Advice on Advising Students on Whether to Go to Grad School: “Just Don’t Go”?

The job market in philosophy (I assume much of what I’ll be writing here holds for other academic disciplines as well, but I’ll keep things aimed at my own discipline, which I know the best) has been tough for a long time, but has become especially brutal during the recent economic downturn.  This seems to have a lot of faculty advisers of students adopting the “Just Don’t Go” line of advice on the issue of whether to go to grad school– the line advocated by the English professor William Pannabacker, who writes under the pen name “Thomas Benton,” in this and this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  [Update: In the comments, Prof. Pannabacker calls our attention to this more recent CHE essay of his.]  Much of what needs to be said against this line has been said by Brian Leiter here, but I’ll add some thoughts which I think may be important.

I should say at the outset that, except for rare cases in which I know the student I’m advising extremely well, I don’t believe in giving advice like “Don’t go,” or “Go,” or “Go here.”  These are the students’ decisions, and my role as an adviser is to cite important considerations that should be taken into account, to provide what information I can, and, often, to suggest options for consideration that the student may have missed.  Sometimes students explicitly ask what I think they should do, and I do answer such questions, but only after emphasizing that the decision is theirs, and that my advice is based on assumptions that I don’t know are right that I’m making about their values, preferences, risk tolerance levels, etc.

I start with a point that I think is obvious these days, but whose importance seems to be missed by those who adopt the “Just don’t go” line: The job market for college grads (including for philosophy majors) is generally brutal.  Suppose your student takes your “Just Don’t Go” advice.  What’s going to happen to her, short-term (in the next couple of years)?  Are you quite confident she won’t end up completely unemployed, with no health insurance, or working some lousy part-time jobs with no benefits?   If so, how are you so confident of this?  There are some recent college grads I know that you should talk to.  How would things be, short-term, if she went to grad school?  Well, to take the philosophy grad program where I teach, at Yale, as an example:

Students are normally given at least five years of full support — tuition, plus stipend, plus health care — in the form of non-teaching fellowships for the first two years and the fifth (or sixth) year, and teaching fellowships for the third and fourth year. For 2008-09, the stipend is $25,500 for both teaching and non-teaching fellowships. In the past five years, the stipends have increased every year for both incoming and current students…

(I believe the stipend is now a bit more than the figure quoted above.)  Yale may be toward the generous end of things, but it’s certainly not alone.  If your student could have gotten into a program with financial support like that, or in that ballpark, but you told them “Just Don’t Go,” are you confident you’ve advised well?

If you’re worried that going to grad school in part because nothing else acceptable worked out, and based on such short-term considerations, will function as a trap for your student, luring her into a line of work with dismal prospects, then by all means express that worry.  Some students may be susceptible to being trapped in that way.  But adopting a simple “Just Don’t Go” line seems irresponsible.  I know plenty of people who went to grad school in philosophy for a couple of years or so, and then dropped out to pursue another opportunity.  Some wished they hadn’t pursued philosophy at all; many are happy they did so.  One person I knew quite well went into a PhD program explicitly planning to at least probably drop out after a couple of years.  He thought he’d probably end up going to law school, but wanted to give philosophy a shot.  He liked philosophy, but wasn’t doing well enough to change his mind and continue on, so he went to law school, as (probabilistically) planned.  He believes he got into a better law school than he would have if he had gone directly to law school [it was one of the very best law schools in the country, but I have no way of knowing if he’s right that he probably couldn’t have gotten into it directly], and even independent of such an upgrade, he was happy to have had those couple of years, with reasonable financial support, studying philosophy.   (A couple other people I know — and, in fact, I myself am like this — went to grad school with such a back-up plan in mind, though without having decided ahead of time to probably switch to the back-up.)  Similar strategies, perhaps with an eye toward possibly leaving for a job rather than for some other kind of education, can make sense — and this is especially so in extremely difficult economic times.  Warn against what dangers you see, but I really don’t see the justification for generally taking it on yourself to decide that your students just shouldn’t go, no matter what their other options might look like.

Now, Leiter’s (important) point: Some philosophy programs — these are generally the very top ones — have very strong placement records even during the last couple of very troubled years (see the placement records he links to at several programs).  This leads Leiter to issue alternative advice, which he contrasts with Pannabacker’s:

Now here’s some advice that isn’t silly:  don’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.

For the general reason I explain in the second paragraph above, I’m not inclined to generally adopt a line like this, but this kind of advice may outline the strategy that would be wise for many students to follow.  (And I’ll often advise students to consider such a plan, if it seems it may well make sense for them.)

