Grad Traps! (Guest Post by Daniel Silvermint)


[September 3, 2016: This was originally posted on August 21, 2014. Reposting by request from a reader.]

Grad students of philosophy! And other relevant parties! Behold! Daniel Silvermint, assistant professor of philosophy and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Connecticut, has developed a list of unhelpful thoughts that might occur to you every once in a while. He calls them “grad traps,” and the idea is that if you are able to recognize them, you can better avoid the trouble they bring. He explains what he’s up to, below, and asks for your comments on and additions to the list. Take it away, Daniel.


I’m helping out at my department’s orientation for new grads this Saturday, and I wanted to distribute a list of Grad Traps, or ways in which we burden ourselves early in our careers with thoughts and habits that make work and life harder.  The examples are all drawn from my own (only slightly exaggerated) experiences, and I hope that sharing them publicly can help students avoid similar mistakes.  I’m guided by two convictions here.  One, I can’t be the only one that had thoughts like these, right?  Second, success in graduate school is often as much psychological as it is intellectual, and effective mentoring engages with the person, not just their project.  When such traps go unacknowledged, grads have an incentive to hide and conceal their struggles, for fear of being considered not as good as others.  But if these kinds of traps are both common and avoidable, then an environment that openly acknowledges them is worth having.

Of course, there’s nothing essential about my own experiences.  That’s why I’m posting a draft of the list here – to encourage discussion and solicit additions.  Do you see yourself in any of these traps?  What are the traps I missed?  What do you wish you had been able to share?  What did you share, and did it help?

