Sunday, January 18, 2009

I haven't been gone very long, but it feels like a lifetime

For so long as I have been in graduate school, I’ve taken for granted that philosophy is always going to be there for me. No matter what work I put into it, two hours here, a day there, six hours elsewhere (or lack of work for that matter, a day off here, a month off there) it would always be there waiting for me.

And for the most part, it always was. I made it through my classes, sometimes writing research papers the night before, sometimes taking a few weeks, sometimes taking whole semesters. I even half-assed my way through my comprehensive exams because I knew that I could. I didn’t need to read everything my advisors assigned because they weren’t watching over me all that closely, and besides, I was pretty confident I knew my shit, at least enough to satisfy everyone.

I made it through the first year of writing my dissertation in much the same way. My dissertation was always going to be there for me, it wasn’t going anywhere. After all, I was the one writing it. I turned in chapters when I needed to and everyone was pretty happy with my progress. And I took that to be all the victory I needed. I was certainly pleased as punch with myself for doing what I was supposed to be doing. Shit, I was damn proud of myself for accomplishing the bare minimum.

I think anyone can drift through a year or two of their graduate career so long as they pick the right advisor, know how to make it seem like they’re working hard and making progress, sit in on a few classes, and hand things in every now and again. But, it takes a real master of bad faith to do that for almost five years and still be proud of oneself, to still think that everything is going to work out in the end, because, fuck it, philosophy isn’t going anywhere.

But, then something comes along to shock you out of the complacency you’re so damn proud of: You don’t get into that conference you wanted to, or your dog dies, or your advisor rips apart your latest chapter, or you get a rejection letter from a journal, or your partner leaves you, or your very smart friends don’t get any APA interviews. It’s when this happens that this grand monument of accomplishment you’ve built for yourself out of faint praise, good enough’s, and the bare minimum begins to show cracks.

This is a crucial moment.

You can seal the cracks here with five pages, there with 4 hours of reading, and throw another chapter at those cracks threatening to ruin the foundation. But, if you do that, you’re probably taking from that same reeking pile of mediocre manure that's been sitting next to you for the past five years and that you can’t smell anymore because it’s been there for so long. Fuck, you’re probably so delusional you even love the smell of that shit! In fact, you’re proud of that big ol’ shitpile! So, why not just throw more at those cracks, then take a step back, survey your work, and nod approvingly at your small victory. Or...

Or? Or what?

Or, you realize that philosophy isn’t always going to be there for you. You remove the rose-colored glasses, look in the mirror, and discover that pinkish aura of invincibility you thought you had is just a cloud of bad faith that floats over your head like some sort of anti-halo. You start paying attention to the fact that philosophy has left behind many students much more talented than you, much more motivated than you, and to put it simply, much more deserving than you.

And then it hits you. Philosophy is on the verge of doing the same thing to you, if not now, then in the next few years. So, what do you do?

Panic is the first response. And that’s fine. Then you need to stiff-arm that feeling like you’re the Heisman-fucking-Trophy, and begin doing philosophy like you’re never going to get another chance, because, to be honest, you probably won’t.

But, that shouldn’t stop you from finally getting up off your ass and at least trying.



Anonymous said...

Well said! Stiff arm that bitch!

fan said...

I think this is your best post.
It's a little scary, but for some reason it makes me feel better.

Revenge of the Ninja said...

While at the Eastern APA this past December, I realized that it is actually a bit like the NFL Combine. Of course there is no weight lifting, timed running, etc., but that is exactly what's wrong with the job market: we need feats of strength. Perhaps it should be like March Madness: each institution allows a certain number of candidates to debate one another concerning their particular AOS. Other schools can witness the tournament to see who they will want to include in their own bracket (each school basically has their own tournament for the job). If there's a tie, then the winner of the job is determined by... weight lifting, timed runs, etc. Yeah, red tooth and claw is definitely the way to go with hiring. Screw this starched, pseudo-professional bullshit.

Anonymous said...

Good post. I'd welcome this kind of forthright, mature, and honest self-examination into my department anytime. Keep plugging.

daup said...

Excellent post. It is too easy, I think, to coast through graduate school until it is too late.

To quote Boxer from Animal Farm: "I will work harder!"

chrono said...

Great stuff. Very motivating for those of us who have a long way to go.

Anonymous said...

Man, how did you come up with that confidence to begin with, though, that's what I'd like to know? I'm jealous!

first year tt guy said...


Thanks for the honest post. I think that one of the most important lessons to learn early in graduate school is that we need to perform in a way that will impress future potential employers rather than just our current teachers. And those future employers won't care about our 4.0 GPA or that we were impressive during our oral exam. They want to know that we can publish, get our stuff into competitive conferences, and (maybe) teach competently.

Without evidence of that on the CV, there's not much chance of success on the market (unless we have incredible pedigree.. which tends to be interpreted as evidence of skill). Therefore, getting into good conferences, publishing a few things in decent journals, and getting broad teaching experience is the best advice I can give anyone. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

This is fantastic, thank you.

I am going to bookmark it and read it every day.

Xenophon said...

STBJD, I certainly appreciate your honesty, but am I the only one who thinks you come out like an asshole here? I mean, what you're describing is one of the main things wrong with higher education: people who game the system as long as they can and only get serious when their ass is to the wall. While I respect your honesty, I'm now going to resent anything good that happens to you. And up til now I thought you were a fairly hoopy frood. I mean, I never coasted. I worked my ass off. You know?

Anonymous said...

What is the world coming to when hard work becomes a good thing? I hate hard work more than those stupid cavemen commercials. If the financial crisis has taught us anything, it's that the only time you need to work hard is when trying to fool others into thinking that what you're doing is good and impressive. The analogous lesson for philosophers is very obvious:

Lie on your CV, forge your recommendations (and your diploma if you're ambitious), and ask the government for more money.

Just kidding, I know I'm doomed to mediocrity through laziness.

Soon-to-be Jaded Dissertator said...


Yeah. That's the point. I've been a huge asshole for a long time, not the hoopy frood I thought just because I was getting my stuff done on time.

In any case, I wouldn't expect any well-wishes from anyone, much less people who probably worked harder.

Ah so.

Anonymous said...

Get started on that LSAT prep.

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