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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Richard Hennessey
7 months ago

Excellent advice, advice I wish that I had received way back when. A suggestion: one should include the choice of graduate program to attend in one’s planning.
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Stephen R. Grimm
7 months ago

This is outstanding advice, and a real service not just to students but to those of us who run things like proseminars in graduate programs, where we try to introduce students to the profession. Thank you!Report

A Paul O'Gee
A Paul O'Gee
7 months ago

On (1c): I doubt that that advice about having experience teaching online is relevant. Most graduate students are doing so right now in which case most hiring committees will probably not have many job applicants WITHOUT that experience. So it’s not clear that experience teaching online itself confers any distinct advantage to any one graduate student.

On (1d): Imagine someone plans on going on the job market in the 6th year. On this advice, by one’s fourth year one needs 2-4 publishable papers ready to submit to journals (presumably journals ranked somewhere between 1-30 on some ranking of journals).

So for years 1-3 of graduate school, one needs to be crafting 2-4 publishable papers (and presumably be doing so by getting feedback on them from colleagues, professors, audiences at colleagues) in addition to completing their coursework (which requires writing ca. 6-12 papers a year), TA-ing for probably two sections of one course, and doing whatever other department hurdles are required of them. (I’m assuming the graduate students are in the U.S. and not at a place with no teaching requirements).

It horrifies me how much is expected of graduate students to maybe kind of sort of be competitive for some permanent/non permanent job somewhere or another at a school a notch below where they went to graduate school.Report

Feeling sad
Feeling sad
7 months ago

These lists of advice always make me sad, because I see so little about my own experience in them. For me, graduate school was a terrifying and genuinely unsafe place, where “developing good scholarly habits” and “learning how to publish” and such forth were the least of my problems. Why? (In recent memory), I was harassed and terrorized by a famous professor in my graduate program over a substantial period of time, and my department and university were, let us say, not particularly sympathetic in helping me deal with the situation. I developed serious mental and physical health problems from the stress.

My experience was on the extreme end of the spectrum, but I’m not an outlier either. I know of a number of cases where people faced extreme difficulties in graduate school, much of which stemmed from abuse, harassment, and terrible toxicity. I’d give more details, but I don’t want to violate anyone’s confidentiality. (Suffice it to say: if you’re not hearing these kinds of harrowing stories from former or current graduate students, it’s because people aren’t willing to tell you. I hear a lot of them.)

So it’s not that I don’t think that lists like this are valuable. I was actually able to get out of graduate school and into a good job quickly, in part because I was also doing a lot of these things on the list.

I guess I’m just saying that there is a seedy underbelly to a lot of graduate school, and if we are going to prepare people for it, we have to be honest about what graduate students can find themselves up against. Report

3579
3579
7 months ago

This is all good advice, in a certain way, but I’m not sure these tips are specifically about “Getting the Most Out of Graduate School”. This reads more as a “How to *Succeed* in Graduate School”, or “How to be An Exemplary Graduate Student”, all read in with a more or less careerist undertone, and a sort of unquestioned duty to the professional community. If being exemplary or successful (more or less according to the standards/desires of our professional superiors, since the above contains so many services to them) are one’s sole aims, then this advice is comprehensive. But surely there is more to graduate school than this… or, at least, one should hope so since so few will actually be accepted into the professional community thereafter.

I should say that, in my own experience, relaxing most of the standards articulated in the article above allowed me to “get more out of graduate school”, i.e., enjoy it more, pursue intellectual aims for their own sake, rather than getting wrapped up in “disenchanted careerism” (an expression from Bernard Williams) – even if doing so also decreased my professional prospects or credentials (indeed, they have).Report

joe
joe
7 months ago

Following on 3579 – actually, some exceptions notwithstanding, this is like any self-help guide to being successful in a career I have seen. In fact, there is something almost troubling about being like this in grad school. It’s not supposed to be the equivalent of a early career corporate employee: be nice, well-behaved, reliable, organized, and acquire good name. I don’t know. Maybe it’s a way to get a career of sorts, but I prefer bad boys and girls who are interesting with interesting ideas.Report

Matt
Matt
7 months ago

I read this as a 5th year PhD student with the following caveat: “But you can only choose two.”

