The “Secret Syllabus” of Being a Graduate Student in Philosophy

There’s what professors expect their students to be doing in order to be successful in graduate school and beyond, and then there’s what successful graduate students are actually doing.

How different are these descriptions? And in what ways are they different?

[“The Dress” by Lou Benesch, detail]

These questions are prompted by an email from a current philosophy PhD student at a very good program asking about the unspoken norms of graduate school, after learning that some other students don’t consistently do a thorough job of reading the materials assigned in their seminars.

Curious about other ways in which graduate student behaviors depart from what professors might think they are doing or should be doing (not necessarily by failing to meet expectations; there could be instances of going beyond expectations, or behaviors unrelated to typical expectations), they asked:

What belongs on “The Secret Syllabus” of being a philosophy graduate student?

Let’s hear from current and recent philosophy graduate students about this. (Note to the professors out there: what’s being asked for is not a recapitulation of professors’ thoughts about what graduate students should be doing.)

NOTE: I understand that people who normally post under their own names may wish to comment pseudonymously on this post. That’s fine. But please note that the commenting software associates your email with the name first used with it, so if you want to keep your identity hidden, you should either enter a different email address than the one you used when you commented with your real name, or add “DN” to the beginning of your email address when you enter it in the comment form. (Your email address is not made public.)

UPDATE: A reader draws my attention to the book, The Secret Syllabus: A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of College Success, and from the same series, A Field Guide to Graduate School: Uncovering the Hidden Curriculum.

Grad Students: What Do You Wish You Knew?
Grad Students: What Do You Wish You Knew? (Volume 2)
Grad Traps!

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1 year ago

The faculty at my grad program put together a list of readings and terms that all grad students were expected to familiarize themselves with. There was no formal requirement to do the readings or learn the terms, but the soft threat was something like, “If you don’t learn what’s on this list, you won’t be taken seriously as a philosopher.” If “you won’t be taken seriously as a philosopher” means “you won’t get a decent job in philosophy,” then my program has had lots of counterexamples. I think the dynamics in the field have shifted (towards, esp., hyper-specialization) such that it is simply no longer true that there’s a core of philosophy that all philosophers are expected to know, or, at least, that core has shrunk considerably.

Current grad
1 year ago

At my program, there is no particular secret syllabus. However, there is a slight expectation that one knows the general contours of analytic philosophy. There will be occasions where, e.g., David Lewis’s modal realism will be used as an example of a philosophical theory with X property. The faculty, though, are quite good about not assuming prior knowledge, and will explain the relevant feature of the theory if they see puzzlement in some student’s eyes.

On the other hand, if a seminal reading is assigned in a class you are enrolled in (or auditing), you are very much expected to know specific details about the theory or arguments presented in the reading. And this expectation seeps through the ranks, where grads know and talk about what papers are important to know.

X x
X x
1 year ago

A “good” program depends highly on who you have as a supervisor. The secret curriculum is entirely driven from the One on one discussions you have with your supervisor. The readings were prep material for participation in these conversations that changed me. I finally felt like I was in, what I had imagined University would be.
She really challenged me, sometimes over every single word. The first five days, we talked for 6-8 hours a day in a small select group of students. I would have never known such an intense “course” before the normal semester started happened.
I was prepared about what to read from previous, then how to think was from my supervisor who was a real philosopher.

Adam Patterson
1 year ago

One of my letter writers said they expected me to be a full participant in my department’s life-e.g., to never miss a colloquia, a dinner, a dissertation defense, a departmental meeting/event, the grad student conference, volunteer service, other talks outside of our colloquia series, etc.

I’m not sure if faculty expect all graduate students to do *this much*. But I get the sense that there is *some* expectation that graduate students contribute to the life of the department, to some extent, to the best of their abilities (with obvious exceptions).

Jon Light
Reply to  Adam Patterson
1 year ago

My department’s had discussions as to the verb ‘expect’ as in “we expect to see you at colloquia”? Is it predictive? Normative? What’s the implicature? I’ve generally preferred “hope to see you there” over “expect to see you there”, for various potentially coercive reasons.

