Nate Meyvis

About me

I’m a software engineer and I like to write. I co-host a podcast about poker. I did a B.A. in math and a Ph.D. in ancient philosophy.

You can get in touch with me via email (nate at natemeyvis dot com), Twitter, and LinkedIn.

If you’re not sure whether to write to me, you probably should.

Some essays

The Lawnmower Essay and the Problems of Philosophy is a commentary on Jim Pryor's famous instructions for writing a philosophy essay.

Here is some advice for grad students seeking non-academic work.

Some book reviews

Oh, Crap!, Jamie Glowacki The Opposite of Spoiled, Ron Lieber

Miscellaneous writings

I did the 12 Rules for Living game.

For some reason people keep asking me about parenting. Here's what I tell them.



FAQ: Thinking Poker

Q: Who's that awesome band in the intro?

The band is Palmyra. Sean the Editor played in the band. They are indeed awesome and friends of the show.

Q: Are you taking students?

Andrew is. Nate isn't but you should probably write to him anyway.

Notes on parenting

I am not any kind of parenting expert. But I am asked for parenting advice surprisingly often, especially by fathers and especially by people expecting their first child. Because it's more efficient to write one blog post than many emails, and because I really like talking about parenting and welcome any comments about my views, here it is:

General advice

When you don't know what to do and need a heuristic, consider using this one: make the choice that is less likely to lead to a big mistake or catastrophe. (If you prefer: assign each possible outcome one of two utility values, with one of the values corresponding to “non-catastrophic” and the other corresponding to “catastrophic.” Then assign probabilities and act accordingly.)

Consider reallocating a little bit of the energy and thought you give to your child's eating to your child's sleep. Food is important, but so is sleep, a domain in which investments of planning and energy can pay off handsomely.

You're likely to get a lot of advice from other parents. A lot of these parents are (full of joy but also) worried, regretful, insecure, and so on. Try to be kind, even when they offend you. And remember that worry, regret, and so on make it even harder than usual to distinguish one's particular experience from the general situation. So: other parents' stories are a great way to learn what's possible but a very bad way to learn what's probable.

Parenting and the medical system

You're likely to deal with many medical professionals. Perhaps not all of them will guide you in ways that are both medically justified and in line with your values. (Pregnancy, childbirth, and pediatrics put you in the path of a lot of job titles. People with those jobs have varied training and value systems.) You and your family should prepare to advocate for each other.

Parenting books

They're underrated! Many great parents became great parents without the help of any books—and I mean that sincerely, without any passive aggression. But I have found books to be invaluable. If you like to learn by reading, don't be dissuaded by the fact that parenting books are in certain circles unfashionable.

I'm struck by how many subdomains of parenting have a single book I vastly prefer. (Two conjectures: I haven't read widely enough or the genre admits diverse styles many of which I strongly disprefer.) Some of my favorites:

Precious Little Sleep, by Alexis Dubief, for sleep. It's my single favorite parenting book and the one I recommend for people who ask for exactly one recommendation. (Dubief is a finance whiz who happened to learn all about sleep for young people and then made a career out of it, much to the world's benefit.)

Bringing up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman, for the importance of daily structure and emphasis on the fact that aspects of parenting can seem biologically necessary when they are in fact culturally contingent. (This book is controversial, and I'm not asserting that everything Druckerman says about French culture or good parenting is correct. For me it was a useful case study and a valuable tool for seeing Anglo dogmas about parenting for what they are.)

Oh, Crap!, by Jamie Glowacki, for potty training. Not for the faint of heart, but neither is parenting. Review here.

Expecting Better, Emily Oster. Not dissimilar to Precious Little Sleep in being (what started as) a side intellectual output of an expert information-synthesizer in a competitive domain: Oster is an economics professor at Brown. A useful synthesis of what science we know about pregnancy and infancy. Cribsheet (the sequel) is great, too. I am often grateful that Emily Oster had a kid just a bit before I did, and I hope she keeps writing books about every parenting stage I'm about to get to.

Oh, Crap! and The Opposite of Spoiled

If you ask Socrates a question, there's a pretty good chance he will respond by pushing you up a moral ladder. He'll insist that the question cannot be understood except in light of a more general question or that you need to stop until you more fully understand one of the terms you're using.

It's a tall ladder: it doesn't stop until you reach The Good. That is, it often seems that—for Socrates—you can't answer any particular moral question (or indeed many questions we would consider semi- or amoral) until you fully understand goodness and value itself in their most general manifestations.

That's not intended as scholarship. If you want that from me, look elsewhere. But the Socratic / Platonic insistence on the primacy of extremely general forms of knowledge is often on my mind these days, and not just because I'm an ancient philosopher by training. I'm a parent; I read parenting books; and the very best parenting books tend to be thoroughly Socratic. They're written for everyone but spend a lot of time way up there on the moral ladder.

