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I realize the "write every day" advice works wonders for some people. And that's great. But for some people (myself included) it can make "work" painful, and can put an unnecessary and unwarranted emphasis on "productivity." Here's a different approach that the student writing in might try. Don't worry about defining work or worry about whether you're "working" at any given moment. Instead, assign yourself discrete goals (e.g. write a paper this semester, or if you need even more discrete goals, break it down further) and then hold yourself to your goal instead of a specific daily routine. And I mean hold yourself to it. If your goal is to have a chapter done by the end of the summer, then what you have at the end of the summer is your chapter (at least for the moment). You then set a new goal, and work on that. I realize that for many people this approach won't be regimented enough, but I found that as long as I held myself to archiving specific goals, I didn't need to be too overbearing about my daily work schedule. This made me feel more relaxed about work, and it didn't matter that some of my peers were slaving away 10 hrs a day or whatever, because I had produced a chapter. Then a later goal might be to revise that chapter, but typically after a new one had been written.

In short, some people might benefit from a goal oriented strategy instead of a process oriented strategy. You don't need to worry about defining "work" if you're meting your goals.

David Morrow

I would characterize a professional philosopher's 'work' broadly. I'll explain in a minute why Marcus shouldn't object. But first, a stab at characterizing work: A professional philosopher's work includes, but is not limited to, (a) finding and reading published, forthcoming, and in-progress work that is relevant to one's research interests; (b) writing papers or books, as well as notes, summaries, syntheses, etc. that support one's papers or books but will never appear in print; (c) preparing and updating courses; (d) teaching classes; (e) grading assignments and/or giving feedback to students; (f) meeting with students; (g) enduring faculty and committee meetings; (h) attending and participating in conferences; (i) reviewing and commenting on papers for journals, colleagues, friends, etc.; (j) staying up-to-date on developments outside of one's research interests by, e.g., reading Philosophy Compass or talking to colleagues. I would say that doing any of these things counts as "doing work" for a professional philosopher. Obviously, not all philosophers are expected to do all of them at every stage stage of their career.

Now, here's where I agree with Marcus: If the only *kind* of work that you're doing is reading, it's easy to get bogged down. As with many professions in which you need to do several different kinds of work, it's critical that you achieve a proper balance between them. So the question is not just, "Am I doing work?" but "Am I getting done the various things that I need to get done?" Here, I think AE-CP's advice is good: You can answer the question "Am I doing the right kind of work in the right way?" by figuring out whether you're achieving the goals that you think are important at your stage of your career.


I found that my productivity went up significantly when I implemented a set writing schedule. While it can be every day, it need not. What is essential is that it be planned and stuck to. For example, I write three days a week for two hours at a time. The days of the week and the time are set in stone. Just as I would never cancel a class, I never cancel these writing times. I think that those who look for large chunks of time, or who wait for summer breaks, etc. To do their writing are going to be much less productive. It is not a matter of finding time to write, but rather one of scheduling time to write and sticking to it.

elisa freschi

Marcus, I understand your point re. the fact that "work" should not mean just "thinking loosely about something" or, even worse "surfing the web [including useful blogs like this one]". However, in my opinion, one should be aware of the fact that "writing 'original' stuff" is not the only way to work in a productive (i.e., intentional, end-oriented way). If you work in the history of philosophy, for instance, looking at original manuscripts might be focused "work". And so also translating Ancient Greek if you are doing Ancient Philosophy. Or conducting an experiment if you are doing applied ethics.
I would recommend to your reader to "be intentional" and "have a plan" of what you are heading to. Visualise the end-result you want to achieve [I know, the end-result will always be different, but this does not deny the importance of having a plan.] What do you need in order to have your dissertation finished? (This may include: reading, translating, editing, travelling to X to look for original material, interviewing Z, etc., writing in a structured way, correcting, etc.) Have a little bit of every task needed done every week".


I think both Marcus and AE-CP raise really good points. Defining 'work' loosely can easily lead to a situation where all you're doing is reading or taking notes (I know because I've been there), and that's not good. It's also good to set small, achievable goals such as reading a certain number of pages, creating an outline, etc.

However, I'm not sure whether the original question has been explicitly answered. It seems to me that we have implicitly been understanding 'work' to be constituted by one's research, but I would say that where one is in one's career might play a role as well. In the early stages of grad school, it seems to me like one should focus mostly on coursework and working on developing the papers that were written for class. Later on, I think people end up spending lots more time preparing courses, grading, and working on the dissertation. When one finally lands a job, I would imagine that lots of time is spent on advising, committee work, and other extra curricular activities.

Or am I way off in considering grading, advising, prepping new classes, etc. to be work?


In grad school, I felt intimidated by the "work" others said they were doing -- that is, they would discuss how busy and stressed out they were, and that would make me feel like I hadn't been working hard enough. But, at the same time, I wasn't always sure what I should have been doing to match their "productivity." I was guilty of complaining about how busy I was, too (sometimes misleadingly), mostly to put a name to grad-school malaise. It sounds like some of this back and forth is behind the original question.

