To Admit or Not Admit? The Question of Unfunded Philosophy PhD Students


Under what conditions, if any, should a graduate program in philosophy admit PhD students for whom it cannot provide funding?

A professor at a department of philosophy sent in that question for consideration among the readers of Daily Nous. They write:

There is disagreement among the faculty in my department about the issue of whether (and if so when) to admit PhD students without funding. For context, we have a small number of funded lines and we often have more qualified applicants who seem like they would be good fits for our program than we have funded lines. Our placement record is just okay. We have had fairly good success in recent years placing our PhDs in long-term positions (like continuing lecturers or teaching professors), but we rarely place PhDs on the tenure track and it’s not uncommon for our PhDs to either become adjuncts and/or to take alt-ac jobs (which on some occasions is what the graduates themselves want).

Some of us worry that it is exploitative to admit someone to our PhD program when we’re not willing to fund them (unless there are unusual circumstances whereby we know that their PhD will otherwise be funded, say through an employer or the military. In such rare cases, the faculty agrees admitting them is permissible). We worry that for at least some applicants we’ll create misleading evidence about the wisdom of enrolling in our PhD program unfunded if we admit applicants who are unfunded. In addition, at least some of us think that admitting unfunded PhD students goes against an implicit best practice in philosophy as an academic discipline, and we’d rather stick to best practices.

On the other hand, some of my colleagues worry that it is paternalistic to remove from unfunded applicants the power to decide for themselves whether or not to attend our PhD program unfunded, which is what results if we reject such applicants rather than admitting them without funding. Several of those colleagues also worry that we may lose out on students who are in a position to self-fund their PhDs (either through wealth they have or through subsidization by other means) if we’re not made aware that they have such sources of funding and we reject them on the grounds that we don’t have funding to offer them.

I’d be interested in learning what others in philosophy, both faculty and students, have to say about this issue.

Readers, what say you?

[A note to help move the discussion in a useful direction: generally, it is highly inadvisable for a person to attend a PhD program in the humanities without full funding from some source (ideally a tuition waiver and a fellowship stipend from the program, which is a kind of vote of confidence in the student). But it doesn’t follow from that alone that it would be wrong to offer people the choice to do so. It may be wrong to offer such a choice; but more would need to be said as to why.]

 


Related: “Against Reducing the Number of Philosophy PhDs

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David Sobel
David Sobel
1 year ago

One place I am aware of admitted a decent number of Ph.D. students without funding and none, or almost none, of them ever finished their Ph.D., let alone got a job in philosophy. In such cases, separate stats should be kept for placement and it should be clearly explained to the candidate what the relevant stats are—not just what the overall stats are. 

There are cases where it is advantageous to the dept for them to accept unfunded students. Such cases are especially tricky as there is a risk that the dept will be motivated to encourage students to attend without funding for the dept’s sake. This should be strongly guarded against. 

Some may want to do graduate work without wanting it to end up with them getting a job in philosophy. Still, such people should be shown the relevant job stats. But such cases are perhaps the best case for such admissions.

If there are enough unfunded students, and if, as I suspect is common, their prospects of finishing and getting a job in philosophy are much dimmer than funded students, there can develop two tiers among the graduate students, and among who faculty work hardest for. Both developments strike me as unfortunate and worth trying to avoid.

Will Conner
1 year ago

I think the answer to this question — assuming there is a unique correct answer at all — will hang on answers to many other complicated questions. Here are just a couple that spring to mind.

1. Would admitting students without funding create a hostile, or just plain awkward, climate for grad students in the department? I can see this being the case if funding is awarded to the “most promising” students, while the ‘second-tier’ do without. This wouldn’t be a recipe for success.

2. Would admitting students without funding create pressure in the discipline to do this on a more wide scale? If so, and if the response to the pressure is to cave in (perhaps also in response to administrative pressure), would this serve to further raise the barrier to entry to the field for poor applicants?

The answers to these questions, and hosts of related difficult questions, aren’t obvious. I confess that I struggle to think that the optimistic answers to these tough questions are the correct ones, though. At any rate, given what I think are non-negligible risks of admitting students without funding more often than is currently done, combined with non-obvious benefits of doing so (e.g. adding more candidates to a famously overcrowded job market), I think caution is advised, where caution suggests not admitting increasing numbers of students without funding.

