Against Reducing The Number of Philosophy PhDs

Against Reducing The Number of Philosophy PhDs


Here’s our situation: for many professions—actor, artist, astronaut, athlete, musician, novelist, philosopher, just to name a few—there are more people who aspire to enter them than succeed in doing so.

How bad is this? There are some problems with it, of course: mainly the disappointment of and opportunity costs borne by those who are unable to join what is likely their first-choice profession.

But here’s another way of describing our situation: in our society, so many people are so deeply moved by the creation of beauty, so committed to testing the limits of human physical capabilities, so curious about exploring our universe, so dedicated to the invention of imaginative worlds, and so persistent in the well-reasoned pursuit of truth, that they are willing to study and practice at these things at very high levels even if they cannot be assured of a career that allows them to make money by doing so.

That is amazing. It is something to be treasured.

If we had to choose which world were better—one in which more people have opportunities to study in depth and practice at advanced levels these various valuable activities, or one in which fewer people did—it would seem that the former would be better, even if it involved, as we acknowledged, some problems.

No arrangement is problem-free. The question we face is: which set of problems do we want to have to handle? I think we should choose the problems that accompany an abundance of opportunities for the advanced study of highly selective professions.

We should, of course, handle those problems well. A crucial part of that would be making sure that people know what they are getting into. Tell them the odds, so they can make a reasonably informed choice. Another part is to provide these people with training and guidance for using their specialty skills and knowledge to acquire “alternative” employment. Handling those problems in these ways (rather than by reducing the opportunities for advanced study) is not very demanding, it preserves a certain kind of freedom in a morally acceptable way, and it allows for the benefits of having more people working to enter these professions than can succeed in doing so.

These benefits include:

  • First, there will be more people engaged in the valuable activities of making art and music, pursuing physical excellence, seeking wisdom, exercising one’s imagination in sustained ways.
  • Second, those who engage in the advanced study and practice of these activities form an important part of the public audience for these activities: informed (and so able to incentivize higher standards) and committed (and so able to help convey to others the activities’ value). The existence of such an audience helps the activities continue and flourish.
  • Third, the more people we have engaged in the study and practice of these activities, the better the prospects for innovation and progress in those activities. To limit the opportunities for the study and practice of these activities to only the places which are currently thought to be excellent by those currently in a position to dominate the narrative—a commonly suggested strategy—risks entrenching the status quo, which may cause these activities to stagnate, or be unprepared for novel demands placed upon them.
  • Fourth, allowing more people to engage in advanced study for these professions enables those hiring to have more information about prospective hires, which is good for both parties. To reduce the number of opportunities for advanced study and practice is to push the decision-making process earlier, excluding people from the pursuit of certain careers on the basis of much less evidence.

There is a sense in which my remarks here could be seen as callous. There are currently un- and under-employed people who had been led to believe that their advanced training and study in a particular activity all but guaranteed them a position in their first-choice profession, and who were given no guidance about how to parlay their skills into “alternative” career tracks. I agree that is bad, and these people have been wronged.

But reducing the number of philosophy PhD studentships, shrinking enrollment in the performing arts, culling the number of minor league teams, cutting creative writing programs—these moves will not help the people who have already been wronged. So we should not let our well-placed sympathy for these people motivate us to support the constriction of future opportunities. Instead, as I suggested above, we should structure those opportunities in morally acceptable ways. Doing so will allow more people to try to become actors, artists, astronauts, athletes, musicians, novelists, and philosophers—which may be good for them, but will certainly be good for the rest of the world.

(image: from “Flowerworks” series by Sarah Illenberger)

Illenberger flowerworks 1

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Some Person
Some Person
5 years ago

Except of course many of these people are very young, impressionable, and taking on life-ruining amounts of non-dischargable debt. Add on to that the glut of potential academics is one of the reasons that admins are so easily able to gut tenure track lines in favor of cheap, dispensable adjunct labor. There are real human costs to this situation.Report

Commentator
Commentator
Reply to  Some Person
5 years ago

None of this would present a deep ethical problem if we had a guaranteed minimum income and public universities that are largely if not entirely subsidized. One could then pursue the lives they want and add all this real value to the world at the price of possibly having a rather bare-bones existence as opposed to starvation. In this world of abundant wealth where the top .1% of earners have as much wealth as tens of millions at the bottom, the real ethical problem is that one must “earn” a living. One should have to earn privileges, but not the bare necessities of life that could be readily available to all if we restructured our economy.Report

Some Person
Some Person
Reply to  Commentator
5 years ago

A complete overhaul of the structure of our economy is probably not a practical solution to the problem at hand.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Some Person
5 years ago

This comment could helpfully be made in most discussions of “issues in the profession” in the philosophy blogosphere.Report

Commentator
Commentator
Reply to  Some Person
5 years ago

More practically speaking it probably makes sense to give students some clear statistics on how students fare in their departments, i.e. what percentage of PhDs from the program have jobs, how many are tenure-track or have made tenure, how many are adjuncts, and some sense of how crappy the adjunct market is.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
5 years ago

Hi, Justin. Repeating a suggestion from the other thread: if you think we can generate employment opportunities outside of the traditional streams for philosophy PhDs, _and_ if you think that the advantage in having a PhD over a mere BA with a major in philosophy is so great that it will be worth it, then great, let’s try it out. But let’s do the experiment ethically, without putting more people at risk of facing this sort of job market. Let’s start by seeing if we can make your ideas work. If it does, and there is suddenly so huge a demand for Philosophy PhDs that all the people currently desperate for work after earning these difficult degrees are absorbed into these new jobs, with employers clamoring for more PhDs in philosophy to make up the shortfall, we can go back to sustaining the present level of PhDs or even increasing them. But let’s make sure this isn’t just a fantasy first.

Also, I still don’t see why those who aren’t interested in pursuing a career with their PhD but just want to study philosophy at a higher level can’t be better served some other way. Many people are superb at playing chess, writing, playing the guitar, cooking, and countless other things, but we don’t think that they all need to uproot their lives, move around the world, put their careers on hold, incur huge debts, and earn a PhD in order to become great at these things. We have other ways available that won’t break the bank. Moreover, most of the great philosophers in history — Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Descartes, Bacon, Leibniz, Spinoza, Locke, Rousseau, Berkeley, Hume, Mill, Bentham, Pierce, James, Russell, etc. — became great without going through PhD programs. For that matter, even Wittgenstein created his great work before ‘earning’ his PhD. So clearly, great work in philosophy can be done without going through a PhD program.Report

Ex philosopher
Ex philosopher
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
5 years ago

You have to keep in mind that a philosophy phd is at best a neutral thing when it comes to the non academic job market. More realistically it’s a significant negative. The vast majority of undergrads don’t realize this, and don’t realize that they won’t be getting an academic job, most likely. So when they enroll in philosophy grad programs with stars in their eyes about “the life of the mind” they will find themselves in a trap that it’s hard to get out of. You can tell them all you want about the non existent academic job market, but most 22 year olds do not yet have the life experience they would need to really absorb that (pessimistic) fact. It’s one thing to read, in the abstract, about train wrecks and quite another to actually be in one.Report

Escape Artist
Escape Artist
Reply to  Ex philosopher
5 years ago

This. This x1000.

I did my PhD at a highly regarded Ivy in an area that looked (kinda-sorta) real-world/practical. And I had supervisors who have been extremely helpful and supportive (in writing letters, making/taking calls on my behalf, and so on).

Finding my way into a new career has been time-consuming and painful. It is working itself out and I think (fingers crossed) I’m going to have a career doing something I enjoy and care about. But it hasn’t been easy and things are still deeply uncertain. And, to be frank, I think my degree has gotten in the way a heck of a lot more than it has served as an opportunity-maker. (In the domain I’m settling into, the PhD does help, although an MA could have sufficed.)

