Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Forever in Debt to Your Priceless Advice

In comments, Potential Philosopher reminds me it's getting to be about time to talk about advice for prospective grad students. (Actually, it's probably getting late for that. Oh well.) I and everyone else have things to say about that, so we'll get to that in time. But the actual advice will have to wait another day.

Right now, I want to make a case for a general principle of advice-giving. It's a principle that, if you really take it seriously, I think puts serious constraints on the advice you can give to prospective grad students.

Here's the principle. The advice you give a prospective grad student has to be based on the rule, and not the exception, of what prospectives can expect about grad school and philosophy more generally.

Why is this a good principle? Well, I take it most people who want to go to grad school in philosophy were the exceptions in their college philosophy classes. They were the smartest people in the room. Or if, like me, they weren't the smartest people in the room, they were at least pretty smart, and certainly better at philosophy than most other things they ever tried to do. One thing this means is, prospective grads are used to being the exceptions. Now, some of them are going to go to grad school and continue being the exceptions. But the overwhelming majority won't. Their days as the exceptions in the class are over.* I take this to be damn near analytically true. So for the overwhelming majority of prospective grads, whatever might be true for the exceptions isn't true for them.

Now, here's how the principle constrains the advice we can give. Take just one example. Suppose I give some pessimistic-sounding advice about how long it takes to finish a PhD in philosophy in America. Like, say, some school's offering a five year package and saying they run a five-year program, but I say it's probably more like a six, seven, or eight year program. Suppose I say that.

There's always going to be someone who wants to come back at me with, "But I know someone who worked really hard and finished in four years! It can be done! Quit saying it can't be done!" First, no one's saying it can't be done. But more to the point, how the fuck does pleading exceptions help give a prospective grad student a fair idea of what grad school is normally, probably, usually like? What, in all likelihood, grad school will be like for them?

The advice we give prospectives should give them a sense of what they can reasonably expect. But they can't reasonably expect to be exceptions. Our advice needs to reflect that.

*Side-bar to prospective grads: This isn't a knock against you guys. In fact, it's one of the best things about grad school. If you got to grad school, every one of your classmates is going to be really, really bright, especially compared to the some of the dumb-ass knobs who won't STFU in your undergrad classes. Imagine taking class after class after class where the discussion never gets hijacked by someone who's real beef with Davidson is, he's not nearly as cool as the ideas that come to you at 2:00am when you're taking rips off your room mate's bong. It's really awesome having a bunch of smart people in your class instead of that guy.

14 comments:

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

Maybe my best advise about the decision TO go to grad school is to read the archives of this blog.

The idea of grad school is great, smart people, an amazing intellectual challenge, brilliant profs, playing with ideas all day etc... But, and this is a big one -- getting a job in philosophy is a b*tch. Plain and simple, it is hard and heartbreaking and lots of smart, talented and wonderful people don't get them.

Anonymous said...

*That* person - the one who won't STFU - will still be there to hijack conversations and make your life unpleasant. Granted, he'll be more philosophically intelligent, but that doesn't make up for him being an a--. Lesson: The base rate of people like that is just too high - they're everywhere.

Anonymous said...

"The advice we give prospectives should give them a sense of what they can reasonably expect. But they can't reasonably expect to be exceptions. Our advice needs to reflect that."

that's good advice.

Anonymous said...

My 2 cents:
(i) Don't go anywhere that won't give you funding.
(ii) If you have a choice between a good terminal MA program or a low ranked or unranked program, go to the terminal MA program.
(iii) If you have a choice between 2 programs, one of which is significantly better ranked than the other, do not let the lesser ranked program woo you away with promises of money (fellowships, etc.) In the long run coming from a lower ranked program will cost you a lot more than they can pay you up front.

I fucked up on (ii) and (iii), and I really regret it.

Anonymous said...

One, familiar, piece of advice that can't be repeated enough is to have open eyes about where you will, or won't, probably end up if you get a job. In particular, if you did get a job, you will *typically* be getting one at a school a few tiers down from where you get your Ph.D., so if you are from a school in the bottom half of the Leiter top 50 (or not at a ranked school), then your chances of coming out and just landing a job at *any* top 50 school are vanishingly small. I don't think that things have changed much since 1998-2003, where the top 50 schools did 75% of their hiring from the top 10 schools, and 90% of their hiring from the top 20. More of the data can be found in the original post at:

http://tar.weatherson.org/2003/07/18/placement-rates-for-top-philosophy-programs/

The post also makes it clear that even coming out of the top 10, your chances of getting a job with a 3/3 load or less are pretty slim.

Anonymous said...

I'd recommend the chapter "Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?" in *Freakonomics*, since the explanation of why people went into selling crack in spite of the terrible career prospects applies pretty well to graduate school. It's generally a terrible choice with lousy career prospects, but lots of people still make it because its the only way to get at a goal tat plenty of people want.

