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« What is it like to work as a philosopher in South Korea? | Main | Being on the job market: some application statistics & takeaways (by Michael Walschots) »

03/02/2021

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You got this!

From personal experience -

Step 1: Vent. Talk to close friends/family, meet with a therapist, write in a journal — whatever, and however, long it takes to get it out. After moving past my anger, I realized I was hurt. Proceed to step 2.

Step 2: Locate a source of motivation in proving them wrong. I had my share of discouraging experiences, but I still believed in myself deep down. If faculty aren’t seeing what you are capable of - the question to ask yourself isn’t “am I even capable, then?” but rather, “what can I do to help them see that I am?” (If you find yourself dwelling on the former. STOP. Easier said than done, I know. But I think the only times this should happen is if someone is seriously contemplating leaving the profession)

Step 3: (Disclaimer - This may not be the case for OP. But it was my experience, and I have found it to be pretty common for minorities in philosophy to struggle with the following) Upon reflection, I found I was guilty of two things:

1. downplaying my accomplishments - if someone offered me a compliment, I would respond in a self-diminishing way. I had to stop doing this. It is not arrogant to admit that you work hard and are proud of what you have accomplished. If someone offers me a compliment now, I try to graciously accept with a simple ‘ah geez, thank you’ (even when the urge is still strong to undersell myself).
2. not promoting myself enough - It was the wake up call I needed to get my sh*t together. Instead of waiting for my advisors to contact me or notice my progress, I started taking the initiative to reach out to them regularly with updates (Here is what I applied to, here are the conferences I am attending, here is where my work is at, etc.)

I hope this helps, OP. Stay strong - it's worth it :)

I deserve..

@ You got this!. Thank you for your advice. I am not the OP but reading your advice really helps me think through my situation. I am too guilty of the two things you mentioned.

anonymous cashew

As a minority philosopher, my experience as a graduate student matched what OP describes. I really like what 'You got this!' commented.

I also want to offer a counter-perspective from my own experience, which is that when I understood that I was being unjustly underestimated, I wasted a lot of time trying to get faculty who didn’t believe in me to see that I was a good philosopher. That choice ultimately resulted in a lot of wasted effort and a lot of grief and frustration, because I had enough external validation to know that I was a good philosopher, but the problem was never me or anything that I was doing. It was them.

This is easier said than done, but try not to be discouraged by the way these people behave towards you. Try also not to be discouraged by rejection. Keep submitting papers to conferences and journals and when you get a positive response, let that be the reinforcement you need to continue. If you get a negative response, know that both conference and journal submissions are often themselves vetted by complacent, bad actors, and let it be water off the camel’s back.

What really helped me was to find a small community of similarly minoritized philosophers who were advanced grad students or faculty from other departments, who did believe in me and support me. This proved more beneficial (both professionally and for my own emotional well-being) than trying to change someone’s mind when they are not open to it or willing to do so. A good way to do this is to meet as many people in your area of specialization as you can, either by going to conferences or sending emails. Not everyone will be kind or receptive to you, but you might find a small handful of generous philosophers who will give you the support you deserve.

Another thing that helped me was to reflect on the ways in which I could help be a part of the solution instead of a part of the problem. A lot of the poor treatment I received was a model for the kind of teacher and advisor I DIDN’T want to be. It informed own teaching habits and it inspired a lot of outreach work that I hope helped people who were in my position see that they are not alone. Channel your frustration into helping others.

Finally, please please please understand that at the end of the day, doing philosophy is just a job and no job is worth the sacrifice of your mental well-being. For your own sake, pause to consider whether what you are getting out of this is commensurate with what you are putting in. A lot of people who have been lucky told me that it’s “worth it” to persevere and to deal with being treated poorly, but I can personally attest to the fact that there are a ton of really good jobs out there in the world where you will be treated much better. Philosophy needs people like you, and you deserve to have a place in this industry, but you do not owe it to anyone to stay and endure a toxic environment. You owe it to yourself to be in a place where you feel supported and confident, and where your efforts are reciprocated. This is the choice I ultimately made and it made me realize that academic philosophy in no way models a normal professional environment. Understanding this as a graduate student would have made me feel much less afraid to move on.

LH

Find like-minded allies and stick together - to share your experiences, including your anger, and to encourage each other. I would not have made it through my PhD without such a group (all women, all foreigners). We keep supporting each others even years later. One of us opted out of philosophy, one is a very successful postdoc, two are on permanent professorships. None of us would be where we are today without that kind of peer support.

consider this

Many good philosophers are bad people. Mean, vindictive, and emotionally immature. I think academia has a higher concentration of these types, generally, than other professional fields.

