"PhD" from Uri R licensed under CC BY 3.0. From Nick Byrd's "Grad School, Part 3: The basics of a PhD in philosophy"

Grad School | Part 4: What’s Good And Bad About Grad School?

Prior to this post I argued that the value of a PhD is not in its job prospects …or lack thereof (Part 1). I showed that desirable academic jobs are neither ideal or common and that most academic jobs are very undesirable: they pay very little, they expire as frequently as every semester, and they offer no health insurance (Part 2). Then you found out about how most US philosophy PhD programs work (Part 3). If you are considering getting a PhD in philosophy, then you’ll want to have a realistic view of the process. This post attempts to provide such a view. It covers two things:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | … | Part 5

1. What’s So Great About Grad School?

Even on a mediocre day, I can honestly say that I am living the dream! Really, there’s a lot to be grateful for in terms of being a grad student in philosophy.

1.1 Admission

Just being admitted to grad school in a ranked philosophy department in the US or UK is a privilege.1 Why? Because most ranked philosophy programs accept only 5-10% of (hundreds of) applicants. (And, no, admissions are probably not entirely meritocratic1). [Jump to top]

1.2 Compensation

Pretty much all philosophy PhD students in the US have their tuition waived (!) and receive a stipend (!!).2 This boggles my mind. Check out what I get paid to do:

  • read interesting books and papers
  • attend interesting classes
  • go to interesting talks and presentations
  • write about the topics that I find interesting
  • discuss interesting ideas and arguments with my students and colleagues — who, by the way, are often very interesting people
  • grade papers

Ok, that last one isn’t always fun. The point is that I get paid to do interesting stuff!

And the pay is decent. In fact, it’s better than many of the academic jobs I’ll apply for after I’ve completed my PhD — recall Part 2. I make about $17k/year for around 20 hours/week (not including the value of a tuition-waiver.) This might sound like chump change to you. If it does, then this is yet another reality check. For me, this is plenty: I can pays my bills, give away 10%, and save a little.3 [Jump to top]

1.3 Doing What I Love

My past (non-academic) jobs have not been nearly as gratifying as grad school has been. The reason is simple: my primary interests are academic and my past jobs offered very few opportunities to feed this interest. I was busy (at least) 40 hours a week. I had no access to academics. And I had no access to academic resources.

Now, I live within walking distance from a major research institution. I have an office within a stone’s throw of tremendously smart, patient, and likable academic mentors, supervisors, and colleagues. I have an internet connection that unlocks otherwise inaccessible academic research and tools. I attend interesting conferences, workshops, colloquia, seminars, etc. every semester.  I have access to one-on-one guidance on grant applications. I am reimbursed for my conference travel. And there’s probably loads more privileges that I’m overlooking. [Jump to top] 

2. What’s Not So Great About Grad School?

I don’t mean to imply that grad school is an entirely positive experience. Indeed, it is no coincidence that graduate school has something of a reputation for being emotionally and psychologically taxing (e.g., see PhD Comics). After all, grad school is demanding. So you can find yourself experiencing some severe stress, insecurity, exhaustion, and other negative outcomes.

2.1 The Learning Curve

Philosophy has been a professional enterprise for a long time, so there are simply too many philosophers and too many books/papers for any one person to learn it all. This is why philosophers specialize.

But in graduate school students are often required to study broad areas of philosophy. This breadth of study can be overwhelming. This is the first potentially distressing part of graduate school. I find that this is easier to overcome than the second.  [Jump to top]

2.2 The Psychological Impact

Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t. -Bill Nye

Everyone probably knows something you don’t. Academics are no exception. Academics, however, often talk only about what they already know (or have thought about). So after talking to a few academics, you might start to feel like everyone knows more than you do. And that can lead to anxiety.

Why don’t I know as much as everyone else? Did I not pay enough attention as an undergrad? Am I just slow? What if my professors find out that I’m not like everyone else? What if I’m dismissed from the program? That’d be humiliating! Should I just quit now before things get worse?

Apparently this kind of anxiety is so common that there is a name for it: imposter syndrome. The general idea of imposter syndrome is that you feel like your own competencies don’t add up to your peers and, therefore, you feel like an imposter — like you don’t belong.4

Now imagine that — in addition to feeling like you don’t belong —  you are struggling to keep up with the assigned reading, writing, etc. And on top of that, you are regularly receiving critical feed back on your work. Moreover, you are fielding questions from students about material that you have yet to master for yourself. You are also grading piles of papers, you are receiving rejection notices about conferences/journals/grants, and wondering if you’ll survive the academic job market, etc.

It’s easy to see how all of this could result in anxiety and self-doubt. Those, I think, are the more difficult parts of graduate school.  [Jump to top]

3.  Conclusion

Being in grad school in philosophy is a privilege. And it can be wonderful at times. But it can also be taxing. If you’re not careful, it can be overwhelming. Take this into account before making a final choice about grad school. Actually, do more than that: make a contingency plan. That is the topic of Part 5.

 


  1. No doubt, getting into graduate school, like any selection process, probably also involves a substantial amount of luck and bias. I have no doubts that loads of highly hard-working, knowledgeable, competent, and even talented people are turned away from PhD programs for seemingly unknown reasons.
  2. Not all philosophy graduate programs pay all of their students. For example, the program where I got my MA guaranteed funding for their PhD students, but not for their MA students. Some philosophy programs guarantee funding for allof their graduate students (e.g., FSU).
  3. Granted, the cost of living in Tallahassee is remarkably low compared to many cities (e.g., New York City, Boulder, many cities in Southern California, etc.). In fact, our apartment in Tallahassee is less than half the cost of our Boulder apartment (per sq. ft.). Also, my partner also works (but my income really is enough to cover our essentials). Further we don’t have kids, we don’t drive much, we don’t have a car payment, we don’t drink, we don’t have cable, we rarely eat out, we don’t really pay for entertainment (e.g. concerts, shows, etc.), we’ve already paid off undergraduate debt (but not graduate debt), we live in the cheapest apartment complex within biking distance from campus, and our most expensive vacations so far have been partly-reimbursed conferences. Generally speaking, we’re pretty committed to frugality.
  4. One way to produce these feelings is to unfairly compare yourself to others. For example, instead of comparing your strengths to other individuals’ strengths, you compare your strengths to the sum of many individuals’ strengths. Or maybe you compare your weaknesses to others’ weaknesses and fail to account for the fact that you’re far more familiar with your own weaknesses than you are with others’ weaknesses. Either way, these comparisons make you think that your strengths don’t add up to your peers’ and/or your weaknesses are far more abundant or severe than anyone else’s.

 

Featured image: “PhD” from Uri RCC BY 3.0

 

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. When he is not teaching, in the lab, writing, exercising, or relaxing, he is blogging at www.byrdnick.com/blog

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