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grad student

Scope clarification on the second suggestion. Is your advice: "do not find a hobby", or are you saying that your second suggestion is not "find a hobby", but something else?

Because the first reading seems too strong. The problem you describe with your interest in music seems to be that you used your hobby as an escape, not that you had a hobby. I'd suggest that having non-academic, non-philosophy-related interests is essential to surviving and, indeed, thriving.

Marcus Arvan

Hi grad student: Great question, and thanks for asking for the clarification!

I meant "do not have a hobby" in the strong sense (as in, stay away from hobbies like the plague!). I mean it, and let me explain why.

What you are saying ("I'd suggest that having non-academic, non-philosophy-related interests is essential to surviving and, indeed, thriving") sounds *entirely* reasonable. I thought exactly that when I was a grad student, and I knew many other people who did. The reality I experienced, however, was very, very different.

First, as a rule (with perhaps a few exceptions), all of the most successful grad students I've known are those who eat, breathe, and sleep philosophy -- the people who threw themselves into grad school 100%.

At the time, these people seemed to me to have lived stultified lives. I looked at them with a bit of pity, actually, and congratulated myself for having a more well-rounded life (friends outside the program, a rock band, etc.). I also knew other people who had hobbies, and thought they were making good decisions too.

Unfortunately, the first hard reality is that this profession -- just like, say professional sports -- is intensely competitive. Every moment that you're spending on a hobby is a moment that other person (the person without the hobby) is spending getting better at their craft...at their *career*.

Being 100% grad school may look stultifying at the time, but as a rule I've seen those people go onto have awesome careers, and it's been the ones with hobbies in grad school (more "well-rounded lives") who struggled and, in some cases, never received the PhD.

A second hard reality is that, in my experience, something tends to happen to people with hobbies. At some point or another in a PhD program, things get hard -- *really* hard. It can happen at the comp stage or (more often) at the dissertation stage -- but it happens to almost everyone. How one deals with these situations is (in my experience) the single biggest difference between those who finish the PhD and do well in the profession, and those who don't. And here's the problem (again, I've seen it again, and again, and again). When things get hard, hobbies tend to turn into *escapes*. They weren't initially escapes, but when things get hard, the natural thing is to turn to something you enjoy more: namely, your hobby. And pretty soon you're doing the hobby far more than what you should be doing, which is becoming a better professional.

Now, you might say, this just shows that people "shouldn't let" their hobbies overtake them in these kinds of situations. To which I'm inclined to say, "Woulda, coulda, shoulda!" It's easier said than done. The better thing to do is to not put yourself in that position (of being tempted by a hobby) in the first place.

Now, I realize, this might seem horrible. Am I really advocating focusing all your time on grad school, with no "outlets"? No. I think (as I have said in many previous posts) that it is important to be good to oneself and live a well-rounded life: to go on walks, go out to dinner, go on dates, whatever. These things are critical to surviving and flourishing. But hobbies? I cannot in good conscience say it is a good idea to pursue hobbies in grad school. I've seen way too many people fall prey to the temptation described above.

Who knows, maybe I'm wrong. But I've seen it happen too many times not to point it out and caution against it greatly.

Here's another thing I would add: if you do want to pursue a hobby, the absolute *worst* time to do it is when people tend to do it -- namely, when they are struggling in the program.

Consider the following analogy. We all know one should buy stocks when prices are low and sell when they are high. But what do people *tend* to do? They tend to buy when stocks are high (viz. "Look how good stocks are doing!") and sell when low ("I don't want to lose any more money"). This is irrational, and so too, I want to say, is choosing to adopt a hobby when most grad students do: when they're stressed and struggling ("I need an outlet!"). If there's any time to have a hobby, it's when you're doing well in the program -- and if there's any time to not have a hobby, it's when you're struggling. For that's the time you need to be engaged in the program the most!


I'd just like to throw in my two cents: I've never been as productive as when I work 9-5 (with a few exceptions here and there). Furthermore, I've heard the same from many others, both graduate students and faculty. Working 24/7 tends, in my experience, not only to increase the odds of burnout, but also to lead to worse philosophy (due to things like tunnel vision). In fact, isn't the no-hobbies advice essentially one of the grad traps that was posted just recently? So my advice would be: work and work hard, but be reasonable about it.

