I’ve been struggling a bit to come up with good post ideas this new year (I’ve had a lot of work on my plate, among other things), and so I’ve decided to go back to basics: to writing some of the kinds of posts that initially inspired this blog—posts that relate some of the experiences I’ve had in the discipline, and what I think I’ve learned from them. More specifically, I am going to write a series of “how to” posts on subjects ranging from publishing, to teaching, to the job market, etc. Before I begin, I’d like to discuss a few preliminary issues.
First, I’d like to emphasize that the advice I will give should be taken with a grain of salt. I don’t pretend to have a secret formula for success in philosophy. What I do have is a lot of experience—a lot of first-hand, second-hand, and third-hand information—and so I am just going to relate what I think I have learned from the experiences I’ve had. Second, some readers might ask: “Who are you to give advice on success? You’re not the most successful philosopher in the world. You’ve been out of grad school for several years, don’t have a tenure-track job, etc.” While I am proud of who I am as a professional, these concerns are well-taken. Although I’ve had some measures of success, I don’t pretend to be the most successful professional philosopher in the world. However, I actually think this puts me in a better position to give good advice, in some respects, than people have succeeded spectacularly. I’ve succeeded and failed in various ways throughout my career thus war, and so have experienced first-hand both what “works” and what doesn’t. With these points in mind, allow me to (finally!) address the topic in the title of this post.
Recent reports indicate that only about 50% of humanities PhD students actually complete their degree. And, of course, we all know by now that of those who do finish, only a relatively small proportion ever receive tenure-track jobs. A career in academic philosophy is rife with great risk. We all know that. But it is especially obvious how difficult many of these risks are to anticipate until one actually looks at grad programs. In each and every department I’ve ever been in or visited, there are extremely talented grad students who fall through the cracks—grad students who enter their programs plainly capable and with a great deal of promise, but who nevertheless struggle to complete their degree. This, in brief, is because so many hurdles in grad school are difficult to properly anticipate. Some grad students ace their coursework but struggle to develop a good dissertation idea. Some lose confidence for one reason or another. Some don’t get along with their faculty advisors. Some get sidetracked by personal or health issues. I could go on.
If someone were to ask me, “What is the single most important component to success in graduate school and beyond?”, I would struggle to give an answer. In my experience, all kinds of things are terribly important. Still, for all that, I think the above experiences that I (and many grad students) have experienced hint at an answer. Above all, one has to develop practical wisdom for dealing with unexpected challenges. Since so much of grad school and professional life—like life itself more generally—is so unexpected, the most important thing is not to be “brilliant” (I’ve seen a more than a few brilliant people flame out); the most important thing is to develop good strategies for (A) avoiding and (B) dealing effectively with the many kinds of unexpected problems that can arise in one’s career. How does one avoid losing confidence, and what should one do if one does lose it? How does one avoid trouble learning how to publish, and what should one do if one has trouble publishing? What’s the best way to avoid trouble coming up with a good dissertation idea, and what should one do if one does have trouble? Etc. In my experience, if you want to be at all successful in grad school and beyond, these are the kinds of questions you must answer, and answer well.
But of course this raises the next obvious question: what’s the best way to answer them? One might think that since they are all such different questions—dealing with such different, unexpected problems—there can be no single answer; that one must navigate each of them on their own terms as they arise. And of course there is probably some truth to this. There is nothing one can do to ensure that one resolves those problems effectively. Still, for all that, I’ve experienced—and witnessed—some commonalities among those who avoid and navigate problems well, as well as among those who don’t. Allow me to briefly share some of them.
In my experience, probably the single best way to avoid unexpected problems and handle them well when they arise is to develop positive mentorship relationships: relationships with people who are more experienced than you who can give you good advice and guidance. In a sense, this might seem so obvious as to go without saying—but, in my experience, so many people fail to heed it (indeed, for a time early in my career, I was among them). Indeed, when it comes to grad students in particular, my experience here has been more or less unequivocal: grad students who struggle or flame out tend to be those who retreat from their department and try to solve their problems on their own. They do so, in my experience, because it is only natural. When one is struggling, it is embarrassing. The last thing one wants to do is face one’s advisor, faculty members, or fellow students. I went down this road myself for a few years, and I can tell you—just as unequivocally—that it is the worst possible thing you can do. There is, I believe, this perennial myth among grad students (some of them at least) that success is primarily a matter of how philosophically brilliant you are. In my experience, nothing is further from the truth. I’ve seen many brilliant minds never make, and less-than-brilliant minds succeed spectacularly—and in just about every case the story is the same: (1) the successful ones engaged in their department, forging and developing sound mentorship relationship even when they were struggling, and (2) the unsuccessful ones did the opposite, retreating away from their department and trying to make it and resolve their challenges more or less alone. Again, I personally experienced both sides of this coin first-hand. In graduate school, when I ran into problems (particularly at the dissertation stage), I retreated for a couple of years. They easily were the worst years of my life. I had always been successful, and there I was: I was one of the grad students I never thought I would be. I came this close to flaming out. And there was only one thing that saved me. I finally swallowed my pride, walked into my advisor’s office, and the offices of other faculty, and just asked for help—and I began engaging more with them and with other grad students (I joined a dissertation group even though I basically had nothing). Although until that point I had basically been so embarrassed and scared out of my mind to show any kind of vulnerability to faculty in my department, much to my surprise just about everyone I approached was willing to help. Of course, they didn’t solve my problems for me. They didn’t develop my dissertation idea, or write my papers for my or anything—but they gave me invaluable guidance, simply because I humbly walked into their offices and asked.
Engaging with people, developing good relationships, and asking for help have never failed for me ever since. Whenever I have faced a problem (how to publish?, how to teach?, etc.), other people have shown me the way. All I had to do was approach people and ask. And I’ve found that the approach has some other nice effects as well: engaging with people, developing good relationships, etc., makes for a much better life in the profession all around. It can lead to genuine friendships, among other things—something which, the longer I’ve gone on in this profession, I’ve found to be a larger and larger part of a good and happy life. How nice it is, these days, to catch up with old friends at conferences, to share stories, to share successes and failures, and to help one another, I can hardly express.
So, that’s it then. My experience—first-hand, second-hand, and third-hand—has been that successful philosophers tend to develop strong relationships with others, even when doing so is uncomfortable—relationships that help them avoid problems and navigate them successfully when they arise. That, I guess, and resilience: a refusal to give up, strength of will to wake up every morning and write, etc. But again, I do not think resilience alone is enough. It takes the right kind of resilience: the kind of resilience that drives one to do what, for all too many struggling grad students, seems so embarrassing and awful—engaging with others rather than avoiding them.
Finally, though, there’s one more difficult issue here. When I reached out for help, I had the fortunate experience of finding people who were kind and willing to help. But not all are like that, right? Some faculty and fellow students may be unkind, unsupportive, etc. What then? To which I say: find and engage with the kind, supportive ones. They are out there.