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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Sara L. Uckelman
4 years ago

In a recent blog post (http://diaryofdoctorlogic.blogspot.co.uk/2016/05/anonymity-teacher-training-and-cronyism.html) I touched on another place where departments may have an extra responsibility to their own students, namely, in the allocation of post-PhD teaching fellowships.Report

some person or other
some person or other
4 years ago

Thanks for this post–It’s one of the most sensible things I’ve read on this topic.

I just want to add something to the “should be obvious, but apparently isn’t” category, which is really I guess just an addition to the whole duty-to-be-honest-about-prospects-and-not-just-to-not-lie.

Many philosophy departments have faculty who are extremely problematic in various ways (racists, sexists, sexual predators, just tend to be flirty with students, completely unavailable, downright nasty, etc.). In all of the philosophy departments I know of, the responsibility for informing prospective students of this has come down entirely to current grad students. This is bad for a number of reasons that I shouldn’t have to outline here. (In some cases of this, for example, I know for a fact that faculty had actual concrete evidence/knowledge of sexual harassment in their own department, where the professor in question had been found guilty for that harassment, but grad students were not privy to the facts about what exactly happens–thus, when grad students warned prospective students off, it had to be in such a way that was just more of the rumor mill rather than someone saying something that they had more solid knowledge of. Not to mention that if said faculty members find out that their current grad students are warning prospectives off coming to work with them, they could retaliate in various ways that they could not to other (tenured) faculty, and further, that in the case of gender or race issues, the grad students who seem to end up shouldering this responsibility are gender and racial minorities in the department.)

I see no reason why this responsibility should fall on graduate students rather than faculty in a program. Yes, there is a collective action problem here if one place warns everyone off their predator and no other places do, etc., and departments wanting to get the best students, but really, I think that needs to be offset, in everyone’s minds, by the fact that prospective students are making decisions not just about the next 5-8 years of their lives, but that will affect the trajectory of their entire lives.

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Jan
Jan
Reply to  some person or other
4 years ago

This takes us a bit away from Sergio’s (excellent) post, but the above comment got me wondering: Mightn’t someone sue a senior colleague for exposing his reputation for harassing students? I imagine that recent cases of philosophers taking legal action against other senior members of our profession might make some hesitant to share even quite reliable information of this type.Report

Nathaniel Goldberg
Nathaniel Goldberg
4 years ago

Duties to actual and possible graduate students start when they are actual undergrads. Anyone with undergrads thinking about grad school should have “the talk” with them–not necessarily to discourage but necessarily to inform.Report

Jonathan Weisberg
Jonathan Weisberg
4 years ago

Great post, Sergio! I’m still inclined to disagree, but I have to acknowledge that the issue hangs on questions I’m not entirely sure how to answer.

First, you point out that if we shrink admissions we’ll exclude people who would have gotten academic jobs. Of course, we’ll also exclude people who wouldn’t. Is the trade-off worth it? Well, the number of slots in academic philosophy wouldn’t change (much) if we shrank PhD programs. But the number of people doing PhDs would go down. In other words, we’d only shuffle around *who* becomes an academic philosopher: no *net* harm there, in a way. The benefit would be a reduction in the number of PhDs who don’t become academic philosophers… if that really is a benefit.

That’s the second question: you point out that your assessment of the harm to you if you hadn’t become an academic philosopher might have been mistaken. How bad is this harm (if it is a harm) to the people who meet it? I guess I don’t know, not having experienced it. Even years after the “anxiety-ridden” perspective of the job market has subsided, I’m constantly, tremendously grateful that I didn’t have to experience such a devastating blow to my cultivated identity. But maybe that’s idiosyncratic to me. Or may it’s myopic—maybe I would have been better off in another sector. Perhaps, then, there’s an item to add to your list: seriously undertaking to find out and assess the outcomes here, presumably beginning with talking to those who’ve experienced them.Report

Eric Winsberg
Eric Winsberg
Reply to  Jonathan Weisberg
4 years ago

HI Jonathan,

I think its somewhat misleading to claim no *net* harm in shuffling around who becomes an academic philosopher: unless you think the current process is completely random. There is a net harm if the suffering around causes there to be a less fair allocation of the jobs. Even though I hardly think the current system is perfect, it seems like this kind of proposal would be sure to make it worse, and that seems to me to be a net harm.Report

Interested
Interested
4 years ago

Thank you for your post.

What’s the rationale behind your obligation (2)? Perhaps I’m misunderstanding its intent.

Supervision, as I see it, is a very serious commitment to the student and her project. I see an obligation to supervise only those students whose work has convinced me that their thesis/dissertation will be excellent — a genuine contribution to the given topic. Agreeing to supervise a thesis/dissertation without being convinced of its genuine promise strikes me as a mistake on many fronts. If I were a graduate student I wouldn’t want to be carried along if my work weren’t of the highest level; I’d want my faculty to tell me as much by not agreeing to supervise. (Of course, I wouldn’t really want the experience of hearing the bad news; but I do think that it’s news that I’d rather have.)

