The 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 fifth installment of The Grad School Gospels, I’ll be changing things up a bit. Firstly, this installment will not touch on professional baseball or Dirk Hayhurst’s experience therein. Secondly, the subject matter will not be limited to graduate students, but to university graduates in general.
Before I launch into this latest installment of doom and gloom…
I’d like to begin on a positive note and also clear up some possible (and totally understandable) misconceptions that I may have fostered in writing The Grad School gospels series.
Firstly, I absolutely loved my university experience. During Orientation/Frosh Week in first year at the University of Toronto, I remember being told several times “These will be the greatest years of your life”. This wasn’t empty platitude. The university years can be absolutely tremendous. The purpose of The Grad School Gospels series is not to slander the academic and university worlds. I hold both in the absolute highest esteem. The purpose is to address some systemic problems and common misperceptions.
Secondly, I’m not sitting here venting because I’m miserable. I was once miserable. Suicidally so, as I discussed in Part 1 of the series. The sorts of negative experiences and themes I discuss in this series do not reflect my current situation. They reflect my situation of a few years ago, which I’ve been fortunate enough to have rebounded from.
High-Maintenance Entitled Bastards Who Think They’re Too Good For Their Job
In Generation X: Tales From an Accelerated Culture, Douglas Coupland spoke of a frustrating experience many managers were having with entry-level employees in the 80s and 90s. The fresh meat wasn’t as willingly falling in line the way their parents did. This wasn’t the case for all entry-level jobs. It was primarily an issue in jobs that were higher in drudgery, lower in status, and for which the path to advancement to more interesting, higher status jobs offering greater potential for personal and career development was less direct, clear, and near.
This new fleet, in aggregate, wasn’t as motivated with respect to its work. One might have interpreted this increasingly common attitude as one of self-entitlement.
I’m too smart and too interesting a person. I’m too good for this job.
This wasn’t the experience of all managers (and entry-level workers). But it appeared to be much more common than it used to be. While we’re now 1+ generations beyond Generation X, in many ways we are carrying their torch forward.
You’re Damn Right We Feel Entitled!
I strongly suspect that many new entrants to the full-time work world over the past 25 years probably have walked in the doors with chips on their shoulders. These chips didn’t come from nowhere. They were put their by our elders. They were put their by our parents and our grand parents, our teachers and coaches, our celebrities and public figures, our politicians and the thousands of public service announcements we dully watched during commercial breaks.
We were told that we are as special and unique as snowflakes, and that education would make us bright and enable us to shine like the stars that we are. More concretely, we were told that if we study hard and do well in school, we can go to university. And if we do well at a good university the world will be our oyster. And if we only do moderately well, one would think that we could probably count on at least half an oyster…
So, we went to university. We spent 4-5 years (more if we went to grad school) learning from handsomely decorated professors from Harvard, McGill and Oxford. We spent years fostering our identities as independent adult individuals in esteemed intellectually elite communities housed within iconic, vaunted buildings. We spent years focused on intellectual matters of the highest order.
Some of us were learning mathematics so far beyond the Grade 12 calculus that made half of our classmates heads explode. Some of us were delving deeply into the cognitive, neurological, genetic and evolutionary underpinnings of human experience. Some of us were becoming deeply knowledgeable about the rich and detailed history of civilization. Some of us were becoming fluent in the stuff of the greatest, most profound philosophical questions of life. Some of us attended talks and rubbed elbows with internationally revered intellectual titans.
We learned. We learned how to learn. We learned how to think critically, to search for and value understanding. We lived in a microcosm in which knowledge, reading, good thinking and good writing were explicitly valued. It was within this world that we not only constructed adult identities for ourselves. It was within this world that we formed visions for our future.
What Did You Expect?
Given all of the above, please forgive the 23-year old new grad who appears to have grown listless following 5 months of repeatedly performing a set of tasks that is probably about 5-10 years away from being ready for computer automation. When an entire culture continually tells young people that they are special, that intellectual achievement and high academic performance are highly valued and dependable paths to success, don’t get so surprised when some of us believe it.
A meaningful chunk of young people have had high expectations because they were taught to have them. They were taught that if you do X, Y and Z, you will pave your way toward meaningful, fulfilling, respected and comfortably-paying careers. So they did X, Y and Z, making lots of sacrifices along the way. And now they are doing the same kind of job that a person with half the education they had would have gotten twenty years ago? Pardon the lack of spring in their step as they walk toward the copy machine.
It’s Not That They Don’t Want To Pay Their Dues
The last generation or two hasn’t mysteriously lacked a “paying-your-dues” gene. As far as many of them are probably concerned, they already have paid quite a few dues. They spent their childhood, adolescence and young adulthood working hard in school and on various ambitious extra-curriculars, making many sacrifices along the way, on the promise that it would pay off. Then, when they take their first steps into The Promised Land, they find a brave new world where people are tell them “You’re 23! You’re not special! You haven’t done anything!”.
It’s not that, in their early-mid twenties, they think they should be able to just rest on their laurels. If this 23-year old saw himself as being on a dependable path to a much more auspicious future, he would probably be willing to pay a few more dues. He’s not an unreasonable person. He’s not lazy. He’s just disillusioned by a series of new revelations: 1) He’s not special; 2) Contrary to what he’s always been told, he actually hasn’t really accomplished that much; 3) University degrees aren’t worth nearly as much as he had been led to expect; and most importantly 4) His current job may or may not pave the way to much advancement, and if it does, the end state will probably fall well short of what he had had in mind during his formative years.
The Educational Economy Has Changed
There was once a time when a university education could be counted on to pave the way for respectable, well-paying and somewhat meaningful employment. That was when most people couldn’t afford such education, thereby making it special. Now that – fortunately – one does not have to come form wealth to attend university, the supply of the degree has gone way up, resulting in its relative value going way down. Credential Inflation.
Over the past several years it appears that public awareness has increasingly caught up with this new economic reality. The 2008 economic crisis no doubt hastened the process. With this knowledge, presumably expectations of new grads are becoming more tempered.
The elders who pumped the youth’s minds full of big expectations weren’t trying to pave the way to disappointment. They were acting on the best of intentions and simply projecting onto the future the reality of their past. Likewise, when they see a high-maintenance 24-year old who appears to think that the world owes her something, it makes sense that they ‘re annoyed. Back in 1968 when they were entry-level employees they knew their place. What’s wrong with this kid? Well, she just found out that her place is about 50 miles south of where she had been told it was. If she is coming off as self-entitled, it might be because the field that she has been dutifully tilling for the past umpteen years is not yielding the promised fruits.
*(This reference works on at least two levels…)
In The Grad School Gospels – Part 6, I will offer my perspectives on how the incongruity between the structure and value systems of the public and university education systems, on the one hand, and the work world outside of the classroom, on the other, can leave students unprepared for the “real world” and set them up for personal crises of meaning and purpose in life.
Because the themes intended for Part 6 of The Grad School Gospels apply to university culture more broadly – e.g., the undergraduate level – I ended up doing the post outside of the Grad School Gospels series. I invite you to read A brave new world: Why moving beyond university can precipitate crisis.
I will also be doing a post in consideration of an apparently quite credible set of data which suggests that Psych PhDs are typically faring much better than one would expect from the tone of The Grad School Gospels. Stay tuned! [UPDATE#2: Here it is:)]