As I explained in my first post in this series, this series aims to investigate:
- Some of the tensions that exist between academic philosophy and living a good life.
- Things we can do, both as individuals and as a discipline, to address those tensions.
This series was inspired by several things: Helen's excellent post asking how academic philosophy's competitive environment "affects our moral lives", my own experiences struggling with well-being and happiness as an academic, and my sense--which I get from numerous sources, both online and from other academics I know personally--that such struggles are quite common. For a good part of my life as an academic, I sort of thought that some of the struggles I encountered were "just me." Of course, I knew others who faced serious struggles in academia--fellow students who felt anxious and/or lost at the dissertation stage, on the job market, etc. Still, I guess I sort of conceived myself as an outlier: as someone who is preternaturally hard on myself, "never feeling good" enough as a philosopher, teacher, etc. Yet, the longer I've been in the academic game, the more it seems to me that this particular challenge to well-being--not to mention many others besides--is relatively ubiquitous. Time and again, I have seen academia turn otherwise happy-go-lucky people into people suffering from habitual anxiety, self-doubt, etc. Why? Because, at least in my experience, much of the academic game is designed to evoke such feelings. Our papers are rejected from journals 90% of the time. Referees continually point out our work's shortcomings. If we are lucky to publish work and have people engage with it, chances are our every error will be revealed! And, of course, we have to compete on a brutal job-market, meet standards for tenure, etc. It is predictably hard to ever feel "good enough" in a system where, frankly, one is (almost?) never good enough!
But I am getting ahead of myself. My hope in this series is to investigate different tensions between academic philosophy and living a good life--tensions that arise in grad school, tensions that arise on the job-market, tensions that arise when it comes to research and teaching specifically, and so on--and then examine, together, how to best grapple with those tensions. So, I would like to begin today by examining tensions between academic philosophy and the good life that arise in graduate school. In what follows, I will simply lay out some tensions that I've witnessed--some of which I have experienced first-hand, others of which I have experience with second- and third-hand--and then ask you all to chime in with your own thoughts (including tensions that I may have left out!). Then, in my next post, I will ask for your help in examining how we--as individuals and as a discipline--can best grapple with these tensions. Then we will move on to post-grads-school tensions, and move on from them. That, at any rate, is my hope!
Okay, then, here goes. Here is a short, initial list of some tensions between academic philosophy and the good life that I have seen/heard arise in grad school:
- Peer competition: In my experience, a little "healthy competition" can be a good thing. Grad students sometimes want to impress each other, and in some cases--at least for some people, in certain kinds of environments--this can arguably be a positive thing, bringing out the best in people. But, I have also seen it become a negative thing, and have heard of environments in which it brought out the bad in people. On the one hand, I have seen comparisons to others consume people (viz. "I hate so-and-so. Everyone thinks they are so awesome."). On the other hand, I have heard of places (i.e. grad programs) where comparisons to others are said to dominate the department's culture. Both of which seem to me to be in tension--for some of us, at least--with living a good life. The more one compares oneself to others, the more anxious and self-critical one may become--especially, in certain circumstances. Which brings me to my next several items,
- Department culture: Grad students and faculty, like all human beings, come in many forms. Some are kind and supportive. Others not so much. And different departments can have very different mixes of both, resulting in different department cultures. In some departments (and/or with some faculty members), students are encouraged to say "dumb" things, and not worry about making mistakes--so that they can learn from their mistakes. In other departments, student. In other departments (and/or with other faculty), students are deterred from saying "dumb" things, and encouraged, rather, to always be on guard, under the assumption that they are always being judged for every word that comes out of their mouth. Not only that: different types of students can respond very differently to these different cultures. Some may thrive in intensely competitive environments (or so I've been told), whereas others may wilt.
- Departmental inequities: Like all social milieu, graduate departments can contain many inequities--with people treated inequitably on many different possible bases, including race, gender, social class, personality traits, etc. I have known people who did not feel supported (and/or equally supported) in their program on such grounds, and can attest, at least second-hand, to how such treatment negatively affected them.
- Falling behind: It is often said that nothing is certain in this world aside from death and taxes. Apparently, these people have never been grad students! For another certainty--as far as I can tell--is that some grad students inevitably "fall behind." Some take longer than others to finish comprehensive exams (indeed, some have to take them more than once). Some take longer to publish. Some take longer to come up with a decent dissertation prospectus. Etc. I was one of these students--on several of these measures. And, I can say from experience that it was hard to deal with. As an undergraduate and in my graduate coursework, I had always been accustomed to progressing at the same rate as others. Until I didn't. I got a couple of revise-and-resubmits at a few well-ranked journals during my graduate coursework, and screwed up both of them. Then I saw my friends start to publish, while I kept failing. And I couldn't come up with a good dissertation idea.
