Sunday, August 2, 2009

Past and present don't matter now that the future is sorted out

I'm back. And with the materials due to the placement committee soon, a long holiday over, personal bullshit sorted out, and another chapter waiting to be finished, 'soon-to-be jaded' became 'jaded' a lot quicker than I thought, or hoped, it would.

Self-reflection reenters the scene, and it's threatening to become this all over again. In fact, holy fuck, even if they don't have anything to do with philosophy in particular, the parallels to what prompted similar thoughts some six months ago to what's prompted this post are uncanny. So much so, I've begun to wonder if I squandered lessons learned and unrealized a most important realization:
[P]hilosophy isn’t always going to be there for you.
We've been here before. Not again. Even if it's well-established that honest self-reflection has a way of deteriorating quickly into renewed self-deception, it feels too soon.

Panic. It returns. And, it's directed directly at personal/philosophical progress. Shit.

But, the morning yips, I've found, dissipate more quickly. I'm not caught in the grasp of the earlier false picture. Motivation isn't the problem. It's that progress during the past few years of graduate school hasn't been quantifiable in the same way that the pack a day habit it has caused is.

Sure, in the past six months, chapters have been written, talks given, and, most importantly, confidence regained. But, it's a continual struggle to see any of that as getting me closer to where I want to be. Having to constantly remind myself that, yes, there's some chance, however slight, it'll all add up to allowing me to keep doing what I love, is a much less satisfying habit than the one that makes the first and last pull off a cigarette so enjoyable.

I will say, though, it's gotten easier. And, I'll keep doing it because despite feeling like I haven't made progress even in the face of the obvious progress I have made, I also know that I'm good at philosophy. It's different now because, to paraphrase a recent favorite band, I'm armed with the past, a will, and the belief that I can do this.

I just need to do what needs to be done to get a chance to prove it.

-- Jaded Dissertator


Matthew said...

Some perspective might help (I can't think of a way of saying that without sounding patronising or condescending: the comment isn't offered that way). As a fellow dissertator who has gone through all the same agonies, doubts, moments of elation, terror, panic, delirium, etc. I started reading up on all the positive psychology stuff that's got people so excited these days. (Caveat: as a philosopher I can't help notice that there are some contentious assumptions made in the literature and methodological flaws, but the general message seems safe to me.) One conclusion is that most people are as happy as they're ever going to be. Winning the lottery doesn't make you happier; losing the use of your legs doesn't make you any more miserable. At first, I thought this was a horrible conclusion. "You mean if I fail to get an academic career, I'll be as messed up as I am as a graduate student?" But then I realized that wasn't the conclusion to reach. Happiness isn't affected by many of the things people think will make them happy: dream job, dream house, dream bank balance. But some things do matter: we need a minimally healthy environment within which to live for one. And I firmly believe that for the vast majority of us, graduate student life is very far from psychologically healthy. So although I may judge that philosophy is a Good, I mustn't overestimate the extent to which participating in that good contributes to my day-to-day happiness. In fact, an objective take on my life would quickly reveal it to be deeply unhealthy. The overall effect has been to make me more placid. I love philosophy. But I know that if I ever have to leave academia and get another job, I'll be happy and most likely happier thanks to working in a better environment. (And I don't seriously entertain dreams of staying in touch with the subject: at most I know I'd get a couple of books a year from the OUP ctalogue and that's it.) Perhaps this all seems trite. It's helped me, though. It's easy to get sucked in and think that there's nothing better than being a philosopher. I cannot imagine an accountant making the same claim for their career and I don't honestly think there's much difference between the life of an accountant and that of a philosopher, at least insofar as the nature of the career affects one's happiness.

Rambling over.

Xenophon said...

Matthew is probably right, for Matthew. You might find that things are very different for you. Overall I loved grad school, especially the early years when I was part of a cohort and the last years when I was working on my dissertation. The middle period was hard because the tight community of the early years had broken up and I was still working on projects that other people found interesting, while I was ready to start working on my own program. That's just an illustration of another perspective: everyone's time through grad school is unique, and their view of what constitutes the good life for them is different too.

I think most people need something outside of grad school to make them whole: for a lot of people that means starting a family, I knew one person who adopted stray pets and nursed them back to health, for some it's religion, for me it was an extra job on the side where I could see progress on a daily basis.

Matthew seems content to walk away from academia; I wasn't, so I planned things so that I could keep one foot in the door. Yeah, I'm rambling too.

But as for the original post: this might be too late for JD, but you've absolutely got to view grad school as a marathon and not a sprint. If you're going to come out the other end, you've got to find a way to enjoy grad school rather than seeing it as a stepping stone to something else. It should be clear to current grad students that you're far from being guaranteed a professorial position when you're done. If you aren't willing to be an unemployed PhD, or a PhD outside the academy, then you'd better start working on the on alternate career now, while you're younger. Only keep going if the degree (and the knowledge it represents) will have value for you in its own right and not as a means to a further end.

T. S. Eliot said...

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.