Douglas Portmore’s Six Commandments for Getting the Most Out of Graduate School

How can you get the most out of graduate school? Douglas Portmore, professor of philosophy at Arizona State University, has some advice for you.

Professor Portmore is the author of many works in moral philosophy, including the books Opting for the Best: Oughts and Options (2019) and Commonsense Consequentialism: Wherein Morality Meets Rationality. A version of the following was originally posted on the teaching page of his website, which I encourage you to check out.

[Judy Chicago, “Rainbow Pickett”]

Getting the Most out of Graduate School:
Six Commandments*
by Douglas Portmore

1. Get planning

a. Plan on having a Plan B. Whatever your Plan A is for post-graduate employment, think about what your Plan B might be and make choices that increase your chances of succeeding in your Plan B if you don’t succeed in your Plan A. And there’s no reason why your Plan A (and/or Plan B) shouldn’t be something other than a tenure-track job in a philosophy department. If your program allows you to take courses outside of philosophy, you should think about which of them might enrich your job prospects. Our students have wisely taken courses in law, disability studies, and criminal justice—just to name a few. Such courses have not only added depth and breadth to their philosophical research but have also enhanced their prospects both for getting jobs in other academic departments (e.g., criminology) and for getting jobs outside of academia (e.g., jobs with non-profits). Taking courses outside of philosophy will also give you a better and broader understanding of academia. And, in thinking about possible jobs outside of academia, I recommend consulting Beyond Academia: Professional Opportunities for Philosophers.

b. Plan on getting a job. Note that most faculty end up working for a program that’s less prestigious than the one that trained them. This means that, statistically speaking, it’s very unlikely that you’ll be competitive for the same sorts of jobs that your advisor was competitive for when he or she first went out on the job market. So, the best way to estimate what kinds of jobs you might get is not to look at the employment history of your advisor, but to look at what sorts of jobs recent graduates of your program have obtained. In any case, you should be looking at job ads (see, e.g., PhilJobs and The Chronicle of Higher Education) starting in your first year of graduate school. Look at ads for the sorts of positions that you realistically hope to get someday. See what the required and desired qualifications are. And monitor the “recent hires” section of PhilJobs, paying special attention to hires that come from programs like yours. Look up their CVs and read them carefully. Form a plan for obtaining the sorts of qualifications that led to their being hired.

c. Plan on becoming an excellent and experienced teacher. Unfortunately, most degree programs don’t offer much by way of formal training on how to teach. So, make sure to seek out and make the most of any teaching opportunities that do arise. Reflect on your own teaching as well as on the teaching of others. Thus, when you TA for a course, you should be sure to observe the instructor and students carefully and to take notes on what does and doesn’t work. Also, while TA-ing for a course, you should be preparing to teach that course yourself. So, by the time you’re finished TA-ing for that course, you should have a syllabus as well as a set of lectures, readings, and assessments ready to go. And seek out opportunities to learn about teaching. Most importantly, plan on getting some experience teaching your own courses even if that means that you have to do some adjunct teaching at nearby colleges and universities. Many jobs will be seeking candidates with a good amount of independent teaching experience, preferably with some online teaching experience as well as some experience teaching certain popular courses, such as business ethics. They also particularly value experience having taught at a similar institution with a similar student body.

d. Plan on getting published. For most academic jobs that you might want, you probably need to have at least one publication on your CV to get hired. Now, most journals accept only 5–10% of submissions. So, you need to plan on having several papers ready to submit in the two years prior to your going out on the job market. (Any sooner than that is probably too early.) Since it will take an average of 3–4 months to hear back from any given journal regarding a submission, you can plan on only being able to submit a paper 6–8 times during that two-year period. That means, you’ll need at least 2–4 papers ready to submit two years prior to the year that you plan on going out on the job market. At the same time, you’ll need to be making good progress on your dissertation. See my “Publishing in Philosophy.”

e. Plan on fulfilling all your degree requirements in a timely manner. Don’t just take whatever you fancy at the moment and hope that it will all work out in the end. Have a plan for completing all your requirements by the time that your funding runs out.