On a personal note, when I was applying to programs I had absolutely no money of my own, nor was my family in a position to help. Without fee waivers for grad school applications, I wouldn’t even have been able to apply. It would have been incredibly dispiriting to apply to a program only to learn that I was accepted with no funding and consequently couldn’t actually go there. How much my hypothetical sadness matters here isn’t clear (maybe it doesn’t at all!) but I just wanted to register a vibe.

Will Conner
Reply to  Will Conner
1 year ago

Sorry, rather than “non-obvious benefits,” I should have said “things which are not obviously benefits”.

Ian
Ian
1 year ago

In my view, the only ethical way to do this is to explicitly say that a) employment in higher ed is not the goal/outcome, and b) stress as loudly as possible that any student who chooses to attend without funding ought not take out loans in excess of what they might be able to manage on an adjunct salary.

Wes McMichael
Wes McMichael
Reply to  Ian
1 year ago

I took out my loans knowing that if I couldn’t find full-time work in philosophy, I could earn a teaching credential in math, teach at a high school full-time, and pick up a couple philosophy classes as an adjunct. It would have never occurred to me to try to live (and pay off debt) on a part-time/adjunct salary).

Ian
Ian
Reply to  Wes McMichael
1 year ago

Adjunct only salary is the worst case scenario, of course.

Michel
1 year ago

No.

It creates a tiered system among graduate students, and that’s a recipe for deep resentment.

And it’s not like that dynamic is limited to admissions–when teaching opportunities arise, for instance, or prizes, or other funding opportunities, are you going to prioritize the funded students? Almost certainly. What about when the unfunded student’s circumstances change four years in, and they seek out funding? Are you sure that funded students won’t be prioritized when it comes to supervision? Certainly, a good case could be made that they should be.

And once you start, can you resist the pressure to admit many more? Do you aspire to being held in the same regard as the NSSR?

Last edited 1 year ago by Michel
Babble
Babble
Reply to  Michel
1 year ago

Some of these strike me as red herrings.

Could funding status in and of itself ground a tiered system? I suppose so, but so could many things that confer some level of prestige (where did different funded students get their funding from, which students have publications in top journals, who’s working with the hotshot advisor, etc). I did my PhD in the UK, where I believe unfunded PhDs are somewhat more common than in North America. There was no more of a tier system based on funding status than on these other things, i.e. nothing at an institutional level, though where these things were common knowledge individuals might hold some form of prejudice on their basis. There, the problem isn’t the bare presence of unfunded students, but from individuals and a departmental culture that encourages or allows such prejudices to take root.

As for the division of teaching opportunities, it seems like the answer there should just be that a department should only admit as many students as they are in a position to offer such opportunities to. Again, funding status itself doesn’t strike me as an issue there, unless the amount of funding available and the number of teaching opportunities are closely connected. That may be the case at some institutions – again, that might be a difference between the funding models found in the UK and North America.

None of this is to say that departments should admit unfunded students – I get the concerns, and think departments at the very least ought to enforce robust admissions procedures regardless of funding status, and make clear the risks and attrition rates in line with other comments here. I just don’t see any reason why an unfunded candidate ought to or necessarily will be treated any different from an equally good funded candidate once both are within the institution.

Wes McMichael
Wes McMichael
1 year ago

I have probably a somewhat unique perspective on this one. I was only accepted at one of the PhD programs to which I applied and was accepted without funding. The department (UAlbany, SUNY) has a placement record like the one described above (mostly community college placement for full-time jobs, but a lot of adjunct work or careers outside of academia).

Being admitted without funding made me feel a little competitive with the funded students, but I didn’t resent them in any way. I just wanted to prove that I deserved funding. My wife supported us financially, and I took out a lot of student loans. A funded student quit the program my second semester, and I was offered her funding line. I got a tenure-track job in 2010 and finished my dissertation in 2015.

I have had a very nice career as a tenured community college professor, and I’m so glad the department gave me the chance.

That said, I think I have been exceptionally lucky (because I’m definitely not exceptional in any other regard). It probably doesn’t make sense to base practice on exceptions, but it is a story that has to be considered.

V. Alan White
Reply to  Wes McMichael
1 year ago

Though a loooong time ago, this was exactly my story. Thanks for this.

Dave's Used Cars
1 year ago

I was a first-gen student with bruises on my transcripts and embarrassing GRE scores. During my undergrad career, I did manual labor in hot warehouses and lived on student loans. I wanted to go to grad school for philosophy more than anything.

