Metaphors for grad school

3 February 2014

By Rose Hendricks

The broad nature of Cognitive Science means that the research in our department is incredibly diverse. For example, some people study single-unit recordings in animals while others are interested in how humans interact with artificial agents and still others like to study why humans are bad at talking and driving by putting participants in a driving simulator. Despite the variety, metaphor is a pretty popular topic in UCSD Cog Sci. Here are just a few of the labs that work on metaphor-related research:

In Seana Coulson’s lab, the focus is on whether we engage in conceptual blending while comprehending metaphor. Seana often uses ERPs to learn about how we comprehend metaphor, and, more specifically, she has studied the role of the right hemisphere in those processes.

In Ben Bergen’s lab, the research is broadly centered on understanding how people derive meaning from language, taking evidence from language corpora in addition to experimental research. A lot of his work shows that in some cases, in order to understand figurative language, we actually simulate, or mentally imagine, the literal scenarios described. The challenge now is to figure out in what cases we simulate and why...

Research in Lera Boroditsky’s lab demonstrates, in different contexts, how the language we speak shapes the way we perceive the world. More specifically, metaphors we aren’t even cognizant of may provide a framework for thinking about abstract concepts and alter the way we reason about problems.

Given the apparent power of metaphor, I wonder if some of the metaphors we use to describe grad school may not only reflect the way we think about it, but shape our perceptions as well. I leave that verdict to the reader to decide, but here are some candidate metaphors for grad school:

  • In his guide to graduate school, Ronald Azuma shares: "Being a graduate student is like becoming all of the Seven Dwarves. In the beginning you're Dopey and Bashful. In the middle, you are usually sick (Sneezy), tired (Sleepy), and irritable (Grumpy). But at the end, they call you Doc, and then you're Happy."
  • Or we could conceptualize the path to receiving a Ph.D. as analogous to Dorothy’s adventure in The Wizard of Oz, consisting of a dramatic weather event that lifts the entire house and drops it in an alternate universe. Before the twister, the world was black and white, but upon arriving in this stimulating environment, color abounds (as do munchkins… or undergraduates).
  • Finally, PhD Comics suggests that grad school is just like kindergarten. Some of the parallels are a little discouraging, like the acceptance of all-day napping, the habit of eating cookies for lunch, and the normalcy of crying for your mom. Others are (slightly) less discouraging: spending a lot of time cutting and pasting, having an emphasis on playing well with others over grades, and constant adult supervision.

If these metaphors don’t paint a clear picture of what grad school is like, you can always turn to the omniscient BuzzFeed for some more examples.

Although the metaphors might not capture a true grad school experience, they may still be thought-provoking when considering a Ph.D. With Cog Sci’s open house approaching, the current first-years reflected on what surprised us a year ago when we were visiting, and we’ve compiled a list of metaphorical expectations for visiting:

  • The department is trying to woo you. In a way it feels like the early stage of a relationship, both parties playing hard to get, an experience that is simultaneously exciting and nerve-wracking.
  • The weekend is marathon-like, requiring mental endurance and focus. It’ll be important to keep your eye on the prize, which means getting a real feel for the people and the work being done here. This is more important than dwelling on details like stipends, housing, and coursework.  At the end, you might want to wrap one of those big silver blankets around yourself, hydrate, and relish in the accomplishment of making it to the end.
  • Related to the marathon, it’s important to keep your body working like a well-oiled machine. This means eating well, sleeping, and exercising, or doing whatever it is that keeps you at your best.
  • Remember the tides in the ocean (it’s hard to forget the ocean when you’re in San Diego!). They ebb and flow, and can be turbulent at times, but they eventually return to a tranquil state. If something doesn’t go perfectly (maybe you’ll have a conversation that feels awkward or second-guess something you said), just let it go.
  • You’ve already impressed a lot of people and proven that you’re the cream of the crop, so be confident, and be calm. Enjoy your visit!

Related tags: cognitive science, graduate school, metaphor