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Valdi Ingthorsson

Very strong story. I recognise all these feelings and tendencies in my own life, although the details panned out a little differently. And now 16 years from finishing my PhD I am still in that state of job insecurity, and having to work harder and harder to keep my love for philosophy alive, and my feelings of resentment at bay. Thank you!

Marcus Arvan

Thanks Valdi, keep fighting the good fight.

Regardless of what happens in your career, my experience is that there is a great deal to be said for just giving it your best while retaining your dignity. I have also found it can help to realize that you are far from alone - that many other philosophers, artists, and scientists have long faced similar kinds of professional challenges.

Indeed, if I might make a reading suggestion, you might consider checking out Cropper's "The Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking." https://www.amazon.com/Great-Physicists-Leading-Galileo-Hawking/dp/0195173244

It's a great book, and I find it endlessly fascinating to learn just how many great scientists (and philosophers) struggled for years to find jobs, get their work published and appreciated, in many cases publishing groundbreaking work from outside of the academy, and so on. While it is ultimately a personal decision how long one should stay with a given career given the challenges one faces, reading about the struggles others have faced always given me hope. The discipline--job-market, etc.--is full of obstacles. But nothing--at least nothing besides death (and perhaps not even that)--can stop you from being a philosopher.


Just a few thoughts.

1. Didn’t academic philosophy sell you a lie?

2. Your playing video games for a year may have had as much to do with your struggles as your bitterness. It’s hard to separate those things.

3. Sometimes we’re bitter for good reasons. Is it really smart for people to continue in philosophy if they’ve come to hate it? I don’t like this idea that we should push ahead no matter what. I think I tried for too long and it seriously disturbed me.

4. You make it sound that profound bitterness and anger can simply be put aside as an act of will. I think you’re special in this way. I suspect for many it would take years of psychotherapy. I grapple with it often and have been on and off medication.

5. I hear you on the insomnia. I have the same problems. Started in college. The stress of publishing and the job market made it worse. I don’t sleep a few nights a week but for 3 hours.

Marcus Arvan

Postdoc: Thanks for chiming in. Here are some thoughts in reply.

1. Yes and no.

Yes in the following senses. First, when I signed up for philosophy (i.e. grad school), grad programs were nowhere near transparent enough about completion rates, job-prospects, etc. I naively pursued a PhD thinking the chances I would finish the PhD and get a TT job were good. That was partly my fault, but also I think a fault of the profession: a (perhaps unintended and implicit) "lie" that I fell prey too. I do not know how transparent programs are about these things now, but I suspect there are many grad students who fell for the same "lie." Second--as I note in the OP--the profession itself was very different than I expected. Though I'm not sure this was a lie in any sense: the centrality of journal rankings, etc., was pretty explicit early on. So yes, there are senses in which "philosophy sold me a lie."

On the other hand, a big point I was trying to make in the OP was that, in another sense, I've come to discover that I wasn't sold a lie: namely, that professional philosophy is, in many ways (far more than I previously believed), what one chooses to make of it. I will be frank: in many ways--after a great deal of struggle--philosophy is what I always hoped it to be. I wake up just about every morning excited about writing, and about ideas. I write papers (and one book so far) on ideas that I truly believe in. I teach on ideas that excite me, and teach in ways I find authentic. This was also a point I tried to make in my first post in this series questioning conventional wisdom in the profession. I think far too many of us "box ourselves in", thinking you have to do things a certain way to be successful, get a job, etc. My experience is that if you just assume you have to "play the game" a certain way, then yes, philosophy can seem like a terrible, inauthentic game: another lie. But, as I explained in that earlier post, I've found a lot of conventional wisdom to be wrong: that one can forge one's own way in the profession, going about philosophy--as a researcher, teacher, etc.--that doesn't feel like a lie.

In a nutshell, I've found that philosophy is like life in general. This life isn't what most of us hoped it would be as children. It isn't a world in which all of our dreams come true and our ideals realized. But it is a world where one can--with a bit of luck and the right outlook--make a life for oneself that has features one values: an authentic life where you don't "sell your soul" and find enjoyment and meaning in despite all of the disappointments and druggery.

2. It is indeed hard to separate the extent to which my struggles came from playing music and videogames, or from my bitterness. My experience is that all of these things were deeply intertwined. And I knew other grad students who went through similar things. I knew two fellows who got frustrated and turned to brewing beer. I knew others who got frustrated and turned to other hobbies. It's nearly impossible to suss out our motives and causes of our struggles. They are usually a big mess. That being said, I was clearly frustrated *and* making decisions--both in my behavior towards others in my department (which were very clearly rooted in bitterness), and in my behavior outside of the department (viz. videogames--that were counterproductive.

3. Absolutely. Nothing in my post aimed to deny that people can be bitter or resentful for good reasons--nor that people should continue pursuing something they hate. As I tried to make clear, all I was trying to do is to *my* story, to explain how I found that *I* was better off casting aside my bitterness and resentment. It is entirely up to others to see whether the same is true for them.

4. I don't think profound bitterness and anger can simply be put aside by an act of will. If I gave that impression, it is not what I meant.

What I think *is* clear--from everyday life--is that we have some substantial control over our emotions. We cannot get them to do our every bidding. But we can--through controlling our thoughts, through people we associate ourselves with, to the situations we put ourselves in, to the particular choices we make--take proactive steps to change them.

Here, very roughly, is what happened in my case: I was bitter and resentful for years. Then, as I mentioned in the OP, it occurred to me--cognitively--that perhaps I was a big part of my problem, and that my bitterness and resentment pushed people away from me. So, what I did was at that point was make *choices*. I walked in to my advisor's office--and other faculty's offices--and humbly asked for help. I explained the struggles I had been going through. And, much to my surprise, the risk I took by putting myself out there worked out: they were gladly willing to help. Then I made other choices. I stopped avoiding my department. I starting taking part in reading groups, and in a dissertation drafting group. I tried to be helpful rather than combative. And, slowly but surely, I saw that these changes in my choices were changing how others were responding to me, making me *experience* the profession as better than before. And so, slowly but surely, my hostility, bitterness, and resentment began to recede.

None of this was a simple act of will. It was *many* concerted acts of will: many daily decisions to try to be just a little better than I was before. And it wasn't just acts of will: it was reinforcement. Once I began changing how I acted, I received positive feedback from those around me.

5. Insomnia nearly killed me, and I'm not speaking metaphorically. At one point I was routinely going 36-48 hours with no sleep. It was cognitively, emotionally, and physically debilitating (and, from what I know of the biology of insomnia, going without sleep for much longer than that is literally deadly). I came across effective treatment through sheer dumb luck. Nothing worked for me: not Ambien, not Lunesta, not diazepam, nothing. Then my dad got hospitalized for a physical ailment, and they gave him Remeron/Mirtazapine: an anti-depressant with strong sedative properties. Extreme insomnia runs on my mother's side of the family. Her father could never sleep, she could never sleep, I could never sleep, and my brother could never sleep. Because Remeron "knocked by dad out" in the hospital--making him sleep all the time--my mother asked her doctor to try it for insomnia. She finally slept. Then I tried it. I now sleep like a baby every night. It saved my life and career.


Great post, very open, engaging and well written.

I don't have much to add other than to suggest there is a difference between philosophy, and the philosophy business.

From what I've read above, I'm guessing you could make it as a self employed writer if you chose to do so.

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