Advice for new graduate students in Indian philosophy

Jorge Cham PhD Comics

Recently I was asked for advice by an incoming graduate student who was interested in research in Indian philosophy. As I’ve given a lot of the same advice to my own students during the past few years, and had others get in touch with me, I thought I’d put down my thoughts and see if others have thoughts to add.

  • Language skills. If you want to work on Indian or South Asian philosophy more generally as main area of research, you need language skills. You should start on this as early as possible (if you haven’t before the PhD) and find as many opportunities to read in those languages as you can.
    • Don’t neglect reading beyond śāstra texts. Not only does reading kāvya and other genres improve your language skills, you are entering into the world of these thinkers by doing so. They aren’t writing in a vacuum.
    • Summer programs, both for language-learning and reading workshops, are an excellent opportunity to immerse yourself in these efforts.
    • If you do not acquire proficiency in the languages of the texts you are reading (Pāli, Sanskrit, Tibetan, etc.) you will be limited to engaging with secondary material and texts in translation, which essentially limits you to doing an AOC rather than an AOS. [Edited to add: “AOC” or “area of concentration” here means having some combination of undergraduate/early graduate teaching ability, some coursework, and perhaps some minor publications in an area, whereas an “AOS” or “area of specialization” means having advanced teaching ability, the majority of your coursework and research, and focus of your publications. It is my view that having an AOS in (premodern) Indian philosophy, as with any philosophy written in languages other than your own and in time-periods/cultures relatively distant from your own, almost always requires the ability to engage with original texts and not only secondary material.]
  • Mentors. Unlike Anglo-European philosophy, which is represented broadly in philosophy programs in the English-speaking world (and, frankly, beyond), at most graduate programs, you will be lucky to find more than one person working in Indian philosophy. It is essential that you find mentors beyond them, not only pragmatically (for recommendation letters) but also philosophically.
    • Example: suppose you want to work on philosophy of mind in Buddhism. Even if you are at a program where this is someone’s main area of research, it is important to understand the broader context of, say, Dharmakīrti. This would mean understanding Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā contributions, at the least.
    • Even the most well-rounded philosopher has limitations and their own perspective. You want to ensure you are entering into the broader conversation in the field, and not only taking on your advisor’s perspective (even if you ultimately agree with them!).
  • Community. Studying in a program where the tradition is mainly Anglo-European can be lonely. As well, if your approach is historical rather than analytic (or the reverse), this can add to the sense of disconnect with other people’s projects. It’s important to find people that support your work, and to support them, too.
    • Not all professors in your program may find Indian philosophy valuable. You can expect responses to your work to range from benign indifference to ignorance to active hostility (the latter is, I hope, increasingly rare). The same is true for other graduate students.
    • Being a good contributor to philosophy more broadly in your department can help–actively supporting your fellow graduate students and attending talks can demonstrate you’re not “only” an “Indian philosopher” but a philosopher more generally.
    • If there is a South Asian Studies or Religion program at your university, you may find fellow travelers there, who are philosophically-minded, or who are interested in your work from different angles.
  • Research skills and norms. Lastly, depending on your program and advisor (and your own background), you may have to work hard to learn scholarly norms governing Indian philosophy. You will need to learn where to find texts (SARIT, GRETIL, and various online repositories, unofficial and official) and how to engage with the wide range of sources (philological, historical, philosophical) that you need do Indian philosophy.
    • The Indology website is a good starting point for learning some of this. Look as well at online blogs for exemplars and discussions of good research.
    • Look at publications in well-regarded journals for their use of sources, transliteration styles, bibliographies, and so on. Try reading not just for content (arguments, claims) but for structure and method.
    • Ask your advisor and other mentors to describe their research process to you–they may assume you already know how to compare printed editions, how to find and evaluate secondary material, and so on. However, this process is not always explicitly taught, despite its being important to historically-grounded work (whether your methodology is “history of philosophy,” “fusion philosophy,” “comparative philosophy,” and so on).
  • Balance. Finally, unlike the comic strip at the top, I think it’s important to find a balance of academic and non-academic focus. You may think that, with having to learn new languages, keep up to date in multiple areas of research, teaching classes, attending talks, etc., you don’t have time for hobbies or rest (or your family, if you have one!). The pressure in graduate school is immense. But in my opinion, it’s important to find time to do things which are not related to your work. Read some fiction. Take some hikes. Play with your dog or cat. Meet people outside of academia. Your mental health (and your work) will benefit from it.

Cross-posted at my personal blog.


About Malcolm Keating

Malcolm Keating is Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the Humanities Division at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

5 thoughts on “Advice for new graduate students in Indian philosophy

  1. My biggest piece of advice in this category is: exit strategy. You need to be aware of the fact that most PhD recipients do not land tenure-track jobs, and that the market keeps getting worse. If you are entering a PhD program in any area of the humanities, you will probably not be a professor. You might be, but the odds are against it, no matter how smart and hard-working you are. You need to think about what you’re going to do with your life if that tenure-track job doesn’t come true – and it is much easier to think about that while you are in grad school, because you have opportunities for diversification there that you won’t have after graduating. Have information interviews with PhD holders on your campus who aren’t professors – assistant deans, educational technologists, assessment coordinators – and when you are trying to support yourself as a grad student, look for part-time opportunities in their fields as well as in teaching.

    • Thanks Amod, that’s an important point for all grad students. I’d add that looking for opportunities outside of academia while in grad school is another good strategy, and can help with appreciating different work cultures. (During my studies, for many years, I did data analysis for a big corporation, so I learned about how the workforce is different outside of academia, and I think this has helped me in my own approach to managing research projects and conferences.) The Philosopher’s Cocoon has talked a lot about “alt-ac” careers, and there are plenty of other resources online.

      As this post is targeted to grad students doing Indian philosophy in particular, I imagine (though perhaps readers can speak to this ) that even though knowing Sanskrit probably wouldn’t be helpful for getting a coding job in Silicon Valley, having posted some projects on GitHub that involve programming, like sandhi-splitting, OCR with Devanāgarī, etc., could be helpful if one decides to look for industry jobs. Maybe you have other suggestions for exit strategies for this demographic?

      • One exit strategy (though it is properly neither an exit nor a strategy) might be to act as an author in the area of making these texts more accessible to the lay audience (largely composed of an Indian audience that cannot read the texts in the original). For instance, take up translation of sanskrit/pali texts that haven’t been translated before, or were translated such a long time ago that they need their own translations. Or explain complex and competing viewpoints of the various Indian schools – for instance, how would sankya, buddhism and nyaya analyze Star Trek’s body/mind relocation across physical space? There is an endless opportunity for scholars in the Indian philosophical tradition to share their understanding with hundreds of thousands of Indians who haven’t the resources to engage with the original texts. Needless to say, given the growing financial clout of this demographic, this could be a lucrative endeavour to fuel your continuing research in this area.

    • Coming from a country where only 67% of the people with a PhD in philosophy have a job (including ALL sorts of jobs!) 6 years after gradation and only 11% have a job in the academic world (again, 6ys after gradation), I am (still) slightly surprised whenever my colleagues in N America speak of the need of having a “plan B”. So, should someone among the readers of this post come from other parts of the world: It might be necessary to tell your students to prepare to have a plan A outside academia and to continue enjoying Indian philosophy outside of it.

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