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Robert Vega, Director FAC 18 / 2304 Whitis Ave. Stop G6200 78712-1508 • 512-471-7900

Graduate Student Profiles - Philosophy

Malcolm Keating – Indian Philosophy (Buddhism) and Philosophy of Language
Guha Krishnamurthi – Logic, Indian Philosophy, Epistemology, and Jurisprudence; Dual Degree Law (JD)
Malte Willer – Language and Logic

MALTE WILLER


Graduate Program: Ph.D., Philosophy, The University of Texas at Austin; Dissertation: “Modality in Flux”; Fall 2010 Update: Dr. Willer is currently an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago (tenure-track)

Other Degree: M.Phil., Philosophy, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München – Munich, Germany

What is grad school life like?
As a UT philosophy graduate student, you have a relatively light teaching load: three hours of weekly teaching and some grading. The rest of the time you’re spending taking classes or trying to write something incredibly brilliant. The latter is especially important since you want to publish as much as possible in top journals while in graduate school, since that is a necessary requirement for a successful career in philosophy. In my personal experience, to be minimally successful in philosophy, one has to be really good. To become really good, one has to work really, really hard (in addition to being smart). There is no “work-life balance” since your work just is your life.

What is a typical day in the life of a grad student?
This depends on the stage in which you are in your training. In the first years, you usually take classes (9/week). Most of your off-class time is devoted to doing the relevant readings and writing the required term-papers. Some minor teaching load rounds off the day. During your third year you should become serious about a specific research topic. You start working on a prospectus that, ideally, should become a substantial chapter of your later dissertation. In the following years you get involved 100% in research and your days (and nights) are spent preparing dissertation chapters, journal articles, conference presentations, etc. If by that time you have become an Assistant Instructor, you also have a more substantial teaching load and need to prepare lectures at least every other day. It is a very, very intense life---challenging, but also rewarding.

What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
I especially value the very supportive atmosphere. Faculty spend a lot of time giving students detailed feedback on their work and trying to make them better philosophers. Graduate students support each other in preparing papers, presentations, etc. Philosophy is hard, and it is impossible to become a good philosopher without having a bunch of smart people around who help you in your endeavors.

Where are you in the PhD sequence?
I am currently a Ph.D. candidate. It is very nice to be able to focus on your own research, though, of course, also a bit daunting.

Can you tell us a bit more about your current research interests?
My research is quite interdisciplinary, incorporating insights and techniques from linguistics and computer science. The title of my dissertation is “Modality in Flux”. I study the meaning and logic of modal expressions like “might”, “must”, “ought”, etc., and why they matter for philosophy. Virtually everyone believes that modals are used to describe facts. For example, when I say that the keys might be in the car, I am saying that it is compatible with what I know that the keys are in the car. I show that this view is mistaken and advocate a new way of interpreting the language of modality, which takes its starting point from observations about what we do when we speak. The formal details of the resulting view are then elaborated using techniques from computer science.

Do you have teaching responsibilities in your department?
I am currently an Assistant Instructor in philosophy. The teaching load is higher than the one of a TA since one is responsible for all course content. On the plus side, one can design one’s own course and avoids the grading (provided one has a TA). Plus, it is very rewarding, and one learns a lot trying to understand the material in such a way that one can teach it. I have been a TA before that. As a TA, you hold weekly discussion sections; grading work depends on the individual class, so that is hard to generalize.

What would you consider to be the greatest difference from your time as an undergrad?
Getting a PhD is like going to work: you now have a job, though it is not really well paid. As an undergraduate, someone always takes you by the hand and tells you what to do next. This is not what you will experience in graduate school. It is your responsibility to find out what is required to be successful, and to act accordingly. The most difficult thing is to develop your own research program: you have to find a topic that is established enough so that people will find it easy to appreciate its importance, but it has to be fresh enough so that you can come up with ideas no one else has had before. As an undergraduate, you can get away without developing something ground breaking---this will not be good enough once you are in graduate school, at least if you want a job in academia.

Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew as an undergrad?
Two things. First, I wish I had a better understanding of what it means to devote at least 5 years of your life to a PhD. Don’t get me wrong: I do not regret the decision. But I think it is important to fully appreciate in advance that one will spend at least half a decade in school, while most of your friends start earning real money, buy a house, have kids, and so on. Second, I wish I had known how much work it takes to be successful in graduate school. You can work all day and night, and there is still something that you should know but don’t.

What are your top 3 tips for students interested in applying to a program like yours?

