Sara Schurr Now is all there is
Sara C Schurr Cambridge MA Summer 1976Did you know that I had a EdD from Harvard? What's an EdD? It's a doctorate in Education--just like a PhD only it comes from the School of Education rather than Arts and Sciences.

It's a good story and will tell you a lot about where I came from and what I loved then and how it brought me to where I am now.

Even better, did you know that I spent 5 years in marketing management jobs in the pharmaceutical and medical diagnostics industry? Can you see me in my corporate chic outfits with my little gold earrings?  No? Well, it just goes to show you don't know all there is to know about me.

I fell in love with psychology in my teens. My mother was very interested in the psychologists of the day and we had a lot of interesting books laying around the house in those years by folks like Rollo May (Man's Search for Himself), Fritz Perls (Gestalt Therapy Verbatim), Carl Rogers (On Becoming a Person) and the like.

My senior year in high school I participated in my first T Group (an all night encounter group with maybe 10 other high school seniors and the YMCA youth coordinator) and even managed to take a high school psychology course. I fell in love with Abraham Maslow and the idea of self actualization. In fact, the first hardback book I ever bought was Maslow's Motivation and Personality.

I think that at that age (17 to 18) my life goal was to become self-actualized and I assumed that somehow going to college would help in that process. I remember being somewhat disappointed that my college professors at Pitzer and the rest of the Claremont Colleges weren't there yet and on the whole weren't even interested in going there! In any case, I started out in college as a Human Biology major which was a inter-disciplinary major combining psychology and biology. I saw this as serving both my deep interest in science and in psychology. But the fellow who was going to be my advisor in that major and I didn't hit it off. I decided he was quite biased against women, so I switched majors to straight psychology.

All you have to do is take Intro Psych. to discover there is a whole lot more to the field than personality theory. Pitzer College had a large Psych Department for an institution with only 600 students and it covered a wide range of specialties. My curiosity regarding how people learn things, how children develop language and learning skills over-ruled my interests in what makes people tick emotionally and I got involved in research psychology. I ended up as a research assistant to a professor (Leah L Light) who did research in learning and memory and taught statistics.

I liked the simple elegance of a well designed experiment and the statistical analysis that followed. It appealed to the part of me who enjoyed science and the scientific method and who was good at math.

I also loved developmental psychology--any excuse to be around little kids was wonderful and they are such amazing learning machines. As a result I was drawn to cognitive development and did my Senior Honors Thesis in this area. It was an experiment entitled "The effect of list organization on clustering and free recall in children". I ran the study at a local elementary school testing kids from kindergarten through 6th grade. The experiment went off without a hitch and my thesis was accepted and I graduated with honors from Pitzer in 1973.

Meanwhile I continued my work as a research assistant and Leah Light was gracious enough to make me a co-author for one of the studies that I had conducted and done the data analysis for her. It was accepted for publication and I left college a published author! For the curious here's the citation: Light, L. L., & Schurr, S. C. (1973). Context effects in recognition memory:  Item order and unitization.  Journal of Experimental Psychology, 100, 135-140.

While I was at Pitzer, I was the elected student member of the Psychology field group (Pitzer doesn't have departments; it has field groups instead). I sat in on most of their meetings, got to interview folks for job openings and voice my opinion regarding curriculum and the like. Pitzer was a very informal, open place and the psychology professors became some of my best friends in those years. It was great to have role models that I felt were my friends too.

Leah Light was my advisor and when it came time to apply for graduate school she encouraged me to apply at Harvard if only as a lark. I applied to 20 grad schools and I got a raft of rejection notices before I got accepted at three grad schools: Harvard, SUNY at Buffalo and Georgetown. I wasn't overjoyed at the idea of going to Harvard but they'd offered me at least some financial aid (Georgetown hadn't offered any) and they were so much better than SUNY at Buffalo that I really didn't have a choice. Besides, how do you turn down an opportunity to go to Harvard? Everyone at Pitzer was very impressed and didn't understand why I wasn't over the moon about it. I knew that Harvard was going to be radically different than my beloved Pitzer and that Cambridge was not going to be anything like Southern California. And I wasn't sure I'd like that.

