Profs: What Do You Regret About Your Time In Graduate School?


In a new interview at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher?David Wong (Duke) says of his time in graduate school:

Yes, Princeton was competitive, but a lot of the pressure was internal. I regret most not speaking up in seminars nearly as much as I should have or wanted to, but I feared looking stupid or ignorant.

Hearing about professors’ regrets about graduate school might be of use to current and prospective graduate students. Do you have any?

Professor Wong continues, describing some of the thoughts that helped him overcome his reticence:

I knew I acquired skills there, and came to realize I had some interesting perspectives to contribute, but it’s not a place that helps you get over the habit of invidiously comparing yourself with others. A few years after graduate school, I came to think of myself as a laborer in an ancient tradition, and that how we contemporaries judge each other is not going to matter a whole lot in the long run. We just do our best and hope that some of it matters to some people now or down the line.

The whole interview is here.

Zadok Ben-David, “Looking Back”

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recent grad
recent grad
4 years ago

I regret taking the relative value of certain philosophical topics for granted. Once outside of grad school, I’ve had to re-think what I considerable valuable about philosophy. I no longer consider much of what I thought about so intently in grad school to be of much value.Report

Marcus Arvan
4 years ago

I made just about every mistake imaginable in grad school, from getting distracted by hobbies (video games, music), to getting side-tracked by personal issues, to isolating myself due to lost confidence, to alienating those around me (due, in large part, to being unhappy with the various mistakes I already made!). Do I regret the mistakes I made in grad school? In a few senses, yes I do. They made too much of graduate school a tenuous and unhappy experience for me (I still have no idea how I finished the degree), and perhaps I might have had an easier time on the job market as well. On the other hand, although I do have these regrets, I cannot say I regret my mistakes all-things-considered. First, they made me who I am today. Every mistake was a learning opportunity for be, both as a human being and philosopher. Second, had I made fewer mistakes, I probably wouldn’t have met my spouse–the person who is far and away the best thing that ever happened to me.

In any case, if I were to say there is anyway potentially useful takeaways from my experience, they are these.

First, to potential grad students: don’t think that just because you’ve always been responsible and successful at everything, things will continue the same way in grad school. Getting a PhD is incredibly difficult, throwing many unexpected obstacles in your way–from failed romantic relationships, to mental-health issues, etc.–that you may not be well-equipped to deal with. Life happens, and for all too many grad students I’ve known (myself included), it may not happen anything like the way you wish or expect. No graduate student starts graduate school expecting to struggle or fail–and yet a good number of them do. You might well be one of them. If this sounds depressing, sorry – I know it is. But it is the truth–or at least the truth as I’ve seen it.

Second, to grad programs: recognize that grad students are human, and all too often, young people trying to “discover themselves.” I made some bad decisions in grad school (wasting time on hobbies, etc.) out of youthful immaturity. I am glad my grad faculty and program were forgiving and supported me, particularly when I finally worked hard to turn things around. I needed that, and I suspect all too many other grad students out there may as well. People–particularly young people, I think–in a stressful environment are apt to make some mistakes. Recognize that the mistakes they make (provided, of course, they are not too terrible) may be momentary and a product of the stressful life-stage and situation they find themselves in. Recognize too that when it comes to students like this, sometimes the difference between them succeeding and failing is a matter of expressing some faith in them and helping them learn from their errors. I will forever be thankful to those who extended to me this kind of compassion, support, and understanding. I would probably not have an academic career today were it not for them.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
4 years ago

Hobbies are not a waste of time, regardless of whether you are in grad school or not. It’s not a chain-gang, for goodness sake.

My advice to students would be not to take it — graduate school — or yourself too seriously. Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

Absolutely. Hobbies need not be a waste of time at all (strangely, my hobbies ended up inspiring a few of my later publications!). Hobbies can, however, be dangerous if one takes them too far, such that one doesn’t take oneself or one’s studies seriously *enough*, distracting oneself from doing the work one needs to finish the degree and have a decent chance at a job. I’ve seen more than a few grad students fall prey to these dangers (myself included), which is why I offer my story as a cautionary tale. Though I suppose I now come off that way sometimes, I’m really not a curmudgeon. I’m just a person who made a lot mistakes, went through a lot as a result, and thought it might be helpful to share. 🙂Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
4 years ago

Fair enough. More than anything, what the relevant dangers are comes down to the personality type of the individual involved. That’s what makes it so difficult to give advice in this area.Report

