Gatekeepers to the Profession

In his comment on this post, Dave Shoemaker writes:

Too often we act as kinds of gatekeepers, judging that if students aren't sufficiently "like us" (in terms of grades, drive, class participation, political inclination, Monty Python proclivities), then they probably shouldn't even try. This attitude contributes more than we think to keeping out students not "like us," and so may have something to do with the shoddy percentages of women and minorities in philosophy.

I think that this is a very important point. In fact, I think that it’s important enough to deserve its own separate thread. Thus, I hereby open this thread for discussion of what, if anything, we should do to avoid acting as gatekeepers to the profession.

I’m wary of acting as a gatekeeper to the profession. Consequently, I
try not to advise anyone that he or she should not pursue graduate work
in philosophy. Instead, I try to provide those who come to me seeking
advice with as much pertinent information as I can offer so that they
can make informed, autonomous decisions for themselves. This, of
course, involves telling them about the difficulties in securing
certain kinds of academic employment and about various other possible
drawbacks associated with pursuing graduate work in philosophy. And it
involves giving them an honest assessment of their prospects for
success in getting into various graduate programs and doing well once
there. But it also involves telling them how graduate work can be
intrinsically rewarding, how wonderful it can be to live the life of a
teacher and/or scholar of philosophy, and what one can do with, say, a
terminal M.A. if things don’t quite work out in graduate school. And I
think that it involves entertaining the possibility that, perhaps,
unlike yourself, they might be perfectly happy teaching philosophy at a
community college and that, if so, they should probably talk to some
community college professors about what’s the best way to get that sort
of job.

So I’m quite wary of the sort of advice that some people say that they’re giving—see this post.
I don’t think, for instance, that we should be giving our students the
following advice: “You should not pursue graduate work in philosophy
unless you can get into a ranked program with financial support.” I
went to a program that, when I entered the program, was just on the
cusp of being ranked, and I received no financial support to begin with
and no promise of future financial support at all. But, for me, it was worth
the risk, and the gamble paid off in spades. For some people who are
more risk adverse or who are more concerned with getting a career going
before the age of 30, my decision is not the one that would have been right
for them. But why should we (in our capacity as advisors versus in our
capacity as graduate admission committee members) decide who should and
shouldn’t pursue graduate work in philosophy and at what sort of
graduate programs and at what sort of financial cost? Shouldn’t we just
inform them as best we can and encourage them to make up their own
minds as to whether the possible benefits outweigh the prospective
costs?

37 Replies to “Gatekeepers to the Profession

  1. “And it involves giving them an honest assessment of their prospects for success in getting into various graduate programs and doing well once there.”
    This seems especially important in demonstrating why the move away from acting as “gatekeepers” must be made en masse. So long as (a significant number of) others in the field are acting as gatekeepers, one’s honest assessment of a student’s prospects must take this into account, and thus one may (albeit unwittingly) be forced to act somewhat as a gatekeeper oneself.

  2. Doug,
    My perspective is somewhat different from yours. It’s not like I have this all worked out, though, and it’s an important topic, so I am open to persuasion. At any rate, some thoughts:
    1. There is a huge selection bias on this blog. Most people reading this blog are no doubt happy with the choice they made to attend grad school. It doesn’t follow that unhappy people don’t exist. In large numbers.
    2. But why should we (in our capacity as advisors …) decide who should and shouldn’t pursue graduate work in philosophy?
    Well, we shouldn’t. And, we don’t. I think most of us would fill out an application, and write a letter, for any reasonably decent student. Your position seems to be that we should just give students facts, as neutrally as possible. I would characterize that as refusing to give students what they are quite likely to want and often ask for, namely, advice. My students have generally never met a graduate student or been around a graduate program, in any discipline, and they need more than just statistics for good decision-making. And if they don’t want advice, but just facts, advice is easy enough to ignore. My students ignore me about all kinds of things all the time!
    3. Maybe you have seen old kung fu movies where a master rejects a prospective student twice, and if the student comes back a third time and still wants to learn kung fu, the master judges that he has the mettle and teaches him. I lead with the bad news for a similar reason. Nobody will continue in the process, once they learn how tough it is, unless they really love philosophy and are really determined to make a go of it (maybe because they don’t care about careers, etc). Those are two characteristics that success in grad school requires. There is time enough for encouragement later in the process, when reviewing writing samples and filling out apps.
    4. There is another consideration that does not belong in discussions within any particular student, but does occupy a kind of strategic background role with me. That is that the oversupply of labor in the humanities job market hurts not just the people on the market, but everyone else too, by lowering the bargaining power of professors with administration. It lowers salaries for those fortunate enough to have jobs, and slowly but surely erodes the institution of tenure, as more courses are taught by adjuncts. Again, this is not a reason to discourage any particular student from grad school, but it is a reason (I think) not to take a too-encouraging approach generally.
    5. I doubt whether our advising practices have much to do with the numbers of women and minorities in our profession. For one thing, I doubt that our advising practices are any different from other those of other humanities professors; they could at most perpetuate but not explain our relative lack of women and minorities. Without a lot of evidence, here is my conjectural explanation of the gap:
    The role of gender and racial identity is much less central to the self-conception of philosophy as a discipline than in other humanities. Other humanities often think of the practice of their discipline as forwarding a social justice project; philosophers are more likely to think of theirs as “continuous with science,” and they get the demographics of the sciences. For example, African-American History and Women’s Literature are common and mainstream courses; African-American Philosophy and Women Philosophers are not common courses, and could not be, without (a) a serious re-thinking of the philosophical canon, and (b) a curricular decision not to focus on a topic or a historical period, but instead on a set of authors joined by nothing but race or gender. But philosophers are pretty comfortable with their canon, while other disciplines suspect canons of incorporating racial and gender biases. And philosophers pride themselves on, essentially, color-blindness, judging others not on the color of their skin (or the shape of their genitals) but on the content of their articles. Other humanities often regard diversity as contributing to a multiplicity of perspectives, all of which are worthy; philosophy has, as a regulative ideal, a universal and cosmopolitan reason, and spends a lot of effort eliminating unworthy perspectives. Practically every historian, lit prof, art historian, sociologist, etc. is taught to consider the special perspectives of marginalized groups. In philosophy, this is an activity hived off for study by a few.
    I emphasize that I am neither endorsing nor bemoaning any of this; they are just the facts on the ground as I see them.
    Now, consider an average non-white-male student with some inclination to higher study in the humanities. Probably this person consciously thinks of themselves in terms of their non-white-male identity; at least this has been suggested to them by their senior year of college. This person can go into (a) one of the other humanities, where their identity will be an object of study, often affirmed or celebrated, even considered an epistemic resource; or (b) philosophy, where their identity is suppressed or ignored except in a few small conference gatherings. It is not all that surprising that a disproportionate number choose against philosophy.

