Monday, September 7, 2009

Should We Encourage Majors to Go to Grad School?

Should Philosophy departments encourage their undergraduates to pursue graduate work in Philosophy?

I was asked recently to help evaluate a highly selective undergraduate institution's Philosophy department. The department prided itself on having "placed" many of its undergraduate majors in decent graduate programs. According to the department, this is one of the measures of its success.

But I'm not so sure. In my view, my department gets too many applications, and grants too many PhD's, and so on. Given the realities of the job market and the possible (likely?) fate of many small colleges, it seems inappropriate to encourage students to pursue graduate work. Am I wrong?


Meno said...


The department prided itself on having "placed" many of its undergraduate majors in decent graduate programs. According to the department, this is one of the measures of its success.

It seems as if it's very common for departments to think this way. And your question strikes me as a very good one.

My proposal: As a general rule, we shouldn't encourage students to apply to phil. grad school. One exception to the rule is a student who plainly can end up making invaluable contributions to the discipline of philosophy-- the discipline would be much richer with this student's contributions than it would be without them. Maybe it also matters whether the student would simply be miserable unless he/she studied philosophy at the grad level.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I strongly agree with Spiros...

Of course, that contribution could be excellent teaching. Of course, that's assuming a significant change in the system -- but, a girl can dream, no?

Anonymous said...

Meno, I'm curious. How can you tell that it is obvious that a 21 year old will be making major contributions to the field, 5-7 years in the future?

Also, I don't think it should be encouraged. I was neither encouraged nor discouraged from doing so, but was told by some profs what the pros and cons were. I decided from there, on my own.

If anything, I would say UGs should be encouraged to go to/apply to terminal MA programs if the a) aren't the sort that you can tell will make contributions or b)are unsure as to whether or not they want to go on the a PhD.

Anonymous said...

C.D. Broad said it best:

"It is to be feared that Spinoza would not have been enlightened enough to appreciate the beneficent system of the Ph.D. degree, introduced into English universities as a measure of post-war propaganda, whereby the time and energy of those who are qualified to do research are expended in supervising the work of those who never will be."

Anonymous said...

One exception to the rule is a student who plainly can end up making invaluable contributions to the discipline of philosophy-- the discipline would be much richer with this student's contributions than it would be without them.

By this rule, of course, almost all philosophers currently working at universities should not have gone to grad school. I strongly suspect this applies to the author of the comment as well. But this would leave us with few philosophy departments at all. I take this as a reductio of the suggestion.

Obviously we should be careful about encouraging students to go to grad school, especially to programs where finding jobs upon graduation is unlikely, and we should give them as clear a picture of the job situation as we can. But the proposal suggested here, if it were meant seriously (I can't really tell), is clearly much too strong in its requirements.

Platowe said...

By all means encourage the best of your majors--just them. Nothing else is justified.

Anonymous said...

I think it is generally most responsible to gently discourage students from going to grad school. The ones that go anyhow are the ones that deserve to be there. Philosophy programs also need to do a much better job at placing people outside of academia. This applies to undergrad and grad alike.

Anonymous said...

As an almost-done grad student I can honestly say right now, I wish someone had discouraged me from going to grad school.

I am definitely not one of thise who will make invaluable contributions to philosophy, but I've always known that, and have made my peace with it.

The distressing thing for me though is that I'm not even going to be one of those non-contributors who somehow sneaks their way into becoming a faculty member. After all this time and effort, I'm going to be unemployed and debt-ridden, when most of my similarly talented peers are earning decent amounts of money and are well established on their chosen career ladder.

I screwed the pooch. And so did those academic advisors who encouraged me to do this.

Anonymous said...

There's a huge though largely undiscussed problem here, namely, what else are we going to encourage our majors to do? Imagine if a music teacher, for instance, told her student, "Don't become a music teacher, there's too much competition for jobs and the odds are against you getting one," and then didn't offer anything other suggestions for what to do with a training in music.

Philosophers have always gently discouraged their student from grad school--my teachers certainly did anyway! And guess what? In the absence of anything better to do with my degree, I decided to go to grad school anyway. Until we come up a standardized list of other viable options (a list that includes more than just, say, go to law school), our discouragement is disingenuous. In the absence of such options, we'd be more honest not just to discourage students from grad school, but from majoring in philosophy in the first place.

