Go to Grad School!

It’s around the time of year when undergraduates start thinking about graduate school, so naturally it’s the time of year for overheated blog posts on why going to grad school is meant to be a Very Bad Idea. The latest of these is from Dean Dad, who wants to Stop the Cycle of Abuse, i.e. stop people going to grad school. The reasons given are all fairly standard factoids – it’s a huge opportunity cost, it takes forever, and the job market is awful. None of these are good reasons, and it would be an awful decision to not apply to graduate schools because of posts like these.

Now it is true that going to grad school does block you off from doing many other things with your 20s, such as being a professional athelete. But for many people grad school days are some of the most enjoyable of their lives, so the fact they last a while is hardly a major cost. And the job market is, at least for a lot of grad students, much better than the horror stories you’ll find on blogs suggest. Here, for instance, are the placement records for recent years of the philosophy departments at Princeton, Rutgers, NYU and MIT, four of the best East Coast philosophy programs. Note that these are the complete records – they include everyone who graduated, not just those who got headline jobs.

The records are fairly excellent I’d say. It might be noted that the job market in philosophy has generally been thought to be fairly weak over time period reported, and is much stronger nowadays. (There are more jobs advertised this year in philosophy I think than ever before.) Yet even over the lean years, the median student entering one of those programs ended up with a tenure-track job at a good-to-excellent university. And to a certain kind of person, there’s hardly a better job that can be imagined. The compulsory hours are fewer than any other job around (except perhaps as an NFL referee). And while you do have to spend time on research, presumably the people who go into these fields do so because they enjoy them. Life as an academic does consist of a fair amount of teaching, committee meetings, grading and so on. But it also consists in a rather ridiculous number of “I’m getting paid to do this!” moments, which more than make up for it. The payoff from being successful in this market, in other words, is pretty high. And that’s without mentioning the job security.

Now you might wonder why any of this is relevant. After all, most grad students don’t get to go to Princeton, Rutgers, NYU or MIT. The important point here is that no one ever has to decide to go to grad school as such. The big decision is whether to go to a particular graduate school that has offered you a (hopefully funded) place. In other words, when you have to make the crucial decision, you may well be in position of crucial information (i.e. that you’re at a school with an excellent placement record) that suggests your career prospects are very good.

There is a flipside to this of course, and that’s that by the time you’re accepted, you might know that your only grad school option is to go somewhere with a very poor placement record. (Or a very poor record of competent advising, or poor morale among students, or what have you.) At that stage, it is a very good idea to reconsider how strongly you want to go to graduate school. Going somewhere that you might well not enjoy, that might not lead to much of a career, is a real gamble. Of course there are very few schools from where no one has had a successful career, so it’s not like you have to give up if you don’t get into a top school. But you should go in with eyes wide open, or not go in at all. If you can’t get the data from the schools you’re considering about how they’ve done at placement in recent years, that’s a reason to be suspicious of the school. (Eyes wide open and staring into the void is not good.) And you’d have to think very hard before going somewhere without tuition wavers, or adequate stipends. But again, those are the kinds of decisions that should be made in the light of your specific possibilities, not in virtue of generic data about what humanities graduate school in general is like.

I also suspect the opportunity costs of graduate school are not as great as the Dean suggests. It’s true that you aren’t going to be putting much into your retirement fund or home equity while in graduate school. But academia is one of the best industries to be in if you want to choose your own retirement date. A few years of rather relaxed part-time teaching at the end of your career can easily make up for some lost income at the start. Over the long run, grad school will often be financially a perfectly acceptable deal. It’s hard to imagine too many people for whom going to grad school is the income-maximising path (though I know some such people), but it’s just as hard to imagine people who choose it purely on the basis of financial considerations.

The important take away point is that there’s no stage in the process where you ever have to worry about how your experience will be using the ‘typical graduate student experience’ as any guide. At this stage all you have to do are fairly non-committing things like taking the GRE and writing applications. When you really have to make a decision you’ll have a lot of information about what your grad school experience will be like, and what your long term prospects would be, and generic stories about what grad school as such is like will be of very little relevance to your particular case. Hopefully you’ll be in a position to know that your odds are well, well above average. (Assuming that, like the children of Lake Woebegon, the readers of CT are all above average!)

