Going To Grad School Despite the Odds


“When you, as an undergrad, were told, repeatedly, that the odds of securing a good job in academia were long but you decided to roll the dice anyway, how did you rationalize the decision? What did you tell yourself? Be honest.”

Nicholas Laskowski, an assistant professor of philosophy at CSU Long Beach, recently asked that question on Twitter. Nearly 800 people replied.

Here’s his answer:

I’ll start: The short answer is that I was young and I didn’t expect to care about (still) being broke in my 30s. A slightly longer answer is that I also thought that the top marks I had received from the top dept I happened to attend (because it was down the road from where I grew up & cheap) meant that I would buck the odds. Side note, profs: this is part of why grade inflation is bad.The longer answer touches on issues involving class, punk, anarchism, idealism, immaturity, luck, break ups, and so on. But that’s a story better told in person over a round of ferraris. Your turn.

And then later:

Wow. I woke up to hundreds of heartfelt responses so far. Thanks for sharing, everyone. One thing that comes through the responses is an upending of the stereotype that it’s mostly trust fund ivy kids choosing to roll the dice. Loads of ppl, myself included, viewed, perhaps mistakenly, being paid 20k+/yr for ~6 yrs as financially better than salient alternatives. 

Here’s a sampling of some of the responses:

You can read more answers on Twitter.

What about you?

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newly tt
newly tt
2 months ago

As an undergrad, I was also not told the odds were long. I was told it was difficult – but that’s different. So, I didn’t rationalize it then, because I didn’t know enough about the situation to rationalize anything!

My first year of grad school, I was told again that it was difficult and would take a long time. But they said something like, “it will take you five years to get a permanent job, but if you put in the five years you will probably get a job. It’s also okay to do something else.” This was ten years ago. At that point, I was really excited to be studying philosophy!

I did put in the five years and I am TT now. But I think by my second year of grad school it was apparent (to everyone) that the market had changed. I doubt new students hear the same as I did.

When undergrads talk to me about grad school, I try to explain the difficulties in the academic market, but I can tell it doesn’t make much sense to them. (Maybe a problem with my explanations.)Report

Richard
2 months ago

I was well-informed about the difficulties with grad school (not only the bad job market, but also issues like the prevalence of mental health problems among graduate students), and I like to think I had a realistic (if not pessimistic) attitude about my chances of succeeding.

I think a big reason why I was willing to take the risk was because I never expected to have a family, so living on a modest stipend, having to move far away for a job (perhaps multiple times), and the probability of not even getting an academic job were all tolerable.

I don’t think I would have made the same calculation if I expected to support a family one day.Report

Ian
Ian
2 months ago

Growing up in rural Appalachia in a working class family, I had few “professional” role models in my life. Because of this, it was difficult for me to conceive of what sorts of professional positions might be available to me after college or what I would have to do to get those positions. I worked a bunch of terrible part-time jobs during college, and my first job after college was a stressful and low paid position in a branch of the state government. A philosophy PhD program offered stability and more money than I was making at the time, while having the opportunity to study something I loved to study. I don’t think I ever even weighed the future academic job market in my deliberations; I just wanted the 5-6 years of funded PhD study.Report

Nick Laskowski
2 months ago

Thanks for sharing, Justin. A few more things to add, especially after reading so many of the replies:

  1. This kind of discussion usually happens the other way around, i.e. “What do you, prof, tell hard-working and talented students considering the academic route?”. I thought it might be interesting to hear what people actually tell themselves at the end of the day.
  2. ‘Rationalize’ has a negative connotation. But I do think it makes sense for folks in many cases to pursue academia.
  3. Maybe a quarter of the responses were from people saying that they weren’t told that it was difficult to get a job in academia. This is shocking.

Report

Special
2 months ago

I was more confident than I ought to have been, and told myself I’d beat the odds (–and that if I didn’t, there was always law school).Report

Daniel Weltman
2 months ago

My answer is pretty similar to a lot of the ones quoted in the article, with the added point that it’s not like I had some other job lined up that I could do instead. In fact, if I had had a job offer when I graduated, I 100% would have taken that instead of going to grad school. But when I was in college I made the monetarily unwise (but intellectually very wise?) decision to focus almost 100% on my studies and not on networking and internships and so on, which left me with no real job prospects by the time I graduated. I could have gone and lived with my parents to continue job searching, but it seemed silly to do that if I could instead go to grad school and earn money for studying philosophy, something I would’ve done for free.Report

Ian
Ian
2 months ago

Because the job prospects of becoming a philosopher were better than the job prospects in dance.Report