This means going against what I take to be a very common assumption among students and their advisers: Many just take it for granted that students applying to grad schools should apply to some “safety schools”: programs that they can be quite confident they will get into.  But I have long held that, while that strategy might make sense for some students, others can reasonably think, for instance, like this: “Well, I’d like to go to grad school in philosophy, and, given such considerations as their placement records, these top programs look very good to me. I know there’s a good chance I won’t get into any of them, and I could also apply to this and that shoo-in, but I’d prefer to try something else than to go to a shoo-in, anyway.”  Perhaps in the end many, or even most, applicants should apply to “safety” schools, given the possibility that their other, non-graduate-school options might not work out, either, but (a) not all of them, and (b) even if including safety schools in the end makes sense for a particular student, the attitude that of course everyone should apply to safety schools works against seeing a strategy that makes sense for many students: that of only going to graduate school if they get into a really good one.

Given the tough economic times, and what this might do to students’ other options, perhaps it will make sense for some students to have a bit longer list of schools they’re applying to, including some not-quite-as-attractive programs, than they would otherwise have had.  But since the philosophy job market is tougher than ever, some students might be reasonable in operating with a shorter, more selective list than they would otherwise have had.  It all depends on a very complex interplay of factors involving personal preferences and risk tolerance levels, and what a student’s other options are like.  Generally, my advice is, first, to realize how complex this is, and not to be too quick with one-size-fits-all advice like “Just Don’t Go.”  Second, be ready to suggest (at least for consideration) options like applying selectively, or perhaps including a “safety school” (since non-philosophy options may not work out, either), but being prepared to pursue some other option if your student doesn’t get into any really strong programs, which can make sense for a lot of students (especially the really good ones).

And third, make sure that if your student does go to graduate school, that they do so very well informed of what they’re getting themselves into.  Pannabacker appears to be in contact with students who were badly misled about their prospects, some of whom had no idea how tough things can be.  That is deplorable.  In fact, it may be a good idea to, among other things, have your students read Pannabacker’s CHE pieces, so that they can get an idea of how tough the path may be.  (I think I may advise that.)  But since Pannabacker misses that, at least at some top programs, one’s chances aren’t that bad, you should also have your students read Leiter’s post, and perhaps this one as well, to get the other side of the picture.


Advice on Advising Students on Whether to Go to Grad School: “Just Don’t Go”? — 9 Comments

  1. Keith, this is as on-target as anything I’ve seen. I especially think this point is crucial:

    I don’t believe in giving advice like “Don’t go,” or “Go,” or “Go here.” These are the students’ decisions, and my role as an adviser is to cite important considerations that should be taken into account, to provide what information I can, and, often, to suggest options for consideration that the student may have missed. Sometimes students explicitly ask what I think they should do, and I do answer such questions, but only after making emphasizing that the decision is theirs, and my advice is based on assumptions that I don’t know are right that I’m making about their values, preferences, risk tolerance levels, etc.

    In offering advice, we often forget the perspectival nature of appropriate decision-making, as well as the other factors about the troubling nature of the general economy.

  2. Keith, one remark about this passage:

    The job market for college grads (including for philosophy majors) is generally brutal. Suppose your student takes your “Just Don’t Go” advice. What’s going to happen to her, short-term (in the next couple of years)? Are you quite confident she won’t end up completely unemployed, with no health insurance, or working some lousy part-time jobs with no benefits? If so, how are you so confident of this?

    This point is surely correct, and if we turn to longer-term concerns, it’s not clear how things change. But students should think about that as well. On the downside, even if you get the Yale package of support, and can survive for the next 5 or 6 years, and even if that turns out to be better than what one can expect to get if one leaves philosophy for something else, there is the problem of a narrowing of options as a result of getting advanced degrees. With a Bachelor’s degree, no one views one as overqualified for entry-level positions in corporate America. Of course, there may be very few options here for those with only a Bachelor’s degree, and that’s a complicating factor. But if one is thinking about a 20-30 year window of what could yield a satisfying life, taking the Yale package and getting a PhD might sacrifice longer-term interests for shorter-term ones.

    But of course the modal here is crucial, isn’t it? There is the risk tolerance module of the recipient of our advice to consider, and then the long-term/short-term confound as well. And about the best we can do is to point out that you may get a good Yale package to go to grad school and suffer from the narrowing of opportunities later on. But one might equally well forego the Yale package and suffer both in the short run for lack of meaningful career opportunities and acceptable compensation and benefits, plus struggle for years and perhaps decades to find anything close to the rewards of the life of the mind.

    And here an attitude of humility at our lack of insight, both into the economy and its future and into the souls and natures of those we advise, is in order: we simply don’t know enough to offer more than what you recommend–that is, identify the factors we know are relevant to good decision-making and leave conclusion-drawing to the agent. Not because they are in a better epistemic position than we are concerning what is or might be best, but because we should be significantly uncertain who’s in a better position and, after all, it’s not our life…

  3. Right, I don’t know how a year or two gap (of unemployment & no education) on one’s resume affects one’s prospects down the line.

    For many, further education/training in something “more practical” than philosophy is likely a good option. However, I understand that many lines of work that have been considered “practical” are drying up these dark days.