In my earlier days as an assistant/associate professor I used to follow your (2) in practice (though not out of some normative obligation). The end result: I had committed to supervising students whose work I could not sincerely defend as genuinely excellent. This helped nobody. I decided to change my practice as above (viz., agree to supervise only those whose work has convinced me of high-level promise to the field). I believe that my current practice is a better one than one that follows your (2). I’m interested to know what you think. Report

Brian Weatherson
Brian Weatherson
4 years ago

I’d also like to hear more about the motivation for (2). It seems to suppose that grad students themselves are not just the best judges of who would be best to supervise them (which is in general true), but more or less infallible judges.

Here’s one kind of case where I would qualify (2) somewhat. Professor A has fewer than the threshold number of advisees, but has a lot. Professor B has no advisees. But Professors A and B would be equally good, ceteris paribus, at advising this thesis; they know the areas equally well, they are equally diligent, neither has a personal clash with the advisee, and so on. I think if the student asks Professor A to advise the thesis, it should be reasonable for A to recommend they at least first talk to B, and see if having B as primary advisor would work. In this case, A should still stay on the student’s thesis committee, should read drafts of sections/chapters and return comments promptly and so on. But if there is a better person to advise the thesis, especially a person who might be devote a higher % of their attention to it, it should be acceptable to not accept every request.Report

More Dialogue
More Dialogue
4 years ago

I strongly suggest adding to Sergio’s list: graduate departments need to take more action to mentor and steer students toward the path to publication, and this well in advance of completing the Ph.D. I say this because establishing a publication record prior to completing the degree is absolutely essential in order for students in lower- and mid-tier graduate programs to have any realistic shot on the TT job market.

It has been documented that students in Top 20 programs often get hired without publications, due to the reputation of their institutions, but I imagine that as things go forward even this will come to an end.

I went to a mid-tier graduate program that, while meritorious in other ways, did very little to help get me on track to publish before graduating. I feel as if I came out of my program still understanding very little about what publishable work looks like, or what it takes to survive peer review. It hurt my TT career chances significantly to use my first post-PhD years fumbling about trying to get publications out – indeed, simply learning about producing publishable work and taking on manageable projects.

I also taught for a time as a visiting professor in a low-tier graduate program where students seemed entirely lacking in any meaningful preparation for publication, which makes me believe that this is a rather common phenomenon. I would like to see graduate departments become more proactive in ensuring their students get published or else become better able to publish as they complete the Ph.D. It would be as simple as adding to the program requirements some sort of mentorship directed by a faculty member, to help students craft one or more articles and submit to journals etc.Report

Henri Perron
Henri Perron
4 years ago

I want to take (6) a bit further and suggest that it be emphasized. Moreover, I think we ought remove the stigma surrounding people who either “don’t make the cut” in academia or decide that they wish to pursue something else.

A significant part of the anxiety surrounding the job market, I suspect, has to do with the feeling like (or even being regarded as) a failure if one doesn’t make it in academic philosophy. Perhaps if it is emphasized from the get-go that other options are perfectly okay, students will probably feel much less anxious and locked-in or committed to a certain career path.

I want to anticipate the objection that graduate students are an investment and, as such, have some sort of obligation to make their university look good. I want to suggest that this is not only perfectly possible, but perhaps even more likely to be done if someone pursues something that matters to them outside of academic philosophy. Certainly philosophy (or at least some of it) prepares people in ways that will benefit them in a number of pursuits, so why not give them the freedom to test that hypothesis and hopefully let the value of philosophy (which everyone is so hung-up on and ardently defending these days) speak for itself. After all, one of the big criticisms of our field is that it is solipsistic in the sense that all you can do with a philosophy degree (by itself, with no accompanying degree) is teach philosophy. Let’s permit students to courageously break this stigma by leaping into other endeavors that matter to them.

And hey, less people feeling like they *have* to be professors means a less competitive academic job market. Report

Ghost
Ghost
Reply to  Henri Perron
4 years ago

Yes, maybe we can encourage grad students to apply for and take the same sort of summer internships that MBA students or public policy students go after. I think we’d find that some of the brighter or more talented philosophy PhD students end up in more prestigious positions outside of academia after graduation. That would probably take a lot of the ridiculous prestige-obsessed stigma away from “leaving the profession”.

To work one’s butt off for roughly 7 years and then not become an underpaid philosophy (adjunct) professor!? Oh, the SHAME! [Gimme a break]Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
4 years ago

“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.”

This is certainly true, but I’m not yet clear on why it’s supposed to be a reason against shrinking PhD programs. Is it because it would be a harm to those people to be shut out? But that harm will happen anyway to a large percentage of applicants; whatever job such a candidate gets is one that a non-culled candidate doesn’t get. So why is the harm to the early excluded candidate of not becoming a professor supposed to be worse than the harm of a wouldn’t-have-been excluded candidate of not getting a job?

But why is being denied a position in the professoriat such a distinct harm? Obviously it’s a harm if it’s the career you’ve trained for, and you now find yourself struggling to find gainful employment. But that applies to the person who has the PhD and has unsucessfully pursue such a career – not to the person who has been denied admission to or culled early from a PhD program.

