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03/16/2021

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Jay

I am a PhD student as well. Although where I work, I am treated as a colleague, not a student (I also have several publications already and I get paid well). I have been thinking about the same issues recently. When I started my PhD I thought that being a philosopher in academia would be a dream job: I could spend all of my time alone writing (and assigning students to read books and articles and writing essays that I would grade). After all, I thought every philosopher was like that (when I did my studies I just read the books and took the exams, there were very few lectures or seminars that were mandatory). It truly surprised me to see how often people go to conferences (before Covid) and how much people like to talk and discuss, rather than write. I do not like conferences or workshops at all; I cannot come up with good questions or clever responses quickly. I do not remember what people said in their presentations and it is really difficult for me to follow them when they are presenting something (though I would say it is not just me, people are not very good at making presentations either). Every time I am listening to someone I am thinking I would rather read their work instead. And every time I am presenting something I am thinking why I can’t just send my paper to them through email. I am not good at approaching new people (although I have networked with people through email just fine). The ongoing pandemic has made my life and work much easier since I do not have to see people. I have been very productive when I can just write and receive feedback through emails rather than being nervous at some conference where I have to make a presentation. I cannot imagine being productive or happy in a more extroverted culture like in the U.S. People are fine, but ONLY when they come one at a time. I understand now that not all philosophers are like me, but I would hope that there would be different ways and styles to succeed in this profession. When my colleagues try to encourage students to participate in philosophy they ask them to join the faculty seminars where people discuss philosophy. I hope they would also say that you could read a paper and write an essay on it (that's how I got my first publication and got interested in the field). I am not confident that I will get the job in academia (who is during these times?), but if succeeding in philosophy means getting papers in good journals and getting cited by other scholars then it is possible for shy and introverted people as well.

Evan

I’m not overly shy or overly extroverted. It really depends on the context. But one advice that a stuck out to me was when Celine Dion once said, “Pretend that your audience is your family e.g. brothers, sisters, cousins, etc.” Her advice did help me be less shy when giving talks. I guess we can use the popular phrase, fake it til we make it. But this advice can only get us so far and may not actually help us improve our personalities if we truly want to change them.

The second piece of advice is, go into talks and presentations from the point of view of service. I find that when I educate young children or teenagers, I am less shy probably because I come from an intent of service. Such dependency from them made me less introverted, or at least more willing to speak to them.

Michael

I agree with Marcus that introverts need to learn to overcome their tendencies to not put themselves out there. You don't need to be much of a self promoter to succeed in philosophy, but given how there are far more philosophers than professional opportunities, to get those opportunities you do need to make friends, have connections, and be a presence in front of people in one shape or form. You shouldn't be shoving your work in front of people, but you do need to show up so they're aware of you and look you up.

For timidity, Marcus is right that you can't succeed unless you're willing to take risks by sending stuff out to journals and conferences. If your lack of confidence keeps you from doing that much, you're not likely to make it. But you don't need to be overly confident to write publishable stuff. I'm rarely all that confident in what I write. I work through many drafts, tweaking ideas until they settle into what I think is an interesting spot that's not crazy. My views also change, sometimes substantially, from paper to work, as I work out the ideas. I know many philosophers project a lot of overconfidence. Some of them do seem to actually be over confident and don't seem to modify their views in the face of new arguments. But plenty of people aren't so ... rigid? they hold subtle, evolving views. You'll be fine so long as you don't think of your publications as final statements you must defend forever. They're just you, making transient contributions to an ongoing discussion. You're free to change your view in the very next publication.*

*I am not at all suggesting you try to publish crazy ideas just for the sake of catching attention or defending a position you don't believe because no one else has defended it. There's a difference between bullshitting and having subtle, evolving, hesitant, but *honest* views.

postdoc

Networking is important in philosophy, especially given how crazy bad the job market is. I hated conferences and networking events and struggled to sound smart and be affable. Whenever I had a talk to give I'd only sleep a few hours due to anxiety so that didn't help. People I know who were good at this stuff did way better on the job market even when holding other things like pubs roughly equal. I mean there are just those PhD students who everyone knows and thinks are smart and who are networked in with everyone and everything. How do they do it? To people who aren't like this it doesn't come naturally. If you learn, you'll have a leg up. However, it's also perfectly fine to say screw that crap! But I think if that's your attitude then philosophy might not be for you. It's just not the discipline many introverts think it is or wish it were. It's kind of a popularity contest to be honest. That's what I've noticed at least.