Grad Traps! Lessons drawn from the graduate career of one Daniel Silvermint

  1. “I’m smart. I aced undergrad with barely any effort, aside from some last minute scrambles.  Grad School is like undergrad, but more advanced.  So surely the same work habits will suffice here.”
  2. “The best way to get started on a big pile of work is to obsess about just how much there is to do and how little time I have to do it all in. Of course, another option is to break everything down into small, manageable tasks that I can then cross off a to-do list, but my way is better.”
  3. “I couldn’t bring myself to work the last couple days, and now I feel behind, which makes me really stressed, which makes it even harder to work, which makes me feel even more behind, which makes me too paralyzed to work, which makes me feel even more behind, and, yep, there went another month.”
  4. “Oh no! It’s time for a meeting with my advisor, and I’ve been too stressed to work.  I should beg for an extension.  Whew, they gave me another week.  The relief is so palpable, I’m going to relax for a little bit.  Wait, dang, now the delayed meeting is only a few days away!  Time for an insane, last minute scramble!  Yay, I survived the meeting!  But now I’m burned out.  Having accomplished my goal of surviving the meeting, I’ll take a week off.  Oh no!  It’s time for a meeting…”
  5. “My advisor gave me a compliment. I’m the Master of the Universe!  My advisor frowned at one point.  I’m a total failure and I will never be good at this.  My advisor replied to an email with a single sentence.  They must be mad at me!  My advisor didn’t reply to my latest email.  They must be getting ready to drop me as a student.  Wait, they smiled at me in the hallway!  Everything is great again!”
  6. “You know what will help? Feeling miserable or frustrated about how much further along I’d be if only this or that had happened differently.  Beating myself up will get me out of this rut.”
  7. “The best time to hide from faculty is when I’m stuck on a paper or otherwise struggling.”
  8. “I’m burned out but I can’t justify taking time off because of how much work there is to do, so I’ll just veg on the internet all day and feel neither productive nor rejuvenated.”
  9. “My entire life has to be about this, or else I’m a bad grad. If I take breaks, have hobbies, and enjoy friends and family, I will fail.”
  10. “Another grad in my program seems really impressive. Since I’m completely new to this, I’m an excellent judge of what makes someone a good philosopher, and apparently I’m not it.”
  11. “I’m the idiot whose application was accidentally put on the acceptance pile due to secretarial error. And talking to others about what I’m going through will just reveal that.”
  12. “After all, the rest of my cohort says everything is going well for them, so clearly I’m the only one who feels this way.”
  13. “Hang on, I’m just as behind as someone else in the program. That means I’m not behind!”
  14. “I don’t want to ask a question during seminar or a colloquium, because it might be a dumb question. Hey, somebody else just asked my question, and it was well received!  I will learn nothing from this and similar episodes.  For years.”
  15. “I can’t write anything until I’ve read absolutely everything, because there’s nothing worse than the embarrassment of being told I missed an author I should have known about.”
  16. “Maybe I should spend today polishing the opening paragraph of this paper yet again, instead of starting that new section I haven’t written yet. It all counts as working.”
  17. “Any thought I have belongs in the main body of this paper. If I delete something, that will make my paper clearer, and possibly even give me two papers instead of one.”
  18. “But before I get to writing down every idea I’ve ever had, I should spend dozens of pages discussing any author that might be even loosely related, because I need to prove that I know the literature. Papers are actually midterms in disguise.  Oh, and any comment a faculty member makes gets addressed in its own, brand new paragraph.”
  19. “Revising a paper means tinkering with small, inconsequential aspects of it until I have a draft no better than the last one, but possibly longer, clunkier, and with more tangents than the last one. I’m making progress!”
  20. “No matter where I am, I’m probably n+1 drafts away from finishing this paper. I mean, if I sent it to a journal now, I might get comments that would tell me what I actually need to do to finish it, and why would I want that?  Actually, they’ll probably just tell me I missed an author I should have known about.    I should go read some more.”
  21. “I can only write if I have long blocks of open time. Luckily, summer is only four months away, so I’ll catch up on my writing then.  Oh, and volunteer to teach a summer class for the experience, of course.”
  22. “If I want to be a successful grad, I have to say yes to every opportunity that comes my way. After all, opportunities don’t have costs.”
  23. “I need to write, but answering emails, preparing very detailed lesson plans for this course I’m TAing, and other crises with immediate deadlines obviously take priority. Writing has a nebulous deadline, so that’s the task I can put off.  Hey, wait, how is it December/ May/ the end of August already?!  It’s almost as if all those other tasks always take exactly as much time as I’m willing to devote to them…”
  24. “Speaking of which, I want to be a good teacher! That means being 100% available to my students, agreeing to appointments if they don’t feel like coming to office hours, dropping everything to answer their emails whenever they arrive (even if they’re asking me something that’s on the syllabus), and spending days replying to grade complaints until they finally agree that the grade was fair.”
  25. “Oh no! I have some of these thoughts, too!  I’m doomed for sure, just like this Daniel fellow probably was…”

A few caveats about the above list.  First, while it’s written in a cheeky tone, the point is not to mock individuals who fall into these traps.  The humor is meant to destigmatize a potentially shared experience.  Second, I’m addressing ways in which grads burden themselves.  Entirely absent from the list are interpersonal and institutional burdens.  Marginalization, microaggressions, and matters of climate are also factors for many grads.  While I was partly inspired to create this list by Kate Norlock’s recent post on the Feminist Philosophers blog, such issues require their own discussion, and my department already has an orientation time slot devoted to discussing them.  Third, given that I’m talking about self-imposed burdens, it should go without saying that this list isn’t about where I went to graduate school, or the people that I had the good fortune to work with while there.  Even so, I want to be clear that I received incredible support, for which I’m still and always grateful.

Environments are shaped by what we choose to discuss and how we choose to discuss it.  I’m excited about having an open and respectful discussion in the comments below.  That said, if you prefer to contribute anonymously or privately, you can email me at [email protected]

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firstyear
firstyear
7 years ago

Oh, I see that lots of people have written on X, therefore I shouldn’t write on X. I’ll find a new topic that no one has written anything on for my dissertation.Report

Blain Neufeld
7 years ago

Some of these (e.g., 2, 3, 6, 8, 15, 16, 19, 21, 24) also strike me as ‘professor traps’ (IME).Report

Marcus Arvan
7 years ago

Great list, Dan. I’d agree with “firstyear”, but I also think the opposite is important as well–namely: “Oh, I see lots of people — important people — have written on X. Therefore, I should write on X.” (To which I say: the history of philosophy shows that sometimes everyone is wrong. Don’t be a lemming!).

