The Form of the Good (PhD Student)

Last week, Brennan McDavid wrote about two virtues that PhD students can cultivate for excelling in seminar environments and in their creative process. In this post, Brennan discusses two virtues that are more directly relevant to the process of drafting a thesis… 


My experience with the virtues I present to you today comes from my years as a PhD student, from experience in not taking some of this advice that was given to me, and from experience as an adviser trying to help my own students cultivate these virtues. These virtues stand out in the people who have cultivated them, and they differentiate the productive, flourishing academics from the rest.

The habit of writing every day.

This one probably sounds cliché. How often have you heard the advice that you should write every day? The trouble with clichés is that they often capture something true—even if, as is the case with this cliché, the kernel of truth is really just in the fact that the advice is so very needed because it has been such a very long time since you—yes, you, PhD student—sat down to really write.

The habit of daily writing is what keeps you on task. It’s not merely that it keeps you tethered to the project of drafting a dissertation. Rather, it’s that writing every day will tighten up your thoughts and help keep you, as much as is possible, on a linear path of progression.

We have all experienced the opposite: days or weeks go by without any writing and then one day you open up the ol’ word processor only to realize that you’ve entirely lost your train of thought. How had you intended to end that paragraph? What was the next step that you were certain was a brilliant argumentative strategy? Who was the author you had intended to cite and at what crucial point in your chapter had you intended to cite them? These questions reveal only one thing: you’ve spent too many days away from writing. The virtue is not to write more; it’s to write more often.

The habit of reading—really reading and in a purposeful way.

We are all masters of passive reading. We do it constantly with news, social media feeds, even subtitles. You are probably reading this blog passively right now. Academic reading should be different. It should feel different. When you engage in research reading, the virtue you need is the ability to read actively.

How can you cultivate this virtue? Well, different people will find success with different methods. My own method is to take notes alongside my reading and map out the argument of whatever article or book is in question. I have to reformulate the author’s claims in my own words. I have to be clear about what questions the author is asking and what they take to be the answers. Taking notes in this way—in an active, engaged, and critical way—becomes so involved that it actually becomes part of my daily writing. It is a way of practicing asking questions, also. And it is even a space for being alone with my own thoughts. The virtue is learning actively, rather than passively.

I have discussed only four virtues in these blog posts, but Plato only had four virtues in his great treatise the Republic, so I take it that four is a significant and lucky number in virtue theory anyway. As Plato said, if you cultivate these four virtues, you will have gone a long way toward achieving the Form of the Good PhD Student. I’m pretty sure he said that. Something like that.


Do you make time to write every day or are you still struggling to cultivate this habit? Have you transitioned from a passive to an active reader? What tools or tricks helped you? 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: bronze-plato-scholar-610837 / mvivirito0 / CC0 1.0

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