Reply to  Adam Patterson
1 year ago

Thanks for this comment. It reminds me of a tension I observed in graduate school.

For those of us who attended disorganized, under-performing (placement-wise), or just generally strange (even if ‘well-ranked’) programs, a common problem for graduate students was how to balance ‘departmental citizenry’ with their own interests.

I’m not talking about work-life balance. I’m talking about work-identity balance.

Imagine you’re in a program that you have good reason to believe values you primarily as subsidized teaching and grading labour, and secondarily (if that) as a prospective philosopher and professional colleague; where too many of your seminars are desultory, perfunctory, etc.; where faculty are extremely busy and often give you short shrift; and where faculty invitations (re: couched imperatives) to attend department events, like job talks, arise primarily each hiring season when the department wants to impress upon candidates that the graduate program is stocked with eager, professional students.

Also assume that from your perspective these job searches look much more like coronations for students from x, y, z programs than like competitions for great philosophers and colleagues.

After a while, many graduate students start to think: wait, I’m not too sure this place is really invested in me, and I need to be careful not to put all my eggs in one basket by constructing the vast majority of my life around ‘departmental citizenry’. Otherwise I’m overexposed and might find myself quite lost after I graduate without a job. So I better spread myself out: is there an improv ground/jam band/games club I can join on Fridays? Can I resume my fitness hobby/team sport? What about making more time for family and friends? Should I also be developing my plan-B career?

So, wisely, you start to diversify your life.

You then get an invitation to attend a job talk you have extremely good reason to believe you yourself will not one day be giving. It’s completely rational for that graduate student to think, ‘Nope, my {improv group; etc} meets tonight; it’s really important to me; this department primarily sees me as grading labour; I’m booked up and won’t be attending.’

This was a significant problem in my department, and faculty seemed incapable of seeing it clearly. But it should be expected that departmental collegiality frays when the system itself becomes a siren song of a viable career path.

1 year ago

If you’re the kind of person who can both keep on top of academic work and pursue opportunities relevant to alt- and non-academic careers, look into doing so, and talk with people in your department about the options. The program I studied at made it possible to do public policy work while I was there, but after my first year I made a conscious effort to double-down on philosophy. As a result, I graduated with a number of good publications, and a national fellowship, but for years on the market I heard nothing but crickets. From what I can tell, beyond one or two publications during graduate school, the amount of effort put into publication and networking during that time made no measurable impact on my success as a professional philosopher. X years later (well under 10), and now with a c.v. that’s good enough for tenure at most of the places I’ve applied to, I finally had my first first-round interview this year (two, actually, but neither made it beyond a video call). Beyond a certain point the amount of time spent on one more publication in graduate school is negligible, and devoting that effort to the alt-/non-ac route (if you’re not already doing so) is liable to yield a far greater return on investment. Assuming you have the aptitude and work ethic, that’s an avenue you may want to keep open.

In addition, make sure you are aware of your department’s placement record, and keep an eye on the demographic and institutional factors that are reliable predictors for who gets tenure-track jobs, and where. Talk to people, ask questions. There is no excuse for any department with a PhD program today not to offer clear, accurate, and up-to-date information on its placement record, and ask around to get the details. It was eye-opening to see what was going on by the time I left the program, and had I had that information when I entered, I would have distributed my efforts along a different scale of priorities. 

Finally, don’t expect too much support from the established people (this isn’t a knock against them). If they completed their graduate work before the 2000s, and if they don’t regularly follow the data that’s coming in, they likely have a skewed view about the realities of the market, and of what “sells” in academic philosophy today. They’re also liable to be at a loss for offering concrete help when it comes to packaging 4 to 8 years’ worth of graduate study in academic philosophy into something that would be of interest to people outside the field right now. So again, it pays to keep at least partly apace with alt-/non-ac career opportunities while you finish your studies, if you can manage it.

