Grad Students: What Do You Wish You Knew? (Volume 2)
The academic year is soon upon us (don’t shoot the messenger). Philosophy departments are getting ready for a new class of graduate students and those new graduate students getting ready for graduate school. What should those new graduate students know?Five years ago, we hosted a discussion, “Grad Students: What Do You Wish You Knew?” The idea was that current graduate students are well-placed to provide some advice to new ones. Sure, faculty have their perspective, and of course were once grad students themselves, but some things change, and it’s good hear from those currently in the position what they think those entering it should be aware of or keep in mind in order to be prepared and do well.
So, graduate students, what do you know now that you wish you knew at the start of your graduate education?
Advice, information, resources, problems, solutions, reflections, life and work hacks, warning signs, sources of joy, etc., are all welcome. Think about what it would be helpful for a new graduate student to hear.
NOTE: While I appreciate the good intentions of faculty attempting to comment here, there will be other posts for that. This one is for comments from graduate students.
Well, 1 and 2 are certainly thesis and antithesis.Report
I was a graduate student at a large university (like most philosophy PhD students, I suppose). I didn’t realize that I could take any class in the university (except maybe the law school and med school) for free. I struggled for years on the philosophy job market and eventually landed a TT job. However, that was a very lucky occurrence and I very easily could have *not* gotten a permanent position. However, I could have taken courses in more in-demand fields while a graduate student that would have given me more options post-PhD. I know some grad students who did that and now make massive amounts of money.Report
Do you have some examples?Report
Of course subjects? The usual: statistics, mathematics, computer science, and languages come to mind. Maybe other commenters have other ideas.
To add to this, for those who aren’t as career oriented, you can also just take classes out of interest. I sat in on several history lectures to fill gaps in my education and out of interest. I probably didn’t get as much out of it as a student taking it for credit, but I still learned a lot.Report
That departmental fit is much more important than the department’s ranking, in terms of mental well-being and being taken seriously for your research. Otherwise, you’ll have to spend a sizeable amount of your PhD catching up on stuff that is irrelevant or tangential to your research, but without which your work won’t be considered worthy, by either the faculty or your graduate peers.Report
Most graduate students will not find permanent academic employment. Before COVID, it was roughly 40% who did. Now, who knows how low that number is. People already on the tenure track don’t care, and never will, and so that number will never improve. The market never recovered from the 2008 crash, there’s no reason to hope it will recover further from this. Start on your backup plan early in grad school.Report
You’re super smart, and you’ve achieved so much off your own merits. But a PhD dissertation is another kettle of fish, and how much of a painful struggle it is can seriously be affected by your interactions with others. With that in mind, your choice of advisor fit matters a lot. Don’t just go for the person who is the ‘obvious’ candidate based on their area of expertise, because they are nice, because they expect you to pick them, or even because other people like them. Neither of those guarantee a good fit. A good fit for you means things like the following: when you discuss your ideas with them you feel you receive uptake from them on ideas of yours that *you* find interesting; you leave meetings feeling like you have direction, and you don’t leave feeling down or more confused than before; you feel your work improves when you discuss it with them/get feedback from them. ‘Trial’ potential advisors by taking classes with them, and/or, ideally, ask for meetings to get feedback on a term paper or similar. Other than good fit, one other important factor is availability: how quickly do they respond? Are they reliable, and will they meet with you regularly? PhD writing can be very isolating, and the stress of an unreliable or unavailable advisor is to be avoided if at all possible.Report
This is going to be my second year in a research-oriented MA in philosophy. I think the number one thing that screwed me over was not knowing about grants season. I was never told about things such as SSHRC when I got admitted. So naturally I started research in the summer before my first year started but I went at my own pace, thinking everything was fine. Then comes September and I’m told about some big grants I should be applying for, and which had deadlines about 1-2 months later. I scrambled my applications as best as I could but I didn’t get these grants anyway. So what I wish I knew before:
Damn, the #2 hit me hard hahaha
Unironically I changed from Ethics to Metaphysics because I found Metaphysics more appealingReport
It is OK to say no and have a life outside your research. If all you do is work, then you will not be a very interesting hire and you probably will have too many mental breakdowns to finish your degree anyways. Just know your limits.Report
Spend a lot of time with your fellow students! Hang out in the grad office. Argue about everything, then go for a beer afterwards.