Marcus Arvan

grad: absolutely. I agree. I've written about this in several past posts. I've been far more productive ever since I went from working 24/7 to working 9-5. In my experience, it's crucial to have good work-life balance. But this is very different than having a hobby, which lend themselves to the dangers I've described (and, again, witnessed many people fall prey to).


Great post, Marcus. I'm wondering whether the "do not have a hobby" policy is too strong, because the spirit of the advice looks like it generalizes to ruling out prepping a plan b while in grad school. And not prepping a plan b seems like a big mistake.



Fair enough, Marcus. I'm probably just using "hobby" more loosely than you are. For me, playing basketball twice a week counts as a hobby.


I offer myself as a counter-example.

I was the fastest through my PhD program. I had two articles published before I defended in March 2012. I had 7 by the time I was on the job market later that year. I have more now.

I spent, and spend, *maybe* 2-3hrs/day doing research. Probably less than that. I don't eat, breathe, sleep philosophy. I have a "life." Early in grad school, I was still playing poker professionally (I was happily able to quit in my 2nd year, when my academic income was enough to live off of). I'm a competitive athlete; I'm a gamer (both video and table top); I go out with friends who aren't philosophers; I have a dog that I love to take to the park or go on runs. My recent hobby is sewing, which I love. I think these are part of being a healthy person. Very, very few people can be the enfant terrible and do philosophy 18hrs/day. MOST of those people I've met burn out, in a really big way.

Also, it's typically only guys (with partners willing to do the bulk of the domestic work) who are able to get away with that.

I think this is truly terrible advice. Yes there are worries with having hobbies, but the potential risks are not that worrisome. I'm far, far more worried (and BORED) by the people who don't have non-philosophy hobbies.

What matters, as in all things, is balance. One can't use the hobby as an escape from doing one's work, but I often see grad students and early career folk use *teaching* as their escape. Rather than working on a paper, they put the extra time into over-prepping for a lecture, or spending an extra hour finding the perfect image (which is unnecessary). Etc, etc. Hobbies are great. Don't blame hobbies. People will find other ways to procrastinate.


And on the "perfecting your craft" point. First, I *like* that you're phrasing doing philosophy as a craft that one has to work on. Yes!! Writing and doing good philosophy is hard, and we should continually work to improve.

BUT! Let's use some analogies and see if it's right to think that one's engaging in a hobby is wasting time that others are spending on perfecting the craft (that will thus, by implication, put one at a disadvantage). Do concert pianists spend 14+ hrs/day practicing? NO! It's simply not necessary. Focused practice (and a fair amount of luck!) is what leads to proficiency. (Gladwell's 10000hrs rule is bunk and has been de-bunked).

Again, case study. I lived with a fellow grad student for most of my grad studies. He would work about 14hrs/day. I'd work about 3hrs/day. The thing is, I could write a publishable article in a few days (and did). He…never really finished anything. My work was much shorter but much more focused (he'd typically have the tv on in the background while he worked: I'd work at the office with no distractions).

It's not about bulk time spent on a task. It's about focused practice. This is why, SURE, I could spend 6hrs/day instead of 3, but I've noticed that 3 focused hours is about all my mind can take. Those extra 3hrs wouldn't be all that focused or productive. Or, if they were, I'd be so fried that the rest of my day would be wasted as I'd turn into a zombie.

This principle was also true for poker. I'd play about 3hrs/day. I'd make about $100/hr on average. People think, woah! $100/hr!! Why wouldn't you play 8hrs/day?! Well, because I could only play at my peak for about 3hrs a day. If I tried to play 5 more hours, the quality of my decision making would go down, and I wouldn't be making $100/hr for those next 5hrs. I might be making $20/hr (which makes the probability of having a losing day go way up, as one's win rate drops). I think the same is true of philosophy.

Also, it's harder to mentally recover for the next day after a long day of focused thinking. If I put in an 8hr day, I know that I'm pretty useless the next day. I'd prefer to put in 3 3hr days than one 9hr day.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Eugene: Thanks for your comment. I wouldn't consider prepping for Plan B a hobby. Prepping for a Plan B is serious work! Hobbies, as I understand them, are things one messes around with (music, etc.), which don't plausibly help with Plan B's, and which have a tendency to be used to be used as an "escape" from one's worries, etc.

