Tag Archives: Grad school

Beginning to Work on Something Long

Now that I am almost done with coursework — nearly three years later — I am finally beginning to think about something long – a dissertation. To write a dissertation I need a topic, and I think might I have one: measuring consciousness in persistent vegetative state or minimally conscious patients. I got interested in this topic last Fall when I read Nachev and Hacker’s paper “Covert cognition in the persistent vegetative state” for Carl Craver’s class Current Controversies in Cognitive Science. The paper is excellent and raises many fascinating questions. Some questions that I would like to answer in the dissertation include:

  • What does it mean to be a PVS or minimally conscious patient? What’s their respective neurology?
  • What exactly are we trying to detect in these patients? How is “consciousness” defined?
  • What measurement methods are we using and why? How is “consciousness” operationalized? Can it even be measured?
  • How can we arbitrate between rival operational measures of consciousness? How can we verify we are detecting what we think we are detecting?
  • Is the thing we are trying to detect worth detecting? What should we be looking for?
  • How do we determine an acceptable false positive/false negative rate?

This topic is at the intersection of many of my interests: consciousness, philosophy of science, operationalism, behaviorism, and ethics. This semester I am doing directed research with Carl Craver to dive head-first into the topic. I have a long reading list that I will be working my way through and hopefully I’ll be able to share some of my findings as the semester progresses. Stay tuned!

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Quote for the Day – Academia: Grinding Out Little Peppercorns of Truth

If we reflect upon the various ideals of education that are prevalent in the different countries, we see that what they all aim at is to organize capacities for conduct. This is most immediately obvious in Germany, where the explicitly avowed aim of the higher education is to turn the student into an instrument for advancing scientific discovery. The German universities are proud of the number of young whom they out every year, –not necessarily men of any original force of intellect,  but men so trained to research that when their professor gives them an historical or philological thesis to prepare, or a bit of laboratory work to do, with a general indication as to the best method, they can go off by themselves and use apparatus and consult sources in such a way as to grind out the requisite number of months some little pepper-corn of new truth worthy of being added to the store of extant human information on that subject. Little else is recognized in Germany as a man’s title to academic advancement than his ability to show himself an efficient instrument of research.

~ William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology: and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals 

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Academics on social media: Twitter or Blogging? Is there even a difference?

It is a personal belief of mine (i.e. I have no evidence) that success in today’s academic market can be influenced by self-promotion and not just department or advisor-promotion. Having a well-known advisor, or coming from a prestigious PhD program, will help you get through the first stages of a search committee, but I think having an “online presence” that is readily apparent from a quick google search will go a long way towards making you “stand out” from people with otherwise similar CVs and qualifications. Obviously, this belief of mine is massively self-serving because I actively try to promote my “online presence”! Which brings me to the topic of this post: using twitter or blogging platforms for academic self-promotion.

Whereas I used to blog more than I tweet, I am now finding myself using twitter more and more as a kind of “micro-blogging” platform. This might just be  summer laziness and absorption in more important research projects (like my next Qualifying Paper for Wash U), but it’s also an opportunity to hone the art of succinct expression. Trying to make a real (or interesting) philosophical point in a single tweet is an interesting exercise because, if you want to do so, you have no choice but to compress your thoughts. Along with such “micro-blogging”, twitter offers the potential for rapid-fire link-sharing and instant communication between thousands of people. Blogging is “slower”, but also suitable for deeper, more insightful writing.

However, I am quickly becoming convinced that the distinction between “blogging” and “micro-blogging” is growing fuzzier everyday. People might not think of tweeting as “really” blogging i.e. logging your thoughts on the web, but that’s exactly what it is, only 142 characters at a time, published in “real-time”.

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The Perils of Reading “Too much” in Grad School?

As a grad student in philosophy, I often run across a curious piece of advice: too much reading is a bad thing! As someone who has learned almost everything I know through reading, this notion surprised me when I first heard it. I had always thought philosophers should strive to read as much as possible to expand the breadth of their knowledge. When was the last time you walked into a full professors office and saw a tiny little bookshelf? Often, books are spilling out of their offices! But given I keep hearing this advice about reading “too much”, is there something to it?