Otherwise, take courses, talk to people, go to dissertation defenses, go to conferences, visit other schools, expose yourself to new ideas, work on your own ideas, and have fun. Graduate study in philosophy is a special time of life that few people get to experience. Try to make the most of it.

1 year ago

It’s great to hear from grad students on this question, but it might be even more useful to hear profs’ takes. (Maybe anonymously though, so particular students don’t feel that profs’ comments are about them, specifically.)

For context: I’m currently a Postdoc.

Mark van Roojen
Mark van Roojen
Reply to  Julia
1 year ago

Justin just said up top he doesn’t want to hear from profs, but since this seems like a reasonable question and because Justin is not the boss of me (as I might have said long before he was born), I’ll bite. I expect my grad students to do some reading beyond what I assign, especially when they write papers on a topic and especially in seminars.

I realize my time in grad school was long ago, but it felt a lot like being thrown into the deep end with a bunch of readings or ideas I did not quite get. So I’d look at the footnotes in those readings and go read the references to try to figure that out. I don’t expect my students to do what I had to do to figure it out well enough. And I realize that finding good sources is harder with all that is now out there to read. But the readings in a class can be hard and require background to understand and some of that will have to be learned on one’s own. Generally professors will be happy to suggest further reading.

To be fair, sometimes I put more work into the background reading than the assigned reading and we also just sat through classes we were not writing papers for. So the assigned/not assigned distinction was rather fluid.

1 year ago

These are some things I do, although I have no idea whether I am or will be a “successful” grad student.

  • I skim reading sections that I suspect wouldn’t be important. For these sections, I read the first and/or last sentence of each paragraph.
  • I seek resources that provide me the big picture of the assigned readings. e.g. SEP, professor’s own book, talking to prof in office hours, survey papers written in other disciplines (e.g.
  • Instead of paying close attention to details of the reading, I try to reconstruct the outline of the argument in my head (or on a whiteboard). This helps me get clear on what I do and do not understand. Then I fill in the details either by consulting the reading or by letting prof or other students correct me. (I take the latter approach when I’m short on time.)
  • “Give up” on the portions of a seminar that I found no interest in and focus on the other portions that drive me.
  • Trick my mind into wanting to do the readings. Try to find something good about it e.g. the writing style, its relation to something else you’re interested in
Daniel Weltman
1 year ago

I don’t know if I was a successful graduate student or not, but I assiduously read everything that was assigned in seminars (and I got the impression my fellow graduate students were also doing the readings). Perhaps the norm varies from program to program, or I was a rube.

Monte Johnson
Reply to  Daniel Weltman
1 year ago

After he won it three times in a row, we renamed our annual graduate student service award “The Danny Weltman” Award. Every year when we award it we remind ourselves what an over-the-top outstanding departmental citizen Danny was here at UC San Diego.

1 year ago

If I could write a secret syllabus for grad students it would have only one line: don’t listen to what other grad students say you should be doing.

There seems to be a lot of bad advice. And even more advice with absolutely no evidence that goes around among grad students. Professors may be more or less out of touch, depending on how long it is since they did their PhD. But grad students just don’t have access to any of the requisite experience to know what matters.

Actually I would add one more line: Don’t assume what goes in the US goes everywhere else.

A Prof
Reply to  WaryPostdoc
1 year ago

Bingo! The graduate students in my program circulate lots of advice amongst themselves about how “it really works,” often delivered with great pomp and seeming authority. Most of it is pure fantasy.

simple man trying to make his way in academics
1 year ago

Recently signed a contract for a permanent job, but the three years after the thesis submission was brutal so I’m pretty sure I was not among the superstars in my program. Here’s what I got

a) Learn game theory. No one teaches it, but talks and even informal discussions after a few drinks presuppose (evolutionary) game theory.
b) Learn preferably another formal method. Unfortunately, I didn’t heed this advice. Huge mistake.
c) Have something to do with AI. I didn’t heed this advice. Hugest mistake in my life in retrospect. Just look at all the AI jobs out there.
d) Academic citizenry is important. Attend enough events. Perform a few services. (In a way this adds up to some stuff in the diversity statement.)
e) Design and propose to teach courses.
f) Publish. But only publish well-motivated papers.
g) Learn from recent graduates who have got jobs you would want. It’s impossible to mimic exactly what they did, but it helps.
h) Give talks. Very very polished talks. Have the ability to give the same talk for 20 mins, 30 mins, 45 mins, and 55 mins. Job talks vary in length.
i) Learn that luck matters for us normal people, normal people who aren’t superstars. Cooperate and be kind to others. Exchange ideas and drafts, but more importantly mutual support.