Marcus Arvan

Grad: Thanks for the follow-up. I wouldn't consider playing basketball twice a week a hobby. Hobbies are things one can spend days on end doing (recording music, painting, etc.) in a manner that can systematically distract one from grad school.

grad student

Marcus, I'd suggest that since your worry is not specific to hobbies, and your use of "hobby" is pretty idiosyncratic (I'm still not sure what it picks out), you should amend your #2 to something like:

"Make sure that you find healthy ways to balance your academic and personal life. There are lots of ways to systematically distract yourself from the work of graduate school, including time-consuming hobbies, too much teaching prep, being involved in committees and service, getting involved in reading groups rather than working, and so on. Find strategies that will give you sufficient mental rest to do your work and be productive when you're engaged in doing philosophy. This is important for any graduate student, but especially for students who have diagnosed mental health problems like depression and anxiety, which involve cognitive distortions about one's self-worth and productivity."

There's already enough guilt about not working enough, not being "smart enough", not being X enough. Telling graduate students (especially in the context of a conversation about mental health) that the time we spend doing something other than philosophy is being used by our competitor to get our job is, frankly, irresponsible and inaccurate.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Rachel: Thanks for your comments!

First, I entirely agree with you on focus practice/time spent. I used to work on research at all hours of the day...and was spectacularly unproductive. Now I write no more than 5 hours a day (and often just 3), and I am far more productive. Like you, many of my published articles were written over the course of just a week or two. So, I agree: it's totally important to not equate working harder with working better.

That being said, I would caution against using yourself as a counterexample. As we all know, there are always outliers...exceptions to the rule. I suspect you are probably one (in many regards!). You, fortunately, have been able to be productive *and* have a hobby. My main point was simply that, in my experience, most people who take up hobbies in grad school unfortunately end up using them as an escape from their problems, and the results are often disastrous.

Notice, too, that you are precisely the kind of "counterexample" I suggested in my earlier comment. In my experience, *if* you are going to take up a hobby, the time to do it is when things are going well. This seems to be the case with you. You've been incredibly productive...and so a hobby isn't an escape from problems. It's a healthy part of life.

My point was that this is precisely when grad students *don't* tend to take up hobbies. They tend to take up hobbies when things are going badly, and that's the problem.

So, I guess I'm backing off my "never pick up hobbies" doctrine a bit. I should have said: don't pick up a hobby if things aren't going well. The only time to pick up a hobby is if things are going swimmingly, and if things start going bad, set the hobby aside immediately.

Marcus Arvan

grad student: Thanks for your reply. I appreciate your opinion and sentiments. I really do. I've been through *all* of those things myself: the guilt, the not feeling smart enough, etc. That being said, I do not think the claims I am making are inaccurate or irresponsible. Allow me to explain why.

It is important, in this life, not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. In a perfect world, grad students would be able would be able to get through grad school without all the guilt, anxiety, self-doubt, etc. But of course we don't live in that world. Most of us experienced all of those things in grad school, and so the real salient question is: how to (A) deal with them the best, and (B) avoid dealing with them badly.

As someone who went through all of the things you mentioned, I will ask you: what is the worst thing for a grad student suffering from guilt, anxiety, not feeling smart enough, etc.? My answer is simple (and I know it all too well from first-hand and second-hand experience): struggling in your program.

There is nothing worse for guilt, anxiety, not-feeling-smart enough than avoiding your struggles, trying to downplay them, etc. All it does is dig you a bigger hole. Leading to even *more* guilt, anxiety, etc. I know...I dug myself that kind of hole. And my career has been a struggle ever since. It took me too long to find a good dissertation topic. It took me too long to publish. It's still taken me too long to publish in a top venue. And it's still taken me too long find a tenure-track job. These are the things guilt, anxiety, not feeling smart enough are made of. They are the things I want to help people avoid. And so the question is how.

My experience -- and again, it's partly first-hand, but also second-hand and third-hand -- is that's one and only one way to overcome the guilt, anxiety, etc...and that is to tackle them head-on, not through hobbies or avoidance, but my reaching out to people, seeking help, putting your nose to the grindstone, working harder, etc.

The way to make guilt, anxiety, self-doubt, etc. go away is to become a better philosopher -- for it's precisely then (the more you succeed) that the guilt, anxiety, etc., will begin to melt away. But this takes an incredible amount of focus and determination. It takes realizing that there is no escape from the cold, hard reality that, yes, every minute you're not becoming better at your craft, someone else is (this will become especially clear, I think, once you go on the job market. You literally *are* competing against people who have spent all their days becoming better philosophers, and your ability to compete against them determines your career prospects). This is not, in my view, inaccurate or irresponsible. It is the way things are. And I've only been to make any headway myself -- to achieve any success and respite from all of the concerns you're raising -- by recognizing it for what it is.