Assistant Professor

The OP is asking about timidity and lack of confidence - which is distinct from being an introvert. Being an introvert is probably a really common feature of many academics, including philosophers, who prefer to/find it energizing to be alone with their thoughts and their work. This seems quite productive to academia, so long as you, as Marcus notes, can balance it with some networking and participating in the professional community. Being an introvert does not necessarily mean you are socially anxious, awkward, or bad at networking or conversation (but if you are these things it is going to make philosophy as a profession, rather than an intellectual pursuit, really hard).

Going to a conference or talk reminds you that there are plenty of anxious or socially awkward academics, but I agree with the OP and others that the professional networking side of the profession seems to value being outgoing, willing to argue about ideas in public, being bold enough to speak up or introduce yourself or jump into a conversation, etc. and this can reinforce norms that are not always inclusive and at times feel very exclusive.

At one generalist conference I went to mid-PhD studies I decided I would attempt to overcome my own self-second guessing by asking a question at every session I went to. It could be a simple one, but the point is I challenged myself to come up with a question that was relevant to the talk, and got me to enter into the conversation rather than hang back. I found taking this approach to the conference as a whole kept me from second guessing whether I should speak up or not, whether my question was "good" or not - and it got me over the hump. I still don't like mingling at the receptions or over the coffee in the lobby, and that is okay.

Michael

"I hated conferences and networking events and struggled to sound smart and be affable."

I hear people say stuff like this all the time, but it manifests the wrong attitude. To be good at networking, your goal isn't to *sound* smart and affable. Your goal is to have interesting projects (so people invite you to present or submit your work) and help people improve their own projects (so they invite you to coauthor and want you around).

The former is something largely in your control. Somewhere between dissertation proposal and now, I realized that I actually didn't have interesting projects or ideas (largely because I was slavishly chasing the literature and trends). I came up with better projects, projects the value of which I could explain to myself in a single line.

You can't control whether you can help people improve their work, but it doesn't really matter either way. If you can't, you're not a good fit for them, and you don't want to work with/for them anyway.

The game isn't to sound smart and affable. It's to have interesting projects and be useful, so people have incentive to extend you (instead of others) opportunities. These are, unfortunately, zero-sum games. Maybe what I'm saying is just a shift in framing (you still have to be perceived as interesting and useful), but I find it a very useful shift in framing. Not everyone will find you interesting and useful, but if you have interesting and useful stuff going on, and you talk to enough people, you maximize your chances of making the right connections.

I understand that if you're socially anxious or timid in that way it may be hard for you to shift your thinking. It's easy to get mentally fixated on this question "am I sounding smart and affable". Similarly, if standing in a room of people who are implicitly judging you causes strong felt anxiety, I know you can't just turn it off. If these traits are affecting your life and work, they're likely a social anxiety disorder and you should seek treatment. They won't just hold you back in philosophy, but basically everywhere in life. Please do get treatment.

postdoc

There is a difference between having interesting work and wanting to help and being the kind of outgoing person who comes across as smart and affable (not smart and judgmental or whatever). Maybe you don't know the kind of person I'm talking about. I don't know how to describe it better. They are usually outgoing, friendly, witty, and know a lot of facts and names. They are usually fast on their feet and opinionated but in ways that are popular or acceptable.

Taking medication for anxiety doesn't make you into that kind of person. I've been on medication for anxiety. I do have social anxiety and generalized anxiety disorders. But the medication makes your brain foggy and you sound even less intelligent when on it. You can also have mood swings when changing doses or medications. It also has other side effects. Medications for mental disorders aren't silver bullets--they aren't like antibiotics.

And anyway my anxiety didn't stop me from going to conferences or presenting, even giving good presentations. It made it so I didn't enjoy the conferences and struggled to seem particularly happy or cheerful vs. serious. Also, a lot of this is just my personality. Even if I had no anxiety I probably wouldn't be the kind of person who liked big social events.

Relevant to the OP, I think it's important to ask yourself whether you are the kind of person who can network at social events. If you're not good at this, can you learn? If you feel your mental health or personality or whatever isn't really compatible with this life style, then that it something to keep in mind when pursuing philosophy. It really helps to get a job if you are a great networker.

grymes

Michael, upthread, said "You shouldn't be shoving your work in front of people, but you do need to show up so they're aware of you and look you up." For what it's worth, I've had some success making connections by (politely, unassumingly) shoving my work in front of people via email. Word is that before the internet age philosophers would send physical article offprints to other philosophers who might be interested in the work. I don't see why it should now be socially verboten to do the same via email. Some people'll ignore you (which is totally fine!), but some people'll engage--which is great for those anxious types among us who want to talk philosophy with people we don't yet know without having to awkwardly network at conferences.

