Should You Go to Grad School?

UPDATE: If you have honest questions about grad school, I’d be happy to answer them as best I can.

Periodically, I give talks about professionalization in the academy to prospective graduate students. Here, roughly, is the substance of those talks.

A Ph.D. is, really, a professional degree, like an MBA or a JD. It’s designed, somewhat poorly, to make you an academic. So, I’m assuming that most of you are interested in graduate school because you are interested in being a professor. My advice is based on the assumption that when you get a Ph.D., you want to get an academic job at the end.

Here’s what you do when you get a Ph.D.:  http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/

Should you go to graduate school? I’m not a paternalistic person. I’m not here to say yes or no. Rather, I want to have a frank discussion of the risks, rewards, and the odds, so you can make an informed decision for yourself.

Being a professor can be a glorious job. I get paid to play with ideas.  If you have a passion for ideas, there are fewer jobs better than being a college professor. I have a remarkable amount of freedom and autonomy in determining how I spend my days. I spend most of my time every week thinking and writing about whatever I happen to find interesting.

However, I also have one of the most plum jobs in the academy. Most people who work in academia have much less freedom than I do. They spend much more of their time doing administrative work. They teach more classes than I do to lower quality students who don’t care. They rarely teach courses on topics that interest them. And they do this for much less money.

Unfortunately, it seems to be getting harder and harder to succeed. I had to do more to get my job than the previous generation did. Five years from now, you’ll have to do even more. To get the jobs your professors have, you’ll have to be better than they are.

I like reading and discussing economics or political philosophy. It‘s my hobby. Should I go to grad school? You can do all these things without getting a Ph.D. You won’t be as good at it, but you can read and discuss economics while holding down a job as an insurance agent, a lawyer, or a consultant. You might be able to maintain your hobby while making a lot more money.

I’m the smartest philosophy major at my college, in fact, the smartest they’ve ever had. Should I go to grad school? Graduate programs get hundreds of applications for a few spots. Pretty much all of the applicants were the smartest undergraduate majors in their colleges. To succeed in academia, you have to be the best among the best. You also have to be strategic. Don’t count on brilliance getting you a job. Instead, what will end up getting you a job is proving you can perform at the highest level. More on that below.

How hard is it to get in? At a good graduate program, the acceptance rate will be under 8%. It’s harder to get into a good Ph.D. program than to get into Harvard as an undergraduate.

What do you do in grad school? You take classes for 2-3 years in a wide range of subfields. You’ll write 12-16 30-page seminar papers. You’ll read thousands of pages of material. After that, you’ll usually take some sort of exam to show you have expertise in one subfield and a broad range of knowledge in the other subfields. If you fail that, you’ll get kicked out. If you succeed, you’ll devise an original research project. You then take an exam–a “prospectus defense” to determine whether your project is even worth pursuing. People can and do fail that and get kicked out of grad school. For instance, my colleagues and I failed a grad student’s prospectus defense a year ago, and as a result, he was forced to leave academia without even a master’s degree to show for his efforts. If you pass the prospectus defense, you then write a dissertation. Once again, you take an exam when you’re done. If you fail, you’re done. If you succeed, you get the Ph.D. The whole process should take 5 years–less if you do econ–but most people tend to take 6 or 7 years, and in fields like history, they take even more.

You can easily find yourself in your mid to late thirties still a graduate student, making a measly $20K a year living stipend, with no job, no savings, a crappy old car or no car, and a tiny, lousy apartment, while your friends own houses, cars, and make six figures. Think about the opportunity cost. You forgo many opportunities to study for a Ph.D., and there’s no guarantee of a job at the end.

That said, graduate school is a glorious time, and there are worse ways to spend your life. Many intellectuals would be happy to pursue the degree just for the sake of having the graduate school experience.

What Kinds of Jobs Are There? There are tenure and non-tenure-track jobs. Tenure-track jobs are the gold standard. You spend six to seven years on probation. If you do good enough work, you get tenure, and then you pretty much have a job for life, unless you do something really stupid or your university has a major financial crisis. Non-tenure track jobs include post-docs and adjunct positions.

There are two basic types of tenure-track jobs, so-called teaching positions and research positions. Both positions involve teaching and research, but the balance is tipped one way or another. Most people seem prefer a research job to a teaching job, but your preferences might be different.

