Monday, March 30, 2009

Advice for Undergraduates

It's that time.  A lot of the next crop of grad students are mulling over their offers to choose where to go.  Here are a couple thoughts:

1. Never pay for graduate school - the jobs you're spending years training for are scarce and don't pay boatloads of money.

2. Start with the PGR, but keep in mind that philosophers don't have a lexical ordering of departments in their mind when they hear about where you're going to grad school (taken with a grain of salt the PGR definitely helps with a sense of general reputation which is important).

2.5. Keep in mind that over the 6-7 years you are working on your PhD, your department's PGR ranking will probably jump around.

3. Building on 2/2.5, try to focus on getting a good advisor (this matters more for your job prospects than you initially think).

4. Look at the number of faculty in the area you're most interested in working in. You should try to avoid going somewhere that getting off on the wrong foot with one person means trouble.

5. You're picking somewhere to live for 6-7 years. That's a significant chunk of your LIFE. Try to make it somewhere you'd like to be.

6. Try to figure out how graduate students get along. A PhD takes a long time. Ideally you'll land somewhere with people that you like.

7. If you're thinking about a MA, know that you'll get another one on the way to your PhD and that programs don't usually count all your masters classes towards your PhD (you should ask).

8. Have I mentioned it's hard to get a job in philosophy? It was bad before the recession too. Have you thought about a job that allows you to choose where you live?

Ok, enough thoughts off the top of my head.  Anything else people should know?

-- Second Suitor


Update from STBJD: Asstro has this crucial and useful advice, which I don't think is all that contrary to what Second Suitor says, to add in the comments. Here is part of it, but read the whole thing:
Look closely at placement. Look closely at dissertations. Look closely at the graduates of that department over a five or six year span. Are they publishing? Are they languishing? What are they writing on? Are they rising stars? Are they just riding the coattails of their advisors? And so on.

31 comments:

Anonymous said...

3 cannot be overemphasized.

Anonymous said...

One point about (3): whether your advisor is good (in the sense of allowing or helping YOU to produce the best dissertation you can) might depend on how you work best. For example, do you do your best work for a positive advisor or an advisor that is hard to impress? For an advisor that sets deadlines for you or for a hands-off advisor? These are things to consider (though you may not discover the answers to them until you are well into your dissertation...).

chrono said...

You'd better fucking LOVE this shit.

Asstro said...

Actually, I sort of take issue with this. While the PGR is a possible place to start, its bias cannot be overemphasized. A better measure, it seems to me, is the outgoing crop of graduate students: what they're working on, what their hopes are, and where they're landing.

I mean that seriously. Just because a department has one hot-shot in a narrow AOS does not at all mean that you wouldn't do better going to a department where there are several very good professors also working in that area.

So here's my advice:

Look closely at placement. Look closely at dissertations. Look closely at the graduates of that department over a five or six year span. Are they publishing? Are they languishing? What are they writing on? Are they rising stars? Are they just riding the coattails of their advisors? And so on. Ask yourself this question: do you want to be like them?

While you're at it, look at "time to completion" statistics. As a general rule, places with quicker clocks are probably more supportive of graduate students.

Where possible, talk to grad students to get a clear sense of internal politics. Very good PGR departments can sometimes be extraordinarily hostile places. That's not just a grad student quality of life thing. It's also about support.

Also, bear in mind that areas of specialization are niche. You need to be looking at the niche you're interested in. Not all of these niches are captured by the PGR. Feminism, American pragmatism, applied ethics, Continental philosophy, and so on, are not well captured by the PGR's methodology. Like many of us, Brian has a horse in this race, so he's not necessarily a great judge of where things stand. Look to other resources for suggestions here. Seek suggestions broa Use your judgment.

Remember as well that just as there are niche graduate schools, there are niche markets for graduates of these schools. Believe it or not, many philosophers do not want to work with the next David Lewis or Saul Kripke. It is even true (gasp!) that many of these philosophers haven't read a word of Lewis or Kripke, and have absolutely no desire to. They have different fish to fry. These markets explain why people from schools lower on (or completely off of) the PGR ranking get offered sometimes very nice jobs.