Peter Cerato
1 year ago

The structure and comment responses/usernames given are concerning, given developments in AI/the interweaving of global culture

1 year ago

You didn’t ask specifically whether the secret syllabus should go beyond philosophy texts, past and present, to things like blogs, social media threads, etc. But should it? Should PhD students be reading DN and Leiter and some of the others regularly? More generally, are they expected to know the who’s who and the what’s what at the leading places in the profession?

simple man trying to make his way in academics
Reply to  Jared
1 year ago

I would advise reading Philosophers’ Cocoon too, especially when one is about to be on the job market (and perhaps the job market reporting thread to understand how brutal the job market is).

PhilPapers and Philosophy Paperboy to keep track of recent publications.

1 year ago

Good advice so far! Here’s a couple more:

1) Learn LaTeX, really. It’ll save you time down the road.

2) (Depending on how early on you are) Focus on fundamentals like logic and philosophy of language, no matter your specialty this will improve the quality of your work.
Claims involving modal terms permeate all subfields (see: modal sensitivity and anti-realism about moral properties), for better or worse, so being able to interpret these claims is similarly important.

3) Read philosophy recreationally, if you just read course/seminar materials you’re behind. This includes reading classics that are taken as a given, or too bulky to assign in a seminar.

4) Talk to your professors outside of class.

5) Philosophy is contemplative so take time to stare at the ceiling, hike, or do something that gives your brain space to work over your thoughts.

6) If empirical research is at all relevant to your subfield (mind, language, phil of sci etc.), be able to evaluate scientific studies and have at least a background understanding of the state of research.

Last edited 1 year ago by J.A.M.
1 year ago

Expectations about being immersed in philosophy that have already come up. At PhD level, you are not just working on your own stuff but part of a community, and it’s good to be discussing philosophy with them, attending talks by other postgrads and by invited speakers. Attend talks outside your specialism, and be there for other philosophers in your community. This is important if you want a job, not just because it gives reference writers something to talk about (a fairly minor consideration in reality), but because you will learn topics outside your area that you may have to/want to be able to teach at some point, and you will make friends who you can ask for reading suggestions if you suddenly have to learn a new area. For various reasons (illness, death, departure etc.), you may find that you are taking over a new course one day at ridiculously short notice, and having people you can call on helps immensely.

There’s also stuff about self-advocacy. Academics are busy (and often under pressures that grad students don’t understand). If you need stuff from them, knowing a polite but effective way of communicating this is huge. In general, they are (in my perhaps lucky experience) happy to help grad students out within reason, but they don’t usually have the time or energy to second-guess what grad students need from them. Have explicit conversations with your supervisor, placement officer, etc., from early on, about what are reasonable expectations to have of each other. Even once you leave, they may be happy to look at draft work, or draft funding proposals, within reason.

Learn to ask good questions and build community. Make it so other people value you as an interlocutor and as a colleague. Not because it will get you a job. (It can; people like to hire people that they actually want to work with, but it’s not sufficient.) Be a good colleague and interlocutor because the pool that you are swimming in is very small, and if you urinate in it, you’ll not enjoy it as much.

Have a life outside of philosophy. It give you other options if you need them, but also means that your sanity doesn’t depend on constantly winning at philosophy. Philosophy is really HARD. Have other stuff that you can find joy in on the days when philosophy isn’t loving you back.