Anonymous said...

If you want to give advice for students who aren't the exception, then (unless they've been accepted at a top 20 school), the advice should be *don't go*. Plenty of people do OK coming out of lower ranked programs, but they are, nevertheless, the exceptions.

Anonymous said...

My advice: Don't go straight from college to grad school. Take a year off. For some people grad school seems like the easy thing to do - they're good at studying and like philosophy, so why not keep doing it? (And it sounds cool too.) But unless you can't picture yourself doing anything but philosophy, grad school is probably not the right choice. Taking a detour will enable you to get a better grasp of the many wonderful things you can achieve in life, most of which don't start with a PhD.

The Dude said...

My 2 cents:
(i) Don't go anywhere that won't give you funding.
(ii) If you have a choice between a good terminal MA program or a low ranked or unranked program, go to the terminal MA program.
(iii) If you have a choice between 2 programs, one of which is significantly better ranked than the other, do not let the lesser ranked program woo you away with promises of money (fellowships, etc.) In the long run coming from a lower ranked program will cost you a lot more than they can pay you up front.


This advice is just so golden it hurts my eyes to look at it.

But I'll try to modify part (ii) just a bit:

(ii) If you have a choice between a good terminal MA program that completely funds you or a PhD program ranked below 20, go to the terminal MA program.

September Blue said...

One thing this means is, prospective grads are used to being the exceptions.

Yes, exactly. That's why, IMHO, so much well-meaning advice to prospective students tends to go straight over their/our oblivious heads (I know it went over mine). When the warnings are 'Don't go this route unless you're academically the best of the best!' and 'Don't go this route unless you really love your subject!', someone who's just spent most of their undergraduate years being one of the smartest, most dedicated people in their class is just going to think "Yup, that's me" and carry on with their applications.

Anonymous said...

I have some advice for choosing a program. If you are choosing between two programs that are equally philosophically meritorious (e.g. have the same Leiter ranking, your advisors think you can't go wrong with either one, etc.), then think about what factors will contribute to your being productive. For example, do you prefer to be left alone to do your work with few requirements, or do you feel adrift without professors telling you step-by-step what you should do? Does being in a city rev you up and make you productive or does that extra time it takes to do mundane tasks make it hard for you to get much done? What makes you happy? Depression can be a major factor for people not getting work done. If you participate in religious worship or have a hobby that's really important to you, is there a place where you can do that well?

I think these "lifestyle" things are waaaaaaay more important to your grad school experience (including, indirectly, what kind of job you'll come out with) than, e.g., whether you like the work of the person you think you might maybe work with if she doesn't leave and you don't switch topics (which, by the way, you probably will). Just my two cents.

Sam said...

I want to question the weight being placed on the Leiter rankings in this thread. The rankings track the research reputation of the faculty. This doesn't necessarily track job placement. So my advice is not to make a decision on the numbers - say, go for a number 20 over a number 40 automatically. Look carefully at the placement record, and if what they have on their website isn't that informative (and a lot of the time it isn't) then ask questions to faculty and grad students until you get informative answers.

If the Gourmet is supposed to rank your job opportunities on graduation, then Leiter should send out an anonymous list of placements, not faculty, to his 400 or so professional friends, and they should rank these. This would be hard, especially since I think many depts wouldn't be honest in providing placement data, but not impossible. I imagine this kind of ranking would have many similarities with the current one, but some real surprises too.

If you're less than a superstar undergrad, you proably haven't been admitted to more than several programs. So take the time to really find out how grads of those programs actually do on the market, rather than taking no time at all to glance at the Gourmet and see what the reputation of the faculty as researchers are.

I haven't read all the fine print of the Gourmet, so correct me if I'm mistaken about it.

And I graduated from a lowly ranked dept, so maybe I'm biased.

Anonymous said...

Check each department's placement record on their web page, and if they don't have their full record posted, then that's probably a sign that you shouldn't go.

Advice Monkey said...

If you are sure about your future AOS (and you're not), apply to whatever program has the best philosopher in your field, no matter what the ranking of the department. These philosophers will be the most well-connected (so their letters will carry a lot of weight) and *typically* you will learn more from the best philosopher in your field than from mediocre or good ones.

[This is, often, a way around the competition of the Leiterrific programs. There are some real gems at lesser-ranked programs--e.g. in bioethics, John Arras at University of Virginia or Bonnie Steinbock at University at Albany and several at Bowling Green State. I'm sure this is, at least, partially true for other fields. The down side of this strategy is that it might hurt you with SLACs, especially if your field is not represented in that department (i.e. no one may know how impressive your adviser is).]

If you aren't sure about your AOS (and you're not), go to the highest-ranked department to which you are accepted.

If you choose your AOS after your first or second year, and there is a better philosopher at another program in your field, transfer.