Anonymous said...

"There's a huge though largely undiscussed problem here, namely, what else are we going to encourage our majors to do?"

The faculty at my undergraduate philosophy program always advised students to pursue philosophy as a second major. The philosophy department's course requirements were small enough it was relatively easy to do this (although I'm sure it forced some people into a 9th or 10th semester).

As a result, just about everyone I knew in the philosophy program was a double major: philosophy and computer science, philosophy and psychology, philosophy and classics, philosophy and english, philosophy and physics, etc.

As far as I know, I'm the only one who actually went on to graduate school in philosophy, but I don't think many of my classmates would have thought their degree wasted. For instance, I know of one who is getting his doctorate in psychology and studying moral behavior and choice making. Surely his philosophical training is of some value to his chosen profession?

Anonymous said...

I don't know how to answer the question in general; for me, it is an individual by individual question whether to advise graduate school. I'm not sure there is good advice for students in general. It is important to inform those bent on grad school about the riskiness of that move, even for the most talented. Indeed, many of my most gifted students have not been comfortable taking the sorts of risks one must take to become an academic philosopher. They've gone on to other things.

I certainly think it would be a mistake to design a philosophy major around the goal of preparing majors for graduate school in philosophy. Among other things, that itself would convey an unwarranted level of confidence in philosophy as a viable career for majors, which it is most certainly not. Naturally there should be opportunities for majors who have a burning desire to pursue a graduate degree to prepare themselves. But it is important to remember that the vast majority of majors would benefit from other sorts of intellectual pursuits.

729 said...

Spiros: I don't think that you are wrong about this. But I also find that it is crucial, given that this is the case, to kick student advising into high-gear. By "high-gear" I mean have some good answers to the question "What can I do with my philosophy degree?" I'm not at all vague about this, and have gathered my own set of examples from my years of teaching, and am willing to talk through ideas with students, getting the full scope of their interests and skills. I've found that its important to make sure that dedicated philosophy majors don't believe that not doing philosophy as a career is any sort of "failure." This is far from the truth, and sometimes needs to be addressed directly.

The kinds of examples I have on hand, besides successful law school placements, are students who have gone into Public Policy MA programs. Scoff if you must, but a couple of my former students have gone on to Divinity Programs. Some of our recent strongest philosophy majors are kicking ass in other fields, especially the sciences. Advanced logic courses have done students a world of good, likewise research and communication skills have given them an edge.

Lately, I've been giving this topic a lot of thought. The more I've let go of graduate program placement as a criterion for success, the more happy I've become as a teacher. Maybe I just really enjoy corrupting as many of the youth as I possibly can no matter what they end up doing, though it's just as likely that it's genuinely interesting to consider and attempt to make good on the claim "philosophy goes with everything."

Anonymous said...

I agree that the graduate school option should be discouraged.

But pragmatically-based criticisms of the undergraduate major seem a hasty. At the very least, they must explain away the evidence that philosophy majors tend to do pretty well by the usual financial measures.

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:54--

I've seen the list already, but unfortunately it doesn't say what other professions philosophy majors are entering to such resounding financial success (my dept. chair's hypothesis is that the numbers are just skewed because we train so many future lawyers). My criticism wasn't of the philosophy major in and of itself, but that we need to outline some serious alternatives to grad school if we are sincere about telling students to major in philosophy.

Anway, I appreciated 729's suggestions, especially the Public Policy MA track. They are doubly helpful in my case, since the students I'm advising will get beat ever time for grad school by the kids at Spiros' highly selective place, and probably at lots of other less selective places as well. So I'm in need of some serious alternatives to offer.

--Anon 10:44

Anonymous said...

I'm with the "discourage grad school in philosophy camp."

w/r/t to the "alternatives" issue, and riffing off of 729's list (which I think is spot-on), if they want to go to school in something else, here's a list.
MPA programs.

Public health programs (including MPH and the more research-focused MS programs)

Information systems stuff (IS school, etc.)

Library School (MLS, e.g.)

Fisheries science


medical school

Physician's assistant school

elementary or secondary education certification

Most of these don't require that much work in specific fields.

