The Transformative Experience of Graduate Study in Philosophy (guest post by L.A. Paul & John Quiggin)


“If a prospective student can’t, through no fault of their own, properly evaluate the disvalue of not getting a job, this changes the way we need to assign responsibility for the choice.”

Are there obstacles to rationally deciding whether to go to graduate school in philosophy. If so, what follows from that? These are the questions taken up in the following guest post* by L.A. Paul, professor of philosophy and cognitive science at Yale University, and John Quiggin, ARC Australian Laureate Fellow in the School of Economics at the University of Queensland.


Troika, “Squaring the Circle”

The Transformative Experience of Graduate Study in Philosophy
by L.A. Paul & John Quiggin

In a few months, thousands of students will be starting graduate school. For some, this will seem to be part of an obvious and natural progression. They’ll move naturally from undergraduate to graduate study, without much reflection or deliberation. For others, the choice is more fraught: the stakes are high, tenure track jobs are scarce, and the proposed PhD does not provide an obvious route to nonacademic employment. For those deciding on whether to do graduate work in philosophy, this is often the situation they find themselves in.

Imagine yourself as the student in question. How should you proceed? For an important decision like this, standard decision theory suggests an analysis based on expected utility theory, or one of its generalizations such as rank-dependent expected utility, also known as risk-weighted expected utility theory, explored by Quiggin 1982 and Buchak 2017.

To choose rationally, using standard decision theory, first, determine the set of (relevant) possible outcomes. Assume you know what you would do if you decided not to go to grad school in philosophy (call this outcome ~PhD). Also assume you know what you would do if you completed grad school but didn’t get a tenure track job (call this outcome ~J). Now, attach utilities to the three outcomes of special interest: u(~PhD), u(~J), and u(J), where J is getting a tenure track job—the preferred outcome.

If you decide not to go to graduate school, outcome ~PhD is certain. If you think you want to go, you have two possibilities left. If u(J) > u(~J) ≥ u(~PhD), that is, the utility of getting a PhD but not getting a tenure track job is higher than not getting the PhD, then the option of going to graduate school yields a preferred outcome with certainty, and so dominates. On the other hand, if u(J) > u(~PhD) > u(~J), you need to attach weights w(J) and w(~J) to the outcomes J and ~J. These may be either probabilities (a standard expected utility approach) or decision weights (as in generalized expected utility).  Assuming that the weights sum to one, the decision to attend grad school is optimal if and only if w(J)u(J)+ (1-w(J))u(~J) > u(~PhD).

However, all this rests on the assumption that the value of attending graduate school can be anticipated and evaluated. And, unfortunately, this assumption is questionable. Why? Because grad school can be transformative (Paul 2014). That is, you can’t fully anticipate the salient epistemic changes it involves until you undergo it, and your preferences can be changed by the process of epistemic transformation it involves. If so, then, before you go to grad school, at t1, when you are attempting to assess the utilities of the relevant end-of-grad-school outcomes at t2, your utility for outcome ~J (at t2) is not well defined. Thus, you can’t properly anticipate your future preferences.

Put in terms of our analysis, suppose when you decide, ex ante, at t1, to go to grad school, you prefer to get your philosophy PhD, regardless of the outcome: u(J) > u(~J) ≥ u(~PhD). You think it’s worth doing even if you don’t find a tenure track job when you finish. But by the time you’ve finished grad school, at t2, your preferences about the importance of finding that tenure track job have changed.  Now, ex post, at t2, you find that u(J) > u(~PhD) > u(~J): that is, now, getting the PhD and failing to find a tenure track job is worse than never going to grad school in the first place!

Our point is that this possibility needs to be recognized when advising prospective students on whether to get a PhD in philosophy (or more generally, when advising students whether to go to grad school in any field where employment prospects are dim). The crucial question is whether students can prospectively assess how much they’ll disvalue not getting that tenure track job when the training is done (or, put differently, how much they’ll disvalue the life they’ll find themselves living as an unsuccessful job candidate). An economist committed to the assumption of unbounded rationality would claim that of course students can assess their future preferences: just as in the case where a person chooses to take an addictive drug, these choices can be made in full knowledge of the changes in preferences they will induce (see, e.g., the theory of rational addiction, Becker and Murphy 1988).

We don’t find this claim convincing. In this case, we think it is plausible that, at t1, students lack the ability to imaginatively project themselves into their future job-candidate “shoes” in the way they’d need to in order to properly assess the disvalue, at t2, of failing to find a tenure track job.

This is, again, because the process of becoming an academic can be transformative: your future utilities for failing to get a tenure track job cannot be properly assessed until you’ve actually become an academic.* If a prospective student can’t, through no fault of their own, properly evaluate the disvalue of not getting a job, this changes the way we need to assign responsibility for the choice. In particular, graduate schools have more responsibility to mitigate the possibility of adverse results, for example, by providing an education that lives up to the claim of being useful and desirable outside the academy as well as within it.

