"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 Ph.D. 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 Ph.D. programs work (Part 3). If you are considering getting a Ph.D. 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.  [Jump to top]

1.2 Compensation

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

  • 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 (but here’s a way to make grading more 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 Ph.D. — 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 pay 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 Ph.D. 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

If you know about the iceberg illusion, you know that we tend to highlight the parts of us that we’re proud of and hide the parts that we’re embarrassed about. Academics are no exception.

An infographic illustrating the Iceberg Illusion.

Academics talk about what they know, what they publish, what funding they receive, etc. But they don’t talk about how much they don’t know, how many times their papers are rejected, and how many funding applications have been turned down. And given the diversity in academia, when you spend your time around academics, you begin to realize how everyone has accomplished something different than what you have. And it is easy to (fallaciously) infer from this that everyone has accomplished more than what you have. 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 feedback 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 schools, 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 all of 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 at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog

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