I would also add the following (which is even more dear to my heart): “Wow, I’ve really made some mistakes. I’ve dug myself a big hole for myself, gotten nowhere on my dissertation for a few years, etc.. I should give up.” (To which I say: necessity is the mother of all invention. Don’t give up. Press on, but this time more intelligently, and with more resolve:).Report

Barry Lam
Barry Lam
7 years ago

How about: “the job market for topic X seems to have been really good (bad) recently, so therefore I should work on topic Y (where X=Y for “good” and X≠Y for “bad”)Report

Eddy Nahmias
7 years ago

As Blain says, many of these are also professor traps or academia traps, and that fact should, I think, help grad students feel better about falling into them and perhaps help them escape from them. Writing is hard. Keep at it. And try to have fun when you’re not writing, rather than feeling bad about not writing.

I also made up the word ‘procrastinatable’ (well, I thought I did until I googled it): Writing is always procrastinatable relative to teaching or other tasks (see 21-24)–don’t let it be.Report

James Camien McGuiggan
James Camien McGuiggan
7 years ago

#10, I expect, is something everyone should be wary of. #25 should have a corollary: “None of these apply to me, so I must be doing everything right!” I also expect there should be a pair of traps around what counts as philosophical work: On the one hand, “Oh no, all I ever do is sit around and think (or, in the case of aestheticians, read novels and listen to music; in the case of philosophers of science, read science papers; in the case of political philosophers, read current affairs; etc.)! I never do any actual work!”; on the other hand, “Man I work so hard! I’m so brilliant! I went to a conference, I had a good hard reckon while going to sleep last night, I talked philosophy till 3 a.m. at that amazing party, I [saw a great film/read an interesting scientific article/read ‘The Economist’ cover to cover]’.

The point of this last is that philosophy is (obviously) a vocation, not a nine-to-five job. Judging how much work you do by how much time you spend at your desk is absurd. But just generally being a philosophical sort of person does not get one’s Ph.D. written, and I wish someone would tell me whether and under what circumstances going to an art gallery counts as work, so that when my stonemason friend asks me about whether being a philosopher is hard work I have an answer. (Although, of course, perhaps this wish is a black one, and I shouldn’t want to be able to compare the workloads of vocations and jobs.)Report

Artem Kaznatcheev
7 years ago

This is a great list, and I think it applies almost without modification in lots of disciplines other than philosophy. I would also recommend drawing your students attention to this question on the academia StackExchange: How should I deal with discouragement as a graduate student? and the awesome accepted answer by Jeff Erickson. It might also be worthwhile to talk about the available professional mental health support and maybe some discussion or experiences to destigmatize it a bit.Report

Eric
Eric
7 years ago

Another one: I am on track to receive a degree, so I am on track to get a job.Report

Joshua Smart
7 years ago

A lot of these describe a “fixed mindset” as opposed to a “growth mindset.” I highly, highly recommend the books Mindset, by Carolyn Dweck, and Success, by Heidi Grant Halvorson (both pathological researchers) for going beyond, “Avoid these traps” to, “Work toward this.”Report

Mike Titelbaum
Mike Titelbaum
7 years ago

Here’s another one: “Oh no, I just made a comment on the first day of my first-ever seminar that didn’t go over well. Everyone will think I’m stupid, no one will write me a good letter, and I’ll never have a philosophy career!”Report

jeremy9959
7 years ago

If I start writing now
When I’m not really rested
It could upset my thinking
Which is no good at all.
I’ll get a fresh start tomorrow
And it’s not due till Wednesday
So I’ll have all of Tuesday
Unless something should happen.
Why does this always happen,
I should be outside playing
Getting fresh air and sunshine,
I work best under pressure,
And there’ll be lots of pressure
If I wait till tomorrow
I should start writing now.
But I if I start writing now
When I’m nbot really rested
It could upset my thinking
Which is
No good at all.
—- From “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” (The Book Report)Report

