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September 19, 2015


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Laurie Shrage

I teach at a “minority-majority” university, where most of my students are Latino/a and/or black. Students who ask me for advice about going to graduate school in philosophy are generally our top philosophy majors. Like Prof. Bar On, I want them to make this decision with their eyes open, but before discouraging them, I try to find out why they are considering an MA or PhD program in Philosophy. I ask all students seeking my advice about their choice of an advanced degree field, even those who are seeking advanced degrees in medicine or law. Once I’m somewhat convinced that their choice of field for an advanced degree makes sense in light of their career goals and earnings expectations, I ask them about other options they have considered, and especially if they would be passing up potentially more promising opportunities in order to pursue an MA or PhD in philosophy. Some of our students have second majors, and I especially ask those students to discuss with their professors in these other fields what opportunities might exist. While it would be good for Philosophy to attract the best and brightest students I have, I see my primary obligation to be to my students, and so I to try to help them make the choice that is best for them. My general advice to my mostly low-income students is not to go into debt to get a humanities PhD. If they can get a fellowship that covers tuition and living expenses at a good graduate program for four to five years, this is typically better than the minimum-wage job they usually can expect to get with their philosophy BA for the near future. At least while continuing their education, they will pick up job skills and knowledge that should ultimately help them find rewarding work. I believe training in Philosophy is great preparation for many kinds of work, and I agree with Prof. Bar On’s suggestion that the APA should follow the lead of the AHA and MLA and investigate how graduate training in our discipline can better prepare students for multiple career paths.

Kathryn Norlock

Some of us who came to Philosophy from low incomes didn't see a life of debt and possible unemployment as all that much of a change in our current state, so it's wasn't dissuading to get the APA letter (I was applying in the '90s) that poverty and debt may await. My reaction was, "I already knew that!"

The essay addresses the overall situation very well, and it moves me to think more about the different tasks before professors at undergraduate institutions and those educating graduate students. I tend to be supportive of my undergraduate students' interests in Master's Degrees, and make it clear to them that MAs tend to have long-term returns in private-sector employment that PhDs do not tend to (on the whole).

As I've only taught at undergraduate programs, I have, like Laurie, seen my students' interests as the chief obligation, and I'm concerned that as Bat-Ami Bar On so saliently observes in her essay, faculty at graduate programs neither want their own jobs to change very much (when it comes to the education and training of graduate students), nor seem completely alive to the realities of the change in the job market. Every year I am provided increasingly scarce resources to staff courses, and told to make do with part-time hiring and, if I am very lucky, a very few full-time, one-year positions. A tenure-track search has become a very rare thing. It is my hope that R1 faculty and graduate-student advisers explicitly attend to these realities, and to some reconfiguring of the purposes and practices of graduate schooling (and the messages about the profession they are endorsing). Their students would listen to them. I don't believe their students will be more persuaded by statistics and APA missives than they would be by their own advisers.

Kathryn Norlock

I should add, since I just wrote that graduate faculty should change some practices, that I also think undergraduate faculty should, too. I recently started a presentation with the comment that at most undergrad institutions, our curriculum in our majors still prepares our students to be tenure-track professors in the 20th century, but they're not likely to be tenure-tracked, and it's not the 20th century. So those of us tenured and responsible for such curricula have our work cut out for us, too.

SGRP Editor

The comment below was submitted to me before I changed the option to allow for anonymous commenting. Here it is, anonymized, as requested (the option for anonymous comments is now activated; apologies for the delay):

I am a woman in the advanced stages of my PhD. (I am also a member of a minority community in philosophy). I cannot speak to definitive institutional approaches to PhD overflow, like eliminating PhD slots, but I can say a thing or two about advising.

As an undergraduate, I was very aware of the risks of pursuing a doctoral degree, and initially met with a lot of (mostly gentle) resistance when I declared that I wanted to pursue graduate school in the field. The resistance came from many places: parents and family, instructors, and even peers. The information those individuals were anxious to transmit was much like that which Bar On provides in his thoughtful discussion. They meant well, they wanted to ensure my safety and happiness.

I also found spaces where I was encouraged to pursue graduate school, among them a summer recruitment program for minorities pursuing higher education. What I learned in those spaces was not that I was better placed than anyone else to succeed (if nothing else, it became abundantly clear how harsh an environment everyone thought graduate school was, and how unlikely it was whenever anyone did succeed in attaining a tenure track job), but rather, that the need for more minorities in higher education to join the conversation on educational policy and ideology was so dire that we were encouraged to steel ourselves for a tough road ahead, while not taking opportunities that would be truly crushing in the long run. We were given financial advice: do not pursue a PhD with no funding; do not take out loans. Try to invest while in graduate school. Network. If all of that fails, there are other places where we are needed, other places where we can do good work. However, in spite of the acknowledged difficulty of the pursuit, no one was told, "This is too risky for you and I will feel responsible if I send you out into that environment; go do something else with your life."

