This post is something of a follow-up to my recent post on Brian Leiter's discussion (and comment thread) regarding grad students and social media. As I explained in my earlier post, my experience has been that many grad students -- for one reason or another -- come to regard the discipline as a whole as a very hostile place: a place where one must always be careful to "avoid saying anything stupid." Now, I'm not entirely sure how common the meme is -- I've seen many confident grad students in my time -- nor am I sure what is responsible for it to the extent that it does exist (grad student anxiety?, professional advice?, etc.). What I do know, however, is this: (1) I have seen numerous grad students plainly affected it, (2) I was certainly affected by it, and finally, (3) the more I go along in my professional life, the more convinced I am that it is harmful. Let me explain.
Throughout most of graduate school -- and I take responsibility for this -- I was "scared to put myself out there." If I was having trouble with something, I tried to figure it out on my own. I didn't want to embarrass myself in front of people -- grad students, faculty, etc. -- who I feared might judge me. And I was by no means alone. Some grad students were confident and open. Those who weren't generally retreated into themselves -- usually, though not always, to bad results. Why? In my experience, grad students, for whatever reason, just tend to spread the meme, "Be careful what you say. You don't want to embarrass yourself."
My general experience -- both from personal experience but also watching others (some of whom have gone onto successful lives in academia and some of whom has not) -- is that this meme is harmful almost without fail. Learning how to be a good philosopher, and more than that a good professional -- a person who can navigate the publishing world, job market, etc. -- takes a lot of help. And if you don't ask for it, you won't get it. You'll kick and thrash trying to keep your head above water wondering why it is so darn hard.
But, in my experience, if this is the reality you face, the real problem is you -- or, at least, that meme you've been carrying around in your head "not to embarrass yourself." One of the things that I have found so amazing, both about my experience here at the Cocoon and in the profession more broadly, is just how many people are willing to help, if only you ask. Over the past year and a half, I have asked people -- people at all different levels in the discipine -- for advice on countless things, from questions about what to do and not to on the job market, to publishing questions, etc.. I've asked for people if they would be willing to give me feedback on my papers. And there have always been people there to lend a hand. And I've seen it happen to others too. You just have to ask. And -- or so I've seen -- the results of asking for help are tremendous. The help you do (or do not) receive from people can make all the difference in the world to your work, your dossier, your knowledge of the discipline, your ability to navigate it effectively (and comport yourself properly), and many other things besides.
Will you sometimes embarrass yourself by making mistakes? Yes. Will some people judge you for them? Probably. But, be that as it may, my experience over the past couple of years -- the more I put that "don't embarrass yourself" meme to rest -- is, overwhelmingly, that our discipline is full of kind, supportive, helpful people who are more than willing to lend a hand; people who will care about you and care that you flourish if only you are open to fearlessly putting yourself out there and express helpful goodwill in return. Every discipline, of course, has some mean, unforgiving people. There is, unfortunately, probably nothing that can ever been done about them -- nothing, perhaps, besides not living for them, or in fear of them. Live instead with an eye to the good-willed; those who are kind and willing to help. There are more of them than you might think.