Julia Bursten is an assistant professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University and is Co-chair of the Philosophy of Science Association Women’s Caucus. Her research in the history and philosophy of science focuses on conceptual and practical challenges to theory development posed by nanoscience and chemistry.
What are you most proud of in your professional life?
Two things: First, my collaboration with a group of nanoscientists, which has deeply influenced both the subject matter and methodology of my research. It has given me hope that I can make a career doing philosophy of science that is relevant to and engaged with scientific practice. Second, the students I’ve mentored. These range from an undergraduate who studied medieval female alchemists and an M.A. student working on gender bias in speech acts, to a high school student who came to me to write a senior thesis on collaboration in scientific practice. What these have in common, and what I am, more broadly, most proud of, are the productive, collaborative, and respectful relationships I have developed with thoughtful, hardworking, inventive, caring people during my career so far.
What time of day are you most productive and creative?
These are two very separate questions for me. My productivity usually peaks in the morning, after I walk my dog Linus and before my coffee wears off. That is when I am best for administrative tasks, such as grading and reading. Creativity happens in unfortunately unpredictable bursts, usually when I am in an inconvenient spot to write things down, such as when I am walking the dog, at the gym, driving, teaching, or about to go to sleep. But I use the Pomodoro Technique to make time to follow up on ideas when I am at a computer.
You’re stuck on a desert island and you can only have one recreational activity. What is it?
I’m assuming the spirit of the question forbids answers like “travel,” so I’ll go with horseback archery. I started messing around with shooting arrows while sitting on a horse a couple of years ago. It is (a) very, very fun, and (b) something that seems like it should take a desert-island’s worth of free time and open space to get really good at.
What is your least favorite type of fruit, and why?
I really have no truck with papayas. I’ve got no rational basis for it, so as a good empiricist, I try papayas every few years to see if I still find them revolting. So far, I always have.
What advice do you wish someone had given you?
Practice strategic compartmentalization.
Somewhere in the middle of my dissertation, I found that I could only talk myself into meeting my writing deadlines by continually reminding myself that philosophy is a thing I do, not the thing I am. Writing philosophy is an activity that is one of my professional responsibilities, not the very revelation of my rational soul. Dissertation chapters are not horcruxes that contain your human essence, and they’re probably (hopefully!) not the best work you’re going to do anyway, so better just to bear down and get to the end of them.
It requires a certain amount of cognitive dissonance to hold on to that attitude toward philosophical writing. A lot of us got into this discipline because we find philosophy uniquely positioned to reveal interesting new connections between apparently disparate parts of the world, and communicating about those connections feels very personal. But to get through paragraph by paragraph, it is way easier if you can let go of the idea that your personal identity is tied to the project. This also applies to advice I was given about the job market: do your research on programs that you’re applying to as if you’re a very highly paid third-party consultant whose job it is to provide information to the job candidate.
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