I try to worry about whether or not my actions align with who I want to be as a person, and whatever philosophical progress I can make within that framework is just icing on the cake. I also try to treat my engagement with philosophy closer to an interest or a hobby than a sport. If you've gotten this far, chances are there are some people who think your work is worthwhile. Listen to those people, and judge your work by their standards and expectations, rather than those of some critical, thus, seemingly, more objective standard.

People have different ideas of the uses and applications of philosophy. Those who think it consists of one particular end are often not in the position to judge work that is operating under a different conception entirely. Some people might think a contradiction is an issue, others are Graham Priest. Imagine how much flack Graham Priest had to take, and whether he would have been able to develop his ideas if he listened to those who thought that non-traditional logics were nonsensical.

consider this

Raymond Geuss, Bernard Williams, Charles Taylor, etc. are other such examples. There are many. All had to disregard the received wisdom of their philosophical milieu's to develop their work. Seek out those who will recognize the value of what you're trying to do. Those who are interpersonally discouraging are a priori not such people.

that whereof you cannot speak, you must post anonymously

I am a woman. In my first year of grad school I received a letter from the DGS saying I had received an unfavorable 1st year review and probably didn't belong in the program, in part because I was doing the "wrong kind" of philosophy. (Basically, they seemed to suspect me of having Continental inclinations, which I don't really, but also that shouldn't be bad?) I was already under a lot of stress and basically fell apart for a little while. But the first thing I did was ask my advisor if he knew about it, and he both didn't and was confused. That helped a lot in making me feel better. It turned out only 2 people had any say in the negative evaluation and one of them was denied tenure. Anyway, I got my butt in gear and wrote two hyper-analytic term papers to convince them they were wrong.

So I'd second finding some support or encouragement, and using discouragement as a source of motivation. It would've helped me a lot more if I'd had other grad students to talk about this with--even after we developed a community among women grad students a few years later, I never told anyone about this because I was ashamed.

41% unparalleled genius, 59% idiot

Looking back at graduate school, and even to this day, I feel like I (and lots of other academics) have two modes of thinking about ourselves: unparalleled genius and loser/idiot who will never make it. This makes me especially vulnerable to criticism since any hint that I am not an unparalleled genius lands me in loser-ville, and I'm a wreck. Journal rejections, stupid mistakes, awkward interactions, etc. can make me experience long bouts of self-doubt, make me want to quit, and so on.

So, that's a problem, not a solution, but one coping strategy I've developed is to remind myself that I need to work hard, that I'm not the greatest thing to hit philosophy since Aristotle, and that's okay. Having a strong self-conception as a fairly intelligent, but within-the-pack kind of philosopher has made me have more patience with myself, and less anxiety when it turns out I'm not perfect, my paper needs work, my advisor was not impressed, my fellow student thinks I'm dumb or my work was bad, and any other things that are difficult to hear. Having a strong self-conception allows me to keep my emotional life independent of these incidents, and also allows me to consider criticisms or think through a stupid mistake that I made with a clearer mind, without falling apart, to determine what to take seriously and what to completely dismiss. (For example: so the referee insulted my intelligence, my writing skills, and so on. It's probably a little extreme, but surely this paper is not perfect, and I could work to think through it more clearly. Is there anything in the report that I can use to improve the paper?).

It also helps to talk to someone about it. Every person I know deals with stuff like this. Not just minorities, not just women (I'm a woman).

Assistant Professor

I recognize the OP's experiences, and wish I didn't. I am sorry that she and her colleague are having to grapple with these problems, but not surprised - I wish I were. You Got This! and Anonymous Cashew both give great perspective. A couple additional thoughts from my own experience:

1. Identify at least one faculty member by whom you do feel supported and encouraged. If you don't have this in your department, reconsider whether it is the right department for you (NOT whether philosophy is right for you, just if this is the right place to do your philosophy). While I felt repeatedly undermined and dismissed by some faculty in my department, I had two primary mentors who were well established in the field and who continually bolstered me and my work. Course work when you have to take classes from around the department can be tough, but if you have the right people to mentor you beyond coursework, it can get better.

2. Consider whether you can come up with a basic quip when someone does one of these bad behaviors to the extent you feel comfortable. It can be unsettling in the moment, and throw you off guard. But thinking about strategies in advance for comments you might make could be helpful. This depends on many factors so might not feel possible. If someone confused me for another female student I might say "You know, there are still so few women in philosophy I thought it would be easier to tell us apart!" or simply ask "what makes you think I am so-and-so?" and make them explain the mix up.

