The Pursuit of Graduate School:
Vanity or Necessity?
Carolyn Cowl-Witherspoon, Walden University (MN)
For most of my life, I have felt suction cupped in place. It is a curious feeling because, although there is often a perceived sense of movement, no actual forward momentum occurs. It was during a moment of visceral awareness that I recognized my lack of progressive movement, and that realization propelled me to return to graduate school 30 years after completing my undergraduate degree. Making the decision to return to graduate school was fairly easy, but actually returning to graduate school has been somewhat more challenging. My young brain was a marvel, quick and curious, effortlessly connecting disparate chunks of knowledge into a seamless unification of understanding and content mastery. When I was awarded my bachelors degree, I felt no glowing sense of pride or feeling of accomplishment because it had taken no appreciable effort to achieve it. It felt more like successfully completing the automatic process of a breathing cycle: inhalation, exhalation, inhalation, exhalation. Natural.
Partnered with my older brain, graduate school and the processes of learning are both vaguely familiar and exhilarating, reminiscent of the innate cycles of my breathing, except paced to a roller coaster’s rhythm. From my very first glance at my very first syllabus in my very first graduate course, I was convinced that I had waited far too long to return to school. I was concerned that the academic burdens of graduate school might simply overwhelm my less-elastic brain, prohibiting me from learning anything. However, I was relieved to recognize that although my brain functions differently now, it still functions. Gone are the heady abilities of my youth when I could glance quickly at a textbook and be able to instantly recall its contents days later. Instead, that has been replaced by a steady consistency of reading and review, allowing me to acquire new knowledge through a cycle of gentle repetition.
And so I made it through my first course, and then my second, and then the next. In fact, it began to feel almost effortless, just like breathing in and out. It was automatic, natural. The final course in my Masters program was the subject of one of my areas of specialty, and it was especially gratifying to be able to finish my graduate degree by taking a course that I really enjoyed. As I moved through that last course and the quarter unwound with one week melting into the next, I began to wonder how it would feel when I had finally achieved my initial objective of earning a Masters degree. And more importantly, would it represent enough tangible forward movement for me to perceive that I had finally loosened and lifted the edges of my metaphorical suction cup. When I turned in my last assignment and realized that I had successfully completed graduate school after a 30 year hiatus from the educational process, I definitely, finally felt something about my academic achievement: pride, and it felt very empowering and affirming. I recognized that I had truly earned this degree through indefatigable determination, intellectual curiosity, and very hard work.
So, now what? My initial goal was successfully realized. I have completed my Masters degree, and it has been an incredibly positive and productive experience. However, have I learned enough and will it be enough, personally and professionally, for me to actually move forward (Murdoch, 2016)? My graduate program has taught me to think scientifically (Dane, Baer, Pratt, & Oldham, 2011; Kuhn, Ramsey, & Arvidsson, 2015; Pinnow, 2016), so I began to assess the logic of academic continuation from a scientific perspective. I am, after all, an older learner, and I have often wondered if it would be financially advisable or professionally viable to continue moving forward in pursuit of a PhD. I have also considered that, within the field of psychology, there is often a perceived value difference in academic credibility between a Masters and a PhD. Therefore, perhaps my career opportunities and professional options would be enhanced if I continue to move forward. Most notably, I have asked myself if the desire that compels me to consider this additional academic commitment and resulting financial burden are motivated by personal vanity or justifiably warranted because of professional necessity and expediency.
I have vacillated daily between resolving to stop and being determined to continue; but in the end, my decision was predicated upon the most unexpected catalyst. I had turned in a project in my last course, and my professor called me to say that it had far exceeded the efforts of my classmates. In fact, she told me that it had far exceeded the efforts of the doctoral students, and she wanted my permission to use my project as an exemplary for current and future students in the course. She also asked me if I planned to continue in my studies, indicating that it would be unfortunate if I chose to stop, because she believes that I understand the material in an exceptional way. It was at that precise moment that I decided to continue, unencumbered by reservations.
In reflection, maybe I felt suction cupped in place for so long because I was simply waiting for that catalytic moment, for someone who I respect to remind me that the forward momentum in our academic and professional lives really is just like breathing in and out. It can be automatic, and effortless, and natural. It is something that we just do. Upon reflection, I often wonder if these feelings are simply unique to me, or if they are shared by my colleagues, mentors, and classmates. Do we all yearn for more, and in our yearning, do we wait for that universalized catalytic moment that ultimately propels us forward? What do you think?
Conduct a Lab Experiment
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Dane, E., Baer, M., Pratt, M. G., & Oldham, G. R. (2011). Rational versus intuitive problem solving: How thinking 'off the beaten path' can stimulate creativity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 5, 3–12. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0017698
Kuhn, D., Ramsey, S., & Arvidsson, T. S. (2015). Developing multivariable thinkers. Cognitive Development, 35, 92–110. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogdev.2014.11.003
Murdoch, D. D. (2016). Psychological literacy: Proceed with caution, construction ahead. Dove Press, 9, 189–199. https://doi.org/10.2147/PRBM.S88646
Pinnow, E. (2016). Decoding the disciplines: An approach to scientific thinking. Psychology Learning and Teaching, 15, 94–101. http://doi.org/10.1177/1475725716637484