There's a lot more to say here, but I've gotta work on something else at the moment.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Yes, 3 is crucial. By 'good' should also (mostly?) be understood: someone who will work with you, mentor you, will help you work out your thoughts, and not think this is about him/her - nor will him/her let you do it entirely on your own (read:drift off into space).

Mr. Zero said...

I have been working on a post making substantially the same point as the one Asstro makes here, and which STBJD highlights up there. So rather than post my post, I'll just say this:

It seems to me that there are a number schools outside the top 20 or so that have long track records of producing exceptional philosophers. Some of these philosophers are not even underrated. So my advice is (in addition to points 1 - 8 above, which I endorse), heed Asstro's advice. Try to get a sense for who goes to the schools you've been accepted to, what kind of philosopher they tend to be, and whether you want to be that kind of philosopher.

Anonymous said...

Apply for a few MA programs, and take those programs seriously. Most departments are pushing their students toward graduating in 5 years, and this is extremely difficult for a 22-24 year old undergraduate who needs a few years of development. Apply to the best MA programs, take a funded offer, and hit the PhD program more or less ready to go on your dissertation topic.

Anonymous said...

1. If there is anything else you can imagine yourself doing besides philosophy, do it instead.

2. If there is someone you think you want to work with, talk to students who currently work with them to see if it's worth it (some big names simply don't have the time of day, are a PITA, or much better on paper than in person).

3. When you look at placement, compare it to completed dissertations--departments have a nasty habit of only showing placement success and ignoring or 'forgetting' about completed PhDs that failed to land jobs. Also try to get a sense of how many complete the program--there can be a relatively high rate of attrition.

4. Don't pay, but don't feel bad if you aren't the fellowship king of your cohort. They fail to complete programs at the same rate.

Zach Simpson said...

As someone who just finished a PhD and post-doc, I would also say that #5 is, or should be, a huge component of how one evaluates where to go. These are, after all, your 20s. Go somewhere that suits the kind of life you want to lead, that lets you become an adult, that fosters a healthy and happy lifestyle. You're not only going to school, you're building the foundation for the kind of person you'll be for a long time. You'll likely meet a great number of friends and possibly even a future spouse. The place you go to should be the type of place where you're more likely to meet people of similar likes, interests, and ways of life.

Practically speaking, you should also think hard about finances and indebtedness before getting into grad school. Paying off loans is a long and arduous process, and you want to make sure you're doing it for the right reasons. You also need to gauge your level of comfort with loans and payments well into your 40s.

Anonymous said...

Asstro's advice (and now Mr. Zero's) worries me a little. When you discover that Underrated Program X has placed four terrific philosophers in excellent places in the last six years, have you discovered that UP X is great at training people, or that it's great at placing people... or is it rather that it's got a knack for finding quirky applicants who top programs won't accept but are stars in the making?
I would have a strong suspicion that it's the last. And if it is, although it's a great reason to be pleased that UP X admitted you, it's no reason at all to go there.

Anonymous said...

Asstro says

"While you're at it, look at "time to completion" statistics. As a general rule, places with quicker clocks are probably more supportive of graduate students."

I couldn't disagree more. Many programs have quick clocks because they don't support their students; funding is not granted after the 5th or 6th year. I'm currently in a program that has an 8-9 year average time to completion. If anything, this is due to the professors being very involved in our work and having higher standards than occur elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

If you don't feel prepared for graduate work and don't think you'll hit the ground running, I'd recommend an MA program. I regret that I didn't do that.

Also, I regret that I became a philosopher. I loved philosophy as an undergraduate and as a grad student. (I was probably the most dedicated philosopher in undergrad and grad.) I've had a fair share of pubs and a tenure track job, but I'm poor and lonely and I might have fucked myself for years to come. Go do something meaningful with your life that allows you to have a savings account, friends, family, and some control over where you get to live. If you are convinced that those aren't options you'll ever have, then I guess you might as well just go to graduate school instead of falling off of a bridge.

Anonymous said...

"Are they publishing? Are they languishing? What are they writing on? Are they rising stars? Are they just riding the coattails of their advisors? And so on. Ask yourself this question: do you want to be like them?"

