Thursday, January 24

Let Me Be Blunt with You, David

Dan Schwartz called me this morning. He's a professor at Stanford, doing research on the intersection of cognitive psychology and learning, using technology as a resource to help people learn beyond their ability otherwise. He's one of the professors I want to work with there, and one I listed on my application.

He had a few questions about me. He asked a dozen questions... but it all revolved around one that he didn't ask. Together, it was this: "You've wanted to do everything, David, and you've done everything. You have an MBA. You write. You started a business. Do you really know what a PhD is like? Are you interested in doing research? Is this the right life for you? How can I be sure that getting a PhD isn't just another check on your list, or that you'll get bored/frustrated when year three rolls around and quit?"

The questions didn't catch me off guard this time. I knew what they'd be. They're the same questions that he asked my professor yesterday. But it's one thing to respond and vouch for someone you know is in it for the long run. But how do you respond to that for yourself? How can you convince someone that everything you've done in life up to this point is all pointing to the decision in his hand... especially when you look like no one else they've ever seen?

I'm graduating with an MBA. I student taught. Worked at a private school. Wrote curriculum. Published books. Did professional musical theater & opera. Started a business. Worked for a business consulting firm. Did research into best practices in student learning. Wrote a thesis on creating and modifying games for use in education. Worked as an educational game designer.

In my mind, they all point in one direction. They're all tied directly to understanding education at its core - communication. Communication in the business world - in marketing and HR. Communication in the classroom. In written texts - both creative and technical. In visual art and media. In consumer relationships. Internal communication and its impact. The use of technology in communication.

Doesn't it make sense that I would want a PhD? I've wanted to be a teacher for forever. I've paid my dues everywhere else, and now I can go back to the things I love most... right? The MBA has been a good experience, but every day I sit in a classroom as a student I wish I were a teacher. Running a business has taught me useful skills in understanding people, but the thing that makes me tick is teaching people - understanding how learning really happens.

Did you know that smells are linked to memories? If you close your eyes and smell a bottle of clove or cinnamon oil, your mind jumps in a thousand different directions, causing an emotional heave that ultimately ends depending on your past experiences. If you have good memories of baking in the kitchen, making gingerbread with your mother at 14, that may be the vision that appears in your mind.


Why are smells so deeply connected with memories? And how do they play a part? Are the memories piled on top of one another, each one getting buried deeper and deeper, or are they replaced? How many are there? How are they stored within the brain? Which specific chemical or chemical cocktail in the essential oil is the causal agent... and are memories associated with more than one set of stimuli? Is each stimuli associated with more than one memory, or are there only multiple based on the reality that smells are usually complex interrelated reactions with thousands of different receptors? And can they be used to improve cognitive skills and help people recall in the future... and if so, how?

I have a gazillion questions about learning. Things that I want to know. That I need to know. That I will learn, no matter what roads I have to cross or where I need to go or what I need to do.

That I made it this far - to a phone call on the day of decision - means that I'm in the running. That maybe the Stanford Graduate School of Education will be my future for the next part of a decade.

But it also means that he has misgivings... feelings somewhere in his gut that a stellar resume, perfect test scores, beautiful essay, and glowing recommendations won't be able to dissolve.

And that scares me... just as much as it brings me peace.

I don't know how I fared. I'm miserable at interviews. Being autistic comes with a high price... and while people will immediately mark me as charismatic, confident, and thoughtful, the more important pieces get left out. I'm miserable at catching cues and clues that I should. Miserable at knowing what to say. Miserable at everything.

He also asked me where else I applied. I didn't apply anywhere else, because I had an amazing experience at Stanford... and because I didn't want to take too much time from the people who were recommending me. It takes time to write, and I have a really hard time asking others for things that aren't absolutely necessary. Application to one school? Definitely. Applications to a dozen others, when I have no desire to go anywhere else? No. The difference between my experiences with Stanford and everywhere else were like night and day. But how do you explain having a series of profound spiritual experiences over the phone to someone that you don't even know?

I know the answers to his questions. I know that this has been the direction of my life and isn't just a passing fancy... that once I make a commitment, I don't ever renege. But does he?

It'll work out.

I'm just scared.


