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Rob Gressis

Three things, all of which I wish I had been told when I was younger. I'm not sure if they're true, but right now I put a greater than 50% credence in them:

(1) I wish I had tried to specialize as much as possible in graduate school, in particular in a field that my program was very good in, and that everyone in philosophy had strong opinions in. So, I wish I had done early modern philosophy, and focused on Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, or Hume (because these were what my program was best at at the time), and I wish I had taken as many history of modern courses as my university offered, rather than be a dilettante. This would have made me more intimate with the main positions in the field, and it would have made it easier for people to categorize me. I still ended up doing very well, but I think an uncomfortably large part of that was due to good luck.

(2) I wish I had known how to structure a paper. In particular, I wish I had known that a paper should be structured like this: (a) describe a problem; (b) spend a fair bit of time describing what the main positions on this problem are in the literature; and (c) offer my solution.

(3) I wish I had realized how important it was to have constant conversations about philosophy for improving your philosophical ability. I was having them just because they were fun -- I didn't realize that they helped you get better and better as a philosopher.

Marcus Arvan

Rob: totally with you on (2). I never really learned how to structure a paper properly until I was out of grad school. Now it's one of the very first things I emphasize with undergraduates.

Chris Tillman

Talk!! Many suffer from "imposter syndrome" (I certainly did). But I learned /so/ much more when I stopped being afraid of saying what I thought. And I was really impressed by the gap between what I thought I understood in my head and what I could cogently explain to someone else. I learned a truly enormous amount from my faculty in grad school. But I think I learned roughly as much from my peers. Keeping my mouth shut early on just stunted the curve. If I could do it over again, I would have been more vocal about what I thought from the outset instead of worrying about what everyone would think of me based on what I said.

Rob Gressis

In addition to imposter syndrome, which Chris Tillman is absolutely right about, there's also a "fear of looking stupid" syndrome. It's probably deeply related to imposter syndrome ("I shouldn't say anything, because if it's stupid, maybe that shows I don't deserve to be here") but not necessarily; I still have "fear of looking stupid" syndrome, although I don't think I have imposter syndrome anymore.


Can I suggest an alternative between sharing what we know and waiting for a guest poster? People could simply ask this question of someone in their own department or at their school, and then report back to the blog. I asked a couple of people at my school a similar question a year or two ago -- what do you know now about academic life at our U that you wish you had known when you started? Most were receptive.

One told me to meet someone outside of my department for coffee a couple of times a year. It could be someone in an academic department or someone in administration. This person started doing this accidentally, but they found it helped them learn more about the larger university community and that it also made them feel more at home there.

Another told me (with regard to teaching philosophy) to be careful not to overestimate the preparation, knowledge or abilities of first-year students. This person wishes they had learned this sooner than they actually did.

Ok, one of my own, for my fellow introverts. Go to a smallish conference or one in your subfield several years in a row. APA is fine, but often a bit large and anonymous. I've made a couple of friends that I see every year at these smaller/subfield meetings, and it has made the whole conference experience more enjoyable for me.

Matt DeStefano

That worked for me, Walter. My (e-mail) dialogue with Brit Brogaard was really useful, and she was really receptive to sharing her ideas.


I'm curious as to how others feel about a couple different aspects of Rob Gressis's (1).

I'm in the early stages of my PhD, and faculty attrition has rendered my department thin in the main area in which I've planned to work (and in which I have an MA background). I have a strong interest (but little background) in a second area in which my department remains strong. Ought I shift my primary focus to, and write a dissertation in, the second area?

I'm also naturally inclined towards dilettantism. While I obviously want to cultivate a deep understanding of whichever area(s) I pursue, I fear specialization at the cost of breadth. I'm more interested in philosophy, and in being a practitioner of philosophy, than in (being a practitioner of) any particular philosophy of x. Is this a foolish attitude at this stage in my career?

Thanks in advance!

David Morrow

I'm quite sympathetic to Rob's point (1), with one amendment: I wish I'd specialized much more in grad school, but not "as much as possible." I think there is something to be said for having some grounding as a generalist, but I also think that specializing in a high-profile topic is probably wise from a professional standpoint. You can always broaden your research again after you get a job or get tenure. (But note: Just because a topic has a high profile among specialists at the cutting edge of your subfield does not necessarily mean that it has a high profile in the departments that are going to hire you. If you're working on something that people outside your subfield won't recognize as a big deal, you should be able to prove that it is a big deal and explain why it's a big deal.)

Working with well-known people is also a big advantage, both because their recommendations may carry more weight and because if they're better known because they're more professionally accomplished (as I assume they are), they *might* provide better professional and/or philosophical training. That last possibility, though, is something you should verify with other students in your program. I know that where I went to grad school, some of the high-profile professors were well regarded as advisors while others were not.

Marcus Arvan

Sanchez: A difficult question to answer. My experience has been that those with the best *advisors* tend to be the most successful. Some advisors are much better at training/placing people than others. I didn't really know this in grad school, so if you're not really sure, you might want to examine different advisors' placement records in your department. It may be that, even if your department is thin in your favored area, there's an advisor in your area who still places people very well.

More broadly, I guess I'd suggest: you might want to "leave your options open" as you think about dissertation topics. Good topics are hard to come up with. If you're not sure between doing a dissertation in area A or area B, it might be worthwhile reading/thinking in *both* areas, as you might find that you have a very promising idea in one area but not the other.

Finally, I would advise against dilettantism, at least while in grad school. Most jobs seem to look for specialists, and (I assume) you want to put yourself in the best position you can to get a good job. You'll have plenty of time to be a dilettante if/when you get a job.

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