Other things they can do with a philosophy major without going back to school:
precisely the same things that can be done by majors in _any other humanities and social science
field_: history, music, sociology, psych, econ, english, etc., as well as many undergrad science
majors: biology, ecology, forestry, etc.
Those degrees are all well and good, but don't teach you much that a smart person can't also pick up with a few weeks of on-the-job training. They don't turn loose social science or science majors with study design or data crunching. Philosophy doesn't need a justification as an undergrad major any more than any other major (save engineering, business, and few of the sciences). Job seekers from undergrad philosophy backgrounds just muddle through, exactly like everyone else.

Michael Cholbi said...

Anon 6:26 - I had the same reaction as your chair. But philosophy majors who become lawyers are excluded by this:
"This chart is based upon PayScale Salary Survey data for full-time employees in the United States who possess a Bachelor's degree and no higher degrees and have majored in the subjects listed above."

That actually makes the findings all the more surprising and encouraging.

Anonymous said...

I can think of a whole lot of job options that philosophers should be able to have, but for various do not. Examples:

Title: Assistant to the Pastor
Description: Helps pastor with research, edits sermons for content so that the pastor doesn't make stupid arguments, offers personal counseling to Church members

Title: High School Philosophy Teacher
Description: Teaches high school students how to think, also holds in-house philosophy critical thinking and ethics seminars for teachers

Title: Philosophical Advisor to the President
Description: Check presidential speeches for logical fallacies and suspect claims

Title: Judicial Assitant
Description: Explain the arguments of lawyers to Judges, assist in the preparation of rulings

If anyone knows of any openings in the above positions, be sure to let me know.

Larry Franz said...

I agree that you should only encourage your very best students to continue in graduate school, and only after making sure they understand the odds against getting a good teaching job.

Nevertheless, here's a real-life example to consider, although not the typical one you've been discussing.

I was a philosophy major at a mediocre state university back in the early 70s, who ended up taking the best financial offer I got from a grad school, and went to a Big Ten university. After two years, I got my M.A. and was invited to stay, but decided to take a "sabbatical", which has now lasted 34 years. The main reason I dropped out was that I thought my chances of getting a job were slim -- I was also really tired of being in school.

The career I eventually followed was in software development, and I've been very successful, at least until the recent merger/downsizing. (Back in the 70s, a computer science degree wasn't a requirement to get an entry-level programming job -- just telling someone I had taught symbolic logic was a big plus.)

Now that I'm approaching "voluntary" resignation/retirement (i.e. being laid off in a relatively nice way), I've decided to start working on philosophy again, so among other things I'm auditing a Philosophy of Language course at a local college.

I've seriously thought about going back to grad school, not thinking that I would one day get a teaching job, but just because I never lost my interest in the subject and would like to see what I could do, given a second chance.

I'm wondering, however, if any department anywhere would accept a student who's approaching 60.

Would anyone here encourage this ex-philosophy major to go to grad school again? Is it unrealistic to think I could get accepted? Should I just try to find a way to take a course here or there indefinitely? Am I nuts for even thinking about trying this again?

Based on what some have said here, if I did get accepted, it might be a good thing that I would take a slot away from a younger person who would be better served doing something else.

Anonymous said...

You da man, Larry Franz. We knew you'd be back. They all come back. I hope you get into a grad program.

Anonymous said...

While I agree that you should encourage only the best majors to go on to grad school, this doesn't mean you should discourage everyone else. In fact, everyone else has a right to pursue their legal dreams, and -- with effort and some luck -- many of them may survive grad school and find gainful employment. Yes, the odds are stacked against these less-than-best majors, but it could reasonably happen. (Me.)

Compare the paternalism proposed here to, say, athletics. Should you discourage a mediocre athlete from playing college ball or even at a semi-pro level, if you believe she or he won't reach the professional ranks? Isn't the pursuit of a dream valuable in itself? (Yes.)

To give as a reason for discouraging that the job market is oversaturated is a selfish reason: You want someone to drop out so that you can get hired someday. If you were any good, why worry about competition from these lesser students?

729 said...

