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Trevor Hedberg
Knoxville, TN
Graduate Student in philosophy at the University of Tennessee
Interests: Philosophy, Reading, Writing, Editing, Teaching, Website Design, Tennis, NBA, Anime, Video Games
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Marcus, I'm not sure it is within most graduate students' power to alter their outlook on philosophy in the way you describe. A disillusioned attitude will probably manifest gradually over the course of a few years in the program. Some students can and do escape that mindset, but a lot of them don't: it's very difficult to dislodge attitudes that get ingrained that deeply. So if I were in the position of giving a grad student in those circumstances candid advice, I would strongly encourage them to consider their options beyond philosophy and not just continue on in the hopes that an attitude adjustment will solve the problem or that things will otherwise get better. Continuing along is risky, and the more one invests in the program, the more psychologically difficult it will be to leave the program later if things continue to go badly. So you're right that there are more options available to disillusioned grad students than leaving the program. But in the overwhelming majority of cases, that's still the advice that I would give them.
The introduction to Russ Shafer-Landau's _The Fundamentals of Ethics_ has worked fairly well in the last two ethics courses I have taught. It has a lot of terms that will be new to students, though, so I recommend splitting up the material over at least 2 class sessions and unpacking the concepts in depth. If your university library has a copy of this book on hand, it might be worth a look.
I would propose there is at least one more group of grad students that could be added to this list, though they might overlap a bit with some of the other categories. An appropriate label might be the "disillusioned." These are grad students who lose their love for philosophy during graduate school or otherwise come to dislike philosophy as it is done in an academic setting. I've run into quite a few of these folks over the years, and as one might expect, as their loathing of graduate school increases, they tend to struggle more. For these folks -- in contrast to most of the other groups you describe -- I think the right move is for them to leave their graduate program and to pursue a career outside of philosophy. In practice, I've seen this often result in taking a terminal MA instead of seeing a PhD through to its conclusion. Where members of this group get into the most trouble, from what I've seen, is when they continue along with their graduate studies despite hating it (e.g., because of their investment in the program up to that point or because they believe they have no other career options). Often, after many years of toil, they find themselves set up with low odds of landing a job that they may not really want anyway. Philosophy faculty are often not well-positioned to help grad students find non-academic careers, but at a minimum, I think this group is helped when they feel like leaving their respective programs is not viewed by the faculty as a failure or disappointment. A little reassurance and encouragement can go a long way in such cases.
One thing worth noting is that many of the jobs listed as "Open" are not really open in my view. Often, they come with caveats like "strong preference for feminist philosophy and/or history of modern philosophy" or something similar. I applied to a lot of jobs that were listed as open but had such preferences for ethics-oriented subject areas. I'm doubtful that 1/4 of the jobs listed over the past year are really "open" in the fullest sense.
I would propose an amendment to #3. Rather than not having to feel like you're succeeding, you simply have to feel like success is not defined by the ratio of successes to failures. In fact, ideally I imagine you wouldn't give any weight to failures: all that would matter is the total number of successes. To illustrate what I mean, imagine going to an empty gym to practice free throws. You could set two different kinds of goals to structure your practice. One would be to shoot a set amount and shoot a certain percentage (e.g., make 80 out of 100 attempts). Another would be to simply aim for making a total number of baskets. In the second case, the number of misses doesn't directly affect whether your practice was successful -- whether it took you 150, 200, or 300 attempts to make 100 free throws doesn't affect whether you met your goal. If you made 100 free throws during your session, then you succeeded. In academia, I think you have to adopt a standard of success similar to what's depicted in the second case if you want to maintain a feeling of being successful. If doesn't matter how many failures you accumulate; what matters is your total number of successes. So going 2/5 on successful journal submissions is not as good as going 4/20 on them. No one cares about the number of rejections you get, so you have to adopt an attitude of not caring about them either. That's easier said than done, but it's possible.
I want to endorse the advice given by anonymous in the last few comments. This is my first year on the job market, and I have never been to the wiki once. I know many people who check it regularly, and their reactions to it have been universally negative. Moreover, I have been told my many people, including multiple placement directors, that the information on the wiki is often inaccurate for many reasons. I'm not sure what benefit checking the wiki is supposed to provide, but it seems to only serve as a source of despair and distraction. I would never advise job candidates to spend time on it.