The transition was not easy. Despite my best efforts at working my C.V. and trying to quantify my achievements and abilities, writing tailored cover letters, cold calling folks in hiring positions, networking online, and so on, I’ve experienced 99% rejection. In some cases, I got hirers on the phone and simply couldn’t convince them that my time studying philosophy in graduate school (and my total lack of professional experience) wasn’t a huge problem. There isn’t a magic trick good enough to convince most people that your super-duper, out-of-this-world greatness at teaching phil science can be converted into greatness in the workplace. Some folks may buy it–particularly if they have direct knowledge of philosophy–but most just won’t.

Where I did get some traction, I think it was more due to the name of my PhD-granting institution than due to anything I said about myself, my abilities, or my interests. That was a slightly scary finding, because I very nearly chose to go somewhere else for grad school.

I came from an institution that many ‘normal’ people find attractive, I had supervisors who supported and helped me in the transition, I didn’t spend (waste?) any time trying to secure academic employment after my defense (i.e., I went straight at the non-academic market, post-defense), I set my sights on a very broad range of potential career paths, I was fortunate enough to be in a financial position to dedicate a lot of time and focus to the transition, I in fact worked very hard on the transition, and… I struggled mightily. I think (hope?) I’m landing on my feet. But it wasn’t a sure thing. I got lucky.

Take it with a grain of salt. It’s just one life and one set of experiences. But, FWIW, I think it’s a big mistake to see doctoral training in philosophy as a sensible part of a non-academic career path. Doctoral programs in philosophy are for training people who will go on to teach/write philosophy. When a program can no longer serve that purpose, shut it down.Report

azar niaz
azar niaz
Reply to  Justin Kalef
5 years ago

@ Justin Kalef

How exactly would one take part in the philosophical conversation as an amateur in this way? Consider, as just two examples, the cost of access to journals and conferences. How many amateurs could really afford this? If, however, you think amateurs shouldn’t feel entitled to journal or conference access then how exactly are they not only supposed to create great work, without the help of dialogue in journals or conferences, but further, how are they to publicize their work?
The names you mention there are all from before the professionalisation of philosophy. The fact that there are no philosophers that make your list after the mid 20th century is extremely telling.Report

JDRox
JDRox
5 years ago

Well, I think there are at least two very important differences between philosophy and these other cases. First, graduate study is philosophy is subsidized–through tax dollars but also through the undergraduate tuition at the institutions that offer Ph.Ds. We don’t subsidize, as far as I know, struggling musicians, actors, athletes, etc. And basically, we’re talking about ceasing to subsidize more philosophy training than is required. In any case, it seems quite likely to me that there are grad programs such that it is wrong to use undergraduate tuition to subsidize their graduate training in philosophy. In particular, consider universities with relatively non-affluent undergrads and grad programs that are relatively unlikely to produce practicing philosophers. What would justify a such a transfer in cases like these?

Second, if one is an aspiring artist or musician, one is surrounded by reminders that things rarely pan out–that is, one is surrounded by people who have pretty clearly failed to “make it”. Aspiring artists or musicians don’t generally hang around, or don’t hang around much, with successful artists or musicians. (They also have other jobs which could become careers.) But aspiring philosophers hang around, pretty much constantly, with successful philosophers or other aspiring philosophers who believe they have a real shot at success. And they don’t have other jobs that could develop into a career. Look, we know that humans are reluctant to say things like “Sorry, you just don’t seem to have what it takes” to other humans. So given all of this, I think that having a system where “opportunities are structured in morally acceptable ways”, at least if that means that most of the people who aren’t going to make it truly understand that, might be practically impossible. (Compare: some might think that while there is nothing, in theory, wrong with prostitution, it’s just practically impossible to have prostitution without exploitation, and hence that we should try to reduce or eliminate prostitution.)Report

babygirl
babygirl
Reply to  JDRox
5 years ago

Huh … IS graduate education generally subsidized? I know my graduate institution certainly MADE money on my teaching. My salary was some almost insignificant percentage of the tuition dollars paid by the students taking the class.

My understanding is that many institutions are reluctant to give up their graduate programs for precisely this reason: that graduate programs are a source of very cheap academic labor, and all except for a select few programs require extensive teaching or service in exchange for funding.

(I’m not being facetious, I’m generally wondering if a graduate program generally reduces or increases costs for an institution, whether the teaching/RA duties assumed by graduate students make up for the graduate teaching duties taken on by professors as well as graduate student stipends, health insurance, institutional support).Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  babygirl
5 years ago

Good question. I guess it depends on the details of the funding. Higher ed, including graduate study, is certainly subsidized through tax dollars, but whether it is being subsidized by the undergraduates will depend on the funding package. Whether a grad program counts as “making money” off of its grad students will depend on whether they’d be replaced by adjuncts or full-time faculty. I believe, although I could be wrong, that there are very few cases where replacing grad students with adjuncts would raise costs for the university.Report

Daniel
Daniel
5 years ago

“But here’s another way of describing our situation: in our society, so many people are so deeply moved by the creation of beauty, so committed to testing the limits of human physical capabilities, so curious about exploring our universe, so dedicated to the invention of imaginative worlds, and so persistent in the well-reasoned pursuit of truth”

Deep down, I don’t think philosophy creates anything beautiful, I think it’s perverse to invent imaginative worlds, and I think the practice of philosophy is rarely well-reasoned but more often relies on bullying to convince people to accept your intuitions. Many won’t put it so bluntly, but I believe people who want to reduce the number of PhD’s share a similar pessimism about the value of philosophy.Report

Postdoc
Postdoc
5 years ago

i would predict that if enrollment in philosophy PhD programs was limited to those with reasonable prospects for a job in philosophy plus those without such prospects but who make a genuinely well informed decision to pursue a PhD for the sorts of other reasons Justin mentions, then the effect over time would be drastically fewer people entering programs and, perhaps, the closure of many programs. I think this would be a good thing for the profession and for the students and potential students involved.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
5 years ago

There are lots of artists, musicians, actors, athletes and writers who pursue these passions while working other jobs, or even while pursuing other careers. Some of them do so hoping to transition into turning their passion into a career, while others pursue those forms of beauty and excellence while recognizing that they will probably never be able to make a career out of it.

This intrinsic value of philosophical engagement is a fully adequate defense of why we should encourage and enable anyone who is so inclined to pursue that passion. But it is – for exactly the same reasons – a terrible reason for maintaining the current model of graduate education in philosophy.

We do a disservice to those with a passion for philosophy by insisting that pursuing that passion is only possible by first putting your other career and life plans on hold for a decade or more (4 years undergrad plus 6 or more years for the PhD), then hoping to secure a stable academic position. Aspiring musicians who who decide to pursue another career do not “leave music” – most of them continue to play either privately, or even play small venues on a schedule that fits their other obligation. Why, then, must grad students and PhDs who decide to pursue non-academic careers “leave philosophy”? Only because we so unreflectively identify philosophy with academia and so identify philosophers exclusively by the roles they occupy within academic institutions.

But this identification places philosophy – and philosophers – at the mercy of the economic and institutional needs of those academic institutions. If “philosophers” are only people hired as faculty by universities, and if serious education in philosophy is only available through PhD programs, then it is academic administrators and funding bodies – not philosophers – who get to define who philosophers are and what they study.Report

recent grad
recent grad
5 years ago

I think programs should provide exhaustive job placement statistics of their own graduates, as well as exhaustive (where possible) placement statistics for the market at large. Then they should have the stipends of funded students be contingent on passing a yearly test on those statistics.Report

GradStudent
GradStudent
5 years ago

One issue I haven’t seen discussed much is the issue of who is going to be excluded in PhD program reductions. Sure, it may be true that there are too many programs relative to the number of university positions, but different programs may produce graduates with different skills. For instance, the skills that make one a successful researcher may not be the same that make one a successful educator. If, as I suspect many readers here think, the humanities should be more emphasized for all undergraduates, then it is important that there are PhDs that attend universities more devoted to developing successful educators rather than publishers. Many of the non-‘best’ PhD programs place a lot of emphasis on developing good educators through encouraging TA and teacher-of-record experiences that students at more heavily research-based programs do not get. While it is possible to combine the skills, I take it that there is no strict correlation between the ‘best’ researchers being the ‘best’ teachers. In my experience, the best educators were those who had not gone to the ‘best’ schools but probably graduates of the types of programs that would be cut.