I think the latter approach (financial advice, enCouragement, a handful of alternative options) is the better approach to the recruitment problem. College students and young professionals can nowadays quite easily find out how risky choosing graduate school in the humanities might be: there is, in my mind, little threat of misrepresentation. I think few minority and women students have problem of being kept in the dark about these issues. If nothing else, it is white male candidates who seem to have rarely met with resistance to their desire for what Bar On calls a "lifestyle degree". (Oh, you have money? Oh, you look like current professors do? Then I guess do whatever you want, it's your life.) And I do not think instructors need fear that they will be misleading students if they offer positive guidance towards pursuing a graduate degree, as long as they remain ready and available to provide guidance toward alternative paths if the primary path becomes inhospitable. One of the things we have to get past as a profession is the shame we associate with a failure to remain in academia once we have completed a PhD. The shame speaks volumes about our own ability to find value in alternative pursuits, and thus our ability to transmit this value to students who find themselves leaving academia.

One of my undergraduate advisors, who is very dear to me, has continued to offer advice and guidance even years after he helped me apply to graduate school. He never gave me any guarantees, but he also never said 'don't do it'. And now that I am facing a difficult job market, he has reached out and looked out for me to make sure I can still find some scaffolding if the main plan falls through. That is, I think, what the APA should advise faculty to do when faced with an enthusiastic minority student. Turning vulnerable students away, or overemphasizing issues of concern, as in the "radical rejection" strategy advocated by Bar On, is doing a disservice to their ability to assess their own evidence and make their own decisions. It presupposes that there are no other forces that have already been beaten town trillions of times before getting to the point where they express a desire to pursue a PhD.

On the contrary, many (successful, professorial) women I know have spoken of their indebtedness to one kind professor who noticed their aptitude for philosophy and directly encouraged them to pursue graduate education. Imagine if, instead of encouraging the few who might be incredibly interested and very likely to succeed, we discourage those who finally get up the courage to express an interest. We'll be a white male profession for several more excruciating decades. Don't forget that there already are women and minority individuals in the profession who would love more colleagues from their social groups around to mentor, support, and commune with.

Eva Kittay

The comment from the anonymous graduate student is definitive in my mind. I think there is not much that could be said, or said with any more eloquence and thoughtfulness. I look forward to seeing you (whoever you may be) take your place in the profession, fulfill your passions, and make the profession better and more welcoming.

Derek Bowman

"On the contrary, many (successful, professorial) women I know have spoken of their indebtedness to one kind professor who noticed their aptitude for philosophy and directly encouraged them to pursue graduate education."

I take it that one of the central points of Bar On's piece is that focusing on the success cases is not a morally adequate basis for deciding how to advise prospective grad students, especially those from underrepresented groups. Most aspiring grad students won't succeed at becoming tenure track professors.


Professor Bar On is right that this is an issue that the profession has failed to take seriously, so I'm glad to see the participants here beginning to address it. But I worry that her recommendation of "radical rejection" may do as much harm as it does good, by reinforcing the idea of a philosophical career as a "calling," for which one should be prepared to make sacrifices. Like the toxic advice that one should only pursue a PhD in philosophy if one can't imagine being happy doing anything else, this can end up encouraging people to romanticize their own employment struggles, rather than seeking better alternatives.

Finally, while I agree that the APA should take seriously the possibility of non-academic career paths, I wouldn't be too quick to applaud the work of other professional associations on this score. The MLA report (cited at footnote 14) is an incoherent mishmash of wishful thinking. (It simultaneously calls for decreased time to degree, increased training in pedagogy, increased interdisciplinary study, and increased training for other career paths.) The AHA effort looks more serious, but it remains to be seen whether there is really much non-academic demand there for humanities PhDs. See here for some reasons for skepticism: https://chroniclevitae.com/news/508-alt-ac-isn-t-always-the-answer

Carole Lee

I really appreciate this piece. Thank you, Professor Bar On.

Recently, at a workshop for faculty of color, I heard a director at a prestigious fellowship program profess that we (as faculty of color) should do everything we can to encourage minority students to continue along the academic pipeline in the humanities. It took my breath away to hear him say this with no qualifications or hesitations, even though the racial and ethnic groups we need the most representation from are also the most socioeconomically vulnerable; and, pursuing an advanced degree in the humanities is a bad bet (in terms of getting a stable academic position).

If (in general) increasing the representation of these groups in our discipline would provide a differential impact to the discipline, but doing so involves differential socioeconomic risk for those populations, it would make sense for our discipline to provide more graduate fellowships to members of those populations. I recently heard about the American Sociological Association's Minority Fellowship Program:
I'd love to see something similar in our discipline!

I really appreciated the advice that that anonymous graduate student shared with us. I would love to see a blog post (if there isn't one already?) on advice in a similar vein.

Desiree Melton

Thank you, Ami, for writing this. It couldn't have been easy to get the data you provide, so thank you for that too.

Like Kate, I've never worked at a school with a graduate program, but I'll share my thoughts on the underrepresented minority PhD pipeline issue.

