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02/24/2022

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Daniel

I don't know if this is actually helpful, but i find reading fiction set in the past helpful for getting a sense of perspective on how fortunate most of us are today.

I recently read the good earth, set in early 20th century China. The main concern the protagonist has for much of the book is avoiding starvation. It feels to me a lot harder to be envious of the Facebook friend who just published in phil review, (if I haven't published there), or who just got a job offer (if I don't have a job), or who just got tenure (if I'm employed but untenured), or who just won sone prestigious award (if I'm tenured but not widely read) or....when it's salient to me just how lucky I am, in historical terms.

Marcus Arvan

Daniel's comment reminded me one thing that I've written about before that I've found can work wonders: reading brutal rejection letters, book reviews, music reviews, and film reviews of great works. See: https://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2018/07/bleg-for-famous-rejection-letters.html

This always puts things in perspective for me: if even the best among us are often rejected or 'fail'--which surely made many of them feel inadequate compared to their peers--then it needn't feel so bad when you experience it yourself: you're in good company - we all go through it! :)

bigger world

I agree with Daniel. It is helpful to view myself and what I am doing now from a much larger perspective. For me, having conversations with my partner (industry person) disillusions me from the idea that philosophy is everything in my life. It doesn't mean that he disparages my achievements in doing philosophy. It's more like that while talking with him, I come to realize (again and again) that there are so many important things in one's life in very diverse ways. I still struggle with the bad habit of comparing myself with other people and the impostor syndrome. But I am getting better at just doing my stuff and enjoying it without gradually killing me.

Early career

I've served on a search committee once and I must say experiences like that are really helpful in curbing unnecessary self-doubt and peer comparison. What it made me realize is that,

1. having numerous pubs is no longer a huge difference maker because too many candidates have it, so publishing like crazy isn't the only, let along the most promising, way to stand out in a crowd.

2. More importantly, one's success in the job market has way more to do with one's fit with the hiring departments' need(s) than qualifications. In other words, luck has a tremendous role to play in this process -- it is beyond one's control whether and how many departments are hiring in one's AOSs/AOCs in a given year.

So just to echo what Marcus has said here and elsewhere, keep doing what you are best at and think more creatively (e.g. developing teaching competence in areas with strong student demand) about how to stand out in a crowd.

Someday, you might find yourself capable of outcompeting those with fancier CVs because you are judged to be a better fit for a job opening or, worse case scenario, you might end up getting nothing than a temporary career in philosophy where thinking, writing and (possibly) teaching are your primary duties.

Early career

And I’d like to just add that, even the worse case scenario (temporary jobs in philosophy) is not all that bad, considering what’s been raised in other comments to this post…

anon

I am finishing up my PhD and just went on the market for the first time, and I've struggled with finding the right balance of comparing myself to others at every stage so far. What I mean by "right balance" is that I don't think we should try not to compare ourselves to peers at all. In fact, my academic career has greatly benefitted by finding people who had been successful at the same stage I was in and trying to emulate them in some way. So, in the first couple of years of my PhD program, I compared how I was doing with people who later were able to land a job, so I would know roughly where I should be allocating my time. I've also found that comparing myself to peers who seem to be doing better than myself (for instance by reading more, publishing in better venues, etc.) helped me challenge myself and honestly assess whether I was working as hard as I thought I should be.

On the other hand, when comparing oneself to others, it is very very important to factor in differences in life circumstance as well as blind luck. Just like with social media, what we see on someone's cv is just the "highlights reel," not the scores of rejections, abandoned papers, strain on personal life, student debt incurred, etc. For example, I used to get very frustrated that I never seemed to get all the reading done for class, whereas many of my peers did. I though I "should" be able to get more reading done, but eventually I realized that I am just a slower reader and that having kids throughout grad school leaves a lot less time, so I adjusted my expectations about what I should accomplish.

So, I would recommend using peer-comparison carefully and with a lot of grace towards yourself, as a useful means of challenging yourself and figuring out how best to achieve your career goals.

You're not the best

There's an oft-pushed line that these comparisons are not only unhelpful but misguided. Misguided, they say, because our various strengths as philosophers are all incommensurable, so really we're all just on-a-par with our peers so thinking so-and-so is better than me is false.

I think that that line is itself unhelpful. It's unhelpful because obviously some people are better at philosophy than others and it's being clear makes trying to believe otherwise an exercise in self-deception.

The healthier attitude, IMO, is to accept that some people will be better (and some will be worse and some will be on-a-par) while also realising that it really doesn't much matter that others are better. Of course people are going to be better than you, but who cares? Be the best you can be and see what happens—enjoy the ride. There's something reassuring, I find, in neither trying to be nor worrying about whether you are the best.

(And, as anon says, sometimes the fact that someone is better guides you on how to be better too. But striving to be better than you currently are is not the same as trying to be the best.)

