The thing I notice about a lot of advice out there for prospective grad students is how vague it is. Not vague in general, mind you, but vague about advice for people thinking of going to programs not in the top-20 or so. (So not vague in general--just vague for the overwhelming majority of prospectives.)
To get a sense of what I mean, let me point back to that old Weatherson post I was talking about the other day. I was bitching about how his advice has a generally optimistic tone, when he draws his actual reasons for optimism from a completely unrepresentative sample of job market success stories. Of course, Weatherson knows he's doing that, so after hammering the optimism he winds his way around to emphasizing "that no one ever has to decide to go to grad school as such." Which is to say, when a prospective is trying to decide whether or not to go to grad school, she should consider going to some programs--the ones with good placement records--but not others. Okay, so far so good.
But then, what's the advice for people looking at departments below the top-15 or top-20? Weatherson says:
At that stage, it is a very good idea to reconsider how strongly you want to go to graduate school. Going somewhere that you might well not enjoy, that might not lead to much of a career, is a real gamble.
Going somewhere that "might" not lead to a career in philosophy is a "gamble"? Uh, yeah. And a rose is rose. True, but prospectives can't do anything more useful with the first claim than botanists can with the second. Whatever. Let's push on.
Of course there are very few schools from where no one has had a successful career, so it’s not like you have to give up if you don’t get into a top school. But you should go in with eyes wide open, or not go in at all.
Yes. You should go in with "eyes wide open." But what are you looking for with your wide-open eyes? Well, one thing is schools with shitty placement records. Okay, good. Suppose I only get into departments in the bottom half of the Leiter report and their placement records are spotty. How do I think about that? Back to Weatherson:
And you’d have to think very hard before going somewhere without tuition wavers, or adequate stipends. But again, those are the kinds of decisions that should be made in the light of your specific possibilities, not in virtue of generic data about what humanities graduate school in general is like.
The first thing is, no. You should not "think very hard" about going somewhere that's going to charge you tuition and not pay you enough to live.* You should not "think very hard" about committing yourself to paying back student loan debt while moving from 30k one-year to 30k one-year, all while you're trying to get a tenure-tracked job. Don't you know the last Republican Congress made it way harder to declare personal bankruptcy? If you only get in to programs that make you pay tuition and don't pay you enough to live, do not go to graduate school.
But second, forget tuition and livable stipends for a second. Suppose you get into a program that'll give you both of those things. But also suppose it's in the bottom half of the rankings and it's got a spotty placement record. Then what? The advice here is to "think very hard." Okay, but think very hard about what? What considerations should you be weighing? What hard realities should you be facing? Besides placement stats, what information do you need to make this decision with your "eyes wide open"? Weatherson doesn't really say.
For the majority of prospectives, there's no real advice here. There's just empty words.
* The possible exceptions here are terminal MA programs that take no more than a couple of years, which programs I think are all kinds of awesome.