  4. Thank you for giving this topic so much, reasoned, careful thought. A large number of professors just say “follow your bliss,” “there are always jobs for good people,” and “massive retirements are coming.” My “Just don’t go piece” is a blunt instrument, intended to provoke this kind of discussion.

    A follow-up, informed by Leiter’s response, was less widely read:

  5. Thanks for the link.

    On placement records, which are vital to a prospective student’s ability to make an informed decision: Largely, I think, through Leiter’s efforts (this was several years ago), the placement records philosophy programs post are, as a rule, much more helpful than they were previously. When I was applying (LONG ago!), the rule was for the placement info (in mailed material: this was before the days of web pages) to be just a list of institutions at which their graduates have been placed in “recent years” –without telling you what counted as “recent,” and without telling you anything about their failures to place. I believe it is now the rule for placement records to give some information (usually not including names, for privacy reasons) about all those who receive a PhD from the program. We can use Yale again as the example. Note this at the head: “Below are the employment histories of all our recent (1999-) Ph.D.’s, listed by the year in which the Ph.D. degree was awarded.” Other programs give more information, including the area of philosophy and the students’ advisors. It’s not uniform from dept. to dept., and it’s not as helpful as it can be (information about those who leave programs before completing the degree would be important), but it is a lot better than placement records were not too long ago. I think that from most programs, students get a reasonable amount of information for the purpose of their first stage decisions–deciding which programs to apply to. In the second stage of their decision — deciding which of the programs that have accepted them to attend (supposing a student has been accepted by more than one), many students get a chance to visit the programs, and talk to faculty and current students, and get more information. (Since this is being told to them personally rather than posted on the world-wide-web, privacy concerns aren’t as important.)

    If placement records are not as helpful in other disciplines, it would be a good thing to try to pressure programs improve their reporting. Some kind of public praise / shaming, together with advising students to be suspicious of programs that don’t provide good information might be worth trying.

  6. This is a very helpful post, Keith, for students who are considering all of their options. I’m guessing few of us ever explicitly say “Go” or “Don’t go” to students. As you put it: these are decisions that students have to make. However, don’t we effectively say something like this in response to the question, “Will you write a letter of reference for me?” While it’s difficult, I prefer to tell a student I cannot recommend them, rather than write a tepid letter.

    But more importantly, my only concern about the “go-to-grad-school-because-the-job-market-sucks” line is that I worry about a certain tease. I have colleagues who say to students, “Sure, why not go to grad school? You love philosophy. Why not do this for 6 more years?” The unstated part is: “There’s pretty much no chance that I can see you getting a job, but hey, you’re young: a graduate program can sort of be high-powered continuing ed for you.”

    That seems like a tease to me because it underestimates how much expectations get solidified while in a graduate program. Maybe some folks are able to be immersed in a grad program and remain aloof to the whole thing. But I think most people are going to get very invested, and that the program is going to form in them certain hopes which, ahead of time, we might sometimes know are going to be false hopes. When they finish, and then spend 2 or 3 or 5 years trying to get a job, moving from term appointment to term appointment, and then finally realizing “it ain’t gonna happen”–well, I can’t imagine too many of those folks thinking, “Oh well: I had 10 more years of getting to do philosophy! Now I’m 33 and have to figure out what I want to do with my life but, hey, it was fun while it lasted.”

    My two cents.

  7. I think this is accurate advice, especially for other disciplines where a PhD might get you a job other than assistant professor. I want to add this though: a warning I received when I was an undergrad applying to grad programs is that graduate school is not the same as college, and it’s very hard, especially if you don’t really love it. I’ve met a number of miserable grad students who went to grad school because they didn’t know what else to do or to prove they were smart enough.

  8. Whether you’ll write a rec. is close to whether you think they should go, but they are different. (For instance, you might think they should go, but b/c of a poor performance in your class, also think you can’t write a helpful letter. And of course other possibilities where the answers to those 2 questions come apart.) I generally feel it’s my duty (part of what I’m paid for) to write a rec. if the student really wants one, but often I have to advise them that in my judgment, what I would write would not help, or would hurt, their cause. Esp. when it’s just the former (just won’t help), the student might do well to have you write, anyway: e.g., they have two strong letters from other profs they did well for; but they need a third; yours won’t help, but it’s their best (or least bad) option. Anyway, as I imagine you’ll agree, I think the key is to be as up-front as possible about the nature of the letter you would write (how strong it would be).

  9. It’s fine to point out that people who get into a top grad program are taken care of and may not be suffering much of an opportunity cost, but those top spots are always going to be filled no matter how much people are discouraged (if only by the delusional), but discouragement may help out everyone else.

    I wonder what could be done at the undergraduate level?

    Requiring a double-major doesn’t seem too bad an idea to me; it may hurt philosophy departments’ status, but it would be good for the students and most majors would also make the students better philosophers. (Imagine trying to deal with philosophy of mind and never having written even the simplest program! Or philosophy of mathematics with only high school math! etc.)

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