Also, as the data itself suggests, a large number of PhD students in the ‘best’ PhD programs come from elite undergraduate institutions, which are are extremely difficult to get in. Although I’m sure some of these students have a lot of great intellectual machinery, often there is a lot that goes into applications that results from having a more privileged background. I’ve yet to see a good discussion (though I admit I haven’t looked too far) of this issue alongside plans to reduce the number of PhDs.

A separate issue is that all this emphasis on MA programs (see Leiter’s blog) tends to ignore the fact that it’s really hard to relocate over and over. Sure, MA programs may offer some money, but relocation expenses are far from minimal and grad programs certainly do not help out here. Further, many grad students have partners either in academia or outside of it. If inside, then there is the extreme unlikelihood of both getting into the same school for an MA program and then for a PhD. If outside of academia, then the partner will have to relocate for the MA and then again for the PhD and then again after the PhD has been granted.

Re: JD ROX above, as a matter of fact, a lot of public universities offer doctoral degrees in the fine arts, whose grads I am going to assume have no better prospects for employment than philosophy majors (with probably less value in the non-academic world).Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
5 years ago

Justin: would you extend this mutatis mutandis to medicine and law school?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
5 years ago

Fair enough.

How about tenure? Taken to a logical conclusion, some (not all) of the arguments you give would suggest a wide-open job framework all the way up, with (say) initial hires lasting for ten years, and then only 1/2-2/3 of people being hired to more senior roles (rather as the tenure track traditionally worked in Harvard, but extended to the whole profession). In particular, we’d have a much better field for senior hires if there were more people in junior posts; we’d also have a wider range of work being done, and more people involved in doing philosophy.

(I don’t intend these as gotcha questions; one thing is never exactly like another and it can be a judgement call when one factor outweighs others. I’m trying to understand the parameters of your (and others’) views.)Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
5 years ago

This problem strikes me as a network of intersecting razors’ edges. Encourage the life of the mind without creating unreasonable expectations of employment in academia. Raise standards in order to limit the number of newly minted PhDs each year without savaging departments or disproportionately impacting vulnerable populations. Have fewer scholars dedicated as a profession to philosophy without stifling development or creativity. Create opportunities for the best and brightest without funnelling them into careers outside of the profession, leaving them with crippling debt. There are many more difficult paths to tread here. The whole problem is a minefield.

In other words, it’s a complex problem that requires complex solutions. There is no magic bullet or miracle cure-all. But, on the other hand, isn’t finding complex solutions to complex problems exactly what we do?Report

Lysias
Reply to  Will Behun
5 years ago

I like Will Behun’s way of putting things.

Here is a practical suggestion for reform that tries to balance some of these competing goods: departments that consistently fail to place at least 2/3 of their graduates should require PhD candidates to take an additional degree (either an M.A. or second B.A.) in a field that will enable them to easily find a non-academic job (e.g., computer science, chemistry, nursing, etc). We can quibble about the details of this proposal, of course, but, at the very least, it would (a) provide an additional signal to students that their program is unlikely to place them, (b) reduce the opportunity cost of taking a PhD from a placement-weak department. I think something like this could offer the right amount of paternalistic guidance without significantly threatening prospective students’ capacity to decide for themselves whether to undertake graduate study.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Lysias
5 years ago

Lysias, this addresses the harm people might do to _themselves_ by taking a PhD in a market that produces too many. But another part of the harm that is done to others. Generating more PhDs than can be absorbed by the available jobs depreciates all PhDs.Report

Anon Grad Student
Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

Why do we keep talking in terms of “putting your career on hold” when discussing funded PhD studentships? For the last few years I have had a job. That job has some advantages and some disadvantages. It pays decently well (better than many university employees and with better benefits). I’ve had almost complete job security. I have interesting colleagues who largely share my values and interests (education is valuable, people should support their views with reasons, Fashionable Prestige Drama X is more interesting to talk about than Two and a Half Men, etc.). But the long term prospects of promotion are pretty bleak (it’s at best a coin flip whether I’ll find permanent academic employment once I graduate). Honestly, that’s a better deal than many of my peers have had coming out of undergrad. I don’t regret it at all. Never mind if studying philosophy is wholesome or valuable. A spot in a PhD program—yes, even a “shameful” one—is a fine thing for all sorts of purely instrumental reasons. It’s a pretty good job for an educated young person.

The job market and the culture around it are unjust in all sorts of ways. There are lots of changes that need making. But eliminating a bunch of Pretty Good jobs in hopes that the invisible hand will mush them together into a few extra Really Good jobs is a really hazardous line of thinking for all sorts of reasons, not least because it continues to consolidate goods in the hands of the “winners”.Report

the Onion Man
the Onion Man
Reply to  Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

It’s one thing to make ~$20,000 a year with a relatively secure 5-ish year contract. That’s not a great deal, but there are worse deals.

However, for most jobs other than being a grad student, if you are bright and have a college degree and are working a “real” (i.e. not grad student) job, you will be making much more than $20,000 a year within 5 years. Furthermore, at the end of that period you will most likely be in a great position to advance professionally, rather than being most likely unemployed as well as unemployable outside of an extremely narrow field. Best case scenario for most people who lose the job placement lottery is an expensive credential, knowledge they wouldn’t otherwise have, and the same employment prospects (or realistically somewhat worse prospects) as recent college grads.Report

Anon Grad Student
Anon Grad Student
Reply to  the Onion Man
5 years ago

Right, and even conceding all of that people still want the job. You’re just listing the costs. People, rightly or wrongly, seem to think the benefits are worth it (you leave out of your best case scenario an important factor: “got to have a certain kind of job for 5-6 years”)

Let me put the point a slightly different way. Suppose what I take to be the absolute best-case scenario for PhD closure obtains. That is, suppose for every 3 TAships we cancel by closing a PhD program a 3/3 TT job appears to cover the teaching labor (pollyannaish, I know!)

So my two colleagues and I get the axe, and Philosopher X gets a job. My question is: Why is it supposed to be obviously better to confer all the benefits (in terms of desire satisfaction) on one person rather than three? We really wanted those jobs, I promise! Witness the stacks and stacks of grad school applications that people pay for the privilege to send out each year. I see what X gets out of the deal, but it looks to my colleagues and I for all the world like we got the short end of the stick.Report

Anonadjunct
Anonadjunct
Reply to  Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

Isn’t the idea that the stacks and stacks of applications for grad school are a result of those people wanting the professorship at the end of the schooling? At the very least, we can’t assume that ever graduate student is solely motivated by the desire to experience grad school. If that were the case, nobody would be complaining. And honestly, I’m not sure many college grads take jobs that have worse income and benefits than grad school. It’s not just that grad school pays very little, but it also requires you to live near a university, which usually means a high COL.Report

happy office job guy
happy office job guy
Reply to  Anon Grad Student
5 years ago

It’s worth pointing here that the perspectives can and do change quite a bit as time goes on. It’s one consideration that most 3rd/4th/whatever-year grad students are happy with their decision. It’s another consideration—and a more important one, to my mind— whether ex-grad-students are happy with their decision. In my own case, the difference between my 2nd-year-grad-student self and my current self, sitting at my desk at my new job, is just night and day. Placement data is not the only relevant data here. It would be helpful to have data concerning the way in which perspectives shift across a range of issues (how important is money and saving for retirement?; will you think it’s worth it if you don’t land a TT job?; would you make this choice again if you knew you were gonna VAP and postdoc for 5 years and then get a TT job?; does it matter whether you significant other is up for moving anywhere?; would you be happy living in place-X?; today, how would you advise your 23 year old self?; and so on).Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
5 years ago

Hi, Justin. I’m interested in exploring the ethical principle you seem to be employing in your response to me, above. I’d be interested in getting your verdict on the following case.