*We observe that the issues described above are not relevant to all students. Some may not find the process transformative. Others will push on the academic path as long as they can, regardless of any evaluation of the consequences. And for some (Botts et al 2014) the issues involved in the choice of whether to go to grad school may be quite different.

References
Becker, G.S. and Murphy, K.M. (1988), ‘A Theory of Rational Addiction’, Journal of Political Economy, 96(4), 675–700.
Botts, T., Kofi Bright, L., Cherry, M., Mallarangeng, G., and Spencer, Q. (2014), ‘What Is the State of Blacks in Philosophy’, Critical Philosophy of Race, 2, 224-242.
Buchak, L. (2017) Risk and Rationality, Oxford University Press, USA.
Paul, L. (2014) Transformative Experience, Oxford UK.
Quiggin, J. (1982), ‘A Theory of Anticipated Utility’, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 3, 323–43.

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Shay Allen Logan
1 year ago

Whooooaaaaa that circle thing is wild. Report

Tom
Tom
Reply to  Shay Allen Logan
1 year ago

Maybe I’m just becoming bitter in my old age, but the entire use of symbolic logic strikes me as (a) completely unnecessary and (b) obnoxiously pretentious. Report

Shay Allen Logan
Reply to  Tom
1 year ago

I can’t tell if this is supposed to be an attack on me personally as a logician or if it’s a complaint about the use of formalism in the article that got put in the wrong place.

Either way, I stand by my initial claim. Report

mrmister
mrmister
1 year ago

I don’t think that the appeal to transformative experience is either necessary or helpful here. Better preparation for alt-ac jobs would make students less miserable, programs more desirable, and would connect human capital to areas of the economy that could use it. As far as I can tell, everyone agrees about the desirability of this but no one knows how to effectively change the situation.Report

driftinCowboy
driftinCowboy
1 year ago

After the PhD, I find it hard to evaluate the utility of not having got the PhD. After all, I have no idea what my life would have been like had I decided to do something else, and it’s hard to remember what it’s like not being competent in philosophy. If I could not have compared u(~PhD) and u(~J) before hand, I also can’t make that comparison now. I’m not sure if this solves the problem or exacerbates it.Report

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Reply to  driftinCowboy
1 year ago

Along these lines, I wonder what Paul and Quiggin think about, for example, the ratings I have collected from past graduates (see, e.g., http://placementdata.com:8182/tag/programs/ and look for “program rating”). In my view, knowing what a recent graduate thinks about a specific PhD program can help with these concerns, since those graduates can see more clearly what the job market is like. You could think, “sure, but I won’t be like that,” but that seems irrational. For Paul and Quiggin: are the cases symmetrical, as driftinCowboy suggests?Report

L.A. Paul
Reply to  Carolyn Dicey Jennings
1 year ago

Testimony and empirical results can certainly help! But if the problem is that the student doesn’t appreciate how much they’d disvalue not getting a job after they’ve finished grad school, then, at t1 (when they are making their decision) they will not properly appreciate the significance of your results for their own case.Report

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Reply to  L.A. Paul
1 year ago

That makes sense. I was thinking about it slightly differently, following driftingCowboy’s comment. It seems to me that the cases are not symmetrical. That is, someone projecting may not be able to put themselves in the frame of their new knowledge, but someone in the frame of their new knowledge can project backwards to their earlier frame (hopefully this wording makes sense). If that is the case, if it is not symmetrical, then it may be that the person projecting realizes those who have been through graduate school will be able to do this, and will be able to give advice from that perspective. Something like, “I know that you are really hopeful for the future and really excited about philosophy, and that’s great, I was too, but in my view this experience is not to be recommended, even with that hope” vs. “I know that you are really scared about getting an academic job and losing out on potential earnings, I was too, but in my view this experience is so valuable that the risk is worth it.” In that case, given the fact of strong shared interests, it makes sense to me to accept this advice, in the form of cumulative ratings. I am not sure how the prospective student might integrate it into her decision making, or how to model that. But I just wondered if you (and Quiggin) thought the cases were asymmetrical, and whether the person can take account of that in her decision making. Report

L.A. Paul
Reply to  Carolyn Dicey Jennings
1 year ago

I do think that, in many cases, people can look back to their past selves, and there is a sense in which they can remember what it was like to be them. But I think what you are really suggesting is that given the TE problem, people should simply rely on the data from others when they are choosing. I am sympathetic to this response but there are a bunch of issues that come up about reference class, average values, and assessing the counterfactuals that complicate the issue. if you are interested see my 2016 paper in Nous with Kieran Healy: https://www.lapaul.org/papers/t-treat.pdfReport

Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Carolyn Dicey Jennings
Reply to  L.A. Paul
1 year ago

Cool, thanks!Report

Jon Light
Jon Light
1 year ago

Sure, but *anything* can be transformative. I don’t know why academia would be particularly privileged here. Suppose I’m trying to figure out whether to go to graduate school or else get a stable job and raise a family. And then I figure out how to weight all that (…), and give then “add in” the transformativeness of graduate school. That obviously just ignores that something else could have been transformative, or even more so.