In my experience on the market, postdocs usually require more specific tailoring than other types of applications. They almost always request either (1) a detailed cover letter that explains your reasons for applying for the fellowship and how you would contribute to the fellowship's broader goals or (2) a detailed description -- 1000-1500 words -- of the project you would undertake while you had the fellowship. Some will have additional idiosyncratic requirements. On my understanding, it is also relatively common for postdoc applications to be evaluated by non-philosophers, especially when the position is open to applicants from a wide variety of disciplines. That means that you often need to make your cover letter and project description accessible to those without any significant background in philosophy.
I agree with unrulyhyperion and KC. This blog occupies a unique niche. I think that the blog should be kept tailored toward graduate students and other early career philosophers. The reasons you mention for expansion are admirable, but I worry too much might be compromised in the process. Moreover, this blog would lose a good deal of its unique appeal. I'm sure this question will be revisited again in the future, and perhaps it will be more appropriate once the main contributors have aged. Right now, however, I'd vote against expansion.
Neil, thanks for replying. I suspect a lot of our disagreement may come down to the issue of whether the "Extreme Quality" approach is preferable to the alternatives. I suspect I am somewhere near the middle of the Extreme Quality and Extreme Quantity poles myself. It would be interesting if someone from the other end of the spectrum -- an Extreme Quantity devotee -- were to write a guide like this. I'd be quite curious to see what the differences would be, both in writing strategy and outlook on the value of philosophical writing.
I think it's very helpful for grad students and other early career scholars to have access to resources like this. Concise writing guides are very helpful: even if one does not agree with the strategies the author uses, they provide some alternative methods to consider and often raise important questions about what we ought to aim for as philosophical writers. In this respect, I thank Neil for sharing this with us. Nevertheless, I think it's worth voicing a few points of disagreement. First, I think the "Ambition" standard is too high, though not because I think it is arrogant or too unrealistic. It's because I think it is often perfectly appropriate for philosophical writing to have a more modest goal. Some papers are tightly focused around a specific argument in a relatively niche debate, so they are not likely to be "profoundly significant" (p. 5). Many published reply pieces are even more narrowly focused than this. And so long as these papers advance the philosophical dialogue, I think the their modest aims are appropriate. Second, I think the "Rigor" standard is too high. I have difficulty understanding how one would present "conclusive" evidence for one's thesis (p. 6). I understand the description Neil provides, of course, but this is philosophy: theories and positions are virtually never refuted by "conclusive" evidence according to the standards that are presented. Perhaps the idea is that this is the ideal we should strive for rather than one we will actually realize. But I'm not sure such an ideal is always worth pursuing. Sometimes, when one treads uncharted philosophical territory -- e.g., trying to defend a view that no one has yet defended, trying to make a new argument for a familiar view -- it seems appropriate to allow, perhaps even encourage, the presentation of the argument even if it clearly has some controversial premises or other unresolved weaknesses. Once the argument becomes known, perhaps others can improve and refine it further. I worry that aspiring to the standard Neil advocates might encourage people to forego presenting novel arguments because the author will feel the evidence in their favor is not strong enough. Third, as a practical concern, I'm not sure the Extreme Quality approach is viable for graduate students in relatively undistinguished programs. There's fairly strong evidence that students from such programs need publications to be competitive on the job market. Following the Extreme Quality approach will, other things equal, result in producing fewer papers that one can submit to journals. Perhaps one of them will hit at a top-tier venue, but the acceptance rates of the best journals are quite low, so for many at these institutions, I expect that either the Extreme Quantity approach or an intermediary between Extreme Quality and Extreme Quantity will be a safer and smarter choice. As Neil acknowledges, it is possible to opt for both Extreme Quality and Extreme Quantity, but I don't think this is a realistic aspiration for many graduate students. Finally, as a biographical note, I cannot get much of anything done in a single hour of isolated writing time. Neil's approach of reserving one hour every single day to write would be a disaster for me. It takes me too much time for me to warm up and reenter the realm of the paper (or dissertation chapter) -- usually 30-45 minutes to really get into a flow. Thus, my own writing regiment involves blocks of 3-4 hours of uninterrupted time to work, and I try to manage 3 of these blocks per week. (My optimal amount of writing time is 5-6 hours, usually split by a short lunch break, but that much uninterrupted time for writing is almost impossible to secure except on an empty weekend or holiday.) The strategy of writing every day is common in the profession, but I suspect there are some for whom alternative approaches will work better.