Initially, I was only admitted to a Ph.D. program without funding. I felt humiliated. It sucked. But I accepted the offer because the disappointment of not being able to study philosophy would have been far greater than the reality that I could never achieve my goal of becoming a professional philosopher. I was more than willing to keep working “outside academia” to make ends meet.

Luckily, a lingering Ph.D. candidate got a job, and a spot opened to give me funding. I’m on the tenure track today. It only happened because someone gave me a shot. I later learned that they had to fight for me. While my case is merely anecdotal, I hope it illustrates what it means for some of us.

I’d say admit the student and work like hell to find them financial assistance in some form, even a job in the writing lab or something, and explain the harsh reality they might very well face.

Gorm
1 year ago

There was a time when American universities heroically admitted students to PhDs without funding. It was during the Vietnam war. Apparently Wisconsin’s history department admitted many – they were saving lives.
What philosophers face now is nothing like Vietnam.

Jesse Hamilton
Jesse Hamilton
Reply to  Gorm
1 year ago

Whose lives were they saving? Something tells me they weren’t saving the lives of poor, inner-city kids. Given draft quotas, someone likely had to fight in the stead of each student admitted to those PhD programs. So it’s more like robbing Peter to pay Paul. Or, in this case, robbing the most vulnerable to pay the most privileged. While I get your general point, I don’t agree with the framing. Admitting those students wasn’t heroic—it was unjust.

Jonathan Kendrick
Jonathan Kendrick
Reply to  Jesse Hamilton
1 year ago

This relies on the assumption that the person fighting in the stead of each PhD admit wanted to avoid the war. The thing that makes the draft immoral, in my opinion, is that forces unwilling participants to both engage in and experience violence. But, by creating outs for draftees, you could at least try to minimize the number of unwilling participants in the war, which seems pretty noble to me.

Rob
Rob
Reply to  Jonathan Kendrick
1 year ago

The unwilling who were rich enough to pay for school got an out. Which means that more of the poor who were unwilling but unable to go to school got sent…a strange kind of nobility, to be sure

Harsh
Harsh
Reply to  Jesse Hamilton
1 year ago

The philosophy departments helped those who asked them for help (by way of applications to the program). That’s bad?

Is there a lot of evidence that the members of these departments *only* helped these people? Were none of the philosophers *also* working to help people who didn’t ask for their help in other ways?

What has happened to charity and the benefit of the doubt?!

Last edited 1 year ago by Harsh
Jesse Hamilton
Jesse Hamilton
Reply to  Harsh
1 year ago

I didn’t say it was bad—I said it was unjust. Right or wrong, the draft—like jury duty selection—is a a fair process to distribute a burden of citizenship. So, even if those professors helped others avoid the draft—and you have presented no evidence that they did—that still wouldn’t make the practice of helping wealthy students circumvent the draft any less unjust. What those professors did was unjust in the same way as Donald Trump’s doctor “diagnosing” him with bone spurs so he could avoid the draft was unjust.

Caio Cezar
1 year ago

While I get it might be the exception for Europe and countries like US, Canada etc, it’s the reality of many here in Brazil. PhD students in such cases will have to take a job (full or part-time) to help them to survive. Even though it’s bad, I would argue it would be worse if they couldn’t do it. It’s precisely how many of them will manage to reduce the chances of facing this reality as something permanent. At least this was my experience as someone who did my MA without fundings. Fortunately I have a family to help me.

Philip Swenson
1 year ago

I was admitted without funding. I was planning to deliver pizza for Domino’s and take one seminar a semester. But then a TA quit the week before school started and I got funding. I just got tenure last year.

Sus Imposter
1 year ago

I earned my PhD with very little funding. My spouse worked hard to keep us afloat, but I still needed to take out loans.  And while everything ended up working out well for me (tenured at a SLAC), I’m still plagued with self-doubt. I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that I didn’t deserve to be in graduate school; that I was only admitted because I was willing to take on loans. The imposter syndrome is terrible!

The worry that unfunded PhDs will feel like second-class citizens is (I think) a serious one. But I guess what I’m trying to say is that that feeling may not go away. 

Don't do it
1 year ago

This comment section is full of anecdotes and survivorship bias. Don’t accept PhD students you can’t fund. It’s absolutely exploitative.

Wes McMichael
Wes McMichael
Reply to  Don't do it
1 year ago

Just curious, what is the objective data on which you are basing your conclusion that it is “absolutely exploitative”?

