In a post from a couple of years ago, Dean Dad says not to go to grad school in the humanities. In a post called "Go to Grad School!", Brain Weatherson says the Dean's reasons "are all fairly standard factoids - it’s a huge opportunity cost, it takes forever, and the job market is awful," and Weatherson concludes that "[n]one of these are good reasons, and it would be an awful decision to not apply to graduate schools because of posts like these."
Now, part of Weatherson's disagreement with the Dean comes from a different assessment of the job market, since he thinks "the job market is, at least for a lot of grad students, much better than the horror stories you’ll find on blogs suggest." Weatherson's reasons for the rosy assessment? "Here, for instance, are the placement records for recent years of the philosophy departments at"--wait for it--"Princeton, Rutgers, NYU and MIT, four of the best East Coast philosophy programs." Ah, yes. We should feel good about the market because most grads from the best 10-15% of departments manage to find jobs.
To his credit, Weatherson knows this alone isn't a useful indication of what the market's like and so can't be the basis for advising most prospective undergrads. When I have a chance, I want to come back to his advice for people thinking of going to programs in the other 85%.
For now, though, I want to stay focussed on this tendecy to talk about the market in optimistic tones because people from top-10 or top-20 departments mostly get jobs. In short, this is insane. What would people say about the job market for lawyers if only grads from the top 10-15% of law schools could expect to find semi-permanent work as lawyers in their first couple of years out of school? Or what about doctors or b-school grads? My guess is, they'd say that's a terrible job market.
The point is, the optimistic tone ("Go to Grad School!") is deeply misleading to undergrads. Most of them have no idea what the academic job market is like. Why should they? It's weird, and not like other job markets. They hear the optimism and process it in terms of what they do know, even if what they know isn't at all like the academic job market. Surely those of us who undergrads ask for advice should give it to them in ways that aren't so misleading.