The path to tenure begins in the first year of graduate school

by Eszter Hargittai on October 19, 2009

It’s good if people ask for advice, but it’s not ideal if they ask for it too late. For example, when students ask me the year they are going on the job market how they should start thinking about the process, my first reaction (although I don’t say it since there is no point in stressing out the person at that stage) is that they should have started preparing years ago. Similarly, the year one is going up for tenure is not the right time to start wondering who could be on one’s list of tenure letter writers. Yet all too often this is precisely what happens, people don’t realize that some preparation over the years would have been extremely valuable if not crucial when approaching such important milestones in one’s academic career.

To help academics think about some of these matters, I have started a career advice column called Ph.Do over at Inside Higher Ed. In the first piece, More than Merit, I explain the reasons for the column. In the second, The Conference Scene, I discuss how to think about when and which conferences to attend. In the third, Conference Do’s and Don’t’s, I talk about how to maximize going to meetings without derailing one’s career. Any guesses as to which friend I refer to regarding the advice about dinners?

Future pieces will cover lots of topics ranging from collaborative work to making oneself marketable in several disciplines, applying for awards and fellowships and more. I welcome suggestions for what to address in upcoming pieces. Some of the ideas I have for future writing is already very much inspired by conversations we’ve had here on CT in the past.

I don’t think IHE has RSS feeds for specific columns, but for Twitter users, I’ve set up an account here and I’m also keeping this page updated with links although I haven’t set up a feed for it yet.



John Emerson 10.19.09 at 2:04 pm

Indeed, your chances are best if your parents get you into the pre-PhD day care center when you’re four.

The right pre-PhD daycare center. Don’t be fooled! Not all day care centers guaranteeing eventual tenure are able to make good on their promises.


J. Fisher 10.19.09 at 2:27 pm


I sincerely wish you the best of luck with this project. I’ll be looking forward to your posts.

One thing that comes to mind is my initial disagreement with the premise that the road to tenure begins in the first year of grad school. My reasons for that disagreement are complex and not succintly developed, so I won’t get into all of that here (this might not even be the proper forum for that). That said, if that is your starting point, then it seems like you might devote some space to discussing how to maximize the use of seminar papers as potential conference presentations, journal articles, and dissertation chapters. That probably seems like really basic feedback, but it seems to me that you’ll have to tackle those issues at some point, if the first year of grad school is meant to initiate the long process of professionalization.


nona mouse 10.19.09 at 2:27 pm

You are right that most people have no clue whatsoever what to do ahead of time. Some people are more savvy than others, but I wonder if this is because the savvy people knew what was coming or if they were simply luckier, and had better skills at navigating the academic terrain (e.g., networking) that served them later.

I think this is a great idea and has the potential to help some students–if they read The Chronicle of Higher Ed. That is another thing grad students don’t tend to know about.

When people describe to what’s going to happen later, it doesn’t quite make sense while you are still a grad student. It is hard to put things like tenure into context. I think it is precisely what you mention in your column: There are many implicit practices that no one is making explicit but people often assume you know what these are. A part of doing well in academia are knowing-how rather than knowing-that skills. I think it’s brilliant that you are bringing the implicit practices to light.


Barry 10.19.09 at 2:36 pm

From a Ph.D. drop-out, this is a good idea. I’d also add that IHE needs a column on how to do a Ph.D.; it’s not just an extension of your master’s program. If I had known that years a go, I’d be able to call myself ‘doctor’ when making restaurant reservations :)


JoB 10.19.09 at 2:37 pm

This has to be the most depressing thought in ages. I hope I was stupid enough to have missed the sarcasm.


Matt L 10.19.09 at 3:21 pm

Yeah, thats great Eszter. I think John Emerson has it pegged.

While Eszter is right, it is important to get good advice early, planning for tenure in the first year of grad school will only be a viable strategy for some people. In fact it can really only apply to a minority of people earning PhDs; namely “faculty brats” who have already been socially conditioned for a career in academia.

I have been advising undergrads at Woebegone State for several years about grad school. I probably talk intensively with four or five a semester about their career goals, and expectations for grad school. Most of them are starting at a more rudimentary level. They are smart, motivated and curious, but they are not acquainted with the habitus of academic life. It would be barbarous to tell a student like that, to start planning for tenure the moment they are admitted to grad school. They need to figure out how to be good graduate students first.

Eszter I will certainly read the column with interest, but I am skeptical that it will apply to the kinds of students I am advising, or even to the kind of career I have as junior faculty at an R2 school.


rm 10.19.09 at 3:33 pm

I am with MattL. I think Eszter’s advice is probably all completely right, and yet another body of advice is probably needed for (a) the interlopers into academic culture, the people who were first in their families to go to college and now want a graduate degree, and (maybe even more) (b) the people who are good at intellectual work but profoundly (with good reason) discouraged and demoralized but for some dysfunctional reason are sticking with their plan to get a Ph.D. Planning for tenure is great, but then most won’t even get on the tenure track, and then there is planning to pay the bills too.


kid bitzer 10.19.09 at 3:36 pm

but couldn’t eszter argue that she is writing these columns exactly for the kids who do *not* have the advantage of being “faculty brats”?

i mean–you don’t have to write “how to behave at the officers’ mess” for the children who grew up on an army base. but it can be damned useful if you grew up far from army bases, and now would like to know how to fit in there.

i don’t know whether eszter’s columns will succeed in this regard or not, but at least in principle they could have a beneficial and democratizing effect, exactly by explaining things to the non-“faculty brats” so that they will no longer be at a disadvantage.


John Emerson 10.19.09 at 3:57 pm

They are smart, motivated and curious, but they are not acquainted with the habitus of academic life.N/i>

Story of my life. I was on the academic fast track 1963-1967. Three different people I met during that period went on the be, of all things, Undersecretaries of Defense, and I also got to know several other now-eminent people. My own best work was Grade A, but my output was uneven, and above all, I had no one to tell me which way the wind was blowing.

And I absolutely hated the habitus of academic life.

Some of the books I read against professional advice later became fashionable, for example Nietzsche. But at that time the future wasn’t now yet.


John Emerson 10.19.09 at 3:58 pm

PS: The only true Wobegon States are Bemidji State, St. Cloud State, Moorhead State, and maybe UM Morris where PZ works. Accept no substitutes.


John Emerson 10.19.09 at 4:08 pm

Familiarize yourself with the careers of Theodore Streleski, Valery Fabrikant, and Gang Lu, and figure out where they went wrong.


Jacob T. Levy 10.19.09 at 4:15 pm

For those who don’t know Fabio Rojas’ series Grad Skool Rulz at orgtheory, this seems a good time to mention it.


Bill Gardner 10.19.09 at 4:34 pm

This is a great service. Thanks on behalf of anyone who also mentors junior faculty.
For me, finding a mentor made all the difference. Ideally, this will be your dissertation advisor or post-doctoral supervisor. I broke from my advisor’s work and didn’t do a post-doc. So it was critical to find a senior colleague who could help me with the critical task of securing my first NIH grant. This is an impossible task without guidance from someone who has already done it.


John Emerson 10.19.09 at 4:53 pm

Jesus, who would go to grad school after reading Rojas’s links?


djw 10.19.09 at 5:59 pm

Agree with MattL and RM. The Conference do’s and don’ts column is probably good advice, but only particularly useful for people familiar with the culture and mores of academic life. If I’d read that as a second year grad student, I’d be terrified to go near a conference, or (as was my actual experience) if I went, gave my presentation (a very good and well prepared one!) and didn’t open my mouth again for the rest of the conference.

Figuring out how to navigate academic culture entirely from the outside simply can’t be helpfully taught by people who didn’t have to travel that path, I think.


Jake 10.19.09 at 6:38 pm

One question, Eszter: what do you think of Robert Nagle’s piece, Straight Talk About Grad School?


JP 10.19.09 at 6:49 pm

The consistency of this type of career advice columns is quite remarkable and disturbingly so: it always sounds as if there is one obvious best way to get tenure, finish a dissertation, collaborate with colleagues… which I find quite hard to reconcile with the huge variance in personal styles, career types, networking skills, etc. observable among successful academics in any discipline. I won’t deny that there is such a thing as an academic habitus, or even discipline-specific habituses (habiti?), but I do believe that the symbolic market for career advice creates a selection bias both on the demand side and on the supply side… you only read advice columns from people who like thinking and writing about career advice for people who like reading them…


matthew kuzma 10.19.09 at 8:20 pm

I’m glad you’re doing this. One of the most frustrating things I’ve found about the labor market is the lack of solid advice or guidance. Most of the sources of advice out there are pretty laughably bad, so I sincerely hope you can do better.

One question that is mostly rhetorical: how broadly applicable do you think your advice is? Would it apply to someone seeking tenure in an area of study significantly removed from yours?


Salient 10.19.09 at 8:30 pm

Jesus, who would go to grad school after reading Rojas’s links?

I did/am, for one.

Looking forward to more of these, Eszter.

One thing about conferences that didn’t get explicitly mentioned: at a conference, the graduate students are feeling each other out. Early in your GS career, don’t go to any conferences unless you’re prepared to be prodded: expect that you will be expected to arrive with better than cursory familiarity pertaining to the topics to be presented. Do not, under any circumstances, admit to a lack of familiarity; you should have read and understood the papers to be presented in advance, should be more or less sufficiently competent to present the material the papers contain yourself, and should have prepared a list of questions to ask the presenters, largely pertaining to applications or open questions identified in the paper.

You will be expected to discourse fluently and intelligently about the topics to be presented, and you will be expected to be bored and not learn anything new for the first half of each talk (and failure to express this boredom with preliminaries, in any casual conversation outside the presentations, will be noticed and noted).

Conferences, at the graduate student level, are not where you go to first learn about what’s being presented; it’s an opportunity for those who fluently understand the presenters’ papers to obtain answers to questions. An individual who asks you what talks you plan to attend is interested in what questions you have prepared for those speakers.

It all seems so obvious in retrospect, but I did not know any of this, and it would have saved naive and sensitive little me some significant embarrassment to have been told this in advance.


final year phd student 10.19.09 at 8:33 pm

Most people who want academic jobs cannot get them. Even most people who think they are good enough – who are good enough – and think at first there is a possibility cannot get jobs. Most of your audience, people who want to pursue academic jobs, will not get them.

By all means help and give advice. Nothing wrong with that – it is all to the good. But please also give a dose of reality, and do not create illusions.


Cryptic ned 10.19.09 at 8:38 pm

What exactly do you mean by “graduate student”, Salient? “Graduate student in philosophy”? “Graduate student in history”? “Graduate student in sociology”? Your comment has nothing to do with anything I’ve experienced.


Eszter Hargittai 10.19.09 at 9:20 pm

Matt L said: “They need to figure out how to be good graduate students first.”
rm said: “Planning for tenure is great, but then most won’t even get on the tenure track, and then there is planning to pay the bills too.”

The whole point is precisely to help figure out how to make sense of graduate school and beyond. Much of what I talk about concerns academic culture in general, but since many people miss many basics early on, the advice also applies to those further along. The point is precisely to see what students can do in graduate school to maximize the changes of getting a tenure-track job.

And yes, my hope is that much of what I talk about applies across disciplines and I certainly try to write the pieces in a way that they don’t assume too many specifics although at some level this is probably hard to avoid.

Also what kid bitzer said (“but couldn’t eszter argue that she is writing these columns exactly for the kids who do not have the advantage of being “faculty brats”?”).


dsquared 10.19.09 at 10:34 pm

Do you worry at all that this is basically a zero-sum (or potentially negative-sum) game though, in as much as these sort of career tips involve things which one wouldn’t necessarily want to do anyway as a researcher? In particular, isn’t there a danger of the sort of thing James Heckman used to worry about with respect to Freakonomics – that although it might be sensible career advice to tell people that they ought to finish their dissertation in X amount of time, and that they ought to adopt Y and Z strategies for getting the right number of the right kind of publications, this does end up having an effect on what questions get addressed, and that this effect isn’t neutral?


mollymooly 10.19.09 at 10:42 pm

I presume this is about US-PhD students looking for US-tenure.


Matt 10.19.09 at 10:54 pm

Salient Said, about conferences, you should have read and understood the papers to be presented in advance
For most philosophy conferences (and at least some law school conferences, and at least some political science conferences) that I’ve been to this isn’t possible, as the papers are not distributed before hand (and are often being written right up to the time of presentation.) I don’t know about other fields, though, so don’t want to say anything about them. (There are some conferences where papers are distributed first and people are expected to have read them in these fields, but they are an exception, I think.) I should also say that I’ve generally found people at conferences to be quite friendly and kind. This isn’t always so, of course, but most people are genuinely pleased when people are interested in their work, and even many quite famous philosophers have been friendly and willing to talk with me, a completely inconsequential person in the field, about their work. Grad students can sometimes be worse, in part because the tend to have more complexes and insecurities, but people should work on letting this sort of stuff roll off of them, as it will make life happier at no cost. (I think I’m more or less agreeing with Eszter on what seems like quite sensible advice.)


engels 10.19.09 at 10:59 pm

If I had known that years a go, I’d be able to call myself ‘doctor’ when making restaurant reservations

You still can, of course, but as as rule I find that ‘Colonel’ gets more respect.


John Emerson 10.19.09 at 11:05 pm

At the same time, we shouldn’t ignore to the things that Streleski, Fabrikant, and Lu did right.


Eszter Hargittai 10.20.09 at 12:20 am

dsquared asked:
Do you worry at all that this is basically a zero-sum (or potentially negative-sum) game though, in as much as these sort of career tips involve things which one wouldn’t necessarily want to do anyway as a researcher?

I don’t think I’ve given advice yet (nor do I plan to) that would necessarily have such an effect, but then again, I guess hard to say what effect the advice will have. I see your point, but I don’t think the way I’m approaching the issues tracks people in that way. Again, hard to say though. I’ll keep it in mind, good point.

mollymooly said: I presume this is about US-PhD students looking for US-tenure.

Most of my experiences are indeed with that system. Nonetheless, again, I think lots of things I say should be more generalizable. I guess people will have to take a look at the pieces to see if they make sense in other contexts. When I write specifically about tenure letters then that may be more US-specific, but I don’t see why my advice about how to approach conferences, just to take one example, couldn’t be applied to contexts elsewhere.


LFC 10.20.09 at 12:26 am

I second the remark @20 about not creating illusions.


EMG 10.20.09 at 1:14 am

As a Ph.D. drop-out, I find that Salient @ 19 exaggerates, but not by much. The real question isn’t how best to play the game, but why are academics so ruthless about performance of social bullshit? It sounds more like corporate America circa 1960 tham anything a sensitive, studious young person would want anything to do with.

So you’re selecting for ability to perform social BS and against the kind of sensitivity of mind that often comes tied up with serious intelligence. Publishing advice like this may only accelerate the process by helping to cement the norms and warning the awkward types away more unambiguously. Just don’t be too shocked if the universities fill up with shallow, mediocre technicians (even more than is already the case).


Moby Hick 10.20.09 at 1:23 am

I can give advice about how to not finish a dissertation, but to do it in a way that it is much more work than you’d think possible.


nona mouse 10.20.09 at 2:58 am

Aren’t these arguments about people who will struggle within the academic hierarchy misdirected at this writer? I mean, she’s trying to give people a bit of inside information. Is that impossible? Is it all hopeless?

I admit I had fac brats in mind when reading/commenting. So much of this wouldn’t have made sense to me or been impossible to adopt because I was so very far from being a fac brat but it is silly to resent someone who notices that outsiders could benefit from being clued in.

Some of the resentment might be due to the slight tone of exasperation toward the clueless I sense in the post. I belonged to the fish out of water group and the very idea of preparing for tenure in my first year of graduate school is laughable I was trying to gather the courage to speak in class, and recover from the brain zap resulting from every other person in my cohort’s ivy league degree or master’s from some very fancy place. There’s a bootstrap implication here that’s a bit hard to hear but I assume that Ezster knows it is not some kind of innate stupidity that separates the prepared from the unprepared in this context.