22 Replies to “Go to Grad School!”

  1. Hear, hear.

    I recall advice of Orson Scott Card’s on writing:

    Writers have to simultaneously believe the following two things: 1. The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English. 2. The story I am now working on is worthless drivel.

    Grad students, I’ve always felt, have to feel the same way about themselves when on the job market: “I am the best thing in my field since {Hawking/Aristotle/Barbara Partee/Ruskin}. A college would be utterly foolish not to hire me”; and “I know the job market is so dreadful that I’ll never get hired.” It’s the only way to accept the possibility of rejection while remaining optimistic about the chances of being hired.

    And, of course, publishing a novel is also hard to accomplish, and hard to make a living at, and yet people write. Sure, some of them need to take a good, careful look at their work, and the rejection letters from editors, and consider whether they stand a good chance of succeeding. But if it’s what you want to do—indeed, what you need to do—how can you not?

  2. I agree with some of what you’ve said, Brian, but I do think it’s worth sounding some cautionary notes to people applying to grad programs. First, of course, don’t go into debt to go to philosophy grad school. Second, don’t expect that you will immediately get a well-paying, tenure-track job in a city of your choice. (Placement records of the top few departments notwithstanding.)

    I have two more I’d like to add.

    I’ve seen a lot of people spend 5+ years in philosophy grad school and then drop out. I think these are people, by and large, who entered with a certain image of what it will be like: it will be like your happy undergraduate days. There will be some faculty member who takes a benevolent and nurturing interest in you; the program will actively encourage you to study widely and explore all sorts of interests and become a well-rounded, wiser person. Coming out of a liberal arts institution, or as an honors liberal arts student at a university, it is easy to imagine that grad school will be a continuation of all these things you’ve enjoyed during college, and it seems like a safe next step if you’re not sure what else to do.

    But this is not what grad school is like — at most places it’s not nurturing and personal, and it’s not about being a well-rounded intellectual. So it’s not for everyone who was good (even really excellent) at undergraduate philosophy classes. It can be really great, of course, but it requires that you are honestly interested enough in narrow philosophical issues to spend long, long hours ALONE with them. That’s a relatively rare disposition.

    Of course I agree with Brian: apply! Then see what your options are in March. But:

    -don’t go to grad school because you expect that you’ll find a nurturing mentor who will help you develop as a whole person. You will spend most of your time in grad school working alone, in many cases without much guidance at all.

    -don’t go to grad school because you expect you’ll be encouraged to pursue a very broad range of intellectual interests. Grad school in philosophy is a time for you to develop expertise in a (very) specialized topic.

  3. I don’t pretend to know exactly what “opportunity-costs” are, but I think the following counterfactual is obviously true (of me, having just spent 5 years in grad school, now one-year visitor at Texas Tech, making, you know, what a one-year visitor makes): If I hadn’t gone to grad school, I would me making a lot more money now.

    Of course, I also woudn’t know what a counterfactual is. My years in graduate school were the happiest years of my life, and I’m probably doomed to spend the rest of my life crying in my whiskey out of nostalgia for them. But I don’t think there’s any way to defend getting a PhD from the financial point of view. I mean, there are worse things you could do, financially, but there are tons and tons of things that would be financially wiser. Brian, you’re absolutely right that for “a certain kind of person” the payoff is excellent, but isn’t that just becuase that certain kind of person is the kind of person who has strong preferences for doing and teaching philosophy, being affiliated with a university, and so on – preferences for those things not as means to get a paycheck, but as ends in themselves (or, at least, means to non-paycheck ends)?

    So I think the big question for people considering going to a certain graduate school is whether they have strong preferences for those things – and they should make sure that its not likely that accepting an offer will lead to their starvation or bankruptcy somewhere down the line.

    your happy undergraduate days. There will be some faculty member who takes a benevolent and nurturing interest in you; the program will actively encourage you to study widely and explore all sorts of interests and become a well-rounded, wiser person.

