Friday, June 29, 2007

Getting the Most Out of Grad School

Show me the argument points to a recent survey of responses to the question, "Knowing everything that you know now, what advice would you give others entering or in the early years of graduate school?" Most of it concerns the admissions process. With that behind me, I'm now more interested in the question of how to get the most out of grad school once I'm there. For example, should I take as many classes as I can fit in, or focus more on individual research? (What's the best balance of seminars, reading, and writing?) Is it worth attending seminars in other disciplines? (Generalize or specialize?)

Any advice welcome!


  1. This advice is conditioned on the assumption that you at least want to keep the option of going into academia after your PhD live.

    There is a trade off between several things in Grad School
    1. Learning
    2. Researching
    3. Teaching

    It is easy to let 3 and 1 dominate especially if (as you strike me to be) you are conscientious about 3. For better or worse though 2. is going to be most important at the end of your PhD in terms of getting you a job.

    While having no teaching experience would be bad, having no research experience in terms of publications can be catastrophic. And given the length of time that is taken by many philosophy journals to be able to have papers published by the end of your PhD you need to have them submitted at least a year before your PhD ends.

    So I would say the most useful piece of advice I can give you is that you need to be trying to publish some of your work right now, and you need to be trying to publish throughout your PhD.

    In terms of learning I think you need to specialise but not over specialise and paint yourself into a very small corner. Do think somewhat strategically about your choice of topic. While keeping in mind if you don't love it, it will take twice as long...

    I think it doesn't hurt to have two or three quite different areas that you can point to and reasonably say I am an expert in these, and be able to evidence these with publications etc. Most institutions need staff who can teach in several areas.

    Finally of course, have fun.

  2. I think you need to keep your interests broad. Philosophers have no subject matter to learn so to speak. Also arguments that are used in one area often pop up in other areas. I also find reading broadly helps stimulate research.

    At the same time however, developing some kind of specialism - knowing the literature in a given area and having thought and written about it for a significant amount of time - will be invaluable for you thesis and potential publications.

    Obviously attending seminars is useful but I think it is easy to fool yourself as to how much work you are doing. reading and writing seem more important, so pick classes you can do the reading for and engage with.

  3. Do yoga. That's obvious.

    Party like a rock star in New York City.

    I have heard mixed things about publishing before you graduate. At our school, most of the best placed individuals did not publish a lick before they graduated. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that at most institutions you do not get tenure credit for work you published before becoming a doctor of philosophy in philosophy (I love that phrase), so it would be a mistake to publish your best stuff then. Another is that at top institutions most people get a job on potential not on displayed ability, and publishing can tarnish the story of potentiality that your adviser wants to paint. In short, I advise not publishing until you and your adviser have talked things through.

    Play racquetball.

  4. I second Jack's New York advice. About the Yoga, though, Jack: Will you be our Yoga teacher, or Guru? We can have awesome sessions after our New York rock star parties.

    I think emphases should change as you progress through grad. school. The first two years will be very different from the third, and the last two or three will probably be very different from the first three.

    My emphasis in the first two years will be on learning, exploring, and improving.

    I'm thinking of taking at least one seminar or course on a technical or formal subject per semester. Mostly logic, probably, or probability, perhaps. :) We'll see.

    I don't think I'll ever take more than 4 courses/seminars per semester. I'll probably stick to three and get the most out of them. I also want to do lots of reading groups. After the first couple years, though, I suppose I'd put an end to the emphasis on unbridled learning and begin to emphasize specialization more.

    Regarding publishing, at my undergraduate institution, Berkeley, there isn't an emphasis on publishing before receiving the PhD. In fact, I've never heard of anyone other than David Hunter above emphasize publishing so much. I'd like to hear more about why he thinks it's so important, particularly in response to Jack's thought that publishing tarnishes employers' conceptions of your "potential".

  5. "In fact, I've never heard of anyone other than David Hunter above emphasize publishing so much. I'd like to hear more about why he thinks it's so important, particularly in response to Jack's thought that publishing tarnishes employers' conceptions of your "potential""

    All right Nicholas I will give it a go. I should say the advice should differ depending on what job market you are aiming at. I am not nor have I ever been aiming at the top 20 US institutions. Indeed I would probably be reluctant in the highly unlikely circumstance that any did come in for me. Personally give me a job in the UK any day or even better (from my perspective) in NZ. But that is just my perspective.