A research job means you work at a doctoral or masters-degree granting program. You have higher status in the profession. You will teach 2 courses a semester or less. You will mentor graduate students, have an active seminar program with many visiting speakers every year, and get to teach graduate-level courses. Starting research salaries, in philosophy, are usually about $75K, give or take $15K. At the end of your career, you can make $150-200K, or even more. There are philosophy professors at Rutgers earning around $300K. Economists make more than that–starting salaries are often over $100K. New assistant professors at law schools and business schools make more–assistant professors in highly ranked law and business schools can make $160-200K or more. In research jobs, your primary job is to publish in good academic journals and presses. Teaching is secondary. You can be a terrible teacher and still get promoted, get raises, and succeed, but you don’t publish, you’re out.

A teaching job means you work at an undergraduate-oriented program. Most of the time, you will teach 3 courses a semester, though it’s not uncommon to teach 4 courses a semester instead. Starting salaries are much lower: you might start at only $45-55K. End of career salaries are also much lower: you might top off at $90K. You will be expected to publish a bit, but most of your job will be teaching. You will mostly teach service courses rather than courses on the topics that most interest you.

Adjuncts have no job security. They make about $3000 per course. Often, they don’t get an office. They get no benefits. They might teach at three or four universities, trying to teach enough courses to make ends meet. The stories you hear about professors on food stamps are about adjuncts.

What Do Professors Do All Day? At Georgetown, officially research is 60% of my job, teaching is 30%, and service is 10%. In any given week, the balance might be different, but those numbers do reflect how I spend my time. As a professor you read others’ articles and books, write your own papers, write grant proposals, do useless tasks and committee work forced upon you by worthless administrators, meet with students, prep classes, teach classes, grade student work, and give presentations at conferences and other universities. The exact mix of these things depends upon the type of job you have and how famous you are in your field.

What Are My Chances of Success? I don’t know any of you personally. I have no idea how good you are. But let’s assume you represent a normal sample of people who begin Ph.D. programs. Statistically speaking, most of you will not get a research job. There just aren’t that many of them. Maybe 1 in 10 TT professors have a “research” job. Also, unfortunately, most of you will not get tenure-track teaching jobs either. Only a minority of people who enter a Ph.D. program ever succeed in getting a tenure-track job. Instead, assuming you represent a cross section of the people entering grad school, about half of you will fail to get a Ph.D. Of those who get the Ph.D., half of you will spend five to six years with short term visiting gigs, post-docs, or adjuncting jobs, until finally, at age 40, you realize you aren’t going to get a tenure-track job, and you move on with your life. The odds are low.
Thus, you should enter graduate school only if you are prepared to do what it takes to beat the odds.

How Do I Beat the Odds? Go to the highest ranked program you can get into. The reputation of your school and your advisors matters greatly. It’s much easier to get a tenure-track job coming out of, say, NYU philosophy than Utah philosophy. Start publishing right away. You need to hit the ground running, and work on professionalizing yourself the moment you enter grad school. You shouldn’t write seminar papers for your professors; you should use seminars to help you write research articles that will be published in journals. You should plan to leave grad school with 4-5 good journal articles in hand. A good rule of thumb is that starting your second year of grad school, you should, at all times, have three papers under review at top journals, at least until you get tenure.

A student once asked me, “How can I be expected to write publishable articles as I’m learning the field?” My answer: “Get the syllabus from the professor before the semester begins. Read most of the materials before the semester starts. Come in on the first day of your seminar with a draft of your seminar paper. Then spend the entire semester revising that paper. At the end, you might have a publishable article.”Isn’t this advice really obvious? Doesn’t everyone do that? No, most grad students don’t. I’m not sure why. Perhaps they don’t want to be tested. Perhaps it’s scary to amass rejection letters. Perhaps they want to forestall finding out if they’re good enough to publish, much as a person might avoid asking out his crush, because it’s better not to know than to know the answer’s no. Perhaps their professors mistakenly tell them that grad school is simply a time to gestate and develop, and that publishing can come later. (That was true in the 1960s, but it isn’t true anymore.)

If every grad student were to take this advice–have three papers under review at all times starting their second year of grad school–then it would cease to be good enough advice. What would happen is that the bar for getting a good job would move higher. But the good news is that most grad students ignore this advice, even if they hear multiple times from multiple people.Of course, this won’t help you if you don’t have sufficient talent. But the sad thing is that many people with immense talent get kicked out of the academy because they don’t prove themselves early enough.