  1. Oh, aren't you just the perfect little boy who has done everything and has to brag about it. I give absolutely NO credence to braggarts like you. Disgusting.

    1. Is that how it comes across? I'm sorry, Trys. I'm obviously still learning how to communicate with people in their own ways - hence the somewhat abject nature of this post. What would you have changed about it?

    2. I am not sure if Trys Bell was being sarcastic or what but I think you communicated your thoughts very well. You have obviously worked really hard to get where you are. You know what you wanted and you worked to get there. In today's world that is very impressive. Not enough people do that. I do not feel you where bragging at all. You were stating facts and your thoughts on those facts. I hope that Stanford is smart enough to see what an asset you would be! Good job David!

  2. Wow, can't wait to hear the result. I can't say I have the answers, or that I know how it feels to ABSOLUTELY know what I want... like you seem to do. So I really hope it works out for your David.

    May you have peace. No fear!

  3. Calm yourself Trys Bell, all those things were relevant to the conversation. He's done a lot, but is it all relevant to the guy who holds his fate? He doesn't know yet and that is nerve racking for sure! Its hard to be in the position of "Ok I've done everything I can, now it's up to someone else to decide my fate".

  4. You are so prepared. You've done so much. And now you've done all you can do with your application, so it seems to me. So I say....Take Peace!

  5. Trys....where did THAT come from?

  6. anonymous88....David, Lately I've been trying understand myself, I'm a gay devoted celibate 24 year old Mormon guy. I'm not attracted to woman but I wish I was. But I also have human connection issues as well a severe learning disability which I still don't understand. so my question is, do you think all of my issues are interconnected? Do you think my physical/romantic attractions to men is something that's due to neurological short comings?

    1. I think that everything in the brain is definitely interconnected, but I don't think that even a profound learning disability would cause homosexuality. Could it exacerbate the issues? Yeah. Connected? Yeah. But I don't think that it's a causal relationship.

  7. Hey David,
    Getting a PhD may seem like a logical choice, but you have to really know all the caveats going in.
    There is almost no point in getting a PhD for more earning power, you probably already know that though as business is much more lucrative in general. On average a PhD makes 3% more than someone with a masters degree.
    Next do you really want to be a professor? I don't doubt you'd make a fine teacher, but being a professor is not so much about teaching as it is about research at any good school. There are a few exceptions, but those are generally not tenure track.
    Being on the tenure track means about 7 years AFTER the PhD of extremely hard work. All my academic friends (I have a lot, defending my thesis in a few months myself) work incredibly long hours. It essentially never stops. Publish publish, present, research, gather data, collaborate, and of course teaching, the really fun part... assuming you as a new assistant professor don't get stuck with an intro or low level class that is both required and in which you don't have much or any flexibility in what you teach and often how you teach it. Of course even when this is the case as a new professor you'll have to create syllabi and materials for new courses which of course are every year practically for you, and likely you'll rewrite or replace most of them several times.

    Oh and don't forget service requirements! Tenure track faculty are expected to serve on at least 2 committees if not more, and if you're going for tenure you'll have to do that. You'll be expected to be a peer reviewer for conferences and eventually for journals. Almost everyone on the tenure treadmill take on workshop or conference organizing in some role. This is extremely fun, but ultimate takes a huge amount of time.

    I have no desire to scare you off, it's just best to know all the details up front.

    I strongly suggest talking to a number of assistant and associate professors and ask them what it is like.

    If you're going for non-tenure teaching positions, then most of this doesn't apply.


  8. Oh yes, and did I mention the part about what a PhD *really* is? Don't think you can actually take on any really large or broadly scoped work. PhD is by it's very nature highly specialized.
    Please see this highly accurate representation:

    I know I did, and practically everyone I know had some grand plan, some big world-changingly awesome ideas going in. Academia, as it stands today, is actually made to stamp out such things, at least unless they are extremely specialized ideas.

    The whole process feels like your brain is being reformatted so you can't help but speak in complex multi-clausal sentences and more complicated, less-known, but more precise language. Precision, precision is what is wanted. This is a worthy goal, but you'll be surprised at the results methinks.

    Sorry I'll stop now :)



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