The very few people who thought about tenure back then still terrify me. I did not know what tenure was at the start. Those people all did extremely well, as one would expect.


Eszter Hargittai 10.20.09 at 3:12 am

Indeed, the reason I’m writing this column is precisely to help people who don’t understand the inner workings, which by the way, is the majority of students in graduate school. I was rather clueless myself about a lot of things and certainly made my share of mistakes. But I also paid attention, read advice columns and developed relationships with people who became invaluable mentors. Depending on such factors as personality traits (e.g., I’m not a shy person, but I know many people are) and one’s access to mentors (not completely unrelated to the shyness question), people will have different levels of access to certain types of sources of information. But advice columns are reasonably accessible across the board so I thought I’d do my best to pass along some information in this format precisely so that lack of understanding of the inner workings of academia is not what stands between a talented researcher and the possibility of this person making contributions long term. Please consider reading my introduction to the column if you’d like to understand where I’m coming from in all this since I already explained it there in more detail.


Kaveh 10.20.09 at 4:30 am

Eszter, thanks for writing this, I’m already finding it to be (at least) comforting and encouraging.

It seems like overwhelmingly the theme of your columns so far is: “Network. Seriously, you need to network.” Especially compared to some of the other things out there, such as grad skool rulz, which emphasizes work/productivity issues. That you need to network was one of the things I’d heard about a lot before I started grad school. I’m far from a faculty brat, though a couple college friends were. But I’m sure I’ve yet to learn a lot of the finer points of developing professional relationships and these kinds of suggestions are always helpful.

One thing I would be interesting in hearing more about in future columns is, what are the ideal ways for those relationships to turn out, for purposes of the job market? By that I mean, do I want to be known as the guy/gal who…
– knows when to keep their mouth shut/always looks smooth and professional?
– is always eager to help people out when they want info about an area X that I know about and they don’t know about?
– knows names of people working on X which they will volunteer if you’re working on a workshop or conference on X that you need to find people for?
– has lots of interesting and new ideas and will talk to you about them, even though most of them turn out to be dead ends?
– knows lots of books or articles you should read and doesn’t hesitate to recommend them?
– finds everything interesting and will eagerly converse about stuff outside their field?
– speaks their mind, doesn’t try too hard to look smooth and professional?

I’ve met people who excel in all of those qualities (I don’t mean all at once), and in some cases it’s resulted in their having been very helpful to me. They’re all things I value. On the other hand, I can see how the relative value of these qualities might look a lot different to somebody on the other side of the graduation divide or the tenure divide–somebody who is, say, on a hiring committee. For example, the person who is very good at keeping their mouth shut may look really smooth and professional from the point of view of other grad students, but maybe this is unimportant to senior faculty who expect grad students to be a little gauche. (Or, the opposite?) Obviously this is going to depend a lot on individual personalities. What I’m wondering is if you have noticed any trends or changes as you move through the hierarchy (or hear from people at different levels). Or do these sorts of qualities retain about the same relative value all the way from dissertation writing to post-tenure? In your experience, do grad students overestimate how “political” the academic world is? Or underestimate, or neither?

I don’t know if there’s a straightforward answer to those questions, but it’s something that’s on my mind after having read your columns about conferences.


rm 10.20.09 at 5:46 am

FWIW, my preferred method of conference attendance is to drive all night, attend my single session, talk to no one, and drive home. I am introverted, hate traveling, and know from long experience that attempts to chat and network in person can only result in humiliation. (Virtual spaces may be okay, but possibly only because other geeks are there). By attending conferences this way, I get to write a line on my CV. If the social schmoozing is necessary for advancement . . . well.


Chris A. Williams 10.20.09 at 7:45 am

Salient @19 _not, under any circumstances, admit to a lack of familiarity_

? Where I come from (UK, History) this is dangerous advice, given that it means you risk getting labelled as a bullshitter. My advice to my doctoral students is “If you don’t know, admit and ask.”

When I was doing (for some values of ‘doing’ which also included ‘largely hanging our on USENET’) my own doctorate, I found Phil Agre’s posts on his Red Rock Eater mailing list were very helpful. The most useful ones for me were the concept of ‘issue entrepreneurship’ (, which has practical application in the post ‘How to be a leader in your field’ ( This deals with D^2’s objection: it’s not about ‘how you should get tenure’, but about ‘how you should get things done’. Ability to get things done is a useful skill when it comes to getting an academic job. As is luck.


JoB 10.20.09 at 7:58 am

rm, so that was you that I was fruitlessly chasing all this time. Somebody told me that if I get your reference, all gates will open for me. What a bummer! Next time please stick around for 15 minutes or so, I’m desperate to get my tenure before my retirement.


Matt 10.20.09 at 11:22 am

The real question isn’t how best to play the game, but why are academics so ruthless about performance of social bullshit? It sounds more like corporate America circa 1960 than anything a sensitive, studious young person would want anything to do with.

Again, I don’t know your field and can imagine that some fields are different from others, but I haven’t found this to be the case in the areas I know, especially philosophy, at least the “ruthless” part. I’ve met very few academics who don’t have a serious social quirk or two, but they are mostly also pretty nice people who are genuinely happy when people are interested in their work and often happy to talk about it and help people. But people can’t talk about their work and help you if you don’t get to know them, so you need to do what it takes to get to know them, even if it makes you a bit uncomfortable. This isn’t different from any other part of life, of course.

recover from the brain zap resulting from every other person in my cohort’s ivy league degree or master’s from some very fancy place.
The thing to remember about this is that the program wouldn’t have admitted you if they didn’t think you were good enough. This doesn’t mean that there might not be some catch-up to do, but getting further behind because of hang-ups and insecurities isn’t a good way to be successful. It’s not terribly uncommon, though.


Eszter Hargittai 10.20.09 at 12:37 pm

Kaveh, good questions. I suspect a various mix of skills or perception of skills;-} could be useful and it depends on whom you ask. This makes it tricky, of course, but my goal is to give advice that’s relatively generalizable. I’ll think about your questions as I ponder future pieces.

Chris A. Williams said:
Ability to get things done is a useful skill when it comes to getting an academic job. As is luck.

Indeed. But the point of my column – and I’m rather explicit about this in the first piece – is that academic success (as so many other things) is about “more than merit” (thus the title of that piece). Is it unfair that brilliance and productivity in and of themselves won’t necessarily get you a great job and tenure? Maybe. But realistically speaking, being in academia is about much more than writing research papers so other skills are indeed important to the job as well.

As to Phil Agre’s advice pieces, I agree, I found them very useful in graduate school, too.

Regarding conferences (or other contexts for that matter), I don’t think it’s good to pretend like you know something you don’t know. I can’t see how much good can come of that. This isn’t just relevant advice for graduate students. When my students ask me about something that is not my area and thus I don’t have the background to give a helpful answer, I let them know. If appropriate, I offer to look into it for the next time or suggest alternate sources for information.


Praisegod Barebones 10.20.09 at 2:00 pm

‘why are academics so ruthless about performance of social bullshit?’

You know, Henry Kissinger had a famous answer to this one:


Barry 10.20.09 at 2:10 pm

Well, nonacademics are just as ruthless about the performance of social bull as well – look at the MSM, for example. It took collosal failure on the part of the right in the USA before it became politically acceptable to really question them. Even now the leading critic and analyst of right-wing bull is John Stewart. The second leading guy is Paul Krugman, who’s salient characteristic is that he *has* a day job; being better than almost all MSM professionals is just a hobby.


Barry 10.20.09 at 2:29 pm

In fact, the failure of the right was so vast that the word ‘collosal’ can no longer be spelled correctly :)


JoB 10.20.09 at 2:44 pm

40- that was a very helpful Max Weber quote you linked to, thanks.

39 – you say:

Is it unfair that brilliance and productivity in and of themselves won’t necessarily get you a great job and tenure? Maybe. But realistically speaking, being in academia is about much more than writing research papers so other skills are indeed important to the job as well.