Alexus McLeod
4 years ago

I have one regret–taking myself and my subject way too seriously. There are not enough people around to say this when one is in grad school, but I try to tell my students now–life is more than just philosophy. Work hard, yes, but don’t forget to have a life outside of your work. Do other things. Learn other things. Don’t be afraid to stray outside your lane. I fought this throughout grad school and for a few years after, and it was when I gave myself permission to do something *else* that I really started to find my way as a philosopher. Maybe counterintuitive, but true. We worry that other things will take us away from important philosophical work. But we went into this because we loved philosophy–we should trust ourselves enough to let go, to wander in other areas, knowing that we’ll return stronger. In the end, it makes us more humane and wiser. It makes us better philosophers and even better people.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Alexus McLeod
4 years ago

Hear! Hear! Well said!Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Alexus McLeod
4 years ago

Hang on. People go to grad school in order to compete for jobs in philosophy, of which there are far too few to go around. Further, most of what is learned in grad school won’t help you in a profession outside of philosophy. This makes me think that if someone is going to grad school at all, they should make grad school their life. I would like to believe that I am wrong about that, but I don’t think that I am.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

The problem is that doing this turns you into a narrow pedant, and thus, a bad philosopher.Report

Greg Gauthier
Reply to  Alexus McLeod
4 years ago

“…it was when I gave myself permission to do something *else* that I really started to find my way as a philosopher. Maybe counter-intuitive, but true. We worry that other things will take us away from important philosophical work… we should trust ourselves enough to let go, to wander in other areas, knowing that we’ll return stronger…”

I find this advice is good for anyone, in any walk of life. The self-critic will put you in a cage of quiet desperation, if you let it dominate you. You will end up an exhausted, self-loathing savant, wishing you could be anywhere else but where you are. Diversify. Be happy. Leave the ‘genius’ work, to the actual geniuses.Report

Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

Not taking even longer than I did — 7 years — and having even more fun than I did.

Brilliant classes, amazing discussions, and partying night in and night out. I milked those years — and my 20’s — for every last experience I could get out of them.

Come to think of it though, if I’d tried to go even longer, they’d probably have thrown me out. Or my friends and I would have burnt down New York City.

Report

Marcus Arvan
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

Ha – I almost *did* get thrown out for having too much fun. As I note in my reply to your earlier comment above, there are probably two dangerous extremes: taking yourself too seriously in grad school, and not taking yourself seriously enough. I ran afoul of the latter extreme. My only wish, to the extent that I have any, is the exact opposite of yours: that I’d had a bit less fun, and not taken so long (8-1/2 years) to finish. I had a spectacular amount of fun in grad school, playing in touring bands, etc. It was great fun…until it wasn’t, because I wasn’t taking grad school seriously enough. My suggestion: have fun – just don’t get so distracted that you forget to do the things you need to do to finish and (with a lot of luck) get a job.Report

DC
DC
Reply to  Marcus Arvan
4 years ago

I was and am in the same boat (defending in the near future, though only 1/5th of my dissertation is on philosophy).

My dissertation is basically a mishmash of the random stuff I worked on randomly over the past several years, shoehorned into an overall structure. Not my finest work, but I’m hoping it’s passable.Report

DC
DC
Reply to  DC
4 years ago

(forgot to mention: and yes, so much fun; I would stretch it out longer if I could).Report

Mr. T
Mr. T
4 years ago

I wish I hadn’t spent so much time reading entire articles from beginning to end.
I wish I had given more talks, whenever and wherever possible.
I wish I had known that success in philosophy has very little to do with how brilliant you appear to be in the seminar room.
I wish I had known how narrow my graduate department was in comparison to the big wide world of philosophy.
I wish I had gone out to dinner with guest speakers every time the grad students were invited.
I wish I had realized how great it was to only teach one course per semester.
I wish I hadn’t been so stressed out, fearful about the future, overly competitive, cut off from everything outside by narrow specialization, and in general overworked and underpaid.
Most of all, I wish I could do it all again in exactly the same way!

Report

John Schwenkler
4 years ago

Goodness how I wish I had taken more classes and seminars on topics other than the topics I (thought I was) going to specialize in. Also that I had taken more classes and seminars in disciplines other than philosophy.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  John Schwenkler
4 years ago

In this sense, I was fortunate to have switched halfway through. I did a lot of work in philosophy of language, but I wound up writing my dissertation in Aesthetics. As a result, I got a really good education, across the full width of the discipline.Report

docfe
docfe
4 years ago

All of this lament sounds like whining because he didn’t have the nerve to participate to the full extent he might have wanted to do. Well, how is that a knock on the grad school?? If you are intimidated or otherwise inclined to back into the shadows, how isthat anyone else’s problem or cause? The history of philosophy is replete with philosophers who stood up and spoke, regardless of their place and consequences. Yes, I know, “but I might not get my PhD” and such are reasons to not speak up, but if you are afraid to speak up, as a philosopher, then maybe philosophy (as we are gadflies) is not for you.