As another commenter alluded to above, I also see very little, if anything, of my own experience or department reflected here. And it is quite sad. Many, if not most, of the graduate students feel the same way. Report

disgruntled llon
disgruntled llon
7 months ago

I have immense respect for Douglas Portmore. I am sure he meant this to be helpful. Some of it is likely to be useful to those privileged grad students that would have done well in any case. However, whether intentionally or not, these “advice columns” (there’s usually one-per-week on philosopher’s cocoon) only serve to perpetuate a broken system that only works for those in power, those that “got theirs” and don’t do anything to reform.

Here’s how these types of blogs read: “Hey grad students, here’s the secret: *whisper whisper*. Follow that advice, and you will ‘make the most of grad school.’ It’s a place where you get to take the time to teach *yourself* loads of stuff without much direction, support, or guidance in the high hopes that you’ll get a job at a less prestigious university. Again, we stress, there is no career prep; so, you’ll have to ‘learn’ it yourself!”

Here’s some truth. Pedigree matters more than anything. Don’t go to graduate school unless you go to a Top 20 program on the PGR. Whether intentional or not, these advice columns make naive young beginners hope that “maybe, just maybe, if I can work myself to death and publish four papers in [insert: highly ranked journal] in two years, I’ll beat the odds.” But, I got news for you: You cannot beat the odds. The game is biased toward sycophants from means, the academy, or a Top 20 PGR program.

If you are among the privileged, then good for you. But if you aren’t, Portmore’s advice might make you feel like crap when you fail. You’ll think it’s your fault; that you were an imposter in the end. Instead, I encourage all of you less privileged folk to take a step back and seriously consider a job outside academia. As much as it might pain you to do so, I think that if you are serious, you will realize how ridiculous it sounds to go to a philosophy grad program that does not prepare you for the kind of employment you *might,* if you are lucky and privileged enough, get at the end. They charge a ridiculous amount of money for a product that can usually be found elsewhere for cheaper (especially if you are as self-determined and organized as Portmore says you should be) and an outcome that seems more and more unattainable for those of us not in the right networks. Even if you do get a job, the beginning salaries are insignificant (at least in the US, where you under-privileged folk likely have student loans to payback). You will barely make ends meet and will be beholden to the irrational whims of administrative higher-ups “evaluating” your tenure file.

Graduate schools, by and large, won’t train you for the job that you will most likely get, but you have to spend lots of time figuring out how to teach philosophy effectively. It is insane how much time it takes to teach effectively, yet most programs, as Portmore points out, do not emphasize this. Instead, you have to slap some syllabus together at the last minute (who has any more time in grad school) and teach at a local community college (maybe? if you are lucky) for next to nothing while finishing your dissertation. You have to plan on working yourself to death for little to no payoff. Such advice is ridiculous to anybody outside of academia.

Programs do not support students finishing on time, nor do they instruct students on writing publishable prose. Instead, it would help if you taught yourself, be exceedingly self-determined, or be in a cohort where you all support and push each other to become better. Teaching content tends to make writing easier. But, again, programs do not offer rigorous, formal teaching on pedagogy. Instead, they pretend you’ll get that research job just like they achieved with little effort 40 years ago.

Finally, I have two final things to say about research and that other domain you are supposed to teach yourself (i.e., administrative duties).
1. The employers of the (teaching) job you will likely get will not care much about your publication record. Nobody will read your work unless you have the right pedigree and are working on sexy topics. Networking matters only if you are networking with the right people. You have to find a “clique” to “hang with” and publish papers that cite one another. Don’t even get me started on the sheer amount of nonsense one experiences in the peer-review system. Indeed, heeding some of Portmore’s advice only increases the probability of incompetent reviews and article submissions that had no business being submitted in the first place.
2. Because academia in the US is so exploitative, you must learn how to just say “yes” to administrative duties, whether you have time or not. A work-life balance is a myth. It is only had by those in power with tenure.Report

The Good Life
The Good Life
Reply to  disgruntled llon
7 months ago

I doubt this is helpful, since exceptions often prove the rule, but the comment above is so negative, I wanted to offer a different perspective for those who are in, or are considering attending, a philosophy grad program.