    I went to a graduate school where it was practically a rule in the graduate handbook that no faculty member was to be benevolent and nurturing to anyone, and I was not forced to “study widely” and explore “all sorts of interests.” As it was during my undergraduate days (not at a liberal arts college) I studied widely of my own free will, and counted on my friends for nurturing and benevolence. A.S.‘s remarks paint a picture of the graduate student as a lonley soul in the library, forced to study some special topic, unable to become a whole person because of a lack of nurturing and encouragement to branch out. That maybe happens to some – I guess those who went to liberal arts colleges – and perhaps they were mislead into thinking that things would be different, but there’s nothing about philosophy graduate school that prevents you from being nurtured (you just need to replace that bit about Hemingway with a bit about Barthelme when you’re chatting someone up), and there’s nothing that prevents you from learning about topics other than your dissertation topic, and diciplines other than philosophy (a pitcher of beer will earn you a seat any anyone’s table). I think most graduate schools do not provide a personal and social life for the enrolled PhD students, and that’s a good thing – but it’s there (isn’t it?) that one comes to be a “well-rounded” and wise person, if one does.

  4. Yet even over the lean years, the median student entering one of those programs ended up with a tenure-track job at a good-to-excellent university.

    Minorish point: We don’t have that information—what we know is that the median student finishing the program ended up with such a job. If you’re thinking of grad school, you should try to find out how many students finish, and if they don’t why not. Did they decide, after a couple of years, that it wasn’t for them? Or did they drop out after 5 years and wind up like Matt Groening’s grad school dropout? That’s important.

  5. Great stuff, Brian. It’s worth also adding information for a somewhat different set of questions, for those who are thinking about attending a non-top-ten (or twenty or thirty) grad program. I hope you’ll forgive the length of the following, but hopefully some of the information will be valuable to those who might otherwise be dissuaded from pursuing graduate school.

    I’m thinking in particular of my former grad school, Memphis, which is not anywhere near the top ranks (or even in the ranks!) as measured in the Gourmet Report, though they did flirt with high scores in some sub-fields when I was there, before Arizona raided the cupboard of Horgan and Timmons among other departures. (I think there might be some problems with this non-ranking, as it seems to presuppose that SPEP-style continental philosophy—which I myself have never really done and can’t really defend in any informed way—doesn’t count as philosophy, or can’t be done in good and bad ways, which strikes me as dubious…but that’s another discussion.)

    The interesting and relevant thing to note about Memphis, and perhaps other, similarly situated programs, is that during its young life (first PhD granted in 1995), it has placed all of its PhDs in a job (and it’s worth adding that only a couple of those who entered the program didn’t finish). Of course, its placement record isn’t nearly as impressive as the top schools’ records, but then again many of those top schools cannot claim to have placed all of their PhDs in jobs. Hopefully this Web link will come up properly: http://cas.memphis.edu/philosophy/placement.htm

    This is important for several reasons, but two stem from reasonable worries about career prospects: (1) some of your undergraduate readers might have interests that will take them to non-top tier schools (knowing, as I did, that one wants to work even on something as mainstream as Kant’s ethics narrows the list of potential schools pretty quickly); and (2) some of your readers might be the types who don’t really get seriously motivated about their work until after undergrad (not [cough, cough] that I know anyone like this :)), and so might have more limited options for where to go to grad school. As you point out, there are new things to consider when in such a situation, so it’s worth asking whether “Dean Dad’s” advice should send such students running away from grad school.

    Of course, potential applicants to lower-tier (or no-tier) schools should be very cautious. My (limited) experience speaks to some things potential grad students might consider when considering such a program:

    -Find a program that is very serious about placing students. Memphis faculty do a great job of doing everything possible to find a job for their students (making calls to contacts, prepping applicants, etc.). I’m told that not everyone does this. (Talk to former grad students of places you’re considering if possible.)

