When the “Campus Experience” Isn’t Working For You

Right after I finished my dissertation and completed my PhD, because I’m a sucker for punishment, I started a new research project. The project involved scouring the recruitment literature and websites of Canadian universities.

Without going in to too much gory detail, I was trying to figure out if (alleged) good post-secondary teaching was being used as a marketing tool by universities and colleges to attract students. The National Survey of Student Engagement is this giant survey of already surveyed-to-the-eyeballs students to find out if they like their classes and their institution, and if they think they’re learning anything.

The problem is that like most big data, once it exists, it can be distorted or re-purposed in all kinds of creative ways. The NSSE (or “Nessie”) was intended to help unis and colleges diagnose themselves and their programs: where could they do a better job. George Kuh, a key figure in the development of these surveys, explicitly stated that the data should help institutions to improve learning, not to market their own awesomeness to alumni, other funders and prospective students.[1]

Which meant that these institutions immediately set upon marketing their own NSSE awesomeness to alumni, funders, and prospective students. And because marketing is by its very nature bullshit, the NSSE became bullshit. Or at least this was my thesis.

So to my point: I read a lot of recruitment literature. And for more reasons than I can write about in one post, it was a frustrating experience. “Choose [insert institution here] for an unbelievable life-changing epic journey!” Cue the pep rally pictures; the pictures of inspiring professors writing on white boards;  the beautiful/natural/vibrant/exciting campus setting; the happy dorm students.

One of the reasons this pisses me off is because it sets people up with hopelessly unrealistic expectations of the post-secondary experience. I know some students have awesome, epic undergraduate experiences. But many don’t, and then experience feelings of disappointment, alienation or shame when they don’t fit the mold of chipper guys and gals posing with the sports mascot.[2]

I expect the potential for these feelings is greater for first-generation students. If, as was the case for me, no one in your family has been to university and your friends don’t roll that way either, you really don’t have much to go on but the advertising hype. So, when February comes around in your first year, after the initial rush of novelty has settled and you’ve gotten some terrible marks and maybe not made any friends, you’re pretty bummed out. And do you blame your institution? No. You probably blame yourself.

Alienation: When It Doesn’t Feel Right

Alienation is the opposite of belonging and connectedness. It’s a word that Jennifer Case argues has fallen out of favour, and ought to be brought back to help us make sense of student drop-outs and what is sometimes deemed a mental health “crisis” in higher education. Karl Marx, back in the good old 1800s, used the concept of alienation to describe the emptiness that people feel when they feel disconnected and purposeless.[3]

Schabracq and Cooper (2003) distinguish between primary and secondary alienation[4], which can give us pause for thought, and perhaps a way forward. Primary alienation, is essentially the “WTF” part. Simply, you notice that something doesn’t feel normal. You wrestle with this. You wonder: “Why don’t I fit here? Why isn’t this working?” Secondary alienation is actually scarier, because this is the part where you stop noticing that things don’t feel normal.  You don’t ask WTF anymore. “Oh well,” you might conclude, “It must be me.” That doesn’t make the stress of the “something’s amiss” away; it just buries the stress. Bring on the depression and anxiety.

But hey, maybe it’s just me. I figured out very early in my education that wasn’t going to fit in, and mostly let it go. That didn’t mean it didn’t hurt sometimes. That didn’t mean I wasn’t lonely, or unsure of whether I was taking the right steps, or the right classes. Maybe you haven’t had these experiences. But if you have — if you don’t feel you’ve lived up to the cookie-cutter image of the “ideal college student,” — if you’re too old, or too shy, or too dumb, or too gay, or too plain, or like me too cynical — you don’t have to take on that identity of being the defect on the assembly line.

Primary alienation in the form of those WTF moments is a learning experience, and its a better learning experience than most of what you’ll get in a classroom. This means primary alienation needn’t be a bad thing, even if it feels bad. Instead, it’s a good indication that you’re thinking for yourself, and asking some constructive questions about the justice and fairness of the society you have to figure out how to spend the rest of your damn life in. Get worried when you hit secondary alienation and stop asking WTF at all. In the meantime, congratulations. You’re not a model student with your smiling face on a college promotional webpage. You’re a human being.


