I came across the following rather depressing comment in this discussion at Leiter reports today, and it got me wondering how many people--particularly grad students and early-career scholars--feel the same way:
I love the teaching aspect of the job, and I think I sometimes make a difference in students' general lives with regard to it (teaching them to ask new questions, think critically, quit acting like 'sheep'). But often this positive is greatly overshadowed by what is for me the biggest disappointment. As others mentioned above, we got into philosophy because we found the 'big questions' interesting. But once you enter "professional" philosophy, the research is all concerned with minutiae. And I know that theoretically the minutiae are supposed to be important building blocks of some big picture or other. But sometimes I honestly don't see how. And when I do see how, the 'big picture' ultimately isn't that important (in my opinion). In other words, I somehow struggle to see how my research really makes a true difference even if it is successful. As another commentator put it, it often doesn't seem like research is baking break (though I feel teaching sometimes is). AND even if I do come up with a great argument in my research, it probably won't change any minds of that mere handful of philosophers who might have happened to read my paper (how many philosophers at this stage are legitimately open to changing opinions); instead, it would just serve as a springboard for them to write an objection. And all for what? This makes me almost feel guilty spending time away from my family and hobbies in an office writing on minutiae that don't really matter and which will probably only be read by a handful of people anyway and which has almost no chance of changing their mind on a topic which ultimately doesn't matter. (BTW - I have tenure, so my motivation need no longer be dominated by a simple desire to stay employed.) And the frustrating part is that our prestige and professional accomplishment is judged mostly by how successful we are at this research and not by our teaching. It's a bit of a catch-22 for me. I want to be successful and prestigious; I don't want to be one of those who gets tenure and then checks out research-wise (and I haven't). But I feel guilty putting in the time for such research and prestige because of the considerations above. Despite what others say, I just can't convince myself deep down that the 'minutiae research' intended for a handful of readers (if you're lucky) is really as important as many of my colleagues claim it is. I realize that many will disagree (my colleagues do) and persist what they do is important. Perhaps, but I don't always see it. And many will say they do it simply because they enjoy it and that my problem is that I don't enjoy it enough. Fair enough. These are just the honest, inquiring reflections of someone who, despite a decent amount of professional success, struggles with these questions daily.
These kinds of sentiments seem to me to be becoming more common, even among some journal editors. However, I'm really curious whether these are just my (biased?) impressions, or whether it's a real trend, particularly among people just starting out in the discipline.
I'll tell you why I ask this. I sort of have a hypothesis about this. It seems to me that the ever-horrible job market has placed such pressure on grad programs to professionalize students that, instead of encouraging people to play with big, ridiculous, but potentially awesome ideas, the incentives are increasingly pushing people to publish small articles on small ideas--things that, for some people at least, suck much of the joy out of philosophy. Many of us, I think--just like the above commenter--got into philosophy because we loved Big Ideas...and yet, more and more, we find ourselves having to content ourselves with Small Ideas, so that we can Publish rather than Perish. Which, as the above commenter notes, seems kind of sad.
What is your experience? Do you share the above commenter's concerns, or not? Why?