“Should I Go to Graduate School in Philosophy?”


FAQ:

 

       1.    Why are you writing this FAQ?

       2.    What can I do with a philosophy degree?

       3.    What do philosophy professors do?

       4.    I love learning about philosophy. Will I be a good philosopher?

       5.    Where will I get a job?

       6.    What will I be teaching?

       7.    But I’m really smart, so I’ll be one of the few at the elite schools, right?

       8.    Can I advance in the profession through talent and hard work?

       9.    Will I influence the field through my insightful articles?

       10.  Will I survive in my field?

       11.  How does one advance in philosophy?

       12.  Why the hell would I want to become a philosopher??




 

1.    Why are you writing this FAQ?

Many philosophy students decide to attend graduate school, knowing almost nothing about the consequences of this decision, or about what the philosophy profession is actually like. By the time they find out, they have already committed several years of their life, and possibly thousands of dollars, to the undertaking. They then learn that their initial assumptions about the field were unrealistically optimistic. They continue in their chosen path, even though, if they had known the facts at the start, they might have chosen a different career path. I have written the following points to provide a more realistic picture for students, before they make this choice.

 

2.    What can I do with a philosophy degree?

Whereas an undergraduate degree in philosophy can prepare you for law school and hence for enormous financial opportunities, a graduate degree in philosophy can prepare you for only one thing (besides understanding your place in the world better): being a professor of philosophy.

 

3.    What do philosophy professors do?

There are two kinds of philosophy departments: teaching-oriented, and research-oriented.

The research positions are the ones almost everyone wants. Professors typically teach two courses per term, and are expected to publish in recognized journals (one or two articles a year is usually acceptable). You will probably not get one of these positions.

The overwhelming majority of philosophy positions are teaching-oriented. One teaches at least three or four courses per term. The overwhelming majority of people with these teaching loads do little to no research. If you think you are going to do research despite teaching four courses per term, you are almost certainly mistaken.

 

4.    I love learning about philosophy. Will I be a good philosopher?

Your enjoyment of reading and learning philosophy counts for approximately nil. Nobody will pay you a dime to read things. You will make a good philosophy teacher only if you are good at explaining philosophy to people who know nothing about it and are much less interested in it than you are. You will make a good researcher only if you have lots of new ideas of your own and you like writing about them. If you regularly have to ask your teachers in your classes what you should write about, then you probably do not have enough original ideas to be a good researcher.

 

5.    Where will I get a job?

People who graduate with a Ph.D. from university X usually find positions at much lower ranked schools. The competition for jobs at the best schools (those listed in the Blackwell rankings) is fierce. This is because each of these schools, on average, turns out several Ph.D.’s each year, but has only one job opening every year or two. In other words, the universities with philosophy graduate programs produce several times as many philosophers as they hire. The excess philosophers are hired by teaching schools without graduate programs (or else leave the profession in exasperation). Here are some anecdotes about how I came to my sober assessment of the philosophy job prospects:

       a.    During my last year of graduate school, I sent out twenty job applications. I was about to graduate from Rutgers University, then ranked #3 in the country (and in the world) in philosophy. I had two published articles in respected journals, and strong recommendations from famous philosophers. I received four interviews. They were from UC Davis, the College of William and Mary, the University of Colorado, and the University of Utah. From among those schools, I got one extended, on-campus interview, followed by one job offer, which was from the University of Colorado (then ranked 29th in philosophy). If not for that offer, I would have had to extend my stay in graduate school for another year, and try again. Whether I would have then had any more luck is anybody’s guess.

       b.    I have worked at the University of Colorado since 1998. Each year, we graduate several Ph.D. and MA students. This has included some really excellent students. During that time, I cannot recall a single instance of a student graduating from here receiving a job at any of the top fifty schools in the country.

       c.    In my first year at the University of Colorado, I served on a search committee. We advertised an assistant professor position (beginning rank), open to applicants in any area of philosophy. We received 473 applications, all for that one position. As I later learned, that year was atypical—usually there are only two or three hundred applicants for a single position. Now, this gives a somewhat exaggerated picture of the difficulty of landing jobs in philosophy—it’s not as if there are hundreds of times as many Ph.D.’s as there are jobs. Most of those applicants had applied to many different schools (there are hundreds of positions advertised each year), and many of them already had jobs but were simply seeking to move up in the profession. Nevertheless, this gives you some picture of the competition for the coveted positions at ranked, research-oriented philosophy departments.

 

6.    What will I be teaching?

Typically, those who teach philosophy spend little or none of their time teaching about topics of their own research or of current research in the field. They spend the overwhelming majority of their time teaching much more basic material. A rough analogy would be if you have taken college-level calculus, and you are then hired to teach sixth-grade algebra. (This applies to academia in general.) Only the tiny proportion of professors at about the 50 most elite schools get to teach seminars on advanced research topics, and even then only sometimes.

