December 2, 2020

Only you can prevent academic fires!


In writing these blogs I start my outlines with dictionary definitions. Through the simple and economical language, the concepts we discuss in these blogs gain clarity. This clarity allows me to convey the most relevant experiences in my own graduate journey, and the research done on similar topics. In this series of blogs, choosing the discussion topics involved reading older research, searching through abstracts of current research, and even participating in the occasional philosophical debate with my colleagues. Imagine my surprise when the perfect example is given *while starting this blog*!

A copy of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary sits within arm’s reach of my desk, and many times becomes my go-to reference for this sort of thing. In my edition of Merriam-Webster, the entry on frustration begins:

Frustration (n):

a) the state or an instance of being frustrated.

Thank you tome of words, I came here for definitions, not examples. Fortunately the entry continued:

Frustration (n):

a) the state or an instance of being frustrated.

b) a deep chronic sense or state of insecurity and dissatisfaction arising
from unresolved problems or unfulfilled needs.

In clarify the meaning of frustration, I had become a bit frustrated. Asking any member of academia to list off their daily frustrations brings up similar stories. Professors have meetings that could have been emails. Graduate students search library shelves for misfiled books. Undergraduate students miss the bus and must skip lunch to make their exam. Frustration, especially in academic contexts, becomes a constant companion.

In a recent lecture I attended, the speaker made very clear to his audience (mostly young entrepreneurs), “…pressure is a privilege. Your skills brought you to this point, you have earned your place here, and the value of your skills have given you options.” His emphasis in this example was the value proposition present in high-pressure situations. While he was speaking on startup capital for new businesses, this is also true with academic frustrations.

In a previous blog discussing failure, we reflected on the relationship between success and failure. In a previous blog discussing fear, we reflected on the relationship between expertise and inaccurate self-assessment (i.e., imposter syndrome). In this blog I want to reflect on the relationship between frustration and motivation. Turning back to Merriam-Webster, the definition of motivation reads:

Motivation (n):

a) [frustrating definition]

b) [frustrating definition]

c) a motivating force, stimulus, or influence

When you set an academic goal, whether the goal is short-term (“Please let me pass this test!”) or long-term (“Remember freshmen, D is for diploma and C is for credit in your major!”), you have something motivating you to set that goal. When frustration is added, you may ask yourself, “Am I motivated enough to deal with this? Is my goal worth finding stronger motivation?” Sometimes the answer is “no.”

This is not always a bad thing. I have been fortunate when working with my colleagues to meet several who chose not to continue as researchers. Some frustration in their research made them question their motivation, and in doing so realized their passions lie elsewhere. In contrast, I have also worked alongside colleagues who faced frustration and used that frustration to fuel innovative new solutions in research; frustration became their motivation.

Anyone with a scrape, cut, bruise, or other trophy of elementary school playground antics knows the immense value of a school nurse. Hospitals worldwide would grind to a halt without the hard work of their nursing staffs. Nurses are a valuable asset in any health related industry. Unfortunately, the valuable training received in nursing programs does not necessarily translate to employment opportunities following graduation.

One study at the University of Birmingham, England, followed graduates of a nascent nursing program after graduation. This program was notable for the inclusion of health-related academic research, nursing theory, and inclusion of academic classes on specialized medical fields. In creating stronger classroom foundations for later specialization, the program hoped to produce reflective, competent, safe nurse-practitioners for roles in multidisciplinary health teams. In other words, this program wanted to increase the value of a nursing degree for future graduates. But did it work?

Students’ comments emphasized an increase in security regarding nursing decisions, and resulting satisfaction in caring for their patients, as the primary benefits of this nursing program. It seems, on the surface, the frustrations within the program would be justified by these results. On the other hand, student comments also emphasized the unfulfilled need for practical application of skills during schooling. In addition, negative perception of research based nursing degrees led to underutilization once employed despite a national shortage of qualified nurses. But what does this have to do with motivation? I need motivation now, not after the fact! Frustrating, I know.

I chose this research on nursing for the relationship between the graduates and continued frustrations after graduation. These are successful individuals who have persevered in spite of academic fears. Of the 43 respondents in the study, 42 registered adult nurses were practicing in medical fields. Wait, what about that last one? What happened to that last one? I’m glad you asked. This final respondent was not practicing and had not since graduation, choosing instead to pursue a career as a clinical audit officer within a UK hospital. So why did they leave nursing for a ‘medically related’ field?