I think the reason we see being denied the possibility of pursuing an academic position to be such a harmful denial of opportunity is because we think being an academic is the only way to live a reflective life and engage seriously with philosophy. But why is this so? In part it’s because those of us who study philosophy treat academia as the exclusive home of philosophy, so much so that we designate pursuing non-academic careers as “leaving philosophy.”
——–
Secondary point: I agree with most of the items on your list – and with More Dialogue’s suggestions about publication training/mentoring. But notice that that such elements of training are only providing competitive goods. You may help *your* students get academic jobs by providing conference funding for networking, publication advice, and training for teaching-intensive jobs, but collectively that will only increase the already intense credentialing arms race for jobs overall. Skills training is not a solution to a lack of jobs problem. Report

Kate Norlock
Reply to  Derek Bowman
4 years ago

Your last sentence is a particularly good point, Derek Bowman, but the OP seems to be outlining our obligations, not solutions. That the measures above are not solutions is not necessarily counting against the moral injunction to try to do them.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Kate Norlock
4 years ago

Absolutely right, Kate (please call me Derek). That’s why I said I’m largely in agreement – the last line was just meant to emphasize the limited scope of these obligations (e.g. to one’s own students) and the limited scope of the good that can be achieved by satisfying them. Report

Ghost
Ghost
Reply to  Derek Bowman
4 years ago

Science PhDs find gainful employment in outside of academia. Philosophy PhDs might be able to do something similar. Report

H.F.Ghost
H.F.Ghost
4 years ago

Yes, #6 seems pretty important. We need more of that. Report

Sergio Tenenbaum
Sergio Tenenbaum
4 years ago

Thank you all for the comments! I’ll try to answer as many of the points that I can, but some of them, I’ll need to think more about it. Let me first say that I am very much in agreement with the suggestions by More Dialogue, Nathaniel, and Some Person or Other (it can be very delicate handling these issues, but it surely should not be the work of the graduate students).

On (some of) the points raised by Jonathan and Derek (Kate has answered Derek’s last point in essentially the same way I would; thanks Kate!): I agree, of course, that, overall, the number of people ending up with the careers they want would not change, but I don’t think that shows that we are complying with the duties we have (or that we fail to comply with our duties if we don’t reduce this number). I was thinking about this “problem of false negatives” mostly in the context of the paternalistic argument. We can imagine telling the following to a student we’re cutting in order to comply with a supposed obligation to curtail admissions: “We’re doing this for your own benefit; you’ll spend many years here and in the end you won’t get a job”. But in the case of the mistakenly culled student, we did not confer the benefit, and thus I think we did wrong this particular student by denying her admission out of concern for her well-being. In the context of this argument, I think that the benefits to other students who do end up getting job is largely irrelevant (but this might be my non-consequentialist leanings talking). Of course, if we’re justified in thinking that the student had a snowball chance in hell of getting a job, then this type of action is excusable (or even justified in terms of the expected benefit). But the less reliable we’re in determining who’ll succeed, the weaker the paternalistic argument is (I think, for instance, that if my institution had to cut our admissions in half, I would be extremely unreliable in making decisions; at this point, the files are very similar). I also worry that by cutting significantly our admissions, we’d be restricting graduate admission to “safe” files, and that these files tend to be disproportionately files from people from prestigious undergraduate programs, people who had a relatively “well-adjusted” lives during their undergraduate years, did not suffer from various serious personal issues, etc. I do think that disproportionately favouring these files is unjust, but this is, admittedly, a large topic on its own. Finally, I completely agree with Jonathan that we should talk more about people who moved to another profession to have a better sense of the “costs” of going into another career after a PhD in philosophy. I tend to think that with time the “cultivated identity” as a philosopher recedes to the background, and someone in such a position would develop a different perspective on these years. But this is based on my obviously biased take on very few cases.

More soon.
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JT
JT
Reply to  Sergio Tenenbaum
4 years ago

Thanks for the post and the follow up, Sergio. I think you struck exactly the right balance between the thought that students are not stocks to be invested in simply for the sake of an expected payoff on the one hand, and the thought that students are not metaphorical children on the other. I especially liked your point that contracting the number of offers of admission would result in a bias towards ‘safe files’ “from people from prestigious undergraduate programs, people who had a relatively “well-adjusted” lives during their undergraduate years, did not suffer from various serious personal issues, etc.” It’s worth adding, I think, that these files will also disproportionately include ones from people who did not have university educated parents, who had to overcome socially ingrained biases and institutional disadvantages, who could not attend prestigious institutions for financial reasons, and who came late to philosophy in their academic careers. In short, contracting admissions will simply bias the profession to admitting only those who were able to enjoy perfect, or nearly so, undergraduate experiences in philosophy, which requires a good deal of luck and social privilege in addition to talent and hard work. Not only would this be unjust to the unfairly excluded, but it would also result in a profession largely composed of the lucky and privileged few. Anyone who thinks that philosophy done in the tower should substantively bear on and have import for everyday life on the ground will have reason to work to prevent that from happening.Report