At some point, you’ll be angry that they let you into the program with a bunch of smart people. You’ll feel that you don’t belong, that everyone else is ahead of you. That is normal. You can do it, though!
For most of us, the sole virtue of a dissertation is completeness. Start early and finish it. You will be bored with the topic before it is completed. It does not need to be the Tractatus.
Have a lot of fun!Report
One thing I really underestimated the value of: internal motivation. There are going to be days, weeks, and sometimes months at a time where you feel horrible, dumb, bad, and just plain no good, and you just have to find a way to push yourself through it. A lot of times, just that feeling of having pushed and pulled yourself through the bad days leads to some really good ones.Report
Don’t read the comments on philosophy blogs.Report
Another antinomy here
I wish I knew that professors and advisors could be hurt by criticizing their views. I had a devastating experience since what I wrote was directly against some of the views that my mentors had defended before. I had this naïve picture of them that they are truth-seekers that only care about argument, reasoning, and truth. So little did I know. I got myself into a lot of trouble. In fact, I came close to be expelled. Of course, they never put it this way. Rather, “you does not get along with your advisors”.Report
For me: having a good idea about what your “plan-B” is if things don’t work out with working in academia, and to take whatever opportunties you can to build a resume/cv for that Plan B. There were opportunities for me to pursue that stuff in grad school and I didn’t pursue them as much as I should have. I basically got lucky with how the Plan B worked out, but it could have easily gone the way.Report
I just want to expand on a few things others have said.
1. Back-up career planning. While getting my PhD, I imbibed the doctrine that you had to be all in. But, as others have already pointed out, it’s quite likely you’ll end up in a non-TT or non-academic job. There are some very minimal things that you can do while in grad school to prepare yourself for that possibility. First, take advantage of networking opportunities outside of your department. Do some low-stakes informational interviewing. Grad school gives you networking opportunities you may not have again. Familiarize yourself with some of the alternative career paths you might take. Talk to administrators, librarians, staff, recent grads in other departments who have gone on to teach high school, etc. Second, do consider taking even one or two classes outside of philosophy. If your back-up plan is more grad school (as in my case; I’m starting a professional master’s program in the fall after several years in a non-TT position), look at the prerequisites for those programs. I ended up having to take a statistics class at the local community college this summer.
2. When I was applying for academic jobs, I told myself that I would spend three years on the job market looking for strictly 4-year-institution teaching jobs and then broaden my search. I wish I had just started with a broad search. There are some opportunities for recent PhDs to transition out of academia (for example, https://www.acls.org/programs/publicfellows/) that are only available for a few years after you graduate. I also think I might have had more success with community colleges if I had started earlier and had more practice.
3. As other people said, it’s very easy to get distracted in grad school. Keep your eyes firmly fixed on the end goal. One thing that it took me a painfully long time to realize is that I needed to develop my own ideas, not just react to others’ ideas. I also wish I’d read William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book before starting my dissertation and not after finishing it.
4. Just avoid all the BS, passive aggression, grandstanding, and competitiveness of academia. Surround yourself with people who are supportive and who hold you accountable for your writing goals, and try to do the same for them. The people you need are not necessarily the people who share your political views or your intellectual interests; they’re the people who will actually listen to your ideas, read what you write, and respectfully call your bluff when needed.
5. This is probably the most controversial point, but in my experience, conferences are largely a waste of time. That time would be better spent getting an article published. I’m not saying you should avoid conferences altogether. Do your intel before applying. Look for conferences where there’s a high likelihood you’ll get real feedback on your work and meet the kind of people I mentioned in point (4). The single best conference I went to was actually outside of philosophy. We had to submit full papers to the panel a week before the deadline; everyone on a panel had to read each other’s papers, and we were each assigned a respondent. That conference paper became one of my first peer-reviewed publications.Report
Chiming in to agree especially with 4 and 5. If you can stay out of department BS (between students, between faculty, classes with a faculty member behaving badly), then stay out of it. Steering clear of stuff like that will keep your headspace a bit clearer, and a clear head is a precious thing in graduate school.
And, yes to 5: conferences are a waste of time in the early and mid grad school years. Later on they can help you meet people. It could be helpful to present dissertation chapters when the time comes, but not really before.
(I agree with 3 too, but I think about it differently: write the papers that are right for you, not the papers you think you’re supposed to be writing. Sometimes you’ll end up with a novel idea, and sometimes you’ll end up working through something hard because you need to. Just as long as it’s what you need to be writing at the time.)Report
Re 5: I agree mostly with the point about conferences. It’s not impossible to get some piece of feedback that changes everything for your paper, but it’s really just random chance. The one thing I learned, that I wasn’t told by professors in my department, because they had no idea how the job market had changed since THEY had been out looking for a job, was that conference presentations–even the glitzy ones like the APA meetings–add absolutely nothing to one’s CV. And the out-of-pocket costs far exceed the (im)probable benefits of good feedback, so, as Hindsight says, spend that time getting an article published.Report
I disagree with the conference bit. I don’t think it’s a waste of time if you select carefully which conferences you will present at and don’t expect from conferences to be the place where to get useful feedback. My most valuable experience from conferences has been to meet others in the field (and have the chance to meet people i admired) and in some cases it has ended in small jobs or research collaborations. That said, I recommend conferences that are niche or very related to your research topic, but not a very broaden one where you’ll probably don’t meet anytime doing anything related to your research or the standard ‘postgraduate’ conferencesReport
If you want a job in academic philosophy, you can’t do better than Jason Brennan’s recent book _Good Work If You Can Get It: How to Succeed in Academia_. Unlike many books about academic life, it’s written by a philosopher who understands how philosophy works. It offers concrete advice about what to do and it won’t coddle you, flatter you, or give you false hope. Karen Kelsky’s book _The Professor is In_ is a good start too but for different reasons. Read Brennan’s for how to succeed in grad school and the job market. Kelsky’s mostly for the job market.Report
For prospective grad students rather than grad students but, do an American PhD rather than a UK/Europe one. Many more years of what is often better funding. (There are exceptions of course)Report
Don’t do a PhD. Its not worth it. You wont get a job (cause there aren’t any). If by some luck you do get a job (and it is pure luck) you will be forced (or perhaps you happily agreed) to conform to the gate-keeping, anti-innovation norms of academic philosophy and to the mediocrity of working purely on what is acceptable or “fashionable” to journal editors.
For one’s own intellectual and mental health, read on your own (keep writing if you want) but get an entry-level job after your Bachelors or Masters, fall in love, have kids if you want, be happy and then die content. Anything else is torture and a life wasted.Report
As others have already said, prioritizing mental health and seeking out supportive relationships is so important.
I would just like to add that I wish I had known how long it would take me to figure out what I wanted to say in my dissertation. I don’t have an undergrad degree in philosophy and I didn’t come into grad school with a clear idea of what I was interested in, so I started out feeling like I was massively behind where I should be. I didn’t publish anything and didn’t present much the first three years of my program because I didn’t know what I wanted to say or even what area of philosophy I was really interested in studying. I felt really frustrated with myself for this. Looking back, I wish I would have been more patient with myself. I realize now that it takes a lot of time to become familiar enough with a particular subfield to have much to say about it. So my advice would be: be patient with yourself. Good ideas take time and if you take the time, they’ll come eventually.Report
I will be surprised if this comment gets posted as I expect it to get censored which will justify the advice I give but here goes. The best advice is to not do a PhD philosophy. It is not worth it. You will very likely not get a job because there aren’t any. If you do get lucky and get a job, you will have to conform to the gate-keeping and anti-original thinking norms of academic philosophy and do research in the mediocre topics journal editors find fashionable. It is much better to get an entry-level job outside of academia after your Bachelors or Masters, fall in love, have kids if you want, and live happily. The pleasure of doing a PhD is vastly outweighed by the struggle after you finish currently.Report
How much are those three other desiderata really mutually exclusive with pursuing the PhD?Report
It’s not that they’re mutually exclusive. It’s that pursuing the PhD is at odds with the other pursuits. The current job market requires significant effort to achieve success. And typically, as a grad increases his efforts in a PhD program to the degree required for professional success (i.e., for landing a good research job), he decreases the likelihood of achieving success in love, raising kids, and cultivating a well-rounded happy life. But as he increases his efforts to the degree required for success in these other areas, he decreases the likelihood of achieving professional success.