1 year ago

For whatever reason, as a grad student I was cagey about sharing my ideas with people when we were chatting, because I was afraid they would steal them. This was probably 1 part serious rational worry, 2 parts inflated ego, and 3 parts paranoid suspiciousness. I met another grad student—much better than I—who openly shared all of his ideas with anyone who would listen. I resolved to do the same, and just take the risk that someone might take my ideas. Philosophy instantly became so much more enjoyable, and has remained so up to this day. Everything feels lighter now.

1 year ago

I once “presented” on a reading with another graduate student, and halfway through the 2.5 hour process, he admitted he hadn’t done the reading (because he actually needed me to carry us the whole way)

I had a professor who admitted to—“back then”—not having “read Much Quine,” and not having “read it carefully”

Had another professor who didn’t even make a syllabus, and did not read the graduate-student-assigned readings for their graduate student presentations.

University of Maryland (is toxic)

1 year ago

If you work in epistemology, you will at some point need to have very strong opinions about extremely ornate and fanciful cases involving coin flips, and you’ll need strong math skills to wow people with how you understand these cases. You might even need to publish one of your own. Here’s one for free: Suppose I do a backflip off the Empire State Building while holding Morgenbesser’s coin. On my way down, I hit and ricochet off of a window washer into a strong northeasterly wind which carries me to Central Park , where I fall into the zoo and the coin lands atop a sea lion’s nose. Which way would the coin have landed if I had instead done a front flip and the coin was ever so slightly biased, but you didn’t know which way, and it was 31 years ago?

Last edited 1 year ago by Grad
David Wallace
Reply to  Grad
1 year ago

Is this a trick question? It looks as if the answer is obviously “heads” (well, as long as we can assume the Axiom of Choice).

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
1 year ago

This thread implicitly presupposes a taught PhD. If there is no offical syllabus (as with dissertation-only PhDs) then there can be no unofficial or ‘secret’ syllabus. In other words it presupposes the system that prevails in the US and some other parts of the world but not the system that prevails in large parts of Europe and Australasia. Let me quote from my contribution to a thread What to Teach in the Proseminar that I posted seven years ago: 

Here’s a fact which some of you will find almost unbelievable but which suggests a big cultural divide in profession. Until I began to read this thread I literally did not know what a proseminar was. And this despite the fact that I am a well-published philosopher in his late fifties. (I gather from the contributions that it’s the seminar class you take in your first year of graduate school which is designed to ensure a general level lf philosophical literacy, and that it is therefore non-optional.) The reason is, of course, that, as is common in the UK and Australasia, having completed my (three-year) BA, I did a research-only PhD. with no taught component. Whatever general literacy I may have as a philosopher, over-and-above what I learned as an undergraduate, I either taught myself through general reading or acquired by picking other people’s brains. (There is a lot you can learn from casual conversation). This suggests something interesting about the OP’s query. It is not just that for a non-North American teacher the question would not arise. In so far as there is a corresponding question, it would be not even be addressed to the same audience. . It would not be ‘What texts should we set in our proseminars?’ It would be ‘What books or articles should we read (or make sure that we have read) outside our specific research areas in order to be reasonably well-rounded philosophers?’. The first question is from a teacher asking other teachers (and perhaps former learners) for advice on to run somebody else’s education. The second is from a learner asking other learners and ex-learners for advice on how to run their own. I’ve got suggestions to make and recollections I could post about the second question. As for the first, it is too alien to my experience for me to have an opinion.

So here are two questions related to the original topic that might be of interest to European and Australasian graduate students

  1. What strategies have you found useful in educating yourself to become a reasonably well rounded philosopher (bearing in my mind that none of can be an expert at everything)? 
  2. What strategies have you found useful in converting yourself into or promoting yourself as a reasonably saleable philosophical commodity? 

The best people to answer these questions would not be the graduate students themselves but young lecturers and professors (say people under 45) who did a thesis-only PhD and have achieved some measure of success. 

There are things I could say, at least in answer to question 1, but my own experiences of PhD study is too long ago to be of much use or relevance to young philosophers nowadays.