I normally do not do posts like this because I am not primarily interested in writing about the careerism of contemporary philosophy. Hopefully this will be my first and last such post. Nevertheless, it is a reality, and it is something any prospective philosopher is going to have to deal with. Here is some advice that I wrote to a friend who is considering a career in philosophy. I've invested some time researching these issues, so I thought it might be helpful for others. I should note, I'm not an expert and I have not had years of experience in the field: I myself am a mere undergrad after all! However, most of this information is just stuff handed on to me from personal talk with my professors and from reading things written by other professionals in the field. So take the advice on their authority and not mine.
First, there is the problem of getting into a top PhD program. It is extremely difficult to get into one of the top 20 or so programs from anything less than, well, a top 20 program. (For the rankings, see here.) This is because of at least two things: PhD committees are (a) prestige-oriented and (b) lazy. They attach a lot of significance to the title of the university one is coming from, and they know they can get good students if they just pick from the top programs. Hence, if one is not from one of those schools the committee doesn't bother reading the writing sample very carefully. For more info on how difficult it is to get into a top program from a non-top program, see here.
Second, there is the problem of landing a job. In the humanities more generally 40% of graduates end up without jobs. Most philosophers do end up with jobs at community colleges at least, though not necessarily a dream job. One may have to try for a couple of years but it usually happens. For more on all that see here. Nevertheless it is still more difficult to get a job unless one is coming from a top program. Even those coming from a top program will often end up teaching at small liberal arts colleges or less prestigious universities. And of course, all this isn't to say getting a job is guaranteed. For more info on this one might want to check out this blog. The blog gets a little feisty because these people are so frustrated, but it paints an accurate picture of how bad it can be at times. The job market is especially bad at this moment.
What I have mentioned are serious concerns. I don't want to under-emphasize that. If you don't think you are going to have to deal with them, you're wrong. However, I should note that it is not all hopeless if one isn't coming out of a top school. Most people who aren't coming from top schools as undergrads are able to get into good PhD programs via a good MA program. Having a graduate degree under one's belt makes it much more likely that a PhD committee will take one's application and writing sample seriously. There are a couple of problems with this strategy though. First, many terminal Master's programs do not fund their students. Going into debt is almost always not worth it. Second, it makes a difference which MA program one is coming from. Some good terminal Master's programs are listed here. Finally, this essentially takes up two more years of one's life which could have been spent in a PhD program.
Another good thing to do is to work very hard on a writing sample. Most schools offer independent study so one can work with a professor on it. Also, one may want to see if one's department has an honors program. Usually that doesn't require more than having a good GPA and doing a writing sample. Applying for honors gives one motivation to make a good sample; it also makes one look much better when applying to graduate schools.
So what is my ultimate advice? I would tell anyone considering philosophy as a career to try to do as many of the following things as possible: (1) Go to a prestigious and high-ranked undergraduate school; (2) Get to know professors with big names, and impress them, so they can write you good letters of recommendation; (3) Make connections with important people in the field; (4) Write an excellent sample paper, maybe taking independent study time to do so; (5) Try to receive departmental honors; (6) If you are not able to go to a prestigious university, try to find a way to get a Master's degree from a good program. (7) Get into a top PhD program in order to get a job when coming out.
For anyone considering going on in philosophy I would recommend seriously talking to academic advisers and professors. The ones who are youngest will likely have the most information since they have only recently gotten out of the whole fray. I'm fortunate that I had professors who pulled me aside and let me know about all these problems. I'll be transferring to UCLA in the Fall as a result. This in conjunction with good letters would give me a decent shot. However, if I had decided to continue my education where I am currently at my prospects would have been far worse. I might have just chosen a different, less treacherous, path.
Some of this may sound Machiavellian. However, I am not saying it is okay to slit throats in order to do all these things. Nor am I saying I approve of the way the system works. Nor am I recommending that one view professors as nothing more than means to getting good letters of recommendation. Nor would I want to impress upon other students the idea that "prestigious philosophy program" equates to "good philosophy program"; quite frankly I think my philosophical education would be just as good with my current professors as with those at UCLA, since at most "prestigious" universities the department is far more impersonal and large in size. I am simply describing the "facts", minus the "values." One can do all the things I've listed and accept all the realities without descending into barbarism. I hope this information will be helpful to some people!