The Grad School Gospels: On Professional Baseball, Academia, and My Shared Experience with Dirk Hayhurst

bullpen_gospels_dirk_hayhurstIn The Bullpen Gospels, author and former professional baseball player, Dirk Hayhurst, takes readers through his lived experience in the cut-throat world of professional baseball. As I read Hayhurst’s story, I find myself impressed by his talent as a writer, sympathetic to his hardships as professional baseball player, and connected to him by analogous personal struggles.

A few years prior to returning to school in 2009 to train to be an occupational therapist, I was a research graduate student in Cognitive Psychology.  Back then, in many ways graduate school was for me what professional baseball was to Dirk. I was not alone.

The purpose of this post is to juxtapose excerpts of Hayhurst’s struggle to self-actualize through professional baseball with my prior struggles to build a life, self-esteem and respectability through the academic world.

Graduate students are the minor leaguers of Academia…

The notion of graduate school being the minor leagues of academia is an apt – if not particularly novel – analogy.

In the world of baseball, high schoolers with Big League dreams organize their lives around impressing scouts who, if duly impressed, may offer them a spot in a university or minor league baseball system. In the academic world, undergrads aspiring to be professors spend years fixated on 3.5+ GPAs, letters of reference, high GRE (Graduate Record Examination – basically, the SAT for grad school) scores, and hopefully a research publication or two, all to impress Masters/PhD program admissions committees.

In baseball, university and minor league baseball systems are comprised primarily of hopeful players who will unfortunately never taste the Majors. In the academic world, while the odds aren’t quite as staggering, it is not uncommon for a university Psychology Department to receive 80-200 applications from PhD-wielding high-achieving intellects in response to a posting for ONE opening.

In baseball, most minor leaguers who are not independently wealthy live on a pittance. Hayhurst recounts living with his grandmother during off-seasons. Here again graduate students fair better, but only modestly so. As a graduate student in the Cognitive Psychology MS/PhD program Rutgers University in New Jersey I was paid somewhere in the low $20Ks per year. Had I elected to go to the other school I was accepted at – the University of Arizona – my annual pay would have been even less. So, I was working 50-60 hours a week to be right around the Poverty Line  (though receiving free education, health benefits and access to university athletic facilities, not to mention social/community clubs).

In baseball, if you do not “make it”, you may have relatively few desirable alternative career paths. Perhaps  you could continue playing in the minor leagues as an “organization player” (i.e., a non-prospect whose job is to fill a roster spot on a team that contains prospects (i.e., players that the Major League club still views as having a solid shot of “making it”)). You might also join a small town Independent League team. Dirk spoke of the Washington Wild Things (no, I’d never heard of them either…). Each of these options is low-paying, offers employment (and pay) for only part of the year, and will no longer offer employment as a player’s skills wane with aging. The player could serve as an instructor at baseball instructional clinics. Maybe they could go back to school and study to be a gym teacher, then spend a few years working as a substitute teacher waiting for  a full-time teaching gig. Men who have spent the last 10-20 years of their lives sacrificing at the alter of The Great American Pastime can be forgiven if they’re not particularly consoled by any of these consolation prizes…

In academia, post-bust Plan Bs depend on one’s academic field. An economics PhD, for example, might have several desirable career alternatives to the Ivory Tower. I, on the other hand, was a graduate student in Cognitive Psychology and Cognitive Science. I was interested in how very young mind’s acquire their conceptual, social and linguistic knowledge and abilities. Having amassed 5 years of experience studying how 3 year olds pick up and generalize their first verbs probably would not have served me quite as well as an economist who had 5 years of experience studying market trends… While I may not have been up Shit Creek without a paddle, it would be a far cry from what had driven me to commit to 5 or 15 years of 50-60 hour work weeks in labs and libraries.

Wreaking havoc on the soul…

Reading Dirk’s story, it’s hard not to be sympathetic. And this is not simply because of the years of single-minded devotion and intense competition book-ended by dispiritingly few Plan Bs, as described above. It’s the devastating fear, self-doubt, depression, and recurring sense of impending doom.