Sorry of this sounds harsh,m I do not mean it to be a personal criticism, but only a reminder of what philosophy has and should stand for.Report

Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
4 years ago

I wish I’d taken more advantage of chances to learn things outside the philosophy department.Report

beauvoir's baby
beauvoir's baby
4 years ago

As a new grad student, I would just like to say the encouragement to speak, and the advice not to worry about the impression you make while doing so, is tremendously helpful to me.

As for people saying they wish they did more outside of philosophy, I think this is important not just for personal mental health, but for being a better philosopher. Depth of experience helps develop depth of view.Report

Stephen Krogh
Reply to  beauvoir's baby
4 years ago

I agree. Though my trajectory has changed from what I’d planned when I started my PhD program (heck, I’m changing schools even!), I am grateful for the time I spent studying in the department of Medieval and Byzantine studies here at CUA. I took courses as varied as medieval scriptural exegesis, Roman and early canon law, paleography, critical editing, and codicology. I’m not sure whether these studies will have an explicit, i.e., obvious, affect on my work as a philosopher (though, I have a few ideas in mind, and am already putting the paleography to good use in a paper I hope to have published), but I am a much better thinker because of them, and I have a connection to the larger western intellectual tradition, which I value very much. Report

Stephen Krogh
Reply to  Stephen Krogh
4 years ago

Geez, I’m only seeing now that this thread is directed at professors. I’m sorry I intruded, Justin. Please feel free not to publish my posts.Report

NotAProf
NotAProf
4 years ago

My time in graduate school.Report

Alan White
Alan White
4 years ago

Like Dan above, I had plenty of fun–and made some very bad personal choices–in grad school. But since I attended a “jock school” R1 grad program during the phrenolithic period, I’ll just mention perennial things–like avoiding personal relationships that have long-term damage. But you know that (I hope–but then again, plus ça change. . .).

My regret is tied to something that I suspect infects many present-day grad students and even early-career profs: having just enough talent to cruise through a program with, well, not one’s best effort. Now let me be clear: I’m not boasting; I was not in a high-pressure grad program–thank god for that–given what I could actually do with what I had, I would have washed out fast in those. But I had enough skills and interest to often–way too often–just get work done that would suffice. Ok, I pushed myself in my specialty area–though the only prelim I failed was in that area, due to (hah) overconfident underpreparation (that was in fact a bit of a wake-up call!)–but I should have worked harder to just make myself a better logician, more broadly educated in my area (metaphysics), and stop congratulating myself for getting by with an A in a course that I was not especially interested in, instead of actually trying to broaden my education. I was too impressed with tallying up a good transcript and pub list, and thinking that was enough. Just enough to become a prof at a way-off-the-Leiter-radar campus as it turned out.

But even not-so-dumb luck is no substitute for real smarts and wisdom–which is always trying to do your best, and not just getting by. Self-fulfillment isn’t usually a matter of some kind of attainment. Avoid the self-deception of mere success, no matter your talent level, and however you rate it–you might mistake the empty calories of dessert for a more filling desert. I’m still trying to taste the latter after many years.

PS–I realize I’m addressing only those who have attained sufficient success to be comfortable in the profession–and so I apologize to the hordes of exploited philosophers who read this with nothing but contempt for those of us lucky enough to actually have attained something akin to being comfortable. There is no comfort in being unlucky, underpaid, and underappreciated.

PPS–having just seen Ichikawa’s remark–one non-regret of my grad career is putting a lot of effort into my PhD minor–poetry–including an outstanding independent study on Wallace Stevens from B. J. Leggett. It’s beautifully colored my life since.
Report

DC
DC
Reply to  Alan White
4 years ago

“having just enough talent to cruise through a program with, well, not one’s best effort.”

Ok, you just put my grad school experience much more pithily that I’ve managed to.Report

Dr. Regrets
Dr. Regrets
4 years ago

I regret that I didn’t drop out after my master’s. The opportunity costs of pursuing a career in the academy are ridiculous.

I regret that I did not take the advice of so many friends in regular jobs who asked me what the heck I was doing not getting paid a good wage for more than half of my 20’s.

I regret that I did not pay closer attention to where my fellow grad students got their first jobs, if they get them at all, and how that so badly affected their lives.