  3. Doug,
    My perspective is somewhat different from yours. It’s not like I have this all worked out, though, and it’s an important topic, so I am open to persuasion. At any rate, some thoughts:
    1. There is a huge selection bias on this blog. Most people reading this blog are no doubt happy with the choice they made to attend grad school. It doesn’t follow that unhappy people don’t exist. In large numbers.
    2. But why should we (in our capacity as advisors …) decide who should and shouldn’t pursue graduate work in philosophy?
    Well, we shouldn’t. And, we don’t. I think most of us would fill out an application, and write a letter, for any reasonably decent student. Your position seems to be that we should just give students facts, as neutrally as possible. I would characterize that as refusing to give students what they are quite likely to want and often ask for, namely, advice. My students have generally never met a graduate student or been around a graduate program, in any discipline, and they need more than just statistics for good decision-making. And if they don’t want advice, but just facts, advice is easy enough to ignore. My students ignore me about all kinds of things all the time!
    3. Maybe you have seen old kung fu movies where a master rejects a prospective student twice, and if the student comes back a third time and still wants to learn kung fu, the master judges that he has the mettle and teaches him. I lead with the bad news for a similar reason. Nobody will continue in the process, once they learn how tough it is, unless they really love philosophy and are really determined to make a go of it (maybe because they don’t care about careers, etc). Those are two characteristics that success in grad school requires. There is time enough for encouragement later in the process, when reviewing writing samples and filling out apps.
    4. There is another consideration that does not belong in discussions within any particular student, but does occupy a kind of strategic background role with me. That is that the oversupply of labor in the humanities job market hurts not just the people on the market, but everyone else too, by lowering the bargaining power of professors with administration. It lowers salaries for those fortunate enough to have jobs, and slowly but surely erodes the institution of tenure, as more courses are taught by adjuncts. Again, this is not a reason to discourage any particular student from grad school, but it is a reason (I think) not to take a too-encouraging approach generally.
    5. I doubt whether our advising practices have much to do with the numbers of women and minorities in our profession. For one thing, I doubt that our advising practices are any different from other those of other humanities professors; they could at most perpetuate but not explain our relative lack of women and minorities. Without a lot of evidence, here is my conjectural explanation of the gap:
    The role of gender and racial identity is much less central to the self-conception of philosophy as a discipline than in other humanities. Other humanities often think of the practice of their discipline as forwarding a social justice project; philosophers are more likely to think of theirs as “continuous with science,” and they get the demographics of the sciences. For example, African-American History and Women’s Literature are common and mainstream courses; African-American Philosophy and Women Philosophers are not common courses, and could not be, without (a) a serious re-thinking of the philosophical canon, and (b) a curricular decision not to focus on a topic or a historical period, but instead on a set of authors joined by nothing but race or gender. But philosophers are pretty comfortable with their canon, while other disciplines suspect canons of incorporating racial and gender biases. And philosophers pride themselves on, essentially, color-blindness, judging others not on the color of their skin (or the shape of their genitals) but on the content of their articles. Other humanities often regard diversity as contributing to a multiplicity of perspectives, all of which are worthy; philosophy has, as a regulative ideal, a universal and cosmopolitan reason, and spends a lot of effort eliminating unworthy perspectives. Practically every historian, lit prof, art historian, sociologist, etc. is taught to consider the special perspectives of marginalized groups. In philosophy, this is an activity hived off for study by a few.
    I emphasize that I am neither endorsing nor bemoaning any of this; they are just the facts on the ground as I see them.
    Now, consider an average non-white-male student with some inclination to higher study in the humanities. Probably this person consciously thinks of themselves in terms of their non-white-male identity; at least this has been suggested to them by their senior year of college. This person can go into (a) one of the other humanities, where their identity will be an object of study, often affirmed or celebrated, even considered an epistemic resource; or (b) philosophy, where their identity is suppressed or ignored except in a few small conference gatherings. It is not all that surprising that a disproportionate number choose against philosophy.

  4. Doug,
    My perspective is somewhat different from yours. It’s not like I have this all worked out, though, and it’s an important topic, so I am open to persuasion. At any rate, some thoughts:
    1. There is a huge selection bias on this blog. Most people reading this blog are no doubt happy with the choice they made to attend grad school. It doesn’t follow that unhappy people don’t exist. In large numbers.
    2. But why should we (in our capacity as advisors …) decide who should and shouldn’t pursue graduate work in philosophy?
    Well, we shouldn’t. And, we don’t. I think most of us would fill out an application, and write a letter, for any reasonably decent student. Your position seems to be that we should just give students facts, as neutrally as possible. I would characterize that as refusing to give students what they are quite likely to want and often ask for, namely, advice. My students have generally never met a graduate student or been around a graduate program, in any discipline, and they need more than just statistics for good decision-making. And if they don’t want advice, but just facts, advice is easy enough to ignore. My students ignore me about all kinds of things all the time!
    3. Maybe you have seen old kung fu movies where a master rejects a prospective student twice, and if the student comes back a third time and still wants to learn kung fu, the master judges that he has the mettle and teaches him. I lead with the bad news for a similar reason. Nobody will continue in the process, once they learn how tough it is, unless they really love philosophy and are really determined to make a go of it (maybe because they don’t care about careers, etc). Those are two characteristics that success in grad school requires. There is time enough for encouragement later in the process, when reviewing writing samples and filling out apps.
    4. There is another consideration that does not belong in discussions within any particular student, but does occupy a kind of strategic background role with me. That is that the oversupply of labor in the humanities job market hurts not just the people on the market, but everyone else too, by lowering the bargaining power of professors with administration. It lowers salaries for those fortunate enough to have jobs, and slowly but surely erodes the institution of tenure, as more courses are taught by adjuncts. Again, this is not a reason to discourage any particular student from grad school, but it is a reason (I think) not to take a too-encouraging approach generally.
    5. I doubt whether our advising practices have much to do with the numbers of women and minorities in our profession. For one thing, I doubt that our advising practices are any different from other those of other humanities professors; they could at most perpetuate but not explain our relative lack of women and minorities. Without a lot of evidence, here is my conjectural explanation of the gap:
    The role of gender and racial identity is much less central to the self-conception of philosophy as a discipline than in other humanities. Other humanities often think of the practice of their discipline as forwarding a social justice project; philosophers are more likely to think of theirs as “continuous with science,” and they get the demographics of the sciences. For example, African-American History and Women’s Literature are common and mainstream courses; African-American Philosophy and Women Philosophers are not common courses, and could not be, without (a) a serious re-thinking of the philosophical canon, and (b) a curricular decision not to focus on a topic or a historical period, but instead on a set of authors joined by nothing but race or gender. But philosophers are pretty comfortable with their canon, while other disciplines suspect canons of incorporating racial and gender biases. And philosophers pride themselves on, essentially, color-blindness, judging others not on the color of their skin (or the shape of their genitals) but on the content of their articles. Other humanities often regard diversity as contributing to a multiplicity of perspectives, all of which are worthy; philosophy has, as a regulative ideal, a universal and cosmopolitan reason, and spends a lot of effort eliminating unworthy perspectives. Practically every historian, lit prof, art historian, sociologist, etc. is taught to consider the special perspectives of marginalized groups. In philosophy, this is an activity hived off for study by a few.
    I emphasize that I am neither endorsing nor bemoaning any of this; they are just the facts on the ground as I see them.
    Now, consider an average non-white-male student with some inclination to higher study in the humanities. Probably this person consciously thinks of themselves in terms of their non-white-male identity; at least this has been suggested to them by their senior year of college. This person can go into (a) one of the other humanities, where their identity will be an object of study, often affirmed or celebrated, even considered an epistemic resource; or (b) philosophy, where their identity is suppressed or ignored except in a few small conference gatherings. It is not all that surprising that a disproportionate number choose against philosophy.

