Issues in Philosophy Doctoral Student Orientation

Doctoral Student Orientation

by Steven M. Cahn

For many years I attended my departments opening week orientation for new doctoral students. While most arrived unsure or even apprehensive, all were eager to understand more fully the situation they faced. Few faculty participated, however, and those that did treated the occasion lightly, engaging in banter with one another and evincing little concern for the anxieties of the beginners.

Over time the pattern of these meetings changed little. The chair would began by inviting the newcomers to introduce themselves and indicate their specialty. Those who replied with uncertainty received patronizing smiles, while the response that invariably caused derisive laughter was, I plan to teach.

Subsequently the faculty were asked to describe their current scholarly work. The newcomers listened attentively, nodding as if comprehending every word while struggling to understand any of what was said.

Next, the students were invited to ask about the program, but being unfamiliar with it, did not have much to contribute. The message they received, however, was clear and emphatic: find an area of research and publish as much as possible. Although nearly all the doctoral students were eventually expected to teach undergraduates, not a word was said about this responsibility. Nor was any advice given about how best to survive the hoops and hurdles of doctoral study. Instead, the session typically concluded early, when the chair announced that the essentials had been covered and that the time had come for wine and cheese.

Perhaps this approach to orientation is unique to my program. Yet I presume other departments engage in similar practices.

I would suggest, however, that we can do better. Here are ten pieces of advice that should prove useful to those heading into the thickets of academia:

  1. Read widely. As a college student you were only responsible for works the instructor assigned, but as a scholar you create your own reading lists. The more literature you master, the less reliant you are on faculty.
  2. Write frequently. Putting ones ideas into written form aids precise thinking. If you doubt the effectiveness of your style, consult an appropriate handbook such as Polishing Your Prose: How To Turn First Drafts Into Finished Work (Columbia University Press, 2013), a book I confess to co-authoring.
  3. Dont delay. Do not allow lack of confidence to lead you to put off fulfilling requirements, taking examinations, or submitting papers. The longer you wait, the more the pressure mounts. Postponement is not progress.
  4. Meet the professors. Eventually, you will need to choose an advisor to guide your dissertation. Whether by attending a lecture, conversing at a departmental function, or visiting during office hours, seek a professor whose interests, methodology, and personality are in sync with your own.
  5. Meet other students. They can offer helpful advice about courses, professors, and strategies. Furthermore, discussion with colleagues is one of the pleasures of the profession. Granted, solitude may stimulate creativity, but scholars do not flourish in isolation. Rather, they rely on publishers, librarians, and one another.
  6. Meet professional colleagues. Those at other institutions who share your interests can offer valuable contacts. You can meet such individuals at scholarly conferences, whether you merely attend or, better yet, serve as a speaker, commentator, or session chair. By the way, volunteers are often sought for these positions. Furthermore, because almost all the attendees will be active scholars in your field, they will be as eager to meet you as you are to meet them.
  7. Seek a dissertation topic. As you proceed, be alert for a potential project that engages your interest, is of appropriate scope, and is innovative without being idiosyncratic. Choosing your subject wisely is a crucial step toward finishing your work in a reasonable time and maximizing your chances for a desirable academic position. Publishing along the way is a plus, but finding a winning dissertation topic is invaluable.
  8. Diversify your interests. You dont want to be a one-trick pony, a scholar with only one area of expertise who offers endless variations on the same theme. At a job interview, you may well be asked about your interests apart from your dissertation. You should have a couple you can discuss.
  9. Plan to teach. Before long you will be expected to assume the obligations and challenges of teaching undergraduates. Not all your students will have an immediate attraction to your subject. Thus as you proceed, consider how you might motivate students to explore central issues in your discipline. (For some specific suggestions, see my Teaching Philosophy: A Guide, Routledge, 2018.)
  10. Maintain your dignity. Unfortunately, graduate professors occasionally take advantage of students in various ways, including destructive criticism, inordinate delays in returning work, inaccessibility, or mixing professional with personal concerns. Even worse, professors have had more than their share of scandals involving forms of sexual harassment or abuse. In all these instances students should not abide mistreatment but immediately report any incidents to the appropriate administrator, whether the department chair or a dean. Thereafter inaction from the authorities should be met with forceful protest.

An orientation meeting that explained these points might take a couple of hours but would be worth attending, even in the absence of refreshments. Furthermore, the session would emphasize to all that the primary aim of doctoral education is not to enhance faculty interests or prerogatives but to support students in their efforts to succeed as scholars and teachers.

Steven M. Cahn is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author of the forthcoming book Inside Academia: Professors, Politics and Policies, Rutgers University Press, 2018.


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