This is, in my opinion, the greatest part of the success story. The goal of the nursing program studied was to “increase the value” of a nursing degree. I would argue they succeeded. A frustrated graduate, years in training wasted, and that nagging voice in the mind, “now what?” Great recipe for a soap opera. The 43rd graduate, however, took their nursing degree and found a new application for that knowledge. Their only motivation may have been to pay that month’s rent, but it worked. Some frustration in their life made them question their motivation to continue as a registered nurse, and in doing so, they realized that their degree had value outside of registered nursing. In addition, that same frustration fueled an innovative new career choice utilizing their knowledge of adult nursing. Frustration rarely makes an appointment, but approaching frustration can be easier when this is taken into account.

As a bright eyed (read: naïve) first year graduate student, I entered a design based architectural program. Thinking my skills in set and lighting design would provide the foundation of an architecture degree, I felt like this was the ‘right’ choice for me. Co-incidentally, it was easier to gain admission as a non-architecture undergrad than to fight the actual undergrads from the school of architecture. We’ll come back to that. The career-change program was made up of around a dozen of us from varying backgrounds. Our skills and knowledge sets were wildly disparate and we had one year to become on par with an undergraduate degree in architecture. If successful, we’d move into the graduate program and continue as Masters Students. As I approached the end of this year-long architect boot camp, my projects were best described as, “mediocre.” Feeling that I wasn’t making enough progress, I contacted the head of the program (who was also teaching the final class at that time). The conversation in his office was not a positive experience. In brief, he was glad I noticed the lack of development in my designs, and he didn’t feel like completing the career change program would end successfully. Four days later my colleagues and I presented our final designs for the program. I knew at the time that I would not be moving into the full Master’s program with them, and was doing the presentation for myself and my pride.

Then began a little dance everyone does at some point in graduate school; the academic fire shuffle. My grades were not horrible, but my designs were not great. I still had my passion for architecture, but no idea how to utilize that passion. It was the academic equivalent of, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” I made appointments with a dozen different professors looking for solutions. I ended up in a similar program within the same college, one based on research and writing rather than design. I found myself at home, completing my Masters of Science degree in Architecture. But what motivations did I use to push through those frustrating extra years of graduate school?

The most notable motivations I used to push through the harder moments have been mentioned in the previous blogs of failure and fear. To those motivations I can only add one to help me survive the transition between programs. Academics are stubborn creatures and graduate students lack perspective under constant stress, a poor combination. Stubbornness (or as my former classmates called it, spite) became an emotional motivation for me. I felt, and still do feel, that the best form of revenge is success. In this case, some of our design professors encouraged this motivation directly. Their comments towards my colleagues and myself led to significant frustration, and never offered any resolution to this frustration other than, “that’s not enough” or, “I need more.” In contrast, many of our favorite design professors pointed out architects with similar design theories to each student, and offered their knowledge of architectural resources to nurture the design theory each student was demonstrating. With the closeness of graduate studios sharing the same class schedule, we all shared the frustrations and successes.

After transferring to my second program, finding the latter professors to be the rule rather than the exception, I found motivation to beat the frustration of changing programs.

“I will finish this program (done), earn my degree (check), and move on to my future career in architecture (working on it), just to prove you wrong (previous program).”

While this was not my first, nor would it be my last experience with frustration in beginning my graduate school journey, this was a frustration I still reflect on. I used the reasons for my frustration (as I saw them) as motivation to complete graduate school through a program change. Is this the best motivation to offer? Probably not, but it worked at the time. Then the next frustration hit, and I had to examine my motivation again. Wash, rinse, repeat.

I can confidently say that motivation changed over time, and changed a project of spite back to a passion project. Each frustration, each test of my motivation, each examination of my goal, something evolved. Fortunately I maintained the closeness with my previous studio colleagues as well as developing new relationships within my new program. The differences in frustrations were fascinating, but so were the shared frustrations. Everyone experienced frustration, everyone questioned their motivation, and everyone made a decision.

I had colleagues make the decision to transfer to other programs while others took a sabbatical and didn’t resume their studies. They all made tough decisions alongside other graduate students, based on their motivations and goals. In contrast, I also have a colleague who suffered health issues, costing a full year of additional graduate classes. She finished her degree and is a licensed architect. Another pushed himself to the point of exhaustion, knowing he had a graduation deadline dictated by becoming a first time parent. Likewise he finished, and has his license.

In my opinion, all of these are success stories. Motivation comes in many forms, you have to examine your own, and make your own decision. Don’t be afraid of making that decision, whatever it ends up being, because as that lecturer pointed out:

"Your skills brought you to this point,” including your decisions regarding your motivations,

"You have earned your place here,” whether or not you fought the architecture undergrads,

“The value of your skills has given you options,” when questioning your goals and motivation.

To which I add two additional points:

Frustrations make no appointments, so tackle them as they come,

Only you can prevent academic fires, examine your goals and motivation.