Suppose that there’s a one-of-a-kind New Year’s Eve party that’s so fantastic, many people say it leaves them feeling great for a whole year. This New Year’s Eve party also makes people more generous and productive for the next twelve months. But some very special things happen at this party, and so far it’s only been possible to hold it in a single venue. The venue has room for 200 people to enjoy the party comfortably, and the fire marshal limits occupancy of the venue to 225 people. For a couple of decades now, the organizers have talked routinely about maybe finding ways to do the party in a bigger venue, or maybe to add a second floor to accommodate more guests, but these plans have never worked out.

Tickets to the venue cost $10,000 each, but there are flexible long-term payment plans for those who don’t have that kind of cash on hand. The organizers of the event have authorized a little over 200 vendors to sell tickets to the party. In order to keep the party comfortable and stay within the fire marshal’s regulations, the average vendor can only sell one ticket per year. However, the average vendor is in fact planning to sell about ten tickets this year, for a total of about 2,000 tickets. Because of the nature of the tickets and the sales process, these tickets are nonrefundable.

Now please consider the following responses that the organizers of the event might take:

_Response A_: let the vendors keep selling as many tickets as they want. It’s good for the vendors, and clearly the purchasers want to buy the tickets, or else they wouldn’t be lining up to buy them. Yes, it’ll be uncomfortable for everyone when 2,000 people show up to a venue that only has room for 200, and the fire marshal might find out and shut the place down, or there might even be a fire or serious injuries due to the overcrowding. But while those are serious risks, we can deal with them by asking the vendors to tell their customers in advance that there might not be enough room for everyone. Will the vendors actually make this clear? Maybe not, particularly since they have a strong vested interest in selling tickets, and it’s not as though anyone will enforce it. But on the other hand, quite possibly there will be an opportunity to accommodate a few more people this year, since maybe the event will get switched to a new venue over the next month even though this hasn’t happened in any previous years. But the party is so wonderful, it’s just a risk we all have to take. Caveat emptor.

_Response B_: make sure the vendors only sell 200-225 tickets. Selling more than that harms not only the people who pay the huge, nonrefundable ticket price after the first 225 have been sold, but also all the people who bought the first 225 tickets and are now going to be needlessly overcrowded in the venue, turning what would otherwise be a great event into an uncomfortable, stressful and even dangerous event for many. Perhaps the 200-225 tickets should be sold to the highest bidder, or perhaps they should be allocated by a lottery or other equitable process. But one thing is clear: we would be wrong to let the 200 vendors sell 10 tickets apiece to an event that has room for at most 225.

In this case, what would your verdict be?Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
5 years ago

What do you see as the relevant difference, please?Report

Justin Marquis
Justin Marquis
5 years ago

I agree with the commenter who brought up that the root of the problem is not too many PhD per se but rather an economic system that mires people in debt for getting a valuable education (not necessarily monetarily valuable in our case, but we have to agree that an advanced degree in philosophy has some value apart from getting you a job in academia, right?).

In any case, what bothers me about the idea that there are too many PhD programs and the argument that we are setting young, impressionable minds up for epic disappointment coupled with high economic costs is the paternalism of the argument. I went to a PhD program that I’m sure many think should be shut down. I racked up a lot of debt doing so (although I was funded, so the fault is more mine, but that’s another story). I got a full-time university teaching job that I kept for three years before deciding that academia wasn’t for me. My point is this: I racked up a lot of debt without the greatest economic safety net in the world to get a PhD, and I’m not using it to make money. And I still, despite those things, have no regrets about spending 7 years of my life (2 of which were for an MA) in graduate level philosophical study. It was worth it. I am glad that I had the option of going to the program I did. Saying that there are too many philosophy phd programs is to say that people like me who value spending that much of one’s life on the study of something without requiring that it bear economic fruit. Is it idealistic? Yes, but I hate the idea that the only value an advanced philosophy degree is tenure-track academic employment.

So I agree; the problems are university systems and an economic system that exploit academic labor and a political system that does not guarantee a basic standard of living to all, even though we could certainly afford to do so.Report

the Onion Man
the Onion Man
Reply to  Justin Marquis
5 years ago

Let me get this straight. You were fully funded, but went into debt, to get a PhD that you don’t use from a program that isn’t very well regarded, and you left the academic job market not because you couldn’t get a full time teaching job, but because you “decided academia wasn’t for you.”

And you want to generalize from your experience?Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Justin Marquis
5 years ago

Justin (Marquis), I also got my PhD from a department that was not the greatest bet for me, and like you I got very lucky and things ended up working out far better than they were likely to. But I don’t think we should let our contingent good fortune obscure the fact that these programs are putting their PhDs at a very great risk as well as adding to a growing general problem for everyone with a PhD.

I think there’s a problem with these arguments more generally. I’ve heard it in population ethics (‘Wilhelm Steinitz was the thirteenth of thirteen children of very poor parents, and Steinitz became the first chess champion of the world, therefore it would be wrong for very poor parents to use birth control to limit their family sizes’), gun control (‘A criminal attacked Smith who defended himself with a gun, though Smith would have probably been killed otherwise, therefore it would be wrong to restrict people from carrying guns around’), etc. But at best, these sorts of arguments provide single data points. What we need to do is to look at the two alternative pictures: how things would be if we allow unlimited PhDs, and how things would be if we don’t. Whichever one is overall worse will inevitably have some benefits that the other picture doesn’t have. But that doesn’t stop it from being worse.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
5 years ago

I am so tired of the comparison between philosophy and other “high risk professions” like being a novelist.

The opportunity costs are so much higher for philosophy. Think about it: an aspiring writer will, at most, get an MFA in hopes of living the dream, whereas the would be philosopher puts in 5-10 years getting a PhD. True, the person might pay tuition for the MFA, but the philosopher pays a far higher price in life years. With this time spent in a degree program comes a level of indoctrination that is impossible to replicate in a shorter program. In the US, PhD programs socialize people into the profession; while many won’t admit it, that is their chief function. We should not indoctrinate people into a profession with very few employment opportunities.Report

the Onion Man
the Onion Man
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

I think the comparison is apt in one regard: both philosophy and novel-writing are the kinds of things that people used to do either in their spare time off from their real job (grinding optical lenses, arguing lawsuits, tutoring the royal family, whatever), or while being supported directly by a wealthy patron, or while being themselves wealthy enough not to have to worry about paying the bills. There’s something rotten in the “professional” model.

Otherwise I agree wholeheartedly.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  the Onion Man
5 years ago

Yes, and both the philosophy and the novels were better for it….Report

Anonadjunct
Anonadjunct
5 years ago

I don’t think you understand that the number of PhD students contributes to making the market terrible. The grad students function as instructors, reducing the university’s need for faculty– both tt and non tt jobs are thereby reduced. Further, flooding the market with PhDs reduces the need for decent universities to offer decent positions, since the pool of willing adjuncts is always freshly stocked. You can say all the nice platitudes about beauty and bullshit but the fact is that grad students are part of the adjunctification of the profession.

Now you might say that making schools honest about placement will fix all this. The number of grad students will naturally drop while those who fully understand the risks will still attend. But this blithely ignores the massive incentives schools have to exaggerate placement data. Doing so helps them maintain their prestige, lets them be more selective in accepting students, and maintains the aforementioned benefits of having grad students. In the face of all these incentives to deceive, do you really trust schools to be honest? Removing PhD programs forcesma reduced reliance on grad student labor and a that’s a start toward reducing dependence on adjuncts.Report

Anon associate prof
Anon associate prof
5 years ago

“Second, those who engage in the advanced study and practice of these activities form an important part of the public audience for these activities: informed (and so able to incentivize higher standards) and committed (and so able to help convey to others the activities’ value)”

I can’t think of anything worse for conveying philosophy’s value to the public audience than a raft of unemployed and underemployed PhDs.Report

Michael Dickson
5 years ago

The short version: Is anybody here seriously proposing social engineering of the number of philosophy PhDs? Is somehow preventing institutions and individuals from freely entering into that relationship really on the table in some people’s minds? I’m genuinely curious. (I think you’re wrong if you think that this sort of social engineering is a good idea, but I don’t disrespect you.)

