Like all too many philosophy PhD students, I found completing my degree to be far more difficult than I ever imagined it would be. I entered graduate school with a stellar undergraduate record, received perfect grades during my two years in Syracuse's PhD program, and felt (like many grad students do) on the fast-track to career success. How wrong I was. I fell into a trap that anyone who has been in a philosophy PhD program has seen more than enough students fall into. I lost confidence, couldn't come up with a good dissertation idea for a few years, faded into the background of my grad program, and feared (not without justification) that I would never make it through.
I'm far from alone in this regard. Recent studies show that only about 50% of all humanities PhD students ever finish their degrees. Every philosophy PhD program I've ever heard of has struggling students--and I, for one, have seen plenty of capable, brilliant people fall into "grad traps" from which they never recovered (for a nice list of traps to try to avoid in grad school, see Daniel Silvermint's nice post here at Daily Nous). Some of these traps are avoidable, some plausibly aren't. Sometimes "life gets in the way" (one might lose confidence or struggle to develop a strong dissertation idea despite one's best efforts, etc.). And, while there are things I think programs could do to help students avoid these traps, it is probably inevitable that some students will fall into them anyway. Which raises the obvious question: if you're one of those who falls into a "grad trap"--if you're one of those who are losing hope of ever finishing your PhD--what can you do to recover?
I still marvel today at how I ever made it through. I was this close to never recovering from the grad traps I fell into. I say this only to note that however dire things may seem for you, I believe it is possible to climb out of whatever hole you're in and successfully finish your degree. The question is how. Although again I cannot offer a "magic bullet" for solving your problems, I believe that several things are generally very helpful:
- Tip #1-Engage, don't isolate: This sort of follows points I made in my previous post, but is worth belaboring anyway. In my experience, if there is one commonality among grad students who struggle or don't finish their degree, it is this: they isolate themselves, fading into the background of their grad department. Unfortunately, this is an all too natural coping strategy. When you're struggling, lacking confidence, have a dissertation going nowhere, etc., it is natural to want to avoid others--avoid your advisor, avoid your fellow grad students (who you are quite sure look at you with pity), etc. Yet although this is natural, I believe there is nothing worse that you can do than this. If you are struggling, then as painful as it may be to engage with others, you have to do it--and do it as much as possible. Attend colloquia. Set up or join a dissertation reading group, even if you have nothing. Set up meetings with your advisor, and ask for help. If your advisor is unhelpful, find some other faculty member who is willing to meet with you. Find a way to get involved and to get people (fellow students, faculty, etc.) interested in helping you. When I was nearing the end of my rope and had nothing with my dissertation, I finally did all of these things--and it worked. People not only helped me. Greater involvement motivated me to get things moving. When I actually saw the work others were doing, it lit a fire in me to get "unstuck" on things I was stuck on. And I've seen it work for others too. I wasn't the only grad student who pulled things out by getting involved. Every struggling grad student I've seen pull through did roughly the same thing...and those who kept themselves isolated continued to struggle.
- Tip #2-Read widely, out of your comfort zone: I've mentioned this before too, but I think it is also an underappreciated point among grad students that I received as a very unexpected piece of advice from a faculty-member in my program, and which worked wonders. Here, very roughly, was my situation (a situation I suspect struggling grad students know all too well). I had done my comp exams in moral philosophy, and intended to do my dissertation in that area. I also had a problem I was very interested in: motivational and normative internalism vs. externalism. And yet...although I had a problem I was interested in, I struggled to come up with anything remotely close to a good thesis idea (i.e. a good set of arguments that might lead to a good dissertation). What I did then was keep reading about the problem, I kept thinking about, I kept trying to write on it...and I kept getting nowhere. It was a dead-end, and yet I kept trying to ram through it. Why? Because it was "my area" and what I was interested in. Anyway, at one point--after a long time working on the problem and a scheduled dissertation prospectus that was cancelled the night before by my committee because my proposal stunk--I walked into a faculty mentor's office and asked, "What should I do now?" To which he said (and I paraphrase), "Read, and read widely. Read outside of your areas of focus." So, I did. I started reading all kinds of stuff, including all of Rawls' major works (again)...and I finally happened on a good dissertation idea. All it took was reading widely. Reading in a small number of areas minimizes the chances that you'll stumble on something great by accident. In contrast, reading widely maximizes the chance that you'll stumble onto something--and indeed, I suspect that my happening on a dissertation idea in an area outside of my main area of focus was partly the result of being a relative outsider to the area. As an outsider, one is liable to see certain issues with "fresh eyes" that people steeped in the literature and dialectic might be liable to miss!
- Tip #3-Wake up and write: I've mentioned this before too, but since I've seen it work with so many people I've known, I'll say it again. Write every weekday first thing in the morning, and make yourself draft some set number of pages (e.g. three pages) every morning without editing. Yes, yes, I know, you're an evening person. You "work best at night." Yeah, well so did I. Or I thought I did. Look, if you work so well in the evening, why isn't your dissertation getting done? Answer: because you only think you write well in the evening, and it's what you've always done. I know it. Why? Because I was you. :) Seriously, though, every single person I've passed on this advice to who has gotten back to me about it has said it worked for them--and there's some interesting empirical research on how people are actually more creative when they are tired (as I am first thing in the morning). Anyway, I know we're all different, but if you're struggling, try it. Write your 3 pages every morning without editing, move onto other stuff, enjoy your evenings, and wake up and do the same thing tomorrow. You just might--to your great surprise (as it was to me!)--find yourself a far happier, more productive person.
Anyway, these are just a few tips that, from my experience, can be incredibly helpful for recovering from grad traps. Anyone else have any tips they are willing to share? I bet there are more than a few grad students who could use the help! :)