2. Inculcate the right attitudes and the right habits

a. Develop a writing routine. Don’t wait for “muses” to spark your creativity. Don’t wait to be inspired. Don’t wait until you’ve read everything that you think that you need to read. Just sit down and write out your thoughts on a daily or near-daily basis. Learn to write in a non-committal way. That is, don’t write only with the expectation that what you’ll now write will end up in a published paper. Write merely with the goal of recording your thoughts and getting clearer on what they are. Write down your ideas about an article that you’ve read. Write down a clear formulation of a distinction that you’ve just learned about. Write out a chart detailing the different possible positions on an issue and the advantages and disadvantages of each. But don’t let your designated writing time be used for editing and polishing. That should be done at some other time. And let all this and your other academic endeavors become a normal, tranquil, everyday element of your ordinary life. Work on the model of a skilled mason rather than on the model of a tortured artist. Create a writing routine and a writing environment that is specific to your needs. Do what works for you, whether that means blocking out two hours in the morning before the craziness of the day begins or returning to your desk at the end of the day after you’re done with everything else. Be protective of your writing time. But if you miss a session or two, get right back at it. Start small if you need to. A writing session of just 30 minutes each day can build into a habit that will eventually turn into longer writing sessions. And there’s no right or wrong type of routine, but you need to start now and keep working at it until you develop a routine that works for you. It’s amazing how much can be accomplished with such a daily or near-daily routine of writing for just an hour or two.

b. Learn how to write publishable prose and learn how to properly package your ideas. As Dan Korman points out: “Coming up with publishable ideas is only half the battle. If the quality of your writing is not up to professional standards, that by itself is often sufficient reason for rejection. Good, publishable writing has a certain ‘tightness’ about it: no unnecessary repetition, no unnecessarily wordy sentences, no extraneous set-up, and (most importantly) a perspicuous structure to the paragraphs, the sections, and the paper as a whole. Also, make sure that individual sentences say precisely what you mean for them to say—it’s not enough for the sentence to convey roughly what you have in mind—and there should be no inaccuracies, however minimal, in your attributions of views to other philosophers.” Whenever you read a paper that is exceptionally well-written, be sure to takes notes in which you identify as explicitly as possible what makes that paper exceptionally well-written. Also, make a note of argumentative strategies and philosophical maneuvers that you encounter and that you think may be worth incorporating in your own work. That is, learn and practice heuristics for coming up with philosophical insights—see my “Philosophical Writing and Research.”

c. Develop good scholarly habits. Read often and widely. Annotate and summarize the books and articles that you read. Learn the canon but also keep up on the latest literature. Develop a system for keeping track of ideas and their sources. Update your bibliographies as you go along. Learn how to cite sources properly (e.g., don’t quote someone indirectly). Consult and follow a style manual. Learn about plagiarism and how to avoid it. Learn good typographical habits (e.g., only one space after periods and use tab for indention).   

d. Learn both to take chances and to move beyond your comfort zone. Ask questions in seminars and in colloquia. Become willing to teach and to read about areas that are outside of your areas of specialization. Network beyond your comfort zone.

e. Learn to take criticism, rejection, and failure constructively. Learn that being responsive to criticism is far more important than being right. Be at peace with the fact that you’re going to be wrong a lot. And come to terms with the fact that you’re in for a lot of rejection. You’ll need to take chances that will lead to your being wrong and getting rejected. What’s more, you should make it as easy as possible for potential critics to prove that you’re wrong. After all, you’re looking for the truth as opposed to looking to be right. Adopt the attitude that philosophy is a collective enterprise. Your job is not to solve some philosophical problem all by yourself; rather, your job is to either articulate some new problem or spell out more fully the advantages and disadvantages of some position to an old problem so that we can together eventually figure out which position is best overall.

f. Acquire a thick skin and learn to be self-motivating and self-affirming. In our profession, criticism and rejection tends to be the norm. Praise is often hard to come by. My sense is that things are improving. But, in any case, you need to learn both to motivate yourself to make progress and to take satisfaction in your progress and not in other people’s responses to it. Take satisfaction in others being willing to engage with your ideas rather than expecting that they’ll praise your ideas and/or be convinced by them.

g. Learn to be of service to our department, the profession, and our community. Be a good departmental citizen. Attend colloquia. Ask questions. Be good hosts to our visitors. Help out when volunteers are needed to, say, meet with job candidates. Become an asset to the profession. Learn how to referee papers. Learn how to be a constructive participant in Q&A sessions. Learn about climate issues in the profession and how you can help to address them. Learn about diversity issues in the profession and how you can help address them. Become an asset to our community. There are many ways to do so. You can contribute to public philosophy. You can give community lectures when asked. You can volunteer to teach philosophy in the prison system. You can help introduce philosophy in primary and secondary education. Etc.