I don't want to sound dismissive, but most of these questions strike me as entirely useless, from the perspective of a prospective undergraduate. Why should an undergraduate care about whether the grad. students in some program are publishing? Why would that be of particular interest? What could one infer from the fact that some grad. students are publishing about the quality of those students, of the program, or about whether one would enjoy being in this program?

Likewise, I do not get the point of the question whether the grad. students are "rising stars". This may be because I do not understand the notion of 'rising stars' in philosophy at the graduate student level, although I think I may understand it in the context of professional sports, pop culture etc.

Anonymous said...

Utterly off topic, but I know this will be of interest.

The Central Division has decided to hold next year's meetings in Chicago, February 17th to 20th.
I'm sure that will work out great! No possible problems with those dates. None that anyone could anticipate, anyway. Not without a crystal ball.

Anonymous said...

2.5 isn't itself a big deal until you factor in the reasons behind the jump around...faculty departures! Almost always a bad idea to go to a place because of one person (especially if that person is a hot-to-trot younger philosopher, as they are almost always shifting about and you going with them is never something you can assume).

Anonymous said...

How about this - a little off topic, but of some if not much relevance to both grad students and job market worries - attempting to transfer up? Some have done it this year with much success, every year some try it, and given the difficulties out there, what do our dissertators think? It strikes me as douchey, but I understand - if you can transfer up into a top 15 or 20 program, why not try? But you alienate, perhaps, colleagues and profs. Thoughts?

Related question - what about trying to transfer to work with a good/more appropriate adviser/department? This might not be 'transferring up' in terms of ranking, but I've heard that if your AOS or AOCs are mismatched with your departments rep, that can be awkward.

Asstro said...

Look. The important point here is that students chase what they're interested in, not what Leiter's interested in, and not necessarily what any of you are interested in. Despite the hegemony of the PGR, there are jobs available for people studying in a range of niches, from the philosophy of poetry to the philosophy of sport. If a student is interested in a niche area, and really wants to cover that niche area very well, then she should be encouraged to do so (all usual caveats about the miserable job market apply).

What a prospective graduate student definitely does not want to do is to pick a school based on the crackpottery of the popularity contest that is the PGR. True, some programs carry more clout than others, in part because the PGR is an incredibly strong force in the philosophy community. But that clout won't mean a damn if a Marxist goes to NYU thinking that his degree from NYU is gonna give him what he wants. Odds are, if he goes to NYU, he's gonna drop out; and if not drop out, he'll probably be a pretty crappy epistemologist, dissatisfied with his subservience to the academic philosophy mill. If he's a Marxist, he should go to programs where Marxism is taught by Marxists, or at least Marx scholars, and where other graduate students are working on or have worked on Marx. He should go where there are more than a few people who really give a shit about Marx; who eat, sleep and breathe Marx; who carry das Kapital to bed with them and wake in the morning to fill glass bottles with rags and gasoline.

Students who make decisions based on these criteria should be applauded for their courage not derided for their impracticality.

So this is where the PGR performs a terrible disservice to philosophy. It corrals a small and select crew of extremely smart prospective graduate students into a particular philosophical methodology, stakes that territory as the only true philosophical terrain and, through sheer overwhelming mass of data, seduces unwitting undergraduate students into believing that the full breadth of a several thousand year old discipline is captured entirely in ten very good and fifty so-so graduate programs around the world. That's plain, fat bullshit, and critical thinkers should know better.

(God I love wine. I think I'll have another glass.)

Anonymous said...

Watch the placement reports. My Grad school (R1) only reports the first job landed and does not distinguish between VAPs, 1-2 year gigs and TT. They all look like TT to optimistic eyes. Even if a person is out of the game they still list their first job by their name.

Anonymous said...

all I can do is echo what has been said. If this adds anything, so be it.

All of your work means nothing unlelss you finish the dissertation. Period. Once you get to grad school, keep in mind that the dissertation is the goal.

Take the PGR for what it is: a survey of Ph.D.-granting faculty as to the quality of other Ph.D.-granting faculty. The PGR report says NOTHING about (a) whether you will get a job, (b) whether it is economically possible to live near the school, (c) whether the faculty that cause the program to "rank high" are easy to work with.

