Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Post-Defense Drought

I defended my dissertation a little while ago. This means that I finished writing it quite a while ago—months ago. During the months between finishing and defending, managed to I get a lot of work done; I made major revisions on a paper I'd been working on for a while and completely wrote another paper. But since the defense, I've been struggling. I'm having a lot of trouble deciding what I want to do next. One thing I don't want to do is to revise chapters into publishable papers. Oh my God. Maybe later, but I kind of hope not.

This strikes me as normal, I guess—at least, I’d be pretty surprised if I were the only person who reacted to finishing a major project this way. But the thing that’s weird about it is, I actually finished the project a long time ago, and I was fine for most of that time. It’s only now that I’ve defended that the lethargy has set in. I dunno.

I’ll say this, though. Writing the dissertation made me a lot better at philosophy. As I was studying for the defense, I (of course) reread chapters I wrote years ago for the first time since I finished them. It was a shocking experience. The change in quality of writing, argument, and general sophistication between the first chapter I wrote and the last was astonishing to me; I am a much better philosopher now than I was when I started writing. Dissertating, like science, works.

--Mr. Zero


Anonymous said...

Very different experience here.

For one thing, I am still totally excited about the ideas from my dissertation and writing away on papers based on it. I have plans for about four different papers and then maybe a book tying them all together. Yes, I guess, I am a weirdo (I even wrote on the same topic for my Master's thesis, which was 120 pages long). I write on names, and still have no clue why I find them endlessly fascinating.

For another thing, I don't think writing the dissertation made me a better philosopher. I feel so out of touch now with everything. I'm one of those people who mourns the loss of philosophers who can write on topics as various as free will, time travel, truth in fiction, modality, and personal identity, de se statements, etc. In other words, I mourn the loss of generalists, in other words.

We are missing something when we don't have people who are generalists in the field, who are instead just grinding away on some little technical thing, like how to put every damned thing said in phil of language into the lambda calc.

For instance, I have conferenced on both free will and personal identity, which I think is a good thing! I am more of a generalist type, which by necessity leads a little to jack of all trades, master of none phenomenon, but still, shouldn't there be people like that in the field, so that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing? I feel like that kind of thinking is being discouraged these days in favor of overspecialization, and if you don't do that, well, you're an idiot, or irresponsible, or something gauche.

But I don't want to spend the rest of my career on names, or even necessarily on phil of language. I have interests in Kant, for instance, that I would like to pursue. And I would like to write up the stuff on personal identity, and perhaps on free will sometime, and get them published.

I also feel like writing the dissertation made my writing worse, due to having all this space to "sprawl" out in, and sprawl I did. Incoherence and stream of consciousness reigned! There is one part of it I like though, and that is the part I am working on now.

I just wasn't ready to write something book length. I didn't, and still don't, have the skills to make something that long a nice coherent piece of work. So I say down with the dissertation (mine was only 130 pages long anyhow)! Up with three related papers, which require you to be an expert on vast body of literature. Much better professional preparation, especially since we have to publish before we are even mature enough to have considered views on things (which obviously, I also have problems with).

Sorry that was obviously not just a comment, but a bit of a rant. But how do others feel about the trends in the field. Say, the techy trend in phil of lang for instance? I mean, I know that historically, things that used to be part of philosophy branched off and became their own sciences, but then once something becomes a science, they *tend* to stop asking the sorts of questions philosophers tend to ask -- like what exactly do you mean mr.linguist when you say that the sky is part of your domain? You know, things like that.

Anonymous said...

I can definitely relate. As soon as I defended my dissertation, my first thought was, "I can totally do this again. Give me a topic--any topic. I'll write another," and I felt motivated to do so. However, like you, the last thing I want to do now (several months later) is go back through my dissertation to mine it for publishable papers. Yet, I know that that's precisely what I should be doing--lots of asst. profs get a ton of mileage out of their dissertations when landing their first jobs. But me? I'm sick of the ideas in my dissertation, and want to write things anew, or spin a tangent from my diss into a paper.

And this mode continues. I've been writing papers for conferences and presenting them, based on my initial idea that knowing I'd have to present something would force me to write something for publication. Yet, it's not worked out like that at all. With each paper I present, I keep feeling like I need to start anew, and that my conclusion is really the heart of my paper; thus I feel the need to write a new one based on the conclusion. It really feels like I'm hot in pursuit of interesting philosophical ideas, but they're not manifesting themselves as publishable papers right now. (No, I haven't sent any of them off, but I don't think they're in good shape.)

Adding to this problem is my allergy to much contemporary scholarship that deals mainly with minutiae. I flat-out don't want to do those things, and so I know I'm being foolish: the big ideas got me into philosophy in the first place, and they're what I want to pursue. But there really seems to be little room for them in journals.

In other words: I hear you. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I'm curious whether anyone else thinks that a devotion to minutiae is more an M&E thing than an ethics things? I hear this worry raised with some frequency, but I just don't see it (that often) in ethics. It strikes me that people are not only writing on interesting and important topics, but that they are branching out from the central interests of the last couple hundred years. (I.e. more on topics that don't fit squarely into duty and clear-cut moral demands.) Obviously there is work on narrow technical topics in ethics as elsewhere, but I don't get the feeling that such work dominates the field.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Zero,

I've had the same experience. I also defended just a few weeks ago, and, without a current teaching post (I have a post-doc), I've had a hard time finding motivation to do quality work again. After completing a long dissertation where, like you, I constantly grew in my abilities, I'm finding it hard to write a short paper for a journal or working on a few editorial projects (even though between revisions I also had no such trouble). Instead, I've decided to read broadly again, going back to difficult but different texts from other fields and sub-fields. My hope is that reading in those areas will once again inspire me to do something that is grounded in something more than my provincial areas of specialization.