    -Your initial job options will likely be different that those had by PhDs from more prominent institutions. The most obvious manifestation of this fact is that, while there are a few notable exceptions, almost all PhDs from non-ranked or low-ranked programs will have to start their careers in unappealing or fixed-term (though full time) jobs, and then, if possible, work their way up to more appealing, tenure-track jobs. I had to do four years in such jobs (one, which I held for three of those four years, required me to teach nine (!) classes per year), before finally this year getting tenure-track job offers (at to my mind appealing schools). However, it is also important to note that sometimes lower-ranked programs can actually improve your job chances. My first job, at a Cal. State, hired me in large part because I had a ton of teaching experience in grad school; my guess is that they’d prefer someone with that background over a Princeton PhD with no teaching experience. Of course, Brian’s point is about where the good jobs are, and a fixed-term, 9-classes-per-year job in Bakersfield probably won’t be lumped into that category by most people, but the point is just that there are different job options, and therefore different things to consider, when considering whether to go to grad school if one will not be attending a top-ranked program. One final note on this topic: placement patterns are dynamic. Just to take the Memphis example again, they understandably have had more and more success as the years have gone by. These days, many of us have moved on to pretty desirable tenure-track jobs (depending on your philosophical inclinations and, again, still not as robust a set of jobs as found on the placement lists at top-ranked programs): I like mine at Victoria U. of Wellington, and others have ended up at Oregon, De Paul, Emory, and elsewhere, including good small liberal arts schools like Beloit. And hopefully that list will continue to expand, but the point is that it didn’t start that way—it takes a lot of work by both the job candidates and the PhD program’s faculty—and that the change can work in the other direction if programs start to falter.

    -PhDs from non-top ranked programs therefore also can predict having even less choice about where to live. I personally have found this depressing, though I’m happy to now be gainfully employed in beautiful New Zealand (with a 2/1 to make up for those 9-classes-a-year!). The point, again, is that there is an increased likelihood of having to make some sacrifices the lower down the rankings you go, but also that this fact doesn’t mean that going to grad school is a bad idea.

    -This is probably most obvious, but it also bears emphasizing: if you’re hoping for a successful academic career but thinking of attending a lower-ranked program, you’ll have to work that much harder. This is just an armchair guess, but it seems likely that when faced with two roughly similar CV’s, each with say a publication in a clearly top-five journal and another in a top-twenty journal, most hiring committees will take the candidate from the more highly ranked school, other things being equal. That means that the lower-ranked PhD must be compensated for by producing that third or fourth, or fifth (or more influential, or better argued, etc.) publication. What’s frustrating, of course, is that this must be done in often adverse circumstances not faced by your peers from higher-ranked programs who are applying for the same jobs (cf. the 9-course-per-year teaching load).

    The short story is that students should be cautious about the potential costs and frustrations involved in going to grad school, and should be even more cautious as they move down the prestige rankings. But even then there are circumstances in which it would be wise to go to grad school. Just to echo the sentiments above, there are a ton of great reasons to do so for the right type of person. Despite the frustrations I’ve experienced, including the difficulties involved in spending five years on the market for my first tenure-track job, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that going to grad school in philosophy was a great decision (and that I got a first-rate education at a lower-prestige program), and that a more lucrative career path or one with fewer job-seeking frustrations would have been a bad decision. I’m still thrilled that we get paid to write, think, talk, and teach about the things we write, think, talk, and teach about.

  6. Allen,
    I didn’t mean to suggest that one’s grad school days will inevitably be lonely or unhappy. I have enjoyed mine, made good friends, spent happy hours thinking and talking and so on. I like the faculty in my program.

    But I think it’s easy for bright undergrads to have a certain inaccurate picture of what grad school is like, that makes it seem like an appealing and safe default next step. This leads people to apply who would flourish better if they went out into the world.

    I think this is worth talking about because of the people who are likely to be on the fence about grad school. Such people, I think, are not often daunted by the threatened bad outcomes like low salary or restricted choices of where to live. They know they like the life of the mind, they know they’re good at it, so of course it seems like a good bet to accept low pay for stimulating work. (Plus, even with all the warning in the world, it’s hard to appreciate at 22 what it will mean to be making $35,000 a year when you’re 30.) So I think painting an accurate picture of what kind of life of the mind they’ll find in grad school is worthwhile. It can be wonderful, but it is different from college in important ways.

    All this said, I often encourage bright undergrads to think about grad school. If you’ve looked at all this and think it sounds like the path for you, definitely apply!