And this would be no minor doom. This doom would require that he accept that his years of sacrifice and physical and psychological anguish were ultimately not going to pay off. He would have to accept that he could not get that time back. That he would have to Start Over. From behind. That he would no longer be the successful, admirable guy he used to be – the great high school baseball player that is now playing in the pros and would soon be a Big Leaguer. That he would not be able to live up to his parents’ hope for him. That he wouldn’t be important anymore. He wouldn’t be a Somebody. Baseball was his gift. It made him a Somebody. Soon, he would be a Nobody. And not only a nobody, but nobody who was behind! A slobody.

This sense of impending doom – an impending doom at the end of a self-chosen path littered with warning signs (“Impending Doom Ahead, Plan Alternate Route“) in plain sight the whole time – is something I can empathize with.

My own fall…

I grew up in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. To say that my childhood was less than ideal would be charitable to say the least. I was a short, chubby, cowardly, weak, uncoordinated, big-nosed, annoying, deeply insecure child whose last name – at the time – was dangerously close to a prominent part of the male anatomy. As the leading laughing stock and whipping boy of my age groups from fifth through eleventh grades, I was bullied and taunted mercilessly. While I have had the good fortune of having a very good mother, I can’t say the same about my father. The self-esteem and self-confidence that I had taunted and bullied out of me for years were not things that my father helped me build back up. My mother also couldn’t help me, as either I didn’t tell her about what was going on (not wanting her to know that I was a loser) or it was more of a guy-thing. In the end, at the age of 16, I came as close as one can come to losing their life at their own hands.

Despite all of the problems, however, I always perceived myself as having one thing I could bank on: school. I was good at school. Prior to university I consistently got 80s. I may have been marginalized by most of my peers much of the time, but I at least had the kudos of my Mother and relatives, and the assurance that big things would eventually come my way. One day, I would not be broke. One day, I would be respected. One day, girls would be interested in me. I’ve always been glad to live in a country like Canada where, even during our brokest time – my Mother and I were living in a crummy part of Toronto and had one 10-inch black-and-white TV – I never felt for a second that I couldn’t be whatever I wanted when I grew up. That I *absolutely would* go to university and would do well.

As time went on, things increasingly fell into place. In 2001, I was accepted by every university I applied to. I enrolled at the University of Toronto, then the top school in the country. I had annual GPAs of 3.5 all the way through, won a bunch of scholarships, worked in labs, had a few top-flight summer jobs, and in the end I was asked to give a lecture on the final day of my final (and favourite) class in my final year at U of T (I somewhat bombed the lecture, if we’re being honest, but I digress). The class was Cognitive Science. The topic of the lecture was the Cognitive Science of Language Acquisition, my obsession of the past 8 months and the subject I was about to make an illustrious and fulfilling career out of. I was feeling pretty good.

After a deliberately jobless summer after graduating from  U of T, I moved to New Jersey in August 2006 with great excitement. I was now a grad student! How long I had waited for this to be my reality..

For a while I liked it. I was extremely ambitious and motivated. And then, a few months in, I realized that I did not like most of what I was doing. In fact, I had never liked most of what I would be doing in this role. I loved reading about and discussing big issues in the Cognitive Sciences. But I rarely liked reading journal articles. And I NEVER liked DOING empirical research. HATED IT. I didn’t like it when I was volunteering in labs as an undergrad. I didn’t like it when I was doing my undergraduate honours thesis. And I wasn’t liking it now (well, then), when I was getting going on my Master’s research.

All of that, however, wasn’t a deal-breaker for me. What made it untenable was when I (finally) discovered how dismal the professorial job market for Cognitive Psychologists was/is. Had the market been good, I could have tolerated another 5 years of spending 60% of my 50-60 hour weeks doing things I tended not to like. After all, it would lead me to getting a tenure track position which, once I completed about 5-7 more years of 50-60 hour weeks of 60% tedious work, I’d be home-free: Tenure! Study what I want, when I wanted. Be a socially and politically engaged citizen with the knowledge, dignity and pulpit of professorship. Educate, inspire, and learn with and from other similarly curious minds. And be a Somebody.  Those are things I could continue working toward for another 10 years if need be.