I regret that I did not look more closely at the quality of lives of people with professional degrees working outside the academy versus the quality of lives of junior faculty. Most of my non-married friends, regardless of where they started in life, were better off than the non-married junior faculty I knew. (I say non-married because I knew plenty of married grad students who flourished thanks to their partner’s salary.)

I suspect most grad students think they will live like the elite few. They suspect they might get invited to Laurie Paul’s special fancy workshops. Or maybe they will get invited to David Plunkett’s special fancy workshops. Or those high level panel discussions at conferences or workshops or that are just ad hoc and that everyone thirsts to attend. Or whichever. And they think that their university will pay for most of the travel. And they will be able to afford the latest Apple laptop and nice booze. And so on.

And they think that they will go to lots of conferences in Europe and have their university pay for it.

Or they think that lots of people will read their published work and write thoughtful criticisms of it.

Or they think that much of their work will even be published.

Lots graduate students think that they will eventually get a job somewhere they want to work and live.

Lots don’t realize that it’s an elect few who get these benefits. Most academics’ lives are filled with drudgery. We receive poor compensation relative to what we would have gotten had we pursued another career with half the intensity we pursued our careers in the academy. For 99% of us, all that we write will be forgotten or ignored within a decade, and if not that then within a generation when a new bunch of grad students and junior faculty struggle to push their work into job-capturing prominence.

The academy is a scam. Run away. Put your energy into getting a well-paying job somewhere you want to live. Read philosophy on the side. If you want to publish, then in your spare time try to write and publish.

Get out of the academy now while you are young. Your life will be much better for it.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Dr. Regrets
4 years ago

Has it occurred to you that your experience might not be that of others? Are you seriously giving this advice, as if it represents some objective truth about being a professor, at places other than Princeton or NYU?

I got a job at a non-ranked, no graduate program, run-of-the-mill state university, in the lower Midwest. I live in the buckle of the Bible Belt, which is not my thing at all, having come from Long Island.

And yet.

While not the place I’d choose to live in the abstract, unlike New York, the cost of living is so cheap that we are able to afford not only to live very well but to travel.

Because of said low cost of living, my wife was able to leave a profession she hated — where she made those big bucks you were talking about — and become a high school teacher, which she loves.

Between the two of us, we have had a profound impact on literally thousands upon thousands of young people. Which seems to me a much bigger deal than the publishing immortality you seem to crave.

Because I am not employed in a high ranked place, I also am not subject to the pressures of such places. I can pretty much publish what I like, where I like. My workload is manageable, and I have been able to branch out into public intellectual territory, where I have had an even greater reach than in my teaching. I publish an online magazine that last year was read by almost 30,000 people, from over 100 countries — this year it will be significantly more — and I created and host a philosophy program, called “Sophia,” on BloggingHeads.TV, with a viewership even larger than that. None of which would have been possible if I had been grinding away at a very high powered place. Or at least, it would have been a lot more difficult.

We also had a wonderful daughter, who would be a different person than she is, if she were born and raised in some other place, under different circumstances. She might still have been wonderful, but she wouldn’t be who she *is*, and I wouldn’t wish that. So, I regret nothing about my choices. Nothing.

I don’t deny you your experience, as dismal and jaded and bitter as it sounds. So how about not denying us ours?Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

Saying that the odds are against having a good experience, which is what the op is saying, is not the same as ‘denying your experience’. Report

Sure as heck posting anonymously
Sure as heck posting anonymously
Reply to  David Mathers
4 years ago

I think Daniel Kaufman’s pt is that the odds are heinous as presented, but only bc one kind of academic life is implicitly taken as acceptable/good/fulfilling. If you really want to try to make a rational choice, you should take seriously all the live options, not just the ones op presents.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  David Mathers
4 years ago

I don’t see what grounds he has for saying *for others* that “The odds are they will have a bad experience.”

That, indeed, was pretty much the whole point of my comment.Report

StillBadOdds
StillBadOdds
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

As far as speaking for others, it’s probably fair to assume that as people grow older they tend to like having decent jobs to provide for their families, living in an area they can tolerate, being able to retire one day, and maybe having a bit of disposable income in the meantime.

You suggest that Phd’s can do all those things by simply lowering the bar: don’t shoot for Princeton, shoot for “run-of-the-mill” state.

But if the odds are the point, take an arbitrary philosophy Phd, what are the odds that they will get a tenure track/permanent non-adjunct position at a school like the one you’re at?

Everything I know about the current market leads me to expect very bad odds. Admittedly, tt odds increase with prestige of Phd granting institution. But the Phd’s from prestige poor institutions are legion.