Well, being able to breathe will also help, realistically speaking. But, puns aside, how is it possible you can live with the “Maybe” there. I mean, realistically speaking, at some point in time it was also about the type of your genital equipment. That wasn’t good so how can one uncritically say ‘more than merit’ and, more than that, flatly encourage a type of conformism that is directly at odds with the creative and critical thinking that, unrealistically speaking maybe, should be at the heart of tenure. Why else have people invented a concept like tenure but to protect an independence of mind which, it seems, has to be abandoned well before the time you can benefit of its protection?

In fact, it should be less than merit because ‘merit’ is too much dependent on some non-essential feelings of well being that the current level of meritocracy is addicted to.


nick s 10.20.09 at 2:50 pm

Ugh. As someone looking to end a somewhat extended post-doctoral break from academia, but who suspects that the production-line character of the American system means that there’s no chance of getting on that treadmill, this thread makes for depressing reading.


Salient 10.20.09 at 3:10 pm

I find that Salient @ 19 exaggerates, but not by much.

I can accept that. Wasn’t intending to exaggerate at the time of writing, but rereading the comment, I used some strong / unnecessarily dramatic language, which still seems unavoidable.

What exactly do you mean by “graduate student”, Salient?

Mathematics, though in post-conference conversation with a philosophy Ph.D. student, I was reassured “it’s much the same way in philosophy.” That’s purely anecdotal. I was also careful to include the details of my personal experience to emphasize the anecdotal nature of my advice (and I was hoping to hear from others, as happened here, about how universally this advice obtains; thank you for sharing.)

Where I come from (UK, History) this is dangerous advice, given that it means you risk getting labelled as a bullshitter.

Only if you speak up in the first place. “Wise fools keep silent,” or something like that. My overall point was: know thy place, and if you don’t belong, don’t try to belong.


Salient 10.20.09 at 3:23 pm

I am guessing that the folks who disagreed with me are professionals who, by the time they began attending conferences, had cleared their master’s degrees and understood very well the unwritten rules regarding how to interact with colleagues. If I understand correctly, they were attending conferences already acting as a professional in the field in their own right. Eszter’s advice, for example, implicitly assumes that you are “ready for prime-time” and have your own research to share with the people you might meet at the conference.

Look at it this way. A high school student or college undergraduate at one of these conferences would just tire and irritate everybody. They’re unprepared and wasting their own time and everyone else’s, and why the hell are they there? I was naive enough to believe the opposite: if a rogue high school student or undergraduate happened to attend, they’d be welcomed, if a bit kiddishly: “So you’re thinking you might want to eventually go into research in this topic, huh?”

A conference is a place for professionals to network and develop access to the research they need to pursue their own research. It’s emphatically not a place for an “outsider” — and master’s students are outsiders — to go learn about the neat stuff other mathematicians are researching. A conference is not a thing you attend passively, to absorb familiarity. (Naive me, I had thought a conference was exactly that: literally a series of invited seminars all at the same place over a week-end.)

Like I said, I didn’t know this. I thought it would be quite acceptable for an early-in-the-career kid to sit in on the talks and quietly take notes and learn about the topics of current research in a field that interested me. I did not know this would be seen as impertinent. The networker-types who introduced themselves to me were uniformly displeased to learn I was only a master’s student and didn’t have anything useful to share with them.

I say this to emphasize there do exist graduate students who are that stupid uninformed, and the basics do need to be explained if they’re going to be successful and unhumiliated. I’ve learned to shut up, keep my head down, and prepare to emerge into the professional sphere only once I can reliably hold my own as a well-informed professional in the field. This probably seems like obvious advice to the rest of you who have already attained that level of competence, but I guarantee you there exist plenty of naive bright-eyed graduate students who haven’t learned this yet.

Someone quipped to me, “A conference is a trading post: don’t attend empty-handed.” That’s a little more cryptic than the long version above, but maybe it’s all I should have said.


engels 10.20.09 at 3:37 pm

“The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.” Wily Loman


Salient 10.20.09 at 3:45 pm

Regarding conferences (or other contexts for that matter), I don’t think it’s good to pretend like you know something you don’t know.

OK, but doesn’t this conflict with the advice to begin attending conferences early in the first place? Just by placing one’s body in the conference hall or whatever, one is implicitly claiming a certain level of knowledge, familiarity, and competence. For early graduate students, attending is pretending that you are sufficiently competent and conversant with the material to understand the talks.

In your second column, you say, “If you are at a graduate program or beyond, you are certainly ready to go.” This just isn’t a true statement, I don’t think. It’s not even close to true. Maybe “if you have cleared your doctoral qualifying exams, you are certainly ready to go,” or even “if you have your master’s in hand, you are certainly ready to go.”

I look around in my office at the four folks who are first-year master’s degree students, spending 60+ hours a week just trying to survive their classes and develop some competence with the material that every doctoral candidate takes for granted, overworked and overwhelmed and on top of that teaching recitation courses, and wonder how on Earth any of them would weather a conference.

Probably not much better than I did.


AcademicLurker 10.20.09 at 4:01 pm


There seems to be a pretty large difference between the conference culture in mathematics (that you’re describing) vs physics (in which I attended conferences as a graduate student).

My sense is that most of the physical sciences are closer to physics than math in this regard. I’m curious; is the culture of mathematics conferences closer to that of the humanities than to that of the (physical) sciences?


Matt 10.20.09 at 4:03 pm

It’s unfortunate if that’s really how things are in Math, Salient. (I don’t know- used to sometimes go to math talks as an undergrad that I hardly understood with a friend of mine who was much better than I was, and the professors always seemed happy to have someone around to listen, but this wasn’t at a very fancy place.) My impression is completely different in philosophy, though, at all different sorts of conferences. Here my experience is much more like that Eszter describes. (It seems similar in political science, but I’ve been to fewer of their conferences and at a later stage in my “career”, too, so I’m less sure about that.)


EMG 10.20.09 at 4:50 pm

Matt, actually, my negative experiences were in philosophy. My main reason for leaving was inability/unwillingness to cope with social aggression.

The only conference I ever attended took place at my own institution. At dinner, a group of my peers and I shared a table with an epistemologist whose work we’d all been studying. Instead of talking substance, she went around the table and asked each person for their background. This was awkward for me because I was already used to being the outlier, from a small conservative religious school, among all the Ivies etc. But what happened next was really awful. She got to me last, and when I named my alma mater she launched a 5-minute rant on how shocked she was that anyone from such a stupid school could have made it into a top program. I parried as best I could, but seriously, at age 23? As she went on and ON (in front of my peers, with whom I had already struggled for credibility) about how much my school sucked, it was really a big victory not to just break down on the spot. Sure, she ended up looking like an ass to some extent – make note of who doesn’t play nice, advises Eszter! – but my peers had their doubts about my qualifications confirmed by a senior academic, and no amount of social grace on my part could gloss it over.

The one time I *did* break down on the spot was the first time I went to a professor’s office to discuss my work in his course (which was excellent – I had far deeper preparation in the relevant history of philosophy than the Ivy kids, who knew virtually nothing but recent trends and styles). But no matter – I was low man on the totem pole, and he didn’t miss the opportunity to let me know it. I ended up blubbering, not out of weakness or lack of schmooze skills, but because he overtly and methodically drove me to it, with a grin on his face. I dropped out at the end of the semester.

So yeah, after experiences like that, advice like Eszter’s, or breezy assurances that it just takes a little trial and error, seem like a cruel joke.


rm 10.20.09 at 7:28 pm

JoB, just speak “friend” and enter.

I guarantee my IRL identity opens no doors by itself.


Matt 10.20.09 at 8:02 pm

I’m sorry to hear that, EMG. There are, of course, jerks in every field, and sometimes you get a bunch of them. I’ve seen similar things inside and outside of the university, and I don’t think it’s anything special about grad school. I’m from a decidedly un-fancy background, having done my BA at Boise State University back before it was even known for football, so I have some idea of what it’s like coming from a less-than-prestigious background. But in general my experience at conferences and in all sorts of interactions with academics in philosophy (and in related fields, though perhaps a bit less in law) has been supportive and kind, with a no larger, and perhaps a bit smaller, percentage of jerks and the like than in the rest of the world. (Some departments, of course, get a reputation for being full of jerks, and some philosophers as big-time jerks, and it’s best to avoid those places and people if you can, but I’ve been around enough and know enough people now to feel fairly sure that the jerks are a clear minority.)


