Monday, April 30, 2012

Advice for Aspiring Philosophers

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!


Eric Mendoza said...


Thanks for the advice. I'm also working towards a PhD in philosophy (mainly focusing on A-T). I'm still an undergrad (a sophomore) at a community college close to Long Beach. Since you pointed to the importance of prestige, I'm guessing transferring to UCLA rather than CSLB would be a prudent career choice.

Unfortunately, I haven’t exactly gotten the chance to meet or impress some of the big names in the field. It might be a good idea for me to start going to some of those ACPA or SCP conferences.

Of course, I’m thinking the biggest determinant in whether I can have a career in philosophy, let alone make it into a top PhD program, is, as Bill Vallicella puts it, my philosophical aptitude. I certainly can attest to the wonder that Aristotle considers the first requirement of a philosopher (as befits the rational animal), but it’s another story whether I can meet the standards of analytical philosophy departments.

awatkins69 said...

Hey Eric, glad you found the post useful. Definitely philosophical aptitude is an important factor. It should be the most important factor. Unfortunately, where one is coming from ends up playing a big role much of the time, since job and PhD committees are often lazy and prestige-oriented.

It is good that you are currently at a community college, because it is easy to transfer to a UC from one of these (so long as you complete the IGETC). I should note that CSULB actually has a pretty good MA program, and that people are able to get into good schools with a master's from there. However, for undergrad, I would say to go for a UC instead of CSULB if it is possible. If you want to see what I am talking about check out the second hyper-linked website. I would apply to as many of the UCs as you can, because the majority of them are high-ranked. Even UCR is pretty high up there. Check out the first hyper-link in my post for the rankings.

Hope this is helpful!

awatkins69 said...

By the way, you may be interested in this upcoming conference:

I'll be going to it. It will have some very good speakers, it is free, and I think it is only about 30-40 minutes drive from Long Beach.

Eric Mendoza said...

Sounds like an interesting conference, especially with Plantinga speaking. Speaking of Al, ND seems like a good PhD program to get into for aspiring Catholic philosophers, especially for Thomists (it would've been an interesting contrast to study under Al and Ralph McInerny).

Gio said...

I really appreciate this post. This is going to sound like a REALLY dumb question, but philosophy journals usually require one to have a postgraduate degree (MA/ PhD) in philosophy, right?

The reason I ask is that I've often considered going into a different field as my "formal career" (I'm leaning towards psychiatry) but would greatly enjoy writing on philosophy, especially in the context of a journal, and want to know what that would require.

But I have a lot of time to decide, heh heh.

awatkins69 said...

Hi Gio, that's not a dumb question at all. As far as I know, it depends on which journal one is submitting to. Most journals have a list of requirements for submission on their web site. I know that some big journals do not require a degree in philosophy if one's paper is good enough. Analysis, for instance, does not. Many journals are done through blind-review, so they don't ask who it is that is submitting the paper until the paper is chosen. So I think you would be able to publish in some journals if you really wanted to. Hope that helps.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Also, think about what you want to do. Do you want to primarily do research? That is almost impossible if you are stuck teaching two intro to philosophy classes every semester. Does that life sound good? Is that the life of a person doing philosophy, or merely teaching it? It is extremely hard, nearly impossible, to have a heavy teaching load and to do good work simultaneously.

Also, I second the stress on philosophical aptitude. If you are good, and I mean really good, then you will be OK. That will trump all else.

If you are really good, then if you are at an average school, you should stand out as the best. If you can't do that at an average undergrad institution, I would think about a backup plan.

Once you get into a good program, you don't need to be the best, but can likely be average or above average within that context.

Also, don't just be the best. People need to recognize this. People that matter. Ask questions. Good questions. Write kick-ass papers. Consistently. If you at an average school as an undergrad, you will stick out: the profs will all know you, and want you to take their classes. They will write you glowing letters.

Of course, publish papers. Start early. Publish as soon as you can and do not stop. In the best journals you can, but if you are an undergrad it doesn't matter, just get the experience of publishing.

Also, it cannot hurt to take science and math classes, especially if you are on the E and M track. Especially helpful would be:
Physics (calculus based)
Differential Equations

This will better prepare you to take on the naturalistic philosophers who are hyper-educated in the sciences.

I got my MA in philosophy before going into neuroscience for my doctorate. If there is any chance you would prefer something besides a career in the humanities (e.g., psychology, neuro, engineering), then do it. It is relatively easy to keep up to date on the latest philosophy in your spare time. It is relatively impossible to do so with any technical cutting-edge forward-moving discipine.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Publishing work that is generally recognized as top-notch, in top-notch journals, can't be stressed enough.

I am of the opinion that we need very few philosophers every year, and most people thinking of doing it as a career should change their mind. Unless they both love it and are amazing at it. Or are independently wealthy.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Gio I have never heard of any journal requiring a degree. They will judge the submission on its merits. If I am wrong about this, a professor or someone at your school would likely be willing to be a co-author or somehow help you out with this. If the work is good enough for their journal, they will want to publish it.

Also we should be careful of acting as if school name is not relevant. When I got to UCSD for grad school in philosophy (I was undergrad at Univ of New Hampshire) it was simply obvious the people from the best schools were much better prepared than me because of the education they got.

This becomes murky with teaching-focused liberal arts schools like Williams or Reed. Excellent schools without the same high-powered research reputation.

awatkins69 said...

BDK, that is very good advice. I think that, drawing on your point about taking extra classes in other disciplines, it is a good idea for philosophy undergrads to double major. In my experience if you are disciplined and seriously interested it is easily possible. Most philosophy programs have relatively low unit requirements for their majors, i.e. philosophy majors have to take few classes. Thus, philosophy majors often can use the extra units, or at least they have the wiggle room to pursue other areas.

I would imagine having a double major--especially in something technical like a natural science--under one's belt looks good on applications to graduate schools. Moreover, much contemporary philosophy draws on other sciences, making proficiency in one of them a great boost in terms of being able to interact with the latest findings. It also gives one a fall-back onto something that is "useful" should a philosophy career not work out so well.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Great point. I doubt I would have gotten into UCSD grad school if I was just a philosophy major as an undergrad. Obviously with philosophy of science it is pretty much a requirement now to have a BS-level background in the discipline about which you want to do philosophy.

I agree philosophy is usually a relatively "easy" major in terms of course load.

Andrew M. Bailey said...

I think this advice is basically correct.

One useful resource is Michael Huemer's "Should I Go to Graduate School in Philosophy?" --