PhD Update

I always intended to use the blog to reflect on the progress of my PhD as I write it. I’ve not been good at this, but consider this me trying to make amends.

This is an opportune moment for me to reflect on how much I’ve done, since I’d just put a bow on one of my chapters and I’m shifting gears to read things for the next major section of the project.

At this point, I’ve written five chapters (of a planned seven). They’re each about 7500 words, so I’m looking at just over 50k words before I get into the introduction and conclusion, and before I get into editing. Editing invariably leads to things expanding, so I’m feeling pretty comfortable with the word count.

The thesis is a particular genre in that it is garbage. People often talk about the requirement for the thesis being “advancing knowledge in the discipline” – but this doesn’t really gel with it’s ultimate audience being my supervisors and my two examiners. I can imagine nothing worse than writing 70-80k words over three years just to impress four people. Not to mention, it’s hard to see the contribution to knowledge made by something only four people are likely to read.

For this reason, I’m gambling a bit and not writing a thesis but a monograph. Given the requirements of the degree, the aim is then to write something as far from a thesis as possible (with it’s needless literature reviews and such) while still satisfying the requirements of my degree. The hope is that at the end, I’ll be able to quickly convert the manuscript into something a publisher would be interested in, and hit the job market with a book contract in hand.

The pragmatism behind this all makes me somewhat cynical. While it’s obvious that one needs a PhD to have an academic job – a job I’d very much like to get – it’s not clear to me that the goal of getting a job after the PhD can consistently be held with the goal of advancing the discipline.

For me, the reality is that my PhD in itself isn’t worth much on the job market. Not that anyone’s is. But I’m in a mid-tier university – prestigious and well known enough in Australia, but not so much outside. All things being equal, if you had to choose between someone with a prestigious North American PhD and me, I’m not likely to win.

What will distinguish my CV from others are the publications – the more and the more prestigious the better. But churning out papers that are publishable and churning out good papers that are publishable isn’t the same thing. Wanting to actually advance the discipline in my work is much harder than merely wanting to get published.

So I’m forced to have two goals contrary to one another – publish a lot, and publish good things (a lot).

My gamble is that with my thesis project I can avoid the issue somewhat, by getting a book out quickly and making myself stand out in the job market that way.

So how’s this all going?

  • 5/7 chapters written
  • Introduction is partly drafted
  • Conclusion doesn’t exist yet
  • 1 co-authored paper is on it’s way to publication (in an edited collection – more details on this once it’s all finalised)
  • 1 paper is currently under review (it was rejected twice so far: once with feedback, once by the editor – more on this if and when it gets accepted anywhere)
  • 1 paper is drafted but just needs a few finishing touches before I submit it somewhere.

There are also two projects I’m trying to get together:

  • a response to one of the calls for papers in the Australasian Philosophical Review\
  • a paper on some issues in Stoic and Epicurean philosophy (with an, as yet, ill-defined topic).

Beyond this, I’m switching gears to write the next section of the thesis. If you follow me on twitter you’ll have seen that at least part of that will be on Malebranche. I’m slowly making my way through his The Search After Truth – trying to figure out what he takes from Descartes’ theory of the passions. I’d not had a chance to read Malebranche before, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the text – it’s much more accessible than many of his contemporaries. Though, I suppose a lot of this comes down to the translation.

Is studying philosophy beyond an undergraduate degree worth it?

I’m fortunate enough to be getting steady tutoring work in philosophy at my institution. In Australia, teaching isn’t tied to graduate funding the way it is elsewhere, so not everyone has the inclination to do it. One of the things I like about teaching is getting to know my students. Some students tend to just coast through, which is fine – they were curious and found philosophy isn’t for them. Others think it’s a good way of rounding out their arts degree, perhaps with an eye to studying something else later. Others still come into philosophy, find they love it, and in their surprise over this find they’re not sure what to do. Sometimes these students come to me for advice on whether they should pursue philosophy beyond their three-year undergraduate degree. Recently I’d had one of these sort of conversations with a few students, so I thought it’d be worth sharing in case any of my readers were also on the fence.

Before I go on, my advice is very Australia-centric, and I know the degrees are organised in different ways in various places. The advice I have to give is also quite idiosyncratic – I think you’ll probably get as many opinions as you have philosophy grad students in any given room. My hope is that some of these things apply more generally and will be useful to anyone still on the fence.

Honours

I’m unsure if there is an equivalent thing to this outside of the UK or Australian education system. Here, Honours is a 4th year added to your Bachelor’s degree, during which you write an extended thesis in the field of your major, along with some coursework. Usually it’s intended as a stepping stone towards postgraduate study, and in Australia it’s a requirement. I think this extra year is worth the effort, even if you don’t decide to study philosophy further. Firstly, it’s a taste of what real research is like – you do a lot of very focused work on a topic, you end up knowing more than your supervisor might, and it’s a great way to finish off your arts degree. From my experience doing honours in philosophy makes the whole degree worth much more – it polishes the writing, researching, and critical thinking skills you get through studying philosophy to a really high degree, and if that’s where your adventure ended, you’ll have gotten the most of the opportunities a BA can provide. Secondly, if you have doubts about whether you want to do more philosophy, honours will help you resolve them. It’s a really tough year – the amount of reading you have to absorb and understand is just huge, and it can be tremendously stressful, much like graduate school is. You’ll meet some awesome people though, and the classes you can take are way more fun then the undergrad classes. So I absolutely recommend it – it was my favourite part of my arts degree.

Masters

People are divided on this. In Australia, you typically only need honours to be able to do a PhD, and some people go that way, and they do very well. In the US and elsewhere, the MA is sometimes included as part of the PhD program. If you do just an MA, it’s sometimes called a “terminal master’s”. I did one, partly because my grades weren’t strong enough to get me a scholarship for a PhD, and partly because I didn’t feel ready. As for the grades, the MA is your make or break moment – you can do really well and then more easily get into a PhD program of your choice, or you can decide it’s ultimately not for you and finish your education at this point.

I did well, and tried applying in the US, but the competition there is ridiculous so I ended up staying at the same school I did my BA and MA. The thing I got out of the MA is that it gave me all of the skills and habits I need to do well in my PhD – I’ve been to a few conferences, I tried publishing some papers (still trying on those..), I have teaching experience, my writing is at a pretty high standard, etc. All of these will be things that you’ll need to do as a PhD student. So given that I knew I’d wanted to do a PhD, I think the MA was a very good choice.

PhD
I love philosophy, so I knew since before my honours year that this is where I wanted to be – and my end goal is working in academia (more on that later). I’ve been at it for a few months now, and so far it’s great – quite similar to the MA in many ways, but I’m much better at doing the work (experience helps) and the stakes are higher. The good thing about both the MA and PhD (and to a lesser degree Honours) is that you get to pick your topic. While you have more guidance with honours, and somewhat less with an MA, the PhD is all you. It’s super independent, and the best preparation is to start thinking early what you want to commit yourself to. I applied with a pretty well worked out proposal already in hand, and was able to hit the ground running. In general though, I think I shouldn’t say too much about whether it’s worth doing a PhD in philosophy yet – I’m only about 8 months into one.

Overall, I think there is a second part to this topic – one about job prospects after doing some postgraduate study in philosophy. I’ve had a non-academic job for about a year and a half between my MA and the start of my PhD. It left me feeling very positive about my options for non-academic work if that’s where I were to end up. It’s not a topic I’m ready to write about too much though, especially since there are lots of really good resources on the topic already. Either way though, I think studying philosophy beyond an undergraduate degree is pretty awesome, that is if you are so inclined, and if you have the sort of temperament to survive.