Monday, August 31, 2009

Advice for first years

I generally have two bits of advice that I try to give to all the first years who come through the program. It's obvious stuff really, but I still think it's worth saying.

1. Make a good faith effort to complete assignments on time, but don't be scared to ask for extensions. Don't drag assignments out longer than they need to be. When the next semester starts, it's time to start on the next semester. That said, if a week or two will really make the difference as to whether your paper's worth reading, most professors would rather read something worthwhile later instead of crap by the deadline. Grad school's not undergrad. You shouldn't just try to get by. Note: in every department there are exceptions to the rule, ask your fellow grad students to find out who the exceptions are. Which leads me to..

2. During the first semester of graduate school, I really think it's important to take time to socialize, particularly with the people in your class and the class above you. You're going to be dealing with these people for 6ish years of your life, and we've got to live a little to in grad school.. right? Investing a little time up front to build relationships helps to make the whole experience better. Plus, if I'm right you've got the perfect excuse to hit up happy hour after seminars.

Any other sage words of wisdom for the newcomers?

-- Second Suitor


Anonymous said...

To be honest, I think that I'd say the opposite to both of these.

1. Hand shit in. Stop taking incompletes. Nothing screws up your ability to make progress in a program more than incompletes. Also, for the most part, the profs really don't care much about course papers (this is coming from someone who was in a top "Lieterific" program). In my experience, intelligent comments in class will get you much further. This is not to say that you should turn in crap, but the more time you take, the better it needs to be to make yourself stand out.

2. Socialize if you want to but don't let it get in the way of getting work done. The problem with most graduate students is that they don't look at going to graduate school as their first steps into the world of academia. You should start doing "professional" things ASAP--conferences, working on publications, etc.

Anonymous said...

I, too, would dissent a bit. I made the mistake of thinking my grad school peers might well become friends. I learned the hard way that they were colleagues. After the casual blending of social and academic life during my undergrad years, I assumed the same would apply in grad school. Far from it. All of the friends I made in grad school (now post-PhD) were from other programs. While I'm sure not everyone will experience the same competitive spirit I found in grad school, it is important to not be naive.

That said, I might add that the competitive spirit did help us all keep on our philosophical toes -- not a bad thing during one's apprenticeship.

My advice would be to be collegial (go to the pub after seminars), but make sure you have local friends outside of grad school!

Mr. Zero said...

I had a pretty different experience from that of anon 5:55. I learned a lot from the more senior grad students in my program. Although we were in some sense competing with one another (for cushier TA jobs, funding, awards, ect) the culture of the department was not "competitive." I continue to maintain close friendships with them.

I didn't go out very much during my first year or two, though. I was broke as a joke. One piece of advice I'd give: get used to being broke.

I also agree with SS about the first point: try to get shit in on time, but ask for an extension if you need to. I don't think the point was, "take a shitload of incompletes." You want to cultivate a reputation as a reliable person, but sometimes shit happens. In the event of shit, ask for an extension.

Anonymous said...

I spent my first years not only socializing (not too little and not too much, I think), which I don't regret at all, but also taking advantage of living in a major city and being at a major research University for the first time in my life. I went to talks in other departments, to movies, to readings, to concerts, etc., and all while some of my peers were sitting in the dept. library preparing more fully for class meetings than I ever did. The culture kept me in good spirits, I think, and the faculty never seemed disappointed in my work. But looking back now, I think I missed a once-in-a-career opportunity to really get a very broad education in the discipline. I have to teach a pretty broad range of courses now, and I think it'd be a lot easier if I'd devoted myself more to my grad classes during those first years.

Anonymous said...

I think the most important thing, at least for me, was developing a sense of personal identity in one's work. You should immediately start thinking about potential supervisors and start thinking about just what it is you want to do with your philosophical career. Once you've done that, don't dwell on courses that do not fit your needs. You should do your work, but don't spend countless hours on papers not related to your interests.