  5. “if students aren’t sufficiently “like us” (in terms of grades, drive, class participation, political inclination, Monty Python proclivities), then they probably shouldn’t even try.”
    Are you sure that this actually happens in philosophy more than other disciplines? I need evidence for this fact. Heath White’s response offers an alternative explanation that sounds quite possible.

  6. I don’t agree with Heath White that it’s a good policy to lead with the bad news and leave the encouragement to “later in the process.” As nice as it is to think that you need the spirit of Bruce Lee to make it in academia, there are plenty of really smart, hard-working ungrads who might let one meeting with their adviser dissuade them from pursuing higher education (this is especially so of the ones who are seriously considering grad school and so, presumably, are most inspired by their professors). I could easily imagine someone inferring from the fact that his adviser was emphasizing the negative aspects of grad work that he was trying to discourage the student from attending graduate school. (Surely that’s the most generous interpretation; the alternative, that he’s playing mind games, makes him out to be a bit of a cad.) The fact that some would disregard this perceived discouragement suggests to me not that they’d be great philosophers, but that they are either stubborn or underwhelmed by their advisers’ perspicaciousness.

  7. Heath,
    Thanks for engaging in the discussion. It’s good to hear other viewpoints. I’ll try to respond (though, briefly) to your five points:
    (1) I don’t see the relevance of this point. My claim is that rather than advising students that they should or shouldn’t go to graduate school, we should be giving them the information that will allow them to determine for themselves whether they should or should not pursue graduate work in philosophy.
    (2) My worry is that many of us (including myself) have a tendency to advise others on the assumption that they are like us, sharing our values, concerns, and aspirations. So I ask: “Are you advising them as to what they should do on the assumption that they share your values, concerns, and aspirations, or do you feel that you know them well enough personally that you’re in a better position to know what they should do given their values, concerns, and aspirations than they would be were you to inform them as best you could?
    (3) You write:

    Maybe you have seen old kung fu movies where a master rejects a prospective student twice, and if the student comes back a third time and still wants to learn kung fu, the master judges that he has the mettle and teaches him. I lead with the bad news for a similar reason. Nobody will continue in the process, once they learn how tough it is, unless they really love philosophy and are really determined to make a go of it (maybe because they don’t care about careers, etc).

    I’m worried that this might not be the right approach. It might be the right approach to take with certain individuals and groups who have certain backgrounds, dispositions, and life experiences, but it might be the completely wrong approach to take with other individuals and groups who have different backgrounds, dispositions, and life experiences. Perhaps, all that some need to succeed is a little encouragement at this stage. Perhaps, what we should be telling some good students is that it’s going to be hard but that we think that they can do it if they’re willing to persevere through some tough times. Perhaps, if we tell them that there will be a lot of set backs and rejections and that that’s the norm, they’ll be better able to persevere through those tough times.
    Speaking of my case, that some people discourage me made me only fight that much harder to prove them wrong. But I worry that not everyone is like me. Perhaps, there are others who have no less potential than I did but who would have only succeeded had they been given some encouragement at this stage.
    (4) I’m not sure that the best way to address this worry is by advising people in ways that could perhaps discourage greater diversity within the profession. There are certainly other ways to address this issue.
    (5) You write:

    I doubt whether our advising practices have much to do with the numbers of women and minorities in our profession. For one thing, I doubt that our advising practices are any different from other those of other humanities professors; they could at most perpetuate but not explain our relative lack of women and minorities.

    I’m less confident about this than you are. I tend to suspect that the mere fact that the one doing the advising in philosophy is typically a white male who is discouraging the advisee from pursuing graduate work does in itself contribute to the lack of woman and minorities in our profession. And note this is compatible with there being other factors contributing to the lack of woman and minorities in our profession, such as the one you suggest.

  8. James,
    There probably isn’t just one explanation for the lack of women and minorities in our profession, so I reject your assumption that these are alternative explanations. I also don’t think that we need a lot of evidence that the current practice that some employ of advising all but the best students (and best by conventional standards) that they not pursue graduate work in philosophy contributes to the lack of diversity in our profession, because I think that the approach that I favor is justified independently of this on the grounds that we better respect their autonomy by giving them the information that they need to determine for themselves whether they should pursue graduate work in philosophy.

  9. Hi Heath,
    Your explanation of the lower ratio of women and minorities in philosophy (than in other humanities) seems to require the following assumption: that persons of non-white-male identity typically desire to “study” and “affirm or celebrate” their non-white-male identity, and possibly that there will be something attractive to them about thinking of their non-white-male identity as “an epistemic resource.” These attitudes may be encouraged by some, but I suspect that they do not “take root” in all who are exposed to them.
    I think that where your explanation might have taken a wrong turn is in its assumption that “we” (in philosophy) are “losing” good undergraduates to the other humanities. It might be that philosophy by its very nature attracts a different sort of student than other humanities. In my limited personal experience, for example, my sense is that “we” “lose” many female undergraduates who take philosophy courses – and who are exceptionally good at philosophy, whether or not they happen to be philosophy majors – to law, journalism, and business.
    Even if I’m correct about this, I have no explanation of why it occurs, or – more broadly – of why women and minorities are under-represented in academic philosophy.
    Best,
    Jason

  10. Doug,
    Why would telling students whether they should go to graduate school not count as information that will allow them to determine for themselves whether they should go? If I were applying to grad school, I’d certainly wish to know whether my teachers thought I were a good candidate. In any case, it’s hard to see the threat to my autonomy from a professor giving me advice one way or the other. After all, no matter what he says, the final decision is mine to make. Perhaps we can imagine some unusual scenarios where mere advice giving threatens a person’s autonomy, but surely such scenarios shouldn’t influence how we relate to the typical student.
    On a related matter, do you think that, in general, advising people on what they ought to do is autonomy-undermining? It seems implausible that respecting autonomy requires never telling someone what he should or shouldn’t do. Of course, you might think that the academic advisor/advisee relationship has some special properties that generate the threat to autonomy. But I’m not sure what these would be.
    Finally, on the racial issue, are you suggesting that, on average, women and minorities are less put off by one of their own telling them that they shouldn’t pursue a career in philosophy than a white male professor telling them the same? This sounds pretty far-fetched to me. And what about the converse? On average, are minorities more encouraged by one of their own telling them they should pursue philosophy than by a white male telling them this? If so, then we should expect this kind of advice giving to have no real effect on the number of minorities in the profession.

  11. Mike,
    You ask, “[D]o you think that, in general, advising people on what they ought to do is autonomy-undermining?”
    No. But I never said anything to suggest that I did. What I said was that “we better respect their autonomy by giving them [students] the information that they need to determine for themselves whether they should pursue graduate work in philosophy.”
    You say: “It seems implausible that respecting autonomy requires never telling someone what he should or shouldn’t do.”
    I agree. But I think that, in those cases in which what the advisee should do depends very much on what the advisee’s particular values, concerns, and aspirations are and in which the adviser is probably not in a better position to know what those values, concerns, and aspirations are than the advisee is, the adviser can better respect the advisee’s autonomy by giving them the information that she needs to determine for herself what she should do rather than advise that the advisee should do this or that on the assumption that the advisee is like the adviser.
    Suppose you’re a doctor and your patient has cancer. There are two possible courses of treatment: A and B. If the patient is given treatment A, the patient has a 50% chance of living 25 years and a 50% chance of dying immediately, due to a possible complication with the treatment. If the patient is given treatment B, the patient has a 99% chance of living ten years. If you advise the patient that she should take treatment A on the assumption that the patient is like you and shares your values, concerns, and aspirations, do you think that you’ve done your best to respect your patient’s autonomy? Why not just give the patient the pertinent information and let her decide for herself?
    My worry is that when some people adopt a policy of advising everyone who seeks their advice that they shouldn’t go to graduate school unless they meet conditions x, y, and z (those being the only conditions under which it would make sense for someone like themselves to go to graduate school), then this is analogous to you (the doctor) telling the patient that they should take treatment A on the assumption that the patient is relevantly like you.
    Lastly, you ask: “Finally, on the racial issue, are you suggesting that, on average, women and minorities are less put off by one of their own telling them that they shouldn’t pursue a career in philosophy than a white male professor telling them the same?”
    I didn’t mean to be suggesting that. I’m worried that if the people giving advice tend to be white males who tend to give advice to others on what they should and should not do on the assumption that they are like themselves, then their advice will be more often mistaken when they’re advising women and minorities than when their advising other white males. I also suspect that white males are more likely to be discouraging to women and minorities than non-white males are, other things being equal.

  12. I have been chewing over this debate and I think there may be some very different background pictures here. Some folks seem to picture philosophy as kind of an exclusive club, and the great danger to be avoided in advising is turning away some promising kid on insufficient grounds. (Hence worries about “gatekeeping.”) While I agree that promising students should not be arbitrarily deterred by their blinkered advisors, this is not really how I see the advisor’s situation.
    I would say this. Philosophy is an oversupplied field in long-term structural decline. Going to work in philosophy is like going to work at GM. AFAIK, most of those who enter grad school will not finish; most of those who finish will not get tenure-track jobs. Allowing for some people for whom these outcomes are not very suboptimal, that still means about half of decisions to enter grad school are bad decisions. I teach at a good but not stellar state institution; I figure my kids are in the middle of the grad-school-going distribution. Statistically, and other things being equal, half of those who go off from my school to grad school in philosophy will crash and burn. I keep that in mind when I am advising.
    If the reply is, “It’s not that bad,”— well, that was my point about selection bias.
    Some fraction of these bad decisions are catastrophic. The student who struggles for eight years to finish the dissertation and finally quits, having nothing to show for her twenties but $50K of debt. The PhD who can only find adjunct work, figures it’s too late to quit now, and gives up goals of homeownership and sending the kids to college. The person who takes a long-term lecturing position, but gets downsized when the gen ed requirements change, and finds himself forty years old, with a stale degree, not enough publications, no savings, and no career. If we want to talk about crushed hopes and stolen dreams, these are the cases to focus on, not a tough hour in the advisor’s office.
    If something like this ever happened to an advisee of mine, when I could have reasonably done more to steer the student elsewhere, I would feel very guilty. So my conception of the advisor’s primary duty is to make sure this sort of thing, and lesser versions of the same, doesn’t happen.
    Finally, anyone who could do well in philosophy is equipped to do well in lots of other fields too. It’s not a choice between a career in philosophy, and life in a cardboard box in the alley. There are lots of ways to be happy, and I think very few people are actually harmed if they don’t pursue philosophy.

  13. I have been chewing over this debate and I think there may be some very different background pictures here. Some folks seem to picture philosophy as kind of an exclusive club, and the great danger to be avoided in advising is turning away some promising kid on insufficient grounds. (Hence worries about “gatekeeping.”) While I agree that promising students should not be arbitrarily deterred by their blinkered advisors, this is not really how I see the advisor’s situation.
    I would say this. Philosophy is an oversupplied field in long-term structural decline. Going to work in philosophy is like going to work at GM. AFAIK, most of those who enter grad school will not finish; most of those who finish will not get tenure-track jobs. Allowing for some people for whom these outcomes are not very suboptimal, that still means about half of decisions to enter grad school are bad decisions. I teach at a good but not stellar state institution; I figure my kids are in the middle of the grad-school-going distribution. Statistically, and other things being equal, half of those who go off from my school to grad school in philosophy will crash and burn. I keep that in mind when I am advising.
    If the reply is, “It’s not that bad,”— well, that was my point about selection bias.
    Some fraction of these bad decisions are catastrophic. The student who struggles for eight years to finish the dissertation and finally quits, having nothing to show for her twenties but $50K of debt. The PhD who can only find adjunct work, figures it’s too late to quit now, and gives up goals of homeownership and sending the kids to college. The person who takes a long-term lecturing position, but gets downsized when the gen ed requirements change, and finds himself forty years old, with a stale degree, not enough publications, no savings, and no career. If we want to talk about crushed hopes and stolen dreams, these are the cases to focus on, not a tough hour in the advisor’s office.
    If something like this ever happened to an advisee of mine, when I could have reasonably done more to steer the student elsewhere, I would feel very guilty. So my conception of the advisor’s primary duty is to make sure this sort of thing, and lesser versions of the same, doesn’t happen.
    Finally, anyone who could do well in philosophy is equipped to do well in lots of other fields too. It’s not a choice between a career in philosophy, and life in a cardboard box in the alley. There are lots of ways to be happy, and I think very few people are actually harmed if they don’t pursue philosophy.

