I am beyond excited to introduce Horizons’s first guest post! Ryan Egan and I met when we worked together as Resident Assistants for Shreve Hall during the 2014-2015 school year at Purdue. Immediately, I was struck with Ryan’s even-keeled nature and ability to take the necessary time to think before answering a question. As someone who heavily relies on external processing, I was always intrigued and captivated with the ideas that would come from Ryan’s brain after he had a few minutes to consider an issue. Additionally, Ryan was one of the few people who I was close with at Purdue that went on to pursue a PhD and acted as role model in my mind as I went through my own application process. Currently, he is finishing his PhD in Clinical Psychology at Notre Dame in South Bend, IN and has written a post considering human psychology related to grad school and academia in the context of human evolution. I’ll let him take over now, please enjoy!
Homo sapiens goes to grad school
As I entered hour four of reading the same 25-page article, I was beginning to doubt my ability to succeed in academia pretty severely. Irrelevant things seemed to hold my attention better than the seminal paper on life stress and depression recurrence: World Cup scores, the latest imbroglio in Washington, the out-of-place elderly man who always sits at the same desk in the library, and the Wikipedia article about the climate of Russia I had opened in a new browser tab. Was there something wrong with my concentration? Did I have the discipline to conduct a literature search, one of the most basic tasks an academic should be able to do? Was I even interested in clinical psychology? The answers to these questions, I would later decide, were no, probably, and a resounding yes.
I’m convinced that everyone in graduate school, and probably in many other intellectually rigorous settings, experiences similar bouts of self-doubt and concern regularly. And if you don’t, fair reader, I’d love to pick your brain for research purposes. Most of us have some vague ideas about what hardships our friends and colleagues are dealing with, what thoughts are going through their heads as they work desperately on a paper the night before the deadline, but we rarely discuss them with each other. We have too few friends in graduate school, and what if they can’t relate? We mostly assume something is wrong with us, that we really have it worse than all those other people, who seem to be functioning just fine.
This isn’t pure conjecture on my end, nor am I overgeneralizing from my own limited experience. In clinical psychology programs, students complete clinical practica in which they assess and treat clients in a psychotherapy setting for about 14 hours each week (all under the close supervision of a licensed psychologist). My second-year clinical practicum took place at the University Counseling Center at the University of Notre Dame, where I led individual therapy with a caseload of 5-6 undergraduate clients, most of whom had no diagnosable mental disorders but were nonetheless struggling with subclinical anxiety and depression. Sitting with the third client of the day and hearing something like, “everyone else is just doing better than I am,” for the third time really reinforced a peculiar belief in me: we humans are all basically the same. We tend to focus on the differences between people and usually exaggerate them, but the students I saw seemed to share the same basic concerns: I’m a failure, I’m unlovable, and I’m worthless. If not one of these, they may have expressed dismay over the hopelessness of trying to change others or the impossibility of finding lasting happiness in the world. Clearly I have a non-representative sample of mostly white, middle-to-upper-class, Catholic students seeking counseling. Nonetheless, I would be surprised if the general population didn’t share the same self-doubting and occasionally hopeless mindset. For all its administration does to instill campus community and protect its students’ well-being, Notre Dame can still be a pretty academically competitive place for undergraduates and graduate students alike. Yet I have a hard time blaming academia or a particular campus culture for the apparently universal struggles of students. What I have to remind myself is that we’re still just animals, and in our white-collar world, we’re trying to do some things that must seem incredibly silly to the geese, dogs, and squirrels around campus.
Just as any others species, humans have been shaped by evolution. This includes our brains and hence our mental processes and behaviors. The genus Homo emerged almost 3 million years ago, and Homo sapiens have been around for about the last 10% of that span, 300,000 years. In contrast, civilization dawned around 12,000 years ago, meaning for the vast majority of our evolution, we were hunter-gatherers without much in the way of culture or language. The consequence of this is that we’ve had a relatively miniscule amount of time to adapt to the civilized world. Consider how unnatural it is to sit in one place and focus on the same task for more than 20 minutes. When our hunter-gatherer ancestors foraged, they walked from place to place, constantly interacting with their surroundings, shifting their attention from tree to bush to stream, and receiving rewards, mostly food. The main reward in academia is publishing a paper, and we’re lucky if this comes every few months after dozens of hours of meticulous thought about fine abstract points. By the time we finish writing our introduction sections, our ancestors would have assumed sustenance was not forthcoming and moved on to greener pastures. Add to this that early humans probably didn’t participate in very much analytical thought. The human brain was designed by evolution to do many things efficiently (e.g., trigger flight in response to a saber-toothed tiger, remember the location of the good water source, and even estimate the chances that a potential mate will bear children or invest in parenting); reading, writing, and lecturing are not among these things. It is tremendously difficult, and may even literally burn calories, to focus sustained attention on unnatural tasks for 8 hours every day. Although we don’t fully understand the functions of sleep, evidence has shown that our ability to accomplish these sorts of difficult analytical tasks is diminished without it. Modern hunter-gatherers appear not to sleep for more than about 5 hours a night (who can relate?), but they may not need the 7-9 hours experts recommend for the rest of us.
As I look around at the paradise my species has created ⸺ an air-conditioned, artificially illuminated computer lab free from disease-carrying insects and stocked with a vast supply of fresh, clean water available upon the press of a button ⸺ I shrink at the notion of living as our ancestors did, constantly facing death by starvation, infection, predation, or homicide (which I was surprised to learn was much more common back then). The fact remains, however, that none of us is well-suited to the work of an academic; we force ourselves to overcome our nature and gradually train ourselves to sit at a desk for hours on end. The optimistic psychologist or neuroscientist’s view is that the brain is highly plastic, molding to the environments we place ourselves in. No, we shouldn’t automatically be able to write a manuscript or conduct a literature review, but we can often make slight beneficial changes in our work environments, reward ourselves for effort even when the end product is imperfect, and allow ourselves a break multiple times per day. As a graduate student, I often have to remind myself that I’m still learning, not only about psychology, but also about myself and my human roots. I try to maintain confidence that good habits and faith in myself will translate into success in science despite my very human limitations. Thus, in the immortal words of fun., “It gets better.”
If you would like to contact Ryan directly, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.