Sharing a thought

In a pretty neglected discussion from his work, Schopenhauer (of all people, right?) says the following:

"Imitating other people’s qualities and idiosyncrasies is much more shameful than wearing other people’s clothes, because it is a judgement we ourselves pass own our own worthlessness."

While the point is made in his expected harsh, exaggerated tone I think the message here is actually intended to be quite liberating, even if what it prescribes is hard to pull off. In a word, the message is: Forget about everyone else, stop trying to be like them, and be who you are. That is how you affirm your own worth, and that is how you can accomplish anything good in this life.

Does his particular message help me in moments when I find myself comparing myself to others who I judge to be better than me? I don't know. But the message does resonate with me for some reason. So I figured I'd drop it in here. Maybe, despite people like Ayn Rand giving it a bad name, the recipe for avoiding the dangers that come with comparing oneself to others is to see some value in a kind of individualism. Or maybe it's just good everyone else in a while to say to yourself: Forget everyone else, I'm doing me!

lucky to have a job

I used to compare myself to others a lot. I do not think I have overcome it but I am definitely way less anxious than before. Two thoughts helped me a lot.

First, I realized that there were so many things that were not under my control. I was in a graduate program at a state school, and my annual stipend was around 1/3 of that of some friends at elite schools. They just had more resources than me. They traveled often to conferences and did not need to worry about their bills. I had to accept it.

Second, I understood myself better through the comparisons to others. For example, one friend who had a similar background published a few papers at top journals in graduate school. I was initially very jealous. But I also gradually realized that their life was not what I wanted--they loved philosophy more than anything else, and they did not watch sports, play video games, read funny stories online, etc. And they usually worked on 4-5 papers at the same time. I just can't. My life has too many distractions. This was the moment when I decided not to apply for any job at R1 schools.

Sammy C

Consider the Jungian interpersonal. Developing a deft sense of what goals must be shared and what goals matter solves all problems except the self-compensation problem. No doubt it was important to Jung to self-compensate, the ability to share your own goals, however, or others’ is steeper but the grass-is-greener.

For Jung, and I think all interpersonal models are susceptible to this and is crucial because there is a strict dichotomy between goal-orientation and compensation. They are not ying and yang where one might share in the elements of the other. You may be able to pat your head and rub your belly but you cannot compensate and orientate.

Andy

I second the points about reading fiction and serving on search committees yourself. Both of these helped give me perspective. I have also found it helpful to develop a hobby outside of philosophy - something I can progress at where the progression makes sense, and where it doesn't matter if there are people who are better than me. Indeed, I picked up a hobby that people rarely get very good at without doing it from childhood. So I know I'll never be that good at it, and I can just focus on competing against myself rather than others. Helps me realize that my entire value doesn't derive from how well I compare to other early career philosophers on the job market. There are things beyond philosophy.

Alex P

Not sure if this is a point about comparison so much as confidence, but as someone who has struggled a lot with both, some strategies that have helped me:

1. Defer to the judgments of smarter folks. If, by your own lights, you're not that smart/talented/good at philosophy, then find someone who you think is smart. Does that person believe in you? Did they tell you your paper was good, or interesting, or your project is worthwhile? Then who are you to doubt their judgment? (After all, remember the assumption that started this problem-- you're not that smart!) In my case, I was lucky enough to have a dissertation chair who was pretty much a Genius (MacArthur official) and told me one of my chapters was worth sending straight out to a journal, which I would never have had the confidence to do on my own. Knowing she believed in my work went a long way, and it was something I drew on over the years when morale was low. I realize this is a privilege not everyone has, but if you're lucky enough to have someone who believes in you, don't discount that.

2. Think about what you bring to the table. For myself, part of that was realizing what kind of topics I was best at writing about (highly highly recommend Thi Nguyen's post on this blog about writing about what interests you). But also, think about what you bring to the table that no one else does. No one else has read the exact combination of texts you have. What offbeat things interest you? What are your interests that are less widely shared? Those might not be immediately relevant to your work, but by giving yourself freedom to keep pursuing them (vs abandoning them to read/do the same things as everyone else) you free yourself up to have some great, or at least different, ideas.

Anyway, just my two cents!

Charles Pigden

Here is something that worked for me. When I was young (like many another) I used to be troubled by self-doubt. I would lie face-down on the bed for hours wondering whether I had what it takes to make it in philosophy. But I evolved a strategy for dealing with these moods. I pitched upon a then-eminent philosopher who in my view was a complete idiot. I then fortified myself with the thought that however dumb I was I could not possibly be dumber than X and that X had managed to make it. Gradually the self-doubt evaporated.

The other thing that helped was that eminent philosophers who I *did* admire took me seriously. Again a big boost to my self-confidence. .

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