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10/19/2020

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Mike

I've had very similar experiences, any my thoughts mostly echo Marcus'. I burned out in my second year of the PhD, wrote a quick MA thesis, and took a year off for medical leave without intention to return (but did). After the immense stress of the PhD, and total failure that first try at the job market, I decided to leave the profession. I didn't work for awhile and just recovered. I eventually got back into things, and have been successful. As Marcus says, part of this has just been my love of the discipline returning. I really like philosophy.

Regarding the earlier comments about your own research being difficult to write, I also find that the projects I care most about, and identify most with, are the ones I push off the most. It can be painful to read either my own work, or other work that relates to the topic.

I guess, in terms of concrete advice, you could say that you should work more on "work life balance", but that's very hard. The discipline is *so* competitive that, for most, it takes years to really develop that sort of handle on things.

I found my times away from the discipline, especially in the mists of some of the most intense periods of my career trajectory, to be very helpful. It allowed me to get perspective.

Perspective, and freeing yourself from expectations, were very helpful for me. In the short term, it can be hard to step away, but long time, it was (for me) best.

I guess none of that's too helpful. Maybe I'm just trying to say I've been there too.

Grad Student H

From the OP's description of their experience, it sounds much like mine. I have been having trouble working lately, but only on specific projects. On reflection, I realized that I have been having trouble working on projects which lack urgency, no matter how important they are. For me, it's not burnout or depression as much as it is struggling with long-term planning, which is highly unusual for me.

I contracted a moderate case of COVID early this summer and was sick for more than two months. I still have some relapsing symptoms a few times a month, much like others who were sick for a long period. Even though I am no longer at medical risk from COVID, it was a distinct reminder of my mortality. Ever since, I have required significant effort to do anything apart from prepare lectures for my courses, because anything non-urgent is simply not psychologically forceful enough.

Many other people I know (not all of whom have contracted COVID) have reported similar problems focusing on anything non-urgent. While I am not a psychologist, it seems fairly clear to me to be an effect of the fight-or-flight response, although in this case it has lasted for months. Attempting to plan long term is different for everyone right now, and I do not know how to overcome it. For the OP, in the absence of effects in any other part of your life, I would say that it is merely contextual and does not qualify as a significant sign that you should abandon the profession.

Lucky to have a job

OP’s original points also resonated with me. Finishing my dissertation was one of the most difficult things I ever did, and that was after I already had a job! I hated working on it and it took nearly an entire year before I could even stand to look at any of the material again (really). I was miserable and anxious the entire time. I just kept slogging every day. At times it was nearly unbearable. I felt bad because my work just involved sitting in an air-conditioned room and typing, and other people have to make a living in much more difficult circumstances. But I couldn’t make myself not feel those things.

During the virus I have swung back and forth between periods of high productivity (I finished a few papers and submitted them) and low productivity (watching Youtube for hours at a time while ignoring work). In the early months of the pandemic I was pretty confident that I would be jobless by the fall, and so it was very difficult to finish the semester. I felt despair most of the time. Fortunately my worst fears didn’t turn out to come true, and I am still employed, but it feels like everything at my school is a hair’s breadth away from collapsing.

More than anything, the burnout for me has manifested in my growing belief in the fundamental pointlessness of professional philosophy. Not of philosophy itself, of course—if anything, the virus has convinced me even more of the value of philosophy. But the last seven months have persuaded me more than before that philosophy as a professional activity accomplishes virtually nothing of value in the world, beyond satisfying the curiosity of some and gratifying the ego of others. Conference presentations do nothing; publications do nothing. Almost all of it is a gigantic waste of time and resources. I am embarrassed that I was ever a member of the APA, I’m embarrassed at some of the actions of some of my fellow professional philosophers, and I’m embarrassed to think that there was a time when I wanted to make a name for myself in this god-forsaken field. And yet I submitted a couple papers earlier this year, and plan to work on some others! Why? Other than the sometimes-enjoyment I get from it, there is no other reason.

Teaching is a bright spot for me—I have had some frustrating moments this semester but overall it has been wonderful and has reminded me of why I love philosophy. I am teaching a new course next semester in a topic I’m very excited about and I look forward to that almost every day and can’t wait to get started. I hope I feel the same things about other teaching opportunities five or ten years from now (assuming I still have a job then).

Maybe I’m wrong about professional philosophy, the APA, and everything else, I don’t know. But everything I experienced in graduate school and since then makes me think I’m not.

Peter

I don't have any advice on how to fix the problem, since it's one that I myself am currently facing. But I do have a suggestion for how to narrow in on the source of the problem.

OP mentions how they can write just fine on topics that are not their area of research. Have they tried writing on their area of research in multiple different modes, or are they only writing for the purposes of finishing a dissertation or publishing a paper? Have they tried, for example, writing a piece that presents their research to a popular audience?

Derek Bowman

You (the reader) say you have experience with depression, so perhaps you already have a therapist or other mental health care provider you can reach out to.