The long version: I was a music major. It was made very clear to me what my statistical prospects were for getting a job. I understood what was being told to me, and I didn’t care. Even after making it clear that I understood the situation, some people at my institution told me that for my own good I should do something else, exhorting me about opportunity cost, lost years, blah, blah, blah. I thought that they were being patronizing, and they were. (I got a job as a professional musician and hated it, but that’s beside the point.) Then I decided to go to grad school in philosophy. Again, the professional situation was made abundantly clear. I was told I should go to law school instead. (Opportunity cost, lost years, blah, blah, blah.) Again, I understood the advice being given and the reasons for it, and disagreed. One could say that I was young and starry-eyed and naive and all the rest of it. The facts are that I understood what was being told to me, and wanted to pursue the study anyway, and I was a consenting adult. I would have been glad to have done the PhD even if I ended up going back into music (heaven forbid).

I can believe that some music majors and philosophy students are mislead and that others of them deceive themselves, and still others experience both. That wasn’t my experience (well, maybe there was self-deception — I don’t know), and it isn’t my practice. Moreover, and here is a point rather than a question, the people who made the situation clear to me fulfilled (perhaps more than fulfilled) their moral obligations to me on this score. Moreover, and here is another point, if they had somehow stopped me from pursuing the studies that I wished to pursue, or if I had been turned away not for lack of ability and lack of a willing institution to teach me but because of a profession-wide cap on degree-seeking students, then I would have felt deeply aggrieved, and I would have been right.

I don’t mean that I had an inalienable right to be a music major or a doctoral student in philosophy. It requires a qualified institution to offer the opportunity (and perhaps none will), and it requires somebody to accept that offer (and he or she need not). Call me a libertarian, but that’s about all there is to it, as far as I can tell. If both parties are acting openly, honestly, in good faith, and with reasonable knowledge of the situation, what’s the problem?

One other quick comment:

As I’ve said elsewhere, many of us go in (or went in) to philosophy not for the job prospect. I went in with no idea whatsoever — and certainly no plans — about what I would do when I was done. That situation seems to be difficult for many to believe in, but it is simply the truth for many of us.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Michael Dickson
5 years ago

Hi, Michael. Yes, many of us are seriously saying we should limit the number of PhDs.

Where’s the harm, you ask, if the provider of the PhD and the person getting the PhD are reasonably aware of the risks and consent to the exchange? As we’ve been saying, the harm comes in the form of all PhDs becoming less valuable because of their overabundance. And that harm affects everyone, not just the individual who takes on the risk. It also makes the case for sustaining tenure, etc. much weaker. I made this historical case in a different thread.

Note please that this does not limit an extended mentorship between more and less experienced philosophers. It only limits the number of PhDs, which is a very different thing. Again, those who only want to study philosophy beyond the BA level for the purposes of self-edification can do so without earning a PhD.Report

Michael Dickson
Reply to  Justin Kalef
5 years ago

Thank you for the reply.

“the harm comes in the form of all PhDs becoming less valuable because of their overabundance”

I disagree, so there at least we’ve located, perhaps, the point of disagreement, which probably stems from a disagreement about what the value of a PhD is in the first place.

Even granting that PhDs are less ‘valuable’ if they are more common, I cannot see any good argument for limiting them as a matter of policy; or rather, I cannot see how that reason would justify forbidding the free association that I described above.

Of course, everybody is free to make his or her case, and those departments that are convinced may choose to act accordingly. Clearly there is nothing wrong with that scenario.Report

Professor Plum
Professor Plum
Reply to  Michael Dickson
5 years ago

The problem with indoctrination (and transformative experiences more generally) is that you don’t actually know precisely what you are signing up for when you consent to begin the process.

I’m glad you are content with your choices, but many people aren’t in the privileged position of being quite so sanguine when they have invested years molding themselves into the shape of a professional in a very small, and ever shrinking, profession.

We don’t need a grand system of social engineering. We just need departments to decide that, for the good of the profession and its most vulnerable members, they will admit fewer students.Report

Michael Dickson
Reply to  Professor Plum
5 years ago

Thank you for the reply.

I agree about the nature of such experiences. I don’t consider it to be a problem, nor do I consider it a good reason to make decisions (whether specifically or as a consequence of some general policy) on behalf of adults to whom the situation can be explained.Report

Anonadjunct
Anonadjunct
Reply to  Michael Dickson
5 years ago

Law and medicine do the same thing, it’s not all that radical.Report

Michael Dickson
Reply to  Anonadjunct
5 years ago

Thank you for your reply.

Yes, professional associations in both law and medicine have been plausibly accused of adopting policies that limit the number of new lawyers and doctors, in different ways, and to different effect, in the two cases. Many people, myself included, think that these policies are abusive and immoral and patronizing, and at least in the case of the AMA’s policies, have led to a horrible health care situation in this country. (I’m certainly not suggesting similarly bad consequences would follow from similar policies in philosophy, nor am I taking a consequentialist attitude to any of these matters, which might be one relevant difference between me and some others. I do think that the policies would be wrong, for reasons that I hope I’ve made clear.)

There are also probably important disanalogies between medical schools and law schools on the one hand and philosophy departments on the other, but I won’t speculate about that matter.Report

DC
DC
Reply to  Michael Dickson
5 years ago

While I agree on the AMA issue, the ABA has pretty much opened the gates to almost anyone getting a law degree in terms of making it almost insultingly easy to gain and keep accreditation. I would submit that philosophy departments lie somewhere between medical schools (which ensure high salaries through strict gatekeeping) and law schools (many of which have almost de facto open admission). At least with philosophy departments most appear to be funded and in fact require funding, which provides at least some limits.Report

Anonadjunct
Anonadjunct
Reply to  DC
5 years ago

State bar associations are a stricter gate keeper than the Aba. They increase the difficulty of the exam, remove the ability to transfer MBE scores, etc to restrict the number of attorneys in the state.Report

DC
DC
Reply to  DC
5 years ago

I don’t think you can really look at it as a binary (gatekeeping vs. no gatekeeping). The state bars are not much of a gate; the exam has never been particularly difficult (dropping passage rates are most likely correlated to less able students entering law school in most cases), and almost every state has a massive oversupply of lawyers, including a significant percentage of them who are unemployed or working retail-type jobs. I would submit that philosophy departments’ informal gatekeeping is far more strict than the state bars. To sum it up, if the state bars ARE trying to restrict the number of attorneys in the state, they are profoundly incompetent at doing so.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Michael Dickson
5 years ago

Michael Dickson,

Many people feel deeply aggrieved that, despite receiving the PhD and accumulating experience and accomplishments, and despite being told by peers and advisors (and job search commitees) that they have much to contribute, they repeatedly fail to find stable academic employment.

Many people feel deeply agrieved that their teaching and service is good enough to be continually rehired, and even praised by their students and colleagues, even though they continue to be paid only a fraction of what their full time colleagues make per class.

Since you are apparently against even voluntary reductions in PhD programs, how do you propose that professional philosophers address those grievances?Report

Michael Dickson
Reply to  Derek Bowman
5 years ago

Thank you for your questions and the opportunity to clarify my position.

I am not opposed to departments voluntarily reducing the number of students that they admit. Departments can do whatever they want.

