In the first post in this series, 'How to Hit the Ground Running', Johnny Brennan briefly discussed how it can be helpful to begin graduate school with a long-term plan. In today's post, Justin Morton (University of Texas at Austin) further explores the importance of having a plan and what a good long-term plan looks like. Hope you all find the post interesting, and hope some of you chime in with your thoughts!
Advice for New(ish) Grad Students
By Justin Morton (University of Texas at Austin)
Let me start by telling you a little bit about me. I’m a grad student at the University of Texas, in my fifth year of doctoral work. I did an MA at Texas Tech, and before that I graduated from a mid-sized, “never heard of it” regional state school that I love dearly (Stephen F. Austin State—ever heard of it?). I started my PhD at Wisconsin, but three years in, my advisor took a job elsewhere, so I transferred to Texas, where I’ve been for almost two years now.
My central piece of advice is this: respice finem—look to the end. Remember that scene in House of Cards when Claire wakes up to find that Frank has been smoking at the window all night, scheming, and he calmly tells her “I know what I have to do”? Grad students ought to be strategizing about the job market in the same way—minus the willingness to murder for gain, etc. You need to have a plan. What follows is an incomplete, probably exception-riddled outline of such a plan.
Treat grad school like a job.
The summer after my first year of doctoral work, I didn’t do any philosophy. I took the summer off (besides working a part-time job, so that I could eat, etc.). That’s a perk of being in grad school, right? Nope. I quickly discovered that if I wanted to get a job, I didn’t have summer breaks anymore. A typical grad student’s semesters will be full of teaching responsibilities, seminars (if she’s still taking them), and a little bit of real philosophy here and there. The time in between semesters is an opportunity to do a substantial amount of real philosophy, whether working on papers or filling in gaps in your knowledge of your field. (This is true even if, like me, you have mouths to feed and no funding in the summer, and so have to work. It is even truer if you’re lucky enough to have summer funding.) For example, I do ethics—mainly metaethics. During the first few years of my PhD, I took seminars on moral error theory and moral epistemology. But what if I hadn’t taken initiative and read about non-cognitivism on my own? Or the naturalist/non-naturalist debate? Who would want to hire a metaethicist who doesn’t know a thing about some of the hottest topics in metaethics? So I recommend taking a couple weeks off in the summer—from philosophy, at least—and then coming back ready to work.
Always have an eye towards publishing.
Maybe people coming out of the top five programs can get away with going on the market without publications (but is that true anymore?). But those not in one of those programs typically have a very hard time on the market without a publication or two. Unfortunately, the publishing process takes a long time, from start to finish, and you’re on a pretty strict clock. Say you have six years of funding. That gives you only five years to publish: you need to have your dossier ready by September of the year you go on the market (for your applications, but also for your letter-writers). But for any given paper you send out, you should expect it to be at least a year before you get a favorable response. Even well-established philosophers get papers rejected four or five (or six, or seven…) times before they’re accepted, and the average review time is probably somewhere around three months. And then your “favorable response” will probably be a Revise and Resubmit, which will take another few months. So you should start sending papers out sometime in your third year, or early in your fourth year at latest. And that means you’ll have to have picked out papers to polish up even earlier.
Now, I think it would be misguided to take from this that the first two years of one’s PhD program should be spent trying frantically to write publishable things. That’s not conducive to creativity or true learning. But it would be really helpful to start learning all those arbitrary and non-arbitrary features that published papers have, and start trying to write like that. Published papers don’t start with ten-page summaries of the literature. Published papers don’t cite just four papers from the relevant literature. Published papers market their novel ideas to the reader. Can you write a good paper that flouts these norms? Yes. But it probably won’t get published.
Of course, the important thing to remember is that, regardless of the arbitrary (and often inscrutable) standards the publishing game exhibits, the most important thing is that your paper be good philosophy. So make sure you don’t get distracted by the minutiae of the publishing game, writing flashy-looking papers with three pages of references, which nonetheless make only trivial points. My point is just this: if you wait to learn all the minutiae until you want to start sending papers out, there’s a much higher chance that your admittedly good paper that nevertheless has only four citations will be rejected across the board. So start learning it now.
Why don’t people follow this advice? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because no one scares the ever-loving crap out of them about the market. Maybe it’s because they have really high standards, which they think their work doesn’t meet. Maybe they fear rejection. But the truth is, everybody thinks their work sucks. And everybody gets a harsh (even rude) rejection every once in a while. Publishing is a numbers game: the more shots you take, the better your chances. So if a professor likes a paper, correct for her criticisms and then send that piece of crap out. And when it gets rejected, correct for any glaring problems ASAP, and then send it out again. Never sit on a paper that could be under consideration at a journal for more than a week.
Target letter-writers early
When I started grad school, who would be on my dissertation committee was the last thing on my mind. But it’s really important to be thinking about it early, for a couple of reasons. First, the people on your committee will have a huge impact on your philosophical development. Better to make the right decision early on. Second, when you go on the market, your committee members will write you letters of recommendation, which will be given heavy weight by many search committees. So by the end of grad school, you’ll need to have impressed the three to five people on your committee. It would be good to know who you need to impress earlier rather than later, since, for example, you’ll want to have taken seminars with most of your committee members.
Here’s how I suggest going about making the decision. In most situations, there will be one or two people that virtually have to be on your committee, given your area. If you’re doing metaphysics, and there are two metaphysicians at your program, you need at least one of them, and almost surely both. Target these people early: take every seminar they offer, meet with them about papers, and most importantly, write good papers for them. Once you’re done with classes, try to meet with them fairly regularly (at least a few times per year) to discuss papers, ideas, etc. Try to sit in on their seminars, after you’re done with coursework.
How to fill the extra spots? I got lucky filling one spot—my advisor from Wisconsin is now an external member of my committee. But for the rest, I came in with a picture of which faculty worked in areas that would complement mine, and I spent my first year at Texas noting whom I clicked with, who was really impressed by my work, and whose work I found really exciting. If I didn’t get along with someone, or they didn’t seem interested in what I was doing, I crossed them off the list and invested more into my relationships with the others. Above all, I discovered how much a faculty member’s helpfulness and availability contribute to one’s success as a grad student.
Overall, I recommend trying to have a tentative picture of at least a few people who will be on your committee after your first year, and then making a plan for staying in contact with each person, so that they end up very well-acquainted with, and very impressed with your work.
Tie yourself to the mast.
If all this makes me sound like I’ve sold my soul to philosophy—I haven’t. (It’s not worth it!) I have a wife and two kids, I’m pretty involved at my church, and I practice Judo every week. I take a full day off every weekend.
Now, I’m not saying you should do any of those particular things (although Judo is super fun and everyone should do it). My point is this: find ways of committing yourself in non-negotiable ways to the things you find valuable in life—and to do this very early in grad school. In my experience, there’s a transformation that occurs sometime mid-grad school, and it could be summarized as the working of a law:
The Law of Consumption: Professional philosophy will consume all the other things you value in life, unless you manipulate yourself into continuing to value them.
So, like Odysseus, you have to tie yourself to the mast. If you don’t come in with non-negotiable commitments—to visiting your dad every month, to staying in shape, to volunteering, to keeping up with your friends from college—then philosophy will slowly eat those things away, like termites in the walls.
I’m sure there’s much more to be said here, and many exceptions to these pieces of advice. So take it all with a grain of salt.
Thanks again to Justin for his excellent contribution! What do you all think? Is Justin right about the kind of plan one should have in grad school? Is there anything he missed, or that worked for you that he didn't mention?