Anon 1:12 AM: To give as a reason for discouraging that the job market is oversaturated is a selfish reason: You want someone to drop out so that you can get hired someday. If you were any good, why worry about competition from these lesser students?

It seems to me you're confused. I have no idea how you've come up with the notion that philosophy professors are competing with their undergraduate students. Like a number of posters here, I already have a TT position and have had it for years. A few other posters are ABD or are new Ph.D.'s (also already teaching for a while). The question isn't about competing with our own students. The question regards the substantial recent decline in TT academic positions. People on the job market now (ABD, new Ph.D.'s and non-tenure track) are having terrible difficulties. In light of this, TT and T folks are wondering how to deal responsibly with advising undergraduate philosophy majors.

I fail to see "selfishness" in worrying about the prospects of undergraduates we mentor. Over-saturation a graduate students and Ph.D.'s is, in my book, worth worrying about at least as much as I attend to my students' academic progress and achievement. They need to be well informed, and need excellent advising. All of our students need this presently, not only philosophy majors. There's this jobless economic recovery going on you might have heard about. My students are terrified (when they're not depressed). I honestly don't see my concerns about the prospects of the philosophy students I mentor as being different in kind from all of the students I advise (a much wider class): They're all confronting difficult prospects.

Personally speaking, I do not consider my "mediocre" or even "low performing" philosophy students mediocre human beings. Whether a student excels in philosophy and whether a student learns a great deal from taking courses in or majoring in philosophy are two distinct matters. I don't confuse them. I push all of my students to excel. Some do, some do not. However, it is as plain as day that many of my philosophy students who do not always excel in courses will excel at many other things in life. In my experience, majoring in philosophy tracks interesting, curious and resourceful people--professional philosophy is just a by-product of this. I've never actually been able to dissuade a philosophy major who single-mindedly wants to apply to graduate programs from doing so. Yet, the competition to get in has become staggering lately, as I'm sure you must be aware. Responsible student advising requires fully informing students about things as they stand now--about getting into graduate programs and future job prospects.

Anonymous said...

To give as a reason for discouraging that the job market is oversaturated is a selfish reason...

Of course I'm not speaking to employed philosophers here. This comment was directed more at grad school students and other posters here. Sorry if that wasn't clear; I was just over on the Other Blog and had grad students on the brain. (Are there mostly employed philosophers on this blog?)

Anonymous said...

Responsible student advising requires fully informing students about things as they stand now--about getting into graduate programs and future job prospects.

Right. And my original post, the one you responded to, doesn't rule this out. Giving pros and cons of grad school and letting the student make up her mind is fine (and perhaps required), and I don't count this as discouragement. Rather, discouragement is more one-sided and is about pushing the student away from the grad school track. My point was that discouragement with respect to career choices and interest is too strong an attitude perhaps for anyone, including one's parents who presumably have the greatest responsibility and right to guide the student in any given direction; thus, it can't plausibly be a college professor's place to give the student this kind of personal guidance, except perhaps where it is explicitly soliticed.

Some professors might not view the philosophy job market as negatively as you or others: it could be that the best will always come out on top anyway, so those students wouldn't have a real cause to worry, or it could be that this free market competition is a desirable state. So discouraging a student to follow a path, that is not obviously harmful, in a major crossroads in life is exerting too much influence in a life of a person with whom you are not close, especially if you could be wrong.

Now, this is a bit different from encouraging gifted majors. Cultivation of talents can be encouraged; it seems to be at least supererogatory. Why the difference? One reason could be that it is more clear that a student is gifted than a mediocre will never succeed in philosophy at the graduate and professional ranks, so there is less of a chance of being wrong. And if that student truly is retarded and could not possibly survive graduate school, then she probably would not have been accepted to a program in the first place; and even if she did, she would not complete it. If she does, then why can't she be a gainfully employed and professionally satisfied philosopher, other than an unscrupulous program that, for revenue reasons, admits students it knows to be unqualified?

Professors in general think too highly of themselves and believe themselves to have much greater responsibilities and liberties than merely delivering education on a specific topic. Parents aren't paying for nerds like us to be life-coaches to their students, to squash their kids' dreams. That's their job.

praymont said...