Someone above shared an anecdote, “One place I am aware of admitted a decent number of Ph.D. students without funding and none, or almost none, of them ever finished their Ph.D., let alone got a job in philosophy.”

Is this supported by data across the board or just true of the place this person knows? If it is true across the board, does it mean that it is exploitative? Do the people who were admitted without funding believe they were exploited, whether or not they ended up with a job in philosophy or do they appreciate the chance to study philosophy at that level?

Should your proclamation that the practice is absolutely exploitative be given more weight than the stories of those who express gratitude for being given the chance to study without funding?

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Wes McMichael
1 year ago

I think there’s a lot of people who will make an even stronger claim – even admitting funded students is exploitative at departments that don’t have a strong placement record.

It’s certainly true that more empirical evidence would be helpful in determining where precisely in grad school admissions it becomes exploitative to admit one more student. But without that detailed evidence, it seems pretty plausible to me that unfunded admissions at most PhD programs in the United States that do unfunded admissions is going to be below that line.

Meme
Meme
Reply to  Don't do it
1 year ago

I lean more toward agreeing with you than not. But I wonder if an absolute ban on unfunded PhDs risks a kind of paternalism. Like, if a department very explicitly told a prospective student that they would not be funded, that loans for the PhD are typically not a good idea, etc. etc., over and over again… isn’t there a point when, if the prospective *still* sincerely wants to take the risk and thinks it’s for the best, they should be able to do it? It seems slightly different to me from, say, convincing a teenager to take out college loans. One could (maybe!) make the argument that no matter how informed the teenager is, they aren’t mature enough to grasp the full consequences of their decision. But a post-college, PhD hopeful? Or, better yet, an older person who wants to go for it after years of non-academic labor? I don’t know the answers here, and, again, I still lean toward “no.” Food for thought, I guess.

Travis Timmerman
1 year ago

Aside from my undergraduate institution, I only managed to get into one PhD program with funding. I was initially admitted off the wait list without funding and then managed to secure funding after some other prospective students chose different programs. Had I not received funding, I would have very happily gone to a program unfunded and worked my way through it knowing full well how dim my job prospects in academia were. I much preferred getting to study philosophy at that level and then finding a job in another field than being denied that opportunity. I write this as someone who had no money at the time. 

I have difficulty seeing what would be objectionable about admitting some qualified students without funding SO LONG as they are fully informed about their choice (e.g. placement record details, chances of securing funding later, retention rate for unfunded students, etc.). That way students with priorities similar to mine wouldn’t be denied the opportunity to study philosophy and students with different priorities could simply decline the offer. 

My university doesn’t offer a PhD in philosophy, but I’ve advised students applying to PhD programs and talked with philosophers on admission committees at R1 schools. I have a hard time believing there would be a noticeable difference between the funded and unfunded PhD students. This is assuming not too many unfunded offers are made, and that there wouldn’t be more unfunded students than funded students. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but when a school receives hundreds of applications, aren’t the top 10-20 often (not always) roughly on a par? Admitting more students might reduce some of the luck in the admissions process. 

Louis Zapst
1 year ago

Maybe I missed something in the question, but I didn’t understand whether “funding” means TA/teaching/research fellowship only, rather than tuition remission in addition. With tuition remission offered, but no fellowship, students could potentially survive by finding part-time teaching elsewhere (at least once they earn their MA). They could also apply for outside funding, with the advantage of being already accepted in a program. As some said happened to them, another student may drop out, leaving one fellowship for that year’s cohort available (sort of a delayed waitlist for those enrolling without fellowship).
If, however, lack of funding includes lack of tuition remission, and the question is whether students should be admitted with no support whatsoever, then it seems to me questionable to lure students into handing that much money over to a university (at least at the rates private U.S. institutions charge for tuition). The situation may be different for low-tuition public universities or non-U.S. universities with lower tuition rates.
[It’s a tangent, but another very questionable practice involves taking tuition money from students for MA programs at institutions that should really only offer the BA. (I realize this practice won’t easily stop as faculty at these schools probably have a higher estimation of themselves than this and welcome the added prestige and money of an MA program). It’s a shame when someone who might have paid tuition for an MA at an elite school that would have positioned them for PhD applications ends up instead paying for an MA at their relatively less impressive home BA institution instead.]

