That’s right. Don’t get a PhD.
You might read the title of this blog entry and think that I’m kidding. Well, I’m being intentionally provocative I’ll grant, but I’m not kidding. Every now and then someone asks me if I would recommend that they go ahead and get a PhD in philosophy or theology. As rule of thumb, I wouldn’t. Why not? Didn’t I enjoy my experience? Yes, very much. I got a scholarship to pay for all my fees and a living allowance, so I got to do stuff I love for three years and get paid for it. It was great! And if that’s all you’re after – three years of doing what you love, then I take back my warning. Go ahead, do it, because you will very probably get what you want. But…
But what if you’re not doing it just for the satisfaction and pleasure. Are you going to do it for the knowledge? Read books. Start a blog and write articles. You don’t need to get a PhD to write your dissertation cover page. Actually you would only go after a PhD if you already knew your subject well enough to say something lengthy about it. And then we come to the more likely culprit. You want to get a PhD because you think you’ll be able to enter professional academia once you’ve got a PhD, and perhaps a few publications.
Now, some people ask me this because – no boasting intended – they admire what they think I’ve achieved. I’ve got a PhD, so I would know if it’s a good idea for them, because I’ve been there and done that. Well here’s the thing: Did you also notice that even though I completely finished the PhD in mid 2007 and it’s now mid 2010, I haven’t had a single academic job – not even a job interview? Imagine that I’m in a rowboat, in the middle of a lake. So are a hundred other people. The lake is big enough to hold just one hundred rowboats. We all have fishing rods, and our heavily baited hooks are in the water. There’s a single fish in the water, and everyone on the lake knows it. You’re standing at the shore and you call out, “so…. should I bring my boat and rod out there too?” Another illustration: There’s an elevator full of people. No, not just full, it’s absolutely stuffed with people, and the crowd overflows out into the lobby, where still more people – dozens of them, are pressing in as hard as they can, trying to get into the elevator. Should you try to get in? Imagine that the scene before you does not change. The people in the elevator are quite happy to stay there, and the crowd pressed hard up against them just keeps on pressing it, showing no sign of letting up. You haven’t even entered the mob yet. Should you stand around for hours waiting to get in?
Consider the New Zealand scene in philosophy: Your options for universities are Auckland, Waikato, Victoria, Canterbury and Otago. There are a few smaller places (e.g. polytechnics) that may have an elective paper or so in philosophy, but these are the main options. Do they all hire new faculty each year? No of course not. There might – might – be two full time recruitments each year in the nation, and that’s a really good year. How many graduates do you suppose there are? I don’t care to guess. Take into account, too, the fact that departments will not only consider New Zealand candidates. The situation is the same on a larger scale in the US, the UK, and Australia. As a PhD grad in philosophy, you will almost certainly not get a job on a philosophy faculty. Period. Deal with that. Should you get a PhD in philosophy (or theology)? If you’re doing it for the love of it, sure why not. It’s expensive, but whatever. If you’re thinking of doing it to enter the academic profession with that degree, then you had better be special. Or you had better know somebody – in which case someone better than you is going to get screwed over. So you’d better be special. But can I recommend, in general, that you fling yourself into a pool of candidates – a pool that I am in – that already faces impossible odds? No. I can’t. The best advice I can give to most people (read: to normal people, who might happen to have a keen interest in philosophy and teaching) is simple: Don’t do it.