There are many aspects of the current situation that are contributing to the feelings of grievance that you mention. Some posts here have mentioned some of them (widespread hiring of underpaid labor, for example). As a department chair, I have attempted to address many of them, with limited but not unmeasurable success. However, the main point that is relevant here is that it should be made clear to prospective students that a PhD in philosophy is not a ticket to academic employment.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Michael Dickson
5 years ago

I don’t see anything wrong with the idea of the APA, for example, using soft coercion to try to limit the number of Ph.Ds produced per year to 150% of the jobs that will be available. (Or whatever, maybe jobs plus post docs, and maybe the number should be 200%. Either way, that’s still vastly lower than the status quo.)Report

MrMister
MrMister
5 years ago

Suppose you think it is ever permissible for the government to forbid a commercial relationship between ostensibly free individuals — that there are some payday loans so usurious, some end-use-license agreements so byzantine and ridiculous, some working conditions so exploitative, etc., that although a person could theoretically freely choose to enter into them for legitimate reasons, nonetheless, in practice they serve almost exclusively to take advantage of low-information and/or deeply instrumentally irrational marks. If you think that there are any arrangements so heinous at all, then it is hard for me to understand how ‘unfunded Ph.D. in Philosophy’ does not fall into that category. A Ph.D. in philosophy may enrich your soul even if it has no economic value; there may be immense non-pecuniary rewards. And so too might the teachings of a new-age Guru enrich your soul. But we certainly do not, and ought not, allow the new-age Guru to entice you into mountains of non-dischargeable government-sanctioned loans with no requirement to demonstrate a remotely realistic ability to repay. At least the worst you can do to yourself when it comes to the guru is to hand over your existing money, not surrender legal stewardship of your future money in perpetuity.

Within the world of funded programs–or, rather, programs funded enough to pay food and rent at local COL–it does seem to me harder to make the case for paternalism. But it does not seem hard to me at all when it comes to unfunded programs. But if we agree about that, then it seems we are already accepting that there are some graduate student positions that should be abolished.Report

Michael Dickson
Reply to  MrMister
5 years ago

Thank you for this comment. You raise an important point.

I certainly agree that any graduate position that carries an expectation of labor on the part of students (teaching, for example — I am not referring to the labor of scholarship itself) must carry with it a reasonable living wage. We could discuss what that wage should be, but you make a reasonable first stab, and in any case some obligation as regards wages provided by departments offering such positions is clearly present.

Moreover, given the amount of work that we expect of graduate students, some form of support should be given where needed, regardless of our labor expectations. Otherwise, we are setting them up for failure, and thus not fulfilling our obligation to them.

I also agree that huge inequities in the financial treatment of PhD students within a department can be bad for the program and therefore bad for the students in it, and should in general be avoided.

As for whether unfunded PhD positions are permissible assuming no ‘labor’ expectations on the admitting department (and I’ll just go ahead and say that in my own department, students are not admitted to the PhD program without funding, and we made this decision on essentially the grounds being explored here — at least, that’s why I voted for it many years ago), I do think that in the majority of cases, it’s a bad idea.

But I prefer to make that judgment on a case by case basis, and while I think that the vast majority of cases would (and do) come out against admitting students without funding, my judgment is not based on any principle to the effect that graduate study must be funded to be legitimate. I would not make an exception-less rule of it.

Imagine (and this situation has happened to me, though not in my present department) that an intellectually qualified student approached a department and said this: “I have been saving money for several years because I wish to get a PhD in philosophy, and I understand that doing so is likely a fool’s errand if my purpose is to get a tenure-track job, but that’s my purpose; I simply want to do this degree and I’ve been committed to saving for it for many years and I’m ready to pay and I think I’m qualified; so please admit me even if you cannot pay me.” I would not (necessarily) deny such a person admission. (There are many complications concerning how such an application should be treated, which I’m setting aside because they are not the main issue here.)

To bring the point back to the current general discussion, my agreement that, in the vast majority of cases, admitting students without funding is a bad idea, is not in any way based on some conception of the inherently ‘appropriate’ number of PhD students in Philosophy, nor on the notion that we should be in the business of making life-decisions on behalf of other intelligent adults (as opposed to giving them the information that they need to make those decisions), but on my own (fallible) judgment that (a) in most cases, unfunded PhD students are being set up to fail in the program and (b) the resulting inequities in the program are detrimental to everybody.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Michael Dickson
5 years ago

“Imagine (and this situation has happened to me, though not in my present department) that an intellectually qualified student approached a department and said this: ‘I have been saving money for several years because I wish to get a PhD in philosophy, and I understand that doing so is likely a fool’s errand if my purpose is to get a tenure-track job, but that’s my purpose; I simply want to do this degree and I’ve been committed to saving for it for many years and I’m ready to pay and I think I’m qualified; so please admit me even if you cannot pay me.'”

What I’m still not clear on, Michael, is why this person needs to get a PhD. Why not just invite him or her to come to seminars in the university, agree that certain professors will critique and discuss the person’s projects, etc. in exchange for the money he or she has saved up for the purpose, and then not confer a PhD? Why is the degree a necessary part of it if he or she isn’t planning on a career in the profession?Report

Michael Dickson
Reply to  Justin Kalef
5 years ago

Thanks for the comment.

For better or worse, a PhD is a mark of a certain kind of standing in the profession — people with PhDs are thought (I hope correctly) to have be trained to a certain degree, to have accomplished a high level of understanding and ability in the discipline, and so on. We design PhD programs around this idea. Getting one is thus an achievement, and there are people who wish to accomplish that achievement.

What would the alternative be? A parallel program of study that ends with “congratulations — you have received the sort of training that is appropriate for professional philosophers. Of course, you are not permitted to *be* one, but you have the training”?Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Michael Dickson
5 years ago

This appears deeply inconsistent with your other claims about the nature and purpose of graduate education. You claim to think of a PhD in philosophy as something other than job training, so that it’s value should be understood in terms other than whether it successfully positions people for such jobs. Yet here you say first:

“a PhD is a mark of a certain kind of standing in the profession”

and second:

“We design PhD programs around this idea.”

Given that PhD programs are designed around the idea of giving people a certain understanding in *the profession*, it would be merely a happy accident if it also served some other purpose. There are any number of forms that advanced education in philosophy can take (and, historically, has taken), and many institutional homes. The particular form of the PhD only makes sense in a particular context, one that links – as you do here – training in philosophy with professional standing in a particular system of educational employment.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Michael Dickson
5 years ago

correction: “designed around the idea of giving people a certain STANDING in *the profession*”Report

Michael Dickson
Reply to  Michael Dickson
5 years ago

For some reason I cannot ‘reply’ to you, Derek, so I’m ‘replying’ to myself (in the sense of clicking that spot on the page…), but responding to your point.

You’re right. I should not have said ‘profession’ so much as ‘field’. What I was trying to say is that PhD study, as I conceive it, has as a goal philosophical training and expertise, and getting a PhD means, for me, that a person has achieved a certain level of understanding and expertise and experience. And when I said that we design PhD programs around this idea, I meant that we design them around our beliefs about what good philosophers should know, and what he or she should be able to do. (At least, such is my own intention when I’m faced with questions about the design of my program.)Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Michael Dickson
5 years ago

Thanks for the reply, Michael. I’d be interested to know (perhaps privately or in another venue) to what extent you think of your non-academically-employed PhD graduates as part of this field – and even more importantly to what extent do they think of themselves as being as much a part of the field of philosophy as their academically employed peers. You can find my e-mail address on my website if you’d like to follow up.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Michael Dickson
5 years ago

Hi again, Michael.

I’m having a hard time understanding the issue. Suppose I’ve completed my BA in philosophy and, though I don’t want to pursue a career in academia and don’t need a PhD for any other professional purposes, I would love to work on some issues more intensively and be a part of a philosophical community. Suppose I go to colloquia at various universities and attend conferences: nothing prevents me from doing that. There is also nothing stopping me from submitting papers I work on to philosophy journals or conferences if I feel like publishing. I can make friends in the philosophical community and, if I like, I can arrange to sit in on graduate seminars. If money is an option, I can pay. If I think I can develop further as a thinker if I write one or more long papers, and I want to get sustained feedback and guidance from some accomplished philosophers, I could (on the scheme we’re discussing) arrange to pay the saved-up money you mention for that kind of feedback. If people I greatly respect autonomously approach me after attending things I present or reading my stuff and tell me they think I’m a superb philosopher, that praise should be all I need to be very happy. What possible use would a diploma be to me? To show it off to my friends? I just can’t see why it’s needed.

