The Rising Cost of Self-depreciation

As promised, I am turning over the reigns of the blog today to a great thinker, great writer, and long-time friend, Robert Minto.  Robert’s presence can be found regularly on the internet at his blog, Bifurcated Life and in the real world as a harried philosophy Ph.D. student at prestigious (and stately) Boston College.  I am excited to have Robert’s perspective here at Maphmatically Yours because his is a voice from outside the fishbowl of Hyde Park and comes from further along on a path that many of us either consider ourselves to be on or have considered turning from.

In this post, Robert addressed quite a few of the topics I have treated over the past few months: academic rigor, job prospects, playing the academic game, and the questions of how to get along in the company of what I called Rock Star professors.  However, Robert comes at these questions from a different angle–that of the Ph.D. candidate and has done me the service of forcing me to reconsider some of my earlier positions.  Thank you.


The good Maphman has requested that I contribute something here that will be of value to MAPHers while drawing upon my experience as a PhD student in philosophy. I am glad to do this because I respect MAPHers — not least because they include the venerable Maphman himself.

Before I begin consider the following proviso, and allow it to temper any errors I make with regard to the U of C’s MAPH program: the MA students I know are not pursuing an intensive one-year degree with the stringent requirements that you, as a MAPHer or potential MAPHer, are pursuing. They take the same number of classes as PhD students, yes, but in other respects they have a somewhat easier time of it: they have three years to prepare for their “masters comps exam,” which PhD students must prepare for in a year; and they have no responsibilities to serve as research assistants or professors for undergraduates. In the case of MAPHers, however, as I understand it, considerable more pressure attends the pursuit of your degree. You must take all the courses you are going to take in just one year, having only that span of time to recruit writers of letters of recommendation, and you must write a master’s thesis in the same span of time which will serve as the main self-recommendation for your all-too-near next round of grad school applications. You face challenges that are definitely comparable to those of a first-year PhD, if not greater.

None of us can rest on our laurels. You are presumably hoping that some university will accept you into their PhD program the year after your MAPH degree. I am hoping that somebody will actually hire me to teach the year after my degree. From the time as undergraduates that we first decided to pursue academic life in the humanities, to the time, I suppose, when we will have achieved tenure at a satisfactory institution, our career track is fraught with horrible contingency and terrible odds. And the only way we can overcome these are by desperation or profound affinity.

Some tenured professors advise that one only pursue grad study in the humanities if one is totally unfit for any other kind of life. This is cynical, but I can see the point. Someone cast with such desperation on the dream of academic life will probably persevere against adversity. But I also doubt such people exist (outside of their own imaginations).

Better, I think, to sustain us as scholars are the traditional benefits of a life of the mind. The pleasures of intellectual work, to those who have properly tasted them, are incomparable. They are worth any amount of uncertainty, any number of years on a shoe-string budget, any lack of glamor. Moreover, the potential impact of intellectual work, whether you are a grand synthesizer, an analyst of minutiae, or an ordinary producer of competent scholarship, is also incomparable. I could continue to list praises of the scholarly life, to describe its unique adventures, its special friendships, its social import, etc., but probably you have thought about these things before. I merely bring them up again because I think they offer the richest vein of motivation for those of us facing the uniquely challenging prospect of an academic career.

I do have one unique bit of advice to offer you, as someone in a PhD program. Don’t be intimidated by professors or fellow students. And in particular: don’t be self-deprecating. The admissions process is largely chaotic, I believe. I could make a pretty good anecdotal argument for that, too, given that I know the reason I was accepted to two of the programs I was accepted to, and in neither case was it something I would or could have planned. That being said, don’t fall into the trap — which I see enveloping numerous MA students at my institution — of assuming that everyone around you is so much more profoundly intelligent than you. I’ll tell you a secret: if you treat your studying like a full-time job, working on it every day for eight hours or more, you will already be doing more and better than even most of the PhD students at your institution. And in scholarly work, innate talent counts for little in comparison with taking pains. (After all, genius is the capacity for taking infinite pains: a motto I have on my wall, and you should too, metaphorically at least.)

Nothing will ruin your graduate education like self-deprecation. Others won’t take you seriously if you’re visibly intimidated by a prof who “wrote the book” on a subject, or by students who merely by their beneficent presence and on the basis of a few comments, seem to exhibit genius. Academia is a system of status, socially constructed, while good scholarship is an activity born of earnestness, honesty, resourcefulness, and the taking of pains. Pursue the latter boldly and without self-doubt.

(Of course, being an arrogant ass is also a bad thing. But the people who try that hit the wall quickly, and most of us struggle with the opposite problem I think.)

One more reflection before I sign off: to tie together my two previous points, that we should motivate ourselves by the pleasures of intellectual work, and that taking pains is worth more than having achieved some contingent recognition in the last round of grad school admissions, I offer that we should all be focusing and working hardest on the aspects of what we are doing now that most resemble what we ultimately want to do. Let reformulate that more concisely. Act like you’re already a professor. That means writing papers you would be proud to have your name attached to if they were published in a professional journal. Treating any teaching opportunities that you have as the momentous responsibilities that they are. Caring always for the state of the knowledge in your discipline, and for other large-scale and teleologically final aspects of your career. And in general treating everything that you produce as part of a life-work of independent significance. Merely “playing the game” is the recipe for swift de-motivation, for eventual regret.

I hope I will be forgiven these very general reflections — they just honestly seemed like the deepest thoughts I have to offer on graduate education in general, and they are the things I sometimes want to say to the MA students at my institution. Perhaps the Maphman will invite me back sometime; until then, good luck.


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