Updated: 3 days ago
What Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Moana, and other hero's journeys taught me about graduate school and life.
A few years ago, some students asked me to give a talk about how to think about a career in academia. A corollary question is “how do I know if graduate school is right for me?” I told them to get lost. Here's what I meant...
To preface, graduate school can be stressful. As in life, there are rarely unmistakable guideposts that signal that you’re on the right track. Imbalances of power can be abused. Imposter syndrome is rife. There are genuine reasons to be mindful of students' (and faculty's) mental health.
But feeling lost shouldn’t be one of those problems. Feeling lost is something you can and should expect (not only in academia, but in many aspects of life), and I worry that students sometimes needlessly compound their stress because they perceive that there's something wrong when they feel adrift. Almost every academic (heck, every person) knows the feeling, but the longer you're at it the more you realize that feelings of lostness can (though not always) be a sign that something is actually going right.
Unlike undergrad, where guideposts to success are well marked (e.g., learn this material, pass that test, consume the knowledge laid out in your classes by your teachers), entering graduate school means jumping into the unknown, particularly if you are pursuing a PhD. You sign on for a journey to the frontier of knowledge and take it upon yourself to learn something that no one has known before.
You’ll almost certainly feel adrift, and how much you enjoy graduate school will depend partly on how comfortable you are with that feeling. Just a hunch, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that feeling is most uncomfortable for those who had excelled as undergrads (or anywhere else where paths to success had been well marked).
It’s easy to feel like you’ve lost your bearings. Crises of confidence abound. Your ideas aren’t just challenged, they’re rejected. You fail and then wrestle with envy towards your fellow students who seem to be getting things right. It feels lonely and like you’re burnt out with no way forward. You wonder why you’re putting yourself through this and dream about giving up.
But... and I think this is important... things look different if you can get yourself to zoom out for a wider perspective. Re-imagine “the abyss” – the feeling of lostness – as one of the most important installments of your own “Hero’s Journey”.
The Hero's Journey
The “Hero’s Journey” is a story structure described by famed mythologist Joseph Campbell. In this underlying narrative, the hero begins in familiar territory before feeling a tug to adventure. They might initially resist, but fate and curiosity conspire to pull them to the threshold between what is known and what is unknown. Crossing the threshold brings confrontation with challenges and temptations. But the hero is not alone: they often have faithful companions and mentors. Things are hard but exciting, and the future looks bright.
But suddenly, “The Abyss” rears its head. Maybe the mentor disappears or disappoints. Or friends fall by the wayside. Or the hero fails spectacularly. Suddenly, the hero is adrift and seemingly down for the count. All seems lost.
Then, slowly, the hero dusts him- or herself off and begins to MacGyver and claw their way towards the light. In doing so, they master what had seemed insurmountable. They return home a changed person, perhaps now ready to mentor new adventurers on their journeys. Importantly, this transformation to mastery could not have happened without the abyss, without getting lost. It's the crucible in which the hero (small ‘h’) of the story discovers themselves and becomes the Hero.
Many modern and ancient stories follow this structure… Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Moana. Even the biblical story of Moses contains several elements.
In times of trouble, I’ve often found it useful to mentally transpose the “Hero’s Journey” onto my own path, situating my current strife between my preceding trajectory and what I imagine to lie around the bend. When you’re in the abyss, the light at the end is hard to see, but mentally zooming out and forcing the abyss into context shows why it can mean that you’re on the right track.
You might have already noticed the parallels to graduate school, where you find mentors in your advisor, other faculty, and senior lab members. Fellow students are your allies (or, hopefully rarely, your adversaries). Rejections, failures, self-doubt, and paralyzing uncertainty form the bedrock of your own personal abyss. Mentors can give advice, open opportunities, & help connect the dots, but ultimately you own this abyss. You stepped into the unknown when you crossed the threshold. This wild, darkened corner of potential knowledge is yours to tame and illuminate. That’s not a bad thing.
In the face of frustration and feelings of defeat, there’s a temptation to lean heavily on mentors and allies in the hope that they will pull you where you need to go, but if you overrely on them you won’t have developed the vision you need to achieve intellectual independence. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda was full of advice, but there’s a reason he couldn’t go into that Dagobah “force cave” with Luke. To reach his potential, Luke had to undergo his own personal struggle, master his own responses, and confront his own limitations. To me, it brings to mind a classic study that shows the importance of walking your own path: 2 kittens that had been raised in the dark were placed in an illuminated circular chamber, where they received visual stimulation for the first time. One walked in circles around the chamber while yoked to a gondola that carried the other. Both got the same visual experience, but only the kitten who walked the path developed normal vision. The analogy may be heavy handed, but I think it works.