Take potty training. There are questions like:

  • Which small plastic toilet should I buy, and when should I start putting it out?
  • What do I do when my child wets himself?
  • At what age should one think about starting this whole process?

...but, if you're Jamie Glowacki and writing the excellent and very Socratic Oh, Crap!, you also wind up asking your reader:

  • Are you ready—really ready—to talk to your child about responsibility, including the responsibility to manage his own body appropriately?
  • Are you willing to change your plans, your phone habits, and a big fragment of your vocabulary in order to teach your child this crucial early lesson in responsibility and self-knowledge?
  • How will you help your child with the existential and metaphysical questions that come with confronting what it is to poop?
  • Do you understand how anxious everyone is these days? Given that even toddlers are showing up with this mass anxiety, how are you supporting your toddler? What is your plan for not letting this anxiety derail or intensify the pain of potty-training?
  • Do you further understand that this mass anxiety is in nasty symbiosis with a commercial leviathan that will try to convince you to relax, take it easy, give your kid a break, and just stay in diapers (“pull-ups,” if necessary) for years and years?

Glowacki's books are full of the best advice at both ends of the moral ladder. At the mundane end, there are tons of relevant facts and a “bag of tricks” for the everyday practical questions every reader will have. But these are always presented with an eye toward the other end, where the very deepest parental—very deepest human—questions and concerns live. And it is these questions and concerns, of course, that make potty-training worth caring about in the first place.

Not every parenting book is this kind of achievement. Not every good parenting book is this kind of achievement, even. Take Ron Lieber's The Opposite of Spoiled. It's a good book, I'm glad I read it, and I haven't seen any better long treatment of the intersection of parenting and money. Thumbs up.

The author gives a lot of useful information about money and covers all the mundane questions you'd expect: when to start talking about it, what to do about allowance, what the correct relationship is between allowances and chores, and so on.

But I wanted more Glowackian anchoring in big questions, honestly confronted. His discussion of the question whether to pay kids directly for their chores (in Chapter 3) is telling: Twice he provides brief, unconvincing arguments that you shouldn't. Then he gives the floor to a parent he interviewed who gave “the only convincing counterargument” he'd seen. That parent gets the last word in the chapter, and Lieber never attempts to adjudicate the issue. It's a hard choice, and perhaps one without a single best answer, but Lieber misses the chance to directly confront the questions the issue raises about the roles of children, money, and work in a household. Later, Lieber briefly mentions grandparents, who in his experience often challenge a household's rules about money. Here, again, he adjudicates the issue hastily, absolutely avoiding deeper questions. And Lieber mentions the shift from pensions to other forms of retirement savings, he takes the opportunity not to discuss retirement savings per se but to repeat familiar, broad, and oft-disputed moral claims about the social consequences of this shift.[1]

Precisely because money touches so many of the deepest and toughest issues in a household, it would be unfair to expect Lieber to treat all of those issues, or even to expect complete treatments of any of them. But I was struck by how much of Lieber's advice took the form of anecdote and dictum. Glowacki teaches us about excrement, and also the nature of childhood and of the well-going human life; Lieber tells us useful things about money and goes no further.

There is exactly one big exception here: Lieber is happy to confront, or at least to frequently reference, big questions around privilege, inequality, and economic luck. Whatever one thinks about these, they're certainly important and deep issues that must be confronted if one is going to parent well in this domain. I still find these discussions somewhat shallow, but other readers might disagree. One example: I admire Lieber's humility in admitting that a comment to a New York Times[2] blog post of his caused him to overhaul his money habits around giving to the homeless. How, though, did he make it so long with a professional interest in money without confronting that issue in a way that already incorporated the reader's (thoughtful but rather fundamental) concern?

Again, however, I learned much from The Opposite of Spoiled and recommend the book. I've focused here on what I find lacking mostly for the sake of contrast and out of an interest in the latent ethical metaphysics of parenting books. (Business books too, but that's another subject.) If you are going to write a parenting book, though, I do hope you will emulate Glowacki in her thoroughness, courage, and depth.

[Draft; all comments welcome.]

  1. There are other annoyances that don't fit this general pattern. There's the unmotivated and inaccurate slur against pigs (p. 52); there's the citation of studies seemingly without regard to whether they replicate; there's the fact that so many of the interviews and set pieces comprising the book come from humanities professors from the American northeast. The collective wisdom of humanities professors from the American northeast is immense, but I would have appreciated a bit more balance.