Speaking only from my own experience, it is possible for your feelings to both be an understandable reaction to your circumstances AND to warrant clinical intervention. I suffered for far too long before seeking professional help.I even sabotaged my first reluctant attempt to get help by making it easy for the university-employed counselor to tell me it was just usual grad school stress.

There's too much I want to say here.

I resonate with the sense of loss you feel. For me it was a process of both losing something deep in my sense of myself, but also the loss of confidence in the practices and institutions I valued. It would have been much easier to reconcile myself to the loss of my own career if I had confidence that some good was coming as a result.

I resonate with the anxiety you describe about your work. The more I hurt, the more I needed what I was doing to be worthwhile enough to justify that hurt. But that meant setting the standards so high that they were not only impossible to meet, but they made it impossible to see the value that was genuinely there.

At a similar stage - though with perhaps less of the dissertation completed than you describe - I recommitted to the dissertation and to making a wholehearted push on the market. My rationale was that even even if an academic career wasn't in my future, I would turn to the next chapter of my life having given it my all. It worked, in the sense that I completed my degree and felt satisfied by my effort at the job market even though it didn't pan out. (Through a bit of luck my bad adjunct job later turned into a very nice VAP, but that won't last forever).

Loss

OP, your experience resonates with me too. I am also toward the end of my PhD and on the job market. I expected to be stressed, but instead I feel that I am grieving. I feel angry, I feel sad, and I am flooded with thoughts of "why bother" and "it was all for nothing". I feel that something I worked very hard for was stolen from me, somehow before I even had it. It is difficult to think and write while handling all these emotions. I try to be kind to myself, take more breaks than I otherwise would, and feel the feelings when they come. I That's all I can do really.

graduate

My feelings towards the end of the dissertation writing process resonate a lot with the description of the OP. I almost made the resolution to leave academia because it made me feel so miserable. As Marcus above, I can't speak for the OP, but in my case I knew it wasn't depression because I could go on more or less normally about other things going on in my life at that time.

What kept me in academia was the discovery I enjoyed teaching (I got the chance to teach as I finished the dissertation, I hadn't really done it before). I enjoyed (and still do) most of the work that goes into teaching: planning seminars, lectures, reading beyond one's AOS, watching students make progress. Research and publication work came much easier for me as an addition to teaching than as a full time activity. I am not sure how much this helps in the OP's situation, but one thing to try if possible would be getting involved in activities in academia beside research (teaching, mentoring) and see if they feel rewarding and if they can make you feel differently about academia.

Current PhD student

I have had experiences with emotional disregulation during graduate school that seem like they might be similar. There were months when I would spontaneously burst into tears without being able to experience the sadness that my tears told me I should have been experiencing. This was, for me, very much a symptom of clinical depression, and I also had all manner of neurovegetative symptoms. There was something intense and wild about the experience that clumsy words are never going to capture.

Since emerging from depression a couple of years ago, my concentration has never been the same. I don't think it will ever come back, to be honest. I'm just different now than I was before.

Here's what helped turn me around a bit. None of these was the magic bullet, but I know they have each helped in a specific way. I:

tried several different antidepressants (the side effects exacted a heavy toll, but I would take them again in a heartbeat if I needed to);

left my program (I'm in a different program now);

moved states (for the new program, no longer in a rural area, which was a huge problem for me);

took up new hobbies that I could do for a long time by myself, and I think it was important that the hobbies were new (examples: drawing, painting, identifying trees, cooking, baking, book binding, knitting);

went on walks and took up smoking (okay, bad coping mechanism, but the smokes encouraged me to go outside);

made philosophy a very small part of my life (most days it's only allowed in the morning);

started writing papers for me and for me only;

leaned on friends outside of philosophy who wanted to do things with me;

got part time jobs outside academia where I interact with non-academic coworkers;

practiced rehearsing the thought that receiving excessively negative assessments by others reflects them more than it reflects me;

Each of these things happened one at a time, sometimes months apart. I would just say that while things are very hard right now, things like curiosity and the lightness that non-depressed people get to feel tend to come back.

moved on

I figured I'd briefly share my story. I didn't really have issues writing the dissertation or finishing my PhD. In fact, in graduate school, although I was often stressed and scared of failure, I felt pretty good about myself. I had published 3 papers in respected journals before graduating, and my dissertation had come together nicely in a timely fashion.

My issues came after I graduated. My first year on the market I got 1 interview for a 1 year teaching job and nothing else. This made me feel like a failure and a loser. I was also trying to publish more papers and my early successes were not as easily replicated. I was getting a lot of rejections. In addition, I had a falling out with my department due to corrupt practices of the HoD.

Months later, drunk on the floor of my office at home crying my eyes out I realized that I had developed a major psychological problem. I was smart enough to get treatment and starting taking anti-depressants. These did stabilize my mood and allow me to get back to work and feel less miserable. However, they also had pretty frustrating side effects. They aren't a miracle cure or solution and getting off of them was hard.

