Tag Archives: graduate school

PhD Update 4: Pandemic Edition

Greetings from the Quarantine.

I’ve been meaning to write an update for a little while now, but honestly I found it hard to articulate my thoughts about life in a pandemic.

Day to day operations in the HQ have not changed much, which isn’t to say there haven’t been many changes.

We’re all struggling.

I’m heartened to see the many positive responses to the pandemic – national governments quickly ditching their nonsensical programs of austerity and extending their social welfare nets, communities coming together online to offer mutual support, etc. After the initial shock and panic buying, this is a nice change.

My problems are minor compared to those of many others – my heart goes out to everyone affected in various ways. I already work primarily from home, so as far as my day-to-day life goes, nothing has changed really. My partner’s job wound down significantly (she’s a florist) – they’re no longer allowing customers into their shop, and there is only ever one employee in at a time with the owner, so my partner is only working one or two days a week (until told they are to close completely). Her boss has announced that he intends to fully support his staff to the best of his ability through the pandemic, which means my partner’s job is safe.

As far as my work goes, the lack of disruption in my normal schedule hasn’t translated into smooth sailing. Like everyone else, I’m suffering from cognitive overload and trying to process the situation. Finishing a PhD under ideal circumstances is hard enough – doing so while under duress is shit.

In the past two weeks I thought I’ve managed to do some solid writing, but as it turned out, most of it went nowhere. I took today off to meet with my supervisor and discuss how to take this chapter forward. To paraphrase Bear Grylls, we must adapt, react, overcome.

Like in many other dire times, I’ve found some relief and pleasant distraction in philosophy. The Monash MAP chapter has started up a reading group on classical Chinese philosophy. We’re following the chapters in Bryan van Norden and Philip Ivanhoe’s Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy as well as van Norden’s Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy – both of which are excellent and accessible introductions to the topic.

Kongzi (Confucius) wrote that hardship affects everyone, both the ‘gentleman’ and the ‘petty man’ – “The difference is that the petty man, encountering hardship, is overwhelmed by it” (15.2). There are many ways of being overwhelmed, of course. I think however, that if we are to be virtuous, we should turn to looking at why we are feeling the way we are, which will allow for us to overcome our present adversity.

I think for me, it isn’t the pandemic in itself – scary though it is. It is the fact that we live in a kind of political system that not only exacerbated the issue, with decades of cuts to welfare and healthcare systems, with its emphasis on individual rights, and with its disdain for community. The pandemic has, if nothing else, exposed just how shallow all of the arguments for austerity are, and why we can no longer allow for our world to be determined by profits.

I have written up some thoughts on all of this, my short essay is currently with an editor to hopefully get published somewhere with a wider audience (if not, I guess it’ll go up on Medium).

I’m on the hook to review Bruno Lloret’s Nancy (Giramondo, 2020) for 3AM:Magazine. I’m going to submit that soonish, but for now I can say the book is very very good.

I’m also on the hook to write an encyclopaedia entry on Madeline de Scudéry – the manuscript for that is due in May, so I should get started on that. It’ll happen right after the review for 3AM.

In the meantime, here are a few things that you might see here over the next few weeks:

  1. Since I’m the main organiser of the reading group I mention above, I intend to put up some notes for anyone interesting in reading along with us (and also because writing these notes up for an audience will help me remember the material). Expect the first part this coming weekend.
  2. I’ve been slowly putting together a reading list of some books that I think are cool – I want to maintain it here as an ongoing recommendation engine and as something to send to students, those few times a year I get asked for reading recommendations.

Current reading for me: Mo Yan’s Life And Death Are Wearing Me Out
Current reading for work: Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies and her and John Norris’ Letters Concerning the Love of God

PhD Update 3

The start of the year might have been slow, but I’m now again a member of the #1000mph club. Deadlines are coming up fast.

My current chapter focuses on Mary Astell, and while I’m not quite sure of what the argument will be yet, my aim is to look at how she fits into the picture of developing the Cartesian theory of the passions.

I’m going to approach it by beginning with her and John Norris’ Letters Concerning the Love of God, which will give me a nice segue from the previous chapter (on Malebranche and Norris). Ultimately though, I think it would be a mistake to suggest that Astell learns about the Cartesian passions from Norris – she was clearly well versed in Cartesian philosophy from her own studies. She also seems to be pushing back against aspects of Norris’ understanding as given in his Practical Discourses and Theory and Regulation of Love. If I’m careful enough, I should be able to contrast their views as two competing versions of the Cartesian view.