Bill Vanderburgh
1 year ago

Here’s an anecdote from the other side of the coin. I earned my PhD with full funding–teaching plus tuition waiver for most of it, a significant national doctoral scholarship for part of it, and consistent summer teaching opportunities on top. It still took me seven years, I still had about $20K in student loans when I finished, I still was barely getting by and really only made it with the help of a generous family who gave me a room and a lot of food for much less than what I cost them for a few years, and today I am still hurting from the seven years of no contributions to a retirement fund at the beginning of my working-age life. Add to this that starting professor salaries on the tenure track were and are often still low compared to non-academic jobs. Adjuncting is even worse, of course.

So: Given that earning a PhD even under the best possible circumstances is still precarious/punishing while the prospects of a good academic job are so low, it is doubtful whether we should be perpetuating this system at all. Offering someone a place in a PhD program without funding seems almost cruel. (As for the choice argument, people “choose” to take out payday loans, but those are nevertheless morally bad options to offer people because they are economically abusive.)

Grad Student
1 year ago

I don’t know enough about PhD programs, but I know about terminal masters programs because I went to one and have been interested in how they work. The one I went to — Northern Illinois — seems to try hard to get everyone who’s admitted funding, but it’s common to have anywhere from 2-7 admitted students unfunded by the department itself. I think 6 or 7 of the people in my 14 or 15 person cohort didn’t get funding directly from the department, but some of them ended up getting decent employment on campus either as TAs for other departments, working in the library, or janitorial work. The rest either had outside funding or independent savings. (There’s one person who I’m not sure what their situation was). I do think some unfunded students from my cohort and other cohorts did outright tell me that sometimes they felt as if they were seen as worse philosophers because they were unfunded, and that they lost out on, for example, the discussions that often happened in the TA offices. I’d have to look at the numbers again, but I do think that unfunded students have worse placement as compared to funded students, at least in the last 5-6 years. Of the unfunded students in my cohort some got one or two funded offers that they weren’t excited about, some decided to not apply at all, either 1 or 2 students didn’t get in anywhere on their first PhD admission cycle (but one got offers in their second cycle post-graduation), and one got into multiple places they were excited about. I do think that my cohort is fairly representative of the past 5-6 years of cohorts in this sense. I’d imagine things are quite different at Tufts, but from what I’ve seen UW Milwaukee and West. MI are similar. Not sure about GSU, Texas, Cal State Long Beach, or Simon Fraser. Hopefully an NIU dept. admin like Jason or Lenny or Carl can chime in to give more context or correct any mistakes I’ve made.

Bruce Blackshaw
1 year ago

I’m a mature age student at a UK university who can afford their own funding. I’m almost completed my PhD. I suppose it’s just a serious hobby for me, as I’m too old for a job in philosophy. But I publish a lot, and plan to continue doing so when I graduate. So, keep in mind that there might be a few people like me out there.

Pekka Vayrynen
1 year ago

The question raised in the OP seems country-specific, and perhaps particularly salient in the North American context. Most departments in the UK must admit PhD students for whom it cannot provide funding. This (for once) isn’t because of institutional drive for income, but because admission and funding decisions are decoupled. My School (of Philosophy, Religion, and History of Science — so not just Philosophy) is able to fund only a couple of internal scholarships per year. Beyond that, there are some highly competitive university-wide scholarships, and governmental PhD funding is allocated to consortia of universities. In our case (University of Leeds), Philosophy PhD applicants compete against applicants to York and Sheffield in a panel consisting of Philosophy, Politics, Law, Theology, and Religious and Biblical Studies. (For the consortium funding, our School as a whole gets 5-6 nominations per year, and a few awards if we’re lucky.) Here’s the thing: having already been offered admission is a necessary condition for eligibility to be nominated by the School for these scholarship competitions. So, even keeping admission standards high, we have to admit many more students than “we” can fund. It’s very rare for an admitted student to enrol without funding though, and in most cases I advise the students against doing so. You could argue that the institutional design should be different. But holding that fixed, the “under what conditions” question has a fairly straightforward answer in systems like ours.

manny
1 year ago

Isn’t the worry similar to the one about letting patients choose to take drugs that haven’t yet been approved by the relevant bodies. Yes, you can inform the patient of the risks, etc., but patients just aren’t good at making those sorts of choices. It’s not that they aren’t consenting and it’s not that it’s exploitative (since they are consenting, perhaps informedly—at least with regards to the known facts), but there is just something fishy about it. Perhaps it’s because people have such a strong “well I won’t be one of the unlucky ones” bias. Regardless, my suggestion is that whatever explains why patients shouldn’t be able to pick and choose from unapproved drugs (despite being informed of the risks as they are understood) also explains (at least part of why) it’s iffy to admit students without funding. Or, perhaps something narrower: it’s what explains why the “so long as the prospective student is fully informed” response doesn’t sound sufficient.