JoB 10.20.09 at 8:44 pm

rm, you lost me, which is fair enough as you weren’t out to win me.

matt, so what about “The path to non-jerkness starts in the first year of tenure.”?


Matt 10.20.09 at 8:50 pm

matt, so what about “The path to non-jerkness starts in the first year of tenure.”?

I think it has to start before that! (Or maybe I don’t get the joke.) One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that lots of big-shot lawyers are huge jerks- much bigger jerks and jerks in larger percentages than you find in universities. But when I was in law school, the number of real jerks was not that great- perhaps slightly higher than average, but not much. I’m not sure if it’s hard to become a big-firm partner without being a jerk, or if the path makes you into one. Thankfully I’ll never know first hand.


Colin Danby 10.20.09 at 11:30 pm

One of the merits of Eszter’s advice about smaller conferences is that the smaller conferences are usually friendlier gatherings and more hospitable to graduate students. The good part about network-building is *you can choose* the links you want to build. Figure out who the nice people are. Also try to find a small conference that you can attend regularly, because it may not be until the 2nd or 3rd time that people, even the nice ones, take you seriously. Small conferences are also much more hospitable to organizing your own sessions, which is a great way to meet people.

Granted, that is advice best suited for folks with a presentable paper, but Salient in #46 has drawn the wrong conclusions from an unhappy experience. Absolutely you should go and listen, because you can learn a lot from the papers and from seeing how people interact. I went to conferences of the Latin American Studies Association even before I started grad school, and people were extremely nice to me. Even the AEA meetings I attended as a very junior grad student were entertaining. From conference sessions I learned all kinds of stuff about new work in particular fields, and about tensions and alliances between major figures, that I would not have figured out just from reading their papers — insights I would have denied myself had I listened to #46 above.

Being a grad student *is* weird and socially-liminal and you will have some odd and unhappy interactions. Expect them, but don’t generalize from them.


Salient 10.21.09 at 3:33 am

Reading over folks’ responses I’m reassured and emboldened, and thank you for that.

Also, reading over my own comment, I want to emphasize it’s not a criticism of Eszter’s essay. If anything, Eszter’s advice has amplified and further informed the “trading post” advice I mentioned above. Perhaps that didn’t come through, so let me clarify.

The most important thing I learned from Eszter’s essay was a variation on the theme of “don’t arrive empty-handed” — if you’re going to introduce yourself to a presenter, or a researcher, have a conversation planned out in advance, or at least have specific questions planned. Then, contact the person in advance to arrange for an appropriate meeting time.

It seems like a very strangely orchestrated way to say “hello, I’ve enjoyed reading your work,” but makes complete sense in context; it fits the conference-as-trading-post model.

What I want to know, very generally speaking, is when I would potentially be wasting someone’s time. Generally, how do we keep the people in academia more or less happy with us and not irritated by us?

That’s the core oh-god-what-am-I-doing question of the lost or disoriented graduate student (or at least it’s the one that gets the most discussion in the office). How we determine the answer is difficult, but the do’s and don’ts essay provides some useful insight.

One thing I’ve had reinforced by Eszter’s essays is the idea that everyone’s time is very precious, and one should be sure to offer a conversation that contains a reasonable amount of substance per time unit. Don’t just say hello; really, that’s wasting 30 seconds of someone’s time to make yourself feel good. Instead, say hello, and proceed to share something potentially useful. Also, to ensure that this contact will be both feasible and welcomed, contact the person in advance and make arrangements to meet, not immediately before or after their talk. Better to get a terse email “no thanks” than a face-to-face rejection.

That’s good advice, especially the advance-contact advise — it would be insane, outside of academia, to do this, but within academia, it’s apparently good form. (And I can see why: folks’ time is precious; don’t waste it.)


Salient 10.21.09 at 4:07 am

Also, Eszter: columns that explicitly address “how do we keep the people in academia / in our department / in important positions over us more or less happy with us and not irritated by us,” in various concrete ways, could result in an outpouring of new-graduate-student gratitude and thankfulness sufficiently massive to crash Twitter. Be forewarned :-)

Not so much “personalities are different” or “get to know people” as, for example, “it’s not a good idea to ask your adviser or department chair a question whose answer can be found in the handbook sitting in your office desk” or “when contacted by an undergraduate adviser for special favors for a student, e.g. approving a medical withdrawal, it is a good idea to clear it with someone authoritative first, because it’s quite possible you were just pulled into a massive inter-departmental struggle and you don’t want to accidentally create mild intra-departmental animosity for yourself.” Intuiting those facts has saved me nontrivial headache/heartache, but I’ve seen other graduate students mess them up.

I was amazed to discover that most of my graduate student cohort didn’t even look up the job descriptions of the office staff and of the various administrators, in order to determine who one should ask about which things. I now have a couple pages of notes on who is responsible for what, and I’ve found that information concretely useful on at least a weekly basis (on par with the handbook information). Don’t ask the head of Graduate Studies a question that you should be asking the Chair or vise versa (even if they are very nice and patient people) — again, the basic “their time is precious” principle at work.

Anyway, thanks for this. :-)


JoB 10.21.09 at 7:44 am

matt, yes it should start earlier … and with respect to the survival of the jerkiest: either way is bad, which makes me react to this post as it kinda assumes you have to join ’em, then pause as if you for got something, then shake off the thought and proceed to make sure nobody else beats you. I don’t doubt it helps to be polite, prepared and stuff but if you click on some of the links that were produced during the conversation here: Argh!, and moreover being polite and well-prepared does not so much help to get tenure than that it helps you with not being a jerk.


John Emerson 10.21.09 at 9:23 am

EMG: I have a close friend with a similar mediocre background who went to U. Texas in philosophy. He said that you could pretty much tell in the first couple weeks which members of the entering cohort would succeed and which would fail, just by the way the professors were treating them. It was all old boy network, with no countervailing respect at all for someone who had come up from an unexpected and unsupportive background.

At some point half the cohort was advised to accept a terminal Masters and transfer out. This was part of the Leiter cartel’s plan to make sure that top-ten (top-twenty?) philosophy has a high job-placement rate.


John Emerson 10.21.09 at 9:31 am

One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that lots of big-shot lawyers are huge jerks- much bigger jerks and jerks in larger percentages than you find in universities.

Philosophy is now marketed as preparation for law school. The ones who stay in philosophy are the runts and weak sisters who couldn’t cut it in the legal environment.

Part of the problem with giving general advice to grad students is that it’s a competitive musical chairs environment where someone has to lose. Useful advice is given to select individuals to give them a competitive advantage. Broadcast advice just transforms the competitive environment without helping any particular individual. I call this the efficient meritocracy hypothesis.


Matt 10.21.09 at 10:40 am

John, I know it’s really not worth responding to you, especially on this topic, as you don’t know what you’re talking about and are not responsive to either evidence or reason, but what you say isn’t, in fact, true about either law or philosophy. As someone with both a Philosophy PhD and a law degree, and who has spent more time with both than you, I feel pretty confident saying this. As is typical, you’re making stuff up and should stop.


aaron_m 10.21.09 at 10:54 am

Oh ya, making what was once privileged information generally available has no effect on generating a more merit based system. Brilliant analysis.


John Emerson 10.21.09 at 11:09 am

Matt, you’re such a sweet fellow, and unlike me, reasonable. And of course, as a lawyer and a philosopher yourself you know that lawyer-philosophers are all really nice, wonderful people.

Or are you just saying that the ones who stayed in philosophy are not really runts and weak sisters, and are just as smart and bloodthirsty as the lawyers? In that case, I’ll acknowledge that a philosophy PhD is very useful for people who want to learn how to spell out the punchlines of jokes.


John Emerson 10.21.09 at 11:14 am

There will still be privileged information. For example, apparently Kripke circulates his papers privately now, giving selected insiders a leg up. Eszter’s effort is well-intended and will do some good, but it’s still musical chairs. and the same players are still playing.