Second, it’s not like all transformativeness is even good. Academia can be “negatively transforming” in all sorts of ways, ranging from toxic social media to lack of family-friendly scheduling to comparatively low pay, to all sorts of other things that have the potential to weigh on us so heavily. (To say nothing of students messing up your/you’re for 30 years and the associated futility of supervising that travesty.) .

In other words: (1) it’s not clear anything special is picked out here; and (2) even if it were, it’s not clear that’s a good thing. Report

Transformer
Transformer
Reply to  Jon Light
1 year ago

… who’s arguing that something’s being transformative is a good thing, though? I don’t see where or how this piece argues that students ought to go to grad school because the experience is transformative; the argument seems to be about the decision-making process and how we should evaluate the epistemology of it. If anything, the piece settles exactly on your second ‘objection’ in the conclusion:

“If a prospective student can’t, through no fault of their own, properly evaluate the disvalue of not getting a job, this changes the way we need to assign responsibility for the choice. In particular, graduate schools have more responsibility to mitigate the possibility of adverse results, for example, by providing an education that lives up to the claim of being useful and desirable outside the academy as well as within it.”

As to your first point, I guess what distinguishes a transformative experience from any new experience isn’t fleshed out here, but Professor Paul’s earlier work does quite a bit to make the distinction (Paul, 2014).Report

Chris Sistare
Chris Sistare
Reply to  Jon Light
1 year ago

My father once said t0 me after my praise of a new boyfriend, “Corpses are interesting.”Report

Holly Martins
Holly Martins
1 year ago

I think that this is a plausible hypothesis. Still, it’s my hunch that a person with the intelligence and discipline necessary to obtain admission into a philosophy PhD program will be just fine whether they decide to go or not. If they go and can’t get a job, they will have more than enough of the tools they need to move into another career with just a little effort. In some cases, they might have to do a bit more school, but unless they are particular prone to melodrama, I think that most adjusted people will to be able to flourish outside academia, even if they struggle with the blow of not realizing Plan-A. My point is only that we shouldn’t overstate the significance of not being able to do *exactly* what you want to do with your life. That’s what most of life is like, and most people can deal with it just fine. Report

driftinCowboy
driftinCowboy
Reply to  Holly Martins
1 year ago

“they will have more than enough of the tools they need to move into another career with just a little effort.”

This strikes me as underestimating the difficulty of moving into another career. What kind of alternative careers do you have in mind?Report

Holly Martins
Holly Martins
Reply to  driftinCowboy
1 year ago

Perhaps it does, but I don’t think that it does. Indeed, I think that people exaggerate the difficulty of transitioning into another career. We’re talking, after all, about very bright people. Of course there are some careers that won’t be so easy, but one could get a PhD in philosophy, struggle to find a job, then decide to become a software engineer. After a year or so of dedicating oneself to this goal, they’d be able to get a job, and after a few years in the field they’d be rewareded quite handsomely. That’s just one example. Of course, some careers will require more training than others, but it just seems to me that it isn’t as big of a deal as one might think to do a bit of training in another field and then get a job in that field—assuming, as we are, that one is already very bright and good at school. Report

driftinCowboy
driftinCowboy
Reply to  Holly Martins
1 year ago

I see. This also assumes that one has the time and resources necessary to dedicate oneself to extra curricular training for a year or so. If you finish grad school with kids, no money, and no job, the obstacle isn’t going to be intelligence or effort but time and resources. Without the time and resources to make the change, you can be really screwed, with no clear way forward.Report

Holly Martins
Holly Martins
Reply to  driftinCowboy
1 year ago

That’s certainly true. I don’t mean to make it sound completely trivial, and of course having a family certainly complicates things. You describe the most difficult scenario, and one that is fairly uncommon. Most grad students don’t have families. Still, if one can spend five years living on 20k with no time for anything else but school work, it seems to me that one can probably manage another year or two doing something that holds promise of some financial reward, even with a family. Report

postdoc
postdoc
Reply to  Holly Martins
1 year ago

‘Of course there are some careers that won’t be so easy, but one could get a PhD in philosophy, struggle to find a job, then decide to become a software engineer. After a year or so of dedicating oneself to this goal, they’d be able to get a job, and after a few years in the field they’d be rewareded quite handsomely. That’s just one example.’

I’ve been told by people who work in the industry that this is simply not realistic. Expect at least 2-3 years of training and a year or interning before you can get a job as a software engineer. If you already have programming experience this will of course be easier but many wont have this experience.

It is of course possible to transition into another career post PhD, but it won’t be easy for many, especially if you don’t know the relevant people in those fields.

If you’re distraught and depressed and stressed out from trying to get an academic job, your prospects of successfully transitioning to another field will be even worse.

I guess there are lots of different kinds of people out there. Some have butt loads of self-esteem, know tons of people, and are very smart. I’m sure these people will manage to transition and be fine almost no matter what.