That said, I agree with AE-CP that discrete goals are extremely helpful with regard to these feelings of keeping up and being productive. For instance, a variety of activities might get you to your goal of presenting work at a particular conference. These might include talking with friends about your ideas, reading relevant literature, jotting down notes for an outline, and (finally) writing a short paper. In light of your goal, then, certain activities become work and others fall to the wayside. And, in light of your goal, you get to have an independent rubric (not just feelings of being busy, rushed, or stressed) for what counts as work.

I think the goals a grad student might have are all fairly obvious -- coursework, conferences, and preparing good seminar papers or conference papers for potential publication. When prospectus and dissertation deadlines start rolling around, you'll have a new set of institutional and educational goals to build into your schedule.


When I talk about "work" I generally mean:

1)course prep, grading, responding to student emails and other teaching related duties
2)reading papers, taking notes, honing necessary foreign language skills, attending workshops and colloquia
3)working on bibliographies and footnotes, writing abstracts, filling out grant and fellowship applications, properly formatting papers for journal/conference submission, etc.
4)actual writing of papers

Just about everything I spend time on that counts as "work" falls into one of these four categories. While I see Marcus' point that counting activities from categories 1-3 as work can create a dangerous situation in which no energy is devoted to category 4, I don't share his sense that nothing else should count. Activities in all four categories are geared toward furthering my career (or meeting current financial needs), force me to spend time away from family and friends, and require considerable effort (either in the form of mental exertion or pure tedium). For most human beings these are the things that make an activity count as work. The problem Marcus mentions seems to arise when one devotes so much time to some categories that others are neglected. If I am struggle with a paper I need to write suddenly tasks in categories 1-3 look a lot more attractive (didn't John Perry write a book about this?). However, I don't think that's a good reason to think that category 4 is really the only important one or that other tasks shouldn't count as work. Writing papers isn't our only task as academics (or even as philosophers). I also spent two years in the middle of my graduate career not doing much writing, but I don't have the same regrets about it that Marcus seems to have. During that time I was also teaching my first course, presenting at my first conference, organizing a conference, applying for grants, learning a foreign language and reading all sorts of things I wish I had time to read now. All of those things were a good use of my time. It's possible I could have found time for more writing, but it's also extremely likely that anything more I wrote would have ended up in the garbage bin along with all my actual writing from that period. Writing is important and it shouldn't be neglected, but it's not the only thing that matters.

I also second AE-CP's comments about the value of goal oriented work strategies.

Marcus Arvan

Anon: Although I agree with you on what grad students should consider "work" early on (doing coursework), I still don't think it's a good idea to consider things like teaching, grading, and committee service "work". Here's why: I've seen more than a few people go down this road. They see themselves as doing plenty of work. The problem? They're not getting any research done. I teach, I grade, and I serve on committees (among other things), but for all that, I don't consider myself as having gotten any *work* done on any given day if I haven't done research. And I think this attitude is a good one to have. It forces one to not make excuses for oneself -- something which, in my experience, is one of the biggest problems for people, leading them to not be productive enough as researchers.

Marcus Arvan

Melinda: I almost entirely agree with all of your points. Discrete goals are important. I would caution, though, against defining work in terms of certain types of discrete goals. So, for instance, if one's goal for a given day is *only* to read a chapter and take notes, or perhaps debate something with friends, I think this is a fast-track towards unproductivity. Again, I've just seen it happen too many times. Grad students who fall into that trap -- thinking that a day of reading and taking notes is "work" -- tend to never get anything done. One's daily discrete goals should, as far as possible, always involve trying to get some serious writing done. I realize this is just my opinion, but I've seen clear patterns emerge both when I was a grad student and now as a faculty member.

Dan Dennis

Marcus, do you count revising and polishing as part of writing and as work? Do you count thinking something through with the aim of writing it up in an essay as part of writing and as work? What about planning an essay?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Dan: I count revising and polishing, but not thinking or planning papers. Mostly this is because I think and plan papers randomly all the time: while out jogging, in the morning shower, etc. I never write outlines or anything. Rather, I mull stuff over for a while during day to day life and then sit down and write it out in paper form. In guess if I were the kind of person who did those things, I would call it work. Basically I treat work as writing, revising, and polishing -- no more, no less. Maybe it's not the only way to go, but for reasons I've noted it seems to be the best conception for me psychologically.

Dan Dennis

Interesting. I can see how there might be psychological benefits to separating out the stuff directly connected with writing (one might want to include reading those papers that one has to read in order to finish writing one’s essay) from a) generally thinking about and deepening understanding of one’s subject area and philosophy generally b) general reading and c) teaching etc. Maybe I’ll try it…

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