For those students who are determined to go to philosophy grad school, it's good to emphasize that they really need a back-up livelihood, some reliable trade/profession in which they're qualified or at least close to being qualified. With this in mind, some schools have programs that combine a law degree with a philosophy M.A. There should be more programs that do this sort of thing, combining a philosophy M.A. with a journalism degree, or teaching certificate, etc.

Re. philosophy majors who don't pursue a graduate philosophy degree: I've got a post in which I gather some of the studies and articles on their other opportunities, and in which I list philosophy majors who have succeeded outside philosophy. It's at:

I'd appreciate any suggestions about how to add to that list.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of MA programs, that's not a bad option to steer students toward, especially for less-than-outstanding students who may struggle in grad school or on the market. Worst case, you leave with a MA, which is a lot more than most people have and can be an advantage in the non-academic job market; and at least you gave your dream a shot. Best case, you hit your stride in grad school and become a professional philosopher, as desired.

(Actually, the worst worst case is you fail to make it through the MA program, but you still would have given your dream a try.)

Kevin Schutte said...

Most of the things I have to say on this have already been said by one Anonymous or another in this comment thread:

1. Encourage a second major. Any second major will do, but one with a clear career track is best. (It is better to have a backup career available before one needs it, rather than trying to get one after one needs it, as I am doing now.)

2. Suggest a terminal M.A. program. Those in my (Ph.D.-granting) graduate program who already had a terminal M.A. had a significantly higher rate of success (and a better understanding of graduate student funding/finances) in the Ph.D. program, compared with those who didn't.

3. Warn them about the non-academic factors that might cause them to underperform in (or after) graduate school. Necessary conditions to becoming a professional philosopher include (but aren't limited to) being able to bond with graduate school faculty, being able to interview well above average, being willing/able to move anywhere, and being willing to operate in an academically political environment.

4. Encourage them to continue studying philosophy, for it offers intrinsic value. Graduate study is not a necessary condition for further study.

Cynic said...

Off the top of my head, the outcome figures for Philosophy PhDs look something like this:

50% never get a tenure-track job in Philosophy

30% get a very undesirable job in Philosophy (compared to their hopes and expectations upon starting grad school)

15% get a fairly undesirable job

4% get a desirable job but make little impact on the subject: they are read by a few dozen people, and appreciated by fewer.

1% achieve what most people go into the profession to achieve.

Set that against becoming a lawyer or banker or comparable professional: extraordinarily high pay, social prestige, arguably more influence on society, certainly much more power and responsibility the further one climbs the career ladder, the choice of where to live, etc.

It's a scandal that these facts are not drilled into every single undergrad thinking about Philosophy grad school.

Anonymous said...

I have recently decided to pursue options other than acadamia, and it is not easy. Just yesterday, I applied for a provincial government job as a policy analyst (I live in Canada), and when you get the the 'education' section, there is a drop down menu from which you select your major. Philosophy wasn't even one of the options! And I have talked to a number of employment consultants and recruiters who all have the same perplexed reaction when I tell them that I have a PhD in philosphy. One of the problems is that for most of the jobs I am interested in, I am competing against people who are obviously qualified. I may be qualified - perhaps even moreso - but it seems next to impossible to make that obvious to someone who has no real concept of what professional philosophers do. Much of what I am saying here is true for other disciplines as well. But if your PhD is in, say, economics or psychology, there are more obvious applications (a friend with a PhD in psychology walked straight into a managerial job with a social work firm). I am simply not a 'safe' hire. So, it is starting to look like I must either back to part-time adjunct teaching, or lower my expectations and take a job that I could have gotten (and more easily) without ever going to university in the first place.

Also, when I was teaching, I never discouraged students from majoring in philosophy, but I never encouraged it either. And I always told them that if they major in philosophy, it is a really good idea to at least minor in something with more obvious practical application. Note that I am not saying that there is anything wrong with philosophy; rather, this is more a statement about how it is perceived by many. (Of course, I always tell students that regardless of what their major is, they could benefit by taking philosophy classes).

Anonymous said...

Coming in with a late comment: I'd like to encourage everybody to never fail to encourage those students who impress you and who also happen to be members of under-represented groups in Philosophy. Help diversify Philosophy!

Lee Shin said...

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Lee Shin

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