Assistant prof 2

A counterpoint to all of the above responses: I suffer from all of the things listed here (unable to sleep prior to conferences, spending far too much time worrying about what I said and what others said and whether it could have been misconstrued or if someone else was judging me, feeling too shy to spend much time on social networks with other philosophers or sending them my work or going to conferences I'm not already accepted to present at, self-diminishing my work and accomplishments or sounding unsure about my own views, etc) and I did get a tenure-track job at a PhD-granting place in my fifth year of grad school, so I really doubt the generalized advice ("rethink philosophy because you're unlikely to succeed at it") is helpful. That said, I did submit to a lot of conferences, I did meet a lot of people that way, and I don't think I come across as socially awkward in public settings -- if anything, the problem is that I am *too* attuned to others' feelings (causing me anxiety) rather than the other way around. And the time I saved not going to a lot of events probably helped me to focus over extensive periods of time on my writing and thinking. So YMMV.

Evan

Assistant prof 2: To be fair, I think the implied assumption from some of the above comments and even past discussions about succeeding or flourishing in philosophy is that people like you are rare. As your case has shown, it is not *impossible* per se for people to succeed, but given what I have observed in this blog so far, I infer that there is a high *probability* that it’s going to be very difficult.

Therefore, from a probabilistic perspective, being very shy, timid, and anxious will most likely decrease one’s chances of flourishing in philosophy and maybe other fields as well. It is a very pessimistic picture. But unless the structure of professional philosophy changes to accommodate very anxious, shy, and timid people, it’s going to be very difficult to succeed in philosophy for these people. I’m just being honest based on my observations so far.

For all we know, many of these “confident” philosophers maybe just “faking it till they make it.”

the quiet professional

This misanthropic introvert with a big ol' sack of imposter syndrome has done just fine in the profession (tenured and all that). Giving talks was never a problem - more the actual interacting with people. I talked very little in my first two years of grad school.

In some ways, being less interactive is good. I can do research alone for hours at a time without distractions (no social media, either). Since I have no confidence whatsoever in my work, I tend to be very careful, and generally get it accepted to good journals in 1-2 tries.

To be sure, my networking could be much better, and this has perhaps hurt my career. E-mailing random people I've met once or twice and asking for feedback/letters just isn't my thing. That said, I have yet to get a job - or even an interview - where SC members were in my 'network' (and I've interviewed for jobs recently).

As I've spent more time in the profession and developed an area of expertise, I've become better at differentiating helpful questions and comments (in Q&A sessions as well as referee feedback) from words for the sake of words and self-promoting BS. The people that appear confident are not always doing anything useful. When I do speak up, I try to be useful.

I've also grown to prefer pre-read conferences and workshops; there is more time to process and get my thoughts together. For in-person conferences, I find an extrovert friend and latch on to them for dear life! They never seem to mind, and I've certainly met some interesting people that way.

The point is that there's no one right way to do this profession, and I know of others like me. Look carefully in the shadows at the next Philosophy Smoker and you just might find us.

Marcus Arvan

Evan: Following "the quiet professional's" comment, I'm not at all sure how rare successful people like Assistant Prof 2 are. Although (as noted in the OP) I'm not a timid fellow (in terms of e.g. sending out work for review), I otherwise strongly identify with Assistant Prof 2's self-description. I am an *extremely* shy person who is awkward in groups, has never been very good at networking or approaching people or sending them work for feedback, has trouble sleeping before conferences and interviews (I have a very serious congenital sleep disorder), and so on. I am very much one of those 'fake it until you make it' people - someone who works hard to *be* personable and outgoing when, naturally speaking, these things come very difficult to me.

Has this made academia difficult for me? Yes, 1000%. But it hasn't prevented me from flourishing. So, I guess I'm skeptical of your pessimistic picture. It seems overly pessimistic to me. As my spouse (who has a PhD in psychology) likes to say, 'impression management' is a set of skills that one can learn. Natural shyness and timidity don't determine our fates. Our choices (along with a whole lot of luck) do.