There are programs WAY off the PGR whose Ph.D. recipients universally (or nearly so) get TT jobs after finishing. There are programs HIGH on the PGR that have worse than a 50/50 track record at job placement.

I'd love to see a rival PGR that managed to get these other kinds of data, and lets your make your own rankings in light of that data. Having just finished and gotten my TT job, my personal rankings criteria would be:

1. Offers financial aid
2. Gets job-seeking graduates jobs
3. Has a good faculty.

My own rankings would turn out very different than the PGR. The PGR only (and admittedly so) studies #3.

Anonymous said...

My Ph.D. granting institution lists on its webpage people as having gotten TT jobs whose work is actually adjunct/part-time at the institution they list.

Shameless.

Anonymous said...

One bit of advice that has gone woefully overlooked: find out how able and willing a department is to fund travel to conferences, workshops, job interviews, and so forth. Do not be afraid to ask for specifics; these opportunities are essential to becoming a successful academic philosopher. (My home department has been *very* supportive in this regard, and it has paid dividends by the shovelful--in terms of networking, prominence in my area of interest, netting an external reference and committee member, etc.)

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 9:03 should have shared the wine--but the points are fine as long as you remember one thing, O potential grad student:

There are many more graduate programs and students in philosophy than we could ever possibly need to fulfill the needs of the FT job market. You are/will be cheap labor, useful for the time you spend in a program, and useless afterward. If you attend an unranked program the odds are higher that you will end up in debt, un- or under-employed, and with 10 years lost earnings and time.

Anonymous said...

Regarding what 8:36 said, the funding offered for conferences matters less if your department offers decent funding in general.

My previous department offered ridiculous compensation for TA's, or at least ridiculous to other instutitions I've seen. Their travel budget for grad students was modest, but anyone who budgeted their generous pay for being a TA should have been able to attend at least a couple of far-away conferences a year.

Glaucon said...

I would think that given the advice's target audience, 2 & 2.5 are well wide of the mark. The PGR, especially the specialty rankings, is a helpful place for students when they're beginning to think of where to apply (as is the Dissertation Abstracts database). But if one is mulling offers, its limited usefulness has expired, it seems to me. So I second Asstro's opening salvo.

Anon @ 3/31 8:20's first item,

If there is anything else you can imagine yourself doing besides philosophy, do it instead

seems to me to be terrible advice. If s/he just means, "make sure you love philosophy," that seems otiose. If s/he means this literally, it seems to encourage a narrow-minded obsessiveness, a conception of philosophy as some sort of (sacred) calling that doesn't seem very healthy, at least for most of us mere mortals. Being unable to see oneself as happy doing anything but philosophy bespeaks a failure of imagination, more than anything else -- or so it seems to me.

I love philosophy. But it only likes me, so it's kind of awkward...

Anonymous said...

If there is anything else you can imagine yourself doing besides philosophy, do it instead.

I worry that this leads to people trying something else out, and then realizing they'd rather do philosophy, and then going back to grad school 5 years out of college. This makes the later job search much more stressful because you don't want to have to switch careers again.

I actually think better advice is: if you like philosophy, think grad school would be fun, and think philosophy would make a nice career, go to grad school when you're 22, but have a "back-up" career. Then when you're 27-29 and applying for professorships, also apply for jobs in your backup career.

Maybe I'm biased, because this is what I did (incidentally, I ended up as a professor, but I think my backup career could have been interesting). But I will say that grad school was way less stressful knowing philosophy wasn't the only thing for me (even though I did really enjoy it) and that I had alternatives that I could get excited about.

The only problem with this plan is that I think people (well, myself, anyway) can be less philosophically mature at 22.

Anonymous said...

Glaucon disagrees with my suggestion that "If there is anything else you can imagine yourself doing besides philosophy, do it instead".