Let me give an example. We had a job search this year. We received hundreds of applications. The modal amount of time my colleagues and I spent looking at a dossier was about 25 seconds. If the person didn’t have any publications, we put him in the discard pile. If the person didn’t have good publications–publications with top journals–we put her in the discard pile. Now, it’s certainly possible that the most brilliant candidate got discarded in 25 seconds. But we’re okay with that. Search costs are high–searches consume a great deal of time. I’m not going to go looking for a diamond in the rough when I have a pile of diamonds right in front of me. I’m not going to go looking to see who has the most hidden potential when I have a pile of applicants with revealed potential right in front of me.

What fields should I go to grad school in? For the purposes of getting a job, you should do political philosophy instead of political theory, and economics instead of either. There are maybe 18 tenure-track jobs in political theory, and there are about 400-500 people (including a massive backlog of under-employed recent Ph.D.s) trying to get those jobs. A former post-doc at Brown got a 4-3 teaching load, $44K/year job at a lower tier liberal arts college. He was bummed about that until I pointed out  this meant he was in the top 5% of political theory applicants that year. In contrast, if you specialize in political philosophy, you’ll probably also have a specialty in ethics, and you can expect to apply for 60 jobs even in a bad year. Econ is better because there are more jobs, and you can also work in government or the private sector. You should do empirical, math-based work, rather than normative work. You have a much better chance of getting a TT job in American government than in normative political theory. Again, this is ceteris paribus advice. Do what you love.

Summary: Academia is glorious, but the odds of getting that glorious job are low. If an academic career is your passion, I encourage you to pursue it, but you must commit to doing what it takes to succeed.


40 responses to ‘Should You Go to Grad School?

  1. In econ, finishing in five or six years is typical. It’s very rare to finish in four (maybe it’s different in DC, where bureaucrats do a PhD in four to move up the pay scale, not for going on the academic job market).

  2. Question: Imagine you have a BA in philosophy. You would like pursue a graduate degree in philosophy but your university doesn’t offer one. Would it make any sense to pursue a MA in, say, English, with the hopes of studying/concentrating on philosophical literature?

    • Suppose you want to get a Ph.D. in philosophy eventually, and you’re hoping the MA would help. If you’re going to do a certain brand of continental philosophy, that might help. But–and I’m not defending this, but just stating it–I suspect most philosophers have a negative view of English departments and what gets taught there, and would either tend to hold it against you or at best be indifferent. Better to get an MA in math instead.

      As for getting the MA for its own sake, rather than as a path toward a Ph.D., I’m not sure what it would do or not do for you. It’s not going to be a substitute for a philosophy MA, because the way philosophers approach philosophical texts is very different. But if it’s something you find intrinsically rewarding and you can afford it, sounds great.

  3. You can easily find yourself in your mid to late thirties still a graduate student, making a measly $20K a year living stipend, with no job, no savings, a crappy old car or no car, and a tiny, lousy apartment, while your friends own houses, cars, and make six figures.

    This sounds painfully familiar. But at least I have the excuse of having been legally prevented from getting a private sector job in my field.

  4. This is good advice. The one minor point I’d disagree on is the research / teaching distinction as being drawn via graduate programs. I think a more fundamental distinction is something like high prestige / low prestige. There are many prestigious undergraduate only institutions, think Wellesley and Williams, that really function more like, say, Georgetown. There are also unfortunately many non-prestigious institutions with graduate programs that never places anyone anywhere, which function more like 3/3 SLACs.

    • For certain professions, I think yes. For example, I’ve known a fair number of professional software developers working on open source projects as their main jobs, many of whom were world-class (e.g., people who worked on web browser core code, which is extremely gnarly). Given the open nature of open source projects and the ability to easily learn programing online, you’d think that college would be completely optional for these folks. However a surprising number of them, perhaps the majority, were graduates at schools with prestigious computer science programs (e.g., Stanford, MIT, CMU). The people doing cutting edge work (developing and implementing new algorithms) were often CS PhDs.

      I suspect that’s for multiple reasons, but probably mainly that if you’re a smart person who’s a good programmer you can get plugged into a network of other smart programmers who can help you get better and point you to challenging (and sometimes lucrative) opportunities.