-I grew up in a HUD home; my parents never made it to the middle-class.
-I earned my PhD at a program *not* ranked in the PGR top-50.
-I have never published anything (my dissertation was … mediocre, at best).
-I’ve earned tenure at two community colleges.
-I earn just under $130k a year.
-The median household income in my area is under $50k, and housing is very affordable.
-My area is fun-adjacent (there are cool places within driving distance).
-I have a guaranteed state pension.
-I work with four other philosophers in my department, who are awesome colleagues.
-I have several close friends at the college.
-My administrators love students and are typically supportive of the faculty.
-I GET PAID TO TEACH PHILOSOPHY!!!
-I really love and admire my students.
-My work is valuable (I work primarily with minoritized, socially-disadvantaged students).
-I enjoy my administrative duties, and they don’t take that much time to perform.
-*Normal* people respect those with PhDs, regardless of where they are earned.
-Both of my kids have taken classes from me.

In other words, sometimes taking a chance pays off. My Plan B was to teach high school, and I think I would have been happy with that, as well, but I’m really glad I ended up in this position.

I don’t mean to diminish disgruntled llon’s experiences. I’m sorry to hear they have been so different to mine. There are other stories to be told, though.Report

disgruntled llon
disgruntled llon
Reply to  The Good Life
7 months ago

Around what year did you get your Ph.D.? Report

The Good Life
The Good Life
Reply to  disgruntled llon
7 months ago

I was ABD when I got my first position in 2010, but didn’t finish and receive my PhD until 2015 (I started in 2006).Report

disgruntled llon
disgruntled llon
Reply to  The Good Life
7 months ago

I think you are a special case, and that’s great. The general situation is much different. The general situation is reliably unfair because the background institutions are unjust.

To be clear, do you work at two community colleges?Report

The Good Life
The Good Life
Reply to  disgruntled llon
7 months ago

Right, I’m not disagreeing that the job market is bleak, and my experience is likely the exception that proves the rule. I don’t mean to suggest that this is the norm, in any way. Nor, do I disagree that the deck is stacked in the way you suggest (though, maybe not quite to that extent).

[Also, I understand that there’s also a fair amount of luck involved with my story. Additionally, I’m a white, cis-gendered male, with all the advantages that that offers. I have no doubt that without those advantages, *I* wouldn’t be in this position. In my experience, minoritized and female philosophers have to be exceptional to succeed, whereas I benefited from a lot of unearned privileges (again, I am a mediocre philosopher, at best, and that may be too generous).]

And, no, I work for one community college. I was at a very small one from 2010-2015 (making approximately $36k annually in an economically-depressed and not very desirable area), and I have been at my current, fairly large, community college since 2016. Report

disgruntled llon approaches
disgruntled llon approaches
Reply to  The Good Life
7 months ago

I still don’t understand 130K at a community college. But good for you. Now let me know where I can sign! 😉Report

The Good Life
The Good Life
Reply to  The Good Life
7 months ago

A good union and a fair number of overload classes! 🙂

BTW: I LOVED my grad school experience. My professors and fellow grads were terrific, and it was one of the best times of my life. I think the advice above is great, even if not applicable to everyone’s situation. I wish the best for all the job-seekers reading this thread.Report

disgruntled llon
disgruntled llon
Reply to  The Good Life
7 months ago

Also, I wasn’t reporting merely my experience. I was writing about what I find is the general situation. Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
Reply to  disgruntled llon
7 months ago

disgruntled,

Your situation is not unique but it isn’t the most common. If we care about empirical claims, we need empirical, not anecdotal, evidence. I completely agree with you that graduate programs needed (and many still need) to do better in terms of professionalization practices. I disagree with you that pedigree is the most important thing that matters (not at my university, not in any of the hiring committees I’ve been a part of). In my experience the most important things are: 1) are you producing enough research to get tenure at my university? 2) Are you good in the classroom? 3) do you have the potential to be a good colleague? All three are necessary conditions.