Kate Norlock
Reply to  Sergio Tenenbaum
4 years ago

“…if we’re justified in thinking that the student had a snowball chance in hell of getting a job…”

At least in not-elite and public institutions (my sources of experience), it seems to have been the case for almost a decade now that tenured professors are usually not replaced by TT hires when they retire/resign/die, Philosophy departments are generally not expanding their full-time faculty complements, and efforts to find ‘efficiencies’ in instructional budgets have led to increased reliance on part-time, online, and/or adjunct teaching positions. So I think my students have a decent chance of getting a low-paying, no-benefits job teaching one or two classes, after five to ten years of pursuing the relevant degrees. The chances of their getting jobs like mine, full-time with tenure and benefits, seem to be dwindling to the snowball’s relative. Do we have any reason to think this will change in the next decade or two?Report

Sergio Tenenbaum
Sergio Tenenbaum
Reply to  Kate Norlock
4 years ago

Yes, I was assuming the ratio here (http://blog.apaonline.org/2016/05/03/academic-placement-data-and-analysis-an-update-with-a-focus-on-gender/), but you’re right that we might have good reason to expect that this ratio will keep getting worse!Report

Sergio Tenenbaum
Sergio Tenenbaum
4 years ago

Interested and Brian:
I can see why people would oppose (2). I actually considered adding to the list of exceptions “there’s someone else in the department who would be a better advisor”. But I decided against it thinking that in practice this would rarely if ever be a good reason to turned down the student request rather than advise against it. So I completely agree with Brian that if you think that someone else is in a better position to supervise the student for any reason, you should talk about it with the student. But what if the student remains unconvinced? I am not sure that in this case, you’re “off the hook”. I actually was thinking about a student who asked me to be in their committee (not as supervisor) when I was very confident that someone else would be a better fit. The student insisted that they were more comfortable working with me, and they’d have trouble working with the more suitable advisor. I actually thought the student was making the wrong judgment even about this point, but I thought that if I could not convince them (as it did happen), it was better to serve on the student’s committee. This is in part because I thought the student was in a better position to make the judgment (was I missing something about the other professor? Did I have some form of inverted self-bias and was missing how great I would be as a committee member?). But I also think one’s relation to one’s committee is a difficult one, and a student’s negative attitude towards the committee, even if ultimately wrong, can be itself a strong reason to prefer a different committee for the student.

But I think we might be largely in agreement; I agree the student is not infallible. I was thinking of this rule as a very strong, but possibly defeasible, presumption (thus the “typically”).

I suspect I might be more in disagreement with Interested, but even here I’m not sure. I think part of the job of the dissertation advisor is to try to guide the student in finding an interesting topic, but I agree with Interested that there are cases that you’d conclude that you could not guide a student to an excellent dissertation. I think there are two different cases; we might think that other Faculty members think more highly of the student, in which case, I think one clearly has a duty to steer the students towards these instructors. If one is honest about the situation, it’s very unlikely that the student will not accept the advice to work with someone else. But I think there are cases in which the whole Faculty has doubts about the students’ promise. In some such cases the student is terminated, but not in all of them. Perhaps, we should terminate all students in such cases, but I’m not sure (this is a related, but slightly different topic, so I’ll leave it aside). At any rate, if such a student continues in the program, then I think that we have an obligation to supervise them in the same way we supervise other students, and this will imply that someone will be working with a student that they don’t find particularly promising. So in such cases I don’t think that finding that the student is not all that promising can be a reason not to work with them (A confession: I might be biased here, as I have been extremely lucky in my life as a supervisor; I have only ever been asked to supervise really excellent students. I might have felt different, if I had more difficult cases…).

Let me also say that I also wholeheartedly agree with Henri Perron; I think philosophers often have a surprisingly limited imagination when it comes to thinking of other ways of leading a good life…
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some person or other
some person or other
Reply to  Sergio Tenenbaum
4 years ago

Not to be the broken lady record here, but another thing to consider when thinking about how to talk to students about who to work with–I am saying this because I was pressured to work with someone who had sexually assaulted me–is that it is worth being extra careful with women students, with students of color, with lgbtq students, etc. Often, not only are students the best judge of who they would best work with, but they are privy to facts about certain faculty members that other faculty are not. (I also know of cases where, thankfully, white male students did not want to work with someone who was engaging in crappy behavior with women students, because they thought it would be unfair for them to do so when women students could not, so even students who might not seem like targets could (and I hope would) have these reasons.) I found it *extremely* stressful to have to sit down and have a meeting with a faculty member who spent about an hour extolling this person’s virtues and admonishing me for not asking him to be my advisor, or at least on my committee, and asking me to reconsider, while I basically had to make up reasons on the spot for not wanting him on my committee. And try not to cry as I was repeatedly told that I was making a “huge mistake in my career” and “being irrational” by not taking advantage of this person (who happens to be very famous).

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Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
4 years ago

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).