Louis F. Cooper
2 months ago

I didn’t go to grad school in philosophy, but I have a comment, which is that this sort of question usually elicits answers from people who have in fact “beaten the odds.” It would be equally if not more interesting to hear from people whose decisions did not “work out” and/or who consider themselves — whether with justification or not — “failures” or disappointed or whatever, but those in this category are probably somewhat reluctant to post online, at least under their full names. So what one gets is a somewhat skewed, often implicitly self-congratulatory set of answers from people who ended up doing what they find satisfying (more or less), as opposed to answers from those who might have gone to grad school in whatever field and did not get an academic or other satisfying (to them) job and perhaps ended up doing something they disliked, found boring or unsatisfying, etc. Such people undoubtedly exist, but, as I say, are probably reluctant, as a rule, to speak in online forums.Report

Caligula's Goat
Reply to  Louis F. Cooper
2 months ago

Exactly! This sort of question is rife with survivorship bias. I’m a survivor too, I’m tenured at a relatively cushy coastal SLAC but I got to watch quite a few much more philosophically talented friends in grad school struggle much more than (lucky) me only to never find permanent work.

This is not a humble brag, it’s survivor’s guilt (with a dash of “did I get this lucky becuase I’m an underrepresented minority?” self-doubt). If the numbers are to be believed, the majority of PhDs in philosophy will ultimately never get that tenure-track job (though some can make a living in semi-secure adjunct positions). It would be nice if people responding to Laskowski’s thread had first said what they were doing now. That might help us get a clearer view of whether or not the anecdata he’s gathering are useful or just a way to voyeuristically pass an hour.Report

Nick Laskowski
Reply to  Louis F. Cooper
2 months ago

I hear you. But it’s worth noting that the very first reply to my thread was “I was told that in grad school so I left academia”. Philosophy twitter also seems to lean junior/not-fully-employed and unsurprisingly, many of the replies are from current grad students. Maybe have a look at the comments?Report

Alexandre Leskanich
Reply to  Louis F. Cooper
2 months ago

Just to offer a bit of balance, then: I (so far) haven’t gotten a job in a university, though I very rarely put an application in anymore. And I may not be the exactly the example you’re looking for, since rather crucially, I’ve never really wanted to teach anyone anything, just think and write about things that interest me. So in the last two years since I received my doctorate, I haven’t tried very hard to get a position – I’ve sent in a handful of applications to insanely competitive postdoc positions here in the UK that don’t require teaching, and was obviously unsurprised when nothing came of them. I haven’t really tried since, as I’m happy writing independently. Do I consider myself a failure for not making money out of my academic research? Not at all, because I’m not: I’ve published a fair bit, and will continue to do so, despite not working in a university. I don’t regret doing a doctorate at all – in fact it was wonderful, and it was only towards the end of it I began to put pressure on myself to start thinking about what I would ‘do’ with my degree, until I realised that through my writing and publishing, I was already doing it. It’s easy to assume that the doctorate was only worth something if you get another academic position or begin working for a university, and it’s important to step back and realise that no, that doesn’t follow at all, or shouldn’t do.Report

Dee Dee
Dee Dee
Reply to  Louis F. Cooper
2 months ago

Exactly right. This is a case example of selection bias. Who is most likely to follow a philosopher on Twitter and read the Daily Nous? Grad students and current profs. Those who went outside academia are probably doing something else.

I’m a community college prof; I’m not sure if that counts as being successful in academia since I originally aimed for a big university/research position, but I, too, was one of those who thought I would beat the odds. In the end, I decided quality of life was more important than publications and prestige, so I’m pretty happy with my job and consider myself lucky despite the occasional nagging feelings that I somehow “failed”.Report

Semi-Delusional Grad
2 months ago

A mixture of two things, probably both very similar to others’ experiences.

  1. I’m special.
  2. I am willing and able to shoulder poverty, lack of work/life balance, and social isolation to do what I love.

Both are fantasies, obviously. But perhaps delusionally, I still don’t regret taking the chance. Though maybe ask me again in 6-8 months after my first cycle on the market and my student loan payments kick in.Report

3rd year grad student
2 months ago

The main thing was that I had found, in the philosophy department in undergrad, a wonderful community. I thought that going to grad school would result in another such community. The other thing was that, like other people have already said, I thought 20-30k/year to go to school and teach was an incredibly good financial situation. Plus, I really wanted to move to a new city, and grad school seemed like a good way to do that. Basically, the job market wasn’t really a concern at all—my goal was grad school itself. (Now that I am here, it’s a whole other story.)Report

Junior Faculty
Junior Faculty
2 months ago

Many have listed the fact that they simply were never informed of the true state of things.

