On being a philosophy Ph.D. student

New philosophy grad students often think (and hear) that their work is to cultivate philosophical ability, learn domain knowledge through coursework, produce various written artifacts, and develop a professional network.

Those are good! But there are other skills, more specific than these, the value of which I didn't see well enough or early enough:

  1. How to read a journal article efficiently. Whatever you think of peer review, it generates articles (i) optimized for and (ii) reshaped by peer review. If you're trying to absorb its best arguments (or simply answer "what does Prof. X think about Y?"), you should usually distribute your attention to it very unevenly.
  2. Distinguishing the received summary of some book or article from what it actually says. So, for example, if Stephen Menn is right, a lot of Ian Mueller's work has been mis-received. And (to choose one example of many) Menn's own "Collecting the Letters," which absolutely transformed my understanding of Platonic epistemology, is often cited but (I think) rarely fully absorbed. (I'm not sure how many people have read it.)
    Just by the way: this isn't intended as snark on academic culture. We don't understand influence very well and it seems to involve huge quasi-random effects.
  3. The mechanics of producing, storing, and retrieving work, including version control. (A lot of us have lost valuable notes or drafts at least once.)
  4. The ability to identify and discard the worst threads of one's work. Neither gaining the proper intellectual perspective nor actually redistributing your time is easy.
  5. Figuring out where the best information is likely to be. Many of the most useful articles when I was writing my dissertation were either introductions or published conference talks. (The explanation has something to do with peer review--see (1) above.)
  6. Finding the best form for expressing an idea. Even if the thing's ultimate form must be a 25-page journal article, its best expression and best working state might be different. I got disproportionate value from writing up 3- to 5-page memos, but this is probably domain- and person-specific.

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