The Industry Mindset

Delayed gratification during and after your PhD.

Delayed gratification comes relatively easy for most PhD students. This personality trait can enable you to thrive in your long-term career and life more generally. However, it’s important we don’t let delayed gratification prevent us from reaching our goals and full potential.

Delayed gratification is a skill and strength every PhD student has. Delayed gratification is the sense of delaying an instant win or positive experience (i.e., gratification) to achieve something more positive or tangible in the future (i.e., delayed). For context, there’s a famous psychological experiment known as the marshmallow test whereby a young child (3-4yrs old) is given a marshmallow, however if they wait and do not eat it for 15minutes, they’ll be given a second marshmallow (Mischel & Ebbesen 1970). After the experimenter leaves the room, where the child is left to decide whether to wait 15minutes or just eat the first marshmallow straight away, a clear pattern unfolds. Some children have incredible ease with waiting, it’s a rational, logical decision for them – “15minutes and I get two!” On the other hand, some children see it as a no brainer to just eat the one in front of them. Why wait 15minutes when I can have it immediately? And of course, there’s always that middle group, who toss and turn and are tortured by the dilemma.

Interestingly, this experiment is very telling of character and those who happen to wait the 15minutes possess skills relating to delayed gratification. This in turn applies to other domains of their life and well-being. As adults, not just as children, delayed gratification is associated with better social competency, more able to be self-assertive, confidence, cope better under pressure, embrace challenges, continue to pursue goals despite setbacks, more self-resilient, trustworthy, dependable, have a better sense of initiative, more academically competent (no surprise here), more proficient in articulating ideas, higher concentration, be able to plan and follow through, and of course are more eager to learn (see Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman for more).

But why do we care? Essentially, to embark on and complete a PhD you’re likely to fall into the category of children who would happily wait for two marshmallows – you have a good sense of delayed gratification. When we start a PhD, we know full well, or at least to some extent, that the PhD itself won’t be as fulfilling as say other careers or professions. You might see your friends earning more, being promoted faster, travel lots, or exploring other hobbies in their free time. We accept that we cannot do these things now or in the short term, but we acknowledge that in the future, we will be ‘better off’ – in other words, short term loss for a long-term gain i.e., delayed gratification.

In most respects this is true. PhD holders, typically, on average earn more than those without a PhD or just a first-year graduate degree – anywhere between 7% – 33% more. Certainly, this will vary by specialism, or at least, your ability to articulate the value of your PhD and your transferable skills. If only 30% (or possibly lower) of PhD holders remain in academia it’s plausible that the earning potential isn’t because of the PhD itself per se, it’s because of the core skills that accompany it. The PhD is a training programme which gives you the flexibility and toolkit to be socially mobile and adapt to a range of different careers.

However, if we’re not careful this sense of delayed gratification can become a hindrance rather than a benefit. This may also be another source for post-PhD blues, whereby the feelings of finally completing a PhD really aren’t what we originally imagined. If we’re not careful we can move the goal posts. The gratifying moment of completing the PhD is no longer the target and instead we want the first post-doc, or we set a goal that is so far away in the future – like making tenure, professorship, or receiving a permanent academic position.

These are great goals to work towards. However, is this truly what we want, or is it just that narrative in your head telling you ‘good things will come through sacrifice’? If it’s the latter, it’s maybe worth reflecting on this. Certainly, delayed gratification is essentially to achieve bigger, more comprehensive goals, but at some point, we do need to receive a positive outcome to complete that feedback loop. It shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that constant sacrifice isn’t necessarily fun or good for your well-being.

Another counter argument would be to reflect on whether you enjoy the sacrifice. Phrases like ‘the journey is more important than the destination’ or ‘fall in love with your craft’ are the lynchpin for success and leveraging delayed gratification. But if you’re making a sacrifice and hating the process at the same time – maybe your sacrifice is in the wrong place, and it would serve you better to re-align this sacrifice with something that brings you joy.

The final point also focuses on the bigger picture. With delayed gratification there’s an element of a risk-reward ratio. The risk being the things you miss out on due to delaying gratification (e.g. working extra hours, missing out on social events, taking a reduced salary, not taking holidays etc), whilst the reward is that end goal we want to achieve – the gratifying part. Thinking about the risk-reward ratio in academia or any profession can help outline whether the sacrifice is worth it. If you’re doing long hours now, working overtime, and missing out on social events but you hope that this will stop when you make it to your goal – is this a true perception of reality?

More often than not, long hours in the beginning leads to long if not longer hours in the end. This is especially true for academia – just because you secure that permanent contract doesn’t suddenly mean you won’t be expected to work all late or over the weekend. We all hear horror stories of supervisors sending emails during stupid non-sociable hours.

If the ‘reward’ part really isn’t all what it set out to be, maybe, just maybe, it would be worth making the sacrifices and missing out on opportunities for things that truly are ‘rewarding’ and/or fulfilling in the long run. This of course is a subjective decision and there isn’t a right answer. But as long as you know deep down the sacrifice is worth it and are enjoying the process, delayed gratification will be your golden ticket out of here.

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