Jerry, I also incorporate rewrites and exam retakes into my courses, but I hadn't made this connection to how it could impact the frequency of borderline cases and how students feel about them. It sounds like our overall outlooks on these issues are quite similar.
Michel X, I have known professors who handle it that way, but I worry that strategy just pushes the issue back a bit. If you round all scores, then you run into a similar problem with a student who makes something near an 89.4%: how confident can we really be that this student didn't make the magic 89.5% threshold and shouldn't get the bump up? Part of the reason I like my system is that the students have control of their fates in these circumstances, and it doesn't come down solely to my fine-grained judgments on a few assessments.
From my own experience, I'm not sure about how great Risk #2 really is: "Few, or no, people may read or engage with your work." A few years ago, David Palmer and I published a piece on the ethics of marketing in the Journal of Business Ethics. Now that's a good place to publish business ethics, but it's not going to show up on any top-20 lists for philosophy journals. I have published other papers since then, including an epistemology paper in Synthese (which routinely makes recent versions of these top-20 lists), but the statistics I've got from and PhilPapers indicate that this paper on marketing ethics has been read and downloaded far more than my others. I even got interviewed by someone from Inside Science about it last year in connection with marketing cancer research. Obviously, this is just one set of personal experiences, but I have heard of other cases like this in applied ethics. Offhand, I recall Tim Bayne and Neil Levy having a similar experience with their "Amputees by Choice" that got published in the Journal of Applied Philosophy: it was much more widely read than most of their other works. Maybe applied ethics is unique in this respect because it has the potential to appeal to non-philosophers in ways that, say, traditional metaphysics and epistemology do not. I get that the claim being made is supposed to be a general rule rather than an absolute principle, but I suspect that the extent to which it is true will vary a lot depending on the subfield in which one is publishing.
This advice is consistent with what I was told the very first time I received advice on tackling an R&R. I've had several, and although some of them had required multiple revisions, I have so far always succeeded in turning those R&Rs into publications. So there's a little anecdotal evidence that this advice is on target.
How much a hobby becomes a distraction from one's professional pursuits probably varies to some extent on what kind of hobby it is. I was a varsity tennis player during my undergraduate days and took some time away from the game during the first few years of my graduate studies. When I got back to playing tennis regularly, it didn't constitute much of a distraction. In large part, this is because you can't play high-level tennis for more than a couple hours before you become exhausted (unless perhaps you're a professional athlete), and your body will rebel if you try to play every single day of the week. So that's a pretty easy hobby to manage. A different example of the same phenomenon might be my hobby of watching professional tennis and professional basketball. While there are lots of tournaments and games to watch, these are isolated events that last for a relatively short amount of time. To use a more concrete illustration, during the current NBA season, I have watched many Golden State Warriors games, but a single game only lasts between 2 and 3 hours (except in the rare cases of multiple overtime sessions), and the games are spread out over 7-8 months (depending on how far a team advances in the playoffs). So there's not much danger in this hobby becoming an unhealthy obsession. Not all my hobbies are like this, though: some of them can be indulged for indefinite periods of time. The most obvious example that comes to mind here is playing video games: there is no set end-point for when you have to stop playing them. (Even once you complete a game, you always have the option of playing through it again or simply shifting your focus to a different game.) Thus, time spent indulging this hobby has to be monitored a little more carefully than others because there's no guarantee that I'll be motivated to stop playing after a couple hours. My suspicion is that Marcus's music hobby became a distraction in part because it can be done more-or-less indefinitely and was thus more prone to absorb a lot of his time than certain other hobbies. But I certainly don't think this is a reason to put distraction-prone hobbies on "lockdown": at times, a good distraction is precisely what's needed to refresh your mind and allow you to return to your work with renewed vigor. Rather, I take the lesson to be that our hobbies, like many things in life, are best done in moderation.
