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recent UK PhD

Thanks for saying this!

I sometimes enjoy talking about philosophical stuff outside of my work but usually I find such conversations stressful because I feel that everyone around me is so much better read than me (which is true - but its not my fault; disability and education inequality created this situation). I often have to admit that I don't understand the clever joke someone just made about the Tractatus or whatever.

It might be helpful to think about why people are talking shop. Is it because that's a conversation they particularly enjoy having, or is it because they don't know you well enough to know what else to talk about? If it's the latter, as I think it often is, you can more easily just steer conversations away and talk about something else.

I often say "sorry, my brain stopped doing philosophy three hours ago, I don't have anything clever to contribute on this", which no-one has ever responded poorly too, but that is of course much more comfortable to say to a friend than an acquaintance.

One more thing - it certainly hasnt been true for me that PhD students had a lot of time on our hands! But it is true (or was before we all worked from home) that we have a lot more time *together*. I.e. we're often all working in the same room, rather than separate offices. Also, we often end up spending some social time (pub trips etc) together, because none of us have time to foster the friendships we used to have outside of work, particularly if we moved city for the PhD. Given this, colleagues end up being our only friends where we live, so shop talk is inevitable when its the main thing we have in common.


I think the best way to move past your anxiety is to just not take other people so seriously, whether they are students or faculty. Just because someone talks a lot doesn't mean they are saying anything worthwhile. Graduate students always love to make an impression. Perhaps they feel the need to 'prove themselves'. But I've found the quite ones who know how to listen and ask good questions to be far more impressive than the talkative ones.

And if you struggle to follow what someone is saying, odds are they aren't communicating well. There are countless times I've listened to a grad student or a guest speaker give a presentation where I think to myself, "I don't have a clue what they are saying, this is complicated. I must be a real dummy", only to have one of the seasoned faculty members say that they found the talk confusing and hard to follow.

So, I would encourage you to focus more on your own philosophical development and less on social appearances. I find that many graduate students have mastered the art of talking about philosophy and making a big show in the class room, but flop when it comes to doing the hard work of writing good papers and getting published. I think Marcus is right that 'talking shop' is not a foundational skill.

Shay Logan

My experience is that the people most impressed with the value of doing philosophy out loud are among the worst actual philosophers. And it's not hard to see why: philosophy is a written discipline. Socrates aside, it always has been. And again, it's not hard to see why this should be the case: words in heads do weird things. My `it is not the case that P' easily becomes `it is the case that not P' when it's being stored in a brain. It doesn't when it's stored on paper. Given that exactly this level of specificity is required for doing philosophy well and that it's essentially impossible to accomplish it when relying only on brains and sounds, people who try to just do philosophy using brains and sounds tend to do bad philosophy.

There are exceptions, but they're exceptions. And when I encounter those exceptional people who can do good philosophy out loud, I shrug, watch the performance, and then, when it's over, return to doing philosophy with pen and paper the way god intended. Because, at the end of the day, that's all being able to talk shop super well is: it's an ability to put on a good show. It's not a bad thing. It's just not a particularly important good thing.

Grad Student

I second what Tom says about grad students. I used to be intimidated by other students who talked a lot in class. But, when I thought about what they said a bit later I realized what they said wasn't well thought out and wasn't insightful.

Also, I've noticed in colloquia that faculty and grad students like to ask questions that miss the point of the talk and then the speaker doesn't answer their question.

So I wouldn't fret if you prefer to actually think things through before you speak.


My advice: don't pretend to understand when you don't. In fact, ask questions when other people are explaining something to you. Usually a question posed by a trained philosopher is a good question, even if it's *just* a clarificatory one. This way you can use your ignorance/humility as a way to meaningful contribute. I'm an introvert, there's lots I don't understand, and this has done wonders for me.


While I'm all for relieving people's anxiety about 'talking shop', can we do that without putting down the people who ask questions or give comments in class or at conferences. It is important to have people speak in these settings - there wouldn't be much of a class or a conference if everyone just sat there in silence. When it comes to questions at conferences, for me personally, its not so much about whether someone gives a really good objection or raises a really legitimate concern, but the trains of thought these questions/comments lead me down in the days and weeks after the talk. Its these trains of thought that often take a piece of writing from a rough draft to something potentially publishable for me.

