Wednesday, October 27, 2004

From the Mail: On Academic Philosophy

A reader writes:

As a senior undergraduate in philosophy filling out applications to graduate schools, I find your descriptions of the professional life in philosophy disheartening, to say the least. Do you ever feel like your assessments of departmental life are ever more cynical than necessary?

BV: Actually, there are more things wrong with professional life than I mentioned, one being professional envy, another political correctness. As for being cynical, I would rather describe myself as realistic. A cynic is one who is contemptuously distrustful of human nature and human motives, and I’m far too idealistic for that. Indeed it is largely my idealism that inspires my critique.

Nevertheless, bear in mind that what I said in that post is one man’s view based on a particular set of experiences interpreted through a particular set of attitudes and values. Your mileage may vary! Talk to other people; make your own observations; keep your own counsel.

Certainly there are some benefits of having a career teaching undergraduates, even if the vast number of them are attending your lectures purely for the credit hours and fulfillment of core requirements. Maybe I'm wrong, but I hope I'm not.

BV: There is no denying that some teaching is extremely rewarding. I once directed a dynamite combined graduate-undergraduate seminar consisting of about 10 highly motivated and intelligent people. It was a wonderful experience and I would have taught it for nothing. Members of another class nominated me for a teaching award. One of their number presented me with a chess book as a gift at the end of the semester inscribed thusly: "To Dr. V, for excellence in teaching." That book is a cherished possession, and I will never forget its donor.
I decided, however, that on balance teaching was not my path, and that writing philosophy full-time was a better use of my time and talents.

I do thoroughly enjoy reading your blog and professional publications (2 semesters ago I wrote a lower level paper responding to your negative assessment of the doctrine of the incarnation that appeared in Philo). Do you have any advice for a soon-to-be graduate student?

BV: If philosophy is your passion, then I say pursue it for its own sake and not for the sake of earning a living from it. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the latter if you can find a job. Good tenure-track jobs with a reasonable shot at tenure are hard to secure, however, and it may be necessary to re-tool somewhere down the line, unless you want to end up a permanent adjunct teaching numerous courses for subsistence wages. Graduate professors are not likely to give you the straight skinny on this since it is in their interest to have graduate students around: they can be put to work as assistants and go-fers, they tend to make better students, and it is more fun and prestigious to conduct small graduate seminars than teach large sections of logic and intro. They often have a perverse ‘production mentality’: they want to process as many students as possible, crank out advanced degrees to justify their existence, gain political clout vis-a-vis other departments, expand the scope of their operations with hirings and conferences, new journals, nauseam.

If you do go to graduate school, here are some pointers. Of course, these are ceteris paribus rules to be consumed cum grano salis. Your mileage may vary. Know thyself!

Give yourself no more than five years to earn the Ph.D. Never, ever take an incomplete! (I never took one, but I observed how others were destroyed by them.) Don’t hang around with unserious people – those who are slated to end up grad student emeriti. Find a dissertation topic early. Focus it and focus it some more. Don’t try to write a magnum opus at the age of 28. You will be lucky if you can pull it of at 58. Think of the dissertation as a union card, a proof of competence in a specialized area. Give yourself a finite time to write the thing, say one year, then rigorously exclude all distractions and finish it. I wrote my dissertation while teaching two courses by arising at the stroke of midnight and working all night on it, then teaching my courses, going for a run, playing a game of chess with Quentin Smith, and then beddy-bye at 4:00 PM. Carpe noctem! Turned out to be one of the most productive and happy periods of my life. Be sure your dissertation is completed before you accept a job. Don’t get married until you have the Ph.D., a job, and money in the bank. As a general rule, no marriage before the age of thirty. And don’t sire up any kiddies until you are married.

In sum, I am not trying to encourage or discourage, but to present one man’s point of view. You should consider it critically in conjunction with other points of view, and realize that it may fit your situation only in part.