Anonymous Grad Student
Anonymous Grad Student
7 years ago

I guess this is supposed to be funny. It’s not. If you want to help students, develop some concrete guidelines about what they should do. Just enumerating all of the ways to fail is no help – especially since that is the only mentoring many grads will ever get.Report

Anon Junior Faculty
Anon Junior Faculty
Reply to  Anonymous Grad Student
7 years ago

Here are two concrete guidelines: Don’t insult someone, especially a junior person, for trying to help, even if you personally don’t find it helpful. And number two, if you want a certain kind of mentoring, ask for it. Thank me later.Report

Daniel Silvermint
Daniel Silvermint
Reply to  Anonymous Grad Student
7 years ago

Hi Anon Grad,

I genuinely appreciate where you’re coming from. If one feels an absence of guidance, a list like this can come across as just piling on. “Yes, I know the mistakes, thank you very much – but what should I DO about them?” I see that.

The list hints at the opposite thoughts that eventually got me out of some of these traps, but I didn’t do more than hint because hey, that’s just my brain. Grads are individuals, and depending on their specific obstacles and circumstances, different pieces of advice will help or fail to help. People are too complicated for fit-all guidance, and that’s why one-on-one mentorship is irreplaceable. If you have a committee member (or other faculty) you can trust, I’d urge you to talk to them as openly as you feel you safely can. Often faculty are well aware that a grad is struggling – we’re just not sure how to help until we hear the specific problem. Sometimes it’s as simple as not wanting to stress a student out *more* by calling attention to the fact that they’re struggling, since what has the student feeling so stressed in the first place is their fear that they’re behind or screwing up. Sometimes we want to help, but feel helpless.

I think a catch-all list like this can have some value, if only to broadcast the idea that what students are going through is totally normal and widely shared. I hope there’s some comfort in that. But I won’t pretend that this list can solve all problems. It can’t. That’s where more communication comes in.Report

The Impostor.
The Impostor.
7 years ago

Yep, think I fell into almost every one of those traps at various points during the PhD (in philosophy as well), asked my supervisor at the end how he deals with this kind of thing in grad students; his reply “I remember what it was like.”

Most of these are uncontrollable at times, knowing about impostor syndrome did not always make it easier to convince myself that I was not an impostor.Report

Marcus Arvan
7 years ago

Anonymous Grad Student: Knowing Dan personally, I don’t think the list is supposed to be funny so much as it is supposed to be instructive. Although it is presented in a humorous manner, each “don’t” implies a corresponding “do” (i.e. positive, concrete guidelines for what to do). How so?

Consider #1: “I’m smart. I aced undergrad with barely any effort, aside from some last minute scrambles. Grad School is like undergrad, but more advanced. So surely the same work habits will suffice here.”

Saying that you shouldn’t think these things conversationally implies that you should do the opposite. Don’t think you’re the smartest grad student around because you aced undergrad, and don’t think your same work habits will do. Realize, from Day 1, that you need to be humble and work harder as a grad student than you did as an undergrad.

Or consider #21: “No matter where I am, I’m probably n+1 drafts away from finishing this paper. I mean, if I sent it to a journal now, I might get comments that would tell me what I actually need to do to finish it, and why would I want that? Actually, they’ll probably just tell me I missed an author I should have known about. I should go read some more.”

This conversationally implies that you shouldn’t be a perfectionist, but instead send your paper out to a journal *now* (provided you think it is promising and have gotten some good feedback), with the intention that even if it is rejected, at least you might get helpful comments from a reviewer.