I didn't like Harvard much but I am glad I went. I was right, it wasn't like Pitzer and Cambridge might as well have been a foreign country compared with Southern California but both of those things turned out to be very enriching and a good thing.

Harvard had basically shut down the Developmental Psych program in the School of Arts and Sciences and sent all our applications over the the School of Education. That's who had accepted me and that's where I went. There was a group of about 12 of us in my 1st year class and there were only 2 of us who had come were straight out of college (and the other one dropped out and didn't come back after Thanksgiving). I had little or nothing in common with the folks in my program so I made my friends in the dorm where I lived amongst folks who were all grad students in Arts and Sciences--social psych, comparative literature, classics, physics and biology mostly.

I took courses and seminars at both the Ed school and in Psych department in Arts and Sciences. And my interests became more and more focused on cognitive development and language acquisition, especially word meaning.

My second year in grad school I went to work as a research assistant for Dick Light (notice a second professor named Light--I guess I've always been drawn towards the light) who was a statistics professor at the Ed school with a joint appointment at the Kennedy School of Government. He was doing research examining the experimental designs of medical research that affected public policy. I got to read all sorts of research on the treatment of alcoholism, myocardial infarction and other great stuff and in the process I got a very thorough understanding how not to design a study if you expected to get results that meant anything. 

By middle of the second year in graduate school I was miserable enough to consider dropping out. Harvard was to me the epitome of academia and since I didn't like Harvard and I wasn't very interested in spending the rest of my life defending some theory I'd cooked up in Grad School, I was pretty sure I didn't want to be an academic. This was especially true since mostly I didn't seem to like who academics were or how I was around them. I thought about it pretty carefully and decided that it would be a shame to quit and end up with just a Masters degree given how much time and money I'd already invested in the process. So I laid out a plan to finish my doctorate as quickly as possible.

The one bright spot in my second year of grad school is that I lived in a house in Brooklyn with a group of 10 other grad students I'd become friends with the year before. In an effort to relieve the tedium and stress of grad school we cooked up a whole mythology (and cookbook) around the Ali Ben Buddha Society. We'd sit around the dinner table and make up stories about the patron saints, Goldberg, who you called upon to find parking places in Harvard Square and Nancy Nature, who monthly plagued the female members with her hobnailed boots. We even had an official measure: the shit load, as in 'that's a shit load of moussaka you just made'.

The first hurtle you faced in the degree process was that after finishing 2 years of course work you had to write an exactly 50-page paper called a Qualifying Paper (QP) that was the complete review of the literature in some area of interest. I was taking a cognitive development course in the spring of my second year that required a paper. I went to the professor and asked her if I could use that paper as a trial run for my QP on the acquisition of word meaning. She thought that was a great idea and gave me the go-ahead. That allowed me to not only write the first draft but have all I needed to write a proposal for my QP to submit in April long before I'd actually finished the paper. Once the proposal was accepted the beginning of May, I had 90 days to complete the QP, type it with no errors or corrections and hand it in.

That summer I spent cooped up in a windowless office working half the day for Dick Light analyzing experimental designs in policy research and half the day on my QP. I finished it with time to spare in early in August and it was passed with distinction.

I took a couple of weeks off and came back to discover that my roommate, Becky, had gotten a job as a teaching fellow in the statistics department and they needed more people. Since I needed a job, off I went. Even though my statistics background had some holes in it (I didn't have much background in probability) they needed people so I got the job that allowed me to work almost full time on my dissertation while teaching 2 sections of Harvard undergraduates each semester. It was a stretch and I survived and so did they but just barely.

Now came the biggest challenge. I had to decide what to do my dissertation on and put together a proposal along with a pilot study by December for my orals.

I pulled that off, doing my pilot study using puppets to teach kids at the Harvard Nursery School new 'concepts' based on color and shape. For my dissertation though, I needed a concept that neither adults nor kids knew. I settled on the difference between hawks and falcons since the differences were complex and mostly visual. My orals went splendidly the first week in December. Now all I had to do was write a grant proposal to get the money to do the actual research and data analysis and get it all done by the end of the school year.

I managed to get a small research grant and ran the first phase of my research without much of a hitch. I even succeeded in using the MIT computer system to do the multi-dimensional scaling that needed to be done so I could pick the best hawk and falcon drawings to use in the study. Since I needed quite a few small children for my experiment I decided to use first graders at a local elementary school. That required getting permission from their parents and collecting my data working with kids in the classroom. Bad news. It was distracting in the classroom and the study task was boring to the kids.

In January, my roommate Becky and I had gone to the AAAS convention that was held in Boston that year. I had read about the Congressional Science Fellow Program that they had just started a year or two before and I went to a panel on it and set my sights on applying for the program. At the same time, I discovered that the American Psychological Association was sponsoring one fellow within the same program and so I applied for both hoping against hope I might be chosen for one.

The AAAS turned me down but in April the APA asked me to participate in their final selection process by writing a briefing paper on a particular topic they had selected and then going to Washington DC for a final interview. I worked like crazy doing research at the Kennedy School of Government Library to write the briefing paper, mailed it in on the appropriate date and flew to DC for the interview. And low and behold, they picked me as their only fellow for the 1976-1977 school year starting right after Labor Day. Oh Lordy, now I had to finish my dissertation.

I returned home from DC and did the final data analysis on my data. As I had already suspected, the data showed no statistically significant learning. Oops. Time to punt. In two afternoons, I wrote a children's story that was entertaining and repeatedly used the two concepts that the kids were supposed to be learning (using Hawks as the bad guys and Falcons as the good guys). I used exactly the same pattern that I'd showed them before but now embedded in a story instead of just shown to them like flash cards.

The school year was nearly over so I couldn't get another batch of public school kids because the time involved to get permission etc was too long. So I ran around and visited every pre-school in Cambridge looking for classes where they would let me come and read the story for 5 days and then come back and test all the kids individually in a quiet space. By the 4th of July, I had collected all my data and things were looking good. By the end of first week of July, I knew I had statistically significant results.

Now I just need to write the full text of the dissertation before the deadline for handing the thing in at the end of July. I wrote 8 hours a day and then typed like a maniac. I had discovered that all but one member of my committee was going to be gone in August and that there was no way I was going to get my degree by the end of the summer. The APA was okay on that as long as the dissertation was done. So I handed in a rough typed copy for my readers to read and tear apart, the first week in August and the next day took the train to DC to find an apartment. Whew.

I found an apartment on Capitol Hill that was available on Sept 1. I came home made a new wardrobe for my new job and packed up my worldly possessions in a rental truck. I drove to DC in time to move in and was ready to start orientation as a Congressional Science Fellow the day after Labor Day. Orientation was fabulous. We were wined and dined by Senators and Congressman who wanted us to join their staffs. We met with the directors of the NSF and the National Academy of Sciences. We had tours of the Library of Congress and the Congressional Research Service. And then we had a week to set up interviews and find a position.

Talk about culture shock and performance anxiety! I was the only female fellow and the only behavioral scientist amongst a group of mostly older engineers, physicists and biologists. I struggled to figure out who would want a developmental psychologist on their staff even if my salary was paid for by the APA. I interviewed in both Senate and Congressional offices and in the end decided to join the staff of David R. Obey, a young congressman from northern Wisconsin who was a member of the Labor-HEW appropriations committee. Dave was bright and he'd had a series of Political Science Fellows in his office and knew how valuable they could be. I might know diddley about politics (which I didn't) but he could use me. Dave remained in Congress until 2010by the way and was the Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee when he retired --one of the most power men in Washington! He'd been around so long that they let him gavel in the final vote on the Affordable Care Act since he'd come to Congress in 1979 with the idea of Universal Health Care as a goal. It was kind of fun to see him on TV from time to time pounding his fist on the lectern as he made a point just like he did way back when.

