The Grad School Gospels – Part 4: On Grad School Goggles and the Cult-Like Nature of Grad School

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.

In this, the fourth, installment of The Grad School Gospels, I speak to how I – a person who had long prided himself on his advanced critical thinking and research abilities – could have fallen into what, for many, amounts to a Grad School Trap.

Dear Prospective Graduate Student,

Princeton University Nassau Hall fallIf you’re like I was when I was an undergrad and new grad student, you may be wearing rose-coloured star-shaped lenses for grad school. You see the impressive, vaunted ivy-clad buildings that your professors occupy. You feel and see the respect they receive. The idea of being associated with and dedicating your life to the noble cause of expanding the Frontiers of Human Knowledge is almost mystical. You are about to enter what amounts to secular seminary school, where you will spend several years nobly serving as a dutiful missionary for the Church of The Enlightenment. In addition to the tremendous moral satisfaction that you will receive for serving the cause of Enlightenment – not to mention the pride you will feel by telling people that you are a PhD student at the prestigious University of X – you will one day be anointed a Priest of the One True Church. You will be a tenured professor at an esteemed university, a sacred local monument to and generator of the highest and noblest of all human striving: knowledge, democracy, reason, and progress. You will make a name for yourself studying and advancing knowledge on what you want, when you want, with whom you want. When you have an opinion on politics or society, people will listen because of your well-earned standing as Intellectual Titan. And lets not forget how proud Mother will be. Or how blown away the people who jerked you around in high school will be…

Understand that I am not trying to discredit or satirize the academic world here. These are all sentiments that I genuinely held for a time.

Suspension of Critical Thinking and Research Capacities

It would appear that my grad school goggles overwhelmed the same critical thinking and research abilities that I hoped would propel me to greatness. Somehow it never occurred to me to look into the career statistics of cognitive psychologists. Had I, I might have learned that for every tenured faculty member I was taught by, there were unseen ex-graduate students not living the dream. Unseen precisely because they hadn’t made it. I might have wondered if some of the non-tenured sessional instructors that I was occasionally (read: frequently) taught by were perhaps not simply PhDs who worked other jobs but just enjoyed teaching. (Who enjoys teaching intro statistics to 100 students, 96 of which are taking it purely out of painful obligation?). The far more likely explanation, it turns out, is that most of them were PhDs who – unable to get a tenured position – were struggling to feed their resumes (and their stomachs) with whatever academic table scraps and doggy bags they could get their hands on.

Perhaps I should not be quite so hard on myself for having been misled for so long. I had lived my entire life in a culture that unflinchingly endorsed more education as not just a good thing, but the single best, most responsible thing that ambitious forward thinking people could avail themselves of. From early childhood I was praised for studying hard, getting great marks, writing great essays, and for being a great student. I built a personal identity around all of this, an identity I implicitly assumed rested on a foundation that was unshakeable – after all, the entire culture was endorsing it.

Prior to post-secondary education, university was the Gold Standard. Given this, obtaining a PhD would have to be at least diamond, right? People call you “Doctor”!

The Profound Cultural Difference between the Academic and Non-Academic Work Worlds

As a student, your primary socioeconomic playground is school. When you’re in school – grade school, high school, university, professional or grad school – knowledge for its own sake and good writing are explicitly valued and rewarded.

In the working world outside of school, what is rewarded is what makes or saves money. If what you know, can do or can write does not prepare you to contribute more to an organization’s effectiveness than another applicant, an employer might politely nod and commend your diligence, intelligence and accomplishments, but that’ll be about all the reward you get.

The widespread cultural hoopla surrounding higher education. The reverence with which professors and the university establishment are held. The trappings of prestige – the lavish, classy architecture, the ceremonial robes, the fancy crests and Coats of Arms. All of these things and more can serve to pull the wool over the eyes of people who would ordinarily be much more intellectually savvy.