I’m not sure how high toddlers count, but this seems to me likely to be a surprisingly demanding guideline, at least in many departments. At present I’m supervising one student; in the fall the number will be two. This is a pretty normal supervisory load in my department, I think. (Our incoming PhD classes are typically 4–5 students.) If I had, say, six PhD students, I think I’d feel pretty full. Can toddlers count to six?Report

Sergio Tenenbaum
Sergio Tenenbaum
Reply to  Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
4 years ago

I was assuming that toddlers can only count to 2 or 3, but perhaps I was underestimating toddlers. But, of course, I do think the numbers go up if you include committee membership.Report

Sara L. Uckelman
Reply to  Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
4 years ago

My toddler could count to 10 in both English and German by age two. But I suspect children of academics are not typical!Report

HighFive
HighFive
Reply to  Sara L. Uckelman
4 years ago

Well, I suspect that children of academics are pretty typical. Report

Far and Wide
Far and Wide
4 years ago

#5 is a great deal more important than the discussion so far suggests. Most philosophers in the professoriate are employed in non-PhD granting programs. There are roughly one hundred philosophy PhD granting programs in the US alone that employ some 1,500 faculty on average (counting only permanent lines). Even if we narrow the list of non-PhD granting program to the Best 380 Colleges (a list which counts most of the schools that also have graduate programs), that still leaves some 280 schools with philosophy programs. Some of these are prestigious SLACs with large departments and some are state schools (with or without terminal MAs). Even adjusting for size, most philosophers, at least in the US, are employed in non-PhD granting programs.

Now, maybe top tier graduate programs do not need to factor in these considerations given their placement record (although it would not hurt them), but mid and low tier programs certainly do. This is not so much an argument for the libertarian “there is no maximum permissible number of PhD spots” point, as a plea for changing the focus (and the tone) of the conversation to reflect the actual geography of the professoriate. Unfortunately, the general (and, one might say, natural) tendency, especially at the top, is to enforce a rather narrow conception of where philosophy happens, and what it takes to have a shot at it. In fact the field is far wider and the chances a great deal better if you don’t mind moving (or commuting) to some flyover state, gritty borough, or the Sun Belt (okay, except for California!). Report

David Sobel
David Sobel
4 years ago

I get confused about how to think of paternalism here. If there is a public space where people are clearly entitled to go and they go there to smoke but I stop them so as to further their own good, then I think I am being paternalistic. But if I fail to make a space for them to smoke (supposing I am under no obligation to make such a space), in part because I think it better for them to not smoke, then even if we call that paternalism it seems much less objectionable. Similarly if I decide to not buy you heroin and give it to you (assume there is no legal issue with it) in part because I think it bad for you, this seems either not paternalism or not the bad sort of paternalism. Assuming a dept is under no obligation to have a PhD program or to admit a certain number of students, the case of deciding to admit fewer students (even if done in part for the sake of those unadmitted students) feels more like the latter sort of case than the former. I really don’t mean to be comparing being a grad student to using heroin, I just have heard the anti-paternalistic argument presented as an argument for not curtailing admissions before and I don’t yet see that that is a good reason to reach that conclusion. By the way, this is not really against anything Sergio said, it is against arguments near what he said that I have heard and been puzzled by.Report

Sergio Tenenbaum
Sergio Tenenbaum
Reply to  David Sobel
4 years ago

HI David:

I know you don’t mean to be disagreeing, but I just want to say that the original “libertarian” argument, even if unqualified, was supposed only to establish that we do not wrong students by not curtailing admissions, not that we wrong them by curtailing them. My reply to Jonathan and Derek might seem to commit me to the stronger claim, but I’m not sure it does (it’s in the context that we already accepted that paternalistic concerns are legitimate). This might be a bit of a tangent, but I do worry that paternalistic reasoning about offering career opportunities is significantly different from the heroin and smoking case; it seems to me that, for instance, using paternalistic criteria for admission would be objectionable in a way that using paternalistic considerations in deciding who to give heroin too isn’t. But I need to think more about this. Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

I applaud the desire not to be paternalistic and the desire to provide better service to the grad students we already have and to those considering grad school. Having said that, way too many grad students have all their plans pinned on academia, when academia won’t support them. It seems to me that we should not enable this self-destructive behavior by taking on so many grad students. In my experience, most philosophy PhD graduates are devastated when their idealism, love of philosophy, and relentless hard work leaves them with next to squat. I would love to hear other posters say that their experience is different. I think most philosophy graduates wish passionately that they hadn’t undertaken graduate studies in philosophy. If I’m right, that’s a huge problem.Report

Mark van Roojen
4 years ago

FWIW, cutting the number of slots will have the side-effect of making opportunities to do philosophy less widely available to people with less good credentials and less good credentials will have some correlation with other sorts of disadvantage. And less good credentials are completely compatible with being someone who will go on to do very well. So I think that calls to decrease the number of graduate slots for paternalistic reasons will, if implemented, effect equality of opportunity (where that’s construed not just as same credentials same job prospects but something more substantial such as trying to equalize the opportunity to get credentials that allow people to compete for jobs). So I think Sergio’s point about how bad we are at predicting who will do well at the earlier stages of a student’s career is genuinely relevant. If the criteria will will use to cull the field turn out to correlate somewhat badly with actual ability to do philosophy over the long run (where this can depend on all sorts of things), and if those criteria will tend to favor the already privileged over the less so, that’s a bad feature of the suggestion to close the doors on more people. I think that is in fact how it would go. I suppose a genuine lottery for slots would not have this feature, but no one is suggesting that.