There are at least three types of warnings I’ve heard about the “dangers” of reading too much. The first worry is that by reading too much you will never have the chance to write and publish. The worry I guess is that if you spend your whole graduate career trying to read everything under the sun but never write anything, then inevitably you will not complete the dissertation. Call this the “neverending lit review” problem.

The second warning about reading too much is that it’s better to engage in face-to-face philosophical discussions, what some philosophers like to think as where “real” philosophy happens. I am in agreement, to a point. I love discussing philosophy, and will go all night. But reading a book is equivalent to having a one-sided conversation. And if the author is a genius, then reading their books is equivalent to having a conversation with a genius. How is that not valuable? The written words allows for the transmission of thought, and thoughts are meaningful whether they are spoken or not. Besides, how else are we going to learn from history? Dead people still have insightful things to tell us.

The third warning concerns the drying up of creative juices by letting others do your thinking for you. The worry is that by reading too much you become a kind of philosophical puppet. Here philosophers like to quote authorities to support their contention:

Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. ~ Albert Einstein

Reading is merely a surrogate for thinking for yourself; it means letting someone else direct your thoughts. ~Schopenhauer

I take it this last concern is that by reading too much, you dilute your mind with other people’s opinions instead of coming up with “your own” view. However, grad students who say these things in practice end up in a worse predicament than adopting the views of people they read: adopting the view of just one person: their adviser! Realistically, what are the chances that a single person at a single institution has all the answers? Slim to none. Better to seek the opinion of many experts, not just one, otherwise you risk philosophical myopia.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I would fall into the “reading too much” category. I devour books and never get full.  But I daresay that my drive to read everything under the sun has not hampered my writing productivity, prevented me from publishing, or hampered my philosophical creativity. Quite the contrary as readers of this blog might guess. As for the point about letting others do my thinking, how could this be true if I often find myself silently shouting “No!” when I read something I disagree with? Reading can be a way to figure out where people stand on issues, and thus, a way to orient yourself in the conceptual landscape. It is possible to critically engage with a book, to highlight points of both alignment and contention.

I take all this advice about reading too much to be a point about tradeoffs. You shouldn’t read all the time and never write your thoughts down and vice versa. You will fail as an academic (esp. a philosopher) if you never write anything down, but you will also fail if you never read anything. The flipside of “reading too much” is of course “reading too little”. The worry here is that if you don’t read extensively you take the very likely risk of reinventing the wheel, a great way to get banished to the sidelines of philosophical discourse.

In conclusion, my advice would be to maximize reading, writing, and thinking. Ceteris paribus, you should read as much as humanly possible without sacrificing writing and thinking. The ceteris clause is in there because there is a hint of truth in the advice about reading too much. If all you do is read, that is probably bad. But if you can also write and think while you read excessively, then wouldn’t that be better? Isn’t it a compliment for academics to say of someone else that “They are well read”? I would never take that as an insult.

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On Becoming an Expert

Gradschool is providing me a great opportunity to become an expert in my chosen field: philosophy. But there is another field besides philosophy that I am also interested in reaching expert level  in: chess.  Before I die I would love to reach “Master” level in chess. However, this is no easy task. If I assume the 10,000 hour rule is roughly accurate, and I study an hour a day every day, it will about another 30 years before I reach Master level. Obviously, if I spend some days studying more than an hour a day, I can speed this up, but there are also going to be days when I don’t study at all, or don’t study that seriously. So it looks like it really is going to take a long time for me to become a true chess expert. What will probably be the biggest factor in reaching expertise in chess will be to maintain motivation for study over the decades. If in a few years I get burned out from chess and take a long break, then obviously my path to expertise will be slower and less effective. Continuous motivation for decades without burning out is necessary to achieve expertise in just about any field.

