Though I am currently re-applying to US universities for their combined master’s degree-and-PhD programmes, I am not particularly hopeful about being accepted. I was rejected everywhere last year, and I think that one reason for this is not being philosophically mature. I don’t know what I’m most interested in and I haven’t done any real research. I’m not sure that I can commit to seven years study. Additionally, I’m no longer so keen to go directly to the US, after experiencing life in a completely alien culture here in Korea. This leads me to take seriously the prospect of doing a MPhil degree or equivalent in the UK. There are five or six good universities where it’d be a serious research master’s. I think I should avoid one year MA degrees as that would probably be a step sideways or at worst down from my four-year undergraduate.

There are three knowns and one unknown that make it incredibly difficult for me to decide whether to go ahead with this. So of course I’m writing a blog post on these factors to help me move closer to making the decision.

First known: I must assume that I will receive no funding for this. I think I can cobble together the requisite fees and living expenses from savings from Korea, part-time work (e.g. tutoring) during the degree and small contributions from a variety of different family members who want me to go to university again. Perhaps I won’t be able to do this. Assuming that I can afford it, the assumption I must make is that that I’m giving up a large sum of money I would otherwise be able to put into long-term savings for future job-prospectful education, buying a house etc. This is quite different to being funded to do the degree, albeit it’s time that you’re not earning money.

Second known: a degree like this on top of my undergraduate barely touches my job prospects.

Third known: the chances of getting funded are comparable to the chances of continuing on with academic philosophy after two years. That is, I’ve got to be at peace with the possibility that I’ll spend the money, do the degree, and then come out with almost nothing to show for it in terms of my work life/career.

Unknown: Do I like philosophy enough to go ahead given these three knowns? Am I sufficiently suited to it?

I will now explain why this is unknown, and what I intend to do about it.

It’s pretty easy to romanticise choosing to do the degree purely for my own development and enlightenment. Here is an opportunity plenty of people that I have known would really like and don’t have. Here is an opportunity to make a very serious choice of education and non-profit-driven self-development, over the acquisition of wealth and property, and “training” and “education” undertaken purely in order to raise one’s annual income. This is all only true if studying philosophy is the right kind of education for me to engage in. Because studying philosophy is very hard work, its only the right kind of education if I enjoy the actual day-to-day work. It’s not possible, otherwise, to get as much out of it as I might other ways to spend the two years.

I studied philosophy at university after studying it at school and there was not one moment when I regretted that choice. Those studies are a huge part of who I now am and what I believe. The part of the subject that I most enjoy is writing essays/papers. Making a case in philosophy is narrational, as I realised when I changed my technique for revising a piece of writing in response to some excellent advise from a tutor. He recommended opening up a blank computer file, and gradually copying chunks of the previous draft into it sequentially, adding and removing as one goes. Though it doesn’t seem all that different from going through the previous draft and editing in place, doing it like this forces one to think of the whole essay together, as making a case for something or one or two things. I am confident that I absolutely love doing this. I like it so much that I enjoy it even when the subject matter is boring, as a lot of the philosophy I studied in my final year of my undergraduate was.

What I am far more unsure about it the hours of reading. Reading philosophy is incredibly hard work and I find it really hard to concentrate on for a long time. I find it hard to prioritise, hard to know why I’m reading and what I should be aiming to get out of it. Throughout my degree I had problems with this again and again (I’m sure there are blog posts I could link to). On the other hand, I know that philosophy involves hard work. In order to get the results, there is slogging through to be done.

I’m also unsure about attending classes, seminars and reading groups. I almost never got very much out of these during university. When it comes to one-on-one or one-on-two meetings with a supervisor to discuss written work, my experience has been that critiques of my work and having the supervisor’s point of view carefully expounded until I understood were great, but general discussions often just annoyed me.

Finally I now view huge chunks of academic philosophy as practised today as a total waste of time. Large parts of contemporary epistemology, metaphysics and the philosophies of mind and language. Lots of philosophers agree with me there though so I’m less worried about this.

I think back to my time at university and compare myself to a few other students who are now doing graduate work. Though I wrote as much as them I did not spend hours talking about philosophy, I did not spend so many hours reading, I did not find as many parts of the subject interesting. Most telling is the fact that I’ve studied very little philosophy since leaving university. I clung to the identity of someone who studies academic philosophy for years, and to some extent I still cling to it. I give people the impression that I study much more than I do.

What all this suggests to me is that I should be writing, but I shouldn’t necessarily be studying more philosophy. I can still read it, and what I have already studied won’t ever just leave me, but maybe for my level of interest I’ve done enough formal study.

The point in the above which I’m most unsure about is how little philosophy I’ve studied since leaving university. A large reason for not doing so is fear and uncertainty about what I should be reading and what level of depth to read it to. Another is novelty at being in Korea and desire to spend studying time on, for example, Korean.

Fortunately, I’ve got time to figure this out. I don’t have to decide whether or not to go to do a master’s until I hand over the money for fees; I can go ahead and apply regardless. Further, over the past year, I have been steadily building up my self-confidence and my ability to trust decisions I make. So in between applying for master’s courses and actually deciding whether to go, it is time for a final try at studying philosophy regularly. I will trust my instincts w.r.t. what to do, won’t get bogged down in imaginary expectations about what I should be doing.

It is work, so I need to push myself a little to do it. I’m not afraid to say that I need to push myself and don’t take the fact that I don’t enjoy every moment to mean that I shouldn’t be considering doing a master’s. I know that my prudence means I won’t commit to doing a master’s unless I have been studying with some success for the past months in Korea, relative to the time available. My awareness of this prudence should mean that if I really should be doing a master’s, I will get on with the study. And if I don’t, it will become pretty clear.

Since leaving university I have lost my quasi-religious relationship with philosophy, which was based on wanting to have something to put all my faith in. It’s now time to determine whether or not there is any relationship left, by nothing other than actually doing some philosophy. I could well be wrong. I could well start a master’s and then drop out, losing a fair chunk of money and time. But then I’ll know for sure that I shouldn’t have done it, rather than living with a massive regret that I never tried.