I received the following reader question by email today:
I am a regular reader of your blog and was hoping to receive some feedback on a rather simple, yet opaque question. What do philosophers mean when they talk about 'work?' Here is the context. I am a graduate student. It is common to hear my professors and fellow students talk about 'work,' but what do we really mean? Does work in philosophy involve something like you have described on your website: getting up early, making sure I have my 3-5 pages typed before I head out to teach or hold office hours or do my afternoon reading? I know this is quite vague, but I do find 'work' to be a curious place name for what I find myself doing as a graduate student. None of this is to say that I do not treat philosophy like work. This was a piece of advice I was given as an undergraduate by many professors. Treat graduate study like a job. Work an 8 hr day, give yourself the nights off and weekends if you can, but remain committed to 'getting stuff done' during the day. I guess my question revolves more around what 'getting stuff done' looks like. My concern is that sometimes I do not begin the day in the correct head space. Lets say I'm sitting in the library or at my desk in my apartment, reading a little bit of this and that, taking notes, brainstorming ideas for chapters, etc. I often find myself wondering during these days, is this work? And what are the others doing? Are they more committed than I am? Are they exercising different strategies that lead to greater feelings of productivity? What are the 'workers' doing? This question takes on a much clearer meaning if one talks about it in the context of teaching and other academic obligations that have a family resemblance to what work has been historically defined as. But when you are in my position, with full years ahead in which your only obligation is to get the damn dissertation down on paper and to do the research, that sort of openness can seem awfully hard to fill with very productive hours that can leave you at the end of the day feeling like: I worked today. I think I'll end there for fear of drifting even further into vagueness. Hopefully you understand what I'm asking and what I am grappling with. Perhaps you could post the question on your blog in clearer fashion than what I have given you here.
I wonder what you all think. Here are my thoughts. I'd like to thank this reader, first of all, for raising the issue. As you'll see momentarily, I think it is very important issue, and one we haven't discussed before. That being said, I'm going to state my thoughts about the issue very bluntly, because frankly, I feel very strongly about it. I've seen people go off the rails, and I've gone off the rails myself...and it almost always begins the same way: by defining "work" loosely.
My experience is that defining "work" loosely is one of the most damaging traps that some grad students fall into, and one of (if not the) biggest single reason for not finishing the PhD. Here's why. A familiar story:
Grad student finishes comps. Grad student decides "reading" is work. Grad student decides a little bit of writing here and there is work. 2 years go by. No dissertation prospectus. No publishable papers. No serious philosophy written or produced during all of that time. Hopelessness. Despair. Loss of confidence. More hopelessness. More despair.
I've not only seen this happen to many people -- I've lived it. I am not making a conceptual claim about what is work and what isn't. What I'm saying is this: having a loose definition of "getting work done" is psychologically destructive. It is a vice. Don't fall into it. If you consider "reading" work, you'll probably end up like I did in graduate school: "reading" for two years and getting nothing done. Alternatively, you might end up even worse off, like some other people I know: never finishing grad school.
Don't define "work" loosely. You need to write -- and write seriously -- every single weekday (I give myself weekends off). The sooner you develop the habit of forcing yourself to do this, no matter whether you think you are in "the correct headspace", the better off you'll be. I woke up today feeling like crap. But I forced myself to start writing at nine in the morning and wrote for three hours straight. Did I do my best work today? No. But I did serious work. I know this might sound hard, unreasonable, whatever -- but I will tell you this: you don't want to go down the road I did, and others I know did, in grad school. Defining "work" loosely is a recipe for disaster and misery.
One final thought (since the reader's email immediately brought this to mind): if you tend not to find yourself "in the right headspace", it may be because you're working the wrong environment. The reader who emailed my their question alludes to working in their office or apartment. I've explained before how, in my experience, the right environment makes all the difference in the world. I can't get in the "right headspace" in my office or in my apartment. I can only write at the dog park. Strange, but true. If you're having trouble, try writing someplace else. Just a thought!
Anyway, I'm curious to see what other people think. Obviously, my reply to the reader's question contains some strong emotions. It's not because I want to castigate those who define work loosely. It's because I've seen how easy it is to fall into certain habits, and how those habits have negatively impacted not only me but other people I care about. I worded my reply strongly only because I'd like, if possible, to help people avoid unnecessary misery. I hope my reply is taken that way. :)