This is what I meant when I told the students to “get lost”... Allow yourself to feel adrift and bewildered; recognize that these feelings are the roots of wonder and awe; indulge in them knowing that they are crucial growing pains on the road to independence.
After I gave my talk, some of the students told me that the perspective helped them view their own abyss more positively. But there’s a part of the Hero's Journey analogy that never sat right with me.
It's not a circle, it's a corkscrew
It’s this: the Hero's Journey suggests that once the protagonist has passed through the abyss, they’ve transformed into a master. In Star Wars terms, they entered the abyss as a Luke and emerged as a Yoda. But that’s not the way it works. In academia and in life, there's never just one abyss.
If you treat it that way, framing one’s experience in terms of the Hero’s Journey has the potential to be deflating in the end. We would be rightly disappointed if we expected to reach mastery after one pass through the abyss. And the analogy risks casting mentors as fully actualized masters themselves, ready with answers and a map to show the way. I’d argue that this mischaracterizes the mentor-advisee relationship in graduate school and sets up misleading expectations. Because here's the thing: from a student's perspective, it may look like advisors and mentors have reached an endpoint on the road to mastery and understanding, where they can hand down wisdom as if from high Olympus. But in truth they are just cats like you, circling the chamber with a bit more of a head start. That said, they're not just retreading the same territory each time they come around. Understanding how mentors' paths relate to yours might be useful for gaining perspective on where you are in the cycle yourself, but what's the best way to represent it?
Not too long ago, University of Virginia psychologist Jim Coan drew and tweeted (via his Circle of Willis podcast) a really cool doodle about the path to knowledge that I think captures what was missing from my Hero’s Journey analogy.
The doodle flips the Hero’s Journey on its side, taking into account that life -- and the quest for understanding -- is a continual process of cycling between the known and unknown, with each revolution bringing new feelings of bewilderment.
But if the lostness and bewilderment return time & again, what do you gain with each loop around? In addition to greater understanding and deeper knowledge, I’d like to think you gain the confidence that comes with knowing that you’ve been through this before. That being lost doesn’t mean all is lost.
The lostness loses its bleakness. Whereas once it had been perceived as constituting a dark, oppressive abyss, with each revolution comes greater confidence that the bewilderment signals potentially exciting insights around the bend. (And if such insights don't eventuate this time, well, you'll survive to have another shot the next time around.) Hopefully, with each revolution you become a little more adept at finding your way.
It also means that because advisor and advisee leap into the unknown together, there are likely to be times when both are lost for answers, searching for understanding of where their work has taken them. If your advisor seems sanguine in the face of bewilderment, it may simply be because they’ve been adrift before and have seen that it’s not as bad as it seems. It may also mean that they have faith in you.
I think Jim Coan's corkscrew path also illustrates a reassuring truth. When we view our intellectual, artistic, or personal heroes from afar, it may seem like there’s no path that leads from where we are to where they are. It seems like there’s no ladder we could possibly climb that would bring us close to their level of mastery. But maybe that’s because the path we need to follow twists sideways and around rather than heading straight up. Intelligence, motivation, curiosity, and resilience are all important, but I think it's equally important to be willing to venture down blind alleys, feel lost, and draw your own map.
So is graduate school right for you? There’s no one right answer, but it’s worth thinking about whether you are likely to thrive on the feelings of lostness that come with it. My aim is not to minimize the many other reasons that graduate school can be stressful, but when it comes to feeling lost, what I've tried to do here is to at least let you know that you should expect it and that it's not a bad thing. It can be a great thing.
I loved graduate school. But then, I always liked the thrill of trying to get myself lost when visiting a new city to see if I could find my way back. If you see the appeal in that, then graduate school might be a natural fit for you.
Of course, programs and advisors vary. Check with them about how they monitor student progress. Find out how much lostness your advisor thinks is too much or too long, and keep the channels of communication open. You are the ultimate arbiter of what will work for you. This is, after all, your story, and finding the right match will make a big difference in your happiness.
So, go on now. Get off my lawn. Get lost.
Steve is a Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, Australia, and is on Twitter at @SBMost.
Many thanks for feedback on earlier drafts of this post from Jim Coan, Amy Cooter, Kim Curby, Briana Kennedy, Sandersan Onie, and Ivy Shih.