I’m going to attempt to summarize the knowledge I have extracted from my PhD admissions experience. Just so you know my perspective, I was admitted to the University of Maryland – College Park with full funding for 5 years. That said, this was my only offer (not counting another wait-list that I withdrew from just before the deadline) and it only came after I had been on the wait-list for almost a month. Keep in mind that I consider myself rather lucky; I applied to a large group of schools and was only accepted at one, but many people were rejected by every school. From what I can gather, complete shutouts of applicants is quite common. So as you think about whether you want to apply to philosophy PhD programs, remember that the application process will probably be one of the largest undertakings you have completed so far in your life.
In the next few entries I’ll cover some topics that I had questions about when I started applying; I assume that these questions are pretty universal. I am by no means an authority (on anything), but the application process has certainly had an effect on me, and I think there is something I can add to the general knowledge base. I’ll start out, in this entry, with the question of whether you should go to philosophy grad school at all.
Should I go – Is it really so bad?
It is common for professors of philosophy to tell those inquiring about grad school that if they could see themselves doing anything else other than philosophy then they should do that instead. In fact, when I asked one of my professors for a letter of recommendation he attempted to convince me NOT to go into philosophy; I also had some interests in psychology and he thought that the prospects in that field were far better (after I had convinced him that I really did want to do philosophy he explained that he gave this “public service announcement” to every student who wanted a recommendation). I think that much of the pessimism about pursuing a career in philosophy is well grounded; the baseline job market for philosophers (not counting any momentary depressions due to the economy) is quite dismal (though the statistics on this are apparently a bit ambiguous) and most philosophy PhDs have to be ready to move to pretty much any location if they hope to secure a job as a professor. On top of this, fewer universities have serious research philosophy departments (those in which professors do more research than teaching) than those that have a great deal of science research, and therefore, most obtaining a PhD in philosophy should expect to teach far more than their counterparts in the sciences. But do these issues mean that students should only treat philosophy as a last resort – a profession they should only consider if nothing else could be fulfilling?
I think that this ‘last resort’ standard makes the prospective philosophy grad feel unwarranted desperation. Philosophers should have a wide variety of interests and abilities; how else are they supposed to write intelligently about the many topics with which philosophy interfaces? So, it seems odd that good philosophy students would have such narrow interests so that any other career would be totally unfulfilling. These sorts of thoughts came especially clear for me when I sat with no offers pretty late in the admissions season. I had to start thinking about ‘plan-b’, otherwise I would have no idea what to do if I was rejected from every place; I came up with several careers that might be interesting to do outside of philosophy. Of course, I might have hated these possible careers, but that is exactly the problem; it is extremely difficult to know your suitability for a career before starting it. So, why should one give up a potential career that seems interesting simply because they might like doing something else as well? If one can come out of the grad school experience without seriously harming other life goals (this is probably the key) then this doesn’t seem to be such a bad option. Of course, given the job market, you should probably be able to accept grad school as having some sort of intrinsic goods. Even if upon graduation you had to find a job outside of philosophy, you should be able to look at grad school itself as being a fulfilling experience. If you can’t do this, then perhaps it would be best to find some other career. And, if your goals are mostly monetary in nature then philosophy graduate school is almost certainly not for you.
I also recommend talking to philosophy grad students about their experiences in order to gauge whether professional philosophy is all it is cracked up to be. Do they seem happy with their lives? Do they end up with jobs? This will vary greatly based on the school; it seems that at some places students are extremely stressed and might do something else with their lives if given the chance, but at other places the students seem to be well rounded and happy individuals. This also seems to be the case of philosophy professors themselves; I’m not sure how the proportion of happy/unhappy people in philosophy compares with other professions but it doesn’t seem to be too different. I think that expectations probably play a large role as well; don’t expect to be a philosophical superstar making lots of money at a flashy institution, because you almost certainly won’t be. However, take all this with a grain of salt, because I havn’t actually experienced grad school yet. Talking to some grad students who have been there for a few years is probably a far better way of figuring whether you should go into philosophy.