  1. Know exactly what you want to do with your PhD in philosophy and keep the goal in focus while in grad school. If you’re looking for a career outside in academia, make sure you know what you have to do besides your PhD to realize your goal (internships, etc). If you’re looking for a career in academia, never enter a program that does not have an excellent and detailed placement record. Also, look at the program’s ranking at the philosophical gourmet report. Though these rankings have to be taken with care, they are important to keep in mind when deciding which program to join. At a minimum, your program’s ranking is going to substantiallyaffect your chances of getting a job in academia, so you cannot ignore it.
  2. From the first day on, be a professional. College is over once you enter grad school. The impression you make in the first months will heavily affect your future life at the department, including who you will work with and your chances at scholarships, etc. A right start will make all of theses aspects much more pleasant. Being a professional includes that all of your term-papers (and future dissertation chapters) are of publishable quality, that you present and defend your work at professional conferences and try to publish it in professional journals, that you participate in the professional activities of the department, etc.
  3. A rather obvious but very important point: only work with the best professors in your field. When you decide what area you want to work on, take the strengths of the department into account. It is OK to work on what you like, but it will be very tough if the best professors in the department are not really working in your research area. Who you work with will not only affect your experience and performance while being in grad school, but also substantially affect your career chances in academia.

Did you work on a research project as an undergrad? If so, what was it? Would you recommend research for undergrads?
Until recently, students always had to write a substantial senior thesis to get an undergraduate degree in philosophy at all in Germany. Mine was on negative existentials like “Sherlock Holmes does not (really) exist.” I think it was just like writing my dissertation now, which involves working day and night trying to come up with a brilliant idea. Every undergrad should have done some independent research---the skills provided are priceless regardless of one’s future career goals. Don’t apply to grad school if you have no research experience: you don’t really know what you’re applying for.

If you wouldn’t have accepted the UT Austin offer, which school was your #2 choice?
I would have stayed in Germany if UT had not made me the offer. If students need help considering other philosophy programs, they should check out the philosophical gourmet report.

What is one fun or interesting website you would tell a friend interested in philosophy to check out?
I would refer the friend to Brian Leiter’s blog and let him/her take it from there. Again, do not apply to any school without having looked at the philosophical gourmet report.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Doing what I am doing now, just in a different city and with a better pay + a little family. I think that living in a different city will be a negative feature of my future life, since Austin is just great. Having more money and a family will be a positive development, I think.

Do you have a ‘grad school survival tip’ you would like to share?
Doing a PhD in philosophy is an important career decision, so it is crucial to keep this in mind while in grad school. Everybody I know will sooner or later get worried by the grim job prospects. To survive in graduate school, it is important to keep one’s goal always in focus. If you want to become a professor, do as much as you can to build up an impressive vita, and never give up trying to publish, even in the face of disappointment. Academic life is not always fair, but quality and persistence will ultimately lead to success. I think it also helps to have a nice “plan B” in case academia does not work out for you. Having an attractive exit strategy makes life as a grad student in philosophy much easier.

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GUHA KRISHNAMURTHI

Graduate Program: Ph.D., Philosophy & J.D. (Law), The University of Texas at Austin

Other Degrees: M.A. & B.S., Mathematics, University of Michigan – Ann Arbor

What is grad school life like?
The Philosophy Department is not that demanding in terms of requirements. This gives the student a lot of free time. As a result the balance of personal life and study can be quite great. But I think that to stay productive and to learn philosophy, I had to treat graduate study like a 40-hour/week job. With TAing duties and class, this left me about 5 hours a day to read and study on my own.

What is a typical day in the life of a grad student?
My typical day at the philosophy department involved class, teaching assistant duties, self-study, and short meetings with professors. About 2 times a week, there is a student presentation or lecture by a professor. When professors from other universities come to give a lecture, there will generally be a luncheon where students can visit with the professor. Apart from these lectures and presentations, there are reading groups on varied philosophical topics.

What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
The best thing about my program is that it is self-paced and flexible. The Philosophy Department has few course requirements and no qualifying examinations. Further, beyond the 6-year limit of funding, the Philosophy Department has a flexible time-table for finishing up coursework and the prospectus defense. This allows you to study what you want and at your own pace. But at the same time, it places a large onus on the student to stay on top of things.

Where are you in the PhD sequence?
I have finished my philosophy coursework, receiving my MA in Philosophy, and I am currently finishing up law school. Next year, I am planning on clerking on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals for Judge Diane Wood. After that, I would like to try and finish up my Philosophy PhD. For this, I will need to present and defend a prospectus, and complete my dissertation.

Can you tell us a bit more about your current research interests?
My research interests are varied. In logic, I was studying non-first order logics and multi-valued logics. In Indian philosophy, I studied inference patterns. Apart from that, I also studied epistemology and theories of truth. Finally, in legal philosophy, I have studied philosophy of criminal law and legal positivism.

Do you have teaching responsibilities in your department?
I have served as a TA and a Reader. The Reader role is really more of a grader, though students may ask you substantive questions about the class. The TA role is more significant. You often teach a weekly session in which you answer questions and go over material that was not covered in class. You are the mediator between the professor and student. Furthermore, in both roles, you play a big part in determining your students’ grades.

What would you consider to be the greatest difference from your time as an undergrad?
I am not so sure graduate school is more difficult than undergrad. But I do think that the focus is different—it is not just about doing well in classes. Success in graduate school requires a lot more, including keeping up with the literature, expanding your knowledge-base, and working on your own research ideas.

Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew as an undergrad?
I wish I had learned earlier on that graduate school is about more than doing well in classes. Success in graduate school is often dependent on pushing and pacing yourself properly—the classes are not the sole focus as they were in undergraduate study.