I think this is an appropriate place to note that it is unfortunate many of us no longer feel empowered to be honest to many students about grad school/academia. I’m allowed to depict the unvarnished, ugly, straight-up truth to cis-het while males. But to others, showing this reality risks the student taking to twitter the next day (or 7 years later) saying “I was a [identity] philosophy undergrad, and my professor didn’t believe in me and tried to convince me not to do it. Screw them!!”. I’ve even heard at another institution of a complaint filed with a department chair for discrimination, because a professor was too morbid of the state of the field when speaking to the student about grad school.

In the ideal world, I would discourage basically everyone from pursuing this field, but I’m now forced to zip my lips most of the time.Report

Junior Faculty
Junior Faculty
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
2 months ago

Thank you! Yes, I’m not trying to score points. I don’t think this situation is a win for anyone.

I appreciate you might have a different evaluation, but I don’t think this really has to do with tone/framing/communication skills, or that I’m just skittish and need someone to hold my hand to “address [my] fears.” The notion that threats to one’s professional standing from entirely defensible, productive, and sometimes necessary conversations (in the classroom about difficult topics, at the office about a student’s career, what have you) are merely imagined is one about which I have been skeptical. I guess I see many publicly litigated cases in point, and perceive that many many more never see the light of day.

I don’t really feel entitled to share more about this other case; but I get the sense your “interest” in it is not motivated by a desire of yours to learn from it, but because you doubt my veracity. That is your right, especially given I am anonymous here, but I can do nothing else other than claim it is true.

Addendum: I forgot to address your other question about public excoriation. I rather regularly see installments of the genre of post I listed, about professors who are presumed biased for delivering bad news and providing advice aimed to redirect a person’s career. These posts usually impute some bias not from *how* the discouraging advice was delivered, or whether asymmetric advice was delivered to others, but rather from *the mere fact* that the discouraging advice was delivered. The epistemic hurdle to make this claim of bias is just that razor thin.Report

Last edited 2 months ago by Junior Faculty
MrMister
MrMister
Reply to  Junior Faculty
2 months ago

Bracketing all sorts of other questions and brainstorming some purely pragmatic suggestions: perhaps your department could produce a document with some appropriately honest/bleak advice and figures on graduate school, and you could direct students to that when they approach you for advice? If that’s unlikely to happen, perhaps you could produce your own, but, when giving it to students, be clear that you always give everyone the same sheet?

The above is trying, maybe unsuccessfully, to think of ways to make this discouragement-giving more transparent in a way that would promote trust and uptake by the student. If they were to know that what you gave them were a standard resource, perhaps even produced by a group of people other than yourself, then perhaps they would be less likely to suspect that you were steering them away from graduate school out of personal bias. It also seems like the existence of a resource like that could provide you with bureaucratic cover. If you had documentation of the fact that you were just distributing a standardized resource then it strikes me as very unlikely for a student to prevail on an inappropriate bias claim against you even if they were inclined to make one (though that is not to undersell that such investigative and disciplinary processes can be both personally traumatic and professionally damaging even when they do not end with the imposition of formal sanctions).

Anyway, just a thought!Report

Counterfactual Banker
2 months ago

I was encouraged to go to grad school by a professor. They brought the subject up, not me. Philosophy was my passion, but I wasn’t even planning to major in philosophy at that point: I was planning to double major in econ and math, then go into i-banking or work on a trade desk. My response to the professor was that I’ve read the job market is horrible online (which is why I was planning on i-banking). The prof told that ~70% of people from top-20 departments get jobs. This was in the late-mid 00s, but just before the housing market crash.

I would hope they give different advice today. I’m proud of my philosophical work, but I still haven’t reached TT, might very well never reach it, and don’t have easy exit options at this point. I can’t say that I regret my decision, because I highly value having gotten my ideas in print. Still, I should have listened to my gut, and feel more than a little misled. How much of this is because the conversation took place before the housing crash I don’t know.Report

Caio Cezar
2 months ago

Here in my country (Brazil) I believe I can find a position, even though there are not enough jobs for everyone. Since I’m trying to focus on Metaphysics/Phil of Science, I believe my chances will not be that bad. However, what I constantly doubt myself is the possibility of managing to get a scholarship on the grad programs I want outside my country since 1) the competition is brutal and 2) my resume is not that solid since I came from Law to Philosophy.