    So my advice was conditioned on wanting a job in academia generally and in particular of both my own job hunting experience, eventual success and my experience of being involved in the process of appointing other people. My experience has been in New Zealand and in the UK.

    Jack's comments might well be suited to the peculiarities of the US job market, certainly the gaming in timing of publications to suit tenure seems very sensible in that context. But those rules only apply in that context, so it is worth thinking about what might happen if you seek further afield. I don't know what Richard's long term plans are, whether for example he is keen on shifting back to NZ when he has his PhD, but he should take that into consideration.

    Likewise the idea of not spoiling your potential by publishing may make sense, if you are only aiming at the top institutions.

    I think it is fair to say that outside of the top 20 US institutions (and maybe Oxbridge) few institutions hire on potential alone, they like actuality better.

    Certainly both in terms of my job applications and the interview panels I have been involved in probably the most important characteristic has been the quality and quantity of publications the individual has had. It is certainly not the only factor, but no publications in my experience is certainly viewed as more damming than no teaching experience.

    Now should you just focus on the top twenty US institutions?

    Personally I think you would be foolish to. The job market is tight and only a handful of people can be placed in tenured positions at the top 20. I think publishing in reasonably well regarded places spreads your risk, by allowing you to have an excellent chance of getting a job at either non top 20 US institutions or overseas. Of course there is a trade off involved here if, as Jack has pointed out this may threaten your chances at a top 20 Uni.

    Personally I would have thought though that no top 20 institute would sniff at a candidate who had a publication in Philosophy & Public Affairs or Ethics or Mind or Analysis or so on... It is hard to see what the potential is going to be if it isn't publications in places like this.

    But as I say these are just my views and experience yours may well be different.

    David Hunter

  6. Well, I wrote a nice long comment, but a bug ate it. So here's a shorter version, what I recommend for avoiding common mistakes (some of which I made, and some of which I avoided) and making it enjoyable at the same time (which I did in spades, and am therefore an expert in):

    (1) David's right about the importance of research. How important publication in particular is depends very much on the area and the schools you end up applying to. What I would recommend is not going straight for publication, but instead focus on presenting papers at conferences, seminars, etc. It's a good way to meet people, everyone recognizes that it's a good springboard for getting your work ready for publication, and it's a lot of fun. To be honest, from what I know of you I don't think you'll have much problem coming up with publications, if you put in the work. If I were you I'd keep an eye on the issue, but I wouldn't worry too much about it. Meanwhile, get your papers out and about and collect people's feedback on them.

    (2) On teaching, don't be afraid to experiment a little. At the end of the road, you'll want your teaching to stand out, and it can't do that if you're teaching courses in such a way that anyone could teach the same course. It's astonishing to me how many grad students do this. Don't go insane, don't let it eat up all your time, and keep in mind both the requirements of the department and the limitations of ordinary undergrads (the hardest part, since like most people in grad school you're in grad school precisely because you weren't an ordinary undergrad) -- but don't be afraid to make a course distinctively your own. Your courses should be taught in such a way that you enjoy teaching them, you would have enjoyed them yourself as an undergrad, and almost no one else could teach undergrads the subject-matter in that way as well as you. It will be more fun that way, and will show up in your favor in the end.

    (3) Interact with your colleagues (grad students and faculty, in your department and outside). Contrary to what anyone else will tell you, there is nothing more important or useful than this, nothing, no matter how important it may be in its own right. People who know you can send you opportunities they come across, write letters of recommendation, collaborate with you, give you advice, comment on your papers, improve your research through discussion. Being on a friendly basis with a broad selection of your colleagues is something you will have working for you for a long time to come. And it is profoundly rewarding.

  7. Thanks for all the suggestions!

    Like David, I'm a bit puzzled by the whole "publishing tarnishes your apparent potential" idea. (If current ability is evidence of potential, then they should want to see it demonstrated. If it isn't, then they shouldn't mind seeing it demonstrated poorly!) Brandon's advice sounds sensible, though. (As does Jack's of discussing this with a faculty adviser!)

    Like Nick, I'd hope to "explore" for the first couple of years (before specializing). I wonder what's the best way to go about this -- what balance of courses, reading groups, independent study, etc.? (Trial and error will tell in the end, I suppose.)

  8. Brandon if that's the short version I am daunted by the thought of the long version... Some pretty good advice in there though!