I will second everything that Michel X. states above. I have received many excellent commentaries, but two were very unhelpful. In one of them, the commentator spent his entire commentary presented his own positive view on the issue my paper discussed and made no direct engagement with my own paper. In the other not-so-stellar commentary, the commentator made his distaste for my paper clear from the outset and dominated the discussion so significantly that there were almost no comments made by other audience members. I also consider one of the defining features of good commentaries to be that they provide constructive criticism -- that is, criticism that helps you improve the paper. Usually, this requires making positive suggestions for how future drafts of the paper might be improved rather than just raising a substantial objection and acting as if an adequate response to it is impossible.
Good suggestions, everyone. I now have a few new techniques to try. I should probably clarify in (5) that I don't think you're forbidden to use other notes (perhaps in the fashion Joshua describes) while giving a PPT presentation: the point is that you shouldn't ever just read your slides. I think in my own experience that's been the #1 turnoff for students.
As a slight change of pace, I want to pitch a teaching-related question to the community. Here’s the question: what are the general rules for using PowerPoint effectively as a teaching tool? The reason I ask is because the answers I have received over the years are remarkably inconsistent. Within... Continue reading
Posted Mar 11, 2016 at The Philosophers' Cocoon
Hi, Marcus. I'll add two items to your list. 1. Lack of money. Grad student stipends are generally pretty small -- barely enough to live on without taking out loans. I'm not a believer that you need a ton of money to live well, but I think it's also safe to say that most people will need an income of significantly more than $15,000-$25,000 to be financially secure. 2. Fleeting friendships. Postdoc alludes to the difficulty of forging friendships in a competitive environment, but there's an additional difficulty that shouldn't be understated: the graduate student body at your institution is constantly changing. Some students graduate, some drop out, some take leaves of absence, some transfer to other institutions, and new students arrive every fall. It translates to an environment where there is limited overlap with you and your fellow grad students, and genuine friendships that are formed can be severed rather abruptly. (Obviously, you can keep in touch with people online even if they are far away, but many people who leave your program are more likely to become professional acquaintances in the long run rather than genuine friends.)
I've seen many discussions about this topic before (both on this blog and elsewhere), and there's always one thing I can't pin down: what exactly do we mean by "bad work" in this context? The plausibility of a maxim to avoid publishing bad work is going to hinge pretty significantly on just what's being defined as bad work. Here are some possible definitions: Bad work = "work that is judged by your peers and/or mentors to be bad" But philosophers disagree so frequently in their judgments that some are likely to find your idea promising while others think it isn't. Thus, since it will be hard for you to identify your bad work, it will be hard to avoid publishing bad work under this criteria unless you publish very little (i.e., publish only those things garner extremely widespread support from your colleagues and/or mentors). Bad work = "work that is, by your own lights, not the best work that you can produce" If this is the standard for bad work, then there are two problems with trying to follow the maxim. First, you can underestimate the quality of your own work (or overestimate the significance of an objection to it) and thereby misjudge the merits of your work. Second, this standard makes the imperative to avoid publishing bad work too demanding: why is every paper you produce required to be your absolute best for it to be worthy of publication? Surely there are some good ideas that advance debates and are worth publishing even if they aren't the best or most original ideas that the author ever had. Bad work = "work that is below some rough threshold of excellence, either by your own lights or by the consensus of your peers" This is my best effort at generating a plausible definition of bad work, but there is still some vagueness in this definition because it doesn't specify what the threshold of excellence is supposed to be. Is it the top 10% of one's work? The top 25%? The top 50%? Does the threshold vary from person to person? Might there be some experienced and talented philosophers who are justified in publishing nearly everything they write whereas certain other philosophers should exercise more discretion? Is this threshold established primarily by the status of the journal in which one is able to get the paper published? I don't have first answers to these questions, but I think we've got to make an effort to answer them if we're to understand what is meant by an imperative to avoid publishing bad work.
