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  • Writer's pictureKayla Bohannon

Advice I Wish I'd Heard When I Started Grad School (By a TT Professor)

Me, fresh out of undergrad, with no idea what was coming.

In the 2023-24 academic year, I began a tenure-track position as an Assistant Professor of Philosophy. This was a career goal that I had been working towards for over a decade (with a few brief detours along the way). I vividly remember being a senior in undergrad, applying for PhD programs with absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. All I knew was that I loved philosophy, and I wanted to spend my professional life teaching others about it.

It turns out that there is a lot more to surviving grad school than having a love for your discipline. I'd say there are three categories of survival skills:

  • Those that are good common sense to anyone (i.e., keep a calendar);

  • Those that are opaque to the general public, but well-known and well-shared among academics (i.e., don't try to read every word you're assigned for seminar); and

  • Those that are well-known among academics but not well-shared -- those that you learn on your own.

This post aims to fit into the third category. I've read a lot of "tips for surviving grad school" posts over the years, and some of them have been really helpful -- but many say the same things over and over. So I'm going to share advice that I've never seen anywhere else, much of which I had to learn the hard way.

Fail early and often.

People who get into PhD programs are the rockstars of their undergrad departments. Grad school is likely the first time that you'll experience significant academic challenges. The feeling of failure when you get your first paper rejection, or your first harsh feedback from your advisor, can be devastating when you're used to doing well at everything you try. While rejection will always sting, it becomes more manageable as its novelty wears off. An academic career is a collection of failures with a few successes along the way. The sooner you make peace with this, the less anguish you'll experience with each particular rejection. Apply to every opportunity, even (and especially) those you expect to fail. Becoming accustomed to failure as part of the process will help you separate your worth from your publications.

There is more than one job market.

I spent my entire graduate career convinced that if I didn't publish a certain number of papers in certain journals before I defended, then it would be literally impossible for me to get a permanent academic job. This was not a view that I pulled out of thin air, but one that was hammered into me by my discipline and many people in it. You can imagine my headspace, then, when Covid upended my dissertation writing process, and I ended up at my defense with zero publications. Concerning my career, I pretty much threw in the towel mentally at that point because I thought I'd failed.

Cue my surprise when I learned that there are permanent teaching jobs in philosophy where publication records are not the be all end all. And some of them (like mine) are tenure eligible. As Marcus Arvan at the Philosopher's Cocoon has put it, there are multiple job markets: the R1 research market, the SLAC market, the community college market, and so on. Qualities that make a candidate competitive on one of these markets may actually work against them in others. I desperately wish that someone would have told me that, in lieu of publications in top journals, I could instead tailor my applications to teaching positions -- which were more attractive to me anyway. I ended up doing this by accident regardless, but if I had known that this could be an intentional and legitimate approach to the job market, I would have saved myself years of anguish.

(Caveat: I am not trying to say that one should neglect research in favor of teaching while in grad school, or vice versa. Nor am I saying that permanent teaching-centered jobs are plentiful or easy to obtain relative to research positions. I'm merely saying that research trajectory is not the only indicator of one's potential for success on the job market.)

Soft skills are extremely important.

Academics tend to think that they will receive opportunities purely as a result of their intellectual merit. That is rarely the case, at least straight out of grad school. Employment in academia shares at least one important similarity with employment in the private sector: people want to work with nice people. A professor who'd once served on a hiring committee once told me "I just want to hire colleagues who will be pleasant to see in the hallway." Grad students who are rude to their students, dismissive of their mentors, antagonistic towards their departments, and surly about their institutions (in my experience) often face particular difficulty in securing employment. This ought to be common sense. Cultivating pleasant relationships with your colleagues is not an act of "kissing up"; it's just professionalism that is expected in any place of work. So: learn to be a good conversationalist. Listen to others, rather than merely talking about yourself. Attend others' events and support their successes. Don't complain about your life all the time (sometimes is ok!). Remember that hiring committees want to hire a person whom they will have to see every day for the next 30+ years, and conduct yourself accordingly.

Not all noise is worth tuning into.

Every graduate department is a melting pot of faculty, staff, and students from different backgrounds and with different priorities. What one person believes to be THE way to do philosophy may not resonate with you. While those in your department are your intellectual colleagues, they are not experts on your life. If someone is giving you advice about your market trajectory, or feedback on your work, or suggestions to get involved with some organization or other that you do not feel good about, there is nothing wrong with tuning out that noise. Intuition is a real thing, and only you know what kind of career you will find meaningful.

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