The Grad School Gospels – Part 2: Passion, Fear and Indifference

bullpen_gospels_dirk_hayhurstIn The Grad School Gospels: On Professional Baseball, Academia, and My Shared Experience with Dirk Hayhurst, I juxtaposed Hayhurst‘s pro baseball journey – which he recounts in his first book, The Bullpen Gospels – with my journey through academic psychology.

Several factors conspired to make our situations alike. We both laid most of our eggs in one basket, deriving identity, strength, purpose, livelihood and self-esteem from a single source. We were accustomed to success, praise and the ability to live indefinitely off of success in our chosen field. For a while this worked out swimmingly. Intrinsic passion and well-fed appetites for success and praise made for well-oiled machines. To succeed, one needs drive. Few things are as motivating as having one’s livelihood, reason for living, identity and dignity all riding on one high risk, high reward gamble. But it wasn’t terrifying. It was mostly fun, because passion, success, praise and positive expectations ruled the day.

As we moved up our respective ladders things gradually changed. The warts in our skill sets and makeups became magnified and increasingly costly. Each rung was a few inches higher up and a bit more rickety than the one before it. The ground was getting further and further away. Fear came to overtake passion as the primary source of drive. In-so-doing, it turned love to hate, joy to suffering, and idealism to cynicism. As for performance, fear made for a stunningly potent anti-steroid that was both fast-acting and long-lasting.

As I slowly meander my way through The Bullpen Gospels I am observing Dirk go through a second major motivational transition. The first was the transition from passion and positive expectation to fear and desperation as primary driver. The second transition, which Dirk appears to be increasingly flirting with at my current stage in the book, is a move from panic-induced vigilance to indifference.

For me, indifference came upon a few realizations. The first was that I was not having fun anymore. The things I liked least went from being tedious to soul-sucking. The things I liked most went from joyous to a most depressing purgatory. Depressing precisely due to their neutrality. Secondly, whereas I may very well have succeeded eventually if I were still having fun and not overwhelmed by fear, I almost certainly would not under my abiding state of terror. The result of these two realizations was that it just wasn’t worth it anymore. I had long said that in choosing to pursue professorship, I was in many ways choosing certain corners of Cognitive Science over EVERYTHING else. I was no longer willing to accept this trade. The emotional sibling of this rational calculation was indifference. Hayhurst reflected on his own version of this phase shift as follows:

“I lost faith in the game, lost faith in myself, and felt chained to something I didn’t care about anymore. How it was all a sham.”

My experience at this point in “the process” fits perfectly with this quote. My idealism was crushed. My positive expectations for myself within the field – also crushed. I simultaneously became indifferent in someways while very jaded in others. I also felt that I needed out. Immediately.

Having decided that I needed to abandon what functioned as my personal religion, I could not bare to go through the motions any longer, even if there was a good reason to. And there was. A professor that I had always gotten along with and whom I had confided in, Arnold Glass, had invited me to join his lab. He had a partially-completed project that I could help him get up to code for publication. I could finish it in about a year and walk away with a shiny Masters of Science degree to show for my efforts. As much as I liked and enjoyed spending time with this prof, appreciated his offer and saw the value of having the Masters (as opposed to…nothing), I could not do it. My passion was gone and I needed to go with it.

I was also jaded. I was annoyed with myself for not realizing much earlier how little utility an education in academic psychology had outside of the university community. I was upset at the many dozens of professors, post-docs, graduate students and administrators I had come across during my time in Psychology that could have but did not warn me of this. I would eventually moonlight in occasional anti-academic psychology evangelism. But that came a bit later. At the moment, I was still at Rutgers and had some loose ends to tie up.

Never underestimate the power afforded by indifference…

I had recently had a bit of an email scuffle with my two supervisors. Scuffles sometimes occur when smart-assed first-year graduate students, no longer constrained by passion or fear, fail to defer sufficiently to their thoroughly well-decorated old school supervisors. Each approximately 70 years old and well-enshrined within the American Psychology Elite, it had probably been a long time since either of them had experienced a 24 year old academic minor leaguer trying to pass himself off as being their equal. Enter me.

I wasn’t looking for a fight. I wasn’t looking to insult anyone. I was simply interested in resolving a dispute in an honest, respectful manner between equals. So I walked into one of my supervisor’s offices. Sparing the particulars, the interaction went something like this:

Supervisor makes accusation or statement with an implied expectation of deference.