It’s easy to get disgruntled. The job market does indeed suck. Advisers are often not ideal (even if they’re trying) but that’s, honestly, life. I was not a normal graduate student: an immigrant, poor, was never taught the unspoken rules that all my white upper-middle (or upper) class members of my cohort just seemed to know. I almost quit during graduate school but couldn’t bring myself to do it. It was slow going and I did have to not only teach myself a lot about publishing but, to be totally honest with you, I had a lot of growing up to do. I’m so glad that I ultimately got my PhD and that I can do the work that I’m doing. I’m sorry that your experience turned out differently but I also think it’s strange to blame individual departments for this. Report

disgruntled llon runs away
disgruntled llon runs away
Reply to  disgruntled llon
7 months ago

In all honesty, I predicted the response to my post. Academia loathes change. In a just world, everyone (especially those with actual capital and power) would be up in arms over the injustice of the basic institutions in the US, which trickles down (up?) to education in this country. But instead of reacting that way to my post, we get people making me look, well, disgruntled. Here’s how this supports the status quo. A youngster like I once was will read this blog (and many others) only to notice that there’s just a single weirdo saying “down with the system” and “we need reform.” They will say to themselves, “ah, that person is just crazy. They probably weren’t competitive. They couldn’t hack it.” Not so, but oh well. (It’s funny that many of the responses assume I was talking about my failed experience. For all you know, I’ve been successful, albeit dismayed and disheartened by the general situation.) In any case, the young and impressionable will read this thread just as I have explained. And the cycle continues. I think we ought to stop confusing the state of nature with fair competition. Report

JTD
JTD
Reply to  disgruntled llon runs away
7 months ago

I second everything that Disgruntled Lion says here. I’ve been very lucky and ended up in a good position. But along the way I have seen first hand the many ways in which the system is broken. The prestige bias in the profession is out of control and it is very frustrating how many senior people in the profession are ignorant of this, or ignore it because acknowledging it is inconvenient, or give terrible self-serving justifications for it. The elite schools have far too much power and influence over the profession and regularly act in their own self-interest rather than doing what is fair or right or best for philosophy. Report

Douglas W. Portmore
7 months ago

Thanks everyone for the helpful feedback. I hear you! And it’s good for me to hear from others with very different perspectives. And I will be thinking about what you all have said. I would like to point out, though, that I wrote this for my graduate students at ASU based on my own personal experiences of having come from a similar graduate program (that is, one that’s not at all that Leiterific). Justin found this advice on my personal web site and asked me if he could post it on Daily Nous. I thought it would be helpful to some and so was happy to have him post it here. It turns out, though, that some have found it hurtful. I’m sorry. I did not anticipate that. I’d also like to take this opportunity to share with you a bit about my own perspective. I was very late in deciding that I wanted to pursue philosophy and knew very little about applying to graduate school. As a result, I applied only to a handful of programs that were near me geographically speaking. None of my letter-writers knew me very well since I was a late-comer to philosophy. They had me for just one class. And my writing sample consisted of this silly utilitarian manifesto that I had been working on. As a result, I got into only one graduate program — UCSB’s. I got in (as some faculty were keen to kid me about) only because UCSB was admitting pretty much everyone who applied and then weeding out those who couldn’t “hack it.” Thus, I came in with a cohort of 15 other PhD students. Myself and one other were the only two out of the 16 to end up completing the PhD. Only two of us were admitted with funding. I wasn’t one of them. So, my first year I worked at a restaurant, took out a loan, and got financial support from my parents to pay the bills while attending graduate school. Fortunately, I did well in my first year and got a funding package after the first year. At the time, UCSB was ranked at the very bottom. When I first entered grad school, I had no idea that there were rankings. I remember that during the first few weeks of graduate school some of us were hanging out in the graduate lounge and someone was looking at the rankings (in US News and World Reports, I believe, as this was pre-Leiter). I asked excitedly where UCSB was ranked. Unfortunately, I was told at the very bottom. Soon afterwards, the Leiter Reports became a thing, and we were ranked at the very bottom of that list too. So, although I had many privileges in life, coming from a Leiterific program was not one of them. Thus, the intent of the advice above is to share with my graduate students at ASU (who are also in a non-Leiterific program) what I wish I had known along with what has worked for me. Of course, to my great dismay, I fear that things are even worse these days than they were when I was on the market and couldn’t even get one interview. So, my advice should be taken with a grain of salt and in the realization that times are different and that what worked for me and others may not work for you. Report

