The Atlantic has a new story about attrition in PhD programs. In our discussions here, we focus a lot on how specific issues in philosophy – sexual harassment, gender and racial bias, lack of accessibility, etc – can be particularly hard for particular types of students. But, the importance of those issues notwithstanding, grad school can be hard for anyone and everyone. And there’s an increasing amount of evidence that grad students are especially vulnerable to mental health problems. The Atlantic article focuses on some potential explanations for general grad student unhappiness and attrition, especially the high levels of uncertainty about the future, lack of mentoring, and relentless criticism that grad students often encounter.
This conversation is a complicated one to have, especially in fields like philosophy. The Atlantic article seems to start from the premise that attrition is, in general, a bad thing – if students have the ability to finish a PhD but aren’t, then their universities are failing them. But I doubt it’s that simple. Grad school isn’t for everyone, and it’s probably a good thing that some people get into grad programs, realize the work isn’t making them happy, and leave (even if they have the academic ability to finish). It’s hard to predict what grad school will be like from the outside, and there’s nothing in principle wrong with giving it a try and realizing it’s not your thing. I worry we sometimes pathologize leaving as failure – as though there’s something intrinsically better about finishing a PhD if you can, even if you don’t want to – and that in doing so we make it harder for students who simply aren’t enjoying their work to move on to something else. That being said, I don’t doubt that we’re definitely failing our grad students along multiple dimensions – including those discussed in The Atlantic – and that as a result many who could be very happy and successful in our PhD programs aren’t.