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Savior Complex Among Grad Students

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I have lately heard a lot more talk about Grad students exhibiting savior complex. Let’s discuss this.

1. What is this?

2. What is this not (but potentially confused with)?

3. Good or bad and why so either way?

4. How have you seen impact grad school decisions, experience, outcomes, or etc.?

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I mentioned the savior complex at least once, and summer hours have been implemented at my office, so I'll bite. My answer is long, but after all this is a forum for hopeful academics, and it really was a question in the spirit of intellectual curiosity.

1. I think it's the sense an individual has that he or she brings skills to the table which are crucial to some institution's goal. Institution could be broadly taken: I think the complex is broadly observed -- the academy, industry and the policy arena. There are people who think their particular package of skills, perspectives, life experience, ideology, etc. make them extremely important (I'll follow the outline and get to whether this is good or bad in point 3). I'm headed for the policy/IR realm, and I think the savior complex may be most robustly represented here. People applying to top MPP/MPA/IR programs are by definition interested in social and political issues, and some of them seem to think that the folks they hope to help via policy  can only be helped by super sharp people with degrees from an ivory tower, lest all the common people die. Of course different areas of policy exist to structure society to help people. Yet some people who are interested in social, education and health policy, just for example, think they will get into the policy world and write the white paper that changes the sector, or execute something similar that liberates people via some government/nonprofit program. They either don't consider or they think they can overcome the possibility that a) common people don't want help or are fine, or b) that some issues are far too complex for an abstract economic/sociological/psychological model to solve (or else we would've solved a whole lot more by now). TBH, Vox kind of epitomizes this for me. Societal progress happens slowly and incrementally, not only because of sclerotic and intransigent people and institutions, but also because some problems are just tough nuts to crack. I hear plenty of naively optimistic and admittedly smart young people who act like no one has been trying to fix social problems for decades, and believe that, if only they can get into a position of power and tweak the knobs of the policy machine to just the right calibration, all will be well.
TL;DR version: Arrogance characterized by compassion, with lots of self-congratulation.

2. I guess it might easily be confused for sheer ambition. A helpful contrast may be a person with the savior complex as an MPA student focusing on urban housing vs. a finance undergrad who follows up with an MBA to go to Goldman or whatever (not that there's never overlap), the former having the potential to have a savior complex, and the latter just being ambitious.
And I'm perfectly willing to admit there are some sincere and earnest people going to policy school who are humble and recognize their limits, yet also hope dutifully to chip away at society's (or a firm's, or an academic discipline's) challenges as one in a long line of smart people. I won't deny my cynicism may have blinded me erroneously to label some such people as the compassionately arrogant.

3. I'm inclined to say bad, simply because I think many of the world's problems could be boiled down to people thinking too much of themselves. But I did also say it is characterized by compassion, and I certainly wouldn't say compassion is bad. A bit softheaded, or naive, but not bad. And it isn't fitting to despair in the face of challenges, so I admire their optimism. 

4. Heck, I think whole "disciplines" have been invented because of this. I also think some people probably take on too much debt because they suppose it'll be worth it when they lift a whole generation out of poverty.

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14 hours ago, tacos95 said:

I mentioned the savior complex at least once, and summer hours have been implemented at my office, so I'll bite. My answer is long, but after all this is a forum for hopeful academics, and it really was a question in the spirit of intellectual curiosity.

1. I think it's the sense an individual has that he or she brings skills to the table which are crucial to some institution's goal. Institution could be broadly taken: I think the complex is broadly observed -- the academy, industry and the policy arena. There are people who think their particular package of skills, perspectives, life experience, ideology, etc. make them extremely important (I'll follow the outline and get to whether this is good or bad in point 3). I'm headed for the policy/IR realm, and I think the savior complex may be most robustly represented here. People applying to top MPP/MPA/IR programs are by definition interested in social and political issues, and some of them seem to think that the folks they hope to help via policy  can only be helped by super sharp people with degrees from an ivory tower, lest all the common people die. Of course different areas of policy exist to structure society to help people. Yet some people who are interested in social, education and health policy, just for example, think they will get into the policy world and write the white paper that changes the sector, or execute something similar that liberates people via some government/nonprofit program. They either don't consider or they think they can overcome the possibility that a) common people don't want help or are fine, or b) that some issues are far too complex for an abstract economic/sociological/psychological model to solve (or else we would've solved a whole lot more by now). TBH, Vox kind of epitomizes this for me. Societal progress happens slowly and incrementally, not only because of sclerotic and intransigent people and institutions, but also because some problems are just tough nuts to crack. I hear plenty of naively optimistic and admittedly smart young people who act like no one has been trying to fix social problems for decades, and believe that, if only they can get into a position of power and tweak the knobs of the policy machine to just the right calibration, all will be well.
TL;DR version: Arrogance characterized by compassion, with lots of self-congratulation.

2. I guess it might easily be confused for sheer ambition. A helpful contrast may be a person with the savior complex as an MPA student focusing on urban housing vs. a finance undergrad who follows up with an MBA to go to Goldman or whatever (not that there's never overlap), the former having the potential to have a savior complex, and the latter just being ambitious.
And I'm perfectly willing to admit there are some sincere and earnest people going to policy school who are humble and recognize their limits, yet also hope dutifully to chip away at society's (or a firm's, or an academic discipline's) challenges as one in a long line of smart people. I won't deny my cynicism may have blinded me erroneously to label some such people as the compassionately arrogant.

3. I'm inclined to say bad, simply because I think many of the world's problems could be boiled down to people thinking too much of themselves. But I did also say it is characterized by compassion, and I certainly wouldn't say compassion is bad. A bit softheaded, or naive, but not bad. And it isn't fitting to despair in the face of challenges, so I admire their optimism. 

4. Heck, I think whole "disciplines" have been invented because of this. I also think some people probably take on too much debt because they suppose it'll be worth it when they lift a whole generation out of poverty.

So my exposure to what I think is the Savior complex to this:

In my personal experience, I saw a lot of grad students project their perception of their own individual value by tying themselves to an issue that they were passionate about because they thought it mattered to people's lives. I would say the top 3 I heard all the time were 1. Women and Gender issues, Environment, and Youth Education. Don't get me wrong, I think all of these are super super super important to make the world a better place and have been involved in 2 of the 3 of these myself. 

However, what I thought was interesting was that there wasn't much talk about how much social impact of actually "saving others" or even potential social impact. What there was talk about was how much connectivity and access someone had to resources or experiences in these spaces. I quickly realized that the key focal point of many conversations was about how interesting or "cool" a policy area was to generate someone's own individual credibility and social status among their select group of peers. Hence for me, the "savior complex" is utilizing social admiration for a social impact space to lend oneself self-perceived and social value. 

I think this type of "savior complex" is terrific and really well meaning if it was all about getting involved and promoting genuine solutions that helped people (or saved people shall we say). However, the way I saw it manifest many times was that solutions and helping people were just a distraction. People exercised it by building likeminded communities to created loose networks of echo chambers to enhance their self-adulation to further generate their sense of value. In simple terms, this is about creating a community to pat yourself on the back for being involved in this space rather than making meaningful solutions to help people. The vibe was more akin to Billy Joel fans who get excited about being Billy Joel fans rather than doctors/nurses, teachers, you name your meaningful social impact profession on the front lines.

The reason why I think this manifesting of savior complex is troublesome is because it funnels people to get excited about policy by virtue of the idea of being cool in a space with a fan base rather than actually saving people with meaningful solutions. Things like health policy, food policy, infrastructure, and housing policy --> areas that arguably have much more immediate social impact (and realistically --> job opportunities) were things that I saw people generally be less inclined towards (sometimes even shun), because they didn't have that much social clout to lend its devotees (I realize that is changing for food policy pretty fast of late). 

Hence why "savior complex" in my mind is a complex in that it isn't supposed to make straightforward sense, even be counterproductive to being a savior. My concern is that if so many policy students don't want to get their hands dirty and rather be cool, who is to be the saviors that the world needs? I would like to know. Maybe they aren't in policy school but elsewhere in lots of places? Maybe people that I saw in policy school will grow out of this phase one day, and actually be adults who do real saving of somebody. Who knows? 

Edited by GradSchoolGrad

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