KJH
KJH
7 months ago

This is a nicely written post with sound professional advice. I can only speak from the experience of one a bit removed from PhD programs: it’s scary to me how careerist this is. I went to grad school because I wanted to study philosophy. A career was not a concern until I had written my dissertation. I was 0 for 6. Somehow a career happened (the market was not good in my day, though better than today; I’m a first gen and still the only college attendee in my family; and I went outside the Leiter Top 50). What prepared me for it was that I study philosophy and share that pursuit with whomever. It’s every day, no different than it was then. This careerist stuff is the worst part of it, and people who enter with that too much in kind will likely not find themselves flourishing in its pursuit.

I get that this sounds idealistic, but I don’t see it that way. Ask yourself: would you study for five years with a guarantee of no career? 22 yr old me would not have blinked at that, and I like to think my colleagues (the bulk of you all) feel the same.Report

kailadraper
7 months ago

Thanks to Douglas Portmore for offering a lot of good advice. My biggest advice to grad students and pre-tenure professors is to avoid, as much as possible, toxic people: professors and students who sexually harass, bully, demean, exploit, act unfairly, etc. Getting along with others is great but not at the expense of abuse. If you don’t respect your advisor as a person, that’s a really bad sign. I had the good fortune to have some amazing human beings as teachers, advisors, and mentors (e.g., Gary Watson, Greg Kavka, Nelson Pike), and that made all the difference. But I also had to deal with an amazing amount of shit from people with less character. It’s amazing that I ended up with a job in the profession–pure luck really. I do love my job, but I think that it’s best to go to grad school to have fun, meet people–campuses are great places for finding friends and interesting people–and to study philosophy, not to get a career. Of course, economic realities set in at some point. So I guess my last piece of advice needs to be taken with a grain of salt.Report

Matt Tedesco
Matt Tedesco
7 months ago

This is all very useful advice, and I hope that students starting grad programs now hear it. There is something else, though, that students starting grad school (or thinking about starting grad school) now absolutely need to hear, which they may not know because they are not a higher ed insider, but which will affect their lives profoundly:

The demographic cliff for colleges is coming. If you (you bright-eyed young would-be academic) don’t know what I am talking about, please google “demographic cliff” and read up (focusing on higher ed). But in a nutshell: the great recession came in 2008. People stopped having babies. All those never-born babies are now a big hole in the college-aged population, starting around 2026. Every college that I know of, which is not elite and sitting on a giant endowment, is very aware of this, scared, and planning already. If you don’t believe me, talk to any president, provost, or enrollment VP at any non-elite non-super-rich college and ask them about it. I promise you, this is on their mind. Colleges will go out of business. Not one or two. Many. Even if they don’t go out of business, they will be in a contraction mode. So whatever horror stories you hear (because they are true) about a job market that is horrific (because it is) where huge numbers of PhDs never find secure employment paying them a living wage (because they don’t), please understand this: it will very likely get a lot worse. So whatever advice anyone shares with you needs to be colored by this fact: not a single person sharing that advice has faced a job market where schools are “hiring” in the face of a shrinking pool of students. Their horror stories are true–the job market is gruesome–but all of the facts that have made it gruesome are very unlikely to improve anytime soon, *and* they will have added to them the fact of the demographic cliff. And assuming you are new or new-ish to grad school, your entry into the job market will likely coincide with this perfect storm. Covid has already blown things up, but at least we all still cling to the hope of a vaccine. The cliff will be with us for a lot longer.

My advice would be to get the hell out now, but I’m just a jaded mid-career philosopher, so what do I know. But assuming you’re still buying your grad-school lottery ticket, and you’re hoping to get lucky and make a career of this thing, I would take all of this advice and be as strategic as possible from the jump, because you will be facing hiring conditions far worse than any of your advice-givers faced, in ways that are hard now to fully understand.Report

current grad
current grad
7 months ago

Much of this advice seems quite sound, but I want to echo what others have said: I just don’t see how anyone, with the numerous time demands made on grad students, can accomplish even close to all of these tips. Nevertheless, many can probably benefit from adopting one or two, and perhaps that use of this list is an intended one.Report