How Grad School is Like a Final Fantasy Game

I’m at a cross-roads in graduate school right now. I’ve finished all my required courses and preliminary exams, and our equivalent of an M.A. paper (off for review at a journal, wish me luck!). I’m now onto the vast abyss of prospectus-writing and dissertation-planning. What was once a relatively linear pathway (high school, undergrad, grad school applications, coursework, exams) has opened up and now I have almost complete freedom to decide what to read and what directions to head (guided and advised by my excellent committee, of course). To make an extended analogy, it feels like that moment in a Final Fantasy (FF) game when you leave the big city triumphantly in the airship and suddenly have the entire gameworld to explore.

Thinking along those lines led me to think about other comparisons between grad school and Final Fantasy. Here are a few, feel free to add your own in the comments!

  • There’s a linear path, but lots of optional sidequests. Next term, I’m planning to devote half or more of my time to side projects that will hopefully result in smaller publications, rather than jumping straight into the dissertation full time. Why?
  • It’s important to level up before you take on a big boss. In this case, the “big boss” is the dissertation (and perhaps the job market – in classic FF style, the final boss is actually two connected bosses). You have to have the skills and confidence and resources to fight the final boss, and if you just try to blitz through the game without doing any of the sidequests, you might not be able to beat the final boss (or it’ll be a lot harder). If you spend some time leveling up, the final boss is easy.
  • Hard and fast vs. slow and steady. Most FF games are really easy if you fully explore the world, do lots of sidequests, level up on monsters that give good drops, etc. But that takes time. You can finish FF2 in under 20 hours, or you can spend 40+. Similarly, you can rush through grad school, start your dissertation in year 2, and finish in 5 (or 4 if you’re incredible, like a certain recent UM grad and Northwestern post-doc I know. Hint: Potential employers, hire her!). But if you rush through, you may have trouble with one of the bosses at the end.
  • Super nerdy. Both FF and grad school are really nerdy. I don’t know how much more i need to say. Your friends and family who don’t play FF (or who aren’t academics) won’t understand how you could devote so much of your life to either.
  • There are lots of bosses and mini-bosses, but at the end of the day the only one that matters is the final boss. In a FF game, you have to defeat lots of smaller foes along the way. But all of these battles are just to prepare you for the big boss at the end. Similarly, in grad school, you have to write seminar papers, teach courses, work as an RA, etc. All of that’s great, but you have to be careful to consider how it helps you win the big battle at the end, and not devote your scarce resources (elixirs, fellowships, etc.) to the wrong fight.
  • The instruction manual is basically useless. Most grad programs give you a “Graduate Student Handbook” that has a normative timeline, suggested pathways, rules and regulations, and so on. Most of these handbooks are inscrutable, out-of-date, or misleading. Similarly, FF games come with a rulebook that tells you about the characters and the buttons and whatnot. Neither is particularly useful. In both cases, you learn by doing – and by talking to your friends and going to the semi- and un-authorized strategy guides (Gamefaqs say, or Fabio’s Grad School Rulz).
  • As soon as you win, you start playing the next game. SquareSoft has made Final Fantasy 1 to 13, along with dozens of spin-offs, not to mention the similar games by other companies. When you finish one, another one comes along. In grad school, if you win, you start playing the next game: tenure.

    What do you think? How else is grad school like a Final Fantasy game? Is there a better game analogy?


    1. He said, “level up,” huh-huh, “level-up.”

      Anyway, this post is on target. I’ll give you the metaphor a friend gave me a long time ago. “Academia is like a big building with a lot of hallways and rooms. It’s confusing and has twists and turns, but if you are lucky or smart, you can find your way out.”

    2. Brian Pitt

       /  December 10, 2010

      Nice Post!

    3. Terry

       /  December 14, 2010

      One critical difference: in FF you’re getting constant feedback on your progress. You level up quickly, gain new abilities and widgets, etc.

      In grad school, you will typically experience far less feedback than you did in undergrad. Some students react poorly to this.

    4. Carla Pfeffer

       /  December 21, 2010
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