School was My Salvation…

I had always viewed school as my salvation. School was my way out of not only being broke, but out of social destitution. It was was my path from outcast to outstanding. For the prize of lasting esteem and the privilege of serving my highest ideals – the advancement of individual and collective knowledge and wisdom – I was more than willing to engage in another decade of drudgery.

But eventually I realized, much like Dirk, that my dream might not be for me. That what I had been tirelessly pursuing may have been a mirage. And not just a mirage, but a mirage that I probably should have recognized as such a long time ago.

Upon deciding that I would leave the graduate program at Rutgers I cried several times over the course of about 2 days. This, to me, was like giving up my religion. I was giving up my social community, my daily occupation, my dream, my proudly-held role as full-time missionary for the Church of Reason and Understanding, and my social image as smart, ambitious graduate student and future esteemed professor.

But this wasn’t rock bottom. Not even close. Rock bottom was still several months away – not that I knew it yet.

Rock Bottom in T-minus 7 Months…

I returned to Canada in February 2007, excited to explore new possibilities and begin engaging in the sorts of things that I had always been too busy with my professorial aspirations to attend to. Finding a job that would satisfy my interests and – at least as importantly – my ego would be challenging. But I was up for the task. I worked hard to find a good job – applying ad nauseum, networking, going to job search programs at U of T, advancing my skills, etc. I had several job interviews and eventually got what was, by most people’s estimation, a good entry-level job. I would be working in an office for a government health agency helping people get home healthcare services they needed. The only problem was that I perceived the job to be depressingly boring, uninteresting, and hopelessly unimpressive. There was much more to it than this, but I’ll shorten the story and zoom in on what really did me in: I was no longer Somebody.

Rock Bottom T-minus NOW.

Rock Bottom is lower, harder, colder and lonelier than you think.  It is the sense that the world has left you behind. That you can no longer hold your head up. It is the sense that your hopes, dreams, sacrifices and years of ceaseless efforts had been built on a set of assumptions that were false. Rock Bottom is the sense of pure and utter hopelessness. Rock Bottom is: You are a loser and are unhappy, you have always been a loser and have always been unhappy, and the one road you had out of unhappy loserdom was merely one long road heading toward a dead end. There had been signs of the impending dead-end for the past 50 miles, but you were too busy accelerating toward and salivating over the mirage to see them. That was my Rock Bottom. And in September 2007 I did what a desperate, devastatingly depressed and defeated person does: once more tried to end it all in a manner, much like the previous attempt 9 years prior, was decisively not a cry for help.

I will spare you the details. But it suffices to say that, statistically speaking, I should not be here right now. Nevertheless, here I am.

Back to Dirk…

I don’t know if Dirk got quite as despondent as I did. But as I read him describe the fear, the emotional peaks that come with every inkling that he might make it after all, and the crashes that come when signs point south, I am reminded of my own struggles.

Dirk was not alone, and neither was I

Most minor leaguers don’t make it. While most aren’t as eloquently introspective as Dirk, they too were once boys with dreams. They were high-achievers. They were gym class heroes. High school heroes. They were the talks of the town. They were Somebodies. In many cases, like Dirk, they put most or all of their eggs in the professional baseball basket. They were all-in. Their livelihoods, their pride, their sense of identity, their hopes, their dreams, their everything, all riding on baseball. Considered this way, it wasn’t surprising when Dirk opined that professional baseball players often show a proneness toward narcissism and paranoia. (Sabermetrics and widespread online baseball analysis can only be amplifying this line of fragile egoism. Though, I must admit, I love them both, nonetheless – sabermetrics and baseball blogging, that is).

Like Dirk, though often contrary to my perceptions at the time, I wasn’t alone. I’ve since learned of life-long high-achieving mathematics graduate students whose self-esteem had been so pummeled in the dog-eat-dog, publish-or-perish world of academics that they too were brought to life’s edge.