[1] NSSE [National Survey of Student Engagement] (2007) Experiences that matter: Enhancing student learning and success. Bloomington, IN: Center for Postsecondary Research, Indiana University.Retrieved from http://nsse.indiana.edu/NSSE_2007_Annual_Report/docs/withhold/NSSE_2007_Annual_Report.pdf

[2] See Case, J. M. (2007). Alienation and engagement: development of an alternative theoretical framework for understanding student learning. Higher Education, 55(3), 321–332. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-007-9057-5. Mann, S. J. (2001). Alternative perspectives on the student experience : Alienation and engagement. Studies in Higher Education, 26(1), 7–19. https://doi.org/10.1080/0307507002003068

[3] More specifically, Marx discussed the alienation of labour. This gets deep but the gist is that for Marx, a good part of what it means to be human is to work — to labour. When we can’t take pride in our work, or have any sense of (or material) ownership over the products of our labour, we become alienated. We’re estranged from our authentic selves, Marx, K. (1964) Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. New York: International Publishers.

[4] Schabracq, M., & Cooper, C. (2003). To be me or not to be me: About alienation. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 16(2), 53–79. https://doi.org/10.1080/0951507031000152650

So You’re Passionate About Research…

Vintage image boy with chemistry set

Undergraduate research became a “thing” about ten years ago. I was skeptical of its value then, and remain so today. I recently interviewed some undergraduate students about their career plans. All were bound for grad school at some point, so many had thoughts about gaining research opportunities in their undergraduate programs. “I really want to do research,” is typically declared. Okay. What kind of research? Where? And why? And no, “to make the world a better place” is not specific enough.

I don’t mean to mock the curiosity and passion of students. I am full of these things myself. They make life interesting, and that’s awesome. Whatwesome is the way in which academic culture unwittingly glamorizes research, which can lead to crap career advice for unsuspecting students. I’m generalizing of course. “Get research experience” isn’t always bad advice. But more often than not it is, especially in the absence of a clear plan for where that research will be put to use in a paid job.

The Weirdness of Research Worship

We seem to have collectively forgotten that research is a transitive verb.[1] By that I just mean that it has to have an object or a purpose to be valuable or meaningful. So, it’s weird that so often in academia people speak of “research” as if it is meaningful in and of itself, requiring no further explanation or justification. This happens outside of universities too, but the worst purveyors of intransitive vagaries about the excitement of research reside in universities and colleges. It is this kind of proselytizing that lead students to declare their “passion for research” with little sense of what “real world” research entails, or where it will fit into their later life and work plans.

The “research passion” business might be cool for its own sake as a learning experience, but grad school is a big investment of time, money and psychic energy, over and above an undergrad degree. It’s also the place where unrealistic expectations can be forged. You start sipping the Academic Research Kool-Aid. Your profs tell you it is tasty and nourishing because they really do love it, and it’s all they know, and they really just can’t help themselves.

The culture of “research” and the pressure to aspire to “do research” and the worship of research and publishing all begin in earnest at the master’s level. It’s seductive as hell. What newcomers don’t realize, however, is that in universities, research is valued and conducted in forms that are often not appreciated or understood in other contexts. A post-grad challenge — and I am speaking from hard won experience here — is translating your “passion for research” into something you can actually get paid for.

Some of these transition-to-work issues are addressed through the growth of internship programs — Mitacs being an excellent example — that create specific structures and supports to link academic research skills to applications in non-academic workplaces. Which are most workplaces.

However, these opportunities are few and far between, and tend like Mitacs, to concentrate in the STEM[2] disciplines. In the humanities and social sciences, paid work oriented to research is more likely to be concentrated within the higher education sector, which, I’d argue, tends to funnel one’s aspirations to “do research” into the near-fantasy prospect of obtaining a tenure track job at a research university.

So Should You Go to Grad School?

Are you curious and “passionate about research”? Great. I feel you. Me too. I love research. I would rather lose a limb than my university library access. But the academic research training I received has been very, very difficult to translate into skills and experience recognized by the private sector. So call my experience a “cautionary tale.”

A grad degree costs money you may not have. It also has opportunity costs in terms of foregone work income and work experience. You owe it to yourself to ask good questions about what you’ll get out of immersing yourself in a research environment in graduate school. Very often, this environment is detached from the world of work, and your professors (bless their hearts) only know how to do their work, so they may not be able to give you all the advice you need.

Love research? Research for your post-grad end game, not just your thesis! Make sure you finish a grad degree armed with realistic expectations about your career prospects, and a good idea of what “research” looks like outside of the university environment.



[1] What do I mean by this? If grammar doesn’t get you hot and bothered, try not to zone out here. I’ll be quick. First, the intransitive verb: An intransitive verb doesn’t need an object. So we can say “she walked” because we don’t need to know where she’s going or why for this statement to be meaningful. It’s not very interesting of course. But we’re not left hanging with the sense that we need more information. Now, let’s compare the statement “She threw.” This is different. We are left with an annoying, outstanding question: what it is that she threw. If we don’t know the object or purpose of the action in a transitive verb, its basically meaningless.

[2] Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics