Approaches to thinking about approaching grad school 
Several undergraduates have come to me recently asking about philosophy grad school. There are several wrong approaches to take in answering such students.

The Polyanna approach would be to enthusiastically encourage them and, on the subject of job prospects, either implicitly or explicitly lie to them by suggesting that jobs in philosophy are low-hanging fruit. Some people are told this lie and believe it, and they feel betrayed late in grad school if they realize that they won't end up with an academic job.

The scylla to that charybdis is to tell students that there simply are no jobs. We might call this the Pannabacker approach.* It also trades on a lie. There are some jobs. The junior professors at any institution are testament to that. I got a job, and so did many of my friends in the discipline.

A third approach, explicitly advocated by Brian Leiter, is to tell students that they should only go to graduate school if they get into a highly ranked program.** Here's Leiter's advice:
[D]on't go to graduate school unless you get into a strong program. Period. If you get funding to go to a strong program, and you love the subject, then go to graduate school. The odds of securing a tenure-track job, indeed a good tenure-track job, from a strong program are very high.
The Leiter approach includes more truth than the other two, but it's weighed down by three spoonfuls of elitism and polyanna extract. Here's what I mean:

1. There are a non-negligible number of graduates from any program who don't get jobs. This is especially true if we look at people working in niche specialties, like philosophy of art.

2. Students at lower-ranked and unranked programs do get jobs. I teach at a department with an unranked program, and we place the majority of our graduates in tenure track jobs.

3. I suspect that Leiter's standards for a what count as a 'good tenure-track job' are skewed to favor prestige. Highly-ranked programs tend to hire graduates from other highly-ranked programs, but not every student wants a publish-or-perish job. There is a sense among both highfalutin and ignoble schools that graduates of the former are not for jobs at the latter. I know people who were discouraged by the placement director at their prestigious program from even applying for jobs deemed to be beneath the dignity of the graduate. I had some APA interviews for jobs at which the interview committee was dismissive about my application because (they thought) my pedigree put me out of their league. (This last point is not meant as bragging; UCSD, where I did my grad work, is well-ranked but not top five.)

4. A big constraint on whether graduates find jobs is how widely they apply. Imposing strong geographic constraints on the job search can sink anyone. This relates to prestige, because higher-ranked programs are more likely to admit traditional students who are willing to move for a job after school. Less prestigious programs are more likely to admit students who select a graduate school close to home and who have family complications that lead them to apply for jobs only in a restricted area. This common cause - student background - explains some of the correlation between prestige and placement success.

5. Yet there are real advantages to attending a better graduate program. It isn't primarily, as Leiter suggests, to avoid having "the albatross of a not very good graduate program around [your] neck." Rather, a better program means more notable faculty.*** This obviously means a greater depth and breadth of courses. But it also equips graduates with better letters of recommendation. Letters, more than just a good pedigree, do matter on the job market.

Better programs also tend to have more active colloquium schedules. This gives students a chance to learn about a bunch of different things, network with philosophers from other places, and learn the mores of professional interaction. Stronger programs also tend to support placement more aggressively.

As important as attending a program that offers these things can be, it's necessary to take advantage of them. A graduate is not helped by a weak, nonspecific letter from a famous person. And students only get something out of colloquia that they actually attend. The plus of a strong program, then, isn't primarily the name of the institution. It's that opportunities are more numerous and more easily exploited.

The approach I do take

So what advice do I give to students thinking about grad school?

Honestly, the job market is terrible. If going through graduate school and not having an academic job on the other side would crush you, then you should probably do something else. This isn't because nobody gets a job, but rather because not having a job is a real possibility regardless of what you do in grad school.

Don't go to grad school if it would mean taking out tremendous student loans. Even success - an academic job at the end - will not mean big money.

If you have strong constraints on where you could go for a job - or on how much you need to earn - then don't look to an academic job in philosophy. A number of graduates from our program who did get tenure-track jobs left them for family reasons or geography. The ones I have in mind found other academic jobs that fit their needs, but they took a serious gamble. That kind of constraint often leads graduates to leave the discipline.

Finally, application to top grad programs is competitive. Even solid candidates can be lost in the noise of the process. So applicants are well-advised to apply to numerous places, selected from various strata of the rankings.