  2. Of course.

In memoriam: Frances Alvin (1924-2019)

Frances Alvin passed away last Monday, November 18. I had suspected she would pass away the day before: devout Christians have often preferred to die on Sunday. She proved me wrong with characteristic tenacity. There exists a proper obituary recording the relevant milestones of her life. Here, by contrast, are some brief and personal reflections on the great privilege of being her grandson.

Grandma was a serious, self-respecting person who lived a serious, respectable life. She showed and inspired great love and respect to and from her whole extended family. But beyond that, she enacted virtues that I, from my generation and in my youth and young adulthood, otherwise would mostly have experienced in a mediated way. This broadened my experience immeasurably. So, for example, there is a kind of industry and economy particular to those who lived through the Depression: I’d known about that, but rarely saw it firsthand. Also: Grandma’s manners ranged from “Southern-inflected” to “straight-up Dixie.” I’d mostly just heard about Southern culture and grace from country music.

Those manners! She had elegant posture. She enunciated beautifully and chose her words carefully. She answered the phone and front door in the way of those who know what proper conversations and visits really are. And check out this handwriting:

Grandma's handwriting

Throughout her life, but especially when I was a young child, she sent humor and lightheartedness my way (always in proper grandmaternal forms). This was consistently delightful in its own right; it also caused me to revise a distinction I’d tacitly held between the serious and the playful. She was both! Such coarse, naive distinctions are major barriers to understanding, and we should all be grateful to those who complicate them. In that way (among many others), I’d have become a worse person, friend, and reader without her influence.

I have lost not only a grandmother but my favorite bridge partner. I was obsessed with bridge for some years in the early nineties, but only rarely got to play the game. Grandma taught me lessons; gave me bridge-related gifts (e.g., AutoBridge) and book recommendations (e.g., Marty Bergen’s Points, Schmoints); and served as a patient and clever partner.

She was a skilled and well-respected player. Back issues of regional newspapers will prove that she did a lot of winning in her local games. (I also vividly remember a totally sweet move she pulled off against my sister and me in a game of Chinese checkers.) Grandma enjoyed both hosting the games, when it was her turn, and having the reason to visit other homes, when it was not; she attended to both the game itself and the culture of it; and, in her reserved way, she really liked to win. She might have preferred I stuck with bridge instead of taking up poker. But in learning how to appreciate a game of cards, along with its whole cultural, ethical, and mechanical context — and also how to improve at it — I owe very much to her. And in this, along with countless other examples of grace and care and love she provided, she has enriched every day of my life.

The Lawnmower Essay and the Problems of Philosophy

Among peripheral documents for undergrad courses, Jim Pryor’s “Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper” is remarkably influential. As in other cases of virality, the magnitude of the resulting influence is not easily measured. But my first- and second-hand observation, the essay’s many glowing reviews, and the linked page’s excellent SEO combine to suggest that it has a status not unlike that of Plato’s Apology in some philosophical quarters: it has been received as a sort of holy text or perfect enunciation of principle. I suspect, however, that it is also like the Apology in that professional philosophers spend more time telling undergrads to read it than they do studying its details. Here I’ll examine some of those details and conclude that the professional obsession with “Guidelines” is unhealthy, or at least reflects something unhealthy about the discipline.

“Guidelines” is doing a few things at once: it sets out some of Dr. Pryor’s course policies; it gives advice about the mechanics of writing; and it describes successful pieces of writing in his class. Another way of saying that last thing is: “Guidelines” describes a particular subgenre of a literary form. I’m going to call that form, the one Pryor is requiring the reader to use in completing course assignments, the Lawnmower Essay.

The Lawnmower Essay has never been described more famously or cleverly than in “Guidelines,” but don’t conclude that it’s Pryor- or NYU-specific. It is even more ubiquitous in analytic philosophy classrooms than the five-paragraph essay is in high-school English classes. It is a variant of the argumentative essay in which clarity, explicitness, and exposure of logical structure are dialed as high as possible. Indeed, they are dialed so high that practitioners often ignore, miss, or renounce the Lawnmower Essay’s connection to the literary form of the essay. (The observant reader will notice that Pryor never once uses the word “essay” in the document).

I mentioned before that the Lawnmower Essay demands clarity, explicitness, and exposure of logical structure; here’s how meeting those demands can play out. In ordinary life you might write me a note: “Beans need to soak overnight before they’re within an hour’s cooking of being edible, so you should soak those beans.” If I’m a fair reader and a competent cook, I’ll understand what you said, but note that you’ve suppressed some premises in this note to me, if this is all you wrote. You implied, but did not say, that we plan to eat those beans tomorrow and are in a position to cook them today. You made some questions about the beans in question — e.g., that they’re not lentils (which cook up just fine without soaking); that they’re not canned (in which case they’re already relevantly “soaked,” though good luck defining that term with Myhrvoldian precision); that you have no reason to believe they’ll resist soaking (by having too much wax, say); that by “cook” you don’t mean “pressure-cook” or some other method powerful enough to render pre-soaking unnecessary; and so on. (How long is “overnight,” anyway? Do we need to make sure they’re submerged, or can we just let them float in a pot of water?)