However, if you’ve spent the last 5-10 years in philosophy, moving all around the country or world, you may find that you know almost know one by the time you’re done. And you may find that you’re too exhausted to try something new or just don’t have the confidence. Report

Holly Martins
Holly Martins
Reply to  postdoc
1 year ago

That’s a fair point, but I also work as a software engineer, and can tell you that it’s quite common for people to become engineers after six months or a year of code school. Their first job isn’t always lucrative, but they will have their foot in the door and many can and do flourish in their careers. But even if we suppose that someone might have to spend a couple of years in the pursuit of some other career, my contention is that this not only not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, but also quite possible for most folks who leave grad school with a PhD in philosophy. It’s also something that people should not be shocked at having to do if they’ve decided to get a PhD in philosophy with the knowledge that they will very likely not get a job. One should be careful to take my point charitably. I’m certainly not saying that everyone who finishes grad school with a PhD will very quickly get a great job. My point is that most young people talented enough—and with enough freedom—to get a PhD in philosophy will end up finding contentment in some other career if they are willing to put in bit of effort and time toward that end, and given enough time, they might look back fondly of their opportunity to get a PhD in a field they love. But of course that won’t be true of everyone, and some will have a harder go than others. Report

postdoc
postdoc
Reply to  Holly Martins
1 year ago

I know you have good intentions but you make it sound as if you can transition into a software engineer job easily after 6 months of some boot camp. That’s not what I’ve been told by people who I know who work in the industry. Maybe that’s true for people who already have a lot of programming experience or who are naturally disposed to pick up programming easily.

However, grad students shouldn’t think ‘oh if the PhD doesn’t work out I can learn programming and get a job programming within 1 year and all will be fine.’ Transitioning out of academia with no relevant work experience and likely very few relevant connections isn’t easy and can take years for many people.

Sure having a positive attitude and working hard can go a long way and many will make it work. But the opportunity cost of the PhD is insane. And many won’t have a positive attitude and much of a work ethic left if they’ve failed in their career of choice. This objective rational attitude that PhDs are supposed to have towards failing to get an academic job doesn’t strike me as a realistic way of understanding humans.Report

Holly Martins
Holly Martins
Reply to  postdoc
1 year ago

I do have good intentions, and as stated, I’ve worked as an engineer for over a decade, and I work with many people who have become engineers after code school. You don’t have to take my word for it, I suppose, and can continue to believe your friends who work in the field, but I can tell you that their account isn’t quite accurate. You won’t go work at google on cutting edge stuff after six months in code school, but you can get a foot in the door and go from there. But that’s all I’m saying on the matter. My larger point is that most people with PhDs in philosophy will be able to find a good gig and some peace and happiness whether they become tenured professors or have to do something else. Life is long, and there is plenty of time for most people talented enough to get a PhD in philosophy to transition into another career. Pretty much everyone I know works in a field that they didn’t anticipate working in, and most had to switch gears at various points in their life. It’s a pretty normal part of life for many people. Report

non-leiterific grad student
non-leiterific grad student
Reply to  postdoc
1 year ago

Holly: your point about switching gears is well taken. Many working-class folks experience career destabilization; philosophers aren’t special in that regard. However, I do wonder whether code school is the answer for folks with student loan debt and dissertation fatigue. These camps can be very expensive, and as they’ve grown in popularity, their reputational value is perhaps more questionable now than it was 10 years ago. Just something to consider. Report

driftinCowboy
driftinCowboy
Reply to  Holly Martins
1 year ago

Holly: Over the last year I’ve spent after hours learning the MERN stack, plus a bit of JAVA and Python. Are you currently in a position to hire someone talented enough to get a PhD in philosophy? If so, can we chat? I’m real smart. Report

Holly Martins
Holly Martins
Reply to  driftinCowboy
1 year ago

I assume you’re joking, but I actually am in that sort of position, for what it’s worth. I’d encourage you to look for entry level jobs and apply to them after building up a healthy git repo that showcases some of your stuff.. Report

postdoc
postdoc
Reply to  driftinCowboy
1 year ago

driftinCoyboy: be sure to mention that you’re really smart in your applications. Report

lauren
lauren
Reply to  driftinCowboy
1 year ago

Someone who can show competency with logic might have a better shot than average–my graduate logic course, according to my father (now a computer system engineer) was pretty similar to a master’s level math course that many future computer engineers took. Still, I’m not convinced it’s that easy. My spouse has been on hiring committees in IT, and the kind of technical skills necessary to get higher-level (i.e., well-paid) computer engineer jobs is difficult, and not just something that most people can crank out in 6 months or a year. (Yes, I understand that philosophy grads aren’t “most people”–but isn’t the assumption that we aren’t “most people” why many of us kept going in academia anyway?).Report

non-leiterific grad student
non-leiterific grad student
Reply to  Holly Martins
1 year ago

Holly – I recently struck out on the academic job market, and not for lack of effort (3 solo pubs, 1 top ten, etc.). I’ve been actively seeking non-academic job market for a while now, and I’ve done a fair bit of prep for that market (learning how to code for data analysis, etc.). I can say with some confidence that the road to gainful non-academic employment, while not as grueling as the academic market, is still difficult and painful. (And I don’t think I’m being maudlin.)

