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.