But yeah, my colleagues and professors told me things were not easy, specially because in my country we heavily rely on public investments and we had experienced year by year cuts on education/research departments. I just assumed the risk because I prefer being poor doing what I like than being paid to do something I don’t like everyday.Report

Last edited 2 months ago by Caio Cezar
Duane L. Cady
Duane L. Cady
2 months ago

I loved philosophy and I knew I could fall back on the woodworking job I held working my way through college, so I would end up a philosophy prof with woodworking for a hobby or a woodworker doing philosophy as a hobby. Win/ win.Report

Travis Timmerman
2 months ago

This a great question and I am glad to see it being discussed so publicly.

In my case, I loved philosophy so much that I simply preferred to have been paid (a pittance) to read and write philosophy for five years over going into the workforce right away.

What I wanted most was to land a tenure track job at a R1 university and, failing that, some full time position in academia. But I knew that even if I were forced to switch careers after getting my PhD, I still much preferred to have had that time in graduate school than not. Delaying the start of a career five to seven years didn’t seem like a big deal to me.

I got lucky and beat the odds. But even if I didn’t, I am quite sure that I would not have regretted getting my PhD.Report

Owen
Owen
2 months ago

For me, probably some form of availability bias was going on. My initial impetus as a student was to try and become a film critic, since that was frankly where my real passion and interest lay. But it quickly became evident that forging a career as a critic was incredibly difficult, and given the perilous state of journalism in general, getting worse.

So philosophy, despite also having long odds, was a comparatively better bet!

Was this irrational? Maybe, to some degree. But certain low-chance gambles are perfectly reasonable. Like, a 10% chance at winning the lottery can be quite rational, depending on the cost and value of success. And while the cost of graduate school was substantial, the risk for me was worthwhile given the comparative benefit of a successful academic career vs other options.

Per comments below about survivorship bias – FWIW, I’m in the ‘survivor’ category, and am fortunate to currently have a TT position (not in a philosophy department), though of course it could all still fall through at tenure review. I also did not go to graduate school straight out from undergrad, but had a fellowship first that gave me more confidence in my chances of career success after graduate school.Report

The dream
2 months ago

My undergrad. mentor of sorts encouraged me to apply to quite distant and higher ranking departments than where I ultimately applied and attend.

The professor that assisted me in navigating where to apply, what all is involved in applying, and what things I’d need, insisted it was very, very difficult, prior to my graduating undergrad.

I ran into this professor late in the summer, after emailing early in the summer break, after graduation, and exchanged pleasantries about my horrible call center job. That professor told me I should apply and encouraged me to apply where I eventually got accepted.

Third professor flat out told me we wouldn’t discuss graduate school until my GRE scores were well above my first attempt. Then told me I had no hopes of getting a job but that securing funding and studying philosophy for an extra year or two would be worth it.

At every stage of seriously considering and preparing to apply to graduate school, I was told the prospects were bad, I was encouraged to apply, reminded the job prospects were bad, and then congratulated on securing funding.

The jarring oscillations between utterly doom and gloom interactions and ecstatic enthusiasm during this process was, if not a clear red flag, a sign that the decision should not be taken lightly.Report

Alan Nelson
2 months ago

Like some of the twitter respondents, grad fellowships and TAships seemed like good money to me given the circumstances in which I grew up. If I didn’t get a job, I planned to do another degree in a more practical discipline.Report

Daniel Swaim
2 months ago

I was told in undergrad, “Only go to grad school in philosophy if you think it would be worth doing even if you never get an academic job.”

I thought about that a lot, and decided that it was, in fact, worth it.Report

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rY0WxgSXdEE
2 months ago

I don’t regret going to grad school, whatever exactly I was told about the odds of getting a job.

I do regret having been on the on the market for six years, ending up unemployed after a string of NTT positions and having to leave philosophy so I could make rent.Report

Frugal Grad
2 months ago

I like doing philosophy. Maybe I won’t get a job afterward and will have to do something else. That’s not the plan, but nothing goes according to plan.

I earn 80k+ annually as a philosophy PhD between my stipend and teaching work. That’s teaching trice a week and writing mediocre papers. I don’t see anything to regret here regardless of outcome, though I realize not everyone is in this position.Report

cadakinc
cadakinc
Reply to  Frugal Grad
2 months ago

Holy shit where do you work that you get 80k as a philosophy grad student?Report

Rollo Burgess
Rollo Burgess
2 months ago

For what it is worth and to offset some observations here about survivorship bias: I was doing a Masters and was considering doing a PhD, and one of my teachers said to me (basically) ‘only consider an academic career if you think you would be miserable doing anything else’*. I thought about it and decided I wouldn’t be, and 20 years on I’m a management consultant who reads philosophy. I sometimes regret this but I think on balance that it was the right decision.

