It's nearing that time when graduate programs admit students. Should any of us be encouraging our students to pursue a PhD in philosophy? If so, under what conditions?

Thomas Benton takes up the issue in a recent CHE piece. His advice to undergraduates: you should attend graduate school in the humanities only if you satisfy one of these conditions:

  • You are independently wealthy, and you have no need to earn a living for yourself or provide for anyone else.
  • You come from that small class of well-connected people in academe who will be able to find a place for you somewhere.
  • You can rely on a partner to provide all of the income and benefits needed by your household.
  • You are earning a credential for a position that you
    already hold — such as a high-school teacher — and your employer is
    paying for it.

His rationale is basically the horrible and worsening prospects for finding gainful and satisfying employment upon completion. The financial and emotional risks are just too great to justify the gamble.

Do you agree? Is he being too pessimistic?

19 Replies to “The ethics of advising

  1. I went with the attitude that I was doing it for its own sake. I think that if you get aid sufficient to not go into debt that is a reasonable attitude to have. It surely doesn’t make you less employable to go to grad school, and it can be rewarding in its own right. The suggested advice doesn’t seem to cover that.
    It is true that lots of people have at least one unpleasant year in grad school, but I still think it can be intrinsically rewarding.

  2. I typically get about one student per year who thinks s/he wants to go to grad school. I sit them down for a very serious talk. I give them a realistic picture of their intellectual abilities vis-a-vis the competition. I explain that it is hard to get in, hard to finish, and hard to get a job. I tell them to stay out of debt, and not go unless they get a stipend. I tell them not to go to schools outside the top 50, since their job chances drop as you go down the food chain. I emphasize the opportunity costs: inability to start a family, or buy a house, for several years, and a career that will never make you wealthy. I make sure they understand that they will not be able to choose their preferred geographical location if they do get a job. I tell them that if they are in a serious relationship, their partner needs to be on board with all of these things as well.
    Then, if after all that discouragement, they still want to go to grad school, I figure they just might have the drive to make it.

  3. I typically get about one student per year who thinks s/he wants to go to grad school. I sit them down for a very serious talk. I give them a realistic picture of their intellectual abilities vis-a-vis the competition. I explain that it is hard to get in, hard to finish, and hard to get a job. I tell them to stay out of debt, and not go unless they get a stipend. I tell them not to go to schools outside the top 50, since their job chances drop as you go down the food chain. I emphasize the opportunity costs: inability to start a family, or buy a house, for several years, and a career that will never make you wealthy. I make sure they understand that they will not be able to choose their preferred geographical location if they do get a job. I tell them that if they are in a serious relationship, their partner needs to be on board with all of these things as well.
    Then, if after all that discouragement, they still want to go to grad school, I figure they just might have the drive to make it.

  4. I typically get about one student per year who thinks s/he wants to go to grad school. I sit them down for a very serious talk. I give them a realistic picture of their intellectual abilities vis-a-vis the competition. I explain that it is hard to get in, hard to finish, and hard to get a job. I tell them to stay out of debt, and not go unless they get a stipend. I tell them not to go to schools outside the top 50, since their job chances drop as you go down the food chain. I emphasize the opportunity costs: inability to start a family, or buy a house, for several years, and a career that will never make you wealthy. I make sure they understand that they will not be able to choose their preferred geographical location if they do get a job. I tell them that if they are in a serious relationship, their partner needs to be on board with all of these things as well.
    Then, if after all that discouragement, they still want to go to grad school, I figure they just might have the drive to make it.

  5. When I was coming to the end of my undergraduate career just a few years ago, I sat down with one of my former professors to ask if he thought grad school was the right choice for me. From what I recall, he said something like: If you could see yourself being happy doing anything else, don’t get into philosophy. Then he proceeded to say most of the things you tell your students, Heath.

  6. Benton’s advice seems too pessimistic. There is certainly risk in seeking a career in the humanities, but I bet we can all agree that it’s nice work if you can get it. And for people who are talented, driven, not especially materialistic, and inclined to pursue a professorship, I suspect that the benefits of landing one justify the risks.
    With respect to advising, the hard cases for me are people who are driven but seem insufficiently talented to get into a top program or to land a decent job. Heath, you say that you give students a realistic picture of their intellectual abilities. But just how realistic a picture do you paint? If you think they lack the talent, do you just come right out and say it? I ask because I often struggle with this issue. Often I lack the nerve to tell a student bluntly that I don’t think grad school is for them. Instead, I dance around the issue, going out of my way to emphasize how hard it is to find a job, how competitive the field is, etc. But I suspect that the kind of student that this laundry list is designed to discourage is also the most likely to miss the point. They think I’m just stating the facts rather than discouraging them from going. Should I just be blunt?

