The virtues and vices of PhD students

What can we learn about PhD students through the lens of Ancient Greek Philosophy? In this two-part series for PhD Life, Brennan McDavid asks us to reflect on our PhD habits…

As someone who spends their mornings, afternoons, and evenings thinking about ancient ethical theory and the concept of a virtue, I often find myself identifying virtue in peculiar places. One such place is in the life of an academic. Just like piano players and dressmakers and chefs, academics can be better or worse at their jobs, and it usually comes down to whether or not they have cultivated the virtues that are necessary for doing their work well.

These virtues come in the form of habits—the habit of taking notes while doing intensive academic reading, the habit of circulating papers among peers even if the draft doesn’t feel quite perfect (what draft ever is?), the habit of saying what you mean in your writing and avoiding the siren call of tangents.

PhD students have their own distinctive set of virtues to cultivate. These are the virtues of young academics who are still finding their place in the academic landscape. I am a couple of years out from the completion of my PhD (July 2015), and I now advise some students who are working on their own theses, so I thought it might be helpful to point out some habits that I view as being virtues in PhD students.

Here I’ll discuss two virtues that you can cultivate and practice in seminars and colloquia and the hours that stretch between them—all those opportunities for exchanging ideas and for creating them.  And then next week I’ll discuss a couple that relate more to your thesis-centric activities—the hours in the library and in front of a word processor.

The habit of asking questions.

If you’ve ever been to a conference or a colloquium or even just a causal lunch time talk, you will have noticed that there’s a certain kind of person who most often contributes to the conversation. This person is usually not a graduate student, and they often ask questions and engage critically in a way that is aspirational and, ironically, easy going.

That person was once a graduate student, too, and they weren’t born with the ability to grapple with an academic discipline. They learned how to do that by testing out what it feels like to ask certain kinds of questions (including “dumb” questions) and what it feels like to raise a challenge against another academic’s work.

The only way to learn how to be that person is by getting in the habit of doing the things that person does. This means that you must test out what it feels like to ask questions. Aristotle says that “we become just by doing just things; we become courageous by doing courageous things; etc.” We most certainly also learn how to ask questions by asking questions.

Not every question you ask will be a good one. Sometimes you may feel frustrated by what you take to be an inability to articulate yourself. But practicing the art of crafting questions will transform the way that you engage with your discipline more generally. You will begin to see opportunities for better and better questions. Your research program will expand. You will flourish. Start with dumb questions, but understand that it is through asking dumb questions that you will come to ask better ones. The virtue is in the habit of asking.

The habit of carving out time to be alone with one’s thoughts.

Creative energy is an elusive thing. It is likely you are someone who has a great deal of such energy and a healthy dose of ability to harness it into something interesting and worthwhile. After all, you are in a PhD program, and such places are not for the uncreative, energy-less types. Academia selects for people like you.

Nevertheless, nurturing creative energy is a difficult task. In a world where we are constantly bombarded with stimulating apps and social media platforms and really, really excellent tv programming, it is staggeringly easy to become passive consumers of other people’s creative energy and fail to exercise and assert our own.

You need space to let your creativity find its own limits. Expression on Instagram and Snapchat and blogs, even this blog!, has its value, but time spent with these tools for expression means time spent being creative on someone else’s terms. You owe it to yourself to carve out some time to be creative entirely on your own terms. This means being undisturbed and unstimulated in that spooky space of your own mind. The virtue is the ability to be comfortable in entirely self-guided thought.

These two virtues have the potential to transform your relationship with your thesis, and so focus on these will be richly rewarding. Nevertheless, there are virtues you can develop for the research and drafting process as well. Tune in next week for a discussion of those.


Has your confidence increased over your PhD Life? Do you find it easier to make time for your own thoughts rather than engage with other scholars? Or is it the other way around? We want to know! Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.


Brennan McDavid works at Ormond College in Melbourne, Australia. She holds an endowed position at the College as Seymour Reader in Ancient History and Philosophy. She also teaches Greek Philosophy and Latin at the University of Melbourne, and her research focuses on Aristotle’s ethical epistemology.


Image: sculpture-bronze-figure-aristotle-2298848 / Couleur / CC0 1.0

Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: