A fork in the road Divergence of Vacherie Lane on North Kyme Fen near Decoy House. Richard Croft, CC BY SA 2.0

Grad School | Part 5: Contingency plans

You’re trying to figure out whether or not you want to go to grad school. You’ve tried to estimate the value of a PhD in philosophy (Part 1). You’ve considered academic jobs (Part 2). And you’ve considered the nuts and bolts of grad school (Part 3) and the pros and cons of grad school (Part 4). Now it’s time to figure out what to do if — after starting grad school — you find yourself no longer wanting the academic life. It’s time to talk grad school contingency plans.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | …

1. Disillusionment

Sounds exciting, right? Hear me out.

In just a few years, I have encountered many grad students who are deeply dejected and/or downright bitter. They clearly regret their decision to go to grad school. Take a look at their complaints:1

“The pay is awful. I deserve more for what I do.”

“I am sick of the constant criticism from my advisor.”

“I wish I’d studied [something else].”

“My students are idiots.”

“I’m sick of feeling stressed out all the time.”

“Have you heard that so-and-so still hasn’t found a teaching job? Unbelievable! I don’t know what I’ll do if that happens to me.”

[Insert almost any PhD Comic strip here]

Honestly, I sometimes wonder if these students thought seriously about grad school before applying. After all, it isn’t terribly difficult to find out what grad school is like before applying. So if you haven’t yet started grad school, ask yourself:

Have I done everything I can to find out what grad school is actually like?

You won’t know whether you like it until you do your homework. So email grad students — especially students in the departments to which you plan to apply. And try to contact people who recently completed their PhD — even the ones who are no longer in philosophy. (Protip: most philosophy departments share contact information for current and former grad students on their website). Whatever you do, try not to wait until you are a few years into your PhD experience to figure out whether or not you actually enjoy grad school.

For some people, doing your homework might not be enough. Some people will do their homework and still be unsure about grad school. If so, then maybe you’ll just have to try it. Auditing a graduate course is one way to do this.

2. Leave

Let’s say you’ve been accepted to a PhD program and you want to go. First of all, congratu-freakin-lations! Seriously, that’s fantastic! Way to go! Stop reading and go celebrate! I’ll be here when you get back.

Back already? Ok.

Before packing your bags, please consider committing to the following:

If you don’t like grad school, then you will find a way to make the best of it or you will find a way out.2

I really think it’s that simple: if you don’t like grad school, then leaving is an obvious — and respectable — choice. It is not some kind of failure. And it doesn’t mean that the time and energy you spent in grad school was wasted. Further, leaving grad school doesn’t entail leaving the life of the mind. It is becoming increasingly easy for people with non-academic jobs to be connected to academia (here are some blogspodcasts, videos, and other resources).

3. Make the best of it

But maybe you’re in grad school, you’re feeling disillusioned, and you’re thinking:

Look Nick, I get what you’re saying, but I can’t leave. I just wouldn’t enjoy anything else as much as I would enjoy philosophy!

In that case, the advice still applies. Think about it. If you reallythink that academic philosophy is as good as it gets, then grad school is as good as it gets (for now at least).2

Don’t get me wrong. We need to voice our complaints (and our disillusion if we’re feeling that). But that does not entail that we voice only our complaints. If philosophy is as good as it gets, then there’s got to be something positive to say about it every now and then, right? There’s got to be a reason to be thankful.

Heck, there is reason to celebrate the very fact that we’re in grad school! Consider the acceptance rate of most ranked philosophy PhD programs. It’s dreadful. It is not uncommon, for instance, for PhD programs to get around 300 applications and accept only about five or ten people. So just being in grad school is a privilege. Surely there are other privileges about being in grad school.

4. A Few Things To Think About

If a grad student is very unhappy with their graduate school experience, then there are at least three reasons to consider either (a) making the best of it or (b) making plans to leave.

  1. There are plenty — plenty — of students who would be delighted to take your spot.
  2. If you are in grad school studying philosophy, then you already have skills and competencies that allow you to obtain various means of employment (see Part 1).
  3. Grad school can be hard (see Part 3); being around grad students who talk only negatively about their experience just makes it (gratuitously) harder.

So, if you think that there is a good chance that you won’t appreciate the intrinsic value of grad school in philosophy, then please — for you and other aspiring philosophers — take another look at your alternatives. And if you’re already in graduate school and you’re realizing that grad school is a bust, then it would not be unreasonable to leave. (Pro Tip: Many programs will allow PhD students to graduate with the MA portion of their PhD once completed.)

Maybe I’m being insensitive. If that’s the case, then I am sorry. Really. My goal here is not to hurt people. Quite the opposite.


Not everyone will have a net positive grad school experience. That seems to be a reason to have a grad school contingency plan. There are ways to leave. There are ways to make the best of it. And both options are entirely respectable.


  1. These comments are not necessarily from my own department(s). A few are from other departments.
  2. Should anyone complain of a poor experience due to, say, discrimination, harassment, bullying, etc., then this complaint is fully warranted and my recommendation simply doesn’t apply. You should not have to give up your academic ambitions because someone or some group is systematically ruining and otherwise positive experience. I think it’s quite the opposite: the bad actors should leave. Honestly, I don’t know what I would recommend for people in this position. Whatever you do, do not think you are without support. Lots of people care about your situation and they want to help. I am among them. Alas, I am only one person and I am not nearly as useful to you as others will be — e.g., the APA’s Committee For The Status Of Women, and the Committee For The Status Of Black Philosophers. (If you aren’t aware of the problem I am driving at, then allow me to make it clear: there have been a substantial number of complaints about the climate of certain philosophy departments. And it seems that there might be a connection between these complaints and the underrepresentation of certain groups in philosophy — e.g., women [What It Is Like to Be A Woman in Philosophy], academics with disabilities [Disabled Philosophers], and other minority groups (Botts, Bright, Cherry, Mallrangeng, and Spencer 2014). Obviously, this is thoroughly discouraging. For what it’s worth, there is some evidence that things could get better. Some departments, for example, have been successful in identifying and responding to bad actors — which is no easy feat when there is little incentive to report bad actions and when university administrators do not take complaints seriously. Also, some students who have had bad experiences in one department have found that other departments will jump at the chance to accept them into their own program so that they can complete their PhD. Moreover, there is evidence that bias in hiring might be improving. For example, women currently receive more tenure-track positions in philosophy than men [PhilosophyNews]. This is not to say that all philosophy departments are now perfect. But it seems that awareness of various issues is increasing, that more resources are being dedicated to these issues, and that people in vulnerable positions are finding support when they need it.)


Featured Image: “A fork in the road.” Divergence of Vacherie Lane on North Kyme Fen near Decoy House. Richard CroftCC BY SA 2.0


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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