhere near a simple answer. And I certainly don’t give the same answer to every student. Instead, I ask them about themselves and try to have a discussion about it. Most of these students are looking for realistic advice — they have some idea of how challenging and competitive graduate school is, and they have at least heard that the academic job market is really bad. They want to know if it’s realistic for them to spend so much time seeking employment in a field where jobs are increasingly scarce.

These students fall into different categories. I sometimes meet a student who simply loves everything about studying philosophy, and wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. They’re the kind of student who is almost obsessive about the subject, who would probably be reading philosophy even if it were illegal. For this sort of person, my answer is, “Yeah, if you really feel that strongly about it, then go for it.” (I’m going to assume that we’re talking about smart, hard-working students — obviously, if they don’t show any aptitude for the subject, then there’s no need to worry about the what the right advice is.) We then get into a detailed discussion of exactly what they need to do in order to get into the best possible program, what the common mistakes are, and other strategic issues.

Other students are in a position where they feel they need to do something after graduation, and they really liked their philosophy courses. So they think that maybe going to graduate school would be enjoyable. For the purpose of full disclosure, that describes my own case. I wound up doing alright, so I’m not opposed to someone trying out graduate school even if their motivations aren’t totally clear. After all, we’re talking about young people here, for the most part.

For those students, I try to walk them through the costs and benefits of going to graduate school. Both are significant. The major cost is in terms of lost opportunities. You’ll essentially be putting your entire life on hold for several years; your career, income, and even your personal life will be at least slowed down a lot. In five years or more if you’re not in graduate school, you could easily have established yourself in a good career, and be living a nice lifestyle. But if you’re in graduate school, you’ll probably incur some debt, you’ll be getting little or no job experience, and you’ll be spending your time studying instead of doing other things that would be beneficial, lucrative, or enjoyable. The economic impact of time spent in graduate school will continue to reverberate throughout your life; your overall income will probably be lower, and so the financial cost of graduate school could turn out to be much higher than you might think.

Graduate school is also an extremely obsessive, narrow lifestyle. You’ll spend a disproportionate amount of time not only studying philosophy, but also hanging out with other graduate students. If you really want to succeed, the coursework is just the tip of the iceberg. If anything, you should be spending the majority of your time doing research and other projects that aren’t necessarily part of your coursework. For some people, especially the first type of student, this is a positive benefit. But for others, it’s a cost. You have to know which type of student you are.

For a smaller set of students, the academic lifestyle of an established professor is the big attraction. Sometimes these students come from academic families, and they see the benefits of being a tenured professor. What these students need to know is what the road is like, and what their chances are of landing a position that would make the amount of work and risk worthwhile. Some of these students don’t appreciate that their role models in academia often have a vastly better career than even very talented and lucky people will probably wind up with. Usually, they’re thinking of the lifestyle of a professor in a very strong department, in a job that is heavily focused on research, and which therefore offers a lot of freedom and leisure time to pursue intellectual interests. As established academics know, that sort of situation describes only a small minority of faculty jobs. Most involve a heavier teaching load for less money, and with less freedom. Very few philosophy professors get to live in big, stately, old houses with enormous libraries in the beautiful part of town. Some do, but it’s a small number.

These students often underestimate the amount of work that has to be done even after graduate school. Life as an assistant professor usually involves a great deal of stress, and an enormous amount of work in preparation for tenure. Personally, I always knew that I’d have to work very hard when I got my first job, but I certainly underestimated how hard I’d have to work. Just speaking for myself, despite landing an excellent job out of graduate school, I worked harder than I had ever worked before when I was preparing for tenure. That period of time is typically six years or so, which is probably about how long you’d spend in graduate school. So it’s important, when weighing one’s options, to keep in mind that you’re talking about more than a decade of work before achieving any kind of security.

Several of my students have asked me what I thought about the direction of the academic job market. I always tell them the same thing: I don’t know, and anyone who says they do know is a fool or a liar. When I started graduate school, the conventional wisdom was that the faculty who had been hired in the 70′s would be retiring, and so the job market would improve dramatically. Oops! Predictions about the academic job market are impossibly difficult — it’s driven by totally unknowable factors, including the overall economy, the political situation, trends in education and employment, and a million other things. For example, when the economy tanks, the number of retirements goes down. But even when faculty do retire, it’s not at all automatic that the department will get to hire a replacement. The size of departments grows and shrinks, and there’s no way to predict it. Beware of confident people with predictions!

The only thing I can say about job prospects with any certainty is that it’s highly unlikely that things will improve dramatically in the foreseeable future. If you have to have some picture in mind, then I think the conservative view is to assume that the job market will be approximately what it is now: crappy. If I were absolutely forced to make a prediction, I’d say that in five or six years, the job market will be very slightly better than it is now, but only very slightly. But that prediction is probably wrong. I happen to think that long-term trends in the priorities of university funding are working against the humanities, but that’s just my opinion.