Taking Off My Grad School Goggles

In November 2006, just a few months into my first year of graduate school in the Cognitive Psychology MS/PhD program at Rutgers University, my delusions began to fall away. The insights – that the academic world is made up primarily of worker ants aspiring to become one of the comparatively few tenured alphas at the top, that I was far from assured induction into this elite club, and that I didn’t enjoy what I was doing nearly enough to make it worth doing without the big end-of-the-day payoff – actually came very quick. It only took two days from the first serious chink in the armour of my delusions until I decided that I would abandon the path (though I didn’t actually leave for a few more months, temporarily resolving to at least finish the masters first).

Over the next several months after leaving Rutgers, one by one more of the delusions and misapprehensions that I had harboured for years fell away. I came to realize that in the five years I spent in undergrad kicking ass in Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Toronto, and the 6-7 months I had spent doing mostly the same at Rutgers, I had acquired little in the way of valuable, marketable skills or knowledge.

Yes, I was – most of the time – a good researcher and critical thinker. And I could write well. But, every year universities pump out many thousands of people who can offer these same skills. I knew a great deal about Psychology and Cognitive Science, but who cares? I wasn’t trained to be a therapist. (Heck, at this point, I was the one who needed a therapist). My focus on linguistic cognition did not prepare me for any type of employment in audiology, speech, language or communications. Contrary to popular misconceptions about the field, studying Academic Psychology for more than half a decade will not make you better at understanding the minds of others in any useful sense. I had some background in research, but a big part of the reason for The Grad School Gospels is that there just aren’t that many jobs in cognitive and social sciences research, and the ones that are there tend not to be particularly well-paying (hirers don’t need to offer much money when they receive a hundred applications from Hon BSc grads every time they advertise a position).

Really, when it came right down to it, my accomplishments in Psychology and Cognitive Science just didn’t matter that much to the rest of the world. (Is this what a Scientologist feels like when they realize that their having reached OT8 really doesn’t matter to anyone but Scientologists?). When it comes to hiring, essentially no one but an academic would be particularly compelled by what I could offer them. And if academics were hiring for attractive positions, again, I wouldn’t be writing this.

Like Leaving a Cult

The more layers of delusion I managed to peel away, the more I came to feel that I hadn’t just left graduate school. In a way, I felt like I had left a cult. A fairly well respected cult, but a cult nonetheless.

Academic Psychology, like any other field, is a social community that has its own lingo, rituals and standard operating procedures, its revered figures, status symbols, status ladders, etc. What can make it cult-like is its insularity. When you’re a graduate student, a post-doc or a professor, you’re expected to dedicate yourself to your work in the field. You don’t DO academics. You BECOME an Academic.

If you’ve got work to do, telling your supervisor that you’ve already put in 37.5 hours this week is not a passable reason to stop for the weekend. In the best case scenario, you’ll get laughed at. Perhaps more likely, you will be sat down for what will be an important conversation about your priorities and commitment to your work, the lab and academics, and whether you truly want to make it. Until you get up over about 55 hours a week, you probably won’t even begin to receive sympathy – not that sympathy would necessarily translate into much of a break, anyway. (And the 30-minute talk about your priorities will not count toward your hours, by the way).

And when you relax, you’re often relaxing with other graduate students or non-grad students who  – also buying into the cultural lore of higher education – are impressed by what you’re doing. On those fleeting occasions when you are among skeptics of your chosen path, they are probably too polite to call your dreams into question. And what would be the point if they did, anyway? If you’re like I was, you’d probably think they just didn’t know what they were talking about. After all, YOU are the one who is doing “important work” (as deemed by the cult), YOU are the one who “gets” to go to school for “free” (putting in well over 40 hours a week toward your studies and work for Poverty Line wages), YOU are the one whose almost on a first-name basis with “famous people” (famous within the cult, anyway), and YOU will one day be a famous professor yourself (probably not). So they can have fun in the drudgery of their rat race lives, while you seek this more dignified, higher calling (which, for the next 10 years, will be made up largely of tedious data collection and analysis in windowless basement labs, fierce competition, and watching from a far as your friends from undergrad get paid more for doing less than you do).

If you eventually leave Academics, like people who’ve left a cult, you may well feel somewhat bewildered out in the non-university world that you hadn’t really lived in for quite some time. You may feel like you’ve been left behind a bit and have to catch up.