Astell’s own thought comes across much more clearly in her Serious Proposal to the Ladies – especially the second part. It’s clear that she draws on the same kind of Malebrancheanism given by Norris, but she has a clearer idea of the passions (by which I mean, she writes about more than just love, the way Norris does). I think the most promising (for my purpose) element of this text is the underlying philosophical anthropology, which is thoroughly Cartesian. Like François Poullain de la Barre, Astell accepts the Cartesian view that the mind has no gender – which then means, that it’s not women’s natural ineptitude, but rather custom, that keeps them uneducated.

I’ve looked at a few secondary sources to start my discussion, but the problem I keep running into is that whenever I come up with a good idea for what this chapter could do, I find someone else had done it already. Originality comes from the work though, so I just have to keep working through the material until there is a chapter in front of me.

This is the last chapter left to write before I turn my attention to the introduction and conclusion (which I’ll write at the same time), and before I get to editing.

Currently my funding runs out on July 31, so my plan is to have all of the writing done by the end of May, to get two full months to edit this thing. I intend to apply for an extension (on the grounds that 1. my candidature runs until October 31, and 2. I’ve had a number of delays in my research that necessitate a bit more time). Hopefully it’ll all go to plan. However, I also need to be mindful of the fact that I need to have my PhD in hand by March, because otherwise I’ll be ineligible for a number of postdocs I want to apply for.

In other news, I’ve got a few extracurricular bits of writing on the go – an encyclopaedia entry on Madeline de Scudéry, and a book review – I’ll post links to these when I can.

Currently reading: Astell’s Christian Religion

PhD Update 2

It’s been a few months since I posted an update (see previous) on my PhD project.

As it stands today, my funding runs out on the 31st of July – which is functionally my deadline, even though technically I have until the 31st of October. Hoping I’ll be able to get an extension to make sure everything is up to the kind of standard I want to be held to. We’ll see about that in due time – I certainly have good cause for an extension (though I can’t really talk about that here).

I have five chapters at advanced draft stage, one with a very rough mostly complete draft, and one that doesn’t yet exist in any meaningful way. The current word count is 43676, which seems low, given that the maximum limit is 80000. However, the chapter that is partially drafted still needs approx. 2000 words, and the non-existent chapter will be around 7500. The introduction and conclusion altogether will be around 10000 as well, so the final word count for the first draft will be about 65000 – which gives me a healthy ceiling for editing and clarifying things.

I had the somewhat regretful realisation that I am not likely to go to any more conferences during my PhD. The only one I am considering still is the meeting of the Australasian Association of Philosophy in July. But then, given my tight deadlines, that’s looking like a bad idea – I certainly wouldn’t have much time to prepare a new paper.

With that realisation comes the more worrying one, that from August, I might no longer ever have an academic job of any sort. I don’t yet know how I feel about that. On the one hand, I’ve been working towards that for about ten years; on the other, it’s not like I didn’t know that there isn’t really a job market any more. More on that as the situation develops.

In more positive news, a group of which I was one of the founding members, the Friends of Mary Astell, held its first meeting at the recent APA Eastern meeting in Philadelphia. It was heartening to see so much interest in Astell’s philosophy. Incidentally, she’ll be the focus of the yet-nonexistent chapter, and I look forward to immersing myself in her ideas for a while. She was great.

On Reading as a Grad Student

This year I’ve been keeping a list of all the books I’d read. I’ve done this before (and I’ll write more about why at the end of the year), but not consistently (I’ll write about that too). I had a look over the reading list for this year and was struck by how few books I put on the list from my thesis reading.

It’s November and there are only 8 books that I’d read from cover to cover. I found that somewhat surprising – but on reflection, not at all surprising.

The PhD is a peculiar beast, as I’d noted elsewhere, which means that the kind of research you do for it is also peculiar. I simply don’t have time to read every secondary text in full, no matter how much I’d like to. Indexes are my friends – I look for the discussion of what I’m working on, get the arguments I need and move on.

I devote much more time to primary sources – I try to make sure I read the texts I’m actually writing about very carefully and usually more than once (except Malebranche’s the Search After Truth because it’s an absolute brick).

This reflection on reading reminded me of a passage I’d read in Malebranche’s text recently:

“There are people thirty years of age who quote more evil books for you in their works than they could have read in several centuries, and nevertheless they hope to convince others that they have read them very closely.”

Thanks Nicolas, I feel seen.

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.