Evan

Marcus: I understand. I guess I was still unsure about what ‘flourishing’ means in this context. I imagine ‘flourishing’ in philosophy means 1) securing tenure, being professionally productive (e.g. producing lots of research, which may require more conferences, networking, co-authoring maybe, etc), 2) having overall subjective happiness or at least contentment with oneself and one’s career and 3) having one’s work or role be meaningful.

I suppose for you, you consider yourself to be flourishing despite your psychology. And I suppose a lot of people “fake it” or at least, deal with the cons of their profession and psychology and conclude that they are flourishing. I think we should be skeptical here.

For example, lots of lawyers and doctors have secured permanent jobs, but a lot of them are stressed out, lack sleep, and are depressed. Are they flourishing? I doubt it. Their jobs are meaningful sure, which is probably a primary motivating factor of them staying. There is a sense of duty I suppose. But overall they’re not mostly *happy*. I fail to see how one can flourish in a profession without sufficient overall pleasure and peace of mind in conjunction with other goods above.

To take another example, some LGBTQ+ philosophers have secured positions, but given the amount of transphobia and anti-trans arguments in the discipline, I fail to see how they are flourishing. I suppose many marginalized people justify themselves staying in their profession despite obstacles because there is meaning in it and that at the very least, they have a secured and stable paying job.

I read an article about a trans philosopher who quit because she couldn’t handle the amount of anti-trans rhetoric and arguments there are. Even if she bites-the-bullet and stayed or “fake it”, I highly doubt she would be *truly* flourishing.

Can OP secure a permanent job by being shy or timid? Sure. Can OP be productive? Yes, because they can bite-the-bullet and “fake it” or just muddle through.

But can or will OP flourish? I’m not ready to say, “yes” yet for the reasons above. Perhaps “flourishment” is too lofty of a goal for most of us. I just don’t think we should ground “flourishing” on the basis of securing a permanent job and productivity alone.

Rex

I'm successful, but I'm not flourishing. Many aspects of this job are a bad fit for me. I dread many of the things I have to do. I mean this literally, dread. Sweat, fear, anxiety, trembling hands, trembling speech, sleepless nights. I've received some not-so-gentle mockery from colleagues who mistake my stillness for disinterest or dullness, or who just like to pick on the shy guy. But I have been able to do the job well enough to get tenure, so I think I've succeeded at it.

I think other jobs would fit me much better than this one does, and I sometimes wish I had taken up one of those professions. But I like some aspects of this job, and I've been doing it for a while, so I'm sticking with it for now.

postdoc

I guess something to consider is if you are naturally like Marcus and me, maybe philosophy isn't in fact the discipline tailored for you, even if it might have seemed that way from the perspective of the uninitiated. I don't know... but maybe there are jobs that don't require so much struggle? I hated all the social aspects of philosophy and the politics and what I perceived to be a popularity contest. I now work in finance, specifically market analysis. There are no social aspects of this job and all that matters is money. It's also quite intellectual. I don't think just anyone could get the kind of job I have now. But I do wonder whether it's worth working so hard to be someone you aren't naturally in order to do philosophy? Surely there is something else you can do that is easier for you.

Assistant prof 2

Evan and others: I'm a bit perplexed by the contention that philosophy is a bad fit for the socially anxious. How many other jobs are there where you can be alone, left to your devices, for most of the working day (and, indeed, year)? You only need to go to a few conferences a year or send your work to a handful of people to stay in the "know." Social networking can indeed be helpful (when it's not counterproductive...), but I don't see why abstaining from it need be considered detrimental to one's career, or to one's flourishing. Are there other better-fitting jobs people like us should then consider instead? What are they?

Marcus Arvan

Evan: as someone who works on ideal and nonideal theory (with respect to morality and political philosophy), here are my thoughts:

(1) There is virtually no career that will make one perfectly (or ideally) happy. All careers--including awesome ones, like being a successful musician, actor, etc.--have serious costs and tradeoffs. So, what a rational person does is try to choose the best career that enables them to flourish the *most* (comparatively), given the inevitable costs and tradeoffs there are.

(2) As Assistant prof 2's last comment illustrates, there are obvious advantages for timid, introverted people in being professional philosophers. I held a lot of other jobs prior to becoming an academic, and they were all *worse* fits for my natural shyness and introversion than philosophy (not to mention the fact that none of them paid me to do something that I absolutely love for a living: philosophy!). I spend my whole day in front of the computer, and like 10-12 hours a week in front of students teaching. That's vastly better (for a shy introvert) that virtually any other job, where one has to interact and socialize with people constantly (including clients and 'people at the office'). Finally, again, there's the fact that I get to do philosophy for a living--which very much makes me happy, compared to other things I might do.

