Thursday, March 06, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Philosophy and Finance

A new correspondent writes:

I’m currently a student at a California State University. I’m working towards a double major in philosophy and finance. Philosophy is my real passion with finance as a monetary safety net. As I reach the end of my undergraduate career I find myself thinking, as most students do, about what is next for me. I’ve decided that I’d really like to become an academic and bring my passion for philosophy to a younger generation. I figure that to do this, in whatever form, I will need at least a masters in philosophy. This is where the problem arises, I have very little money… very little. I’ve heard of many great fellowships and scholarship programs at school around the country but what is the best way to approach getting financial aid? Also, any great sites for researching graduate programs would be much appreciated.

This breaks my heart. This kind of information should be easily available from the faculty in your program.

In the evergreen disciplines, of which philosophy is one, there's a tremendous surplus of qualified applicants for nearly every tenure-track job. When my cc did a recent search for a philosopher – our first since the 80's – we were deluged with responses, and even we won't consider anybody without an earned doctorate and teaching experience. A Master's wouldn't even get you past the first cut.

Given that you aren't exactly independently wealthy, I'd strongly advise against doing graduate work in philosophy. This is especially true if you don't get in at one of the top half-dozen or so programs.

(As far as financial aid goes, the rule of thumb for graduate work in the evergreen disciplines is that you should never pay tuition. If they aren't willing to give you a fellowship or teaching assistantship, you should take that as a hint. And fellowships are vastly preferable to teaching assistantships in the early years, since you'll have more time to devote to coursework and preparing for comps.)

One of the tragedies of the professionalization of the academy is that people have come to believe that they can't do the work they love without a specific credential in that field. This is nearly always wrong. The most interesting work, consistently, is done by people crossing fields. Rather than looking at philosophy as a closed club – which, in many ways, it is – I'd suggest looking at it as a habit of mind. What is it about philosophical inquiry that attracts you? Chances are, there are plenty of other avenues that would allow you to use those same habits of mind and still feed yourself.

If it's the rigorous symbolic logic that attracts you, I've noticed those folks often overlap with math, computer, and engineering types. If it's more the social and political area of philosophy, you may find parts of the business and finance world an intellectual feast. Lively minds find ways to be lively in any number of settings; a tenure-track professorship, while nice, is not the only way.

If you just can't help yourself, and simply can't imagine living life as anything other than a certified philosophy professor, then I'd advise skipping the Master's and applying directly to Doctoral programs as a Doctoral student. Typically, at least in my experience, students who identify upfront as Doctoral candidates get most or all of the funding. You can still leave with a Master's halfway through, but you'll leave with less debt. So there's that. But honestly, unless you're at one of the top half-dozen or so programs in the country, I wouldn't even advise that. This is no reflection on you; it's just the reality of an incredibly brutal employer's market.

Good luck with your decision.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.