  14. I have been chewing over this debate and I think there may be some very different background pictures here. Some folks seem to picture philosophy as kind of an exclusive club, and the great danger to be avoided in advising is turning away some promising kid on insufficient grounds. (Hence worries about “gatekeeping.”) While I agree that promising students should not be arbitrarily deterred by their blinkered advisors, this is not really how I see the advisor’s situation.
    I would say this. Philosophy is an oversupplied field in long-term structural decline. Going to work in philosophy is like going to work at GM. AFAIK, most of those who enter grad school will not finish; most of those who finish will not get tenure-track jobs. Allowing for some people for whom these outcomes are not very suboptimal, that still means about half of decisions to enter grad school are bad decisions. I teach at a good but not stellar state institution; I figure my kids are in the middle of the grad-school-going distribution. Statistically, and other things being equal, half of those who go off from my school to grad school in philosophy will crash and burn. I keep that in mind when I am advising.
    If the reply is, “It’s not that bad,”— well, that was my point about selection bias.
    Some fraction of these bad decisions are catastrophic. The student who struggles for eight years to finish the dissertation and finally quits, having nothing to show for her twenties but $50K of debt. The PhD who can only find adjunct work, figures it’s too late to quit now, and gives up goals of homeownership and sending the kids to college. The person who takes a long-term lecturing position, but gets downsized when the gen ed requirements change, and finds himself forty years old, with a stale degree, not enough publications, no savings, and no career. If we want to talk about crushed hopes and stolen dreams, these are the cases to focus on, not a tough hour in the advisor’s office.
    If something like this ever happened to an advisee of mine, when I could have reasonably done more to steer the student elsewhere, I would feel very guilty. So my conception of the advisor’s primary duty is to make sure this sort of thing, and lesser versions of the same, doesn’t happen.
    Finally, anyone who could do well in philosophy is equipped to do well in lots of other fields too. It’s not a choice between a career in philosophy, and life in a cardboard box in the alley. There are lots of ways to be happy, and I think very few people are actually harmed if they don’t pursue philosophy.

  15. First, let me apologize to the other Mike for not distinguishing myself from him. It hadn’t occurred to me that there was more than one of us using that handle. I’ll use “Mike P”.
    Doug,
    Thanks for the reply. I now suspect that our views are not that far apart. Like you, I too am not a fan of giving (or receiving) unsolicited advice. So if a students came to me expressing an interest in grad school and asked only for information, I’d probably just give him the facts (unless I thought he was clearly unqualified). But I thought that at issue between us is the more typical scenario of a student who comes to you explicitly seeking your advice (along with the facts). In such a case, I see no problem with giving the student my honest opinion, provided that it’s suitably qualified to reflect possible differences between the student’s aspirations and my own.
    I’m tempted to say the same in your case of the doctor. If a patient asks for the facts, give him the facts. If he asks for the doctor’s advice, I see no problem with the doctor saying something like: “well, if it were me, I’d go with option A.” Of course, there’s not much point in the doctor giving his advice here because the decision the patient confronts is not really a medical one, and it’s not clear what relevance it has.
    I should say, though, that the doctor analogy strikes me as not being apt here. Try out this case. Suppose you just climbed Mt. Everest, and someone comes to you asking about the prospects of doing the same. If he asks only for the facts, then just give him the facts. But suppose that, after you lay out the facts, he asks you what you think he ought to do. And suppose that, in the course of the conversation, you’ve learned something about his abilities and his interests. Here I see no reason not to state your view. Unlike the doctor, you are in an excellent position to offer USEFUL advice, perhaps because you can APPRECIATE the risks involved in climbing Everest in a way that this person may be unable to do. After all, it is one thing to know about the risks, say, of frostbite, but it’s something else to understand just how unpleasant and dangerous it could be under certain circumstances. And a situation of this sort, I think, is typical in interactions between between philosophy advisor and advisee, where the advisee may also not be in the best position to appreciate the risks involved in pursuing a career in philosophy. Add to this the fact that, when a student comes to you asking for advice, you probably already know quite a bit about him and his interests, and you might well be in a better position to decide than he is. At the very least, you’re in a good position to give advice, having been through the ordeal yourself and having seen what can happen when things go wrong.
    So I would say, then, that it’s reasonable for you to tell a student what you think he ought to do provided that he is asking for your advice, that you’re in a better position than he is to appreciate the risks, and you know at least a little bit about his interests. Perhaps that is your view as well. I’m not sure.
    Lastly, I was rather surprised by your claim that you suspect that “white males are more likely to be discouraging to women and minorities than non-white males are, other things being equal.” Really? I suspect it’s just the opposite. Most people I know in this profession are quite eager to recruit minorities. And even if a white male professor has no interest in diversity per se, the fact that the philosophy job market is much friendlier to women and minorities implies that, all else being equal, a minority would be making a more rational decision pursuing a career in philosophy than would a white male (this is probably true even if you factor in their odds of completing grad school). Indeed, if I were approached by two able students of equal philosophical ability, one male one female, I would do more to encourage the female. After all, if they both complete the same graduate school and have roughly similar resumes, she is more likely to get a job offer than he. Do you disagree?

  16. I’m sort of on Doug and David S’s end of the spectrum here, and there is not a lot that I have to add to what they’ve done a decent job of presenting.
    Two or three things might be worth adding. In response to Heath’s worry about responsibility for those who go to grad school and then crash and burn. It can be as much a disappointment in a life not to have tried to do something that matters to you as it would be to try and fail. Precisely because people apt at philosophy have other skills it is usually not impossible to recover from trying and failing to make it in the field. Graduate school does not make you less apt for other jobs.
    Second, it would be interesting to know how good we are as predictors of the future for our advisees. When I see the distance many young philosophers go between the beginnings of their training and the end of their education or early career it is very humbling. Not all or even half of those I regard as not promising do that. But a surprising number surprise me.
    To the extent I give advice rather than convey the sorts of facts Doug focuses on, I tend to tell those for whom I could write an honest positive recommendation that as long as they are OK with the possibility of trying and failing it would not be a mistake to give it a shot.
    Finally, and I don’t direct this comment at anyone in particular, I find the labor over supply arguments troubling. Those seem like the sorts or reasons where self-interest can easily be masquerading as concern for our advisees. And if there is an oversupply relative to the jobs available, I’m not sure it is worse to let people’s attempts to compete for jobs settle who gets them, rather than a gate-keeping process that works before people give it their best shot.
    FWIW.

  17. Doug, you said the following:
    “I also don’t think that we need a lot of evidence that the current practice that some employ of advising all but the best students (and best by conventional standards) that they not pursue graduate work in philosophy contributes to the lack of diversity in our profession, because I think that the approach that I favor is justified independently of this on the grounds that we better respect their autonomy by giving them the information that they need to determine for themselves whether they should pursue graduate work in philosophy. ”
    It depends on what you want to accomplish. Do you want to just convince a couple professors who read this blog, or do you want to try to change things as much as possible? Evidence is exactly what can motivate a lot of people to change.
    You also said that you don’t want to encourage or discourage students to go to graduate school, but at one point you did mention that some students might need encouragement.
    I personally don’t even like the idea that only the most brilliant people can get a good education. Why do we have to start with that assumption?