Part of the difficulty is that grad students come out with a PhD whose worth not all employers recognize. (It’s not an MBA, after all.) Also, grad students who enroll directly out of undergrad likely have no work experience outside the academy. That’s not to say getting an intellectually satisfying, decently paying non-academic job right out of grad school is impossible—I do have interviews, which is more than most budding academics can say—but it’s far from easy. Despite being a bright person, recruiters aren’t begging me to bring my philosophical talents to the business world. The vast majority of my applications are met with either silence or rejection. The most effective job strategy consists in cold calling strangers and arranging informational interviews. That I’m in this position is not the worst thing in the world, but it’s a significant cost of pursuing a PhD. Grad students should know going in that their employment problems don’t end the minute the settle on a “Plan B”. Getting a non-academic job—even one for which PhDs are vastly overqualified—requires equal doses of scrappiness and humility. Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  non-leiterific grad student
1 year ago

“That’s not to say getting an intellectually satisfying, decently paying non-academic job right out of grad school is impossible—I do have interviews, which is more than most budding academics can say—but it’s far from easy. Despite being a bright person, recruiters aren’t begging me to bring my philosophical talents to the business world. The vast majority of my applications are met with either silence or rejection. The most effective job strategy consists in cold calling strangers and arranging informational interviews. That I’m in this position is not the worst thing in the world, but it’s a significant cost of pursuing a PhD.”

It’s not entirely clear to me how this is a cost of pursuing a PhD. What would be the relevant difference for someone who chose to engage in this process instead of the PhD, rather than after the PhD? I can see that there would be an age difference, and thus possibly some life-stage differences, and perhaps additional ageism in the application process (perhaps employers look better on a 23-year-old with six months of coding experience than on a 29-year-old with six months of coding experience?) But the features you describe sound like features that would be present with or without the PhD, so it doesn’t seem fair to count them as costs of the PhD.

I suppose the one way they might count as costs of the PhD is if the PhD is transformative, in making people hate these features the way a kid straight out of college wouldn’t?Report

non-leiterific grad student
non-leiterific grad student
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
1 year ago

Good questions. I do think age has a role to play, though I don’t think it’s ageism per se. Philosophy PhDs are in an unusual position. Hiring managers think you’re smart, and they assume that, if a fresh-faced 22-year-old can do the job they’re advertising, it’s probably beneath you. (I’m speculating here, but it seems to me a plausible story, given how little luck I’ve had applying for entry-level jobs.) But if all your work experience is in academia, you’re probably not qualified for mid-level positions, many of which require 10+ years of experience. So for most non-academic positions, you’re either overqualified or underqualified. Since hiring managers appear to be conservative, on the whole, this creates a significant barrier to entry.

And then there’s the dreaded interview question: why are you leaving academia? As others have noted, it’s a tough question to answer, especially if failing to secure TT employment is what ultimately drove you from the field. If you’re not an academic, it’s natural to assume that, if you can’t get a job in the field you spent six years training for, that might be because you’re incompetent, you’re a space cadet, you’re a difficult person, etc. It’s an impression management problem, and while it’s not impossible to overcome, it’s something grad students should keep in mind.Report

non-leiterific grad student
non-leiterific grad student
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
1 year ago

I’ll add one more thing for the benefit of my grad student colleagues: the start-up market is your friend. But please don’t apply for the jobs I want. 🙂Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
Reply to  non-leiterific grad student
1 year ago

Most people don’t get an intellectually satisfying and decently paying job right out of underground either. You do something entry-level and build skills, then get a better job after a period of time. Unfortunately, the cost of grad school in this case is that you are several years behind your contemporaries, and thus are an older entry-level employee (which can be good or bad depending on the employer). Not delaying it any further is one reason why people should leave academia as soon as they don’t secure a full-time position or postdoc. Whiling away the years as an adjunct is just going to put you further behind.

As far as the transformative experience, I would wonder which is more emotionally healthy: having your dream of being a professional philosopher crushed after spending years in grad school, or never going to grad school and doing something else and carrying the “what might have been” around with you the rest of your life. Report

non-leiterific grad student
non-leiterific grad student
Reply to  Urstoff
1 year ago

I second all of this, with the proviso that, if you’re happy adjuncting, you don’t have a family, and you don’t really care about financial stability, you shouldn’t feel bad about continuing to adjunct. (I, however, do not satisfy these conditions!)Report

Urstoff
Urstoff
Reply to  non-leiterific grad student
1 year ago

Definitely agreed.Report

Struggling Alt-Ac
Struggling Alt-Ac
Reply to  Holly Martins
1 year ago

As someone who is now five years out from a decent PhD program, and still struggling massively to find an alternative career (and is not, by the way, “prone to melodrama”) … Ouch. Report

Celina Durgin
Celina Durgin
Reply to  Holly Martins
1 year ago

I recently left a philosophy PhD program after two years (I did receive my M.A.). Luckily, I had some college internships and a year of post-undergrad work experience on my resume that helped me find a job as an editor within about four months of job searching (while I was still in school). My experience grading papers as a graduate TA was also valuable, but I agree with others here that most employers don’t seem to care about the degree itself—and why should they? There is a cultural ignorance about the value of philosophy and the skills required to succeed in the field. That’s not to say that philosophy or philosophers are somehow generally superior, but it is to say that philosophy is generally undervalued, and that’s a bit of a handicap.