- Feeling lost: Some grad students fall behind. Others, however, find themselves feeling "lost." In my experience, this often happens during the dissertation stage. Some grad students transition cleanly from coursework, to exams, to proposing, completing, and successfully defending their dissertations. Yet, a significant proportion of students go through periods where they feel like they have "no idea what they are doing." Once again, I should know. I was one of them, and know a good number of other people who went though it too--people who felt sort of at the end of their rope, not knowing if they would ever finish their graduate degree, often (though not always) at the dissertation stage, feeling completely unable to come up with a viable dissertation topic.
- Publish or perish: If I recall correctly, when I started graduate school, grad students rarely published. However, things changed very quickly while I was in grad school, and nowadays a good publication record is a prerequisite to competing well on the job-market. Yet, learning how to publish is stressful indeed. Until one actually publishes, publications may seem like unicorns--things that you might have in some possible world, but never in this one. Chances are you will send out papers to journals and get rejected over and over again--and stress yourself out because you know you need those publications to have a chance in today's academic job-market.
- Losing joy for philosophy: A few commenters on the Cocoon have recently remarked about how the competitiveness of professional philosophy has undermined, or at least challenged their ability, to enjoy philosophy (or at least envisioned enjoying philosophy before becoming an academic). As I explained several years ago when I first started this blog, this too happened to me. For a few years during grad school, I lost my joy for my work--not because there was anything wrong with my program, but (in all honesty) because I was having trouble adjusting to academic philosophy as an occupation. In my experience, this phenomenon is not exclusive to academia. I have heard people in other occupations say that doing something they love(d) as a full-time job (e.g. music, writing fiction, etc) sapped the joy out of it for them, precisely because doing something for a living involves all kinds of professional things that one can experience as diametrically opposed to one's desire to do the thing "for its own sake."
- The narrowing of one's life: Another related thing I experienced as a grad student was a feeling that my life was "narrowing" in a way that I found in tension with "living a good life." All throughout my life, I had taken joy in being a well-rounded person. I always enjoyed many things: playing sports, playing and recording music, and yes, philosophy! Yet, as time went on, it seemed to me that in order to become really good at philosophy--good enough, at least, to have a viable professional career--I had to sacrifice those parts of my life, and instead develop a single-minded focus on philosophy. While I had always enjoyed philosophy, this too was difficult to square with my conception of a good life. I felt like I should keep doing those other things (sports, music, etc.), but, to the extent that I did, I experienced them as impediments to becoming a "competitive philosopher" (i.e. one capable of having a viable professional career). On the other hand, to the extent that I sacrificed those other parts of my life--which I have increasingly done as my career has gone along--I experienced my life as problematically narrowed: as having lost many of the parts of my life that I enjoyed.
- Mental health: There have been studies and articles written on mental health and graduate school, and the facts are sobering ("About 60% of graduate students said that they felt overwhelmed, exhausted, hopeless, sad, or depressed nearly all the time. One in 10 said they had contemplated suicide in the previous year"). Grad school is psychologically stressful in numerous ways, only some of which I listed above. I myself developed severe insomnia during graduate school (though it also runs in my family), and it was one of the biggest challenges I faced.
Anyway, I suppose I will stop here. These are just a few tensions between academic philosophy and living a good life that I have experienced or heard other people experience while in graduate school. Notice that I said, "tensions." It remains to be seen--through our discussions in posts to come--whether these tensions are necessary or avoidable, and, to the extent that they are encountered by grad students, can be successfully grappled with/overcome. I apologize if I have missed anything obvious (I suspect I probably have!). In any case, I will conclude by posing the following two questions:
- Did you encounter or know people who encountered the above tensions in graduate school? If so, which ones--and which ones were the most challenging to living a good life?
- Did I leave out any tensions that you, or other grad students you know/knew, experienced? If so, which ones?
UPDATE - A few additional tensions listed by readers:
10. Constant work/preoccupation: postdoc writes, "You'll work all the time. I worked 60 hours a week. There was all the time spent at the computer, then thinking about philosophy at the store, on the toilet, having a shower, and so on. I'd wake up thinking about philosophy and go to bed thinking about philosophy, when I could sleep."
11. Lack of money. Trevor writes, "Grad student stipends are generally pretty small -- barely enough to live on without taking out loans. I'm not a believer that you need a ton of money to live well, but I think it's also safe to say that most people will need an income of significantly more than $15,000-$25,000 to be financially secure."
12. Fleeting friendships. Trevor also writes, "Postdoc alludes to the difficulty of forging friendships in a competitive environment, but there's an additional difficulty that shouldn't be understated: the graduate student body at your institution is constantly changing. Some students graduate, some drop out, some take leaves of absence, some transfer to other institutions, and new students arrive every fall. It translates to an environment where there is limited overlap with you and your fellow grad students, and genuine friendships that are formed can be severed rather abruptly."
13. General frustration at professional life: Ambrose and postdoc both list a number of concerns (also raised in other recent threads) about how competitive, exclusionary, and status-obsessed they experience academic philosophy to be.