    You are absolutely right, cut your teeth first on seminars etc. Especially those that do conference proceedings, though these don't count nearly as much as a 'proper' peer reviewed publication they do count somewhat. Likewise the other traditional route for getting some experience is via book reviews. I do agree with Brandon though publications shouldn't be too much of a problem for you, given your experience of writing here on this blog. However what tends to hold people back the most with publications is simply a lack of confidence. These avenues are a great way to get past that.

    In regards to teaching, yes certainly do innovate, experiment and have fun with it. I have personally done an improvised comedy course as (in my head) teaching development, and it was surprising just how much I got out of that in terms of teaching. Keith Johnstone's book Impro is surprisingly insightful I think in this regard. Likewise training in philosophy for children has been very useful for developing my teaching style. In this regard it is worth sitting down for five minutes at the end of each lecture/tutorial you give and just noting what worked and what didn't. Likewise when you see a lecture or a presentation reflect on what about it was good and what was bad. I personally keep a fairly extensive set of notes on things that have worked for me and not, which means my teaching is (hopefully) always improving.

    In regards to not ruining your potential by actualising it... I think there is something to this, though I don't think it is that strong. So for example we are presently going through the Research Assessment Exercise in the UK at the moment. A normal academic needs to submit 4 publications preferably of the highest quality to do well. However since new academic can enter only two and not be penalised for this. Suppose a new academic has four publications in reasonable places. There has been some discussion about whether they should still nonetheless be entered with just two of those publications since then the reviewers may think that they then have the potential to achieve better level journal publications in the future. Personally I doubt this would work myself, but you can see that people may judge someone better on potential than poorly actualised potential.

    In terms of exploring before specialising I am afraid the only advice I can give is pretty obvious, take a wide range of courses, read widely and so on. Personally I think you will have no problem on this front either, your engagement in the blogosphere makes sure you are exposed to a fair range of philosophy.

  9. The biggest change from undergrad, in my experience, has been that friendships with fellow graduate students are important. It's amazing how much learning I have done outside the classroom and how many ideas and resources I have learned of by going for lunch or beers with my fellow grad students. If your profs tag along for beers, listen when they speak - they are as knowledgeable then as they are in class and much easier to listen to.

    The best learning experiences I have had have been sitting in my office with my feet up chatting with my officemates. At first, I felt guilty, but as the time wore on, and I sat down to write each of the various papers I had to do, I realized just how much work was being done through those conversations.

  10. To follow up on the publishing in grad school discussion some interesting points are made on this thread at Crooked Timber:

    And again some discussion of the issue is at the Leiter Reports:

    In both cases the majority seem to be in favour of publishing during your PhD


  11. Hi David, thanks for the links! (It is interesting to note Jack's worries being confirmed by David Velleman and Jason Stanley, though. Perhaps the consensus view is best summed up as, "publish if you don't have the luxury of elite institutional affiliation!")

  12. Yeah I bumped into them while I was looking for the philosophy journal ranking survey Brian Weatherson did awhile back and thought they were relevant.

    It did look to me that the don't publish view was limited to the elite institutional affiliation and crucially to the if you want to get a job in the elite as well. Although I think there was even some dispute over whether it is the case at that level. But
    supposing the tainting argument is true at the elite level I still can't see how a top tier publication is going to harm your chances, although I can see how a second or particularly a third tier publication could. Of course then there is the issue of figuring out the tiers which is complicated since no-one agrees and sub-discipline divides in particular make this tricky. To give one example the Journal of Medical Ethics is highly respected by bioethicists, and is definitely top tier to them. But it is at best second tier to most other philosophers.

  13. Right, I think a top publication must be a pro tanto benefit, yet may - all things considered - be "wasteful" in two senses: (1) the 'opportunity cost' of time spent preparing for publication; and (2) if early publications are excluded from tenure credit, then delay may be strategic!

  14. In regards to 2, I don't know the American tenure system very well and have to say that to not include publications pre-appointment seems fairly arbitrary to me, sure these are less good indicators of future productivity but they should count somewhat.

    I'd appreciate a bit of clarification from Jack (or anyone else) in regards to the papers that aren't counted. Are they only papers in print or do papers in press count as well. If it is only in print then given the lead times to actual publication (often a year) getting a publication in the last year of your doctorate would be no bad thing.

    Alternatively I wonder, given that almost nothing gets accepted by the top journals without requiring some revision whether strategically what you want is a very favourable revise and resubmit from a top journal. That way once you are appointed you can get a quick publication in a top journal.


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