Both the professors in my department and the professionals in the career center seemed to emphasize the effort required by grad students (especially in the humanities) to make themselves marketable for non-academic jobs. We can’t rest on our laurels, unfortunately! And there’s the additional handicap of being a few years behind our peers professionally, with less money/savings to supports us while we try to acquire additional marketable skills if academia doesn’t work out.

My department started hosting more talks about non-academic jobs for philosophers over the course of my two years there. I think it behooves philosophy departments to develop a program or strategy for students to prepare for non-academic jobs *while in grad school*, whether or not they plan to try their luck on the academic job market. This idea has already been mentioned in the comments. And yes, the problem is to actually *create* such a program, but I don’t think doing so is impossible or even deeply mysterious.

First, employ someone to help philosophy grad students find their alternative non-academic career interests and learn systematically to market their academic and philosophical skills as transferrable and relevant. (Such an employee could support all humanities grad students in this regard.) Second, create an environment and opportunities for grad students to pursue non-academic job skills alongside their studies. Those are my general suggestions!Report

Jim
Jim
1 year ago

I’ve approached grad school kind of like a several-years-long temp job where I get paid to do exactly what I like. Like all temp jobs, there is the hope that one will transition into a full time position, but, as this is very far from assured, I tend to focus more on enjoying the time I get to do what I like, rather than fretting too much about my future prospects. If I someday get into the tenure track, this would be a dream come true, but it’s not a dream I’m particularly dependent on. Report

Celina
Celina
Reply to  Jim
1 year ago

I think this is the best attitude to have in philosophy grad school. Good for you!Report

David
David
Reply to  Celina
1 year ago

I think the worry here is that this is what, in part, gives rise to white male dominated academic philosophy. Only the privileged can really take the chance of not fretting about future prospects.Report

Celina
Celina
Reply to  David
1 year ago

I’m lucky in a variety of ways (esp. being from an intact, middle-class family who loves me deeply). However, I still needed to get a job immediately after finishing grad school. My savings from my grad student stipend were relatively scant, and I had no hope of falling back on a trust fund or something — the same went for all of my grad school colleagues, whether white and male, or otherwise. Anyone who makes it into philosophy grad school has what it takes to find a job that earns them a living. The issue, I believe, is to hold the opportunity of grad school lightly enough that you can enjoy it intrinsically while accepting the reality that there simply isn’t enough demand for philosophy professors to meet the supply, and planning accordingly, far enough in advance.Report

David
David
Reply to  Celina
1 year ago

I don’t think we disagree. I’m not talking about the 1%. You and I, and most of your philosophy graduate school friends and most of my philosophy graduate school friends, come from an upper middle class background, and we’re all quite privileged. I too needed to find a job quickly after leaving grad school. But if I didn’t, my family could help out for a while, and, importantly, my family didn’t depend on me helping them out. In fact, they did help me out by paying for some classes that would help me retrain. That’s about how it is for most of our grad school colleagues. Report

Celina
Celina
Reply to  David
1 year ago

I thought our first two comments in this thread conflicted insofar as I expressed a positive view of Jim’s attitude and you seemed to express a more negative view (unless I misunderstood you). The intent of my original comment was to praise what I thought was the most realistic attitude one could have given the realities of philosophy grad school — or really, any grad program that doesn’t funnel people directly into a well-compensated, in-demand profession. Actually, ranked philosophy grad departments probably have an advantage over other humanities departments because they tend to cover tuition and pay a cost-of-living-adjusted stipend — again, not enough to support a family of five, but enough for a single person or to supplement a two-income household.

Indeed, I’m not sure philosophy is different in this respect from a career in painting, dance, or some other highly competitive, uncertain field.Report

Celina
Celina
Reply to  David
1 year ago

Oh, and FWIW (not much probably), I technically came from a middle-class family, not an upper-middle-class family (just a small correction to your last comment). I’m also Hispanic and female. Again, I think if there’s a single thing that has given me the greatest advantage, it was my loving, intact, supportive family.Report

Celina
Celina
Reply to  Celina
1 year ago

The irony here is that my being a Hispanic woman is what was largely responsible for getting me a fancier, higher-paying grad fellowship.Report

Megan Fritts
Megan Fritts
1 year ago

Two things: the first (which has already been said) is that I’m not sure if this argument requires an appeal to transformative experience. There is, of course, and huge problem with assessing how much we will disvalie unemployment or non-academic employment 5-7 years from now, as so many life changes can happen in that time span (getting married, having children, losing a relative, getting a divorce, the economy collapsing, etc). So the general epistemic problem for assigning unemployment a disutility value does not seem dependent on grad school being a transformative experience. But maybe I missed something?