This is why I am passionate about this. I wish there were easy answers. But I saw people succeed and fail in grad school, and I myself came ever-so-close to failing. There were dark times when never finishing the PhD was a real possibility. And, while I might not have wanted anyone to tell me, "You need to work harder, and slave away nose to the grindstone", this was, in the end, the truth, and it was the only thing that worked. Perhaps I am an outlier, but for my part, I saw some other grad students who did not accept these truths...and their hole, their guilt, their self-doubt, only grew greater. And some of them never made it through as a result.

I hope this better conveys where I am coming from. Trust me, my aim is *not* to be insensitive to people's sufferings. My aim is to say, "I've been through it, and seen others go through it, and as painful as it may be, this is only thing I've seen to work."

grad student

I think your aims are laudable, and I believe what you're saying about your own experience. However, one last comment, and I'll leave things here. I think this claim is dubious:

"The way to make guilt, anxiety, self-doubt, etc. go away is to become a better philosopher."

It may be *a way*, but it is not the only way, and for those of us with cognitively distorting mental health issues like anxiety and depression, having the (nebulous) aim of "being a better philosopher", especially when it's described in terms of "work more hours!" is a sure-fire way to increase those things. Some people need to see that they are good philosophers already and have skills which can be honed. Otherwise, imposter syndrome sneaks in and tells you that the reason you're feeling anxiety is because you're not good--and once you get good, that anxiety will go away. Just not true.

I think you're right that avoidance isn't going to make things better, but I resist the claim that finding a hobby (as defined by many of us here) constitutes "avoidance." Again, some of the problem may be terminological. If you had just said, "look, the goal is to not avoid your problems, and here's one example of how people do that", I don't think there would be this much pushback.

Also, I'm anon on here precisely because I am on the job market. I do know my competition. I've gotten interviews and flyouts, I have publications. I'm, by many standards, pretty successful. However I also am on anti-depressants, am in therapy for anxiety other mood disorders, and I know a little bit about doing grad school and the market while dealing with this stuff. Part of what makes one a successful candidate is also being able to be a human being who is mentally healthy and well-rounded. The zero-sum game picture being painted here is not necessarily going to contribute to that, and I think can be pragmatically detrimental in the very way you're advertising it as being useful: getting a job.

Marcus Arvan

Grad student: Thanks for your reply.

You write: "Again, some of the problem may be terminological. If you had just said, "look, the goal is to not avoid your problems, and here's one example of how people do that", I don't think there would be this much pushback."

Fair enough. I might have put the point too strongly. Perhaps I should have said, "In my experience, hobbies often result in avoidance, and avoidance is very bad. It is crucial to be aware of this if one picks up a hobby, and to not fall into the trap. Fwiw, I think this is easier said than done, and that it's still better to stay away from them. But I suppose we can disagree over that.

At the end of your comment, you write: "Part of what makes one a successful candidate is also being able to be a human being who is mentally healthy and well-rounded. The zero-sum game picture being painted here is not necessarily going to contribute to that, and I think can be pragmatically detrimental in the very way you're advertising it as being useful: getting a job."

Also fair enough! But I don't think I denied this anywhere, and I have made much the same point in an earlier comment and many past posts on this blog. I have written many times on how it is important to be good to oneself, have a life outside of philosophy, nurture friendships/relationships, etc. But it's one thing to have a well-rounded life and another to get side-tracked by a hobby. I've seen the latter happen far too often and derail/end careers.

Sean Whitton

Marcus' worry about hobbies often derailing progress through grad school might well be good advice, but I'm struggling to understand your view that the answer is to work harder. You have said that every minute you're not doing philosophy a competitor is gaining ground on you, but also you agreed with Rachel that one is far more productive working no more than three to five hours per day. It would be great if you could explain further how these two things can both be true.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Sean: Thanks for your comment. To clarify, I didn't agree with Rachel that working 3-5 hours a day is best. I said that I find *writing* 3-5 hours a day is best. But of course there is a lot more to becoming a better philosopher than writing! I easily work 8-10 hours a day. I tend to write for 3-5 hours in the morning, and then spend the rest of my 8-10 work hours reading, working on lectures, revising (which I don't treat as writing time; I treat "writing" as drafting new work), and whatever else I have on my plate!

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