If you want a model for the graduate school/job market process, think of it as a series of filters, each of which carries a probability of getting through it in one piece:

  • Getting accepted to a strong graduate program
  • Getting through qualifying exams and dissertation
  • Leaving graduate school with a strong enough track record (i.e. succeeding at work, distinct from your coursework and dissertation)
  • Landing a job
  • Getting tenure

The probability of getting through each filter ranges from moderate to crappy, depending on circumstances. And you have to make it through every filter in order to finally relax. As a game theorist and logician, my professional opinion is that probabilities are precisely: crappy.

So far, I’ve been almost completely negative. But of course, there are a lot of positive benefits to graduate school and the academic life. And for some, the potential rewards definitely outweigh the risks.

The first benefit is almost too obvious to state: you get to study philosophy full-time. Graduate school is a ticket to get the chance to work on philosophy all the time. And if you love the subject, that’s a tremendous benefit. You’ll work on it so much that you (almost) won’t be able to avoid becoming a much better philosopher. If you play your cards right, you’ll meet some really fascinating people and be able to discuss philosophical problems with some first-rate intellects. It’s a rare opportunity and a wonderful privilege. Personally, what I really enjoyed about graduate school was the chance to work with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and the chance to meet lots of other first-rate philosophers from other departments. If you love ideas, and discussing tough problems, there’s nothing better.

Besides that, it’s a lot of work with very little reward until you’ve managed to get a job and finally, tenure. Is it worth it? That obviously depends on how much you want the post-tenure job and lifestyle.

I can obviously only speak from my own experience on that. So for the interest of full disclosure, this is my situation. I’m thirty-nine years old, and a tenured Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Missouri-Columbia, which is the flagship school of the Missouri state system. We have a PhD program, and a fairly large department. On the ridiculous, asinine “Leiter Report”, we’re ranked at the bottom of the top fifty graduate programs. That makes us about average, or maybe a bit better than average, according to the Leiter Report (Digression: The Leiter Report perhaps tells you one thing, and one thing only, namely, the conventional wisdom in the profession about the relative strength of well-known faculty. That can be useful, but don’t take it as telling you more than that.).

I’m quite fortunate to have a job that’s very good by any reasonable standard. But I’m also not in an elite program, so it’s not a crazy place from which to draw some comparisons. Anyhow…

To my mind, the main benefit of being a tenured faculty member is that you control the vast majority of your time. There’s a lot of work, but it’s flexible. If you wake up one morning and decide that you want to devote the next year to studying astrology, you can do it. You can teach pretty much however you like, and you can determine the direction of your own work without worrying about job security. And if necessary, you can say very unpopular things without fear of obvious retribution. All of these things can be enormously valuable. If you get the chance to work in a graduate program, that’s some extra work, but (in my opinion) well worth it. Speaking for myself, the most satisfying part of my job is working with graduate students.

Some faculty do very well for themselves financially. Most do okay, by American standards. If you play your cards right, you’ll end up with a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle.  If you’re smart enough and hard-working enough to succeed as a faculty member, you could surely have made much more money doing something else. So for most people in this profession, money is not the major motivation. But still, I think that prospective graduate students should at least consider that they’re basically buying a lot of freedom by giving up a lot of money. One prediction I’m quite confident about is that salary compression (and inversion) in the humanities will continue for a long time. For example, I am making less money now in real, inflation-adjusted dollars than I was when I started as an assistant professor. I’m not saying this to complain, but I do think it’s important to realize that my situation is very, very common; and even though I didn’t choose my work for financial reasons, it is still definitely a drag to watch your salary go down.

As far as job satisfaction in other respects — again, speaking only for myself — I definitely find that my time working with graduate students and my intellectual freedom are by far the best perks. I have very broad interests across lots of areas of philosophy and lots of areas outside of philosophy, and I spend the vast majority of my time learning about and writing about problems that are quite different from what I was hired to do (in my case, philosophy of biology). There are only a tiny number of ways of making a living outside academia that offer that sort of freedom, and it’s hard to put a dollar value on that.

It’s also important not to totally idealize the benefits of tenure. Tenure gives you one thing, namely, job security. There are plenty of other ways in which your activity as a faculty member is channeled into directions that are friendly to the university. For example, if you do decide to retool your mind by learning a new subject, your productivity will probably go down, at least temporarily. And so you can probably wave goodbye to some kinds of merit-based raises. So the intellectual freedom comes at a cost — in my opinion, the cost is small relative to the payoffs, but it’s still a cost.

Well, to get back to the original question, “Should I go to graduate school?”. My answer is, “How the hell am I supposed to know?!”

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