  18. James,
    I want to convince as many as possible. Unfortunately, though, there isn’t a lot of good empirical evidence as to how our current advising practices do or do not contribute to a lack of diversity in our profession. My point, though, is that there is good reason to change our current advising practices in the way that I’m suggesting even if there isn’t a lot of evidence that our current advising practices don’t contribute to the lack of diversity in our profession: by making this change we can show greater respect for our students’ autonomy. I take it that this sort of argument can persuade people to change. And isn’t this sort of argument evidence that my thesis is true?
    You write: “You also said that you don’t want to encourage or discourage students to go to graduate school.”
    Where did I say that? As I recall, what I said was that I don’t want to advise anyone that he or she should or should not pursue graduate work in philosophy, but to instead inform them as best I can so that they can determine for themselves whether they should and shouldn’t do so. Informing them will often involve telling them whether one thinks that they do or do not have what it takes to make it in certain sorts of graduate programs, and this information may or may not be discouraging depending on what their aspirations are.
    I’ll try to respond to other people’s comments when I get the chance.

  19. Doug,
    I took what you said to be saying that you didn’t want to encourage/discourage them by not giving advice as to whether they should go or not. In other words, advise itself is very similar to “encouraging/discouraging” information. If “informing them will often involve telling them whether one thinks that they do or do not have what it takes to make it in certain sorts of graduate programs,” then you admit that this can be discouraging.
    It seems like we are getting in a gray area. What difference does it make if you “advise a student not to go to graduate school” or merely “give the student discouraging information?” This can be taken by students to mean the same thing. In fact, if a professor subconsciously wants to advise more white male students to go to graduate school than minorities, then that professor will probably end up giving more “discouraging information” to minorities, and this could have the same result that you don’t want to happen. Less minorities will end up going to graduate school in philosophy.
    Additionally, if I want to go to graduate school, but an instructor advises me not to, I doubt the instructor will literally say, “Don’t do it.” I expect that professor to try to give “discouraging information” instead. I had an instructor say how graduate school isn’t for everyone and so forth, and I took that as advise not to even try.

  20. Heath raises some good points. I think, pace Mark van Roojen, he’s right that it’s generally worse for an undergrad to go to grad school and then crash and burn than it is for him not to go at all. And he’s probably also right that half of those who go on to grad school crash and burn.
    These are lamentable facts, and they should no doubt have some impact on the advice (or information) one gives to prospective graduate students. It may even be that, in light of them, one should try equally hard to discourage everyone from pursuing a philosophy PhD.
    But they’re also neutral on whether those discouraged by one meeting with an adviser who leads with the bad news are better or worse candidates for graduate studies than those who are persistent. So I’m still not sure I agree (or have any reason to think) that the “kung fu model of advising” is better than the alternatives (save, perhaps, laying the bad news on thicker for the persistent ones than the others).

  21. I’m a female undergraduate minority. I work hard and I read too much philosophy. I love doing it for its own sake — not because I want cash, prestige, smart friends, or a Ph.D. I do not expect that graduate school will be more fun or less lonely than what I have experienced. So my perspective may be relevant. I address the following to philosophy advisers and professors who are worried about discouraging people like me. I know that this thread is about advising practices, but the rest may interest to anyone who is worried about diversity.
    First, never tell me that I am doing, thinking, saying, or writing something “too ambitious.” I do not believe that a philosopher saying this means that the person being described has inferior ability. But to most students, it hurts anyway, so find another word. It is useful feedback to tell me that I haven’t reached a particular skill level. It is discouraging to use a phrase that implies that I cannot, which seems false of any college student.
    Niceness: Keep in mind that minorities are overrepresented among the poor, the mentally ill, and survivors of traumatic experiences. This may matter if you are an adviser considering the kung-fu approach. A gentler kung-fu approach would involve telling me exactly what I ought to do in order to raise my skills to a certain level, even if what I need to do is brutally difficult. To the extent that you have to advise, why not tell me how to improve as a philosopher? Even if you think I won’t succeed, don’t tell me that I can’t—tell me exactly how I would.
    Textbooks: Don’t tell me I don’t need or have time for secondary texts. Even if they are all wrong, even if you worry they will give me the wrong idea about a particular debate, I need as much context and knowledge of vocabulary as I can get.
    In Class: Don’t use the masculine pronoun exclusively, even if you are used to spending lots of time with men. Don’t chat about sports with the males as students are sitting down for class. Don’t ignore the complicated question I asked and then answer instead the stupid question I didn’t ask. And please don’t follow this by answering a white/male student’s question charitably. Answering a question evasively is irritating and discouraging. Check yourself for tendencies to assume that women or minorities are less driven or capable, because those tendencies show. If I believe that I will be ignored in graduate school, or that I have to be rude to be heard, then graduate school becomes less appealing. But that is obvious enough.

  22. I wasn’t going to comment, having set aside the loaded perspective Heath White expresses in (5).
    Now that I’m at it, though: the “average non-white-male student” might not expect that “their identity will be an object of study, often affirmed or celebrated,” but might well find the pretense of “color-blindness,” continuity with science, and identity-less “universal and cosmopolitan reason” particularly perverse coming from those who overwhelmingly make up the philosophy profession.
    Then Mike P suggested that most people “in the profession are quite eager to recruit minorities,” and claimed that “the fact that the philosophy job market is much friendlier to women and minorities implies that, all else being equal, a minority would be making a more rational decision pursuing a career in philosophy than would a white male….”
    Such notions are, at best, highly misleading. Of course, I don’t know who MikeP knows, but there is scant evidence of serious measures to recruit women and minorities to the profession–namely, in hiring.
    Departments often make a show of encouraging women and minorities to apply, and may even make a special effort to interview women and minorities. As for the results, the facts speak for themselves: take a look online at, say, the faculty lists of top-30 ranked PhD programs. Women and minorities who might consider a career in philosophy typically get the picture early on.
    Insofar as the job market is friendlier to some women and minorities, the explanation could be that they are, in talent or commitment, stronger per capita–which would compound their already being unusual. Those who remain are, after all, survivors in a profession that tends to repel them.
    Mysteriously unsuccessful “outreach” efforts start to look like an exercise in self-deception or plain bad faith. The handwringing and boilerplate should stop–most women and minorities aren’t confused for long.

  23. LK McPherson raises an important point that might be worthy of its own thread. Is it really the case that there is a pervasive bias against hiring women and minorities in philosophy that acts as a deterrent to entering graduate school? Or is it the other way around… is it the relative lack of supply of women and (especially) people of color with Ph.D.s in philosophy that explains why they are underrepresented in the profession? LKM takes it to be the former. I’m inclined to think that it is much more the latter (although maybe it used to be the former, and prospective graduate students don’t realize how much the profession has changed).

  24. Heath,
    You write,

    most of those who finish will not get tenure-track jobs. Allowing for some people for whom these outcomes are not very suboptimal, that still means about half of decisions to enter grad school are bad decisions…. Some fraction of these bad decisions are catastrophic. The student who struggles for eight years to finish the dissertation and finally quits, having nothing to show for her twenties but $50K of debt. The PhD who can only find adjunct work, figures it’s too late to quit now, and gives up goals of homeownership and sending the kids to college…. If something like this ever happened to an advisee of mine, when I could have reasonably done more to steer the student elsewhere, I would feel very guilty. So my conception of the advisor’s primary duty is to make sure this sort of thing, and lesser versions of the same, doesn’t happen.