  7. Most graduate programs in philosophy offer financial support, so his advice needs some clarification on that point. I can make just as much doing that right now than how much I make at my current job.

  8. There’s many things to say here but I’m most worried about the mixed and confusing messages we are sending to students as an institution in a more general sense.
    We give warning like this to our students when we have our supervisors hats on. But these same students are going to check out the websites of grad schools, talk to people in those institutions, and so on. And, then they get a completely different message about the wonderful opportunities in academia. These promises are often given by the same people who say something completely different to their own students.
    So, I think there should be a bit more consistency. If this is the right messages to give for the students, it should also be put on the websites and adverts of graduate schools. Otherwise the message is just too confusing and we end up lying to either our students or the people who apply to our institutions as graduate students.

  9. I say three things to students who express interest in grad school. First, unless you really eat and breath this stuff, don’t do it. Second, do it only if you can get support from the departments you’re applying to. Third, if you do decide to go to grad school, find a rich uncle or someone to help you get some training for the GRE and to help pay for applications to as many departments as you possibly can (on the general principle that you shouldn’t turn down offers you haven’t gotten).

  10. Suppose you inform a learner driver, with the aim of discouraging them from their dangerous pursuit, that at half of all drivers will at some point end up in an accident that is at least expensive, likely to be injurious, and may even be fatal. You are unlikely to be successful in influencing the learner much, because he thinks it won’t happen to him – he, after all, almost certainly takes himself to be a driver with better natural abilities than average, just as nearly every driver does.
    The points mentioned above about the ravages of the humanities job market are similar in structure (i.e. most humanities graduates will not get to pick a location, earn much, start a family, etc, etc). Is repeating this advice simply futile because of our biases, or is there a known way to make sure that it is taken on board more rationally?
    Also, what Mark said.

  11. I have a related question:
    When you think of people you know who started philosophy grad school, how many of them do (or should) regret starting it?
    I have lost touch with many, but know of several who either dropped out or finished and then pursued some other profession (stay at home dad, lawyer, librarian, publishing job, etc). There are also those who have struggled to find employment or found employment but are unhappy with it.
    I suspect many of these people, for good reasons, do not regret starting grad school.
    They might have struggled, e.g. recognizing that academia is not for them or that the job prospects seemed dim to them. But such struggle might be instrumentally good – they might, e.g., have learned more about themselves, settled on some values, developed intellectual skills, etc. And then, as Mark reminds us, there is the non-instrumental value of doing philosophy for a while.

  12. Either the student wants to go to grad school because s/he loves philosophy or does not. If the latter, I ask the student why s/he would bother, and to go do something that gets him/her excited. If the former, I cannot see the justification in saying “do not pursue what you love.” In fact, that strikes me as some of the worst advice to be given.
    This is perfectly compatible with telling the student it is very difficult to secure a job, much less one in a location s/he desires.
    As for judging intellectual ability, I think humility ought to be exercised here. I have seen extremely bright, hard working graduate students fizzle out, and the ones who seemed intellectually inept at the start work hard and turn out to be good philosophers. Success is not just a function of intellect, but of character, and In the vast majority of cases, I do not think we know who are advisees are. (Also worth mention: perhaps the advisee would be content/very happy teaching at a community college in a desirable location; we should not assume our picture of an ideal job is the same as theirs. I know some people who would hate a job at a research school and want a job at a small school in the middle of nowhere).
    Lastly – and I am far from accusing any particular person or people here – I think the advisor should be aware of his own motivations for the advice given. I am confident that, for some people, telling people how hard it is to get into academia is more a matter of expressing their own triumphant feelings and/or superiority than it is of having the good of the student in mind. And to repeat: this is not said of any particular person or people, especially those on this blog.