In other words, if you're an epistemologist, don't take a 6 month incomplete on that aesthetics and philosophy of religion paper. Turn that shit in and develop those epistemology papers for conference.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

In terms of the incomplete/extension bit... try to get a feel for the department norms. At some points I got the distinct impression that we were supposed to take longer -- and an on-time paper couldn't be your best effort.

I do think the advice about not dragging incomplete grades into future semesters is excellent!! Find out if there is an automatic extension period and aim to make that deadline.

Anonymous said...

With respect to handing shit in, I have to agree with a number of posts. All things being equal, get shit in. The best first-year advice I received was from a very productive fellow grad student who was a few years ahead of me in my program, and, importantly, the one student I truly wanted to be like. The advice was that every course was not going to be among *the* courses fir me, for whatever reason, so get that shit done efficiently and be done with it. ('Efficiently" here does not mean not caring at all or doing shoddy work. It means working smartly, but without investing every fiber of your being.) The courses that would prove to be *the* courses for me would "speak for themselves": the papers would happen, be engrossing, and getting any other stuff done efficiently would free up time to get these papers done pretty much on time. This advice worked out for me. I didn't get hung up on some stuff, and anything I did get hung up on was important to me and I was always able to push through.

I was a complete over-achiever type, and in grad school discovered that an A- was not the end of the world. I almost died when a got one B+, but the truth is that no one, I mean no one, has ever given a shit about it. The truth also is that nobody has ever cared about any of my A+'s on my grad. transcript either. In my experience, my transcript has meant practically nothing. It never came up at job interviews, and did not land me the job I landed. My honors on my dissertation has more prominence, and much more personal meaning to me. It took me a long time to recognize that in grad school the transcript thing was over. Objective measures of achievement had changed, and I needed to stop being an undergrad about it.

In my grad school, we did socialize a lot when starting in the program. There seemed to be nothing wrong with it in moderation. The same grad student whom I admired, tipped me off to what turned out to be a good clue about this, though. Students who were ABD and were still always found socializing all the time tended on the whole to be done for. My friend had a theory about "conversational compensation" going on, something to the effect of how better it feels to at least be talking about what you should be writing about, something like that. My observations seemed to confirm this off-the-cuff "theory." I didn't end up being one of these people. It worked out well for me. YMMV.

Anonymous said...

I would add one more thing... think about becoming an electrician. In the same amount of time it takes to get a Ph.D, one could become a master electrician and make way more money than the average (full) professor, be one's own boss, and exercise the virtue of techne.

By this I mean -- we all know the job market sucks, and many philosophy PhD's end up doing other things anyway. If you could see yourself doing something other than teaching philosophy, think about doing it now, or after the masters is awarded, not in your mid/late thirties.

Asstro said...

I gave this advice to one of my undergrads, just before he moved on to a very nice PhD program: above all else (a) he should not be afraid to say things, no matter how stupid he thinks they sound, and (b) he should not, under any circumstances, date someone in his department. Ideally, he shouldn't date an academic. That student has since been in his graduate program for a few years now, and he tells me that my advice was the best anyone had given him.

So, here are the same snippets of advice, with a bit more reasoning: (a) your senior peers are not as smart as you think they are. It's intimidating being in philosophy grad school, but the only thing the older students have over you is that they've read a little more. We (your professors) expect that our incoming students will be less well-read than the advanced students. Your first year is your year to be confused. Ask questions now. Ask us, or your colleagues, if you don't understand. It makes everyone's life easier. The professors benefit from this. The advanced students benefit from this. And you benefit from this.

(b) You invite a truckload of misery if you date another philosopher. That's not to say that philosophers don't make great life partners, only that before you know it, you'll be asked to solve the two-body problem.... and that, dear readers, is a nightmare. Plus, if you ever break-up? Bad. Very bad. Departments are generally pretty small. Loyalties run deep. You will be miserable. Don't do it.

Anonymous said...

