The Grad School Gospels – Part 3: Academe Can’t Be Your Everything

bullpen_gospels_dirk_hayhurstThe Grad School Gospels is a series of posts inspired by Dirk Hayhurst‘s The Bullpen Gospels. In the Bullpen Gospels, Hayhurst tells stories from his struggle to self-actualize through professional baseball. Inspired by Hayhurst and the many commonalities I noticed between the minor league track to the Majors, as he described it, and my experience in the grad school track to cognitive science professorship, I began the Grad School Gospels series.

As with Part 2 – Passion, Fear and Indifference – the present installment was inspired by a set of quotes from Hayhurst. After a few disappointing seasons Dirk was having his best season in years. His pitching coach was curious as to how Dirk had made such a turn-around. Hayhurst ventured the following explanation (my edits bolded in parentheses):

“…I (formerly) put so much stock in what it meant to be a baseball player, I became afraid to fail at it. I’d be out of a job, and out of an identity. I thought I’d lose everything without it.”

“…I wasn’t able to get to this point (i.e., his recent success) until I was okay with the idea of baseball coming to an end.”

Analogous to Dirk, I put so much stock in what it meant to be an academic. I couldn’t afford to fail at it. If I did not eventually become a professor, I too would have lost everything. What is more, I didn’t love most of what I was doing. It was hard, frequently tedious work. I wasn’t having fun most of the time. And most of the fun (and motivation) I did experience came from fantasizing about the intended end result – tenured professorship – not the journey.

If I didn’t hit an academic homerun – if it turned out to be a long fly ball that would eventually find its way into a glove – all of my years of running around the bases would have been one, long, tiring waste. When I eventually came to realize that Cognitive Psychology Professor’s Field was not a hitter’s park, but rather the home of violently swirling winds that tended to keep balls in the air for a long time before ultimately letting many or most of of them fall in the park, I quickly realized that I was not meant to play there.

My painful insights came to be a few months into my first year of graduate school at Rutgers University (NJ, USA). If only, I had wished, I had come to see Academic Psychology for what it was sooner. Before I had began building an identity and intended life trajectory years prior as an undergraduate in Toronto. It could have been worse though. Many do not bail until much, much later in the game.

This is why The Grad School Gospels exist: to encourage those considering graduate school to do their research and soul-searching before making the leap.

Looking Before You Leap


In terms of doing one’s homework, important questions to seek answers for include:

  • What proportion of graduate students in a given field are successful in obtaining tenured professorships?
  • How long does it tend to take them to get to this goal (do they get there after a 4-6 year Masters/PhD program – highly unlikely – or do most who make it have to do at least one post-doctoral fellowship first)?
  • Has the professorial job market changed in recent years? Is it projected to change in the future? (If your field is not an economically productive one, there’s a good chance that it has experienced significant funding cuts in recent years, a trend that is not expected to be reversed any time soon. Quite the contrary, actually).
  • Are there desirable, realistic career options in the field outside of academics?

When researching these sorts of questions, don’t just ask your grad students, professors and institutional sources from within your field. Consult them, but also consult sources outside of the field – e.g., national labour statistics and people who left the field.

If the answers to these questions are not favourable, ask yourself one more set of questions:

  • Will you be able to handle not being one of The Chosen Ones?
  • If you spend the next 4 or 14 years grinding away in grad school, as a post-doc and (if you’re lucky) as a tenure-track professor, and still do not make tenure, will you regret having taken this path? Will you feel that you have wasted years of your life working your butt off for nothing? Economically, socially or personally, will you be “SCREWED”?

If your answer to these questions are not favourable, grad school in your discipline might not be a wise course for you. In fact, it could be an awful, awful choice. If you NEED to succeed in the tenure track gauntlet in order to justify the decision to go to grad school or, more importantly, to justify yourself, DON’T GO. Take some time off. Work for a while. Go teach English overseas (as someone who did this – a few years after the post grad school meltdown I described in Part 1 – I can vouch for it being a worthy life experience to consider). Take a year or three to allow yourself to discover a career path that is interesting and realistic for you. Work on developing sources of strength, social support and identity outside of work so that your work will be a part of your life and you, not the whole things.

I know you’re probably a high achiever who is used to rising to to the top…

So was I. Ditto Dirk Hayhurst. So are most – if not all – of the people you’re going to be competing against. As you move up the ladder, more and more of the people are going to be just like you. As you ascend the ladder, the distance between one rung and the next increases, as professors and the system expect more from you. Each rung is also smaller and more exclusive than the last. Not everyone who could fit on Rung 8 can fit on the one above it. The rungs get more slippery, too. And the more you climb – the more of yourself that you invest and the higher you get – the more you stand to lose if you stop or slip, and the bigger and more painful the fall. You may find yourself increasingly climbing not out of ambition or intrinsic motivation, but out of a fear of falling from an increasingly frightful height.

Life long high achievers often don’t have much experience with failure, or with not being at or near the head of the pack in the rate race of their age group. When I jumped off the ladder in 2007 it didn’t take too many months for me to eventually hit Rock Bottom.

Who SHOULD Go to Grad School?

The point of this post is not to terrorize every would-be future grad student out of grad school. As I said above, the point is to encourage prospective students to look before they leap. And, even when it comes to fields with a paucity of realistic academic and non-academic career opportunities – there are people who I would not dissuade from leaping (after they’ve looked, of course).

These people are aspiring graduate students who genuinely LOVE their subject. At the very minimum, they must like DOING research. They have an insatiable – ideally obsessive – curiosity about their subject matter. They won’t merely tolerate pouring over data to better understand it and hone their processes – they’ll insist on it. If they were unable to go to grad school, they would make reading and discussing their subject of interest one of their top extra-curricular pastimes. If they were able to go to grad school, spending several years working 50+ hour weeks for a salary of $20,000 would be viewed as a privilege.  Last, they could envision a future in which they did not get tenure and did not regret their choice to take this path.

In summary, they are driven primarily by intrinsic motivation, and they can afford to fail.

When Dirk Hayhurst made his turn around, he attributed it to becoming more at peace with the possibility of failure and being less tormented by a fear of losing everything. Earlier in the book, he spoke of the all but cliched sentiment that so many professional athletes have given voice to – the wish to be able to let go of all the worries and have fun playing their game.

It is a perverse irony of the universe that being driven primarily by intrinsic motivation – playing for the love of the game – and being at peace with the possibility of failure will often give a person a better chance at success (not to mention all of the spoils of victory).  A person of this make-up thinks about their work all the time. They pour over their data more keenly. They are willing – eager, even – to go the extra mile. And they are not distracted, depleted or derailed by fear.

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

The Grad School Gospels – Part 4: On Grad School Goggles and the Cult-Like Nature of Grad School. If you’re wondering how otherwise intelligent and curious people who regularly boast about their well-honed critical thinking and research skills could fall into what often amounts to a Grad School Trap, you’ll not want to miss this next installment of The Grad School Gospels.


100 Reasons NOT To Go To Graduate School

Leaving Academia/From Grad School to Happiness


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