Second, I do agree that we have a responsibility to care about this issue for grad students; I think something needs to be done to prepare students for the potential letdown of not getting a job. What I think should be done is, since the job market is so bad no matter what, stop making every effort to turn academic philosophy into an industry, and grad students into factory workers, and give them something to live for. As Viktor Frankl beautifully put it, “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning[.]” instead of asking grad students if going to grad school will make them happy, or if nothing else besides will make them happy, ask them if they have something to contribute to the history of ideas, or if they WANT to contribute to this history. This won’t make them more likely to be employed. But I think this mindset will lighten the burden of the difficulty of finding employment, and bring joy to the lives of those who do not attain academic employment.Report

BLS Nelson
Reply to  Megan Fritts
1 year ago

This seems right to me. The point of grad school was to pursue a research and writing project that would contribute to a meaningful life. I have found great strength in Viktor Frankl’s logocentrism, too.

That said, Frankl was more a Stoic than a masochist! He doesn’t advise anyone to pursue avoidable suffering just to find some meaningful consolations. So, both the ‘happiness question’ and the ‘meaning question’ should be on the table from the start, it seems.Report

Grad School Dropout
Grad School Dropout
1 year ago

Just to echo and expand on what Jon Light said above:

The transformation associated with grad school might actually be rather negative, though I strongly suspect this will depend on the specific program. In terms of social development, the program where I earned my MA was great — lots of informal time spent at the pub, often talking about things outside of philosophy in a very fun, casual way. The program where I worked toward a Ph.D., on the other hand, was filled with people who would find it very difficult to be perceived positively in a social context without other academics. To be blunt, most of the people were really rather snotty and pretentious. From derogatory comments about various groups (military personnel, non-academics, non-marxists, people who live in the Midwest or rural areas, Christians, etc.) to a seemingly contagious, highly exaggerated sense of self-importance, they were really no fun to be around and for people to learn that sort of behavior is really a travesty, especially if one doesn’t have a lifelong academic career.

That sort of social transformation (which I suspect is rather common), as well as less obnoxious transformations (such as spending increasingly unhealthy amounts of time sitting in front of a computer or — and I say this as someone who recognizes the value of reading — reading one’s life away), shouldn’t be discounted or disregarded. Such transformations really aren’t all that great, to say the least.

More innocuously, I know of several academics (ones I like an awful lot and whom I’m still friends with and see regularly) who, though not at all egregious in their behaviour like the aforementioned, are still pretty bad at socializing with “regular people” (non-academics). They’re not snotty or anything like that, but they’re ostensibly more or less uninterested in talking with non-academics (as if there’s nothing to talk about with them, or little of interest that they might say) and/or simply lacking the specific type of social skills to fluidly and enjoyable engage with “regular people.”Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
1 year ago

The main thing I struggle with here and with TE more generally is why think “fully anticipating salient epistemic change” is what rationality requires?Report

L.A. Paul
Reply to  Wesley Buckwalter
1 year ago

It doesn’t. There are two central ideas in TE. 1. Your utility function can go undefined for certain values, where those values are for outcomes that are important (salient) to you and the decision problem you are facing. If so, you can’t choose in a way that maximizes your expected value under that way of framing the decision. 2. The TE process involves endogenous preference change of a particularly interesting sort, one that can flip preferences from P to ~P. Combined with the lack of epistemic transparency involved, this has implications for how we think about our lives.Report

Wesley Buckwalter
Wesley Buckwalter
Reply to  L.A. Paul
1 year ago

Many thanks for clarifying. Perhaps I am misunderstanding things. I thought one implication for how we think about our lives was supposed to be that if you can’t project yourself because of transformation, then you can’t properly assess the disvalue of grad school, and thus this is an obstacle to rationally deciding things like going or not going to grad school. What I struggle with is why either proper assessment or rationally deciding requires either of those things. Report

L.A. Paul
Reply to  Wesley Buckwalter
1 year ago

The part I’m objecting to is the last sentence: “requires” is too strong. I don’t think rationality requires this particular way of making the model-based decision. How you should decide depends on what you care about and how you frame your choice. That’s why we emphasize salience and importance with regard to the outcomes specified in the model. For example, if you don’t care about the nature of your post-grad-school future lived experience, you could choose rationally based on a coin flip (if that way of setting up the decision problem fitted the details of your situation). It’s when the value of the future lived experience matters to you and is also inaccessible that the (first part of the) problem arises. That’s also why the * note was added: some people simply don’t care about making the decision in the way we’ve framed it. Is this a helpful reply?Report

John Protevi
John Protevi
1 year ago

I’d like to thank L A Paul and John Quiggin for this. As an addendum, when they write

“In particular, graduate schools have more responsibility to mitigate the possibility of adverse results, for example, by providing an education that lives up to the claim of being useful and desirable outside the academy as well as within it”

I’d like to add that the willingness of a program to accommodate this wish should be a factor in students’ decisions.