  7. I wanted to say something along the lines that Josh said, but he said it so very well that I’m glad I waited. I graduated (‘82) from that other big school at the other end of Tennessee in Knoxville, and, at a time when jobs were pretty much just not to be had, after 70 applications got 1 interview, which today remains the only one I ever got in the profession. But by the skin of my teeth I hung on, got that job (1/2 time tenure-track; try to find one of those!) and quickly pushed it toward a full-time position. Unlike Josh, I’ve taught a 4/4 calendar my entire career, and so I’m not exactly what you’d call a hot-shot researcher. On the other hand I love my profession, love to teach (and yes, love teaching PHI 101 more for the 120th time than ever), and count myself fortunate to have the benefit of eaves-dropping on first-class minds such as Weatherson’s, Chalmers’, and Fischers’ at these intellectual oases.

    Please do consider schools like Memphis and UTK—they have much to offer if you do careful research on their programs and strengths, and especially if you love—and can handle—a teaching career that might crimp any high research hopes you otherwise have. When I reflect on the terrific professorial life I’ve had with my colleagues on my campus and in my department, I still feel like I won a lottery. Because I guess I did. Be realistic as recommended above, find a program that’s a good fit for your realistic goals, and take a shot. But especially if you know that you can wow ‘em in the classroom, take a shot.

  8. If you’re not going to one of the top-10 schools, then while you’re having the time of your life in philosophy grad school, remember:

    1. Regardless of what your AOS is, develop a teaching competency in applied ethics. You wouldn’t believe how many jobs there are that require teaching in this area, and it might dovetail with plans for law school as another career.

    2. Pick up another language. My own employment prospects would have been so much better if I’d learnt Latin and had a teaching competency in ancient philosophy.

    3. Attend a school in a big city with lots of colleges nearby, not just because cities are fun, but also because you can do some contract teaching at the nearby colleges and develop more teaching experience.

    Finally, I wish there were some way to find out if graduates of some programs are more likely to be denied tenure down the road. Anecdotally, it seems that some programs have this problem. I realize it’s a really lagging indicator, but it might indicate a long-term problem with a department’s culture (e.g., promoting some of their candidates on the job market for the wrong reasons).

  9. I have to say that I don’t quite understand the claims that going to graduate school is a huge financial risk (at least if you go to a well funded graduate program).

    The question is what alternative course you would take. Let’s suppose that instead of going to grad school you go to work in a bank, or in a office of some sort, or become a school teacher
    or start your own business.

    Let’s suppose that if you go to grad school you graduate and cannot find an academic job. Well, you can still go and work in a bank or in an office or as a school teacher, etc. (I can’t imagine it would be harder for you to get one of these jobs with a PhD). In the meanwhile you enjoyed yourself for 5 more years.

  10. Josh said:

    “This is just an armchair guess, but it seems likely that when faced with two roughly similar CV’s, each with say a publication in a clearly top-five journal and another in a top-twenty journal, most hiring committees will take the candidate from the more highly ranked school, other things being equal. That means that the lower-ranked PhD must be compensated for by producing that third or fourth, or fifth (or more influential, or better argued, etc.) publication.”

    I am unsure whether this adequately captures the extent of the problem. This makes is sound as if a student at a non-ranked (or low-tier) Ph.D. program need only work twice as hard to catch up. But it is easier said than done. Imagine, for instance, two students A and B. A is at a top ten (or even top twenty) program. As a result A’s letters will be from some of the top people in her field and A will have had classes with first-rate people. B, on the other hand, may have only one or two letters from good people and many of her classes were taken with people that are typically viewed as second-class citizens by philosophers working at more rarified universities. Luckily, B has worked markedly harder than many of the students at some of the top schools. Indeed, along the way she has managed to publish four or five (or more!) articles at journals—including some good specialty journals as well some of the top journals (e.g., Mind, Nous, PPR, etc.). A, on the other hand, has either not published anything at all or has only published one or two articles at good specialty journals. Both A and B’s applications are sitting before a search committee. Who gets the interview? B, right? Wrong. And here’s why.