Based on some recent email exchanges I have had with other members of the profession, there are already plans for a journal focused on book discussion. A journal known as Syndicate Philosophy is slated to launch before the end of 2016 and will serve as the philosophical parallel to the religious studies journal Syndicate Theology. From Syndicate Theology's website: "Syndicate uses recent publications in theological studies as a point of departure for addressing and engaging open questions in contemporary theology and ethics. It is not a book review journal. It is not a standard peer-review journal. It is not a 'theology and culture' journal that seeks to make theology relevant to broad audiences. It is an online forum for scholars to comment on each other’s work and explore big ideas outside of the highly scripted spaces of contemporary academics." Assuming Syndicate Philosophy adopts a similar structure, the entire journal will revolve around book symposiums. Hopefully, its upcoming launch will help fill this gap in the profession.
gradjunct, I'd say the demonstration of intelligence comes in large part via the fact that one was able to get into a doctoral program in philosophy in the first place. I have not met a single PhD student in philosophy that was not markedly smarter than the typical undergraduate. You may be right that the actual process of attaining the PhD manifests determination more than anything else, but it also demonstrates an intellectual curiosity and an ability to learn a specialized field, both of which are skills employers would value. Anyone can learn how to program with C++, how to use Statistical Analysis Software, how to design a website, etc., with relatively little formal training, provided that one is properly motivated and a good independent learner. (Statistics-based work nowadays is about the use of the appropriate software; you don't have to make calculations by hand or have an intricate conceptual grasp of the relevant formulas that the software uses, so I don't think a lack of mathematical acumen is a significant obstacle in that particular case.) I'm not diminishing formal instruction here, but with the wealth of online resources freely available, acquiring the basic skills no longer requires an additional degree. The real challenge, I think, is presenting oneself as having the appropriate motivation and disposition toward the job that one is applying for, such that one would actually be willing to undertake a little training -- potentially being taught by someone younger -- to make up for their relative lack of experience. (You allude to this when you note that many academics may be less enthusiastic about non-academic work and less adaptable than undergraduates.) Even so, those are obstacles that I'd consider surmountable, especially compared to the obstacles one must overcome in the hunt for a tenure-track academic position. If you really don't think that's true, then I fear that this may boil down to a fundamental disagreement about the breadth and marketability of the skills that philosophy PhDs possess.
Toggle Commented Feb 1, 2016 on It's Not "Giving Up" at The Philosophers' Cocoon
gradjunct, I agree that if we're just concerned about dictionary definitions, you can consider failure a simple lack of success. But the way it's used in most contexts is, as Stacey mentions, the culpable type of failure. Referring to a person as a "failure" or to something they did as a "failure" is typically meant to be an insult, which is why we should try to avoid that label when we talk about leaving academia. I was not thinking of path as limited to "standardized route" when I used the term in the original posts, but I agree that there aren't any career paths that are widely applicable to philosophy PhDs: what opportunities one should pursue will be highly dependent on individual background, personal interests, and a host of other factors. Even so, if one is smart enough to earn a philosophy PhD, then I suspect the person is capable to performing well in a wide array of jobs. (As someone put the point to me at the APA recently, "Your undergrad students are the ones who get most non-academic jobs, and what employer in his right mind would choose one of your undergrad students over you?") I suspect the bigger problem is a lack of knowledge regarding how to market one's skills and where to find jobs that one would be a good fit for. There aren't a ton of resources for facilitating the transition from academia to non-academic employment, but and are a couple examples.
Toggle Commented Jan 31, 2016 on It's Not "Giving Up" at The Philosophers' Cocoon
Thanks for sharing, Marcus. This is a useful resource, even if the reader does not share Ernst's perspective on academia. I think most of us (myself included) want to make an academic career work, but with the way the job market is, it's definitely worth making a Plan B.
Hi, Derek. I don't think I disagree with anything you've said. My point is simply that we often talk about leaving academia as if it isn't a worthy path (even if that isn't always intended). My concern is more about the connotation of the phrase "giving up" than its literal meaning. Scott, I imagine a lot of folks share your perspective and wish there were more concrete paths to non-academic employment following a philosophy PhD. But I've also met some folks who clearly viewed their leaving academia as evidence of some personal shortcoming -- even after they started to flourish in their non-academic careers. We can still definitely make improvements in getting people to think it's "okay" for them to pursue careers outside the academy.
Toggle Commented Jan 29, 2016 on It's Not "Giving Up" at The Philosophers' Cocoon