    So, given the second quoted sentence above, you seem to allow that, for some people, the primary goal in attending graduate school is not to secure a tenure-track job at a 4-year university. For some people, the primary goal is instead to just give it shot, to teach community college, to get an advanced education, to study philosophy at the graduate level, to be the first one in their family to earn a doctoral degree, or something else. And, presumably, you admit not only that people can have different aspirations in attending graduate schools but also that they can have different values and concerns. One person might be most concerned not to end up in debt, and another might be most concerned not to end up middle-aged, regretting that she never had the courage to pursue her dream because it was such a long shot. For some, this might amount to catastrophic failure. And presumably you would admit that some value a Ph.D. only instrumentally as a means to securing a tenure-track job at a four-year university whereas others value the Ph.D. and the education that comes with it for its own sake. And presumably different people value the following differently: job security, freedom from financial debt, the opportunity to teach philosophy to young minds, the opportunity to do research, the opportunity to study philosophy at the graduate level, a Ph.D. in philosophy, a tenure-track job, etc. And, by the way, I know a number of people who are adjuncts, a number of people who are full-time lecturers, and a number of people who went to graduate school and quit part way through deciding a career as a professional philosopher was not for them, and most of them, I would say, don’t regret their decision to go to graduate school at all. So, for them, what you seem to be assuming was a bad decision was not a bad decision at all.
    So, given this, I have three questions:
    (1) Would you agree that, when it comes to students who are considering attending graduate school, there is this sort of diversity with respect to their values, concerns, and aspirations?
    (2) If you do, would you agree that it’s a bad idea to treat all advisees the same, discouraging all of them and advising them all that they should not pursue graduate school unless they can get into a top-ranked graduate program with financial support?
    (3) Also, would you admit that a better way of ensuring that students don’t end up in a situation of catastrophic failure (where this may amount to different things for different people — keep in mind the person who regrets not giving her dream a shot), is to give students that kind of information that you have about the various possible pros and cons to pursuing a graduate education rather than discouraging all of them using the “Kung-Fu” approach? After all, why discourage the person who has the skills necessary to succeed in some Ph.D. program and whose main goal is just to earn a Ph.D.?

  25. Mike P.,
    I agree that our views might not be that far apart.
    You write:

    But I thought that at issue between us is the more typical scenario of a student who comes to you explicitly seeking your advice (along with the facts). In such a case, I see no problem with giving the student my honest opinion, provided that it’s suitably qualified to reflect possible differences between the student’s aspirations and my own.

    I don’t see any problem with this either. My concern is that some people seem to adopt the policy of discouraging all and giving all the advice that they not pursue graduate school unless they meet condition C without ever taking into account possible differences between them and their student’s values, concerns, and aspirations.
    You also write,

    And a situation of this sort, I think, is typical in interactions between between philosophy advisor and advisee, where the advisee may also not be in the best position to appreciate the risks involved in pursuing a career in philosophy. Add to this the fact that, when a student comes to you asking for advice, you probably already know quite a bit about him and his interests, and you might well be in a better position to decide than he is.

    The advisee certainly isn’t in the best position prior to your informing her as best you can, but why wouldn’t the advisee be in a better position after you inform her of the various possible risks as well as the various possible benefits? After all, won’t she know better than you how to weight the various possible costs and benefits given her particular values, concerns, and aspirations? I guess that I’m assuming that we don’t really know most of the students that come into our office seeking advice that well. I don’t know my students as well as, say, my friends.

  26. James Gray,
    What information will count as discouraging depends on what the student’s goals are. If the student’s goal is only to earn a Ph.D. and not to land a tenure-track job, then all the information about how hard it is to land a tenure-track job with a Ph.D. won’t be very discouraging. So it’s better to inform than to adopt a policy of advising all that they shouldn’t pursue graduate work unless, say, they can get into a top-ranked graduate program with financial support because one prescription doesn’t fit all. See my response to Heath and what I say about the diversity of values, concerns, and aspirations.

  27. Angus,
    You write,

    These are lamentable facts, and they should no doubt have some impact on the advice (or information) one gives to prospective graduate students. It may even be that, in light of them, one should try equally hard to discourage everyone from pursuing a philosophy PhD.

    Why on earth would it be that we should, in light of these facts, “try equally hard to discourage everyone from pursuing a philosophy Ph.D.”? See what I say, in my latest response to Heath, about how students can have very different values, concerns, and aspirations. Take, for instance, the student who aspires not to land a tenure-track job, but only to study philosophy some more at the graduate level or only to earn a Ph.D. because she wants to be the first in her family to earn a Ph.D.? Why would these facts suggest that we should discourage this sort of person just as much as we should discourage someone who values a Ph.D. only as a means to landing a tenure-track job at an R1 university?

  28. Dale Miller writes, “Is it really the case that there is a pervasive bias against hiring women and minorities in philosophy that acts as a deterrent to entering graduate school?… LKM takes it to be.”
    I claimed no such thing. What I did claim is that, despite the show and mythology, “there is scant evidence of serious measures to [hire] women and minorities.” This seems obvious when looking at ranked PhD programs. I guess I could have been clearer that I had research-oriented departments in mind.
    The tired “lack of supply” explanation for the gross underrepresentation of women and minorities in philosophy (and particular departments) is largely bogus, as many of them who do have PhDs in philosophy have learned.
    An institution tends to reproduce itself in its likeness. The philosophy profession does so under the guise of intellectual purity and rigor–which can make no allowances for any “social justice project.” Whether such a phenomenon is most helpfully characterized in terms of “a pervasive bias” I am not sure and did not say.
    Perhaps women and minorities who might otherwise pursue philosophy simply “don’t realize how much the profession has changed.” Or maybe, more plausibly, their point of reference is, say, the last 20 years, not the last 50.
    I do understand, though, the inclination to shift the bulk of explanation and responsibility to complicated or mysterious forces far beyond the influence of the philosophy profession.

  29. LK,
    I may not have communicated clearly and if so I apologize. My main point in that paragraph was that we should at least consider the possibility that minorities and women are underrepresented in philosophy because of what we’re selling (the canon, underlying assumptions in the discipline), rather than how we’re selling it (advising practices). You write

    the “average non-white-male student” … might well find the pretense of “color-blindness,” continuity with science, and identity-less “universal and cosmopolitan reason” particularly perverse coming from those who overwhelmingly make up the philosophy profession

    and I agree entirely.