    The committee may well assume that the only reason A did not publish (or did not publish as much) is because A did not try to publish. After all, with a degree from Princeton, Stanford, NYU, Rutgers, MIT (etc.) and letters of recommendations to match, A did not need to try and publish. The default assumption is likely to be that even though B clearly has had more scholarly success than A, this is no indication of their respective talents. Indeed, the worse the program that B attended, the harder the will be for B to overcome the default assumption concerning their scholarly potential. As a result, B ends up with a potentially dead-end 4-4 job (where moving up is highly unlikely) whereas A ends up being given an opportunity to prove her mettle at a program with a top-50 Ph.D. program.

    Is this story far-fetched? I would like to believe so since I am in B’s shoes (which is why I have posted this anonymously). As a result, I may be forever relegated to a philosophical second-class citizenship despite having already accomplished more than some of my peers coming from better programs—a stigma that is very hard to overcome. Of course, people often point to John Hawthorne as an example of someone who rose like a Phoenix from a less than stellar program to do great things in philosophy, thereby demonstrating that merit matters more than pedigree. But how many other cases like his are there? Weatherson comes to mind. Who else?

    The moral of the story is that students considering grad school should not simply assume that hard work and determination will make up for having slacked off as an undergraduate or for having attended a less prestigious university. Of course, if you are a world-class philosopher such as Hawthorne, it probably won’t matter much where you go to grad school. Your brilliance will simply shine through. But it still remains likely that even if you are a mere philosophical mortal, but nevertheless more talented than others who were fortunate enough to have attended better schools, you will likely find yourself scurrying for their scraps. And simply working hard may never be enough to make up the difference. Of course, if you are willing to be relegated to such a position despite being more talented than others who ended up on easy street, then perhaps this won’t be frustrating or disheartening. But look at the faculty lists of the top 30 or so programs and see how many junior people came from programs outside the top 30. That should serve as a painful reminder of how inadequate hard work may actually be.

    Since I am currently “on the market”, I would ike to believe that I am mistaken. The realist in me, however, suspects that I have hit the nail on its ugly head.

    Of course, this is not to suggest that people should attend these lower ranked universities. But they should only do so with a full appreciation with how hard it actually is to compete with people who attend better programs.

  11. “Of course, this is not to suggest that people should attend these lower ranked universities. But they should only do so with a full appreciation with how hard it actually is to compete with people who attend better programs.”

    This was supposed to say: Of course, this is not to suggest that people should NOT attend…

  12. I must say I find V. Alan White’s sentiment to be well expressed and quite moving. Making a decent living for doing something so effortless as teaching a subject you love should strike you as a great boon, and to have great job security and the other perks should make it akin to winning the lottery. It’s a great life, and I’m not sure why anyone should ever feel entitled to more, no matter how brilliant or diligent one may be. I am tempted to say that White’s attitude should be prerequisite for anyone contemplating graduate school.

  13. A cautionary note: When I was first considering going to grad school I was told that one of the great things was the philosophy groupies. Don’t believe this. There are, in fact, no philosophy groupies.

    On a different note, re Hawthorne, it’s not as if Syracuse was a no-name place, especially since William Alston (a former APA president), Jonathan Bennett, and Peter van Inwagin were all there, and all top people in his area, when Hawthorne was a student. This isn’t to say he’s not made an impressive career, or that he hasn’t deserved it. Only that somewhat similar stories are not that rare, he was in a program that was quite good for people w/ his interests, and so it’s not that surprising of a story.

  14. First, my heartfelt tip of the hat to Justin. Beyond the caveats of the Baconian variety of idols, I’d gently remind us of the etymology of our discipline.

    Second, my thanks to all who have thus far contributed to this thread. It really helps me prepare to read the 100 applications for 2 tenure-track 4/4 “dead-end” positions in my department that will preoccupy my holiday break. I sincerely hope that all those who are prepared to serve in our distinguished profession get precisely what they wish for—or not. And I guess I never really realized before now how an expression of justice can be so well served by such a mere tautology contextually prefaced by the appropriate propositional attitude.

