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The Fulbright Adventures 3: Philosophy & Other Musings

The attic of the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department at Utrecht University isn't particularly fancy— just rows of desks and a small mini-fridge. It's a bit old (I like to call it well-loved), with low-hanging wooden beams and cantilevers that require strategic ducking in places (I'm speaking from experience on this). It can get a bit stuffy and the supposedly noise-cancelling glass meeting room they installed in the middle of the attic turns out to not be so noise-cancelling. Nevertheless, the attic has quickly become one of my favorite places in my new home.

The view from my desk on a particularly sunny day. I spend a lot of time staring out this window procrastinating on writing.

I know it's blog post three, and I still haven't fully explained what I'm doing here in the Netherlands, in the European Union. I guess the reason is that I really only expect the audience for these blog posts to be family members and future Kaitlyn, all of whom have already heard too much about the Fulbright application process and my research. But in case someone outside of a blood relative stumbles across this post one day, hi! I just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in May and am currently a Fulbright Schuman student researcher to the European Union (EU) for 2022-2023. A quick plug for Fulbright Schuman because it is the coolest program and not very well-known— while the vast majority of all other Fulbright programs are to one country (the Netherlands, Argentina, etc.) Fulbright Schuman is to the European Union as an entire region. The focus of Fulbright Schumaners is to conduct research relating to the EU as a region or US-EU policy. Most Fulbright Schumaners spend time in multiple countries and multiple institutions. It's a small program— there are probably 12 of us total (half of us students or recent graduates, half of us actual adults, like professors), but it's mighty. I have yet to meet my fellow Fulbright Schumaners since we are spread across the entire EU, but they seem exceedingly impressive.

I stumbled across Fulbright Schuman while reading a random blog post from a former Fulbright Schumaner my junior year and immediately knew I had to apply. At that time, I had just developed my senior thesis topic at the interesection of technology policy and political philosophy and already knew I wanted to continue my research. EU tech regulation was miles ahead from US regulation and some of the best philosophers working on tech issues were in Europe. The application proposal wrote itself. The journey of actually finding affiliation and professors to work with was a different story, one too long for any single blog post. By some miracle, I got the grant, which I genuinely thought I had no shot at, and up here in Utrecht.

But back to the attic. The attic is where all the PhD and postdocs in the department work. It's almost never completely full, a benefit of academia is its flexibility and work for home policy, but there's always enough of a plurality for a group lunch at 1:00pm. I spend almost every working day in the attic (although ironically, I'm writing this post not from the attic but from a nearby cafe). Not only do I enjoy having lunch with my new work friends and meeting folks from outside of the Ethics Institute, but I can't get over the fact that I have my own desk, in an actual academic building, where my full-time job is to 'do' philosophy.

In case anyone's actually interested (future Kaitlyn may be interested in this part one day), my research proposal for the Fulbright Schuman was to specifically analyze how big tech (so Amazon, Alphabet, Meta, Apple) in the EU from a political philosophy perspective. Specifically, I'm interested in examining how big tech in the EU fits in within the Rawlsian basic structure. The project is extension of my thesis, looking at similar issues but this time from an EU perspective.

My trusted copy of A Theory of Justice, which I brought from Penn to New York to Utrecht!

My current work life, what I spend most days in the attic working on, is focused on writing a research paper on big tech and coercion. While in my bachelor's thesis I argued that big tech was more coercive than the state in specific domains like privacy and free speech, my current paper is a bit less extreme. I am currently making an argument that big tech is weakly coercive in nature (although this might change), falling in between manipulation and coercion. It's still a bit 'out-there' as a claim (I don't think so but other philosophers might), but it's certainly a more caveated claim than what I made in my bachelor's thesis. This was philosophy lesson number one: it's okay for your intuitions and arguments to change over time (but I will still have to reconcile my somewhat competing arguments one day).

More than anything, this experience has been learning how to be a researcher. The biggest challenges have been my own mental hurdles. As much as I love the attic, sometimes, when I'm sitting at my desk, I look around at all my extremely smart colleagues and I feel overwhelmed. Overwhelmed that everyone seems more productive than me, a better writer than me, more suited to the academic life. Yes, everyone is older and more experienced, and I try to remember that every time the imposter syndrome takes over. But the realities of academia, especially philosophy, is that it's competitive. To realistically pursue this career, I feel like I have to be the best. It's not driven out of a desire to be the best necessarily, but more so the fact that in order to do what I want to do in life, I have to be the best. It's a high bar that I struggle to live up to every day

(Side bar: I had a conversation with a philosophy friend the other day about why there are so few women in philosophy and one of the often floated theories is that philosophy, like theoretical physics or mathematics, has been societally determined to be a field for geniuses. That, in order to be a real-life philosopher, you have to be a verified Mensa, Einstein-type. And it's not that more men are geniuses but more men think they are geniuses. I think there's a lot of truth to this theory— anyone who's been in a philosophy seminar may know what I'm talking about. But certainly you don't have to be a genius to be a philosopher. I think you have to be decently smart, intellectually curious, and extremely disciplined, but I don't think genius is a prerequisite.)

The other challenge that I struggle with is the fact that I don't love research 100% of the time. To pursue a life of philosophy and academia requires a lot of sacrifice— sacrificing higher paying jobs, job security, your twenties. No one pursues philosophy for the money; they do it because they love it. I love what I do 90% of the time. I love discussing interesting philosophical ideas with professors, work friends, and my supervisor. I love diving deep into a subject and creating an argument I'm proud of. But I can't focus for eight hours day straight doing intense thinking and writing. And I love writing, but I also hate it because it can be so painful. Oftentimes in philosophy, you can get stuck in an overthinking spiral that completely immobilizes your paper. In those moments, I don't love philosophy. And that stresses me out because maybe I should love philosophy 100% of the time. Maybe real philosophers love it all the time and would rather spend a Friday night reading foundational texts rather than going out. But when I shared my worries with my supervisor, he very helpfully reassured me that philosophers don't always love it. Being productive eight hours a day in philosophy is a near impossible task— at the height of his dissertation writing, it was a good day if he got 500 words down on paper. I cling to those words of wisdom every time I write.

I hope this blog post doesn't scare people off of studying or reading philosophy. To be completely honest, there's nothing else I can imagine myself doing. I know the attic doesn't sound like the height of luxury— it's not the glass high-rise in New York City that most of my peers from Penn are working in right now. But, to me, the attic is everything I could want in life— the freedom to pursue what I love to do and good people to work alongside.

My current work setup. Peep the US to EU converter I have to carry around all the time. I love this desk.

Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.

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