If for some reason it’s desirable for these amateurs (in the proper sense of the word) to have a diploma to put on their walls, then this could be accommodated with a different program than the PhD. People who pay their own way through a series of postgraduate activities, and do well at them, could get a beautifully designed certificate of recognition in a frame. It would be generally understood that a certificate of recognition cannot substitute for a PhD in any professional context. That would seem to satisfy all the desiderata.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Michael Dickson
5 years ago

Oops, meant to say “If money is an _issue_”.Report

Michael Dickson
Reply to  Michael Dickson
5 years ago

Justin, (same story about ‘reply to’),

A few quick points, as I think that the contours of our positions are probably pretty clear by this point, and I’m in danger of repeating myself too much:

1. Many people — and I was in this situation — think of an academic job as one option among many that they would consider upon completion of a degree. For me, academia was ‘plan B’; for others it might be a weak ‘plan A’, and yet others might be hell-bent on academia. (Plan B sort of fell in my lap, and so it became plan A by default, or laziness, or inertia, or some such thing.) There are also, of course, some (only a few) who approach the degree with no intention of using the degree for any purpose. In general, I think it is very difficult to sort people into clear categories, especially at the outset of the program, and I would have absolutely no interest in doing that sorting in any case.

2. Even students who do not intend to go in to academia benefit, professionally, from having the PhD. I have had students who left before completing their degree who were told by their employers that they would get a raise if they finished the degree. I have had prospective (non-academic) employers contact me to confirm that a students’ degree reflects strong performance in the program. I have a former student who needed the PhD to prove to her potential (now actual) employer that she ‘succeeded’ in her pursuit of the PhD, not because the employer cared about her philosophical qualifications, but because the employer cared that she was purposeful and able to complete a difficult and long-term task.

3. A PhD program is (or can be) designed around achieving a certain level of philosophical knowledge and ability. It is (or can be) a department’s best attempt to design a program of study with that intended outcome. Sure, if a person just wants to ‘hang out’, or sit in on classes or seminars, or whatever, that’s just fine (sometimes — sometimes it is an annoyance). But if a student wishes to achieve the kind of knowledge and ability that a PhD program is designed to develop, then presumably that student should follow the program. If I believed that there were a *better* way to achieve that level of knowledge and ability (given constraints of time, etc.), I’d make *that* better way my PhD program. And once a student has completed such a program, denying him or her a piece of paper that confirms completion is unjust, regardless of professional ambitions.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Michael Dickson
5 years ago

Hi again, Michael. I don’t think we’re just repeating ourselves: an important point is becoming clearer. Many of us have been arguing that there are good reasons to limit the minting of PhDs because of the oversaturation of the market. Your response, I _previously_ thought, was that this reason for limiting PhDs is not good because it would pointlessly prevent some people from earning a PhD _even if they were clear about not wanting to enter the profession_ and compete for scarce jobs. But your response this time is inconsistent with that, because you’re now saying that some of these same people might compete for the jobs after all. In that case, your objection fails to respond to the main thrust of the argument: namely, that we need to limit PhDs to prevent a harmful oversupply of candidates on the job market, etc.

Your second point is that there are some cases in which employers outside of academia want to see people complete an advanced university project for some reason. Fine — we can accommodate all those people by creating a new stream that is just like a PhD and ends with a certificate that explicitly makes clear that the bearer cannot use the certificate for consideration toward an academic appointment. If you object that they should be able to use the certificate for an academic appointment, then you’re abandoning what I took to be the whole justification for not limiting PhDs — namely, that these people won’t be competing for academic appointments after all and so won’t harm the interests of other PhD holders or of the profession collectively (by weakening the position of the unions, etc.), and the original argument seems to go through.

Your third point, that it would be unjust to withhold a PhD from someone who has done what others have done to earn a PhD, also doesn’t seem to address the main point that it’s bad to have this many people competing for the same few positions. If someone says “Please let me do the equivalent of a PhD. I’m not going to compete for these same positions, so there’s no fair reason to deny me the right to do all this for personal intellectual growth”, then he or she doesn’t have the right to a PhD later on.

I take it that this is similar to the following sort of case: my friends and I want to eat at a certain restaurant, but the restaurant is so popular that there’s no room for us to be seated. So I say that we don’t want to be seated — we’ll pay for take-out food instead. The restaurant has a good reason to deny us a reservation — there are only so many tables, and if they make one for us there won’t be enough room for all the patrons. If I get food from there then anyway on the agreement that I won’t compete for a table, then there’s no good argument to be made that I’m being treated unjustly when I show up to get the take-out food and am not shown to a table like everyone else.Report

Michael Dickson
Reply to  Michael Dickson
5 years ago

I never intended to say that my reason for not wishing to limit the number of PhDs (and really I think that doing so is not feasible, but that’s a different point) was to leave room for people who want a PhD but do not want a job in philosophy. (I do think that there should be room for such people when they are qualified, but that’s not my main point.) My reason for mentioning such people was mainly to point to one bad consequence of tying PhD production to available tenure-track jobs and to illustrate that there may be conceptions of the value of pursuing a PhD in philosophy that are not tied to job-getting.

Here is a probable difference between us: I have no problem with a situation in a profession in which there are more applicants for jobs than there are jobs. This situation occurs in many professions, as the original post to which we are replying points out. (I do have a problem with exploiting that situation, misrepresenting it, etc., and I am aware that these things happen, but I hope I’ve made that point clear enough by now.)

My main point, rather, was that making an offer of a position in a PhD program, and deciding to accept that offer, are (or should be) free decisions made by informed adults, and so long as both parties to the decision are honest and open about the arrangement, its terms, possible and probable outcomes, etc., I believe it is unreasonable to try to prevent it.

As for this: “creating a new stream that is just like a PhD and ends with a certificate that explicitly makes clear that the bearer cannot use the certificate for consideration toward an academic appointment” honestly, that is an entirely unworkable idea in my opinion. It is the sort of thing that I had in mind by using the term ‘social engineering’. I cannot think of any profession in which its governing body, central organization, whatever, says to some individuals “you are fully qualified to serve in this profession by our own standards of qualification, but you are not permitted to do so.”Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Michael Dickson
5 years ago

Do you not understand that most PhD programs are setting a large number of students up to fail? Apparently everyone in your program is well prepared to enter or resume a nonacademic career upon completion of their studies. But this is clearly not the norm, or we wouldn’t have hundreds of applications for every job opening or an effectively unlimited supply of adjunct labor to be exploited.Report

Michael Dickson
Reply to  Derek Bowman
5 years ago

Thank you for your question.

If success is defined as getting an academic job much like my own, then yes, departments are setting students up to fail. If departments are promising, or even failing to point out that they are not promising, this form of success, then they are guilty of other things besides.

I do not conceive success in a PhD program in that manner.

It seems clear (but please correct me if I’m wrong) from many reactions to what I’ve said that many conceive of a PhD program as a kind of job training program, and perhaps there are departments that think of themselves as providing that service. My personal opinion (I speak not for my department, here) is that conceiving of PhD training as job training is a good way to produce a lot of bad philosophy.

I do not also suppose that PhD programs have no responsibility to consider what their students will do after they get their degree. I spend a lot of time worrying about that issue, and discussing it with students, and trying to help them prepare for what comes next. However, it is not my (nor their) central concern, and honestly, anybody who enters a PhD program for the purpose of getting a great job needs to rethink his or her motivations.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Michael Dickson
5 years ago

Michael Dickson writes:

“It seems clear (but please correct me if I’m wrong) from many reactions to what I’ve said that many conceive of a PhD program as a kind of job training program, and perhaps there are departments that think of themselves as providing that service…anybody who enters a PhD program for the purpose of getting a great job needs to rethink his or her motivations.”

