So You Want to Get a PhD in Philosophy?

Don’t! Unless you plan with great care!

Steven Yates

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Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

The other day, a friend of mine posted this on his Facebook page:

I read that and wondered, Where do I even begin???

I’ve no clue who he is, of course. Just one of many “lost generation” PhDs out there. Actually, lost generation should be plural, since there’s now more than one, and we’re not referring to the Hemingway / Fitzgerald generation, either. Who are the “lost generation” PhDs? Those of us who sought academic careers but earned our PhDs after the infamous academic job market collapse of the 1970s. There are few jobs now, but for a decade or so back then there were virtually none at all. Most new PhDs had little choice except to pursue other lines of work.

In the late ’80s and early ’90s things opened up a little. The steady trickle of job openings continued into the ’00s, but with the financial crisis of 2008–09, things fell apart again. Now, almost a year after Captain Covid came to call, they’re worse than ever.

You can earn a PhD and not end up at a Wendy’s, but only if you plan with great care. And only if you realize that you have to seek out the information you need, because it’s not going to come to you.

Most academic advisors are motivated by self-interest, just like all of us at some level. They want to their departments to look good. The more graduate students, the better. That means enticing naïve would-be PhDs to go for it, and if they have to hand out false hope, then so be it. Ethically shady, but common. Many academics, moreover, view student advisement as akin to annoying committee work and neither know nor care what they’re talking about. So they just peddle BS.

For example, my cohort (late 1980s PhDs) was told about a massive “wave of retirements” that never came. Mandatory retirement was ended, for one thing. Then, when tenured professors did retire, their slots turned adjunct. This happened because those at the top of the institutions figured they could save on labor costs. And boy, did they ever!

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Steven Yates

I am the author of What Should Philosophy Do? A Theory. I write about philosophy (especially the Stoics), health and systems, and the future if we have one.