August Essay Contest Runner Up

Dr. Jill Swirsky

I would be lying if I said my motivation to pursue an advanced degree was based solely on something noble –like a love of knowledge or a desire to give back to my field. Or even something less noble but still valid – like a desire to get a great job and earn a livable salary. While they were all certainly relevant in the decision-making process, they were not my primary driving factor(s). For me, it came down to prestige, to rising above, to challenging myself beyond anything I had ever done before.


As a developmental psychologist, it is unsurprising that I can trace that drive back through my life experiences to the formative period of adolescence. I was bullied pretty badly, and that experience played a critical role in defining who I am today. I remember feeling helpless, small, weak, and downright miserable. There were a lot of tears and a lot of time spent dramatically throwing myself on the bed crying as if I was a Disney princess. But I also found myself asking the same question over and over again: “why are girls so mean to each other?” As a hurting adolescent, it was a rhetorical question posed to the universe in a futile effort to make sense of my experience. But as I moved through my undergraduate psychology training, I learned that not only were there ways to answer that question, but the answer would also lead me to infinitely more questions. I was hooked!


My journey to an advanced degree, while certainly not linear, was consistent and unwavering. I never considered any other options because once I set my mind on the degree, anything else felt like failure. Instead, I pushed towards a PhD program with a single-minded focus that I jokingly referred to as “come hell or high water”. Of course, no one wants to be bullied, but looking back I know that that experience is what fueled me through three rounds of grad school applications. For me, it was an opportunity for redemption, to show myself and the world that I was strong enough to handle whatever came my way. I should also mention that I was deeply fortunate to have the support of not only amazing mentors, but a family who stood by me through the application process and, ultimately, a grueling graduate program.


Ultimately, what it boils down to is that I wanted a PhD just… because I wanted it. For awhile that made me feel foolish, even selfish, like I was doing it for the wrong reasons. But time and hindsight have showed me that there is no “right” or “wrong” reason to pursue an advanced degree. The decision is personal and multifaceted and is influenced by our life experiences and the resources we have at our disposal. At the end of the day, what motivates me is not the same as what motivates the next person. So the question becomes… what motivates you and where will it take you?

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