This is concrete advice — and I have found in my own career that it is *invaluable* advice. And Dan’s other remarks all have similar positive implications.Report

Justin Caouette
7 years ago

Reblogged this on A Philosopher's Take and commented:
An excellent post for undergraduates, graduate students, and even faculty by my friend Daniel Silvermint. I am guilty of nearly all 25 of his points. This post is uncomfortably accurate.Report

Anon undergrad
Anon undergrad
7 years ago

I’ve already fallen into several of these. eg 2, 3, 4 (partially), 6, 8, 12-16, 17 (partially), 18, 19 major issue), 20

It sucks the very enjoyment and motivation out of me that got me into philosophy in the first place. I start off very enthusiastic about the work, I get to reading the necessary material, ponder the material’s content, and then begin writing. My writing is the weakest part. I’m usually scatter brained when it comes to articulating thoughts and organizing the content. I also have this terrible mentality of trying to get things right the first time. Having to go back through to change something that is significant makes me fearful of possibly having to rethink and rewrite any other related content in the paper. These bad habits combined with the mounting stress makes writing philosophy slow and sometimes difficult for me.

However, the main reason I haven’t given up is because of the other students and the college’s faculty. There have been a number of students I’ve been around that seem to be more knowledgeable of philosophy than me. At the same time though, they’ve given me good, honest tips on writing as well as making general discussion highly entertaining and invigorating. What has kept me moving forward was the atmosphere that would surround me each time I stepped inside the classroom.

I still have not fixed my bad habits, but at least I know I haven’t given up.Report

The Impostor
The Impostor
Reply to  Anon undergrad
7 years ago

This was exactly my position as well, no tips from me though as I don’t claim to have overcome any of these traps yet either (although I am a little less depressed now). Actually scratch that, one bit of advice I did not take but should have. When your supervisor tells you to take a break and come back to it with fresh eyes, do that, don’t continue grinding through it like you know better.

Hang in their.Report

philosophy graduate student
philosophy graduate student
7 years ago

One more: I plan to write about topic X, but I cannot start writing until I have read EVERY SINGLE THING written on topic X. It would be irresponsible, you know? And perhaps every single thing I realize is importantly related to topic X, as well…Report

Ghost
Ghost
5 years ago

Wait, people have advisers who want to meet with them to talk about their work? And they’re not taking advantage of that!? I hate everything.Report

JB
JB
5 years ago

Another one from my experience: “This topic interests me, but it is new to me and the course assignment’s word limit seems daunting, so I won’t write on that topic and will instead pick something familiar yet boring.”Report

Louis DeRosset
Louis DeRosset
5 years ago

Three little notes:
1. For what it’s worth, I don’t think (16) is a trap: the key to making progress on writing is getting your head into the material, and you can do that relatively quickly by tinkering and polishing. It’s also psychologically easier than setting New Thoughts in pixels for the first time. Once you’re focused on the material, rather than those aspects of your situation that make you anxious, the work will start to flow. One of the most important parts of the paper is its introduction, so it’s often a good idea to polish that bit until it shines. If you find yourself polishing it to the exclusion of playing around elsewhere, just scroll down, and let some other passage catch your eye.

2. I think the positive suggestion in (20) is unwise. If you think you’re n+1 drafts away on specific grounds — there are particular changes such that you know that you need to make them — then you should not send the paper out for publication. Referees will not tell you what you need to do to finish the paper. They will tell you which particular passages teed them off. On the other hand, there’s no time like the present to send the paper to your friends and advisors, so long as you reciprocate. They are going to tell you what you need to do to finish the paper.

3. I think you forgot one: “The point of this whole effort is to do something ground-breaking and awesome. This paper is neither ground-breaking nor awesome, by comparison to [your advisor’s most influential paper/Hume’s Treatise/…]. So, I will just stick it in a drawer, safe from my friends’ and advisors’ prying eyes, and wait for ground-breaking awesomeness to strike.”Report

Tom
Tom
5 years ago

And then, you finish and fall into trap 26: Whew! I’m done with grad school, and I can finally get out of all those pesky habits I picked up at the very end that actually got me through my dissertation! Because I’ll never have to do anything that big, important, or at other people’s whims ever again.Report