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What Do You Want?

Lessons learned about needs versus wants that were inspired by watching 90’s Sci-fi Shows.

November 26, 2018

John A. Vasquez is a Ph.D. candidate in Educational Administration at Michigan State University where he also works as a career consultant for graduate students and postdocs. You can find him on Twitter @maximsofjuan or at LinkedIn.

This is the second post in a series I am writing inspired by my love of a 90’s sci-fi show called Babylon 5, a science-fiction epic set onboard a space station in the year 2257. Through this series we are exploring five fundamental questions that are important in helping navigate both interstellar relationships and graduate school: Who are you? What do you want? Why are you here? Where are you going? And do you have anything worth living for?

We started by examining the Vorlon question, Who are you?, and are now moving onto the second question, commonly called the Shadow question: What do you want? To understand this question, it's important to know that both the Vorlons and the Shadows believe their role in the galaxy is to help guide “the younger races,” except the Shadows’ view of evolution is radically different from that of the Vorlons. In a nutshell, the Shadows believe in the “survival of the fittest” motto. They believe strength is derived through conflict and competition and that strength is the only measure of success. (Substitute the word “tenure” for the word “strength,” this sounds an awful lot like academia!)

“WHAT DO YOU WANT?” is a question we hear all the time in graduate school but it goes more like this: Are you going the faculty or non-faculty route? Are you going to do a quantitative or qualitative dissertation? Which faculty do you want on your committee? In graduate school, these are really challenging questions because, if we really think about it, it’s asking us to think about what we need (a small researchable topic that can be completed in a couple of months), as compared to what we think we need (a dissertation topic that is going to revolutionize the discipline); what we desire (a tenure-track faculty position at an R1 institution), as compared to what we need (a job that pays the bills and allows me to be with my family); and are these actually your desires (I don’t really want a tenure-track faculty position) or rather the desires foisted on you by others (but everyone says I’d make a really good faculty member). Confused? Here’s an example some of you might relate to:

I was recently at a national conference for my discipline and it seemed like every grad student and faculty member there was either looking for a faculty job, networking to find future faculty jobs, or celebrating the accomplishments of this or that distinguished faculty member. It was both overwhelming and exciting because I was meeting some pretty amazing researchers. I also had the opportunity to grab lunch with my advisor, who has been on sabbatical this semester. For the first time in a long time, I actually thought, “hmmm, becoming a faculty member might be a good option for me.” But then, when I looked at my in-box back home, reality set in. I had requests from several PIs for updates and reports on projects I was working on, undergrads from the leadership class I was teaching were emailing me about assignments, and I had deadlines for fellowship applications approaching, not to mention I had to schedule my proposal defense. And this was just the stuff due before Thanksgiving! It brought me back to “reality” really quick and had me wonder not only why I’m doing this, but what exactly did I want when I finished grad school?

And to be honest, as a fourth year, just like you, there are days, I’m not sure. Originally, I had quit my full-time (well-paying) job because I thought I wanted to develop my research skills and become an expert on something. The first two years of coursework were great: I learned a lot about research, learned how to become a better academic writer, and met some brilliant faculty (one of whom I somehow convinced to take me on as an advisee). However, things haven’t been going as well as I would want.

There’s a popular scene from Bablyon 5 in which one of the agents of the Shadows, Mr. Morden, ask one of the main characters “What Do You Want?” I picture myself in Ambassador Mollari’s place yelling: I want mentorship! I want proposal guidance! I want timely feedback on my writing! I want researchable dissertation questions! (BTW, for those of you who aren’t interested in science fiction, I have a scene from the Notebook you might be interested in.)

Sometimes I get what I want, most of the time it feels like I don’t. Part of it goes back to my own insecurities around being an older student and returning to the classroom. It’s also hard when you see other people moving forward with either defending their proposal, getting published, or *gasp* getting a faculty job! It’s especially during these moments that I think about going to back to work full-time—everyone else is succeeding but I am not. But even then, looking at job postings, I still remember to ask myself–What do I want in a job?

In truth, I came back to grad school because I want to be an expert, a leader; and an advocate for students. I want to make changes to policies, at an institutional level, and maybe at a state and federal level, especially for people like me. I want to change higher education for the better, which then makes me remember the real lesson from this question—if I want to advocate for others, first I need to want to advocate for myself!

Part of being successful in graduate school is learning how to deal with not only conflict and ambiguity but also loneliness and setbacks. The challenge is reminding myself that I can do this, I’ve survived other things just as challenging and that, most importantly, I need to ask for what I want. And if I don’t get it, to keep asking, keep looking for it without stopping. Believe me, it’s frustrating, but that’s how you get stronger (and finish) in grad school. It also helped talking with my advisor about my concerns, especially when I got his permission to “keep harassing” him until I get a response. He also said to stop comparing myself to others, which I knew already, but it’s awfully hard not to. I am in grad school, so comparing myself to others and falling into despair is how I spend my time waiting for feedback! Luckily in those moments, I have Youtube where I can spend some of that time listening to some of the most memorable monologues in the entire Babylon 5 series for graduate students, like the closing one from Season 3, "Za'ha'dum":

Z'ha'dum is the homeworld of the Shadows. No one leaves the same as they arrived. –Delenn

[Image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech via Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.]


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