I have a semi-plan I might stop this when my kids have left home and I have paid off my mortgage (hopefully) and retrain to teach philosophy to school kids or something (I have no illusions that I am ever likely to be published in Mind or whatever!)

*my wife is a theatrical agent and it is commonplace in that sphere to give the same advice to aspiring actors!Report

Julia
Julia
2 months ago

My fallback plan was to be a philosophy high school teacher in Germany. I went to undergrad there and took all the necessary classes for the credential, except for the two years of being an apprentice teacher after the degree. If the PhD hadn’t led to a job, I would have gone back and continued where I left off. So, it felt like a pretty low risk move. Also, the money seemed rather good. 5 years of 3x the money I lived on as an undergraduate did not seem like poverty, even though I moved to a more expensive place.
I was told at every stage how difficult it would be. Some people even laughed when I told them I wanted to be a professor. My performance on the job market was a very pleasant surprise in light of all that doom and gloom.Report

Sorgenkind
Sorgenkind
2 months ago

After undergrad I had a job in which I made nearly 2x as much as I made as a grad student (and more than 2x more when I started adjuncting). It was a comfortable situation, but I could not bear it. I was thinking about philosophy constantly and wasn’t at all interested in what my colleagues and I were doing and getting paid to think about. I figured having a chance to read philosophy and write about whatever I wanted for six years was intrinsically valuable, even if it meant I would have to go back to a similar office job afterwards.Report

Christopher
2 months ago

My undergrad professors definitely made it clear that the odds of getting a job were low, so i knew that going in. And I knew that even for those who eventually get tenure, the path to get there requires you to sacrifice a good deal. At the time though, I thought that tenacity and willing to make enough of these sorts of sacrifices would be enough to secure at least a CC job. But sacrifices that appeared reasonable and acceptable to me in my mid-twenties look very different in my early 30s.

I knew, for instance, that giving up control over where I live would be necessary, and I thought I was willing to do that. But then the political situation in the US and much of the world deteriorated, and given that I’m gay large swathes of the country and many places overseas are now either unsafe or would require me to give up legal rights and protections I can’t live comfortably and securely without. I also thought I’d be willing to take a job in a rural area, but after living in a small town for grad school it’s become clear that I need to be close to a city if I want any chance of finding a partner and someday having a family. And as I got deeper into academia, I realized I valued research and making a name for myself in the philosophical community far less than I originally thought, and certainly less than things like my friends, family, and my other goals in life.

Long story short, I went because it made sense given what my priorities were (or what I thought they were) in my mid-twenties. But getting older has made me rethink what actually matters to me, and it’s much harder now to justify a low-paying career that requires me to compromise just about every other aspect of my life to make it work. I loved philosophy when I was younger (and still do, in an attenuated way), but I realize now I don’t love it quite enough.Report

Graduating she/ella
1 month ago

I heard all that, but I decided to roll the dice anyways because I truly love philosophy, I had no partner, and the stipend here in the US was higher than some of what my family members make back home.
Fast forward to now: I am graduating my PhD at 33, had a partner for 5 years. I have no career or work experience other than philosophy, so chances to find something else are meager. Our undergrads get jobs with starting salaries at least 3x what we make in stipends. All my friends earn between 4x-10x what I do, have been buying houses, cars, started having kids, can change locations and expect to find a job on their field where they go. Not me. Not us in the program, who have to think twice before eating at a restaurant, live in shared housing, cannot afford car insurance, can’t save for retirement, can’t choose which city or even state we live in, etc. My friends who started different career paths when I started PhD school are now in senior positions and moving on with the next stage of their lives. What’s for the majority of us who won’t get TT jobs? A choice between dropping partner and stability to teach 3/4 for shitty pay, having to move locations every couple of years; or starting an alternative career now at our 30s as if we were just fresh out of undergrad. Not great, Bob. Not great. Do I regret it? Perhaps. Ask me at the end of this job cycle.Report

notyou
1 month ago

They never told us the truth. We were told it would be “challenging” but not that it was like playing the lottery. A challenge seemed like a positive experience. 10 years in and over a dozen publications later, I threw in the towel. The job market was like slamming my face into a brick wall! Thankfully, I inherited a sizable sum. So, I just retired when I gave up. I still write philosophy for fun sometimes. I can’t imagine what it’s like for most people. Even in my cozy financial position, I dealt with so much self-hatred and regret. I still do on and off. But I’m the happiest I’ve been in a very long time. When I’m feeling particularly negative, I think about what it must be like for someone with no savings AND no career in their late 30s. I imagine that happens to a lot of philosophy PhDs. I know that I would have jumped off a bridge.Report