One thing that this series of discussions is bringing out is that there are two very different conceptions of a PhD program. Some students, some faculty members, and (apparently) some departments conceive of a PhD as an end in itself. Others do indeed conceive of it as a form of professional training, with applications outside academic philosophy but with its core focus on academic philosophy. Oxford, for instance, makes this statement prominently on its graduate application website: “The aim of the Faculty’s graduate programmes is to prepare students for an academic career in philosophy.” And we’re entirely happy with the fact that most people entering our programme are looking for an academic job and that we therefore need to take seriously placement statistics and the like: insofar as our PhD students don’t in due course find academic employment if they still want it, that’s a serious problem we have to address.

I don’t see anything intrinsically wrong with another department having a very different conception of what a PhD programme is, provided that they’re comparably up-front about it, e.g. (paraphrasing Michael): “We do not regard a PhD as a program that a student should enter for the purposes of getting a good job; while we take very seriously the task of preparing students for whatever post-doctoral career might follow their PhD, this is not our central concern and our PhD program is not a form of job training”. Then students can be clear what they’re getting themselves into and can apply to programmes whose sense of what a PhD programme is matches what they are looking for.

My anecdotal suspicion is that the great majority (though certainly not all) of PhD applicants *are* looking for something that functions primarily as professional training, and that most of them are pursuing it for the purposes of getting an academic job. If that’s so, departments with the other self-conception of philosophy PhDs might struggle to recruit, but that doesn’t seem a problem in itself if it results from students’ free and informed choices. And of course I might be greatly underestimating the fraction of PhD applicants who are actively seeking something other than professional training.

(Apologies for the mid-Atlantic compromises on “program(me)”! I’ve quoted verbatim; where I use the phrase myself I go with the UK spelling.)Report

Michael Dickson
Reply to  Michael Dickson
5 years ago

“if it results from students’ free and informed choices.”

Yes, David, that is indeed an important point, and one that I take seriously.Report

Michael Dickson
5 years ago

Correction: I meant to type: “but that’s NOT my purpose”Report

Jennifer Frey
Jennifer Frey
5 years ago

I went to a department that did precious little in the way of job training (we had practice job talks, so I guess that’s something). It was a great department, I spent many wonderful years there, and it turns out I did get a job, despite many long odds. But I never thought of myself in a job training program, and I didn’t expect to get a job (after the crash in 2008, no one expected much of anything; we were all depressed). I had developed a plan B and so had most of my friends.

I went to the University of Pittsburgh. It’s really unclear to me that my experience is so abnormal.Report

Anonymous Grad Student
Anonymous Grad Student
5 years ago

I’ve read most of the threads on here and I’m not going to try to respond to everything that’s been said since I’ve got to get back to grading and earn my keep, haha! Anyway, I’m in a funded PhD program. My goal is to finish my PhD and get a job in academia. Upon deciding to pursue my PhD, it was made abundantly clear to me of the job prospects from undergrad professors, friends in grad programs, professors at institutions to which I was applying, etc. etc. After taking all of these things into consideration, I decided that I still wanted to pursue my PhD. The rationale was this: If I could get into a funded program then I would have the opportunity to study philosophy for 5 years. Yes, that would mean that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to “get ahead” by making 40k+ and starting to quickly pay down student loans and invest while in my early 20s. Yes, it would mean that I wouldn’t get to do a lot of “fun” things that many people of my age in their careers are enjoying (travel, nice cars, etc. etc.), the list could go on. At the end of the day, however, it would mean that I would get to live a life of leisure for 5 years or so. This was a personal decision of mine and, to be frank, I would have been extremely disappointed and even a bit pissed off if I had been turned down by a department that thought I was qualified simply because they had to limit the number of PhDs conferred each year. There are a number of goods that I could have pursued and I decided that the goods I wanted to pursue at this point in my life are in the academic life (over cars, travel, etc.).

One of the points made earlier was that the philosophy job market is saturated. Is this a problem? In one sense, yes, but I don’t think it’s a problem in every sense. Do I wish the market wasn’t as saturated – yes because then I would statistically have a higher chance of getting a TT job. But how is that different than wishing that any profession I was hoping to get into had a higher demand for me? If decreasing the saturation of the job market means blocking people from the pursuit of graduate studies then I am NOT in favor of decreasing the market saturation. If anything, I would say that the saturation of the job market has provided me incentive for working even harder in my profession. Now, if the saturation of the market is due to the systematic deception of people applying to PhD programs (say they are promised a high chance of a TT job) then we’ve got a problem. The problem lies in the deception of applicants though, not the state of the market itself. But, from my experience of speaking with TONS of fellow grad students from programs of various levels, it’s never seemed to me that anybody has reported any sort of deception about the state of the market. In fact, while most people admitted that they are hoping for a job in academic life, MOST of them had some plan B (concretely or at least some notions of what they’d like to do if they couldn’t get a job after a year or two on the market)).

To put things in perspective and hopefully give myself some “street credit” to my thoughts (I would hate for people to think I’m just some lucky guy in a great PhD program with tons of money for whom it is easy to tell those who are struggling to just “try harder and suck it up”), before joining my current program, I completed my MA in philosophy at a state university where my funding was $8,900 dispersed over 10 months. There were about $500 in fees each semester and I donated about $900 of those funds to various charitable organizations. Translation: 700/month from August to May (I had to get a summer job to make ends meet in those interim months). Here’s the deal, I didn’t feel like I was getting the shaft too much. I weighed the pros/cons of the situation at the time and chose that the goods that I wanted to pursue. To me, it meant going to different organized events on campus to score free food, cooking a lot of pasta and rice/beans, and maybe enjoying a beer with some friends at a bar once or twice a month. Could I have chosen a more lucrative path? Absolutely. I chose to pursue the former path, however, because it afforded me the opportunity to devote myself to philosophical studies in an intense way (one that it not typical for somebody who has a regular job and “keeps up” with philosophy on the side…I tried that and it’s really quite difficult to do the amount of philosophical research that one does in graduate school when she if a full time employee in a non-academic profession). Was I young a naive? A bit, but many years later I still am happy with my decision…it was just that. My decision and I’m glad that I was able to make it for myself.Report

Michael Stoeltzner
Michael Stoeltzner
5 years ago

I guess there is something paradoxical about job training or not in the context of tenure-track academia or not. For it seems to me that most of the techniques that we teach graduate students to excel in the job Philosopher are similar to what is required in other jobs outside academia. Among them are express your thoughts in 250, 500, 1000 words, give a long talk or a 3 min. discussion remark, research the current state of a complex debate, write project proposals in 3 pp.
It remains to be seen whether the increasing number of non-academic jobs by people with a PhD really leads to a change in attitude of employers. At least in several European countries, higher ranks in administration, industry, culture, consulting typically have a PhD. And is several cases I know decisions to apply for such jobs were made during the first postdoc position or in the late phase of a PhD. I mention Europe not only because I am a European but also because most of what I say holds true in France and Germany whose university system is structured in a very different fashion.Report

AnonAdjunct
AnonAdjunct
5 years ago

Re: DC on State bars (since I can’t seem to reply)

State Bar associations clearly think of themselves as gatekeepers, even though the tests aren’t very hard. Why else do you think that states that most attorney’s find desirable, NY and CA, have longer and more difficult bar exams than states like ND? Why do you think the FL has a no-reciprocity policy, if not to limit the number of attorney’s in the state? FL was particularly concerned with a flood of attorneys, who had retired from full-time work, moving to FL and continuing to practice part-time.Report

DC
DC
Reply to  AnonAdjunct
5 years ago

I’m basically saying there is an enormous continuum between open admission/open practice — let anyone who wants to practice a profession — and an AMA-style “we are literally saying how many doctors you can graduate.” My point was simply that the legal profession does not do any significant gatekeeping so as to be useful as a model to the philosophy profession.Report