  15. OK, I’m sorry about the last post—in some sense—I am a proud member of the profession, and proud of what I do. Brian hosts this site for the free exhange of ideas, and it is one of the best on the net for philosophy. When the question of whether one should pursue grad school in philosophy was raised, I wanted to weigh in on a positive note, simply because I tend to be a positive sort of person. I genuinely believe that those who have a gift in the classroom should be encouraged to pursue a career in the discipline. But not everyone can fulfill this goal—and unfortunately, not everyone thus is entitled to have a chance to teach philosophy. But all this will be sifted by the colander of the needs of hiring. My department stands at the place where teaching is THE standard of hiring—and thus those who can and those who can’t teach so well form the basis of discrimination. And I know that in terms of the number of grad students who face hiring decisions, it is probably more institutions like mine than institutions like Brian’s that constitute the answer of whether they have some future in the profession. So considerations like the relative number of primo publications in so-called first-and second-tiered journals have little place in our decisions—and in fact we do not look so much for prominent publications. We look for really excellent teachers who appreciate the contributions of scholarly philosoply. Since not everyone can do this, even we 4/4 hirers are hesitant about pure scholars, even if they are demonstrably compentent teachers. That is a cautionary note. In our discipline, even “dead-end” 4/4 tenure-track positions are thus selective. Please concentrate on your teaching abilities, all things being otherwise equal if you are not a sterling researcher. It increases your chances of staying in the discipline.

  16. White, would it be possible to describe just how teaching ability is judged by yourself or your department by looking at an application and interviewing the candidates? Our department is going through a hiring process for two positions, and they previously, in my opinion, made a poor decision with regard to the teaching ability of one of the recent hires, so I’m wondering how it is that one goes about evaluating teaching ability from the beginning to the end of the job search process.

  17. That’s a great question and I wish I had a sage answer. Of course review available student evals and make relevant follow-up calls to supervisors and such. But in my experience you can’t beat face-to-face interviews and a sample teaching session. (I say face-to-face simply because so many institutions, including my own, are pushing at least preliminary interviews to be conducted by video-conferencing. I find those to be so artificial and forced as to be only slightly better than phone interviews.) But of all these, a sample teaching session with carefully-crafted follow-up questions that are consistent for all candidates is one of the best and most reliable markers for success. And of course make sure that you stack the committee with the strongest and most tried-and-true instructors that you have (just as you would naturally stack the committee otherwise if you were looking for excellent researchers).

  18. Ah, I wish our department had the time and resources to do sample teaching sessions. It is encouraging to hear, though, that there is at least one department out there strongly preferential to the teaching aspect of… well, teaching. Thanks for the answer, and I hope your search is successful!

  19. Thank you Charles (if I may)—our department—as representative of our 13-campus mission—holds teaching to be the sine qua non for appointment and tenure, though we also expect modest research accomplishments too. And if I may give my colleagues a plug, they constitute one of the best collections of caring and high-quality instructors that one could wish to be associated with.

    If it’s possible though, try to add in a sample presentation to the process—it can make a huge difference in outcome. And good luck to you as well in future hiring!

  20. Hey, “anon 3” — and others!

    I’m applying to PhD programs now. I’m actually trying for a number of top 10 and 20 programs (as well as some other places), but, although my recommenders have said nice things about my talent, my inconsistent record as an undergraduate prevents me from being really optimistic about my chances for acceptance.

    However, I see a lot of students at top programs who’ve started out at other institutions, often transferring with MA degrees. How viable is this?

  21. Anon 4, I teach at a school with an MA program, and last year I taught at a different school with an MA program. (Texas Tech and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, respectively.) So I’m a bit biased. But I think terminal MA programs are pretty much designed for people in your situation—helping students with talent who have inconsistent records or did not major in philosophy get into better PhD programs.

    As for PhD programs, you should try to find out about placement records. Not every MA program has its placement into PhDs on the web; I’ve noticed that Georgia State and UWM do. One factor may be that not every student has the same goals and the same expectations or funding situations; funding for MAs is much spottier than for PhDs.

    My opinion is not only biased but uninformed, since I’ve never worked on a PhD admissions committee. But the terminal MA to PhD path is not unusual. The way you describe your situation, I’d definitely consider top MA programs.

  22. In recent years here at UC, Irvine about half of those enrolling in the PhD program have prior M.A. degrees. I don’t think our admissions policy has had any bias toward or against this background.

Comments are closed.