    • As Caplan summarizes it, college is a good financial investment for the top 20%, a break-even investment for the next 30%, and a loss for the bottom 50% of high schoolers.

      • Yes. I would say that if your a poor person and you want to go to college for the intellectual experience, try enrolling in a non-degree program and audit classes.

  5. First, as a recent (2013) PHD in history, I’ll say this post gets pretty much everything right.

    Second, my default answer to “should I go to grad school [in the humanities or social sciences]?” is no, if you’re trying to get a PHD. That doesn’t mean “never get one,” but start with the assumption that it’s a bad idea and prove to yourself that it’s a good idea.

    Third, my default answer to “should I go to grad school [in the humanities or social sciences]?” is maybe, if you’re trying to get an MA. There’s less of a sunk cost and an MA can give you a taste for the discipline. In my opinion, in fact, it can give you the extensive (but not intensive) knowledge and the introduction to the discipline that is necessary to pursue the subject as a hobby.

    So, “yes/maybe,” if you’re going for an MA, and “no/probably not” if you’d be going for a PHD.

    • One downside of MAs, though, is that you’re more likely to have to pay for them.

      A bit of advice I should have written: Don’t take on debt for a graduate degree in the humanities or social sciences.

      • That’s a good point, and yes, I agree it’s a good idea not to take on debt to get a grad degree in the humanities or social sciences. (I did take on some debt for my PHD degree and wish I hadn’t, but I knew what I was getting into).

        When I got my MA (which I did several years before I entered a PHD program), I had to pay for my first year, which I did through savings, helped also by the fact that it was at a state university in the 1990s when the sticker price of the tuition wasn’t as bad as it is now. I did get funding for the two remaining years of my MA, though (I took a while to write my thesis).

        I was definitely a lot better off than a lot of other people would be. So part of my “yes/maybe” equation should involve a good weighing of the costs/benefits.

  6. Academia appears to be a winner-take-all game, with many losers, some of which are immensely talented; others not. What is the optimal strategy for the losers?

    1) Become a career adjunct.
    2) Otherwise support the institutions that cast them out
    3) Deciding that it is silly to continue to compound one’s losses by supporting the winners.
    4) Actively discourage others from compounding their losses by supporting the winners.

    There may be other possibilities. Perhaps the winners of the academic winner-take-all games would prefer the losers find suitable employment elsewhere, and vanish. But life is a repeated game: there will be future opportunity for political interaction. I ask: should the losers compound their losses by supporting the winners?

  7. Jason, how many business schools hire in-house ethics lecturers? If hires in philosophy departments are low, is there more opportunity for those able to teach business ethics?

    • RJL, my sense is no, not really. Catholic schools and a few of the elite business schools will pay for philosophers. Most business schools have business ethics taught by management professors who have a sub-specialty in CSR. Business schools tend to treat business ethics as a cost center–they do it because they feel they have to, but they’d really rather hire an accounting prof.

      This list here includes almost all the TT business ethics jobs from the past year that might reasonably go to a philosopher:


      You can see there aren’t that many. Now, many universities do have visiting positions or adjuncts, but those are generally to be avoided. Some have non-TT permanent gigs in business ethics. Those can be excellent positions, but they are rare too.

      • I’m surprised they don’t just hire a philosopher, given how much cheaper they are than management faculty.

        • Surprisingly, they end up paying the philosophers the same as the management faculty. Good deal if you can get it.

  8. Tempting, but I’ll leave it at (C). I realize I’m flouting your rules here, but better to reign in the BHL combox than to serve…etc. etc.

  9. Jesus Christ.

    I had a real dilemma here. I figured your MO is to always interpret whatever I write uncharitably and then gainsay everything. And I thought perhaps it really might make you less likely to do so if I just called you out and asked you not to do it. But, no, I should have just taken my chances.

    • Since you changed the original, I’ve removed my comments here. If you want to scrub away the resulting clutter with your mod powers, I won’t complain.

      • Some libertarian you are. I homesteaded that “clutter” with my bare hands, and now you’re appealing to the colonial viceroy to “scrub it away.” So typical.

  10. Counterpoint: Rochefoucauld was on fire in ’78. And I don’t just mean from gout.

  11. This is a good reason why the winners of the winner-take-all games must never be supported by anyone less fortunate. There is no rational incentive to do so.