I ended up being the legislative assistant for Health and Education for him. I wrote questions for committee hearings. I wrote briefing papers on things he needed background on. I answered questions for him that he might encounter when he went to his district. I worked to get funding for the National Death Index so that epidemiologists could track populations and see what diseases killed people in what parts of the country doing what kinds of jobs. I encouraged him to add a little more funding for the National Mental Health Institute and as a result he was named the Congressman of the Year by the National Mental Health Association.

I got to go to Jimmy Carter's Inauguration and stand in the snow and watch him take the oath of office. And I figured out that while DC might be the center of power for the country and they all might think it was the center of the universe it wasn't a very good place for me. I felt as if I stayed there any length of time I would be eaten alive. I just wasn't aggressive enough or cut throat enough to survive. So at the end of my fellowship I moved back to California and started looking for a job in industry.

Meanwhile back at Harvard, my dissertation committee accepted my dissertation with a few minor changes and I had the darned thing professionally typed so I wouldn't have to hassle with it. The final copy is sitting on a dusty shelf somewhere in the Harvard Ed School Library, entitled: Schematic Concept Formation and The Acquisition of Word Meaning. I was awarded my EdD from the Harvard School of Education in February 1977. I was free.

Due to a series of happy coincidences, I got a job as a marketing research manager for strategic planning at Syntex Corp., a pharmaceutical company in Palo Alto. They hired me because of my Harvard degree, my background in statistics and because the head of the department was a PhD in Political Science and was lonely for another social scientist since he was surrounded by MBAs.

I spent 9 months learning about Marketing Research which was a very natural fit for me, and strategic planning that was mostly politics and economic guess-work that wasn't a great fit. I wasn't a very smooth operator coming out of grad school and it showed when mixed in with my highly politically savvy MBAs co-workers. Syntex was more interested in presentation and politics than in serious academic substance and I really didn't fit in very well.

To make things worse the department was in constant flux (I had 3 bosses in my first 4 months) and my personal life imploded and I pretty much fell apart emotionally. The great blessing is that they terminated me after 9 months, saying I didn't fit in. That was a shock to my system. I'd never really 'failed' at anything before and getting terminated sure sounded the same as getting fired to me. But I recovered after a few months of therapy. Yes, the lady who was so interested in personality theory has been shrunk. I did a year or so of psychotherapy the year I turned 21 and then did another 9 months of very intense work in 1978 when my life imploded. It made a world a difference in my life and I highly recommend it.

My next job was with SmithKline Instruments in Sunnyvale. They were an in vitro diagnostics company which means that they made blood tests. They were a small division of a very large corporation with lots of young female managers. They were much more interested in substance than style and I fit in nicely. I stayed there nearly 2 1/2 years and left after a major shift in management caused most of the marketing department to quit--me included. But in the meantime I was their New Products manager. I did market assessments for new product ideas, coordinated the process of taking a product idea from research through the first year on the market and planned the marketing and advertising campaigns for about 10 new products in those 2 1/2 years.

My last 'real world' marketing job was with a start-up company called Second Foundation in Chatsworth, CA. They were a ultrasound company that had invented a wonderful new design for clearer ultrasound scans. They'd managed to get venture capitol to do the development work on the design and had sold some of the rights to their patents to GE for a non-cardiac scanner. They hired me to help shepherd the product through development and then to switch over to be their Marketing Manager when it came time to launch.

My husband, Walter, went to work for them in engineering (and then as their Engineering Manager when they were readying for market) and we had a very intense year and half working 60 hour weeks, chasing the dream of growing a little company into a big one. I got to participate in the design of the first logo for the company along with the whole look and feel of their advertizing materials and the booth for conventions. I arranged photo shoots and ran hospitality suites. I did the marketing research and analyzed the data. I learned to use the Apple II computers and helped do the financial analysis each quarter for the Venture Capitalists.

Second Foundation ran afoul of the 1982 recession and the venture capitalists cut off most of the money. They had to lay off half the company, and I was in the half they laid off since I was now the Marketing Manager with a product that really wasn't ready for market.

Walter and I decided to go off to spiritual community instead of me looking for a new marketing job and I've never gone back to work in the 'real world'. I still draw on many of the things I learned over those years but Sara C. Schurr research psychologist, statistician and marketing manager really isn't an active hat I wear any more.