Friday, 22 April 2011

Living with Your Graduate Student Philosopher: Paper-Writing Season

My philosopher and I refer to the end of the academic semester as paper-writing season for the obvious reason that it is the time of the semester when all philosophers are buried in mounds of texts and articles, frantically writing papers for all of their graduate courses. Graduate students start to keep even stranger hours than normal and walk around the department with bloodshot and very desperate eyes, hoping that we will host some sort of department event that will have snacks so they won’t have to leave the office to scrounge up meals.

For those of you non-philosophers who are not as familiar with the academic life of your grad student philosopher, their semester is usually structured in the following way:

1. Read really hard stuff for 15-16 weeks of the semester
2. Prepare well enough to discuss the article/book during class periods (usually articles)
3. Either write 2-ish page reading responses (I per week) during the course of the semester, with one long-ish paper at the end of the semester; write two, 10-15 page papers, one at the midterm and one at the end of the semester; or write one 25-ish page paper at the end of the semester

As you can see, the end of the semester is usually weighted heavily with paper-writing.

Your philosopher, especially if they are either a new grad student or a burnt-out grad student, may always look like the kind of grad student I described previously. So how else can you tell that it is, indeed, paper-writing season?

1. When you enter a philosopher’s work space, you may see more papers scattered over the floor or in large, messy piles than usual.
2. You may discover your philosopher asleep within these paper piles.
3. If you were to ask your philosopher when they last ate food, they may either not understand the question or may not remember.
4. Your philosopher may go through periods of intense, existential angst and ask you repeatedly why they ever chose to go into academic philosophy. The best way to handle these periods is to bake them cookies and take them for a walk out of doors.

One of my favorite parts about paper-writing season is a phenomenon I like to call lower-willpower advantages. There have been several scientific studies, one of which you can read a short summary about here, that note that people who expend a great amount of willpower over something (i.e. focus for intense amounts of paper-writing and researching) will have less willpower over everything else.

Since your philosopher will be expending such large amounts of willpower to finish papers, this is the prime time to do things like go out to eat all the time, buy new things, or get your philosopher to agree to doing some activity at a later date that they usually hate to do and turn down (i.e. attend a symphony concert). Your philosopher will probably not have either the willpower or the time to protest about the finances when you say something like, “You are really stressed right now. Why don’t we just go out for dinner tonight?” They will also not notice when you buy new things, which can be very advantageous for those of you—particularly spouses—who like to spend money and dislike it when your practical philosopher gives you a concrete argument as to why you should not spend the money on whatever it is you want. They won’t have the time or energy to argue with you during paper-writing season!

In all seriousness, paper-writing season is very stressful for grad student philosophers, so taking the time to do something kind for them will be appreciated, if not at the time (they may be too stressed to acknowledge the kindness at the time you perform it), then later. Don’t be bad like me and take too much advantage of paper-writing season.

P.S. You can follow me on twitter (@philosiologist) or friend me on facebook (Philosiologist Qed). I always post articles on these profiles right after I post them here, and every once and a while I also say something witty. I really try hard to not post about my cat all the time, even if he is somewhat philosophical (and very dashing) himself. You can also email me (see the left sidebar) if you have questions, blog post ideas, or want to talk about your philosopher.
~The Philosiologist~


  1. Thank you so much! My philosopher just forwarded a link to your blog and now I understand. I have seen through the bafflingly thick wall of academia into peaceful garden where the sweet, brightly-colored, little birds are chirping softly around a deep well of enlightenment. Paper-Writing season perfectly explains the frequent bouts of irritability and self-doubt that my philosopher (and I) have been suffering from. The knowledge that this time will pass, and that it has unforeseen advantages, is a blissful revelation to be treasured for all time! I look forward to many more insights as I continue to read your brilliant treatise on the philosophic condition.

  2. And here I was thinking I was original in calling it "paperwriting season." Can't say we're sad to find out we weren't, though—when you include recovery time/pre-research freakout time, it lasts about a season. Oh, and it also coincides quite nicely with spring allergy season, giving those of us with grudges against birch pollen Yet Another Reason to stay inside. On the other hand, we philosophers do tend to procrastinate (even) more—being in front of the computer "writing" for hours at a stretch does lead to wondering what's going on elsewhere in the wide, virtual world . . . which is why we're thankful for the recent blog updates!

    Oh, and much as we'll never, ever admit it, we actually do kinda appreciate it when the non-philosophers in our lives take advantage of our weakened, absentminded states to take care of the things we'd never allow ourselves to do (like go out for dinner when dead tired/buy nifty things we probably could afford but don't want to admit that we can, especially if it means cutting back slightly on the library fine or pen budget/do nice things for us). Some of us are very much grateful that there are wonderful people who are crazy enough to tolerate (or even like!) us, but not so insane as to be us.

  3. I absolutely adore your blog, and I am so very happy that my philosopher recommended it to me.

  4. It's also important to note that paper-writing season often overlaps with another terribly busy season: grading season. Depending on your philosopher's institution and position at that institution, she may have papers and finals to grade for anywhere from 40-100 students. (If she has both, that's a total of 80-200 assignments to grade ON TOP OF writing her own papers!) So there's another layer of madness to consider for many of your philosophers.

  5. Anonymous 6:50: You are so right! I should have mentioned this.

  6. a philosopher who's in it2 May 2011 at 09:53

    I think another aspect of paper-writing season that non-philosophers should prepare to tolerate is us philosophers going into "whatever makes me happy" mode -- trying to keep our spirits up and our minds engaged at whatever cost. This might mean wearing whatever clothes we like (even if they're dirty, mismatched, inappropriate to the occasion), eating whatever foods we like (often at strange times and in strange combinations), and probably driving you crazy or embarrassing you in public with our stretching, singing, pacing, dancing, chattering, or driving from coffee shop to coffee shop to find just the right sized table and the mug with the best-shaped handle for composing our masterpiece papers.

  7. Thank you for the observant and kind words. Practice, practice, practice, practice -- there is no replacement for putting thousands of hours into something when it comes to self-improvement.