  12. So on the one hand success in this game is super-dependent on pedigree and hyper-careerism (e.g., treating your first grad seminar as a platform for pubs) as well as a lot of luck… on the other hand it has to do with “how good you are”? I guess that’s trivially true if short for “how good you are at whatever may be instrumental in succeeding at this game”. And academia is “glorious”. I guess the point is it’s glorious for some (though soul crushingly exploitive and demoralizing for many others). Helpful post in a way but there’s something very off-putting in seeing all this vileness and baseless privilege merely described, matter of factly, with no normative perspective except –it seems — uncritical endorsement of these weird and unphilosophical institutional norms.

  13. Prof. Brennan:

    I’m just seeing this great post, which rings true in my limited (mostly vicarious) experience. I have one general question, and two personal ones, and would love your advice (or that of others). I dearly hope you see this.

    1. Isn’t this post really written for white men considering doctoral work?

    Everything I’ve heard or encountered suggests that it’s much easier for women and nonwhites to obtain professorial positions, even in the humanities where they’re already plentiful (as compared to the hard sciences).

    Indeed, a corollary query is why are so many professors so intellectually unimpressive? I attend lectures by professors, including philosophers, social scientists, historians, and economists, all the time, and even granting that the fora are often non-academic, their presentations and answers to post-lecture questions are rarely cognitively intimidating (I’m sure my experience would be different if I were listening to logicians or ‘hard’ scientists). Your post almost suggests that anyone actually getting a tenure track academic position is close to brilliant. At the Ivy League, surely, but at Cal State Fullerton and the University of South Dakota, too?


    I’m 50, and a 1986 ‘cum laude’ graduate of Williams College. Four of my professors had encouraged me to pursue a PhD. I did not do so, and regret my decision (per my comment above, I recall several mediocre classmates who now have their PhDs).

    Worse, unlike nearly all my friends, I never earned a grad degree. This is tremendously embarrassing to me, especially as I have always been intensely intellectual (I’m also a libertarian in the Rothbard Austrian and Ron Paul Constitutionalist traditions, though closer to classical and modern conservatism – Burke, Calhoun, Carl Schmitt – than “bleeding heart libertarianism”; I believe in liberty and individual rights rooted in self-ownership, but not in any form of coercive “social justice”, nor in “social libertarianism” where the latter conflicts with traditionalist Catholicism [eg, marriage, family, etc]).

    I’m too old to go back for a doctorate, and the presumably horrendous monetary investment (quite apart from opportunity costs) would never be recouped. However, I am single; free of “dependents”; very unlikely, for medically diagnosed reasons, to live longer than 80 (and, alas, likely not that long); and, though far from wealthy, am able and willing to spend up to $50,000 to obtain some type of Master’s degree.

    I lost my unfulfilling marketing job last year, and am at a crossroads in life. I want to work and feel useful to the world for 15-20 more years (health permitting). I want to do something in the remainder of my working life at least tangentially relevant to my intellectual knowledge and talents (eg, teaching high school or community college; doing research for a think tank or a magazine or even a pro-liberty politician; perhaps writing professionally, maybe in journalism). I have deep interests at the intersection of political philosophy (the libertarian / conservative debate), political theory, ethics, and Catholic moral theology, and, however I earn my future living, want to publish serious work (books and articles) in these areas “extra-professionally” (and in retirement).

    I would like to return to grad school to obtain an MA in Catholic theology. The MA I have in mind would only cost me about $30k total in tuition and fees, and that expenditure would be worth it on a personal level (and might aid me in obtaining a more interesting career than my previous one).

    2. What types of intellectually oriented careers can one obtain with just an MA (from a respectable program, as is the one I’m considering)? I’m fishing for advice here.

    3. What are the general degree requirements for academic publication?

    Assume I write an article for the journal ETHICS, which is of an intellectual quality such that, if written by a professor like you, it would be accepted for publication. Would it be accepted for publication now? If not, would it be accepted for publication if I possessed an MA?

    What about books? Suppose I produced a book on some aspect of political theory that, if presented to a university press by you, would in fact be published. Would they publish now, or if I possessed an MA?

    I have been working for years on several books which, once finished, might be of publishable quality. Getting them published is perhaps my major remaining goal in life. So I would greatly appreciate any insights you might have on all this.

    Thank you, Prof. Brennan, and to any others who might care to reply.


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