I’m an Associate Director of the Site Visit Program, which, among other things, hopes to attract more underrepresented groups to philosophy, so I am clearly invested in increasing the number of PhDs. Minority students are encouraged to pursue philosophy if their professor looks like them and teaches topics they are concerned about and can relate to. Since the majority of teaching positions require a PhD, then that means pouring more minorities into the pipeline. But I share Ami's concern about the saturation of philosophy PhDs and the low chances of getting a tenure-track job.

However, I’m also concerned that we are taking a very narrow view of the value of studying philosophy. I’m also concerned that focusing almost exclusively on increasing the number of PhDs from underrepresented groups reproduces the elitism of which I think many of us are opposed in the discipline itself. So, while I appreciate the focus on the BA or BS to PhD pipeline issue, I think we should not forget to recognize that the work done at undergraduate institutions is meaningful whether students go on to earn a PhD in philosophy or not.

I work at an institution where the day program is women-only. Our students are 60% women of color, most are regional (from Baltimore) and on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. They come from underprivileged neighborhoods with underserved, understaffed schools. Students are required to take one introductory philosophy course and one upper-level course. Like most college students, they come to philosophy with only some vague notion of what it is. But a good portion of our best students (usually from the honors program) get "hooked" after their intro course and decide to major or minor in philosophy. We encourage them. Our numbers of major and minors is growing and we are thrilled.

But most of our majors do not go on to pursue a PhD in philosophy. If they do go to graduate school, many of them study in fields where they serve or educate others. Our majors—and minors—have completed graduate work in education,social work,nursing, medicine. They go into politics and public health. Our students keep in touch after they graduate and many of them have emailed and visited us to tell us how invaluable their study in philosophy is to their work. We feel proud knowing their work in philosophy contributed to them being better teachers, care-givers,etc.

My experience was like Kate's. I came from the lower end of the socioeconomic scale and debt was nothing new to me. It was also not something I could realistically avoid in any case, so I decided to take it on for the work I'm interested in rather than pursuing a career where I'm unhappy but have high income earning potential. A huge chunk of our lives is spent working and I'm uneasy at the idea of discouraging people to not pursue the work they enjoy, especially when they have likely been discouraged many times in their lives by many people.

So I suggest that when we advise students who are considering a PhD in philosophy, we do the only thing we can do. Give them a clear picture of the challenges (and rewards) they face and let them decide. But also, while we lament the low numbers of minorities with philosophy PhDs, let's not discount the worth of undergraduate philosophical study no matter what field our students wind up in.

Bat-Ami Bar On

I want to thank all of you who have taken some time to both read my essay and respond.

Thank you for bringing up and asserting the value of undergraduate philosophical education. In general I agree with that assessment. Among the values I tend to attach to undergraduate philosophical education is that it teaches the pleasures of thinking rigorously in the company of others (including while reading quite obscure texts). I do not mean to imply that rigorous thinking does not have instrumental value. It may have such value. But I want to emphasize that which is not instrumental exactly because for students from groups that are underrepresented in philosophy as a profession, especially if they are "first generation," just enjoying rigorous thinking in the company of others is quite often a luxury for which one does not have time or one is discouraged from pursuing.

Having said that my advice that we, namely those of us who are lucky enough to be academic practitioners of philosophy, undertake a practice of radical rejection may feel hypocritical. But let me assure everyone that by advising a practice of radical rejection, I do not mean to deny anyone and especially not members of groups that are underrepresented in philosophy, a chance of a satisfying working life in which one gets to both continue to engage in rigorous thinking of the philosophical kind and teach it and the pleasures of it to others. For me the practice of radical rejection is one in which we go beyond offering information and with respectful care explore with students who tell us that they would like to pursue a philosophy Ph.D. what other satisfying work lives they can imagine. The philosophy job market is too abysmal for us to simply forge on as if it being abysmal does not matter.

A practice of radical rejection on its own is, of course not enough. I am advocating it because, as I pointed out in the essay, little institutional work is being done in the profession to address the problem of an over supply of philosophy Ph.Ds.

The other day I talked with a colleague in the Chemistry department who told me that their association is engaged in rethinking the Ph.D training since they too are facing a problem of oversupply. They concluded from their analysis of their data that they should train their Ph.D students somewhat differently than they do. They now distinguish between hard (research) and soft (other) skills. They believe that they should flexibilize the soft skills-set that they teach. The soft skills that they usually teach are those that are needed for academic jobs, but they don’t teach other soft skills. Yet, their Ph.Ds mostly need these other soft skills because they have research jobs in industry and the majority of those are government jobs that involve them in policy.

Maybe philosophy graduate programs should start looking at skill-sets along lines suggested by the above. I hope they do. Meanwhile and even as graduate programs change, we should continue to give the best advice to students talking with us about the possibility of pursuing a Ph.D in philosophy.

Laurie Shrage

Interesting article in light of this discussion:

"Philosophers Who Have Found Success Outside Academia":


Bat-Ami Bar On

I just heard second hand that the blog entry is being talked about at FEAST and I hope that some of that conversation makes it into comments here. And please, I did not mean for my response to the initial set of comments to bring comments to an end. I was hoping to just clarify further.

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