* I take the label from Leiter's poster child for it, English professor William Pannabacker.
** Years ago, Leiter also started the Philosophal Gourmet Report, which is really the only available ranking of philosophy grad programs. The rankings can create an illusion of precision, but they are a useful guide. So I don't at all mean to be attacking the PGR. I discussed prestige and the PGR briefly in this old post.
*** This is not meant to suggest that there are no luminary faculty at less-than-luminary graduate programs. Rather, the 'more' is about quantity. At a stronger program, there are more likely to be multiple high-profile faculty working in a student's area.

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Once more the New Wave 
More shilling: Here is the full text of the introduction to New Waves in Philosophy of Science. I wrote it with Jacob Busch, with whom I editted the volume.

New Waves in Philosophy of Science

The explicit aim of volumes in this series is to collect contributions from young researchers likely to dominate the discipline; for this volume, the discipline in question is philosophy of science. It has been our privilege to edit such an audacious project, but it has also been a great challenge. We can only make educated guesses about the future. We cannot say with certainty which recent topics will be central to the discipline. Even selecting among areas which will probably remain central, there are competing desiderata: for example, to balance perennial topics against others which have more recently attracted the attention of philosophers.

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Surfing the new wave 
When Matt asked about the contents of New Waves in Philosophy of Science, I was unable to turn up anything helpful on-line. So I just cut and pasted the table of contents.

Turns out that I had only looked on the publisher's US website and in the Amazon listing for the book. I have since discovered Palgrave UK's page for the volume, which has the list of articles. From there you can download a PDF of the frontmatter, our editorial introduction, and the index. (The link says 'Download sample chapter.')

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How to be better at fraud 
We often assess claims based on plausibility of style and content. In writing about Wikipedia, I argue that these assessments can be frustrated by community editing. The implausible details can be taken out of false accounts, making the falsity harder to detect. Some people respond to my argument by denying that this happens.

Reading Eugenie Samuel Reich's Plastic Fantastic, I bumped into a similar phenomenon. Reich is a science journalist, and the book is about fraudulent science. Her claim is that peer review does not do an especially good job of catching deliberate fabrication. Moreover, scientists who perpetrate fraud often exploit reviewers' comments and questions in order to make their fabrications more plausible. Reich writes:
Not only in there no guarantee that a thorough review process will detect a false claim, but even more disturbingly, a thorough review may do little more than reveal to authors what changes they need to make in order to turn a false claim into a more plausible scam.[p. 122]
The parallel with Wikipedia is not precise, but in both cases conscientious but imperfect editorial oversight results in public versions which are more plausible false accounts than the original submissions.

Scammer scientists exploiting this can publish more plausible scam papers than they could have otherwise. Yet one might hope that, although this helps fraudulent papers on the timescale of months, fraudulent research programs will still be uncovered in the course of just a couple of years. The parallel hope for the Wikipedia is that false claims will be corrected eventually.

So the hope is that fraud burns brighter by exploiting peer review but will still burn out in relatively short order. Consistent with this is the fact that none of the cases of fraud which Reich describes have gone undetected for more than a few years, and each was discovered in time to ruin the scientists responsible. Yet that may just be because she can only report scientific fraud which was ultimately detected.

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Tales in a subdued palette of chestnut and white 
Charles Sander Peirce observed that it's a poor bet to insist that science will never be able to solve some question. Make the bet, he says, and
[t]he likelihood is that it will be solved long before you could have dreamed possible. Think of Auguste Comte who when asked to name any thing that could never be found out instanced the chemical composition of the fixed stars; and almost before his book became known to the world at large, the first steps had been taken in spectral analysis.*
Yet there are certainly some questions we won't be able to solve. The problem, of course, is identifying which facts those are.

Traces of the past have been effaced, and so there are some facts about what the past was like that are unrecoverable. In explaining underdetermination to people, I use the colour of dinosaurs as an example. It may just be that the fossil record has not preserved enough for us to figure it out.

And yet researchers claim to figure it out based on microscopic bits responsible for extruding pigment; see the NYTimes article. The Sinosauropteryx, we are told, had "had a head-to-tail feathered mohawk in a subdued palette of chestnut and white stripes."

The story goes on to indicate that other scientists challenge the result, that the data set is small, and so on. And I only ever used the example in a conditional way, to say that the relevant evidence might not exist in the fossil record. I only meant say that this kind of underdetermination will arise in historical sciences. Of course we can't know with certainty which questions will be underdeterminated in this way.

Still, I need a new example.

* See here for the full citation.


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