Graduate School as a Hero’s Journey

[Image of Moana from the 2016 Disney movie, Moana]

“What all myths have to deal with is transformations of consciousness. You have been thinking one way, you now have to think a different way. Consciousness is transformed either by the trials themselves or by illuminating revelations. Trials and revelations are what it’s all about.”

-Joseph Campbell, as quoted in Elizabeth Lesser (2004) Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, p. 277.

What is the hero’s journey?

It seems apt to write this post about heroes’ journeys contemporaneously with the 20th anniversary of the movie releases of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), a quintessential hero’s journey. In addition, as I write this in January 2022, I’ve just finished reading J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit to my 11-year-old son and have just begun reading Tolkein’s Fellowship of the Ring. Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey has been on my mind as having insights to offer to graduate students. [Scholarly critiques of Joseph Campbell’s theory are not the topic of this post. Go along, or not, with this ride with a relatively superficial take on the hero’s journey.]

It’s also the height of another coronavirus surge.

 From Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth, the hero’s journey involves three key stages (simplified here; see Fig 1): 

  1. departure from the familiar, 
  2. an initiation of challenges, crises, and eventual transformation; and
  3. a return with wisdom and gifts. 
Figure 1. Overview of the Hero’s Journey. From

Tribal initiations and walkabouts are traditional cultural examples of this late-adolescent journey with three stages: 1) separation from the known world; 3) brush with death; and 3) being welcomed as an initiated person who has entered into awakened elderhood (McLaren 2010). Leaving home to go to college or military training is a modern example of a similar rite of passage into adulthood. Robert Kegan’s The Evolving Self (1982) describes a similar path of psychological development across the lifespan. At identifiable moments in our lives (e.g., toddlerhood, adolescence, early adulthood, and mid-life), we undergo psycho-social disequilibrium when we have experiences that challenge our self-conceptions. These experiences of internal and interpersonal challenges have the potential to broaden our capacities for meaning-making as we reimagine our Self in relation to others.

Connections of the hero’s journey to graduate school

I propose to readers that graduate school represents a certain kind of initiation into the world of experts and expertise, a development of professional identity (we will explore the meaning of experts and expertise in a different post). The typical graduate student enters as a very good student, knowing how to be successful in college-level classes: how to read, how to study, how to follow instructions, and how to complete assignments. The academic departure phase of graduate school begins in the way the familiar landscape of college now becomes organizationally unfamiliar (see Calarco 2020). Furthermore, the academic initiation phase is prolonged and difficult intellectually and psychologically, as the graduate student undergoes challenges that are completely unlike the familiar “student” environment. Graduate students often feel increasingly isolated, under-resourced, discouraged, and doubtful during this academic initiation phase. The PhD experience involves a sequence of common, but often mystifying, initiation rites demonstrating one’s readiness to join the ranks of experts:

  1. forming a committee; 
  2. completing qualifying exams; 
  3. writing and defending a dissertation proposal; 
  4. conducting self-directed research and writing; and 
  5. writing and defending a dissertation.

Each of these PhD benchmarks might be understood as mini-initiations. And graduate students who successfully complete these steps return to the academic community as people with PhDs and members of the elderhood of academic experts. 

Four other components of the hero’s journey that I think translate to the graduate school experience are important to the student’s successful return.

  • Mentors exist on the outside of your intimate daily experience and can offer resources, guidance, perspective. You can return to them when you need a place to rest and a place to know you are welcomed. You can turn to them when things are great AND when things are falling apart. They see your capabilities for growth and provide the holding environment that both protects and nurtures that growth.
  • Allies are your peers, friends, and colleagues who journey with you and keep you company in the thick of it. They understand who you are and are able to remind you who you are at your core. They mirror back to you your strengths and inner wisdom. They collaborate with you as you help each other in shared quests. 
  • You will encounter enemies on your journey, too – people who don’t understand you and your vision. They are often fighting the same challenges as you, but their goals might be in conflict with yours. Because of their contrast and contradiction to you, you gain clarity on who you are, what’s important to you, and the necessity of your voice, perspectives, and skills in the world. 
  • Death, brush with death, and rebirth are elements of the hero’s journey we need to talk about. Joking aside, I sincerely hope each graduate student lives through their training experience. I understand death in the hero’s journey concept to be more existential than literal. It is the death of a former version of your Self, the self who graduated from college or had another profession, and its transformation and rebirth into your new Self, the self with new insights, wisdom, and knowledge to share.

Call to action

I want graduate students to be able to locate themselves on their own hero’s journey, what they have as resources, and who and when to ask for help. I invite you to reflect on these questions:

  1. Does the hero’s journey metaphor resonate with you in your graduate education experience? Can you locate yourself in your own hero’s journey? 
  2. What feelings and thoughts come up for you about the hero’s journey metaphor? I’ve heard graduate students express relief and empowerment in having words to describe their experience, validation in knowing they aren’t alone, and calm in having some perspective in what they’ve accomplished.
  3. How are you resourcing yourself adequately emotionally, physically, and spiritually for where you are in the journey? Are you connecting with your communities of mentors and allies in your graduate education challenges?
  4. How are you cultivating separateness from your dissertation, advisor, discipline, and institution? What interests do you pursue and social groups do you participate in outside of academia? Who supports you and challenges you to develop a more complete, grounded, balanced, functional Self?

Graduate education is a time of substantial identity development – internally, interpersonally, and professionally. I want graduate students and their mentors to be aware of this necessary and natural development, to not be ashamed of or resist that struggle, and to know how to support it actively and compassionately. In another post, we will look at ways for graduate students to develop a solid grounding and knowledge about their true Self. For this post, the first step is for graduate students to be able to observe and validate their own psychological and identity development in day-to-day interactions. 

“It’s seeing where you are going in your mind. Knowing where you are by knowing where you’ve been.”

-Maui, in the movie Moana (2016)

Image of Maui from the 2016 Disney movie, Moana


Calarco, Jessica McCrory. (2020). The Field Guide to Grad School: Uncovering the Hidden Curriculum. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kegan, Robert. (1982). The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lesser, Elizabeth. (2004). Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow. New York, New York: Ballantine Books.

McLaren, Karla. (2010). The Language of Emotions: What your Feelings are Trying to Tell You. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.

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