Thinking about grad school in philosophy?

Then here are some FAQs for you, courtesy of Michael Huemer at UC-Boulder. I think most of what Huemer says is true, though the picture he paints is a bit too bleak. What he leaves out is just how much fun it is to go to grad school in philosophy (at least, if you’re a philosophy geek): all of the classes, the late-night conversations, the stories you build up about goofy, smart professors and the trials they put you through, etc. Also, it’s a fact that there’s no better job in the world than helping students think through philosophical problems. (I am of course setting aside jobs requiring the operation of minisubs by remote control.)


Author: Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.

6 thoughts on “Thinking about grad school in philosophy?”

  1. I think most of what he says is true too, but unlike Huenemann I don’t think he paints too bleak a picture. In fact, it might not be bleak enough. His focus is on research institutions and the incredible competition for those jobs. And he is right, the job prospects for those jobs are very bleak. But, if only by default, one might assume in reading the piece that the job market for teaching positions is considerably less fierce. It probably is less fierce, but it is still brutally competitive. Teaching schools have their pick of the litter – loads of great candidates from top flight graduate programs who did not get jobs at top flight schools, plus loads and loads of smart and competent philosophers from programs outside of the top 20. None of this even mentions the increased use of adjunct instructors, and the general lack of growth or even maintenance of humanities programs.

    Perhaps Huenemann’s slightly more optimistic view, or my more pessimistic view, comes from the difference in proximity we have from actually being on the job market. Which is a more accurate assessment? I don’t know.

    All of that said, excellent philosophy undergraduates might as well apply if they are interested. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. My view:
    (a) If you are already married, have kids or are thinking of having kids soon, it would be a terribly imprudent idea to go unless you get into a funded spot at a top program (and even then it is probably imprudent).

    (b) If you are not married, have no intention of getting married and having kids anytime soon, and you get a funded position, then why not? Even if you do not go to a top flight school, what will you have lost? You’ll find yourself 28 years old with a PhD, perhaps unable to get a job. But you won’t have gone into debt for it (since the position was funded). You may well have to switch gears and go find another career. But will you have “wasted your time”? Only if you think studying philosophy is a waste of time, and only if you will seriously regret not funding your IRA until you are 30. If you don’t mind being poor through your 20s (and perhaps beyond), graduate school in philosophy is a great time for people that love philosophy.


  2. I’m not sure what people are seeking when they pursue a graduate degree in Philosophy. I think that’s a good overview of what you end up achieving in a best case scenario if you go that route. But it may be that a student wants to impact the world with their ideas/thoughts and if that’s the case a graduate degree in Phil might be helpful to order those thoughts; it could also end up being a distraction if it forces you to pursue the wrong questions. Getting those thoughts out to the world is a whole other task that a graduate degree in phil is unlikely to facilitate.

    I’d love to see a whole generation of philosophically astute accessible fiction and/or screenwriting. I tire of philosophical work that is only comprehensible to other phils or just amounts to books reproducing themselves through human medium. Kudos to those books though. (i.e. students should target their careers to my wants ha ha)

    The employment assessment may fail to address what’s wrong with philosophy and deciphering the legitimate tasks of philosophy may enlighten career direction.


  3. From an outside perspective, two things seem to be fundamentally spot on in Kleiner’s analysis:

    1) funding
    2) the intrinsic merit of philosophy

    From the economist’s perspective the funding decision should tell you what an unbiased person thinks of your chance to succeed (presumably even get a job). If you are a) interested in philosophy b) have talent c) developed a relationship with a philosophy professor sufficient to get a good letter of recommendation and d) took the effort to apply — you are certainly already among a special group. If you are selected from among this group to be funded you are already well on the way. [Any estimation of how many people find funded positions on a yearly basis?]

    I think any academic would be forced to accept the value of philosophy (the problem is that so many think it is an art they mastered in the process of pursuing other disciplines).

    This brings up two questions I) Skills: will you (need / will you receive) excellent guidance to developing depth in philosophy, (do you need to / can you) block out 5-7 years to study philosophy, and (do you need / will you receive) the experience teaching it as a graduate student to master it. II) Signal: What opportunities does a PhD offer, what limitations does a PhD impose? First, PhDs are union cards for certain teaching jobs. Second, PhDs are signals to the larger community about your talents and in some cases eccentricities. A good signal communicates a variety of information efficiently. Some of this stereotyping can close certain doors (hopefully not the ones you would want to go through).


  4. The more I think about Dr. Huemer’s suggestions above, the more I find myself saddened. It is not that his advice is wrong-headed. For the most part I agree with him, the job market is terrible and people should make sure grad school is prudent for them. But it is the whole careerist attitude that pervades his suggestions – and that now defines contemporary philosophy – that bums me out. Not a single mention of the love of wisdom in his piece, rather he speaks of “career advancement”. Gross. And how does one advance? By being wise, or even seeking after wisdom? No. Cleverness is the chief virtue for success (now defined as “career advancement”) in philosophy. Cleverness, an intellectual capacity that Aristotle holds in such low regard that he adds it as a mere afterthought in his catalogue of intellectual virtues in Bk VI of the NE.

    Another blog I read offered this, from John Heil’s preface to “From an Ontological Point of View”, as a response:

    “Philosophy today is often described as a profession. Philosophers have specialized interests and address one another in specialized journals. On the whole, what we do in philosophy is of little interest to anyone without a Ph.D. in the subject. Indeed, subdisciplines within philosophy are often intellectually isolated from one another…

    The professionalization of philosophy, together with a depressed academic job market, has led to the interesting idea that success in philosophy should be measured by appropriate professional standards. In practice, this has too often meant that cleverness and technical savvy trump depth. Positions and ideas are dismissed or left unconsidered because they are not comme il faut. Journals are filled with papers exhibiting an impressive level of professional competence, but little in the way of insight, originality, or abiding interest. Non-mainstream, even wildly non-mainstream, conclusions are allowed, even encouraged, provided they come with appropriate technical credentials.”

    What is the value in most, or even any, of this sort of “philosophical” activity?

    I can only think that those who go into philosophy do so because they were engaged in a deep and personal way by something they read or thought about as undergrads. But as you scan most articles in journals today, it appears that this initial spark of personal interest has dulled into a game of clever arguments made for the sake of careerist aspirations. It has no soul. So sad to see philosophy reduced to just another technical discipline, with scarcely a hint of a higher calling (recall, Socrates was called by the gods to do philosophy!). I note all of this while simultaneously noting that my own career is not “advancing” very well. Uggh. I feel like I need a shower.

    A possible conclusion: Many undergrads who love philosophy might well find themselves doing more valuable and personal work in philosophy if they remain amateurs (lovers of it rather than professional practitioners) .


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