3. Show initiative and make full use of your resources and opportunities

a. Take the initiative and be persistent. Especially when it comes to faculty, you need to learn to take the initiative. Few faculty members will go out of their way to help you without your asking, but many will help if you ask. In general, ours is profession where you need to learn to take the initiative. Also, you’ll often need to be persistent. For instance, sometimes you may need to email an advisor who owes you comments on a dissertation chapter more than once.

b. Connect with your professors early on. As Korman says: “Visit them during office hours, talk to them at department events and, in general, strive to make a positive impression early on. Your professors, especially your adviser, will be the people who make recommendations about fellowships, jobs and other opportunities throughout and beyond grad school. Keep them updated about your progress (rather than having them chase you down). Particularly if you pursue a Ph.D., your relationship with your adviser is a key element of your graduate experience, and you want to cultivate a positive one from the beginning.” So, note that you’re always “on” when around faculty. We may socialize as if we’re equals, but we have different powers and different statuses. Never forget that.

c. Connect with your fellow graduate students. As Dan Korman says: “Your classmates are going through the same experiences, and it is helpful to make friends with people who can appreciate the challenges you’re experiencing. Typically, veteran graduate students are willing to mentor the incoming ones.” They can offer inside tips about how to do well and share their strategies for advancing through the program. Also, you can learn just as much from them as you do from faculty—perhaps, even more.

d. Look for and take advantage of opportunities. Take advantage of colloquia, fellowships, prize competitions, conferences, reading groups, visiting opportunities, pedagogical meetings, meals with visitors, etc. Be on the lookout for any opportunities to hone your skills and/or to become more comfortable in the profession. Be on the lookout for awards, grants, fellowships, prize competitions, and visiting opportunities. And just as you need practice learning to write publishable articles, you need practice learning to write successful grant and fellowship applications.

e. Network. Network with visitors, conference attendees, and others working on similar topics. Make use of PhilPapers and PhilPeople.


4. Learn the profession and start to become a positive presence in it

a. Get comfortable interacting with philosophers you don’t know. Learn how to talk shop. Be able to explain your work in a way that’s comprehensible and engaging to someone who doesn’t share your areas of expertise. Get comfortable engaging with other people and their work.

b. Get comfortable presenting your work. Let “your job talk be the tenth (or twentieth) time you’ve presented a paper to a roomful of strangers.” (Korman)

c. Learn what the profession is like. Know what you’re getting yourself into. Keep up with some of the non- or less vile blogs, such as Daily Nous and The Philosophers’ Cocoon. Talk to professors, and not only to the professors at your own university. Learn what their day-to-day life is like. Learn how it differs from the day-to-day life of a graduate student. Form realistic expectations about jobs, academia, publishing, teaching, etc.

d. Establish a professional identity. Korman: “Attending conferences is crucial for establishing a professional identity. If you’re a constant presence at professional conferences, people will come to think of you as one of the voices in your particular area, and may think of you as a potential commentator for future conferences or as a potential speaker for invite only conferences. It will also affect your conception of your own work in fruitful ways. When you begin discussing your papers and your views with other people doing serious work in your field, you’ll get a better appreciation of the point of writing papers: to convince real, live people—who you’ve talked to, so you know what it takes to convince them—that your arguments work or that theirs don’t.” But be careful and selective on how you present yourself via social media. And at some point before you go on the job market, it would be good to set up a website or at least a profile on PhilPeople.


5. Safeguard your mental and physical health and your overall wellbeing

a. Recognize that the impostor syndrome is real. “American psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes coined this term in 1978, describing impostor syndrome as a feeling of ‘phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement’. In my early years of grad school, I feared that the mask would be ripped off and my professors would realize that it was a mistake for me to be there—that I did not belong.” (Korman)

b. Enjoy your time in graduate school. You’ll hear a lot of negative things, but grad school can be an amazing experience and sometimes even fun.

c. Safeguard your mental health. Maintain a good work-life balance. Be careful about your use of social media. (As Teddy Roosevelt noted: “comparison is the thief of joy.”) If you tend to worry too much, designate a specific time-period during the day to do your worrying and then don’t allow yourself to worry at other times. Take walks and commune with nature or do whatever helps you stay centered. Seek help when you need it.  

d. Safeguard your physical health. Exercise and eat right.


6. Keep records and be organized

a. Keep good records. Save articles, handouts, old papers, lecture notes, teaching evaluations, etc. Keep a record of your submissions. Keep records of your professional contacts.

b. Create an organizational system that works for you. Find a set of naming conventions for saving your files, notes, articles, etc. Work out a good system for organizing your files and folders. Back up everything on Carbonite, Google Drive, Dropbox, or some other cloud service. Take time occasionally (e.g., at the end of the semester) to get caught up with organizing everything.

c. Create one or more to-do lists. Break down everything you need to do into small, manageable tasks and put those on a to-do list. Focus, not on the entirety of all that you need to do, but only the next couple of items on the list.


[*] Two caveats: First, these are only my personal opinions. You should seek out the opinions of others. Second, I focus on academic jobs, not because I think that these are the only sorts of jobs that you ought to be interested in, but only because these are the sorts of jobs that I feel most qualified to talk about. And thanks to Brad Armendt, Tom Blackson, Cheshire Calhoun, Joan McGregor, and Maura Priest for many excellent suggestions.

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