To the original question, I would encourage the reader to regard talking shop as a low stakes place to try out philosophical reasoning and ideas. Conceptualizing it this way may help make it a less anxiety inducing experience. If your colleagues are aggressive or judgmental when talking shop, then your anxiety is justified and you should avoid having those types of conversations with them. (I'll also note that all the judgement in this comment thread about people who talk philosophy in informal or formal settings is likely what creates anxiety for some people in the first place.)


I'm not very good at talking shop. I don't think very clearly or sharply aloud (I do when writing, though!), and I'm not great at remembering stuff that I've read but haven't actually written on or taught. I'm also not super socially adept.

What I *am* good at, however, is listening, and helping others to say a bit more. So I just do that, unless asked about my own projects.


Can I ask a follow-up? It's kind of silly but I'm always a bit reluctant to talk about what I'm working on since I am afraid of people stealing my ideas. It happened to me once before and it a bad, violating experience. I am just wondering if anyone has the same fear.


This isn't a great answer, but the #1 thing that's improved my confidence in 'talking shop' is just being around for a while. Doing some time in the profession has increased the breadth and depth of my knowledge in various areas of philosophy, and working with numerous colleagues and students has improved my abilities to, um, interact.

I also found ways to contribute to conversations while remaining largely silent. Facial expressions and physical cues can indicate interest, agreement, disagreement, confusion, and so on. Even though I'm an introvert and prefer to have about forty drafts of something in my head before talking, it's still possible to be part of a conversation.

Finally, I've worked on reframing my perspective on contributions to conversations (assuming they are productive conversations and not just late night pub banter). If a half-baked idea might be helpful to somebody, then it's almost selfish to keep it to myself. So, although I'd rather not share Draft #10 of whatever is in my head, I realize that if there's a chance it will help somebody, I need to work up the guts to share it out loud.


Kyle: I'm sorry that happened.

I think it's pretty rare, however. And if I'm talking about my work, then it's probably at a conference, where I'm presenting some of my work, so that particular cat is already out of the bag. Plus, if they start work on the idea right away, I still have a huge head start in the form of a complete paper that's probably already under review, or is about to be.

(It also helps that my research community is pretty tightly-knit, however. Friends don't steal friends' work, after all.)

Overseas Tenured

I second those who said that talk shopping wasn't a very important skill. I'm saying this as someone who was actually pretty good at it in grad school (I think). But my experience is similar to Marcus': while I talk shop more than he does, its felt importance rapidly diminished once I finished my PhD and started working in an academic job.

I also find myself thoroughly unimpressed with show-off golden boys who are very quick coming up with objections but are often pale imitations of their famous supervisors and haven't written much that's actually worth reading. If I talk shop, I have the selfish purpose of trying to make my ideas better (and of course I'm happy to reciprocate and help my discussant improve theirs). So as far as I'm concerned, the aggressive sharpshooter in his 5th year of the PhD who is always on his guard and always has a quick, technically virtuoso objection, is someone who very often sucks at talk shopping.

Bill Vanderburgh

Great post and replies. I'd add: in the great majority of cases where I've been involved in or witnessed philosophy shop talk, the interlocutors are talking past each other, not really having a discussion. The field is so vast that most of us have no idea about what the others in our department study. People in these conversations are often concerned only to talk about what they happen to know.

Grad school creates an illusion of common knowledge, since small groups of people have read the same ten articles in that seminar last year and so they have something to say to each other. But generally the field is not like that.


I've found that a lot of shop talk is not about ideas or arguments, but logistics and mechanics - where to publish, experiences with this journal, press, or philosopher, conference stories, departmental politics, etc. I find myself talking shop only with close friends (who don't judge me) or my one colleague who works in my area.

Anonymous Grad

Since so many of the comments here are negative about talking shop I just wanted to add a more positive side:

I am not a good writer, it is the part of philosophy I struggle with the most. I am a good talker: I love talking to people about my ideas and about their ideas. I make more progress on my work talking with other people for half an hour than I do in three days trying to write or read by myself.

I think talking about philosophy is incredibly valuable to me and many people like me. Please don't assume that everyone talking about philosophy is just trying to show off or sound smart; some of us really just are interested in the ideas. (Although, I find question and answer time in seminars and more formal settings completely useless.)

Of course, I can see how talking shop can be intimidating and I don't think you need to do it. If you don't get anything out of talking to other people about philosophy then don't. I think Marcus and others are right that this is not necessary or even particularly useful from a career perspective. But if you want to talk philosophy because you want to learn and think and have fun then just approach it with that attitude.

If you find yourself talking to people really are showing off then just don't worry about them. They can waste their own time. But there are plenty of us who want to hear what you have to say.

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