What are your top 3 tips for students interested in applying to a program like yours?

  1. First and foremost, get in touch with professors that you think you’d like to work with. They can help you on admission, but it is also a good way to find out if you want to work with them and be at that department.
  2. Next, get in touch with graduate students. They can give you the real deal on the department.
  3. Finally, don’t forget to consider the economy and how a philosophy degree will fit in to your career goals.

Did you work on a research project as an undergrad? If so, what was it? Would you recommend research for undergrads?
I did not do much research as an undergrad. I did research as a Mathematics graduate student. I was working on a problem in non-first order logic. I would recommend research as an undergrad, because I think exposure to research can inform students as to whether graduate school is right for them. Furthermore, it is a good start in understanding how you can be most effective in research. Graduate school may seem like a long time, but the 6 years of funding runs by quickly. The more efficient you can be in that time, the better your prospects of becoming a successful philosopher.

If you wouldn’t have accepted the UT Austin offer, which school was your #2 choice?
I would have studied at University of Michigan. I was familiar with that department and it also was quite strong in logic and Eastern Philosophy—although their focus was Chinese philosophy. I might have also liked to have studied at University of Hawaii. Apart from the location, Hawaii has a lot of great faulty working in Indian Philosophy.

What is one fun or interesting website you would tell a friend interested in philosophy to check out?
The Philosophers’ Carnival is an interesting read for those who have a budding interest in philosophy. This blog compiles interesting philosophical blog posts every three weeks, and can give you a sense of what issues are of current interest in philosophy.

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MALCOLM KEATING


Graduate Program: Ph.D., Philosophy, The University of Texas at Austin; Research Interest: Connections between Indian philosophy of language and Western, analytic philosophy of language

Other Degrees: M.A., Philosophy, University of Missouri – St. Louis, MO; B.A., English & Spanish, Grove City College – Grove City, PA

What is a typical day in the life of a grad student?
You could divide being a grad student into pre-prospectus and post-prospectus. Those of us who haven't yet written and defended a prospectus are occupied with taking classes. The first two years, we take required classes and (many of us) teach as TAs. In the third year, we're probably spending less time in class, unless we're sitting in on a course or two that particularly relate to our prospectus. So a "typical" day the first couple of years involves a few hours of time in class and the rest of the time spent grading, reading articles, or writing. Quite a few of us do that in coffee shops around campus, but not everyone. As for dissertation work, I don't know that there is a "typical" day -- that really depends on how people structure their time to research and write.

What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
We get to read, think and write about problems that preoccupy us. Not everyone gets the chance to have a job that is their passion.

Where are you in the PhD sequence?
Since I'm in my second year, I'm still doing coursework. We have certain requirements we need to fulfill (courses in history of philosophy, language, metaphysics, ethics, etc.) and we do that for the first two years. In the third year we work on writing a prospectus, which is a first chapter and outline of our dissertation. Since I came into the program with a master's degree and am transferring in a number of credits, I have some extra space in my schedule. That's allowed me to do a conference course focusing on Indian philosophy of language and start thinking a bit about what I want to do in my third year.

Can you tell us a bit more about your current research interests?
I'm exploring connections between Indian philosophy of language and Western, analytic philosophy of language.

Do you have teaching responsibilities in your department?
I'm currently a TA for a Plan II course called "Knowledge and Valuation."

What would you consider to be the greatest difference from your time as an undergrad?
The main difference between graduate studies and undergraduate work, in my opinion, is that as a graduate student you're working towards a contribution to your field. Certainly we take classes in order to get a handle on the major contours of the literature, the varying positions, etc. But the end result is that your work carves out its own niche. This is much more challenging than simply demonstrating you have a grasp of the material.

What are your top 3 tips for students interested in applying to a program like yours?

  1. For potential philosophy applicants, I'd suggest that they do a lot of research about what philosophy is as a career, to begin with. There are quite a few resources online like the Philosophical Gourmet Rankings, as an example.
  2. Second, you need to have not only good grades but excellent writing samples. You want to write and re-write them, with an eye towards demonstrating philosophical acuity.
  3. Finally, do your research about the school where you're applying. Are they suited to the interests you have? Are they hiring new and upcoming faculty?

Did you work on a research project as an undergrad? If so, what was it? Would you recommend research for undergrads?
I was an English major and did a senior thesis on Octavio Paz's poetry. It's nothing very relevant to my research now, but it did give me some practice writing a lengthier paper than the ten-to-twelve pagers most of my classes required. If you want to be a philosophy graduate student, getting good at writing is crucial. That doesn't require a "research project," per se, but learning how to write clearly is a part of learning how to think clearly. Chances are, if you can't articulate your argument in sentences which a general reader could get a grip on, you don't understand it well enough. Trying to write like Kant or Husserl is not what I'd recommend for undergrads.

What is one an interesting website you would tell a friend interested in philosophy to check out?
Well, I enjoy the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, myself. It has excellent articles and many of them include links to online resources. You can also go to David Chalmer's website to get a list of students and philosophers who maintain blogs.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Hopefully I'll be employed in a tenure-track position!

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