(3) On flourishing: it's not clear from your comment whether you mean to endorse some kind of hedonist view of flourishing or well-being - but regardless, while I agree that a flourishing life should have a good amount of pleasure, I also think that human flourishing (or, at least, flourishing for some human beings) involves two other things: (A) meaning, and (B) overcoming challenging obstacles (many of which are quite painful). Indeed, I think these two things are related. Many of the things we value most in life (qua meaningful pursuits) are the kinds of obstacles we overcome. Some of those obstacles are outside of us (hence, why some people enjoy and derive meaning from climbing mountains--which it also painful!). However, many of the most important obstacles we face in life are internal. And so, in my case at least, the struggle to overcome my natural limitations (i.e. my shyness, introversion, etc.) have indeed been painful, but also *worth it*. See also Nicolas Delon's excellent paper, 'Strangers to ourselves: a Nietzschean challenge to the badness of suffering': https://philpapers.org/rec/DELSTO-2

(4) Your point on trans philosophers and exclusion are important and very well-taken. But I have to confess, the analogy here seems overdrawn to me. Yes, as an introvert, I think the world tends to be pretty unfair to people like me. And yeah, I'd like to do my part to change that. But still, for all that, the challenges and forms of discrimination that introverts face seem to me to be vastly different than those faced by trans philosophers--and in a way that is consistent with shy, timid, people flourishing in the profession. Case in point: there aren't people out there all over twitter debating whether there should be laws excluding introverts from jobs or sports, or interminable philosophical debates (on blogs or journals articles) about whether introverts exist and should have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. But of course these are the kinds of things that trans members of the profession have to face day-in, day-out. So, the cases seem very disanalogous to me.

Evan

Assistant prof 2: I said “overall” happiness and peace of the mind in my comment. So if you have more subjective happiness and peace of mind than you do anxiety or other psychological issues AND you meet other two points listed, then we can consider that as flourishing. No job is perfect. But if one feels anxiety, stress, and depression every day or most days, then one wouldn't be flourishing.

I never said that philosophy would necessarily be a bad “fit” (if by “fit” you mean flourishing.) Rather, there’s no guarantee. Everybody’s subjective well-being is different. This is why I was not ready to answer whether or not OP will flourish. I just don’t know given other factors to consider that OP did not mention. We should go case by case, which is what I have been suggesting on this blog in previous discussions already.

Evan

Marcus: Please re-read my comment again since we don’t disagree on point 3).

Will or can OP flourish? They probably can like Marcus and Assistant prof 2 if the only things that prevent them from flourishing are shyness and timidity. So here is my question to OP: Is there anything else substantive that may prevent you from flourishing in philosophy in particular?

Marcus Arvan

Evan: okay, fair enough. Of course I agree that if someone is miserable/not happy doing what they are doing, then sure, maybe they should be doing something else. However, the OP's original query was: can a shy and timid person flourish in the profession? I'm glad we agree that they can. I just don't share your skepticism and pessimism about the likelihoods.

Evan

Marcus: I understand. I wish there is more research done on this. Hopefully, I’ll be less pessimistic.

Evan

On a side note: I relate to what the quiet professional said: I usually don’t comment unless I have something fruitful or useful to say in academic or professional discussions. That’s one of my maxims. There is a hole in it of course: what I consider be fruitless/useless, somebody else may consider it to be fruitful/useful.

Prof L

While my experience may not be the norm, I’ve found philosophy to be something that has really helped me to adjust socially in ways that would be impossible in other careers. I’m forced to stand in front of other people and talk, I’ve made mistakes and been embarrassed and then, life goes on. In some ways excessive shyness can come from a kind of fear, even (for me) a kind of self-focus, where I was constantly worried about what other people thought of me. Anxiety is a constant friend, but in many ways by facing these fears and living through my own social embarrassments has made me a much more well-adjusted human being, less concerned about what others think and less focused on myself. That’s not to say that shyness is necessarily a vice, but I think it can be crippling in certain ways (not just professionally but emotionally and socially) and a philosophy career can help ameliorate that.

Postdoc

What doesn't kill you doesn't always make you stronger. The stress and anxiety associated with publishing and job hunting caused my anxiety to get worse and for me to develop OCD and systematic insomnia.

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