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

In the next edition of The Grad School Gospels, The Grad School Gospels – Part 5: The University Graduate Entitlement Complex, I talk about how some recent university grads walk into the work world with a chip on their shoulder – a chip placed there by their elders and cultural upbringing. When one considers the cultural narrative that recent generations have been raised on and the job markets many of them have entered, it shouldn’t be such a surprise that some of them occasionally come off as high-maintenance, self-entitled rookies who act like the world owes them something. These attitudes and expectations didn’t come out of nowhere.


100 Reasons NOT To Go To Graduate School

Leaving Academia/From Grad School to Happiness


7 thoughts on “The Grad School Gospels – Part 4: On Grad School Goggles and the Cult-Like Nature of Grad School

  1. A fine series of posts. Someone thinks like me. I achieved a PhD in cognitive psychology and loved (nearly) every minute of it. It all went downhill thereafter, not because I lost interest in the subject but because I enjoyed the data collection and the face to face contact with research participants far too much. My colleagues just couldn’t understand my wanting to do coal-face research. I worked with people who were world experts on the psychometrics and biochemistry of specific psychological conditions, who hadn’t actually met anyone who suffered from the condition for 20 years and in some cases, ever. It was as if once I had my PhD all of my life choices disappeared. I was expected to spend more and more time in front of a monitor, writing endless grant proposals, being co-opted onto every committee my superiors could think up (they say doing a PhD is about knowing more and more about less and less, but some of these committees consider less and less more often, in my experience) and hurtle full speed to a chair within 10 years. When I was happy enough to do research on someone else’s grant and (gasp!) teach. I lasted 12 years in all then got out. Good job too, because I still love the subject.

  2. Hi Gary,

    Where did you study and work?

    Your mentioning of being shoe-horned into committees reminds of a worry that I had – that I would be forced to be on journal article review committees. I’ve always been a dreadfully slow reader – this actually had as much as just about anything to do with my leaving grad school. My worry was that if I’m already working my life away just to stay on top of my obligatory responsibilities, how am I going to handle these sorts of extra-curricular “voluntary” activities?

    I’d be curious to hear more about your lived experience. You said you felt that once you had your PhD all of your life choices disappeared. I bet there’s a lot more to this than that you mentioned. I’m curious as to what this entailed, how you experienced it, etc.

  3. Hi Ron,
    I’m in the midst of reading through all of your posts on this subject. I’m in my 5th year of a social psych Phd, and in the past week the wool has fallen from my eyes. It’s liberating, but mostly bewildering. Lots of stuff to process. Reading your work is helping.

    I’ve got to say, I love what I do. I love the long hours of digging into a weird world of statistical relationships on weird topics that no one else has (bothered?) to look at before. But I had the tenure dream, and I don’t want to invest another decade into that risky proposition. So, I’m reorienting myself as we speak and figuring out what I need to do to find other meaningful work.

    It helps a lot to read your observations. I’m very grateful. You’re a damn good writer.


  4. Thank you so much, d.

    If you need a sounding board, let me know.

    Your genuinely enjoying the research part of it (as in, the largest part of it) is definitely a good thing. But it’s still a long shot…. Lots of hard work competing against lots of smart, hardworking people who are working for the same rare prize you are gunning for…

    I notice you posted anonymously. Is that out of concern of being “caught” by people in your faculty? I’ve observed several other grad students and academics do that for that reason. It’s funny because the likelihood is so low of being “caught” on a small blog, but still, many are still very nervous and play it safe. I would have to…

  5. Great blog! I’m almost done with my master degree in cognitive neuroscience. Until few months ago I was convinced to start a career in the university, but I changed my mind. The sad thing is that beside phd positions there are virtually no available work positions for cognitive scientist here in Italy. Ironically, phd seems to be the only career path you can choose. Surely you don’t get a lot of money, but it’s still better than nothing.
    I reckon that spending all my time and mental energy in such a risky career would be a waste though, that’s why I decided to shift to the computer science field.
    Luckily for me education is really cheap in Italy compared to the USA, so I’ve the chance to study again without ending up in debts.

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