When I think about being an expert in philosophy though, it’s a little different. Chess expertise is easy to quantify because there is an objective ratings system. But how do you know when you have become an expert philosopher? Is it when you publish? Or when you’ve read enough literature? Or get a tenure-track job? Hard to say. There is only one way to be a good chess player (make better moves than your opponent) but there are probably thousands of different ways to be an expert in philosophy. So the question of expertise is a great deal more subjective than in chess. The objectivity of chess is in fact one of the reasons why I love it. When you play a game, there is only the board, with everything in plain sight. Philosophy expertise is more fluid and harder to pin down. It’s hard to “see” expertise in philosophy. Yet I strive for it everyday. At the moment this involves just surviving grad school, reading as much as I can, and writing my thoughts down as often as possible while trying to stay sane. Doing these things will hopefully translate into philosophical expertise some day. In the mean time, I will also be working on my chess. The struggle then is to find a balance between these two tracks towards expertise. Every time I am reading I could be studying chess, and vice versa. The ideal balance is also not going to be equal, since I should take philosophy much more seriously since it is my future career track. I never plan on making money through chess playing, but this philosophy thing is supposed to turn into a future job (although one could see grad school as a job too). But at the same time, I think it’s good to have an intellectual outlet that isn’t philosophy. When I get tired of reading and writing philosophy, chess is always there to keep my mind stimulated.

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The Ideal State of Mind in Graduate School

Karen Kelsky’s article “Graduate School is a Means to a Job” was posted a few weeks ago, but I keep thinking about this one piece of advice in particular. She says that a graduate student should:

Cultivate a professional persona as a young scholar. That persona is separate from your previous identity as a graduate student and is, instead, confident, assertive, sophisticated, and outspoken.

Confident, assertive, sophisticated, and outspoken. This is the ideal persona to cultivate as a grad student. It’s interesting to me that this persona is supposed to be different from a “graduate student identity”. But I guess I have find this to be largely true: many grad students are not very confident or outspoken, either in class or in their research. Part of being a “young scholar” then is developing ideas and opinions such that you have something to say about a wide variety of issues in your field. If you have nothing to say about any given subject, what will you be doing as an academic except spouting the ideas of the older generation of thinkers? As Kelsky as aptly noted, part of becoming an academic means being willing to step up to the table and make assertions and be opinionated. Of course, it’s nice to back up these opinions with facts and arguments, but it’s also challenging enough just to find something nontrivial yet interesting to say that hasn’t already been said before. And if you have well-developed ideas and opinions, then you can afford to be confident in your ability to engage with other academics. And the more you engage, the more sophisticated you will become in your ideas. This is all part of being a young scholar. I really like Kelsky’s article for how she shows that self-conception goes a long way towards laying the foundations of a career in academia. The article also has a bunch of other good practical advice well worth reading.

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Best American PhD programs in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science?

As some may know, I will be applying to PhD programs this season, hoping to land a spot at a good program for the Fall of 11. I have been compiling a list for many months, but I wanted to get some more suggestions. I am mainly looking for the best American PhD programs that have the most people working in philosophy of mind and the philosophy of cognitive science. Before you ask, I am only considering American programs for both personal and academic reasons. Personal, because I like the American lifestyle and it would be less of a hassle to live with my partner and see my family for Christmas and holidays. Academic, because there are some amazing programs here in America and I like the idea of getting paid handsomely to spend 5 years in doctoral school (instead of the usual 3 elsewhere).

Here’s what I have so far:

Programs that I am really interested in:

  1. Indiana University, Bloomington
  2. Washington U, St Louis PNP program
  3. CUNY Grad Center
  4. NYU
  5. U of Connecticut
  6. UCSD
  7. U of Maryland

Programs that I am interested in (I can’t rank these):

  • U of Arizona
  • U of Miami
  • Rutgers
  • Oregon
  • Ohio State U
  • Duke
  • U of Wisconsin, Madison
  • UT Austin
  • Syracuse

Programs I am somewhat interested in (which isn’t to say they are bad schools,I’m just not sure if they are right for me)

  • Yale
  • Georgetown
  • Emory
  • Boston University

Keeping in mind my above criteria (high concentration of people working in philosophy of mind/cognitive science + American), what are some programs I am missing? I’m open to any suggestions or advise.

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