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  manny
1 year ago

I think there’s an important difference between allowing patients to choose to try untested drugs that haven’t yet been approved due to lack of evidence, and allowing patients to choose to try heavily tested drugs that haven’t been approved due to affirmative evidence of their non-effectiveness. There’s at least more grounds for the paternalistic prevention in the latter case.

Lowlygrad
Lowlygrad
Reply to  manny
1 year ago

“Isn’t the worry similar to the one about letting patients choose to take drugs that haven’t yet been approved by the relevant bodies.”

I definitely thought the argument following that comparison was going to cut the other way…

Joshua A. Miller
1 year ago

Write grants, fund lines.

Kilgore Trout
1 year ago

The paternalism here is thick! And so are the “what ifs,” E.g., What if it creates a two-tiered system?

Should we not allow someone to pursue a Ph.D. because classmates might think poorly of that person or professors might show favoritism?

“Sorry we can’t let you study here, but we’re scared people might think bad thoughts about you.”

If someone (e,g., Bruce) has the means to pay their way, do you really think you’re in a position to tell him or anyone else what to do with their life? And, no, this is not the same thing as medical treatment.

The arrogance of paternalizing people’s financial business is just too much here.

Keeping people out of grad school for many reasons listed above is gatekeeping.

Where is the love of the underdog?

JLB
JLB
Reply to  Kilgore Trout
1 year ago

This. A hundred times, this.

Cecil Burrow
Cecil Burrow
Reply to  Kilgore Trout
1 year ago

I tend to agree. In reality, more relevant is the question of how many grad students a department can support in terms of finding advisors for dissertations, and so on. Given the way many students tend to have common interests, there are many departments that probably could not responsibly let in more grad students – funded or otherwise. Of course, what I’m gesturing at here is an entirely different issue from the main one of this discussion, but in reality, it’s often the more important issue.

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Kilgore Trout
1 year ago

I think the problem many people are seeing is that love of the underdog story runs very deep, and as a result many graduate programs have a long track record of dragging out processes in ways that end up harming everyone. “Gatekeeping” is a term that describes lots of different practices, many of which have both harms and benefits, but some of which the balance is tilted one way or the other.

Kilgore Trout
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
1 year ago

dragging out processes in ways that end up harming everyone”

–Evidence?

Daniel Bonevac
Daniel Bonevac
1 year ago

My university strongly disincentivizes admitting students without funding. But whatever one thinks about the issue in general it seems to me that there are cases in which it makes sense.

  1. People in the armed services who would be supported by the military to get a PhD and then assigned to teach at a military academy.
  2. People with independent means who want to study philosophy for its own sake.
  3. People with career goals outside academia.
  4. People seeking dual degrees, e.g., through a law and philosophy program, who hope to practice or teach law.
Amy Olberding
1 year ago

Just another anecdote, but I was admitted without funding – my situation similar to Wes McMichael and Alan White. It worked out ok.

I admit having mixed feelings about doing this as a policy, but I also wonder if the faculty on admissions committees can appreciate what circumstances might lead a person to take an unfunded slot. For me, it seemed worth taking a shot since otherwise I was bouncing around through low paying jobs (public libraries, cleaning houses) and attending grad school while cleaning houses seemed better than just cleaning houses. I guess what I’m getting at is that the talk sometimes assumes that a student’s choices are between grad school and some undefined but presumably reasonably lucrative and middle class career. But there are students (Dave’s Used Cars in this thread and myself) for whom it’s a different kind of choice. I just figured I could try grad school and dirty houses would still be waiting if that’s what needed to happen when I was all done. There are a lot of assumptions about class embedded in these discussions and about what alternatives are natural for those not attending grad school.

