It’s grad-application season again, so this seems like an appropriate time to share a few words of advice with the next crop of philosophers. And now that I’m a second-year graduate student myself, I think I’m ready to start making sweeping generalizations about the field.
First, philosophy has a bad rap these days. Some say it’s just intellectual masturbation — that you’ll spend your life engaging in an activity that you find stimulating but that will never produce anything of value.
I don’t think that’s right. Typically masturbation stays between you and the occasional family member who’s unfortunate enough to open the door without knocking. Philosophy, by contrast, is meant to be shared.
That’s why being a professional philosopher is more like making a living donating your gametes to strangers. Masturbation might be involved, but if so it’s just the beginning. Eventually you can spawn something great. (Though you’ll probably never know; cf. David Hume, who died before anyone cared about his philosophy.) One day someone might take one of your contributions out of storage, thaw it out, and implant it in a generation of fertile young minds. So don’t worry if some poor benighted souls fail to see the value of your often-solitary labors.
My second piece of advice is about what to do once you’ve been accepted to various grad programs. Handling acceptance offers can be tricky. Let’s suppose university A offers you a stipend of $20,000 per year and university B offers you $25,000 per year and the opportunity to work with renowned Professor Smith. Should you go with university B? Not necessarily. You should probably (politely) ask university A if they can match B’s offer. Don’t be surprised if university A says no, however, as they may not be able to acquire Professor Smith on such short notice. Still, there’s no harm in asking.
Finally, on admissions visits you may be starstruck as you meet various famous philosophers. Some will tell you just to relax, as “philosophers are people too.” This is a surprisingly common misconception. Most of today’s leading philosophers are logic-chopping machines produced by researchers at R1 universities. If you come face-to-face with one, though, don’t worry. Top philosophers tend to have extremely rudimentary perceptual systems. If they can’t eat you, sleep with you, or publish you, they’ll probably just move on.
So good luck to all the aspiring philosophers out there. If you keep this and other equally important advice in mind, you’re sure to do great.