3. The differential treatment is a systemic problem: if there are resources to raise these and you feel comfortable doing so, you might consider it. Maybe an ombudsperson in your department, an equity officer in the college/university, or working with others to request a visit by the APA committee on the status of women to do an external department review and make recommendations. As we know, it is hard to change a culture and will take more than speaking up about individual instances of differential treatment, though those individual instances and reports are one place to start.

4. Being underestimated feels terrible: you got into the program, they believed in you then and they should support you now. I agree with other posters that the best retort is to be successful, but it is HARD to be successful when feeling undermined, under-supported, or underestimated. Mentors and allies will help, as will self-advocacy and self-promotion (for example I realized that male students were getting invited to stuff with guest speakers that I wasn't getting invited to, and I finally spoke up and said "guest X works on topics related to my work, I want to come to the dinner when they visit our department." I went to the dinner, and it reset a relationship between me and a faculty member by whom I felt dismissed).

5. It is the field of philosophy that needs to change, not you. Deciding how much you can or want to contribute to the change (or how much to put up with until it changes) depends on your goals, needs, and personality.

Do Stuff

I luckily did not experience these particular problems in graduate school. However, I experienced other problems. By far, the best coping mechanism I found was to not neglect my non-academic life. Having sources of self-esteem other than being a superstar graduate student really helped me. Beware anyone who says that reading and talking about philosophy should be your entire life. Even my best friends in my program and I spent most of our time talking about other things!

One thing I wish I had done: take courses (for free!) in the university in other subjects--like computer science, different languages, etc. I know several people from my program who basically did computer science degrees for free while receiving funding, and went on to make 4x as much money as I make now as a TT professor. (I should note that I'm very happy with my job, but I'm sure the knowledge that they had something to fall back on made their time in graduate school much more enjoyable than mine.)

Evan

There are two other aspects of discouragement that I will touch upon: the tone of the speaker and the content of the speech (e.g. excessive harsh criticisms). These things can be discouraging to a grad student even if the other person did not intend to discourage him or her.

Tone: the first philosophy conference I attended was when I was an undergraduate. One of the members of the audience made a very condescending remark towards the presenter who was a woman. I and a few other members of the audience were shocked. We turned in disbelief.

I was so offended by his tone and condescending remark. He didn’t even let her finish her presentation or even let her show us her argument. Looking back, if he had just shut up, he would have known not to ask such a condescending remark because her presentation/argument actually answered his question anyways.

I still remember how it made me feel to this very day. It’s quite triggering even as a bystander, let alone to the presenter. I can only imagine how embarrassing and uncomfortable and hence discouraging it must be. It was my first time going to an academic conference/symposium where I witnessed such a behavior. I did not expect our mutual journey to the truth would involve or even require unnecessary pettiness and immaturity.

His remark was so uncalled for, impulsive, and rude. I think conference organizers really need to stress the importance of professionalism and mutual respect. I think a lot of philosophers tend to be *too* comfortable about to blurring the line between what is professional and what is not. Part of the attitude I think comes from the fact that philosophers think they can rationalize their behavior without considering that others don’t share such rationalizations as them. So long as some action can be rationalized, it can be pursued. Such an approach is solipsistic because such rationalizations aren’t considerate of other people’s thoughts and feelings.

Content: Even if philosophers don’t have a mean tone, the content of their speech can be discouraging. Too many criticisms with little praise or appreciation of the student’s work can be and usually is discouraging to them. My advice in this realm is, if you present a paper, make it clear that you welcome suggestions and not just criticism.

If your professor has too much critique for you with very little to no suggestions, then it’s safe to assume that the professor may be just as clueless as you are, which calls into question his or her own competence as a philosopher. And even if the professor has some suggestions but doesn’t give them to you, then that calls into question the competence of the professor as a *teacher* or advisor and you should work with ones that are better at being a teacher or advisor than that professor. A bit of gossiping with fellow grad students early on can be beneficial at determining which professors are better for you to work with and which aren’t.

OP

OP here-- thank you, everyone, for your kind contributions. It's disheartening yet somewhat helpful to hear that this is not an uncommon phenomenon. I do get positive feedback (esp outside my own department-- conferences, journals, faculty at other places) but it had been hard to deal with a few discouraging individuals who just seemed to have written me off. Nevertheless, I'm taking notes re: not downplaying my accomplishments, channeling some of the anger/anxiety towards growth, being part of the solution with service initiatives, etc.

Thank you to Marcus for posting this.

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