  30. Doug,
    Maybe you and I have very different advising experiences. I have not been at this all that long; I have talked to seven or eight students seriously about grad school. All of them have been white males from more or less middle-class backgrounds; all of them hoped for a job in philosophy, though some were readier than others to entertain the prospect of failure to realize that. I knew them all pretty well, typically having had them in a couple of small seminars before they came to see me. I certainly did not get very far into our conversation without asking them about their reasons for pursuing graduate school. So that is the situation I confront when advising; if that situation were to change, I think I would realize it, and I would probably take a different approach.
    Also, I think the “kung fu” meme has gotten a little out of hand. Here is my thought. People tend to think they are more idealistic than they really are. Fewer Christians were really willing to go to the lions than thought they were. More people collaborated with the Nazis than antecedently believed they would. Start, then, with the thought that those who are motivated by the love of the discipline, and least deterred by the prospect of failure, are better candidates for graduate school, being less likely to be disappointed all around. Question: how does (not the advisor but) the student know whether s/he is motivated by love of the discipline? Here are two methods:
    1. Introspection. The now well-informed student considers how they would feel upon the prospect of failure to get a job, and makes their judgment.
    2. Extreme Shaolin Kung Fu. The advisor solemnly informs the student that there is no hope of extrinsic benefit from pursuing graduate school; philosophic virtue must be its own reward. Observe the results.
    My own practice, which is much more a matter of shading and emphasis than the outright lying of the Extreme Shaolin method, lies in the middle. (“Tai Chi”?) Also, I don’t think it’s necessary to belabor the positive aspects of pursuing philosophy, since those are the reasons the student is interested in the first place.
    To address your questions:

    (1) Would you agree that, when it comes to students who are considering attending graduate school, there is this sort of diversity with respect to their values, concerns, and aspirations?

    Not much, on my block. But maybe on yours! And if so, then different approaches are called for.

    (2) If you do, would you agree that it’s a bad idea to treat all advisees the same, discouraging all of them and advising them all that they should not pursue graduate school unless they can get into a top-ranked graduate program with financial support?

    I agree with you that if someone’s primary motivation is simply to get a PhD, or to pursue philosophy for its own sake, then it doesn’t matter as much where they go. And if they have the means to deal with a lot of expense, then financial support isn’t as crucial. And I think I can honestly say that I would advise accordingly.

    (3) Also, would you admit that a better way of ensuring that students don’t end up in a situation of catastrophic failure … is to give students that kind of information that you have about the various possible pros and cons to pursuing a graduate education rather than discouraging all of them using the “Kung-Fu” approach? After all, why discourage the person who has the skills necessary to succeed in some Ph.D. program and whose main goal is just to earn a Ph.D.?

    To your last point, there isn’t much reason to discourage those who have the skills, can expend the resources of time and money, and just want a degree. Agreed.
    I worry that your suggestion, taken to its logical end, amounts to putting all the relevant statistics on a sheet and handing it to an inquiring student without further comment. I also worry that you overestimate the ability of students to evaluate the relevant evidence, especially if you estimate that ability higher than the students themselves do. It seems to me that the thing to do is find out the values and aspirations of our advisees, and advise accordingly—would you agree? Also, I think we probably have different estimates of the probabilities and costs of different kinds of failure. I don’t know how to settle that issue further.
    Maybe that answers your main questions. I am grateful for all this exchange because I wasn’t kidding earlier when I said I didn’t have this all figured out. So thank you for making me think it through.

  31. Heath,
    Thanks for your responses. Here’s a few further thoughts.
    You write: “Also, I don’t think it’s necessary to belabor the positive aspects of pursuing philosophy, since those are the reasons the student is interested in the first place.”
    I think that many students don’t appreciate some of the positives. Many of them don’t have a good sense of what professional philosophers do or what the profession is like. Many of them don’t realize the different sorts of jobs that professional philosophers hold and the different pros and cons associated with them. And many of them don’t realize how useful the skills that they acquire while studying philosophy will serve them well in their lives and in their careers even if they end up choosing not to become a professional philosopher. Many of them probably don’t appreciate how much fun it can be to go to graduate school and talk philosophy with their fellow peers. Someone who didn’t fit in well in college and didn’t enjoy it much might really enjoy being around other smart people who share the same interests.
    You also write: “I worry that your suggestion, taken to its logical end, amounts to putting all the relevant statistics on a sheet and handing it to an inquiring student without further comment.” Not at all. It involves a conversation. I just think that the conversation should not presume that the advisee shares the same values, concerns, and aspirations. I think that one should avoid making prescriptions like “You should not pursue graduate work” and instead talk them through the pros and cons so that they can figure out for themselves what’s best for them. And I think that one should avoid making discouragement the default approach. The information is, to many, discouraging enough.
    Lastly, you write: “It seems to me that the thing to do is find out the values and aspirations of our advisees, and advise accordingly—would you agree?” Pretty much. But be careful, because the advisee may not be all that aware of which values and aspirations are most salient without knowing what all the pros and cons are. Thus, I think that it’s a mistake to find out very early on in the conversation that someone aspires to have a job like yours and then say: well, in that case, I advise that you should or should not pursue graduate work. They may not know that well what your job is like or what the alternatives are and in what ways those alternatives might be better or worse than your job.

  32. Doug,
    Sorry. I was speaking sloppily and I think we’re largely in agreement. Heath’s facts don’t suggest that we should try equally hard to discourage everyone from pursuing a philosophy PhD. Rather, they might suggest we should try equally hard to discourage anyone who cares about pursuing graduate studies only insofar as he’ll make a career out of philosophy (though he may also want to go on to grad school in large part because he enjoys philosophy for its own sake).
    My main point is that the facts Heath cites don’t support the kung-fu model. At best they support a policy of trying equally hard to discourage anyone who’s thinking about making a career out of philosophy (regardless of how persistent he is). Of course, this support is obviously defeasible, e.g. it might be acceptable to encourage an undergrad who’s already published in peer reviewed journals to go get a PhD even if he wants to make philosophy a career.
    A final quibble, though, is that if a sizable fraction of grad students crash and burn before attaining a PhD then one might even think about discouraging someone who’s main concern is getting a doctorate.

  33. LK,
    I don’t see how just looking at the faculty lists of research departments provides any evidence that these departments aren’t trying to recruit minorities. The relevant number, surely, is not the total number of minorities with positions in research departments but the percentage of such jobs held by minorities in relation to the percentage of minorities in the applicant pool. And even that number would probably be misleading since minorities may be more likely to hold Ph.Ds from lower ranked programs. So what we need to know is the percentage of minorities who emerge, say, from top 20 Ph.D. programs and manage to get a tenure track job, as compared with the percentage of white males who manage to do the same. I haven’t run the numbers, but I would we shocked to learn that this number is lower for minorities than it is for white males. Indeed, I suspect that, all else being equal, minorities are far more likely to get flyouts and job offers than their white male counterparts.
    But please note that I do understand the inclination to shift the bulk of explanation and responsibility to complicated or mysterious forces far beyond the influence of the individual job candidate.

  34. Doug,
    I don’t think I explained my position sufficiently. “Discouraging information” could also be something like, “I doubt you could get into a good program with your current skill level,” or more subtly, “Are you sure you want to keep learning philosophy when you can get a corporate job instead?” Some discouraging information can be given in a very personal (and insulting manner) quite like discouraging advice. How do you propose to prevent professors from giving this kind of discouraging information, which can be just as harmful as advice can be?

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