I now have a pretty decent job and career as a philosopher. I'm in my mid-30s, I love philosophy and cherish the freedom that I have as an academic. However, grad school was difficult for me. I'm from a working class background and had a very hard time with the social bullshit in my program. In my first year I got the impression that I would need to explore other options.

So I spent my grad school summers working in construction on Cape Cod and in the Boston suburbs where I developed some decent skills in carpentry, roofing and related things. Knowing that I'd be able to support myself no matter what happened in my philosophical work was a great consolation - especially while I was on the market.

I like the suggestion that you consider becoming an electrician. However the road to becoming a journeyman electrician in most states is long (minimum of three years in all)and certainly is not easy. If, for example, you didn't do well in baby logic, or in algebra/geometry, you're unlikely to become a very good electrician.

However, if you have a bit of extra cash and are smart enough, there are community college/technical school courses that will help you get the necessary training and certification. Once you get it, the money is amazing and you can live wherever you like. I'd say that a pretty good journeyman electrician can be making 70k without too much trouble in most parts of the country. If you're dumb, then consider becoming a plumber.

Anonymous said...

I think socializing is good in the first couple of years, but it naturally tends to trail off in your third+ years.

There are two main pieces of advice I would give: (1) Be narrow in your course selection. If you know you want to do epistemology, take as many courses as you can in epistemology--don't try to get a broad education in philosophy (except to the extent you need to satisfy your course requirements). The learning you get at the lower depths of a subfield is much better than the learning you get at the shallows of a wide variety of subfields. (2) On your dissertation, work on a topic that can easily be categorized. One of my problems in the job market was that, because I worked on Kant's ethics, people didn't know whether to categorize me as an ethicist, a Kant scholar, or as a historian of philosophy (as it turns out, Kant scholars are people who work on the first Critique, not on the second or third). And because they didn't know where to categorize me, they often decided their work would be better spent on focusing on other candidates. At least, this is what I was told, perhaps to cushion my feelings.

Anonymous said...

You really ought to start a thread around this article:

I'd be interested to see how people here react.

Anonymous said...

I have to second Asstro's first bit of advice. Don't be afraid of seeming stupid. The other graduate students around you aren't nearly as erudite as they appear. I got this advice my second year of graduate school and it made a big difference.

I took my doctorate from a very collegial department and my friends and associations were what made graduate school bearable. However, institutional cultures differ; one must adjust.

I also noticed that grad students who had at least a few years on those coming directly from their undergraduate institutions were typically better equipped to handle themselves. They weren't easily intimidated. They had firmer sense of self and their well-being wasn't as directly tied to their identity as an academic. In general, they cut through bullshit more easily. The conclusion I would draw is that undergraduate students should not feel any urgency to go directly to graduate school.

Anonymous said...

judging from just about every other post on this blog, the best advice seems to be drop out and get a productive job while you still can.

CTS said...

I have to say that this worried me: if a week or two will really make the difference as to whether your paper's worth reading, most professors would rather read something worthwhile later instead of crap by the deadline.

Of course, departmental cultures do vary. That said, I cannot think of many [if any] professors who think that a student who needs a week or two extra to do what s/he thinks of as good work deserves as much consideration as students who do good work and get the paper in on time.

When a student comes to me and says 'I need more time so I can do a better paper,' I usually respond, 'I'm sure everyone else in the class thinks the same about themselves.'

As to this: Be narrow in your course selection, I counsel a large grain of salt.
Most of the jobs in our discipline will require you to be flexible as a teacher and as a researcher. In fact, most faculty who might be on a search committee will really not be interested in you if all you can talk about is one subfield.
Of course, you should try to be an expert in your area, but you also need to be a philosopher, in general.
In fact, very few SCs are going to rely entirely on your course work to figure out if you are an expert in your field. 'Has this person any interest in anything or know anything about philosophy other than Q?' is a much more common question based on a grad course list than 'Why didn't this person take more courses in Q?'

Anonymous said...

I just want to second CTS's last paragraph. Breadth is important to most search committees. I myself think that it is important to being a good philosopher, but I won't try to make the argument here.