Not having a job all I could really do to further my career was to keep writing, which I did. I published a few more papers in respected journals that year, but no interviews. I wanted to drop out of philosophy but due to my now 6 publications, people encouraged me to keep trying (bad advice). So I did. I ended up with another interview at some point but did not get the job. My depression started coming back. I was crying at everything. I had some other bad stuff happen to me too, and this was the breaking point. I was back fully depressed and a complete mess.

I didn't get back on the anti-depressants in part because I hated the side effects and in part because, although I was depressed and crying a lot, I had just gotten used to it. So, for basically 2 years I did almost nothing. I played video games, watched movies, tried to sleep but usually couldn't. I had no interests and no passions and everything seemed stupid and a waste of time, well I did have one interest--booze. I didn't drink during the day or get drunk every night. In fact, I only allowed myself to get drunk on the weekends, but it was the favorite thing I did and the only passion I had.

Anyway, I ended up moving to a new city and a nicer location, and this brought some happiness into my life. I then made a pact with myself to stop drinking every weekend. My goal was to only drink once a month but in reality it ended up being every 2-3 weeks. It helped though. My depression wasn't gone but started to get better. I still didn't do much more than play video games. I still had no interests beyond that. I definitely didn't read or think about philosophy at all.

Another year went by like this and I slowly started to feel even better. I started to form new interests and passions. Now, I have a new source of income working from home, and I enjoy what I do, which for anonymity I won't state. And now that I have a certain distance from philosophy I have started to enjoy writing up some of my ideas in my spare time as a hobby, which honestly is much more pleasant than writing when you feel your life depends on it.

Anyway, I guess my story answers your questions in a way. I managed the emotional side of getting work done with pharmaceuticals and to a degree alcohol. I don't really recommend the alcohol. But I'd be lying if I didn't think it helped me somewhat. Brought some much needed joy into my life during the darkest times. However, you can't take drugs forever. If philosophy doesn't quickly allow you to have a life where you don't have to be dependent on drugs, get the hell out!

Also, moving to a nice location can really help, especially if you don't like where you live.

I figure probably I struggled more with the philosophy job market than the average person due to issues from my childhood. But if you're having trouble with the dissertation, I personally would think that it's probably only going to get worse from here. It did for me at least.

Tom2

So much is going on these days--politically, public health-wise, in the profession--that it is hard to offer an accurate diagnosis, let alone a cure. That said, I agree with Marcus completely. One further, maybe trite, thing:

If we are lucky, you and I have 30 or 40 years left. After that (and in important ways, before, too) our job titles won't matter, our prizes neither, nor the journals we've published in, nor our reputation, nor other ephemera. The only thing that will matter, and which we can rightly be proud of, is the quality of the work that we leave behind.

Although I know it is hard, my advice is to try to be as honest and diligent as you finish your dissertation, and in your future research, as you can. If you do that, then whatever happens you can take pride in these accomplishments, and leave something of value for the future.

Marcus Arvan

Tom2: Thanks for weighing in, and I'm glad to hear we largely agree. However, I would like to push back a bit on one thing you wrote, namely "The only thing that will matter, and which we can rightly be proud of, is the quality of the work that we leave behind."

I don't think this is the only thing that will matter or that one can rightly be proud of--not by a long shot. Here's another thing that may very much matter later down the road: whether one has lived a reasonably happy or miserable life. If one's relationship with academic philosophy is irredeemably toxic, than that can be a good reason to let go and do something else.

And indeed, here's another thing that can matter: whether one has lived a *good* life, not only for oneself but in terms of how one treats and relates to others. I've seen and known people who academic philosophy seems to have turned into angry, vengeful, toxic people who make their own and other people's lives around them worse. If this is what academic philosophy is doing to you, then once again it may make sense to let go and do something different. Maybe some people think "leaving good work behind" can justify being a miserable, moral monster--but for my part, I don't think doing good work is worth sacrificing one's soul or character for!

moving on

I think it's pretty easy for philosophy to turn one into a toxic individual. It's highly competitive, there is little reward, and there is a lot of rejection. The job market is a nightmare. I imagine it's difficult to be too happy in that kind of environment for many.
I'm way happier now than I ever was trying to do philosophy and kinder too.

Ironically, I enjoy writing philosophy more now that I'm not trying to be a professional philosopher. So, I guess if professional philosophy rubs you the wrong way, consider that, if you really love the subject, you can still write as a hobby, while doing something easier and less toxic to you for income. It doesn't have to be your job. In fact, I'm pretty sure that for almost all of us this is a more natural and fun way to do philosophy.

That's what I do now. I reserve about 4-5 hours a week to writing philosophy. I can write about a paragraph in an hour. So, papers come together slowly but surely. It's relaxing and fun. Totally different experience. I now write just what I want to write when I want to write with no pressure. I no longer aim for top journals either, making publishing easier and less stressful. Prestige no longer matters to me, just that my idea will be read.

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