Prof L
Prof L
1 year ago

There are lots of reasons someone might want to complete an unfunded PhD (where unfunded, I take it, means no tuition remission OR stipend, but I suppose it could mean ONLY tuition remission …)

Someone might be independently wealthy and interested in learning philosophy at a deeper level, but not have any worries about job prospects. They may have retired early and comfortably and are perhaps eager to learn some philosophy, for its own sake. They might simply want to “do it on the side”, more slowly, as they pursue their money-making endeavors elsewhere, and this seems like a fine thing to do. Someone may have tuition funding from another source (their job, the military, as mentioned). We have such students in our program, and there’s no “tiered” treatment of these students. We are happy to have them; they are all excellent (and since they typically take longer to complete the program, are long-time, valued members of the community). And of course, the university is delighted, not that we in the department care too much about that.

I think it would be odd to do this as a matter of course (e.g., admit 5 funded, 3 unfunded students every year). But if a qualified student approaches the program, or maybe there’s a box to check like “I would like to be considered for unfunded admission” on the application, I think it’s fine. Perhaps the faculty should include a note, like “We strongly advise against going into debt to complete the PhD. We believe that completing an unfunded PhD in philosophy would only be wise in a select set of personal circumstances” or something like that. That way the student is not under the impression that this is, in ordinary circumstances, a good investment.

Bruce Blackshaw
Reply to  Prof L
1 year ago

Yes, I’m doing my PhD on the side, part-time. I am a part-owner of a software company, and that gives me quite a lot of free time to indulge my passion for philosophy.

It’s also worth noting that fees in the UK are probably less than many universities in the US, so for a mature age student with an income, they are quite affordable.

Wes McMichael
Wes McMichael
1 year ago

It seems to me that the common assumption of all the worries about exploitation (at least the sincere worries) is that unfunded students (and maybe students at programs with weaker placement records) feel that earning a Ph.D. wouldn’t be worth it to them if it did not result in a full-time career doing philosophy. There may be a disconnect here between the kinds of philosophers on admission committees in research departments, and the desires and expectations of students in those departments, either funded or unfunded.

Amy Olberding expresses this much better above, but for some of us, the chance to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy has value for reasons outside of a (possible) career. That probably is not the case for those on admission committees at research universities. Many of us were not undergraduate standouts at great universities when we applied to grad programs. “Dave” above describes “bruises” on his transcripts and mediocre GRE scores (my experience as well!). Perhaps, not all of us enter Ph.D. programs with the same expectations of what the degree will bring us.

I am a first-generation college student. For me, earning a Ph.D. has brought a lot of value outside of my career. First and foremost, I was able to prove to myself that I am not stupid. Though I still struggle with self-doubt like “Sus Imposter” above, I have a document that tells me I’ve accomplished something relatively few people in the world have. Second, my family is really proud of me and thinks I’m super smart. *I* know that compared to some of the superstars who regularly post here, I’m an idiot, but my family doesn’t know that! From their mobile homes in Mississippi, I’m a smashing success and someone they can brag to their friends about. Third, outside of academia having any Ph.D. from anywhere is impressive to your average person. They don’t know that my program is unranked on the Philosophical Gourmet. There is a certain amount of social deference that comes with having any Ph.D.

I think it was my second semester when I discovered the realities of the philosophy job market. I realized that I might very well never teach philosophy full-time. I don’t think I had unrealistic expectations that my department could use against me to get me to grade their students’ papers. I simply started preparing a contingency plan (mine was to earn a teaching credential in math and/or special education [high demand areas for high school teaching], get a full-time job teaching high school, and picking up a philosophy class or two a semester at a local university or community college). I probably would have been a little disappointed had I never gotten to be a college professor, but I think I would have been much more disappointed with myself if I had never gotten to be a college professor NOR earned a Ph.D. in philosophy.

I guess I would say this to the person who sent this email to Justin to get this thread started: you should consider the fact that the students you are (likely) considering may not have the same expectations that you had entering your studies. Landing a full-time career might not be the sole (or even most important) reason they are pursuing a Ph.D. It is not exploitative to give them the opportunity to achieve something important to them, their families, and their communities.

Kilgore Trout
Reply to  Wes McMichael
1 year ago

Mic drop.

Douglas W. Portmore
1 year ago

I started out as an unfunded PhD student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Had they not been willing to admit me without funding, I wouldn’t have been able to pursue my dream. So, I say ‘yes’ admit them without funding but make sure that you inform them adequately of their prospects. I was fortunate to have had a supportive family that both helped to cover much of the cost (though I also had to work nearly full-time my first year) and provided a safety net should things not have worked out.