The way I put it in advising students is this:

“You should factor in the willingness of programs to allow graduate minors and / or supplemental MA or MS degrees into your decision-making. You should also develop a ‘public concern content area speciality.’ What I mean by that is that you should try as much as possible to develop your expertise in a content area that could conceivably be of interest to business, government, and NGO employers, and try as much as possible to use this area in your course work and dissertation.

For instance, if you are interested in pursuing a philosophy of science program, you might want to target as much of your work as possible on, say, climate change. Your metaphysics course term papers might look at whether or not grounding holds with regard to climate; your epistemology course term papers might look at various questions about modeling; your ethics and political philosophy course term papers might look at various proposals at climate change mitigation, and so on.

Mutatis mutandis, you could specialize in health care issues should you be looking at a social and political philosophy program, or in a more granular fashion at differences in health care access and outcomes for different social groups.

These are just examples; you have to pick what works for you. The important thing, in my opinion, is that you find a program that allows, or we can hope encourages, you to enter and conduct your course of study, within reason, with such a content area specialization.

Then with regard to how you handle your expectations: I think you should put academic jobs as your Plan B, not your Plan A. Aim at non-academic jobs congruent with your ‘public concern content area,’ and then, when the time comes to apply for jobs, *if* there seem to be some good academic ones you might like, then sure, you should apply for them. But *they* should be your ‘fallback’ option, not your primary aim. Make this strategy as clear as possible to programs as you apply and interview with them, and if they resist, then you might need to take that into account in deciding whether or not you want to attend them.” Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
1 year ago

Paul and Quiggin’s article seems to presuppose that the transformative experience that gets you so addicted to philosophy that a non-philosophical career will come to seem like a deeply disvalued option does not occur until you start graduate school . Perhaps I am unusual but it wasn’t that way with me. I decided towards the end my first term as an undergraduate that I loved philosophy and that if I possibly could I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing it. Anything else would be third or fourth best (though of course if things did not work out I would have tried to like the life I was living even if I could not have lived the life I would have liked) My time as a doctoral student changed me in various ways but it did not change my feelings about philosophy or my ambition to become a professional philosopher. Of course it might have been otherwise if I had been to the kind of school that Graduate School Dropout complains of but I was fortunate enough to study in a department full of people who were not only good philosophers but decent, approachable and sociable human beings into the bargain. So for me there was no negative experience to counteract my undergraduate transformation into a philosophy addict.

So guess my question to other contributors is this: when (if ever) did you experience the kind of transformative experience which led you to disvalue anything other than philosophy as a career? As an undergraduate? As an MA student? As PhD student? Never? If my case is common then their article is not as relevant to advising possible PHD candidates as perhaps they take it to be. Report

upstate
upstate
Reply to  Charles Pigden
1 year ago

I can’t speak for everyone, but I took Paul and Quiggin’s TE thesis w.r.t. the relevant transformations to be fairly wide-ranging. In my case, the relevant TE wasn’t so much about what I loved and wanted to spend the rest of my life doing or not doing. Rather, it was about the shame and despair attached to job-market failure. I’m not quite sure how to articulate that transformation. Here’s a poor attempt: I’ve heard that some parents, upon becoming parents, come to realize in a way they never before could just how devastating losing their child would be; grad school was like that, but for philosophy. As for when.. I’d say it happened during my 4th and 5th years, where I ceased to conceive of myself as a mere student of philosophy.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
Reply to  upstate
1 year ago

Well upstate, I get the concept of a transformative experience. My puzzle is why *graduate school* should be a transformative experience and in particular why it should be a transformative experience in the way that you suggest. Since presumably you would not have signed up to PHD program in the first place unless you were at least *hoping* for a philosophical career, why should going to graduate school make you significantly *more* averse to not having one? I ask because so far as I remember, it did not have that effect on me. Perhaps the answer is this. Some people enter graduate school with the idea that they *might* like to become a professional philosopher, discover that they really love the life and consequently become markedly more averse to not realising that ambition. Others such as myself embark on a PhD with a strong commitment to that goal *before they begin* For these people the experience is not particularly transformative. I was not more averse to not being a professional philosopher at the end of my my PhD than I was a the beginning.
Paul and Quiggins seem to think that most aspiring philosophers fall into the first category. I suspect (and of course this is only a suspicion) that at least a significant minority fall into the second.
Also I don’t quite get the shame thing. Why is it shameful not to achieve this ambition when it surely even more obvious now than it was to me in the seventies and eighties, that embarking on a course of study with the goal of becoming a professional philosopher is, to put it mildly, a high risk strategy. There is no shame in failing to achieve such a very difficult ambition, especially as there is such a large element of luck in most people’s successes. Report