I discovered similar feelings among university grads more broadly. Many university graduates over the past decade or two, and continuing, have been disillusioned by the post graduation job market. We’ve been led to believe that if we excel in school and do well at a good university, that the world is our oyster. That meaningful, enjoyable, esteemed, and well-paying careers awaits us. In today’s job market, saturated with degree-wielding applicants, these sorts of expectations are not nearly as likely to be met as they were several decades ago.

When I went through my period of immense despair, I felt alone. I wasn’t alone. Dirk wasn’t alone. Finding out that I wasn’t alone was very reassuring and comforting, as it helped me realize that I wasn’t a singular failure. Like many others, I was merely experiencing a difficult set of circumstances. Just as I imagine that Dirk’s book may be a source of comfort and reassurance for struggling pro-baseball players, I hope that this post might give voice, understanding and some order of validation to the experience of previous, current and future bright minds struggling in the pressure-cooker that is the academic establishment.

I’m glad to see that Dirk seems to be doing quite well these days as a blogger, baseball analyst, author and public speaker. After a few years of great difficulty, struggles, and personal rebuilding, I too have come to arrive at place where I am very comfortable, optimistic, and grateful. As an occupational therapist with particular interests in wisdom and mastery based approaches to wellness and growth, I feel very privileged to be able to make a comfortable, rewarding and enjoyable living while helping others build and rebuild themselves. I imagine that Dirk’s writing and speaking have provided him with similarly gratifying experiences. We are both very lucky.


* (This reference works on at least two levels…)

The Grad School Gospels – Part 2: Passion, Fear and Indifference. In the second installment of The Grad School Gospels series, I juxtapose Dirk’s path from passion to fear to flirtation with indifference to my own (though, in my case, indifference and I went beyond flirtation. We got kinda serious, actually…)

5 thoughts on “The Grad School Gospels: On Professional Baseball, Academia, and My Shared Experience with Dirk Hayhurst

  1. I can’t tell you how deeply this resonates with me, Ron. Every single comparison you make between baseball and grad school also applies to music: from the desperate equation of achievement with one’s identity to the cult-like adherence to the “noble path”.

    And especially the part about being “not only a nobody, but nobody who [is] behind!”

  2. Thanks so much, Quinn.

    I could see how this would apply to the arts, too. Similar sort of system of identifying with the activity and one’s place within it and the community, low rate of “making it” and few attractive “silver medals”, etc. And then when you leave, you can go from being this long-time high-achiever, highly accomplished person, to having little of value when it comes to earning a livelihood, having a name for yourself in your new adult socioeconomic millieu, etc.

  3. Hi there, this is a great comparison – not that I know anything about baseball – but yes, there are many areas of life that you could say the same thing about. I am sorry that it’s been such a rocky road for you with such almost dire consequences. One of the worst issues of graduate school is the incredibly high rate of mental illness (depression and anxiety mostly) that students tend to have. It’s not a healthy environment at all for many of the reasons you have already identified above and a hundred more that I am sure you’re well aware of. It sounds like you’ve come a long way since then.

  4. @ WTF: Thanks for your nice comment.

    I have a come a long way, but it definitely wasn’t easy.

    For a few years now I’ve encouraged several people who’ve considered various education programs with dicey career prospects to really do their research and not just implicitly assume that advanced education is a good bet. Interestingly, though, even though I felt it was worthwhile to say something to this or that person when in pleasant conversation, it never really occurred to me that I had a story worth telling, or that I should use my blog to help spread a word that I already felt really needed to be spread. It took The Bullpen Gospels to cue me to the idea that I had something worth sharing. It also gave me an opportunity to use professional baseball, something I love, as an analogical backdrop.

  5. I do agree with all the ideas you have presented on your post. They’re really convincing and will definitely work. Still, the posts are very brief for novices. Could you please extend them a little from subsequent time? Thank you for the post.

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