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Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Mark van Roojen
4 years ago

What if we found other ways to increase people’s opportunity to do philosophy without forcing them to choose to put their lives on hold and to put their futures at the mercy of the academic job market? As it is the system already excludes those who can’t afford to risk being unemployed at the end of a decade of higher education and those who can’t afford to stick out for years moving from one contingent position to another before (if they’re lucky) landing a tenure-track position.

For example, replacing many funded PhD-student slots with fully funded MA slots would create opportunities for more people to study graduate-level philosophy without taking on the risks and personal costs associated with 5+ years in a PhD program, and without the profession to continue to self-sabotage by oversaturating the academic job market. If we’re serious about expanding access to the benefits of philosophy education, we need to make that education possible for people who won’t have academic jobs in ways that are more easily combined with other life plans. And we need to expand ways for people to engage seriously with philosophy from outside the confines of academic jobs. To continue doing otherwise is to place ourselves and our subject matter wholly at the mercy of university funding bodies. Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Derek Bowman
4 years ago

I missed this discussion until now, but I would upvote this comment a thousand times if I could. Converting PhD student slots into MA student slots would make it much less painful for students to leave academic philosophy at the end of their degree (if they left after their MA instead of their PhD). It could also go a long way to solving the problem that some people have mentioned, that reducing PhD slots would mean that more of them go to “safe” dossiers; because after students have done an MA we should have a much better basis to judge whether they will thrive as PhD candidates.

The big problem I see with this would be that it would necessitate an extra geographical move for many people (college-MA-PhD instead of college-PhD) and that that could be hard on people who already have families or who can’t afford multiple moves. But I think it’s worth considering.Report

Joseph Hope
Joseph Hope
4 years ago

Not to bring down the general support for the post, but I think it’s fair to present the opposing argument. These articles from the chronicle gained quite a bit of press, and are actually thoughtfully written:

Graduate School in the Humanities – Just Don’t Go
http://chronicle.com/article/Graduate-School-in-the/44846

Graduate School in the Humanities – Just Don’t Go Part 2
http://chronicle.com/article/Just-Dont-Go-Part-2/44786

The author sums up by saying that, excepting immense personal wealth, the personal risk entailed in formal graduate education in the humanities simply isn’t worth it. His example of comparing a Ph.D. to a medical doctor who after years of education and the opportunity cost implied isn’t allowed to practice is particularly affecting…
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Henri Perron
Henri Perron
4 years ago

I think we’re going too far when we say that those who complete a philosophy Ph.D. and don’t get a TT job put in all that work for nothing or are left with “next to squat”.

They still received a *real* education. They (hopefully) developed not just skills for a particular career, but skills for life. Life is far from over at the end of one’s Ph.D. and, unlike other fields, philosophy Ph.D.s are equipped with skills that will not just benefit them in whatever project they undertake, but also make them a more thoughtful person. I don’t know about you all, but I generally prefer to hang out with people trained in philosophy because they’re (again, generally) thoughtful and interesting… so let’s not forget about how philosophy can help people along in their personal development (something that is certainly not equivalent to “squat”).

Moreover, depending on the topics studied, philosophical material can be very useful in everyday situations. Studying ethics, for example, can obviously be very concretely fruitful in one’s life outside of academic philosophy. Some other material, in and of itself, seems rather useless in the ‘real world’; I think this sort of thing ought to be taken into account among philosophy students. Report

More Dialogue
More Dialogue
4 years ago

This is to second some comments of Hey Nonny Mouse and to contribute to the question of what graduate departments can do to help their students.

Hey Nonny Mouse wrote: “way too many grad students have all their plans pinned on academia, when academia won’t support them. It seems to me that we should not enable this self-destructive behavior by taking on so many grad students. In my experience, most philosophy PhD graduates are devastated when their idealism, love of philosophy, and relentless hard work leaves them with next to squat. I would love to hear other posters say that their experience is different.”

Having gone through most of what this comment describes, I can say that, while one should be able to rise above the disappointment of having to give up on the profession (in the same way e.g. a fine arts major should be able to get over not achieving their dream of being a successful artist), graduate departments also have the moral responsibility to try their best to make this potential disappointment plain as day well in advance, and also to do what they can to help their students avoid the future situation that causes the disappointment. I say all of this having gone to a Ph.D. department that did very little to help people understand what it takes to succeed on the TT job market, and much less, to develop the skill set to hit the ground running upon completing the degree. Quite frankly I would say that the faculty and leadership of my department were out of touch, lazy, and perhaps above all, too engaged in their own work to steward the professionalization of students. Not anyone’s fault per se – it just was the culture. Not to mention (cf. the comment of Some Person or Other, above) the case of prominent and influential faculty who are in a position to help one, but either can’t or won’t, for the reasons that are all too common. (I stayed in the professoriate long enough to comprehend that these are not isolated phenomena.) To be clear, I think a lot of these issues are things a 22 year-old simply cannot foresee, much less comprehend straight out of college, when they just want to continue their philosophy major and make it a career. Whereas, at least in my case, my department could really have done a lot more to help people understand what they were getting into and also, how to better one’s chances for success in academia upon finishing the degree. I tend to think these shortcomings are pretty common at the mid- and lower-tier departments and departments with poor placement.