 

7.    But I’m really smart, so I’ll be one of the few at the elite schools, right?

Probably not. However smart you may be, when you apply for that coveted position at the University of Colorado, your application will go into a pile of 300 others, of which at least 20 will look about equally good. All 20 of those people will have been the best philosophy students at their colleges. Think about the smartest person you have ever known. Now imagine that there are 20 copies of that person competing with you for a job. That is roughly what it will be like.

Note: Females should discount these remarks to some degree, for two reasons. First, because females tend to be less confident than males. Males are typically overconfident of their abilities and prospects, while females are typically underconfident. Second, there is significant affirmative action pressure in the field. This will not get you the job at a top school, but it will help you get into a strong graduate program, and it will get you many more interviews, which greatly improves your job prospects. And the affirmative action pressure is very strong for certain racial minorities (African, Latino, but not Asian), so take that into account if you belong to one.

 

8.    Can I advance in the profession through talent and hard work?

Once you’ve received your Ph.D. from somewhere other than a top-twenty school, it is extremely difficult to advance in the field. This is because hiring committees seek some easy initial way of winnowing the mountain of applications they receive, and the easiest way to do that is by looking at the schools the applicants got their Ph.D.’s from. Hiring committees are lazy and very prestige-oriented. A new graduate from NYU (the top-ranked philosophy school) with 1 publication has better prospects than someone from the University of Kentucky with twenty publications.

Even more so, once you have taken a position somewhere other than a top-fifty school, it is nearly impossible to advance in the field. This is because those same hiring committees, for the same reason, look at the school you are currently teaching at, and rely on that school’s prestige as the first rough estimate of your ability.

 

9.    Will I influence the field through my insightful articles?

Almost certainly not.

First, it is very difficult to get published in philosophy. The respected journals reject between 90% and 95% of all submissions. No exaggeration. (If you find a journal with a higher acceptance rate than that, it will be one not worth publishing in.) They typically take three months to evaluate your article before rejecting it. Longer delays are not unusual—I once had a journal take two years to evaluate a manuscript of mine. When they finally got back to me, it was to ask me to revise and resubmit the paper. Your prospects are better if you submit to a less prestigious journal, but then virtually no one will read your article. Your ability to get “A”s on your philosophy papers in college does not mean that you will ever be able to write a publishable paper. (See my page on publishing in philosophy.)

Second, consider the sheer quantity of philosophy that is published. As of this writing (2008), the Philosopher’s Index, which indexes almost every academic philosophy publication in any of about 40 different countries, reports 14,000 new records every year. That’s fourteen thousand new philosophy articles and books, per year. Since 1940, about 400,000 philosophy books and articles have appeared. What proportion of those do you suppose the average person in the field has read? Now you can use that guess as an initial estimate of the proportion of philosophers who will read your article.

So when that paper you worked so hard on for so many hours and months finally gets published, it is overwhelmingly likely that almost no one will ever notice, and that the scholarly reaction to your article will be nil.

 

10.  Will I survive in my field?

Probably. The effort to get tenure occupies most of one’s concern during one’s first six years of employment, assuming one lands a tenure-track job (as opposed, for example, to a series of one- to three-year instructorships). This is not a trivial task, since one must publish a certain amount to be awarded tenure; otherwise, one will be fired and have to seek a job at a lower-ranked school, or else leave the profession. But most people succeed in obtaining long-term employment.

 

11.  How does one advance in philosophy?

There are some people with great jobs who get a lot of attention in the field. How do they do it? Three main factors matter:

       a.    Cleverness. This is one necessary condition on success in the field. One must be good at devising clever arguments for surprising conclusions, and one must be quick-witted when defending them.

       b.    Connections. One must meet and make friends with the right people, i.e., the philosophers who are already established in the field.

       c.    Luck.

 

12.  Why the hell would I want to become a philosopher??

You probably wouldn’t. Philosophy graduate school is only suitable for a minuscule fraction of the population. If either (a) you would enjoy teaching basic philosophical ideas to undergraduate students for most of your life, or (b) you are extremely intelligent and intellectually innovative and you eat and drink philosophy, and in either case (c) you would be satisfied with a much lower income than other people of your level of education and intelligence, then philosophy graduate school may be for you.

The tiny number of people who will be able to land—and keep—jobs as researchers in philosophy will have what may be, for them, the world’s best job:

       a.    You can work, for the most part, on your own schedule. Teaching two classes at a time, one typically has to come into work either two or three days a week, and the times of the classes are mostly up to the professor. Most of your work—the research—can be done at home or at the library, on your own schedule. This doesn’t mean it’s easy or that you don’t need to work much; just that the schedule is flexible.

       b.    You can spend the summers how and where you like.

       c.    You get paid, in large part, for talking about philosophy.

Point (c) is the key point. If that sounds like an amazing deal to you, then philosophy might be for you; if not, then it isn’t.