Fair enough--let me elaborate: getting a Ph.D. in philosophy means spending 5-10 years of your life working very hard on very obscure things, for a very, very small amount of money (i.e. you'll hope to end up not too far behind, rather than being able to save anything for the future). During this time you will enjoy grad student life, which is just like not quite growing up (you won't make enough to live well, do many things you want, or support a relationship or family without serious financial assistance). When you are finished, you will hope against hope for any job, anywhere--such a job will likely pay less than the first job you would have taken out of your undergraduate work, it will certainly be somewhere you didn't hope to live, it will be a lot of work, and you will only do it for 1-year before repeating the entire process. If, for example, you have followed a somewhat regular relationship path, you will have to move your spouse (and family) somewhere they don't want to live, far from family, for a short-term position (but only after they've agonized over the process like you have). Then you'll try to work your butt off so you can land another position while they struggle to make friends and adjust to the new place before you move to the next one (again somewhere you didn't want to live, but likely for a longer period of time).

If you plan to be single and childless, and enjoy moving around, this is a fine life for you. But it means a serious sacrifice for many of us, and the discipline and teaching (the heart of the job) had better make up for it, not only for oneself, but also for one's (future) family.

Talk to some grad students who have been on the market this year and you'll get a sense of what it's like. There are good reasons that most people who start this process do not finish it.

Glaucon said...

Anon: I'm not sure why, from the fact that I disagree with your advice, you seem to infer that I'm unacquainted with what's involved in getting a Ph.D. in philosophy or how tough the job market is. Moreover, I don't see how what you've said is a persuasive argument for the advice you offer as sound generic advice for students who have been accepted into grad school(s) and are now deciding where to go. I don't doubt that there are people for whom your advice is sound; but its soundness seems too situationally specific and too dependent on the advisor's being well acquainted with the advisee tto be good advice in a forum like this. A student who really likes philosophy and is good enough to get into grad school and can see herself living a good life doing any number of things would be ill-served by your advice. One who couldn't see herself being happy doing anything else has been ill-served by her undergraduate institution (and, probably, her upbringing).

Anonymous said...

No, Glaucon; Anon is exactly right to point this out. Anyone could end up, with a little bit of less than good luck, seeing the unhappy side of things,exactly in the way he describes. It is a real possibility, and thus should be considered by someone contemplating grad school. We never think we'd encounter nastiness, yes some people always do, right? Grad school is great, but it is also a choice with some serious implications.

Glaucon said...

Maybe I'm just the Mayor of Simpleton. Sure, it's possible that people who get Ph.D.s in philosophy end up with less than enviable lives. Indeed: arguments ab posse ad esse are pretty tough to refute! But how does it follow from that that x should go to graduate school only if x can't imagine doing anything else?

Of course people considering graduate school should consider the the very robust possibility of being an un- or underemployed philosophers, the hardships on their actual (or possible?) families, etc. Who could argue with that? If that's all that Anon meant, I have no quarrel (and indicated as much earlier) -- though s/he picked a strange way to make such an obvious point.

Anonymous said...

It's not an argument, Mayor Glaucon, but simply advice, which you seem to have understood clearly enough to admit it is important. Many people who will get into excellent programs and be regarded as potentially very good philosophers (with funding, fellowships, etc.) *will* drop out and fail to complete their programs. Look at completion rates and look at your own cohort. Why do they do this? Because whatever trade-off it requires is no longer worth it. Whether this is due to a failure of imagination (likely), an interest in other things that existed prior (likely), laziness (either in matriculating or failing to complete, or both), or a lack of discouragement from earlier advisors (likely), it happens *more* often than the successful completion of the PhD.

Whatever the case, most students fail to account for the trade-offs, and those trade-offs are only livable if you really feel the pull of pursuing philosophy as a profession. And even in that case they are sometimes not worth it in the end. Advice that encourages potential students to think long and hard about this seems worthwhile to me, as most of us could have done many other things with our lives.

Glaucon said...

Anon: "Don't go to grad school if you can imagine doing anything else" is not, on any reasonable construal of English, synonymous with "think carefully about the personal costs of going to grad school." I think, for the reasons I've given, that the former is terrible general advice, and nothing that's been offered in its defense -- the "elaboration" seemed clearly offered as an argument -- has given me any reason to change my mind. The latter is obviously sound advice, and it's obviously obvious advice -- it's just not what the original poster said. Nor is it an interpretation of what was said; it's another claim altogether.