What I am trying to argue is that if Ph.D. granting departments (esp. those outside the top 20-25) wish to continue i) operating under the guise of genuinely preparing students for an academic career and ii) admitting similar numbers of students as at present, then a genuine culture change might be in order. Students need to be helped to understand that an academic career is not the most likely outcome of earning the Ph.D. (esp. if not earned at a top department), and faculty need to do their part in better preparing students for the realities of entering the professoriate in its current form. I say this under the assumption that i) and ii) in fact represent the mindset of most departments at the moment; that is, I assume that most Ph.D. granting departments by and large do not anticipate a huge shift of their missions anytime soon. Report

Jim
Jim
4 years ago

As a current PhD student at a flagship state university, I thought I might add a bit of my own experience to this informative conversation. My academic career began when I decided to go to school after several gap years, in order to avoid being stuck in a dead end job. I attended my local community college, with the long term plan of eventually attending law school. I began as a pre-law major, but then found myself hooked on philosophy. Having been told that philosophy undergrads generally score pretty well on the LSATs, I decided to change my major to philosophy (or liberal arts, rather) in order to be able to spend my time as an undergrad studying something I found to be truly enjoyable. When I graduated with my A.A., I decided to transfer to a B.A., and began looking for schools. My criteria were simple: 1) the cost must be low (I had already realized that the payoff of a college education in many disciplines, especially the liberal arts, was risky) and 2) the school must have a philosophy major. I decided to attend a local liberal arts college because they offered me a full scholarship.

While working on my B.A., I was one of only about 3-6 philosophy majors on campus, and was advised by one of the three philosophy faculty members. During my time at this school, I became increasingly enamored of philosophy, and increasingly disillusioned with the career prospects of law, and I began to consider doing graduate study in philosophy. To my mind, both tracks had a fair amount of risk; on one hand, I might spend tens of thousands of dollars on a law degree, but with a cost of only several years, only to find myself either unemployed (the job prospects for lawyers were fairly low at this time) or to be taking care of traffic tickets and divorces when my interests were really in constitutional law. On the other hand, I might spend many years working on an MA and PhD in Philosophy, although at a significantly lesser cost (I had already decided to apply only to funded programs), and find myself either unemployed or adjuncting. My advisor was incredibly up front with me, giving me the talk about the realities of the philosophy job market, while at the same time assuring me that I would likely be successful in graduate work. However, to my mind, what I should do next was determined largely by a cost/benefit analysis. The experience of law school seemed to me like an instrumental good, at considerable financial cost, for a career either not very enjoyable but economically desirable, or no career at all. Graduate study in philosophy, however, seemed like something I would enjoy in itself, for a considerably lesser financial cost, for a career either very enjoyable but not economically desirable, or no career at all. To put it bluntly, I decided to pursue graduate study because I really liked studying philosophy, even if I couldn’t count on my degree turning into a job. I knew, and still know, that the chances of me landing a TT job are incredibly slim. But in the final analysis, I’ve been able to spend at least five years of my life doing something I really, really love doing. I’m not rich, and my stipends have been frugal, but I’m not sure that many of the people that I know can say that they’ve had the opportunity to get paid to do what they love. Financially, I might have made the unwise choice; maybe it would have been better to just stick with the law track (and given my low chances of full time philosophy employment, maybe that’s where I’ll end up anyway!). But personally, I am glad that the admissions committees that looked over my applications didn’t just brush me aside for my own perceived good, in order to protect me from the possibility of failure and joblessness.

All this to say, as a current PhD student with an MA, I never felt wronged, used, deceived, or cheated by being enabled to pursue graduate study in philosophy. Thanks to the honesty of my undergrad advisors -which I think is absolutely crucial- I knew from the start what I was getting into, and I made the choice that seemed the most valuable to me. Why should others not be allowed to do the same?Report

HvK
HvK
4 years ago

I would like to make two points. One is to add to Sergio’s list:

(7) graduate departments and individual faculty (through their research grants) should make every effort to secure adequate funding to their PhD students; by ‘adequate’ I mean at least an income comparable to an entry level job in university administration.

To my mind it makes sense that people make very little money while they are pursuing an education. You are poor while you learn, you make money while you use what you learned. When I first started graduate school, for example, I was puzzled why our union was making what struck me as outlandish demands in terms of funding and TA compensation. I was making just above poverty line and that seemed right to me, given that I wasn’t working – I was still in school. (There is a nice expression in German “Lehrjahre sind keine Herrenjahre”).