Matt 10.21.09 at 11:16 am

s a lawyer and a philosopher yourself you know that lawyer-philosophers are all really nice, wonderful people.
That you managed to extract this from my repeated remarks about many people being jerks says about all that needs to be said about your “contributions” to this, and most, discussions, John.


Matt 10.21.09 at 11:17 am

close tag


John Emerson 10.21.09 at 11:40 am

Just remember, Matt, I enjoy this and you don’t.


John Emerson 10.21.09 at 1:33 pm

I’ve been stopping over at the “brow” threads too, and was just reminded of a link posted awhile back telling how you should eat, drink, dress, entertain yourself, and comport yourself if you’re trying to suck up to an English department.


bianca steele 10.21.09 at 1:45 pm

@61: “mediocre”: a sign one should stop reading

John, you’re better than that.


bianca steele 10.21.09 at 1:55 pm

@61: someone who had come up from an unexpected and unsupportive background

There does seem to be an assumption in some quarters that most students (or potential students) one meets have heard nothing but positive feedback all the decades of their life, and now need to be bashed around a little bit. This isn’t always the case and it needs to be considered as a possibility.

As it happens, I enjoy this more or less, but I feel I have at least as much to lose by appearing aggressive as you have to gain by showing you’ve got game. Especially in blog comments as opposed to a more freewheeling forum: Usenet is dead (a candle lights its head).


Eszter Hargittai 10.21.09 at 2:07 pm

Some people above are critical of the column for not addressing the potential needs of high school students or undergrads. Please note that my writing is not targeted at those groups. There may well be room for someone else to start a series about how to explain graduate school and academia to those populations, but that is not my goal. My goal is to help those already on the path toward tenure figure out how to maximize getting it (which includes maximizing the chances of getting a tenure-track job in the first place).

Salient makes some good points in #57 & #58 articulating some of what I was getting at better than I had done so in the piece. By the way, note that some of these things I figured out based on experiences as a faculty member, but some of it I figured out by reflecting upon things I had done as a graduate student that in retrospect I wish I had done differently. (Of course, this also means, fortunately, that making a few mistakes along the way doesn’t automatically mean a completely derailed career.:)

I’ve gotten some ideas for issues to address in future pieces from this thread, thanks!


John Emerson 10.21.09 at 3:01 pm

Come off it, Bianca. I’m from a mediocre mackground too, which I refer to occasionally as Last Chance U. Did you read the post to which I was responding?

Our school was mediocre, no question about it. It’s not top-50 on any list for anything, as far as I know. “Mediocre” may be flattering the place; it’s in the bottom 20% of PhD-granting schools.

My friend should not have been penalized for his alma mater, but he was. he specifically commented on the topic, without my asking. The grad student pecking order initially was based on what school you graduated from and who you studied with there. And the higher you started on the list the better things were.


EMG 10.21.09 at 3:07 pm

I wouldn’t call my background mediocre or unsupportive. I chose an unusual undergrad institution because I thought it provided the best preparation for a particular line of research. In terms of the substance of the discipline, that turned out to be a sound choice. But my youthful idealism didn’t factor in the power of snobbery and religious prejudice. It doesn’t *have* to be most, or even many, who are bullies, Matt; the rest just have to look the other way. And they do, because the bullies perform a useful function, policing the boundaries of the in-group and creating an environment where being harsh with people, in that particular philosophers’ way, can conveniently substitute for philosophical talent.

Having gone on to work in the business world, I find academia’s claim to be no worse than anywhere else to be far off the mark. I’m sure it’s comforting to tell yourselves there are bullies everywhere, and there are always other pockets of pathology one can point to such as BigLaw, but – well – it just isn’t true that this is the way of the world. That’s why I invoked the business world “circa 1960” – in the business world circa 2009, cruel hierarchalism is totally passé, and being different – certainly not the wrong gender or denomination, which were factors in my case – isn’t the kiss of death.

Coming backto topic – I can’t take advice to grad students seriously unless the advice takes bullying seriously. Particularly, that bullying is usually targeted at specific individuals. Without advice on what to do if one is targeted, “advice to grad students” looks like fine-tuning for people who are already basically safe. Or perhaps advice to senior academics on how to make sure one’s field is, and remains, meritocratic. Noone except powerless fellow-students even said as much as “hey, that was uncalled for, you’re doing fine.”


bianca steele 10.21.09 at 3:26 pm

@73: “mediocre” is a meaningless word, without even adequate signaling content. It casts your opponent as destined for life to never achieving much. First you call someone “mediocre,” then you and the rest can band together in the happy knowledge that you’re not, without having to worry that you’ve really hurt anyone’s feelings (mediocre probably describes at least half the population after all).


Matt 10.21.09 at 3:27 pm

I don’t have deep knowledge of the business world, EMG, or know for sure what parts of it you mean to refer to, so I can’t say much about it. I know that when I worked all sorts of different jobs while in high-school and college there were serious bullies in nearly all of them, ones just as bad as I’ve found in philosophy departments. Similarly, in quite a few of the jobs my wife has had outside of the university sphere (at a small newspaper and at a place that tried to help unemployed people find jobs, for example) there were bullies as bad as any I’ve seen in the university. It sounds to me like you got a rough patch, and that’s bad, especially with the religious discrimination. But I’ve done quite a few things besides spend time in philosophy departments, and I don’t think the bullying and the like is worse there in general, though we may have to disagree. (How to deal with deeply unpleasant people, especially those who have power over you, is good and important advice, too, of course, though I don’t suppose Eszter had an obligation to give all possible useful advice in her articles.)


John Emerson 10.21.09 at 3:38 pm

Bianca, “mediocre” is not meaningless. It means something like “just OK in a place where excellence is demanded”. There are ironies in this. For example, a mediocre major-league athlete usually was a champion at every lower level.

Second, I didn’t call an individual mediocre, but a background. Third, it was not an “opponent” background, by my own background and that of my friend. (In the big time people sneer at “state schools”, but my school was a bottom end state school.)

Now, EMG says that his own background wasn’t mediocre, which is decisive, so I guessed wrong based on the information given.

Basically, top-twenty schools regard everything else as mediocre, and top ten school regard second-ten schools as mediocre. And in general, the upward mobile come from environments that are regarded as mediocre or worse.


EMG 10.21.09 at 4:15 pm

But we’re just down to observer selection now, Matt: of *course* you didn’t encounter bullying as bad as I did – if you had, you wouldn’t now be a philosopher, either, I assure you.

I understand that minimizing negative reports is de rigeur in discussions like this, as is trying to deflect criticism by pointing the finger elsewhere (it was you who first raised the issue of what goes on in other sectors, and that after trying to claim that within academe the problem is particular to disciplines other than your own, which is particularly amusing given phil’s wide reputation as one of the very worst for this problem).

Eszter can write what she pleases, of course. Even the phrase “more than merit” shows some awareness of the problem, and I scarcely want to saddle her with the full force of your apologia for the status quo. The problem of good people getting sidelined by social BS is a real one, and pretending it’s marginal, negligible, or even all that rare, verges on victim-blaming. A column like Eszter’s is better than nothing – so far, it’s just a bit sugar-coated. At some point, it would be interesting to see some of the uglier realities taken head-on.


bianca steele 10.21.09 at 7:54 pm

John, EMG offered evidence that he’d been subjected to social aggression, and you seemed to be interpreting his feeling victimized as evidence that his failure to complete the program was due to his inadequate earlier education (your reference to “a similar mediocre background” most obviously implied “similar to EMG’s,” for example). Your comment reads as if you can’t believe he could have been subjected to social aggression that had not been simply the rightful and just expression of the truth that he didn’t belong. Of course, if what you meant was that you are on his side, I misunderstood totally.

As regards your definition of mediocre: Excellence is called for everywhere–and many people whose background is mediocre would be able to do excellently well in many environments if they have effective guidance. Mediocrity seems like a red herring, in fact, w/r/t the OP, unless you are trying somehow to tie lack of information about the academic habitus with the inferiority of some undergraduate programs with respect to others.