Perhaps the most brilliant and talented people can succeed in all these areas at once, but most people aren’t among the most brilliant and talented!Report
Thank you that is exactly what I meant. I would only add (not that you meant it this way) but “significant effort” does not equal academically meritorious effort. It usually means academically superficial things like “networking”, sucking up to professors and visiting speakers. And then still at the end of the day the job market is riddle with luck. I have seen people who put significant academic effort into ambitious original work get thrown on the waste pile, and people who regurgitated old debates in highly technical writing that attempts to score a minor dialectical point, easily get jobs.
Another point is that as much as I wish society were different, our current political economic relations mean that despite the fact you might live to 80, the choices you make between 18-30 pretty much set your life up. Given that and the current job market, taking 3-4 years (or 5-7 in US) on top of other degrees to do a PhD is a suckers bet.
Another point, you used the word “he” but I was actually thinking the pursuits being at odds might affect women too. Definitely as a heterosexual man, who has been unlucky with love, the nature of junior academic positions and the gender imbalance of philosophy PhD programs (and philosophy adjacent programs) means it was very hard to find a life companion. The PhD became a life speed bump that probably means I’ll be alone for a very long time as I build my life outside academia. I’m not sure what the experience of women on this front is But I supposed the risks might be the same.Report
I wish there are more forums about these specific issues for people to communicate and help each other out with advice.
As a gay man, I’ve resigned to romantic love a long time ago since I figured that the odds are significantly slimmer for me than straight people. There were times I cried alone in my car at my university parking lot just thinking about that prospect. Lots of straight people have a hard time finding and keeping romantic love, let alone gays I thought. I think I’ve been grieving at the prospect ever since I knew I was gay.
I suppose it can be as difficult (maybe more) for many straight people to deal with since they grew up and are still in a very heteronormative culture that constantly tells them that they can and will meet somebody only to have reality betray their expectations especially at a later point in their life.
I’ve had 10+ years of grieving (since high school) and so the idea of being single doesn’t bother me as much now. But for a straight adult who desires romantic love, it could be worse since it could be new for them and at a later point in their life.Report
Concerning resources: When trying to plot out the ‘lay of the land’ on a particular debate or issue, PhilPapers’ “references found in this work” and “citations of this work” are among the most valuable tools in one’s arsenal. Whether you’re just dipping your toes into a topic for the purpose of writing a term paper or you’re deeply interested in the history of a debate and want to thoroughly familiarize yourself, knowing — to paraphrase Plato’s Phaedrus — where the discourse is going and where it has been is instructive for writing a good paper. This isn’t the end-all be-all, obviously consult your professors for a possible reading list if they’re experts in that area, and the references are sometimes incomplete or altogether missing. It is, however, a good start to organizing a paper and situating one’s argument within the current discourse.
This might seem mundane to some (maybe most), but it was something I wasn’t familiar with until the second semester of my PhD program when a fellow student informed me of it. Since then, I’ve used it (alongside other methods) for preliminarily organizing my reading on various paper topics.Report
There’s more to life than academic philosophy.
Your worth as a person has very little to do with how carefully you can read a passage in a book that no one outside academic philosophy cares about, or how impressed other academics are with your response to a puzzle that no one outside academic philosophy cares about, or how impressed other academics are with your response to another person’s response.
Philosophy is fun and valuable, but academia can make it lifeless and painful. Don’t be afraid to leave if you’re considering it. The world has a lot more to offer. Follow your passions, not what other people think your passions should be.Report
1. I wish I had a better vision of the whole picture about Contemporary Philosophy and must reads to not waste my time lurking between tons of books that seem equally atractive.
2. I wish I considered to take a Philosophy degree together with my Law degree since I had time to do it and it would give me a huge background now.
3. Love my man Plato, but I wish I didn’t take so much time reading him and focused more on Contemporary Philosophy. While J read most of his dialogues and articles commenting them and loved the experience, Plato is not my research object.
In other words, I think it can be summed up as having a better conception of the actual state of Philosophy and using efficiently the time you have.Report
Don’t waste time. If you’re going in with an MA, see if you can credit for it towards your grad course work. Be mindful of the courses you’re taking and how they will help you with your dissertation. Plan to graduate as quickly as possible, do not linger.
Be smart about who you pick as your advisor, not that they are “famous,” but also how they are as a person. Will they give you the time, are you more hands-off or hands-on type of person. Your advisro can make or break your time in grad school and career. None of you papers that you will write for a class are a waste of time. Write as many of them as you can with the possibility of them being conference or publishable. and as always JOB market is terrible, if you can, diversify yourself to get a non-academic job.Report