Student responds in a neutral fashion without deference or defacement providing an alternative interpretation.

Supervisor retorts with an annoyed tone and a stronger implied expectation of deference (and some accompanying shame would also be a good add-on if this kid knows what’s good for him)

Student responds neutrally once more. Admitting and neutrally apologizing for mistakes that he recognizes as mistakes, but insists upon a respectful disagreement with the rest.

Supervisor accuses student of being rude and disrespectful to her.

Student disagrees with the notion that he has been rude. Student states that it is not his intention to be rude, but to simply have an honest discussion between two well-meaning equals.

Supervisor insists that student is STILL being rude.

Student, with an air of confusion, asserts that nothing he has said has been rude. Student goes on to suggest that the only way what he said could have been interpreted as rude is if the hearer was expecting to be treated as a superior.

Supervisor defensively disagrees. Conversation proceeds with tension in-tow.

Supervisor accurately points out something the student failed to do, asking “Why didn’t you do X?”

Student responds neutrally (perhaps “robotically” would be a more apt term) “Because it didn’t occur to me to”. (I must admit that my tone was so matter-of-fact and unapologetic that it had to be taken as sarcasm. Had to.)

Supervisor yells “WHY NOT!?”

Student, with an unforgivably robotic neutrality, responds “I don’t know. It would have been *nice* if it occurred to me. But it didn’t.”

Supervisor blows up. I think this was around the time she proceeded to yell: “GET THE HELL OUT OF MY OFFICE!”

Student complies. Student proceeds to go into lab office (i.e., shared office of students who work with said professor/supervisor). Student takes care of personal errands for a few minutes until Supervisor storms in.

Supervisor chastises student in front of several other students – undergrads, grad students and a post-doc.

Student couldn’t possibly have responded more neutrally. Simply disagreeing with one of her premises or assumptions and pointing this out. This back and forth proceeds for a few minutes, as one fellow student after another unobtrusively leaves the room. Student remains largely neutral, though throwing in one or two sarcasm-laden remarks. The Supervisor insists on at least two more occasions that the student is being disrespectful and rude, and in one instance “a jerk”. The student responds by assuring his Supervisor that he does not wish to disrespect her, but to treat and be treated as an equal, and that any perceived rudeness is probably due to an expectation of inequality favouring her. The interaction ends with her kicking me out of her lab – the second eviction in under 30 minutes.

Oh. I forgot one part. When I first walked into my supervisor’s office I wished her a Happy Birthday. It was her birthday…

In The Bullpen Gospels, Hayhurst talks about how he and several other players figured they would respond if/when their coach cut them from the team, and in-so-doing put the final nail in the coffin of their career. The planned reactions tended to involve going out in loud, angry, obscenity-laden fires of glory. My way was a little different.

My walk home that day was possibly the most satisfying walk I’ve ever taken. I felt free. Empowered. As discussed in the first installment of The Grad School Gospels, the road ahead would eventually be consumed by an emotional black hole that nearly consumed me. It would take a few years before I really got things back together again. But in that moment I was thoroughly in charge.


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

The Grad School Gospels – Part 3: Academe Can’t Be Your Everything. In the third installment of The Grad School Gospels series, the critical necessity of intrinsic motivation and the ability to be at peace with the very real possibility of failure to make tenure are considered.


2 thoughts on “The Grad School Gospels – Part 2: Passion, Fear and Indifference

  1. I have just submitted my doctoral dissertation a week ago. I should be happy right? After 6 years and a couple of months I expected to be happy, but now I just feel hollow and actually indifferent towards the defense coming up in a couple of months. I am hoping this will change. I know that the main reason probably has to do with not knowing what to do next. I have looked towards this milestone for so long and honestly not really cared what came after. But I don’t like the whiteout I see beyond it, now that I have gotten so close. I will for once have to start thinking and actually make a decision about what to do with my life. I have been hiding in university/academia for too long… Thanks for your blog!! It helps me think about this a bit clearer.

  2. Hi Suzanne,

    Thanks for writing. It can be really tough. You’re definitely not alone.

    This is an issue I definitely feel very strongly about, for a number of reasons.

    What program are you in? Perhaps we can brainstorm ideas together on next steps…

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