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You Only Hate Grad School Because You Think You're Supposed To

They tell you it's supposed to be bleak, so it is—but what if you enrolled without any expectations?
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It’s almost impossible to miss. Somuchgloomhasbeencastupongraduateschool lately—and much of it is rooted in very real, very rational concerns about the bleak state of the academic job market. But I want to approach the topic of graduate school not from the cost-benefit standpoint of whether or not it will lead to academic employment. I don’t think it is possible to formulate any sort of useful blanket opinions on graduate school that do not take into account discipline-, institution-, and person-specific idiosyncrasies. However, I do feel capable of conducting a thought experiment on some highly generalizable beliefs about the “grad school experience.”

From age six to about age 12, I enjoyed few events more than going to the dentist. Dr. Hurwitz had been our family dentist since seeing my mother as a child. His hygienist, Bambi, was a kind woman. Dr. Hurwitz kept small parrots as pets in his office. His waiting room had all sorts of great Berenstein Bears books and colorful puzzles. When Dr. Hurwitz elevated the dentist’s chair, it felt like lifting off into the stratosphere, and at the chair’s peak height, I could look over all of downtown Minneapolis. The toothpaste he used tasted like mint candy. I always received a small toy at the end of my appointment, as well as bubblegum and a new toothbrush. It was not until I talked to enough of my schoolmates and saw enough mentions of dental pain on TV that I realized most people saw going to the dentist as an awful experience. Even stranger, the more I was exposed to these views, the more I began dreading the dentist—despite being cavity free. Had I never known that the dentist was supposed to be dreadful, I would have continued in ignorance, enjoying the yearly visits. Yet today, I still despise dental visits, despite fond memories of Dr. Hurwitz.

I assumed graduate school was supposed to be gratifying and therefore it largely became so. I was unaware that graduate school was supposed to be a dreary pool of loathing, and therefore it was not.

I find this odd because, as a social psychologist, I am entirely aware of the self-fulfilling prophecy that explains my attitude shift, yet I cannot avoid succumbing to it. One of the few psychological aphorisms that both sounds like something out of a religious pamphlet left on the subway and has strong empirical backing is that “expectations create reality.” We know this from classic studies in which teachers who expect students to fail elicit failure from those students, interviewers who expect poor performance from racial minorities elicit poor interviews from those candidates, and cancer patients who expect their health to improve see improved immune system functioning. In my case, once I became aware of the generally held expectation that dental trips should cause suffering, these trips indeed became a source of suffering—even though all of my previous experiences with the dentist had been enjoyable.

But back to the grad school experience. Imagine: nobody ever told you that graduate school was supposed to be some dark, miserable cavern. Would it really feel that way? Imagine that you had no familiarity with the graduate-student stereotype of the downtrodden slave-wage laborer, coffee-shop-dwelling, scraggly, underslept, constantly-beat-down-by-some-faceless-advisor, and always searching for the next free slice of pizza at the colloquium. Imagine that there were no websites like phdcomics and whatshouldwecallgradschool. These sites offer often true, humorous, and rapidly circulating content on the grad school experience, but they exacerbate and perpetuate the stereotype of the miserable graduate student, offering an even bleaker view of undergraduates, mentors, and postdocs. This sort of negativity has run rampant, replacing a more nuanced, descriptive view of graduate school (tough but rewarding) with a prescriptive expectation that grad school is misery. And this expectation has certainly become reality.

Imagine that instead of being exposed to the miserable stereotype, you were told about the wonderful flexibility of the academic schedule, the constant intellectual stimulation, the ability to concentrate on one topic for years at a time, and the ostensible legitimacy you achieve in the eyes of grandparents everywhere. Imagine that all of the tribulations of academia were reduced to the excellent advice one of my mentors gave me: to see these negatives merely as inherent symptoms of graduate school. He warned that “our business” is a business of constant rejection. Journals reject papers, conferences reject symposia, funding agencies reject grant applications, colleagues and mentors reject ideas, and research projects fail. Therefore, he added, it is important to love what you do, because you will get very little affirmation from others. This advice illustrates another well-known psychological phenomenon, the distinction between extrinsic (external) and intrinsic (personal) motivation. More specifically, it’s the difference between what psychologist Carol Dweck has called performance goals and learning goals. Performance goals are goals oriented toward seeking positive evaluations and avoiding negative ones, but learning goals focus on a desire for mastery and understanding of new skills. They are the types of goals that generate long-term success in our life pursuits.

As for the results of the thought experiment, I actually have a small sample (N=1) who has completed this experiment in real life. I naively entered graduate school the same way I entered Dr. Hurwitz’s office, with overwhelmingly positive expectations. I applied to graduate school right out of college, where my primary exposure to graduate students were labmates and instructors, five of them in particular—Joe Cesario, Dan Molden, Ezequiel Morsella, Heidi Grant Halvorson, and Jason Plaks—who seemed happy, interested, and interesting, and all of whom maintain successful careers today. I knew nothing else. And once I arrived at the University of Chicago, the place that champions the slogan, “Where Fun Goes to Die,” my positive expectations of graduate school were constantly challenged by daily realities—the rejections my mentor warned I would face. Yet these expectations beat out the culture of gloom that began to swallow up the graduate school experience as the recession hit and the academic jobs began drying up.

And my tale is not one of persistence, or perseverance in the face of adversity. It is a simple story about self-fulfilling prophecies. I assumed graduate school was supposed to be gratifying and therefore it largely became so. I was unaware that graduate school was supposed to be a dreary pool of loathing, and therefore it was not. Self-fulfilling prophecies succeed psychologically because our expectations cause us to not only seek out information consistent with those expectations—because we like to be right—but also to see the world in a way that is consistent with our prior assumptions. Perhaps, when the rubble clears from the academic job crisis, a new generation of scholars—fueled by nothing but this intrinsic interest in their studies (because extrinsic rewards are no longer in the equation)—will generate positive expectations that will spur a new cycle. If nothing more, I hope people get a chance to experience the occasional miseries of papers declined, ideas criticized, and grants rejected directly, without their expectations guiding them toward misery first.