I had a professor in graduate school who was known for telling grad students that the moment philosophy begins to feel more like a job than something you love, you shouldn't do it anymore. I respectfully disagree. I fell out of love with philosophy twice I think, and I couldn't be happier that I stuck with it through thick and thin. Philosophy, for me at least, has been a lot like a marriage. There are times it is very, very hard -- times you want to give up: but if there's any realistic chance of better times, you should stick to your commitment. At the very least, I'm glad I did. I love what I do. I can't wait to wake up in the morning to tackle philosophical problems.
Please bear with me as I tell two "tales of woe" (I mean this merely as a cute turn-of-phrase; I fully recognize there is a vast number of people in the world who have far worse lives than I). I will then say a few things that I think I learned from the experience that may be relevant to readers, and make a few friendly suggestions to graduate departments, hiring departments, and job seekers.
First tale of woe and redemption: My love for philosophy waned not long after I arrived at the University of Arizona's PhD program from Syracuse (where I'd transferred from). It was nothing about the department at Arizona. Rather, a bunch of things transpired in my own life, creating a "perfect storm" for disillusionment. When I arrived at Arizona, I had just ended a five-year personal relationship. I was, unsurprisingly, devastated and insecure. I also had trouble focusing on my studies. Consequently, I didn't produce great work. That, in turn, led me to feel more insecure (philosophically). And, just like that, I had no confidence. What had always come to me as an undergraduate and my first two years at Syracuse -- the capacity for good ideas -- seemed to have left me. And so, while I didn't tank my classes, I didn't exactly impress. Things started to look up after I passed my comps, but because I'd been rather distracted on average (and lacking love for what I was doing), I'd never thought much about a dissertation. I then strugged for about three years (!) to come up with a suitable topic, spending too much time playing music rather than philosophizing. I came up with one really bad diss topic at one point -- one so bad that my committee cancelled my prospectus the night before. Finally, thanks to some sage advice from Mark Timmons (see my earlier post on advice for struggling ABDs) and the unwavering support of my supervisor, Tom Christiano -- not to mention a new department member (Jerry Gaus) who I felt I could start at step 1 with -- I finally came up with a good topic. A bit surprisingly, I still didn't love philosophy. After all, although I had a good topic, I still had little confidence that I could actually do good work. What happened next, I'm not quite sure. I still don't really know how I got from there to here (where I am now). I know it involved a lot of time and hard work Then, at some point, I started to love philosophy again.
Lessons learned: a lot of stuff can happen in graduate school that can affect how people perform -- failed relationships, insecurities, etc. Such things can cause good and talented people to fizzle out. I'm still not quite sure how I survived, but I'm pretty sure not giving up had a lot to with it; that and faculty members who supported me through thick and thin (see below).
A few friendly suggestions to graduate departments: my impression is that grad students feel deterred (rightly or wrongly) from openly discussing their situation with faculty. They think it is a "no-no" to let anyone know they are not enjoying philosophy or dealing with personal issues. Because failing out of grad school can be disastrous for people (i.e. 7-10 years of time), it might be a good idea for departments to (A) encourage grad students to be forthright about their situations, (B) make it known that it is common for difficult personal and professional situations (and insecurities) to arise in graduate school, and (C) actively engage with grad students to help them solve their problems. I realize that this might sound like a lot of "parenting" (too much so?), but again, I only mean them as suggestions. They are, at any rate, things I intend to emphasize if/when I become a faculty member in a graduate department.
Second tale of woe and redemption: my first year out on the job market I got a VAP at the University of British Columbia (a very supportive department, by the way -- I am still very thankful to them!). I had no publications, and had little clue how to get them. I toiled away day and night on papers that were going nowhere. And although I had a great deal of teaching experience at Arizona, I felt utterly unprepared for the demands of teaching multiple courses on my own. Finally, I got a publication, and moved to the University of Tampa (where I now am). After arriving at UT, my wife and I dealt with intolerable living conditions (an apartment building with irresponsible, immoral landlords, paper-thin walls, and tenants who partied all night long and at 6 in the morning). I lost the ability to sleep, and often taught after not sleeping for three days straight. No joke (chronic insomnia runs in my family). Consequently, I taught poorly, stressed about it, and slept even less. On top of that, I only had one paper that I thought was anywhere close to publishable, and it had been rejected by about 8 journals (an aside: that paper, "Nonideal Justice as Nonideal Fairness", is still bouncing around. Any constructive comments would be much appreciated!). I was utterly miserable, a miserable husband to be around, and gave passing thoughts to leaving the academy. But I didn't. Somehow, a couple of years later, I've published stuff and feel pretty good about life. How?
Lessons learned: I found that the more I cared about success and failure, the more miserable I was. Instead, I forced myself to stop caring about these things and just tried to enjoy doing philosophy for its own sake. I wrote papers I liked, the way I wanted to write them, without worrynig whether they were "good enough." Because I actually started enjoying what I was doing, my production soared. I wrote ten papers one year. Some of them were crap. But I published five of them. No, I didn't publish any of them in top journals -- and frankly, I don't really care about that. I discovered, at least for me, that it's more important to do work I believe in than do work that appears in Phil Review. Yes, of course would be great if I did both. I would love to publish in Phil Review. My point is simply this: I found that the less I cared about this (or at least the less I thought about it), the more I enjoyed philosophy, the more I did work I am proud of, and the more I got done. My suggestion, then, is that if you find yourself in a similar spot (frustrated and worrying yourself sick about perishing rather than publishing), give this little trick a shot: do philosophy for its own sake. Write things you believe in and enjoy yourself doing it. Leave the worrying for later. Hey, if you're miserable, it's at least worth a shot, no?
Pharmacological Lessons Learned: if there is anyone out there who suffers from insomnia, Remeron (generic: Mirtazapine) is a live-saver. Severe insomnia runs on my mother's side of the family. None of us can sleep naturally. We had tried every traditional sleep medication (i.e. those marketed aggressively by pharmaceutical companies): Lunesta, Ambien, etc. None of them worked (even when they get you to sleep, you don't get REM sleep, and you wake up tired). My mother did research on her own and insisted to her doctor to try Remeron. Remeron is one of the most widely prescribed anti-depressants in Europe, but is almost never prescribed in the US (you got it, because its patent ran out!). It knocks me out like a baby, and I wake up fully refreshed. It does have one rather annoying side-effect (weight gain), but that can be managed, and it has another wonderful side-effect: increased short-term memory (it has this effect in animalss and humans). No kidding: I think it made me smarter (I wrote 2 papers in two years before I started taking it; I've written about 15 papers in the year-and-a-half since). Anyway, I hope this helps someone find sleep!
A friendly suggestion for hiring departments: I've been very lucky to have supportive colleagues and a supportive administration. Being an early-career faculty member is very difficult. Good colleagues are live-savers.
One final suggestion (for job-seekers): maybe it's not important to find a job at all costs. Remember, you don't just want a job. You want to be somewhere supportive -- somewhere you can flourish. If you remember this in interviews (you are interviewing them too!), you might not be so nervous about how you perform (do you really want to be a member of the department whose members grilled you like a flank steak?;)