Our Duties to Actual and Possible Graduate Students (guest post by Sergio Tenenbaum)


The following is a guest post* by Sergio Tenenbaum, Professor of Philosophy at University of Toronto, on what philosophy departments owe graduate students in light of how difficult it is for them to find secure employment in philosophy.


Our Duties to Actual and Possible Graduate Students
by Sergio Tenenbaum

New PhDs in philosophy outnumber new jobs in philosophy by a thumping margin. Many see this as an obvious sign of irresponsible behavior somewhere in the profession. Some bloggers go so far as to call on specific programs to close down; a touching concern for the well-being of the youth is felt to justify acting as the Simon Cowell of Philosophers’ Idol. When I hear these complaints, I suddenly realize that a little libertarian lives inside me. My first reaction is always: “there is no maximum permissible number of PhD spots. If prospective students think they are getting a raw deal, they’ll not come. As long as we avoid lying, fraud, etc., we do no wrong. In fact, cutting down admissions out of concern for the welfare of supposedly naïve prospective students is unconscionably paternalistic.”

My memories of “young me” often temper these libertarian impulses.  Attached to my graduate school acceptance, there was a letter explaining that the job prospects for the incoming class looked grim due to the end of mandatory retirement. The letter made no impression on me. First, I was truly outstanding (one of my undergraduate teachers showed me his letter of recommendation and it clearly said so). And even if, per impossibile, I failed to receive multiple offers from prestigious universities at sunny destinations, I would have enjoyed the life of the mind for four years; I would certainly be then deciding on a new career with a smile on my face.

Seven years later, when my most likely prospects seemed to be law school or shoe shining, I had a rather different view of the matter. I felt immense regret about my previous choices; they were the outcome of the foolish dreams of a deluded child. I envied my high school friends who had perfectly acceptable jobs with nice four-digit monthly paychecks.  Worse, I had uprooted myself to take a dead-end two-year job. (Interesting story: I was told by the Chair that they were hiring for two temporary positions but that one of them could be converted into a tenure-track job. It turned out that this was strictly true, but ever so slightly misleading. The position that could be converted to tenure-track was not the one I was being hired into. I still admire this man’s dexterity in handling pragmatic implicatures!).  If I didn’t get a permanent job during this stint, should I apply for other temporary positions? When should I give up? How old would I be by the time I quit? I seemed destined to a life of throwing good money over bad (metaphorically, of course, as there was very little actual money of any kind around). I realized that young me had not only deliberated badly, but that he was in no position to deliberate well; he could not have understood what it would be like to be where I was.

But these considerations do not defeat the libertarian thought, and not just for the usual considerations about autonomy. Admissions procedures are like the Dark Arts; the unholy incantations we use to cull files sometimes work, but often completely misfire. I shudder to think about what my batting average would be for predicting student career success in their first year. Limiting overall admissions to a number that is anywhere near market demand would certainly shut out a lot of people who would otherwise end up in the ranks of the professoriat.  I would certainly not have made it; having done my studies in a language I had just learned and having translated my writing sample to one I had not yet mastered, my file had more red flags than a Communist parade. Moreover, I’m not sure that even the paternalistic concern withstands scrutiny. Was the anxiety-ridden point of view of my last year of graduate school correct? Perhaps, had I ended up in another career, today I’d be looking fondly at my graduate school years.

In sum, even though prospective students make decisions in precarious conditions, we don’t wrong them by not curtailing our admission slots. But here ends my allegiance to the libertarian thought. We gain from having around these students whose future is uncertain. We enjoy a significantly broader and more vibrant intellectual community; we get to participate in new and exciting projects; and, of course, we get to have TAs assisting us with our courses. PhD-granting departments certainly have obligations to try to ensure that students will have no reason to regret the years they spent in graduate school. Many of our obligations are obvious, but I’d like to list some of the less obvious ones in an admittedly dogmatic fashion (I’ll try to elaborate in the comments if people disagree).

  1. We should be extremely open with prospective students visiting our department (we have not only the negative duty of not lying but also positive duties of disclosure, such as informing students if it is unlikely that they’ll be able to work with someone in their field, and even letting them know if we think that they should choose another program).
  2. Faculty should typically accept every request to supervise as long as they are competent and not oversubscribed (and the threshold for “oversubscribed” should be a number that toddlers cannot count to).
  3. Graduate departments should fund conference travel for students and ensure that graduate students interact with visiting speakers.
  4. Sabbaticals, leaves, etc. should not interfere with graduate supervision (I think this is obvious, but since there is an explicit rule to this effect in my department (while we have no explicit rules, for instance, forbidding us from hitting our students), I decided to list it here anyway).
  5. Graduate departments should put a special effort into helping students prepare their applications for teaching jobs. Most faculty in PhD programs have never been on a search committee for a teaching job. Departments could bring in people from teaching institutions to help.
  6. Recognizing that many graduates will end up in non-academic careers, graduate departments should support non-academic career-planning, for example by connecting students with earlier graduates who have made successful transitions from the doctoral program to positions outside academia.

Tl;dr: we don’t have obligations not to accept students unless we can guarantee them jobs, but we had better be awfully nice to them given the job prospects we can offer.

I’m sure I’m missing many other obligations and there are certainly many ways to discharge these that I haven’t thought of. But hopefully this will be corrected by kind readers.

crystal ball socrates

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