  13. Several people in my program left after two years with “thanks for playing” Masters’ degrees. Many of them were fairly happy about having spent two years reading interesting books, hanging around smart people, living cheap, and breaking even financially. Obviously, this is far from the worst-case scenario, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the ‘failure’ scenarios need not be terrible ones. (It helped that they were in Austin, which is a nice place.)
    I would give dire warnings to any student whose grad school arrangement would put them in debt. But if a student gets decent funding and this scenario sounds just fine to them while becoming a career academic sounds really exciting, I wouldn’t discourage them.

  14. When I was thinking about applying to graduate school, one of my professors sat me down for the Serious Talk. He told me that, given the state of the job market, he only feels comfortable suggesting graduate school a student he would be willing to recommend as one of the best students he had ever had. Except, he said, for someone who just wants to do it for its own sake. (I did not fall in the former category.)
    First of all, while I’m not certain I think things are quite as bad as his first condition would suggest, I appreciated his manner of assessment. There is a difference, I think, between telling a student that s/he does not have a talent for philosophy and telling him/her that s/he simply has not impressed upon you, the professor, that s/he would be successful in the field. If you wish to be humble, as Reid suggested, I think it is perfectly appropriate to say something explicit about your impressions of the person as a student of philosophy, rather than making outright judgements as to his/her philosophical acumen. After all, those impressions are (in most cases) all you have to go on, and they are all the student should expect from you.
    As to my professor’s second condition: This is partly reiteration, but I think that there is a huge difference between graduate school as an experience vs. graduate school as a career path. My father has a Ph.D. that he didn’t use in his work for many, many years. I have always been comforted by the idea that graduate school could be something I wanted (especially with funding), whether or not it ultimately lead to an academic career. So, I think an important question for any prospective graduate student should be, not merely whether s/he loves philosophy, but whether s/he is the sort of person that will regret it if his/her graduate studies do not lead ultimately to a related career.

  15. Yes, Heath, I’d suggest altering your advice somewhat. Here at Bowling Green, for example, we’ve been regularly placing our graduate students in good academic jobs (mostly tenure-track), and we’ve also been placing a number of students in excellent non-academic jobs (given our emphasis on applied philosophy) for many years now. Almost all of our graduates get good jobs, despite our shocking non-top-50 designation (or shocking non-designation in the top-50). Perhaps one’s “top-50” academic job chances drop once you go down the food chain, but lots of students are seriously uninterested in such jobs anyway, and there are lots of great jobs available outside of that zone regardless (indeed, I’ve got one).
    When advising students about graduate school, I’m primarily just concerned with whether or not they’ll be able to keep up with the work and their classmates in grad school. If they can’t, it can be a devastating blow to their finances and self-esteem, but if they can, and they’re really interested in pursuing the subject matter, then I say go for it. Too often we act as kinds of gatekeepers, judging that if students aren’t sufficiently “like us” (in terms of grades, drive, class participation, political inclination, Monty Python proclivities), then they probably shouldn’t even try. This attitude contributes more than we think to keeping out students not “like us,” and so may have something to do with the shoddy percentages of women and minorities in philosophy.

  16. Dave,
    It’s great that you are placing as many as you are. I use ‘top-50’ as a rough proxy for ‘reliably able to place you’–we have had a thread before on the large role pedigree plays in hiring–but you are right that it is the latter predicate that is really important and I always encourage students to check the placement records of their prospective grad schools.
    I’m not denigrating non-Research-1 jobs at all; I don’t have one myself, and I think I wouldn’t want one.
    On “gatekeeping,” I’ll post something later on Doug’s thread on that topic.

  17. Dave,
    It’s great that you are placing as many as you are. I use ‘top-50’ as a rough proxy for ‘reliably able to place you’–we have had a thread before on the large role pedigree plays in hiring–but you are right that it is the latter predicate that is really important and I always encourage students to check the placement records of their prospective grad schools.
    I’m not denigrating non-Research-1 jobs at all; I don’t have one myself, and I think I wouldn’t want one.
    On “gatekeeping,” I’ll post something later on Doug’s thread on that topic.

  18. Dave,
    It’s great that you are placing as many as you are. I use ‘top-50’ as a rough proxy for ‘reliably able to place you’–we have had a thread before on the large role pedigree plays in hiring–but you are right that it is the latter predicate that is really important and I always encourage students to check the placement records of their prospective grad schools.
    I’m not denigrating non-Research-1 jobs at all; I don’t have one myself, and I think I wouldn’t want one.
    On “gatekeeping,” I’ll post something later on Doug’s thread on that topic.

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