Contemporary analytic philosophers tend to be addressing questions like “How much of my income must I give to charity?” and “What exactly does the name ‘Banquo’ refer to?,” not “Should I soak these beans tonight?.” But the process above — expand, clarify, refine, expand, clarify, refine, on and on — is what the Lawnmower Essay is about. Not all of what it’s about: you might also present examples that are intended to convince the reader to accept one premise rather than another; you might argue that certain premises are inconsistent; and so on. These operations are natural extensions of the fundamental work of exposing the logical structure of an argument, and are continuous with it. Our little bean soup inference, after all this work is done, would be likely to occupy 1000 or 2000 words: that’s impractical for a note left on the kitchen table, but it’s much more thorough.

That sort of work is what Pryor, and many other modern philosophy instructors, are looking for in a philosophy classroom; that work is what philosophy, as they teach it, is. What would seem pedantic or obnoxious or unhelpful in the case of bean stew — though I do tend to want a bit more intellectual rigor in the recipes I read — is much more helpful in the subjects academic philosophy deals with. And again, helpful or not, in Dr. Pryor’s class it is mandatory. You haven’t done your work, according to “Guidelines,” until: you are arguing from premises that any interlocutor would agree to; you have not missed the opportunity to clarify what might need clarifying; you have given examples where examples would help; and you have laid out in plain black ink every premise and inference you need to make your argument airtight. Hence my calling it a “Lawnmower Essay:” you can’t miss a spot, it won’t turn out right unless you go in perfect order, and attempts at elegant flourish figure to get you nothing but blemishes. If you’re not going slow, or if an observer would have any trouble figuring out what you’re doing, you’re not doing it right.

None of that is intended as disparagement. I love the Lawnmower Essay. I’m proud of the semesters I spent grading Lawnmower Essays and of the intellectual muscles I developed writing my own. It’s a form that develops epistemic virtues of rigor and straightforwardness. Its strictness makes you develop new skills: when you can’t use elision, metaphor, or most of your vocabulary, you develop new capacities of expression. I’m grateful to have written so many Lawnmower Essays, just as I’m grateful that forms of “to be” were forbidden in my ninth-grade English assignments and that my undergrad poetry workshop put us through all the ordinary paces and then some (we did scansion, we wrote sonnets and sonnets and more sonnets, we wrote villanelles and sestinas, and then we were presented with new and tougher rules). Our public discourse would be healthier and more honest if we replaced some shrieking op-eds with Lawnmower Essays. It’s not just that doing the chores is good for you; there really are lawns out there that need mowing.

But, again, “Guidelines” is not just a record of Dr. Pryor’s course policies. It is also a statement of what it is to do philosophy. Sometimes Pryor speaks of “this course,” of his teaching assistants, and of what’s done “here,” but more often he simply talks about what philosophy is and what we must do to meet its norms. And the document would not be so widely reproduced, distributed, assigned, and adored if it were not taken as a description of philosophy itself.

In its first role, that of recording course policy, I have no fundamental beef with “Guidelines,” and not just because it’s not my place to tell Dr. Pryor how to run his courses. It’s because, again, mowing lawns is good for you, and the Lawnmower Essay is a perfectly good form to constrain students with, at least sometimes. I do have some non-fundamental beefs here, though; I’ll mention two.

First, Pryor says that we should “start from common assumptions [your audience would] agree to,” and we later learn that this audience should be imagined as maximally hostile. But is this really possible? Isn’t it more accurate to say that we should make our premises as plausible as possible, and fully explicit? I think this is just loose phrasing on Pryor’s part, especially since his examples of model writing tend to involve premises being made explicit rather than completely obvious truths being enunciated. It’s an unfortunate slip, however, because there is such a great difference between “start from something your opponent must agree with” and “start from a reasonable place while making it fully clear that’s where you’re starting from.” It’s the difference between starting at the edge of the lawn and starting at the edge of the world.