John Emerson 10.21.09 at 8:17 pm

What I did was compare him to a different person I knew who had what I thought was a similar bad experience in philosophy grad school, also because he went to the wrong undergrad school. It turns out I was mistaken. My point (right or wrong), however, is that graduate schools wrongly judge by background.

In highly competitive situations some people / schools / etc. are mediocre, and excellence is not called for everywhere. Excellence is derived from “excel”, for Christ’s sake. Most people are not excellent.

Liberals and a lot of radicals are in denial about the actual bloodthirstiness of our competitive society. We’ve spent a century bringing people up out of the working class by education, and there are many good things about that, but a lot of people still are working driving trucks or mopping floors. You can’t bring the whole working class up into the middle class. There are various things you can do about inequality, but you can’t end it by educating people.

This is really crazyland because, completely unexceptionally but even more so than most places, academia is extraordinarily competitive, often in an unfair or unjustified way, and I object to that more than most. A less competitive society would be a wonderful thing, per me.

Nonetheless, my alma mater is mediocre at best and doesn’t really claim to be more than that — it calls itself an “urban university” or an “access university” and that’s a legitimate role. And in fact, my friend got an OK education there;, but because of the school he came from, he was less likely to get a fair hearing, just as EMG was, for a different reason relating to the school he came from.

The sheep are being separated from the goats every minute of every day — in schools, on the market, and everywhere. And all we are ever trying to do is moderate the bloodletting, raise the floor, and make it a little less unfair.


Matt 10.21.09 at 8:18 pm

EMG- my reference to other disciplines was in reference to conferences in particular, not about being jerks. (I can say that in my experience jerks are no more common in philosophy departments than in law school, but that’s compatible with there being some pretty big jerks, and it’s well known that some departments are particularly toxic. It sounds like you got a bad one and that’s obviously too bad.) But the environment that Salient, rightly, for all I know, described for math conferences just isn’t like the environment for philosophy conferences at all- I know- I’ve been going to them and presenting at them from my very first year in grad school and have been to all different sorts. That was my main comparison with other departments. And, I think that saying that the level of bad behavior you suffered is out of the ordinary isn’t minimizing it. (If, as you say, anyone who suffered it would drop out, we have to assume it’s pretty out of the ordinary, I’d guess.) But given that most people don’t, thankfully, suffer such bad treatment, it doesn’t seem at all unreasonable to me for Eszter to focus on the more normal cases if that’s what she wants to focus on.


bianca steele 10.21.09 at 8:40 pm

Oh–I guess by “wrong gender” EMG is saying she is female, unless he is complaining about the feminization of the academy.


nona mouse 10.22.09 at 8:49 am

I find this comment thread fascinating. I am curious about how such a well-meaning project could elicit such a complex set of responses.

I think EMG nails it with the sugarcoating comment. The reason I think everyone is so up in arms at straightforward advice about how to navigate the academic power structure is due to the ugliness within it. Straightforward advice appears to conceal that ugliness. An analogy would be a handbook, written in the 1950s ‘advice to women on how to succeed in the work world’ that never mentions sexism.

(Let me reiterate that I actually think that there’s nothing wrong with straightforward advice. It seems a bit hysterical to read it as a kind of ideological cloak over the dark abyss of academia. People do have to navigate this world. I think that delving into all the dysfunction within it would muddy the waters. Also, the person who doesn’t analyze the hierarchy too much will be much better off in the long run.)

Part of the difficulty of handling the professionalization part of graduate school–aside from all the in-group garbage people mention–is that some of us didn’t even go to graduate school in the professional mode. I personally thought it was The Ideas that mattered. If I had wanted to sell myself, I would have gone into law or business. (Now I have accommodated myself to the sad truth that you always have to sell yourself, at least a bit. It helped to have mouths to feed.) I was always taken aback by the people who knew who did what where and the standing of these within the profession–those people who had the hierarchy down cold and were dead set on climbing it. (Also, I looked down on those people–most of whom also looked down on me.) Some of us in graduate school were utter purists, full of scorn for the pragmatists who had their eye on the profession. At the time, I could not will myself to adapt to the professional academic mode. I eventually manged to do just enough to get by but I know a bunch of people who never got over their disillusionment.

There was a Life In Hell cartoon about the bitterest person in the world: the grad school dropout. The difference between law and business and academia is that the competitiveness, etc. is an inherent part of law or business. Whereas in academia it looks like the professional/competitive culture is unnecessarily created by a bunch of climbing unimaginative hacks. That’s probably not the case. But it can embitter because that culture seems like an unnecessary (and sometimes insurmountable) obstacle to getting to do what you love.


Matt 10.22.09 at 10:38 am

some of us didn’t even go to graduate school in the professional mode. I personally thought it was The Ideas that mattered.

Some of us in graduate school were utter purists, full of scorn for the pragmatists who had their eye on the profession.

Whatever stories you have to tell yourself to get through the day are okay with me, but I wonder if someone else in a different field were saying this sort of stuff (“I alone, unlike the rest of the herd, cared only for the majesty of the law!”, “Only I and a lonely band really wanted to heal people as opposed to just have MD behind our names!”) if you wouldn’t wonder if it was at least in part covering up something a bit less pure. Very few of us, in the moment of cool reflection, come out as neat as you make yourself seem here, in the cloak of anonymity. It might be worth thinking on again.


Chris A. Williams 10.22.09 at 11:04 am

nona mouse: “The reason I think everyone is so up in arms at straightforward advice about how to navigate the academic power structure is due to the ugliness within it. Straightforward advice appears to conceal that ugliness. ”

‘everyone’? My take on straightforward advice is that it reveals the ugliness, and this is necessary because it helps to level the playing field, which is currently stacked against those (many of whom are idealists like Nona Mouse) who take academia’s protestataions of liberal fair-mindednesss at face value, and lack existing connections or powrful patrons. I was lucky in that exposure to (not especially toxic) academic politics at BA level and (rather more toxic) at MA allowed me to realise that this was a system that I might need to have to game. Not everyone is that lucky, so advice is good to have. Stick at it, Esther.


engels 10.22.09 at 11:11 am

Compare: everybody wants to get their kids into the best school they can and people use all kinds of tricks to do it, eg. having mail re-directed to a friend’s house so they can claim to live in the catchment area. So advice on doing this is progressive thing which helps to level the playing field.


engels 10.22.09 at 11:13 am

I can’t help thinking there is a Prisoner’s Dilemna hovering somewhere in the background of this discussion…


Matt 10.22.09 at 11:19 am

Is anything Eszter suggested like that, engels? I didn’t see anything that clearly looked like that. If you did it would be useful to spell it out. I’m also unsure how anything Eszter talked about is prison’s dilemma-like. If A goes to conferences, speaks out, meets people, etc., that doesn’t make it so B can’t do those things, right? So, I’m not sure I get your point. Can you spell it out a bit more? (It’s not something dumb like, “if we all refused to publish and go to conferences, none of us would need to!”, I expect, or at least hope, but I’m really not sure what you have in mine.)


John Emerson 10.22.09 at 11:50 am

I don’t blame Eszter at all for posting what she did and have no particular criticisms of the content. I said what I always say in such situations.

Someone else address Matt’s 84 and 88, we’re not speaking.

Just remember, Bill Kristol made it through Harvard, so everyone should be able to.


engels 10.22.09 at 12:00 pm

Sorry, I wasn’t very clear. I thought Eszter’s argument was that at least some of things she was advocating do not make you more qualified to get tenure but make you more likely to get it (getting tenure is about ‘more than merit’). (1) In an ideal world, perhaps, nobody would do these things and tenure would go to the most qualified. This would be fair and socially efficient. (2) But in the real world quite a few people do do these things and derive competitive advantage from them: this advice aims to ‘level the playing field’ by enabling everyone to do them. (3) But the result of everybody doing them will be unfair and even more socially inefficient. (4) This is what seemed to me to have the structure of a prisoner’s dilemna.


