Approaches to thinking about approaching grad school

Thu 25 Mar 2010 07:52 PM

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.