Second, because Pryor is telling the reader to adhere not just to the formal and rhetorical strictures of the essay but to those of the Lawnmower Essay, an element of his FAQ — “Can you write your paper as a dialogue or story?” — comes off as a bit disingenuous. (The answer is, unsurprisingly, a polite “no.”) By presenting dialogues and stories as the relevant alternatives to the form he’s laying out, he implies that the form in question is The Essay, not The Lawnmower Essay, to which the most relevant alternatives are not dialogues and stories, but other kinds of essays.¹ There plainly are many other such kinds: the essay is the form of Montaigne and Emerson and on and on, but an Emersonian essay will not satisfy Dr. Pryor’s TA, who is expecting a Lawnmower Essay. It would be more honest, or at least more informative, to openly acknowledge that the document describes a subgenre, which certain kinds of professional philosophers employ disproportionately (though not at all exclusively), and that Dr. Pryor expects his prompts to be answered in that subgenre — not with a dialogue or story, but also not with any other kind of essay.

Again, though, “Guidelines” is a very fine course handout, and these are small complaints with it in that capacity. They point the way, however, to far more serious complaints with it in the other roles in which it is routinely deployed: the professional manifesto and/or general guide to written argumentation. Here we need to recall that Dr. Pryor recommends that the Lawnmower Essayist imagine and write toward a reader who is “lazy, stupid, and mean.” Quickly glossed: so lazy that you need to explain everything you say, because he won’t bother to look up or recall anything; so stupid that he needs taking by the hand, inch by logical inch; and so mean that you must relentlessly disambiguate terms he might otherwise maliciously misconstrue, anticipate and parry even unpromising/sophistical objections, and otherwise cover your rhetorical behind from every direction.

Note I said “write toward,” not “write for.” You can’t — nobody can — truly write for a reader who so deeply lacks the epistemic virtues necessary for proper reading. We continue to teach reading at the university level because there is, beyond the mechanics of literacy we teach in elementary school, a receptivity to good writing that requires those epistemic virtues. (Educated people sometimes speak of “where they learned to read.” They aren’t talking about preschool, and they also aren’t speaking loosely, though they are using a specific sense of the verb.) The audience Pryor has us imagine isn’t an audience of readers at all, and you can’t write for someone who’s not a reader any more than you can feed a doll. The best we can do is write at them, as boxers work on punching bags or children serve tea to stuffed animals.

Here the philosopher might object: those other essayists have goals other than arguing for the truth of propositions and the correctness of explanations. So I’m wrong to have implied that the Lawnmower Essay is merely one form among many that is suitable if one’s mission is as narrowly truth- / explanation-correctness-directed as the contemporary analytic philosopher’s. Making everything explicit and disambiguating wherever possible just are the intellectual work of clarifying claims and arguments (or so the objection would go); those other kinds of essays use methods that are strictly worse for the purposes of philosophical argument.

This objection doesn’t work. First, it relies on an controversial definition of philosophy; we (not just the objector and I, but very many of us, very much of the time) notoriously disagree about what philosophy is. Moreover, none of the candidate definitions carves out something the pursuit of which Lawnmower Essays are uniquely suited for. So, for example, if you think that philosophy is just about arguing for truths, or about arguing for truths about less-empirical things: don’t mathematicians do that too? Why, then, don’t mathematicians use (analogues of) the Lawnmower Essay, except in problem sets?²

I think that’s enough to be done with the objection, but if you aren’t convinced yet, note that the objection admits of other refutations, too. One set of such refutations begins with the observation that the Lawnmower Essay can be very good for defending oneself rhetorically while still being very poor for communicating truths and correct explanations. Because we write essays (and sonnets, and epics, and ghazals, and jingles, and grocery lists) in order to communicate, essays — even of the most rabidly truth-seeking sort — are thus governed by norms of communication other than the maximization of self-defense. When we put things in logical order, we risk taking them out of rhetorical or epistemic order. If we keep them in rhetorical/epistemic order, and so pass up the chance to put them in logical order, we risk a wagging finger from a lazy, stupid, and/or mean reader. What should we do? If we are students of Dr. Pryor’s, and acting in that capacity, we should avoid the wagging finger and restore logical order just for the sake of logical order: for the practice of doing it, for proving we know what it is, and for proving that what we’re saying suits it well. If we’re acting as writers, though, we should write for actual readers and choose the best rhetorical order. The finger-wagging audience is terroristic and not to be negotiated with. Even if we do give in, they’ll just ask for more.

Finally, the very norms of the Lawnmower Essay that usually lead us away from epistemic sin sometimes lead us into it. Consider, for example, the device of disambiguation: if we use a technical or possibly unfamiliar term, we are told to say exactly what we mean by it, as early as possible in the essay. But what if the term is something like “consciousness” or “reason” or “rule,” where the relevant paraphrase might be more confusing than the term itself? Even worse, what if all available paraphrases distort the term so badly that we end up discussing something neither we nor or readers have any intuitive grasp of or reason to care about? There are regions of lawn so gerrymandered that mowing them accomplishes nothing. The skilled philosopher will not make errors like these, but the best way to avoid them is often to abandon the Lawnmower Essay.