Matt 10.22.09 at 12:13 pm

Thanks Engels. That’s a plausible enough reading, I guess. (I’d be pleased if Eszter would say what she thinks of it.) I’ve been taking it a bit differently, more along the lines of, “you can be really smart, but if no one knows because you don’t give them any way to find out, you’ll never get anywhere. And, interacting with people is not only a way for people to find out about your work, but in a world where much work is collaborative, it’s necessary to make contacts.” That is, I took Eszter to be giving advice to people as to how they can show they are qualified, where the alternative is much more purely looking to pedigree, connections, and the old-boy network.


Steve LaBonne 10.22.09 at 12:30 pm

Engels, how does your point 3 follow from your point 2? If everybody could be trained to get the political things right then wouldn’t we back to merit as the determining factor?


JoB 10.22.09 at 12:36 pm

Well, leveling the playing field is all right I guess, and I don’t doubt Eszter’s intentions, but what is discussed here is in fact not at all leveling the field but leveling the players; making them more like each other. Same goes for prisoners dilemma: fair reading but it’s much more a prison-takers dilemma; “We know we are driven to the non-essential criteria for selection so let’s make sure everybody has the same chance of meeting the non-essentials.” Kind of a ritual thing, which in fact it is. Not the worst discrimination, but discrimination nonetheless; and the disclaimer needs to be put!


alex 10.22.09 at 12:47 pm

Alas, no, because some jackass somewhere will move the politicised gameplaying up a notch, ‘normal’ will be redefined once again, and we’ll all have to run to catch up…


engels 10.22.09 at 12:52 pm

Steve, I wondered about that but I think that since it is impossible for people to become equally good at those things it is still unfair. You end up with a system that judges everyone on a combined score of academic ability + careerist maneuvring. Better than judging some people on the first summand and others on the sum, but still unfair.


Salient 10.22.09 at 12:58 pm

Some people above are critical of the column for not addressing the potential needs of high school students or undergrads.

Oops, I hope my earlier comments weren’t taken that way. I was trying to say something very different with my reference to HS/undergrad (specifically, I was trying to explain that master’s students may be out-of-place at a conference even if they intend to pursue a Ph.D). Apologies if I confused anyone or derailed anybody.

I sympathize/empathize with EMG’s experiences and want to say that, but can’t think of anything more specific to say.

Eszter, I think the more your advice is about “what others are likely to expect or appreciate” the more value it will have, and the more the advice is about “what you the reader should do” the less value it will have (at least for me), if that makes any sense. The information about what speakers find normal (e.g., contact them in advance to arrange to say hello) was very valuable, and the advice about what to do (go to conferences) was less valuable to me.

And again, thanks for writing these! :-)


John Emerson 10.22.09 at 12:59 pm

The behind the scenes advantages (like having Irving Kristol for Pa, or having access to Kripke’s unpublsihes papers, or just knowing people) will still be there.

I want to step back from the anti-Eszter interpretation of what I started off saying, which is not an unreasonable one on the face of it. I’m saying what I always say when this kind of thing comes up. Everything she said was good and it will make the world a marginally better place.

But grad school is an abbatoir designed to decimate the entering grad students (actually worse than decimate, which is only 10%, according to some interpretations at least), and a lot of people don’t realize that when they go in and have trouble getting used to it.


Salient 10.22.09 at 1:02 pm

Steve, I wondered about that but I think that since it is impossible for people to become equally good at those things it is still unfair.

I get what you mean, but disagree that it counts against Eszter’s efforts. This is because I figure that transparency is always fairer than obliqueness, and efforts to improve transparency are always good.

Exceptions exist, and of course improving transparency doesn’t automatically improve the other unfairness or the inequality in a system or structure, but I think it’s always better for more people to better understand how something currently works.

Maybe by making these expectations and assumptions explicit and openly and widely acknowledged, more will be done by the next generation of academics to change the least fair expectations and assumptions.


Salient 10.22.09 at 1:12 pm

But grad school is an abbatoir designed to decimate the entering grad students

Insofar as you’re correct (my university’s program really does seem designed to be supportive and help every student succeed), I agree that this is a fairly stupid way to design an educational system.

There’s a lot of expertise (even just “how to learn a specific way of thinking” expertise) being gained by graduate school students that I imagine goes to waste. You’d think our society would be able to put those people to good use so there isn’t this absurd overcrowding for academic jobs, but nooo…

You just can’t tell me the world doesn’t have any use for lots of people with the skill set developed by pursuing a doctoral degree, who have developed strategies for learning a “way of thinking,” for familiarizing themselves with existing research and contributing specific new research, etc.

Maybe market economies just suck at human resource allocation. :P


engels 10.22.09 at 1:15 pm

Everything she said was good and it will make the world a marginally better place.

Well, as I implied, I don’t think that is necessarily true. For example, I’m not sure that a world in which lots of people are worrying about how to get tenure in the the first year of their Masters is obviously a better world than one which only a few are.


Steve LaBonne 10.22.09 at 1:18 pm

Even though I didn’t ultimately stick in academia, reading this thread is making me very grateful that my Ph.D. program (at Northwestern, in what was then the recently formed Dept. of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology on the Evanston campus) was infinitely more humane and supportive than some of the ones being described here. I can still look back on that time in my life with genuine pleasure.


John Emerson 10.22.09 at 1:21 pm

They say that PhDs from top schools who are unemployable in their profession are starting to be recruited by business for areas (unrelated to their “field”) where research skills, analytic skills, writing skills, and speaking skills are useful. I know an ABD who seems to be doing well in this context.


Moby Hick 10.22.09 at 1:26 pm

I know an ABD who seems to be doing well in this context.

That would describe me also (for certain values of ‘doing well’).


Steve LaBonne 10.22.09 at 3:36 pm

P.S. I should have noted that the degree continues to be valuable to me (both as a credential and for the mental habits developed in the course of acquiring it) in my present career, so I’m another data point for the usefulness of Ph.D. training outside academia.


John Emerson 10.22.09 at 5:17 pm

I actually talked to my ABD friend and she verifies that things are going well, though not perfectly.


Academe....urgh 10.22.09 at 5:50 pm

Actually John, has your friend got any advice? I have a PhD from a world class university and some highly regarded publications, unfortunately I find academe an utter bore.


John Emerson 10.23.09 at 11:20 am

As I remember (I’m sort of merging several stories) she went to one of the head-hunting agencies and was interviewed, where she explained what she could do in terms of what she had learned in the past. She got credit for being fluent in Arabic even though it was irrelevant to the job she eventually got, because it showed motivation and persistence. Being able to research, organize material, and make effective written and oral presentations was valued.

She had to throw herself into the new job — it was quite demanding, she wasn’t just dropping down to something easier. She had to reeducate herself in terms of the needs of the job.

I think that one key is convincing the headhunters that you really want the new job and aren’t just desperate. Giving yourself credit for what you’re able to do is important — for example ability to write effectively is really quite rare, and while computer literacy is pretty widespread now, not a lot of people have mastered some of the sophisticated software packages. One guy used his Pol Sci stat-computer skills analyizing billings his clients received to find overcharges.


Moby Hick 10.23.09 at 12:58 pm

Headhunter. That’s an idea. Thanks.


John Emerson 10.23.09 at 1:26 pm

Not to put words in his mouth, but Dsquared works in the business world and has said things somewhat like what I just said.


Lee 10.23.09 at 3:17 pm

Thanks Eszter for the Dig-Your-Well-Before-You-Are-Thirsty advice


nona mouse 10.24.09 at 4:35 am

I think I wasn’t clear. Matt, I was trying to ridicule a dumbass attitude I had in my early twenties. I wasn’t endorsing that attitude. I reported it as another obstacle for some in using Ezster’s good advice. It might have been mine, besides my professional ineptness. (Most likely, I had this view because I wasn’t able to adapt to the professional aspect of the academic world very well. If I’d fleshed out the story I would have explained I was concealing a motive less pure back then–it was a way to cope. I was terrified in the first few years of grad school and light years away from thinking about tenure).

Chris, I think people need the advice Eszter’s offering. Certain comments here suggest an interesting thing about good advice: For some, there are various unfortunate barriers to making good use of it. That was my main point.

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