What Will You Do With That?

Explaining your discipline.


November 10, 2016

I’m on a plane, a route I’m pretty familiar with. San Diego, where I’m a Cognitive Science PhD student, to San Antonio, where my husband is an Army Lieutenant. I hope to write 500 words of my dissertation while large portable electronics are allowed. I can’t focus because the man sitting next to me is staring at my screen. He’s probably mulling over the document’s opaque title: Can linguistic metaphors for time shape our mental representations? Finally, he asks: What do you do?

I’m working on my PhD in Cognitive Science.

Oh. I know this silence. The WTF-is-that silence. Do I engage, or do I turn back to my laptop and hope he does the same?

So what will you do with that? He asks. Damn. He went there.

Well… I’ve found that I don’t know yet confuses well-meaning strangers. But… aren’t you in your fourth year of graduate school?

I don’t know what I’ll do next because what I thought I wanted looks more complicated today than it did when I started grad school. I was 21 years old when I moved across the country to do a PhD. I was going to be a professor.

I love language and I love humans. My work in cognitive science allows -- actually requires -- me to spend time and energy understanding how the language the way we think. I often imagine the professor version of this life: leading seminars on topics like metaphor and thought for brilliant students to debate the importance of language for cognition; writing from my cluttered-yet-cozy office on an idyllic college campus; supervising motivated students running their own experiments, discovering the anxiety and fulfillment that accompany research. I’d converse with brilliant colleagues, I’d be blown away by students’ thoughtful essays, and I’d raise my currently non-existent kids in a vibrant college town.

I’ve been watching the faculty, sneaking glimpses into their lives of the mind. They have flexibility in their schedules. They exude excitement when they uncover something “interesting” in their research. They often teach hundreds of students simultaneously. No two work days are ever the same. College faculty are constantly learning; their job requires them to stay curious.

Images like these drew me to graduate school.

But I’ve also seen professors’ time and energy depleted by managing labs, as they agonize over lengthy grant proposals that are unlikely to be funded and pray that the lab will have money to pay the staff and grad students after buying the equipment they need. I’ve seen them design research programs to optimize their chances of flashy findings, even if that means forgoing research on topics they find most important. I’ve seen them bend over backwards to get their work into the most prestigious journals, adding each publication to their C.V. with the invisible disclaimer, I’m working hard! People respect my work! I’ve seen faculty mentor opinionated grad students who make all the rookie mistakes: losing data, running experiments with fatal flaws, or becoming unresponsive while dealing with their own personal struggles. I’ve also seen perfectionist professors deliver good-enough lectures because that’s all they have time and energy for, and there’s little reward for actually teaching well. And I’ve caught glimpses of the existential angst many faculty experience, because if they don’t achieve tenure, they’ll be an unemployed 40-year old with the largest possible academic blemish.

Images like these are not the ones that drew me to graduate school.  

So there are pros and cons, as with every career. One response might be to figure, I’ll just try it. If I really hate professor-dom, I’ll do something else. But there’s a daunting chorus that every PhD student constantly hears. There’s a PhD glut: tons of newly-minted PhDs seeking academic jobs. And there are not tons of available academic jobs. In fact, there are few. Many academics do a post-doc, extending their time in academic limbo, to keep grinding away at their research, in hopes that next year, or maybe the year after that, they’ll get a job. Maybe they’ll do a second post-doc if the job doesn’t materialize, and maybe even a third. Each time, they pack up and move, becoming acquainted with a new city and university. If they finally attain that hard-earned faculty job, their reward is 7 years of the grueling existence I’ve observed in many early career professors, the Chosen Ones.

If achieving an academic job requires so much strife, why do it? Many people with PhDs do opt for careers outside academia, but in many fields, PhD students are still expected to aspire to faculty jobs -- and specifically faculty jobs at top-tier (R1) research universities. Success is landing one of these ever-dwindling jobs. Success is becoming just like the professors who groomed you. (Is it really? I whisper to myself late at night when the door is locked and the lights are out.)

As a fourth year PhD student, I am nearing my own judgment day. I can play the academic game: ask my doctor to double my anxiety medication, run the experiments with the best chances of impressing those in Ivory Towers, assure my husband that someday, maybe by the time I’m 40, I’ll be able to think about having a child (what? Biology doesn’t work that way?), and keep the espresso coming. I can keep writing papers and giving lectures on the nature of mental representations to rooms of people skimming Facebook. I can keep wondering each night if I’m using my drive and the education I’ve been so fortunate to receive to make the world better, or if maybe I’m just using my skills and background to contribute to an echo chamber of privileged people who think about thinking in ways that are inaccessible to and irrelevant for the public.

Or I can say no thanks. I can disappoint my dissertation committee, people whom I respect deeply. I might drop off their radar the moment I utter words like liberal arts (because even though it’s another form of higher education, it’s still not the holy grail R1) or, god forbid, industry. In exchange, I might have a career that I believe is meaningful, time and energy for such frivolous activities as pleasure reading, and maybe I’ll even have a baby before my body decides it’s too late.

So, curious seat-mate, you want to know what I’ll do with my PhD? I don’t know… Yet.

Rose Hendricks is a PhD candidate in Cognitive Science at UC San Diego. She works on understanding how metaphors affect the way we perceive and reason about the world. She blogs at WhatsInABrain and tweets @RoHendricks.



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