I also feel the need to gain some distance from the dissertation. While I plan to turn it into a book (it was written to do so), I still need some objective distance from it and some time to see how it might be adapted to a more readable version.

Like the previous poster, I really want to make sure that my next move makes a difference, and that process of gestation takes time and a lot of serious thought. I've spent the past two years writing a detailed analysis of one subject (which has general consequences, but still...), but, with the economy in shambles, friends unable to find work, the environment suffering, I think it would be quietist right now to revert to doing "l'philosophie pour l'philosophie." In addition to my teaching, it has to be directed to some problem that my specialization can treat in some way.

So maybe this is a predictable phase, both emotionally and pragmatically. In one sense, I'm tired. In another, I'm ready to embark on a new course (while still sublating the previous one), and that takes new inspiration, energy, and intellectual resources.

At any rate, I wish anyone who is at this interesting point the best of luck. And, for those who get jobs, we owe it to the rest to make the most of the opportunity we've been given.

Anonymous said...

I'm sympathetic - but, I regret not mining my dissertation more when the topic was fresh in my mind. Moving on to other topics before mining it for publications was, in my view, a serious mistake. So if I could go back and do it over, I'd hold my nose and polish it up for papers without delay! At least that is what my current self thinks about my past self. (At least, maybe - compromise - do some mining of the dissertation, and some new stuff...)

She blinded me with science said...

I can sympathize with the lack of inspiration pertaining to the specificity and depth of a dissertation after it has been defended. Almost immediately after I had defended mine, I cleaned up one of the more manageable chapters and got it accepted for publication in a journal. This was somewhat inspiring for a moment, but as I began to rework other chapters, present them as isolated pieces, etc., I began to think ahead to other problems that I felt were more interesting. Eventually I talked with my dissertation adviser about this, and he commented that my new work naturally sprang from the old. Unfortunately this did not allow me to capitalize on most chapters from the dissertation, but at least I am working on what I consider to be more worthy research now.

I am not sure of whether or not anyone else on here does work primarily in philosophy of science, which was the domain of my dissertation, but after having it completed (one foot was in philosophy at the time, while the other was in science), I began to gravitate even farther away from philosophy and deeper into the specific sciences. Now I find much of current philosophical discourse unbearable. I am still incredibly inspired by the classics of the discipline, but most of the work coming out today seems incredibly irrelevant and nit-picky. (Sidenote: I do think much of this has to do with the pressure to publish. There is very little coming out now that seems at all inspired.) I guess one could call it 'puzzle-jumping', wherein one hops, like a frog of sorts, from one puzzle to the next without any regard for relevance to actual problems. Don't get me wrong, science definitely has its share of puzzle-jumping, but there seems to be much more movement in the sciences in terms of getting things done, solving problems, and being recognized for one's accomplishments.

Okay, I had my own bit of a rant there, I suppose. My apologies.

zombie said...

I plan to mine my diss for papers -- I did it for my job search writing sample. I haven't defended yet, but that's supposed to happen soon.. ahem, helloooo? Committee?
I'm starting a postdoc in a few months where I will be expected to publish a lot, so I don't know how much time I'll have to continue working on diss-related stuff. But since I've had no less than three jobs at once the entire time I've been in grad school, I think having a single job might give me a little more leisure. I think I'll actually miss teaching, however. I like the school where I teach, and I like my students.

filosofer said...

Would folks be willing to share some (relatively detailed) stories about how they used their time between finishing the dissertation and defending the dissertation?

I'm about there, and I know myself well enough to suspect that I will be tempted to just set the thing aside and not look at it until a couple of days before the defense. Is that insanely stupid? Or is it a normal and healthy approach?

Anonymous said...

I don't want to be an enabler, but really, you've got to stop! You finished a dissertation, did all the prep to defend it, wrote a paper in the meantime, and then defended! Give yourself a freakin' break! Go to the zoo. Eat some good Chinese food. Read a novel. Go on a road trip. Set some time limit on it, but don't do any philosophy in the meantime. Send us all a postcard from somewhere worth visiting.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised more people haven't answered filosofer's question.

After finishing my dissertation, I sat down and watched television. Mounds of it. I rented dvd's for shows or seasons I hadn't seen (sopranos, the shield, the list goes on).

The defense went fine. I already had landed a job where my finishing the PhD was necessary for employment, and maybe that had something to do with it (what committee is going to fail you for your defense under those conditions?). Still, if your committee likes your dissertation, then the defense should be reasonably relaxed and nothing to worry about.

Alison said...

Ye gods, that last paragraph was nice to read! I'm currently writing a dissertation - only a few months in, in fact - and it's so good to hear that the process could produce more than just one discrete project (never mind the articles etc. that might come from it) - that is, that the experience itself actually promoted long-lasting and important scholarly development.

I hope I can say the same when I come out the other end...