However, given the fact that most PhD students won’t end up in TT jobs, and given the further fact that many schools rely on those same students for much of their teaching needs, it seems unfair to treat PhD students as people who are getting an education they are later going to put to use to make money. It seems much more appropriate to think of them as temporary employees and they should be compensated accordingly. (I’m aware, of course, that adjuncts are not making any money either, but that’s its own scandal).

Secondly, regarding proper training for the job market:
As has already been pointed out, preparedness for the job market is a positional good. This doesn’t mean that departments have no obligation to (better) prepare their graduates for the market. But there is also the question whether the profession (rather than individual departments) might not have an obligation to curb what Derek Bowman aptly called the ‘credentialing arms race’.

Take for example the notion that one cannot get a job coming out of graduate school without publications (more or less). It seems to me that this will lead to longer PhD completion times. Instead of finishing their thesis, students will spend time trying to publish. As far as I can tell, many students are already having trouble to finish before their funding runs out. This will only get worse the more (students think that) publications are required for getting a job.

(incidentally there is a larger problem here: as publishing is one of the few measurable signs of productivity, many of us (not just jobseekers!) are thinking about research just in terms of publishable items – I’d say that this doesn’t appear to be leading to an era of bold and exciting new ideas but rather to a new era of scholasticism).

I have sometimes thought that perhaps leading journals should stop accepting submissions from graduate students. This would lessen the pressure to publish during one’s studies as nobody would have great publications coming out of graduate school. Hiring departments would have to rely on their own judgement as to whether a candidates work is up to snuff (rather than being able to rely on journal reviewers to do that job for them). And students would have a better chance to finish before funding runs out. (added benefit for the profession: fewer submissions to journals, and thus a chance for quicker turnarounds).

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JT
JT
Reply to  HvK
4 years ago

While I like your suggestion for journals to stop accepting work from graduate students in some ways, I worry that hiring departments will inevitably fall back on considerations like prestige, which would also be very bad. As it stands, things are bad enough. Students at top-10 departments are actively encouraged not to publish since that would worsen their chances on the market by taking the focus on their ‘potential’, which seems to me to be just shorthand for the fact that they come from a prestigious background, while students everywhere else are told that they will simply not land a job at all if they don’t already have at least a couple papers under their belt by the time they hit the market because the focus will then be on their lack of ‘potential’. In other words, those of us who were not so fortunate when we applied to grad programs have to make up for it by publishing. Take that away without fixing the idiotic ways the profession relies on prestige, and you’re simply taking away the one thing that may have helped us level the playing field to even that minimal degree.Report

Not just a philosopher
Not just a philosopher
4 years ago

I agree with Sergio’s open-ended list of criteria for avoiding defrauding incoming doctoral candidates, though the list could certainly be expanded. I would add two points:

(1) The prospect of defrauding incoming doctoral candidates is not unique to professional philosophy or the humanities: it is a growing issue in all professional fields, including everything from physics to engineering to history to law, though it excludes medicine and dentistry, where there are substantial labor controls in place to keep the supply of nationally-trained students below the number demanded. This general issue is constantly in the press:
http://www.npr.org/2013/03/10/173953052/are-there-too-many-phds-and-not-enough-jobs
http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/are-there-too-many-phds-turns-out-maybe-not-a-look-at-where-phds-end-up-after-leaving-the-ivory-tower
http://www.universityaffairs.ca/opinion/speculative-diction/phd-overproduction-is-not-new-and-faculty-retirements-wont-solve-it/
http://www.economist.com/node/17723223
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/25/opinion/too-many-law-students-too-few-legal-jobs.html?_r=0

(2) The real question is: suppose you come up with an operationalized way to avoid fraud, such as Sergio’s list; how do you know it is successful? Which benchmarks should a department use to gauge their success? The proportion of candidates getting TT jobs is one criterion, but it is imperfect, since many candidates will not even pursue academic careers in philosophy departments. Ezekiel Emmanuel got an MD/PhD (in philosophy) from Harvard but did not get a TT job in a philosophy department — did Harvard fail him? Surely not. Similarly, a JD/PhD who goes to work for Human Rights Watch has arguably not been let down by their department. IMHO, in addition to the TT-ratio, departments should also track the number of graduates who settle for post-docs; the number of jobs that their PhD candidates obtain that could have been done with just an MA; and, most important, the attrition rate, which suggests the rate of graduates who realize mid-stream that the department is not supporting them sufficiently. These measures apply to all fields and departments, not just philosophy. I’m sure other people have further suggestions.Report

Lisa
Lisa
4 years ago

I often work with Ph.D. students while consulting them about dissertation writing at http://phdify.com/ and must admit that not so many graduates continuing their scientific activities… Most graduates choose business, someone starts own business, someone get a job at the prestigious company, and some involved in freelance. And btw a lot go for an internship to some of Scandinavians countries and stay there.
In 21 century money talks and the world can suggest a lot of alternative profitable career options for Ph.D. graduates. And it is difficult to judge for it. Just check April job report http://www.businessinsider.com/jobs-report-april-2016-2016-5, May job report http://www.cnbc.com/2016/06/03/us-nonfarm-payrolls-may-2016.html and everything became pretty clearly.
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