Changing Philosophical Career Paths

I began my academic philosophy career as a ‘logician.’ I wrote a dissertation on belief revision, and was advised by a brilliant logician, Rohit Parikh, someone equally comfortable in the departments of computer science, philosophy and mathematics. Belief revision (or ‘theory change’ if you prefer) is a topic of interest to mathematicians, logicians, and computer scientists. Because of the last-named demographic, I was able to apply for, and be awarded, a post-doctoral fellowship with a logics for artificial intelligence group in Sydney, Australia. (In my two years on the philosophy job market, I sent out one hundred and fourteen applications, and scored precisely zero interviews. My visits to the APA General Meeting in 1999 and 2001 were among the most dispiriting experiences of my life; I have never attended that forum again. The scars run too deep.)

During my post-doctoral fellowship, I continued to write on belief revision but I also co-authored papers on belief merging (which has the same formal structure as social choice theory), non-monotonic logic, and dynamic logic (in the area known as ‘reasoning about actions.’) Some papers went into the Journal of Philosophical Logic and related journals; yet others went into the refereed proceedings of the most important artificial intelligence conferences. Because of my publication record and because of my stellar job hunt numbers in the philosophy job market, I decided to apply for a computer science job at Brooklyn College. I interviewed, and got the job; I was assured I could teach in the philosophy department as well. (So, in philosophy, my numbers were 0-114; in computer science 1-1.)

A few years later, around 2005 or so, I stopped working in logic. I declined invitations to conferences, I dropped out of co-authored projects; I put away, on the back-burner, many unfinished projects. (Some of them still strike me as very interesting, and if a promising graduate student would ever want to work on them, I would consider advising him/her.) This was not a very smart move professionally; I had finally, after five years of work, acquired a cohort of like-minded researchers (and friends); I had become a member of academic and professional networks; some of my work had become known to people in the field; I had managed to secure funding for release time, conference visits, and academic visitors; my work was generating problems, like the ones mentioned above, which could be worked on by graduate students; and so on. This was especially not a clever move given my impending tenure and promotion review in 2007; I would have to begin anew in a new field and make headway there.

But I just couldn’t work as a logician any more. I wasn’t an incompetent logician but I wasn’t as good a logician as the folks I regularly interacted with in the course of my work. Working in logic didn’t come easily to me; I had to work harder than most to get anything done in it. I had also realized that while I enjoyed puzzling out the philosophical and conceptual implications of the various models for belief change, belief merging, and reasoning about actions that I worked on, I did not so much enjoy working on producing rigorous proofs of the various propositions these models entailed. I did not feel, as it were, a ‘flow‘ in my work. (I continued to enjoy teaching related material; I taught discrete mathematics, artificial intelligence, and the theory of computation for the computer science department, and loved every minute of it. Well, I exaggerate, but you catch my drift.)

So I turned my mind to something else. I have no regrets about my decision. And I have no regrets about having spent six years working in the areas I did work in prior to my ‘departure.’ I learned a great deal of logic; I grew to appreciate the work of mathematicians and logicians and theoretical computer scientists; straddling disciplines was a deeply edifying experience; I am happy I did not spend all my time talking to philosophers. But I couldn’t stay there.

I continued to teach in both departments, and then finally, in 2010, I transferred from the computer science department to the philosophy department. I was finally ‘home.’

I wonder if readers of this blog have changed their career paths for reasons similar or dissimilar to mine. Perhaps you found yourself no longer engaged by the central problems in your area of interest; or perhaps something else altogether. I am curious, and interested.

8 comments on “Changing Philosophical Career Paths

  1. Macaroni says:

    Yes I’ve since moved away from my initial research with greater emphasis on another field that is somewhat distant from my home discipline. That said, political science seems to be fluid with room to change ones’ research agenda. I wonder though if this flexibility is present becuase I’m not at an R1 or R2. I realize this is perhaps the advantage of a 3/3 load; perverse no?

  2. I started out in the philosophy of mind and language and gave it up entirely about five years after getting my phd. I didn’t think I had any good ideas left in those areas. I also thought that the things I really cared about, when it came to mind & language, required me to work in metaphysics.

    But then I had a really cool idea about epistemology. So I wrote about that instead. I keep thinking about metaphysics, but I never seem to publish in that area.

    One of the really great things about philosophy is that you can switch around a great deal. Sure, it means not publishing for a while, which can be awkward if your CV isn’t up to scratch. Other than that though, it’s a great feature of being a philosopher (I don’t think many scientists could do it).

  3. elkement says:

    That’s really impressive, my comment is probably off-topic … but I can so much relate to your ‘renaissance’ approach!!

    I have changed fields several times… in a way that made other people worry about my career – from physics to IT security to renewable energy / engineering … and I am doing all of them today which is possible because I run my own business – but I think it would not have been possible in academia.
    I managed to give a lecture at a university on IT security though despite lack of formal credentials. Having worked in IT for some years (in a non-academic job) I had also declined an offer to work as a postdoc in a ‘hot field’ at the intersection of physics and IT security.

    I can remember that I was clueless when I picked physics initially – I was not aware of the fact that you need to decide for either experimental or theoretical physics and a narrow niche early in your career – I rather thought this is the all-encompassing science including anything from the great secrets of the universe, philosophical questions, and hands-on engineering.
    In some way, I still stick to that idea🙂

  4. Andy says:

    Samir-

    I have enjoyed your articles on cricket and only lately discovered your blog.

    I teach and research for a living (in Bioengineering). You have brought up some important questions that I often ask myself, and I would like to pick more of your philosopher(!) brain.
    To me, answering (or at least partially) these questions for oneself is important particularly if one decides to take up research since you rely and bet on psychic income than the joy that $$ bring.

    1. The Wiki link on flow lists “a balance between opportunity and capacity” as one of the criteria for flow. I tend to believe that if you have the capacity (read ‘a natural’), it will be easy for one to be in flow. To cite extreme examples, a Tendulkar or a Federer or a Bhimsen Joshi.

    2. The follow-up question is, can the argument “I am not a natural so this is not for me” be used as an argument for being lazy. Where do you draw the line between ‘sweating blood and producing rubbish’ and being the dude Lebowski?

    3. I have seen many a tenured faculty wither away in research – may be because they realize that they are not naturals and so what’s the point in pushing oneself harder?

    In response to your last comment, is it possible that you are more of a natural in philosophy than in computer science?

    Thanks,
    Andy

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Andy,

      My apologies for this very late reply. Your #2 question is very difficult to answer! And lastly, you are right, I’m more of a natural in philosophy. #3 might be happening to me as I find myself more drawn to fiction, memoirs and essay writing.

  5. […] Not here, not at any academic conference. I was intimidated and made diffident; my doubts about my choice of career and dissertation topic grew. By the second day of the conference, this feeling had grown worse, not ideal preparation for […]

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