Glad you got lucky and had a good time in the casino, but it’s still a casino. I worry your personal tale of more modest, but readily attainable, winnings will just lure more people in.

Of course, if figures exist which suggest the odds are not as bad as I expect, that would be great news.Report

Dr. Regrets
Dr. Regrets
Reply to  Daniel Kaufman
4 years ago

I am sorry, Daniel Kaufman, that you experienced my comment as a personal attack. It seemed to upset you very, very much. What I wrote was not meant to threaten you or to suggest something about the life you have chosen to live.

Your life sounds very nice and it is good that you are happy with it. Many others may also seek a good life like that.

Some people in philosophy, though, have other ideas about what they are pursuing when getting a graduate degree. Their aim is to participate in philosophical discussion with lots of high-powered philosophers, and to write and publish essays and books that shape that discussion for some time.

For those people, I suggest that it is very unlikely that this aim will be realized. And, given the costs in pursuing that aim, I suggest that it is a risky endeavor.

You seem to think that people who imagine their professional careers including all-expenses-paid trips to NYU Abu Dhabi philosophy conferences, or long weekends at invitation-only workshops in beautiful parts of the country, or even just travel to multiple conferences around the country, to say nothing of international travel, have a somehow poor view of what they might get out of their PhD. Perhaps they do. But, from my Facebook feed, and from by interactions at these very same conferences and workshops (which I have had the good fortune to attend, often on someone else’s dime), lots and lots people in the profession LOVE this aspect of their jobs (and LOVE repeatedly bragging about it on social media, too).

For those people who have these dreams, I say: don’t risk it. You can find meaningful employment, and do the sort of meaningful and helpful things you and your wife are doing without wasting 5 – 7 good earning years on grad school. You can build the sort of wealth that allows you to travel with your family, and to provide for your children’s future during these increasingly precarious times. Report

Prospective grad
Prospective grad
Reply to  Dr. Regrets
4 years ago

This is really depressing. Right now I have a very high paying job in software, and I’m going to leave if I get accepted to grad school and get a chance to pursue philosophy. I just can’t imagine myself working hard the rest of my adult life just to make some company rich, even if I “read philosophy on the side”. Maybe I’m too naive, I don’t know.Report

Sticking with it
Sticking with it
Reply to  Prospective grad
4 years ago

I think Prospective Grad raises an important point. (What I’m about to say has been said here before, but it’s been on my mind so I’ll just say it again). I have been acquiring skills that make me marketable outside academia, in jobs (e.g. software jobs) that that pay significantly more than what I make now. But whenever I begin to think about what would actually be involved in taking one of those jobs, I start to have increased appreciation for academia, where I have the freedom to use my technical skills to support my own projects and interests, without any concern for someone else’s bottom line. I can work from home a lot of the time, and follow my interests wherever they lead me, so long as I publish enough (generally on topics I genuinely find interesting) and fulfill my other responsibilities. Then again it took a long time and a bit of good fortune to get where I am. Best of luck to you Prospective Grad, it could be well worth it, but it’s a calculated risk!Report

Anna
Anna
4 years ago

Yes, if your idea of philosophy is confined to the most prestige jobs, wide-spread admiration, and highbrow free travel, your expectations are unlikely to be meet. But surely even most undergrads are not so naive to think the odds of this happening is good? (It is one thing to enjoy these things, it is quite another to say this is the ONLY career where you would be happy doing philosophy).

Some stats just came out that the odds of getting a philosophy job with Phd are a bit better than 1/3 – pretty bad odds considering the time spent, and that nearly all of those at top schools get placed (hence a lower placement percentage for other schools), notwithstanding, getting a permanent academic philosophy position is not the near impossibility it is often displayed as (unless, of course, you only want the kind of job Dr. Regrets wants).Report

Kent
Kent
4 years ago

I’m a new graduate student who will be starting a graduate program in several months. I have found the discussion of regrets after graduate school thought-provoking as I prepare to begin this next phase in my philosophical education. However, I find the secondary discussion in these comments, that of the long-term risks involved in pursuing graduate education in philosophy, to be less useful. I understand my decision carries with it a certain amount of risk with respect to a career. I do also understand that some may regret their decision to have pursued graduate study in philosophy at all. However, from the perspective of a new graduate student, I’ve already made my decision to pursue graduate study, and therefore the discussion that is the more useful one pertains to the regrets people have about their graduate school experience, not the one about having gone in the first place. To those who have already commented on that aspect of regret, I offer my thanks.Report