The Academic Hunger Games: Are the Odds in Your Favor?

One of my favorite movies of 2013 was Mockingjay 1Catching Fire, the film adaptation of the second book of the Hunger Games trilogy. Reflecting on this movie, I started to think about how graduate school could be seen as an academic version of the Hunger Games. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie or read the book, here’s a quick summary (please note there are spoilers throughout the column):

  • The Hunger Games are set in a dystopian future of the US (named Panem), where a central Capitol District has maintained power over 12 districts (e.g. states) that rebelled against the Capitol 75 years ago.
  • Districts have limited resources and people are kept starving and poor.
  • As a punishment to the districts for rebelling against the Capitol, each year the districts must provide one male and female teenager, known as tributes, to compete in the “Hunger Games”, which is a televised battle in which they fight to the death.
  • The last surviving tribute is the victor, who earns riches, a luxurious new home in their district, and becomes a mentor to future tributes from his/her district.
  • The books are told from the perspective of Katniss Everdeen, a teenage tribute and eventual co-victor (along with Peeta Mellark) from District 12, the poorest district of Panem. Her key to success was her excellence in archery, a skill she developed so she could hunt to feed her family.

At first glance, this sounds very different from graduate school. However, there may be more than meets the eye. There is growing evidence that there are not enough tenure track positions for all the doctorates being produced.  Among all fields of study (including psychology), fewer graduates are landing tenure track positions. Universities are replacing more tenure track positions with adjunct instructors.

While harsh, the academic universe is not quite as bad as the world in the Hunger Games. The prize many victorious doctoral students want for surviving the rigors of graduate school is a tenure track position. While there are not enough faculty positions for every graduate, the ratio is probably better than 1 in 24, the odds in the Hunger Games.

So what can you do to improve your odds in the academic Hunger Games? Here are my thoughts:

  • Ally with your colleagues. Katniss survived Peeta 1both Hunger Games by building alliances with fellow tributes. How can you build alliances in graduate school? One way might be to develop collaborative projects with fellow students. Funding agencies are putting more preference to collaborative, large scale projects, and developing those relationships early in training can help you. In addition, you might be able to generate more publications by collaborating with colleagues.
  • Learn helpful skills. By being a great archer, Katniss was able to fend for herself in the Hunger Games and ultimately win. How can this apply to graduate study? Think about what skills could help you land your dream academic job. Departments are always looking for someone to teach statistics and research methods; getting experience in this while in graduate school could put the odds in your favor of landing a tenure track position. Other skills might include interdisciplinary knowledge or cutting edge research techniques (such as fMRI). Think about what skills you want to learn that could set yourself apart in a job application, and make a plan to learn those skills!
  • Advocate for more resources. One difference from the Hunger Games is that in the academic games we have the capacity to advocate for change. Increased funding for science research at the federal level and increased funding for public universities at the state level could change the playing field for doctoral education. You can make a change by responding to action alerts from APA and other psychology organizations.
  • Create an alternative path to victory. Finally, you don’t have to play the game the way we are expected to. In the first book, Katniss and Peeta refused to play the game as told, and were able to survive after threatening to kill themselves (which would deprive the games of a victor). Professors train us to become future faculty and some put down alternative career paths. However, if you don’t want to play the academic Hunger Games, your doctoral training gives you options that can take you out of the arena. For some, that is going into health service psychology (getting licensed and practicing). For others, it could mean nontraditional careers. The Odd Jobs column in gradPSYCH features psychologists in unique job settings, such as Cirque du Soleil, the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, or Wikimedia Foundation. With a doctorate in psychology, you have a skill set that can take you out of the arena and onto a different path. You don’t have to play the game that is presented in front of you!

Katniss 1Although graduate school may be tough and grueling, your future doesn’t have to be as hopeless as those in the Hunger Games. So build your skill set, cultivate alliances, and as they say in the Hunger Games, “May the odds be ever in your favor!”

2 thoughts on “The Academic Hunger Games: Are the Odds in Your Favor?

  1. Eric A. Samuels

    Interesting perspective Nabil! Could the same comparison could be made for the internship hunt?

    1. Nabil El-Ghoroury Post author

      Eric, I definitely agree that the Hunger Games would be an appropriate metaphor for the application process for the doctoral internship in clinical, counseling and school psychology. I intentionally chose the academic issue because I think less attention is going there, but it certainly applies.

      My hunch is that many of the same solutions still apply for the internship hunger games. 1) Ally with students to help with the application process (you always need someone to proofread an essay or review your application). 2) Learning new skills is important to make yourself stand out (I promoted my Spanish speaking abilities when I applied for internship). 3) Advocacy is a critical strategy for increasing the number of internships (be on the lookout for information from APAGS about advocacy for Medicaid reimbursement for interns’ services at the state level, which could create a funding stream to fund internships). I’m not quite sure how #4 would work. A new strategy might be to research your program’s match rate prior to accepting an admission offer, but that is one that has to happen when you are applying, well before you get to the internship stage.

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