Time and human attention are finite and precious. When we spend them by writing, we must remember that there are, at least potentially, readers out there waiting to spend, in turn, their finite, precious reserves on our work. We owe it to them to use the best tool for the job — the best communicative tool for the job. Sometimes that’s the Lawnmower Essay; often it’s not. Choose wisely.

  1. Maybe this isn’t fair. As we’ve already noted, Pryor never uses the word “essay” in the document. Perhaps he thinks of The Philosophy Paper as an entirely different form, or as a kind of argument so pure it shouldn’t be thought of as having any relationship to any literary form. But I don’t think Pryor has this in mind, because (i) it would render his FAQ even more disingenuous / odd and (ii) I can’t charitably assume that anyone as smart and educated as Dr. Pryor would believe that philosophical essays are not really essays.

  2. A quick aside here. You will sometimes hear philosophers claim that philosophical explanation is like mathematical explanation, with similar norms and techniques. Do not believe this (and certainly do not take this as permission to submit philosophy papers that obey the argumentative and stylistic norms of mathematical proofs). When you hear this, the speaker is almost always best understood as asserting one of two other claims. Either: (A) that philosophers write the way the speaker imagines mathematicians write, which in turn means: that philosophers write the way philosophers write. To the speaker’s credit, this claim is true. Or: (B) that philosophy classroom exercises (by which they mean Lawnmower Essays) are conducted the way mathematics exercises (e.g., problem sets) are. This is not tautologically true, nor is it perfectly accurate, but it’s accurate enough.

Advice for grad students seeking non-academic work

This document began its life as an email to philosophy grad students looking for non-academic work. It might be useful to you even if you are not a philosophy grad student, especially if you are looking for work in the tech industry. All feedback is welcome (nate at natemeyvis dot com).

My background / credentials for giving this sort of advice.

I have spent roughly eight years on and around the non-academic job market. I have done recruitment and interviewing at every company that's employed me and for years I was responsible for recruiting and hiring at a genomics startup. It was my job not only to manage our hiring process but to study non-academic hiring processes more generally. Moreover, we recruited, interviewed, and hired many academics — mostly biologists, but also philosophers, linguists, and other humanities types. I have also looked for jobs several times and have had countless conversations with industry folks who were looking to hire people.

More concretely, I’ve conducted roughly 250 interviews. More than half of these were of candidates with Ph.D.s, and of those, many were people who one might describe as “transitioning from academia” (as opposed to folks for whom there was a well-defined Ph.D.-to-industry path, and who might never have intended to stay in academia). Roughly ¼ of those were humanities Ph.D.s, and roughly 1/3 of those ¼ were philosophy Ph.D.s.

So: I’ve spent a whole lot of time thinking about these issues, though my experiences are necessarily limited. The job market is a very big place; everyone's experience is limited. I know more about the software side of things and am still closely in touch with the startup world. There are many other sides of many other things, where the advice below might not apply so well.

Finding jobs to apply to

My colleagues have often wondered how they could find a job in circumstances where they didn’t at all know what they were looking for. This is a reasonable concern. We can factor the problem into two parts: learning about job-types and learning how to find specific opportunities.

Philosophers are, in general, particularly skilled at writing and reading. These skills have many non-academic applications, of course; they are central qualifications for many jobs.

A few kinds of jobs that exist (mostly unknown to me ten years ago):

  • Technical documentation writers
  • Marketing writers
  • Product managers (and entry-level jobs in product departments)
  • Operations managers, recruiting managers, HR folks of various kinds
  • Software testers (see below for more on software)
  • Librarians / archivists
  • Consultants
  • “Directors of Happiness”
  • “Business Operations Specialist” (what appears to be an advanced administrative job title at IBM)

How to find specific jobs (also a good way to discover more job-types):

  • Pick names of companies out of a hat. Go to their Web sites. Click on “Careers.”
  • Every month Hacker News, a start-up / technology link aggregator and discussion board, has a “Who’s Hiring?” thread. (Googling “Who’s Hiring site:news.ycombinator.com” ought to turn up recent threads.) Many of these jobs are for coders or other folks with software experience, but plenty are not.
  • Ask around (I know it’s obvious, but many people don’t do this enough).
  • You are likely to have a “non-traditional” background for many of the jobs to which you will be applying. You might lack a background as an editor but be seeking an editorship, for example. Do not despair if you do not meet every desideratum listed on a job ad. Whereas academic job listings often include lists of qualifications that preferred candidates will far exceed, non-academic job listings often contain “wish lists” in the guise of hard requirements. (These generate amusing stories — e.g., about job ads requiring N years of experience in a computer language that did not exist N years ago.) If you think you might be able to do the job, and if the application requirements aren’t onerous, give it a shot. There are no unit charges from Interfolio here.
  • You might, of course, really be less qualified than the competition for that editorship (or writing job, or coding job, or…). It is therefore also useful to consider how to compensate in such situations. One strategy is to apply to startup companies. Such companies are often willing to take on less traditional candidates, for at least two reasons. First, they often offer somewhat lower salaries and less job security than more established companies (they generally can’t afford above-market or sometimes even at-market compensation, and there’s often no guarantee they’ll still be in business in a couple years). As a result, they often have to be willing to accept candidates who are by some traditional metrics less qualified. Second, they often need to get a small staff to handle the whole set of tasks for a company, so they need to find generalists. This sometimes leads to a desire to trade deep experience in a field for general intelligence and aptitude (and a good attitude about taking out one’s own trash, tolerating uncertainty, and so on).

Preparing application materials.

Application materials vary widely, but here are some suggestions:

Attempt to strike a balance between emphasizing the virtues of an academic background and your non-academic preparation, your eagerness for the role at hand, etc. Nobody (or at least very few people) will blame you from expressing positive views about many subjects, even when that might appear to reveal inconsistent preferences. (For example, don’t worry about being enthusiastic about the chance to take on short-term projects that offer fast feedback even if you have previously talked about the immense value in taking on a years-long project undertaken in the pursuit of academic rigor and not an immediate market test.)

Do not assume that the reader of your materials will appreciate the importance of your dissertation subject or of philosophical inquiry more generally. Again, the goal is to take appropriate pride in your work without making too many assumptions about the reader’s sense of its value or its reflection on you. In most cases, a brief expression of genuine interest in a job will matter much more than a strained claim that one’s work is relevant to the job. (People who read these materials often spend many, many hours a week reading such materials. They read a lot of strained claims that X is relevant to Y. Even if they are not as smart as you are, they have very keen noses for this sort of thing.)

Your materials might be evaluated by software. Do not fail to use keywords (“editor,” “Portuguese,” “Ruby”) that truly describe your qualifications and that the software might be looking for.

Interviewing

There are more interviews and more kinds of interviews than can be usefully surveyed here. Some miscellaneous notes:

There is likely to be some sort of performance aspect to an interview (sample editing work; whiteboard coding; hypothetical discussions of conflict resolution; etc.). If you are rusty at some mechanical aspect of a domain, it is useful to prepare for an interview as one might brush up for a standardized test.

You might face implicit or explicit suggestions that being a grad student is problematically different from being a [whatever you are applying to be]. Of course, these situations need to be navigated in light of their variable particular features, but it might be useful to think through some ways in which being a grad student and writing a dissertation is apt preparation for corporate work. Here are three:

  • The most common desideratum I have read from companies looking to hire remote workers is a candidate’s experience in working remotely or independently. Having written a dissertation would (in many contexts) go a long way toward convincing a prospective employer that you’re not going to watch YouTube all day.

  • More generally, grad students have the chance to prove that they do things and get results. Many employers are looking for people who can reliably get the project finished instead of working only on the easy parts and saving the hard parts for later (forever), fretting about feedback too much to show results to peers or supervisors, etc. Do not forget your teaching experience when you are looking for examples of situations in which you have reliably produced acceptable work on time.

  • The ability to cope with setbacks and failure is often something an interviewer is looking for; most of us have academic experiences of this sort to talk about.

Note for philosophers: It’s not easy to talk about one’s research to a non-philosophical audience. Some interviewers will be interested in your work; others will be rather hostile to the whole enterprise of academic philosophy, and especially to anything that may appear to be a merely verbal dispute. (A prominent person in biotechnology once told me about the philosopher he knew who has the stupidity and audacity to work on vagueness [“it’s just obvious it is a non-problem”].) You might just have to wing it, be honest, and hope for the best. That said, try to emphasize ways in which the problem can seem compelling to those without philosophical training; be accurate without making your interlocutor feel attacked or not heard; try to give your interviewer something to hold on to (you probably have a five-second summary of your work for the academic job market; try to produce some quick summaries that will be accessible to laypeople). Also, many people who do not like philosophy do like “fun facts.”

Many people who might be interviewing you spend lots and lots of hours interviewing people. Their jobs are not always fun. If you can make your conversation more pleasant than the next person’s, you’ll have helped yourself — and brightened that person’s day.

Here and elsewhere, do not assume that your reader or interlocutor is lazy, stupid, or mean (despite what you might have been trained into), unless you have hard evidence that some particular person really is one of those. People generally do not wish to spend their professional lives in the company of people who make such assumptions about them. And spending too much space and time protecting yourself against vicious readers’ misreadings will prevent you from displaying the most important aspects of your background and candidacy. Interviewers will want to know whether you can function in a team and whether you will take a positive, constructive approach to your work. It may therefore be useful to keep in mind the improv maxim: begin replies, even to silly or ill-formed prompts, with “yes, and…” (At the very least, consider using “and” whenever you are tempted to reply with “but.”)

Err on the side of accuracy, of course, but note that the sorts of folks who end up staffing HR departments often overvalue (less-than-fully-articulated versions of) the virtues of straightforwardness, clarity, and confidence. Qualifying your claims may be interpreted as a lack of confidence or as an excess of belligerence. As always, assessing one’s interlocutor is valuable.

Your interviewer is unlikely to know what a premium academic philosophers place on rigor and the close connections that philosophy has with technical disciplines. It might be important to correct such false impressions (gently!). If, say, your work in epistemology has led you to study representation theorems, you’ll often do well to mention those theorems.

Do a little bit of homework. Google is your friend. A good way to differentiate yourself from others is to show that you really care about the job (this is quite a contrast from the academic job market!). Don’t appear desperate, but do appear interested. Ideally you can signal your interest in a way that can’t be faked (perhaps by reading a white paper that the company has published).

If they ask you if you have questions for them, reply honestly, and also consider asking about the job itself. (“What’s the day-to-day like? To whom does the position report? How will my success be judged?”)

A few miscellaneous notes.

Writing is a superpower. Many of us underestimate the effectiveness (both in general and for one’s reputation) of memos, follow-up emails, blog posts, contributions to internal documentation, and so on. Use your superpowers.

It’s generally OK to send a friendly note asking about the status of your application. Things sometimes go slowly or fall through the cracks. If you are polite and if your requests are reasonable, you probably won’t hurt your chances by making such inquiries.

Hiring decisions are often made by committee. What might sound like an informal guarantee that you will get an offer might only be an expression of one person’s enthusiasm (or a misguided attempt to be encouraging).

If you receive a job offer, do not be afraid to negotiate (politely and professionally). The norms here vary greatly from context to context, but in many situations one is expected to haggle a bit. Seek advice from a domain expert if you are in this situation. If the job is in software, read this. (If you think I might know something about the domain in question, feel free to email me.)

Good luck.

12 Rules for Living

This is my contribution to the “write down twelve rules for life” game as brilliantly played by, among others, Tyler Cowen and Agnes Callard (whose contribution is no longer publicly available).

  1. Whenever possible, ask: “should I do this same thing again and again?” Getting compound returns is great. Getting diminishing returns is bad. Doing more and more of the same thing tends to get you one or the other, and figuring out which situation you’re in is often very tricky. Work at it.

  2. Write every day. For me, 1000 words of journaling, combined with other writing habits, works very well.

  3. Minimize the time you spend thinking about food. Have default meals, think twice before spending a lot of time cooking, and so on. Food is great, but the other stuff I can do with that time and energy is even better. And when it comes time to cook or dine with friends, it’s that much more enjoyable. (OK, maybe you really like food. In that case, is there something else you can cut ~80% of the time investment out of?)

  4. Whenever possible, ask: “Does the Coase Theorem apply here?”

  5. Just try to get a lot of high-quality stuff into your brain. Try to understand it, of course, but don’t worry too much about that, because getting whatever you can out of something really great is usually better than a fuller experience of something mediocre. So, for example, listen to a lot of great music even if you don’t understand music very well.

  6. Whenever possible, ask if the causal order of things is other than it appears to be. (Really try to do this. If I don’t ask myself such questions several times a day, it’s probably because I’m being sloppy.)

  7. Read a lot. Worry a lot about the quality of what you read, but not so much that it paralyzes you. Reread a lot (see (1), (5), and (8)).

  8. Divide your attention so that you get a little bit of exposure to a lot of things and very deep knowledge of a few things. (See (1).)

  9. Find some people whose thinking you appreciate, enjoy, and easily ingest. Consume everything they put out, several times if necessary, and think about it carefully. (See (1).)

  10. When you’re thinking about a belief someone else holds, ask whether it’s a “coherence belief,” believed because it flows naturally from other commitments, or a “portfolio belief,” believed because it somehow balances out other commitments (e.g., in being more politically palatable). This is often the key to really understanding what is being expressed and what the relevant commitments are.Relatedly: Get relatively much parenting advice from books and experts and relatively little from other parents.

  11. Have a lot of daily habits and maintain good to-do lists. Relatedly: for any length of time, have a productive default activity available for that length of time.

  12. About common behaviors, ask: “Is this mere orthodoxy, some sort of Chesterton’s fence, both, or neither?” It’s really important and really hard to figure out whether you have good reason to do what everyone else is doing. And these decisions come up all the time.