Saucers of Mud

November 8, 2014

The Oversupply of Lawyers and the Oversupply of Philosophy PhDs

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 11:39 pm

Via Paul Campos* at Lawyers Guns & Money, an article by Jeffrey Toobin about inequality among law school graduates:

It’s clear that the nation needs fewer law schools, for many that remain are only offering their students false hopes of employment in exchange for big debt. These students are getting the legal-education equivalent of the subprime loans that helped sink the national economy. In this case, though, the risk to the broader public is small, while the indebted students may struggle with the burden for the rest of their lives. (The vast middle of the legal academy—at the big state schools, for instance—is doing only a little better than the schools at the bottom….)

The situation in law schools is apparently dire. Students at non-top schools take out massive loans to get degrees when, it turns out, there aren’t enough jobs for them. The law schools keep their doors open in part because they can keep raking in that tuition funded by federally-subsidized student loans. And, because there are so many new lawyers chasing so few jobs, many of them wind up with poor-paying jobs, part-time jobs, or no jobs.

That last sentence should sound familiar to anyone who’s been anywhere near the philosophy job market recently. Does anyone doubt that there aren’t enough philosophy faculty jobs for the number of new PhDs we produce? Has anyone done a philosophy job search without having to turn away a vast number of obviously bright and talented philosophers before the interview stage?

Now, there are differences between the philosophy market and the law market. Philosophy graduate students, with luck, haven’t gone into debt because their schools give them teaching and tuition remission; the cost for a PhD is more in time and energy than in dollars. And I don’t think that the motives for continuing to admit PhD students are as venial as the reasons that the most egregious law schools keep their doors open; we like to spread our knowledge and philosophy PhDs are probably not a big profit center most places; the benefit to the departments comes more from cheap teaching than tuition dollars, and when we really want cheap exploitable teaching we hire adjuncts from that pool of underemployed philosophy PhDs. But if the philosophy PhDs who find themselves at age 30 unable to find decent jobs in their field after spending their entire young adulthood working for peanuts are better off than law school graduates with crippling debts, they’re still in a bad place, and the purity of our motives for putting them in that place is frankly irrelevant to what we should do about it.

So: I think it’s pretty obvious that we should give out fewer philosophy PhDs. One way to accomplish this, I suppose, would be for every PhD program to start admitting about half as many students. (And wouldn’t that make life a bit easier for professors in those programs?)

One thing we might worry about if we cut down the PhD admissions is the amount of gatekeeping it involves. We’d be deciding who could go into philosophy at the point of PhD admissions. If this meant evaluating people straight out of college, it’d mean we’d be making decisions based on poor information, and probably skewing our decisions to people who went to elite undergraduate institutions. Now, to some extent I think we’re already effectively doing that (if your grad program makes an enormous difference to your job prospects, then we’re already deciding most of your fate out of college; you’re just getting the news later). But it’s still a legitimate worry.

My proposal, if I had a magic wand to make it happen, would be to not to make PhD admissions out of college. Turn a lot of PhD programs that aren’t serving their graduates well into MA programs, and have PhD programs accept students from the MA programs. Then the PhD programs would be evaluating applicants who’d spent a couple of years doing graduate-level work. The writing samples, with luck, would be more reliable indicators of philosophical ability (whatever that may be) than undergraduate papers; and recommendations from faculty who the students had been working with full-time for a couple of years would be more reliable than recommendations for undergraduates that depend on how well they’re able to network with their professors. If, as David Velleman worries here, “[a]s publication becomes a requirement for job placement, graduate programs will have to select for applicants who will be ready to publish in only four or five years,” at least that’ll be more plausible if they’re selecting from applicants who already have a couple years of graduate work. (And again, part of the hope is that with fewer PhDs the job market won’t be so brutal.)

[EDIT: I did not add in the original post that part of my proposal is that the MA programs should give their students tuition remission and stipends, most likely in exchange for teaching the way PhD programs do. No one should go into debt in order to do graduate work in philosophy. Thanks to Justin Weinberg and his commenters at the Daily Nous for pointing this oversight out.]

And a student who couldn’t get into a PhD program out of their MA program, or who decided they didn’t want to, would be much better off than a PhD who can’t get a permanent job. Looking for a new field as a 25-year-old MA seems much less painful than as a 30-year-old PhD, especially because the PhD is more likely to spend a few years working at bad jobs in the field before giving up. I’ve even talked to some people who’ve said that they’d have been interested in grad school in philosophy if they’d only been expected to do a couple years of it.

There are certainly problems with this idea. The biggest one is that there’s no way I have of making it happen, and it doesn’t scale down that well (if two PhD programs turn into MAs, the remaining PhD programs will still be looking for undergrads from the most prestigious programs, and the central administrations at those new MA programs will be annoyed at the loss of prestige). There’s also the additional hardship of having to move twice for graduate school. But still: Isn’t it obvious that we’re not doing our grad students a favor by giving out so many more PhDs than there are job openings? Shouldn’t we think of something to do about it?

Disclaimer: I currently work in a department with no graduate program; in the past I have worked at two departments with terminal MA programs and one with a PhD program.

*side note: I am not interested in talking or even thinking about any disputes that Campos may have had with anyone else.


1 Comment »

  1. […] That is from a post by Matt Weiner (Vermont) at Saucers of Mud. […]

    Pingback by Are Terminal MA’s Part of the Solution? | Daily Nous — November 11, 2014 @ 9:57 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: