My Entrance into the PhD Program in Leisure Behavior (Parks & Rec) at Indiana University

On February 10, 2004, I applied for admission to the PhD program in leisure behavior within the School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation (HPER, pronounced “hyper”) at Indiana University, in Bloomington, Indiana. I had just completed a rather exhausting process of preparing applications to Master’s in Social Work (MSW) programs, and was just not very motivated to jump through those same hoops again.

Then I got an idea. Maybe I could just send HPER’s PhD program a copy of my MSW application.  It was a bizarre idea, I know, but I was busy with other stuff, and I wasn’t entirely sold on IU.  My conclusion was that any application is better than no application.

So I sent IU a cover letter, explaining why I had not enclosed the usual application materials, but was instead just sending them a CD containing a copy of my MSW application.  I guess the cover letter must have been persuasive.  They did require me to send a couple of other things, but basically this served as my parks & rec application, and they admitted me on that basis.  Here’s my favorite excerpt from that letter:

Why, then, a Ph.D. in leisure?  Because I am an expert in screwing off, and frankly I find it can be hard work; and that is very intriguing. For example: how can vacation be so stressful? Why do families fight on the holidays?  What about the fact that, for many people, it can be less relaxing to be at home with the bills than to be at the office, tending to someone else’s messed-up life?  Evidently leisure ain’t always what it’s cracked up to be.

So true, and in ways I had not anticipated.  But I’ll get to that.

At this point, as I say, they accepted me.  GRE scores were one factor in their decision.  Physical education departments tend to be at the very bottom, among university departments, in terms of applicants’ GRE scores (Stoesz & Karger, 2009, p. 107).  My combined math and verbal GRE score was 1540 out of 1600.  According to Stoesz and Karger, that’s about 650 points above the average for people entering Phys Ed graduate programs.

Originally, I thought they would want me because they wanted smart people.  There are limits on what the GRE proves, but at least it is some kind of indicator.  But for reasons that will emerge as we go along, I don’t think this was the explanation.  I don’t think they were, or are, prepared for smart, questioning students, and I think that’s been one source of difficulty for other students.  But as I say, we’ll get to that.

I got in, but I decided not to attend.  Let me explain why.  In summer 2004, I visited HPER.  There were several people I wanted to talk to during that visit.  One was Alan Ewert, well-known in outdoor recreation circles.  Unfortunately, Alan did not return my call and was not available during my visit.

Another, who was available, was department chair Dave Austin.  My chat with Dr. Austin was strange.  Most of the time, he seemed to be talking to a spot on the wall somewhat above my head.  It felt like I was the generic graduate student getting the generic sales pitch from the generic greeter.  Not what I was looking for in a PhD program.

During that visit, I got a chance to talk to a few current PhD students.  They seemed like nice people.  But they didn’t seem very excited about the program, or about their studies, and in fact one of them gave some hints that he actually hated the place.

At the end of our chat, it was getting late, and I needed to find a place to go camping.  I loved camping, and I did a lot of it, so it seemed only natural to ask them for a place to pitch my tent.  To my surprise, none of these outdoor recreation PhDs had a clue.  They did not seem to have done any camping in the Bloomington area.  So there, again, I had a sense that the program was not training people to be engaged leaders in outdoor recreation.

I decided to defer for a year.  They gave me that option.  Despite my doubts about the place, laziness and life circumstances were gradually pushing me toward going to HPER.  For one thing, I wanted to be relatively near my parents, who were living in Indiana and at that point were in their 80s.  Also, Indiana seemed to be one of the few places (I actually didn’t find any others) that would still accept my aging GRE scores, which I had taken more than five years ago.  And there was also some wishful thinking:  I think I wanted to believe that this well-known program in outdoor and leisure studies would provide good training.

That proved to be a significant mistake.  If I had it to do again, I would never have entered this program, and I would be very, very hesitant to recommend it to anyone else under any circumstances.

I spent the 2004-2005 school year working toward my MSW.  Summer 2005 rolled around.  IU was not going to let me defer a second year.  So either I had to go to the PhD program now, halfway through the MSW program, or go through the whole application process again.  I went with the easy route; I commenced the PhD program in parks & rec at Indiana.  And that’s where this story really begins.

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