My Two Cents

April 9, 2015

To my incredulous elderly mother (herself a retired teacher), and anyone of whatever generation who asks, “You have a PhD from Harvard. Aren’t there any jobs out there?”, I offer you this news story, hardly the first one I’ve seen on this topic. One quote from Dr. Colton echoes what I’ve been saying for years: "I didn't think that getting more education would lead to harder times." Sigh. Yeah. I’m living through a version of her story, as are a lot of my highly-educated peers. The PhD just doesn’t get you today what it used to: prestige, a steady (decent) paycheck, job security. After all, part of why we spent all that time in school was to get those things, right?

For me, it was thrilling to discover that things I loved to do--read, explore, write, share my experiences with others--were actually valued someplace. I often refer to my graduate school experience as “boot camp for the intellectually inclined”, but looking back on it, it was also the best-paying and longest-lasting job I’ve ever had. I received fellowships every year of the six years of my studies; to be able to count on having at least $20,000/year right now would be great!

I got a call a few weeks ago from my alma mater: Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. They were asking for a donation that would go towards funding fellowships for current students. I said “No”, graciously once, and then twice, and that was enough for the young man. He thanked me for my time and hung up. I may have been imagining it, but he sounded a bit miffed. I guess he was disappointed that “Dr. James” did not donate. Well, he’s not half as miffed as “Dr. James” herself that she doesn’t have the money to donate. He’s not a quarter as frustrated as “Dr. James” has been that her high-profile degree has not led to job security or stability. I am sure that the young man is not an eighth as annoyed as “Dr. James” that her high-profile degree is as much of a turn-off for employers as it is a turn-on for would-be graduate students, nor is he one-sixteenth as bewildered as “Dr. James” that--a decade after earning that hard-won PhD--she has applied for, and now receives, food stamps. And, as I’ve said, “Dr. James” is not the only one.

Now, thankfully, I am single and without children, and between unemployment compensation and food stamps, I can make what I earn go pretty far. Still, it is not easy to watch the market for your skills and education vanish without a trace. The jobs that require a PhD, provide tenure and a living wage are, in comparison to every other kind of work, scarce. Most of the remaining jobs that require a PhD are those part-time, poorly paid, adjunct positions that are aimed at people just out of graduate school trying to get that first academic gig. Also, did you know that a PhD has an expiration date? That’s right: Roughly two to five years after receipt of the doctorate, one is ineligible for most research fellowships and many visiting positions. I’ve had my degree for over a decade.

Of course, there are other jobs out there, and I’ve had quite a few of them. Most of these do not require a PhD, which means that when a holder of an advanced degree applies for one, the PhD-holder has to take pains to bend over backwards, sideways and forwards to avoid being considered “overqualified”. Numerous are the times that I have been told, “You’re just so talented. I wish we had something for someone like you!” Such back-of-the-hand compliments grow old after a short time.

When I commute into Center City, my train passes by the rusting hulks of long-abandoned factories, and I wonder whether this is what our educational system will look like in the not-too-distant future. Many people seem to be content to get their “education” from the internet via distance learning courses, rather than in-person. “Research” is done via Wikipedia and Google rather than in libraries and archives. Will our colleges and universities wind up as a collection of deserted and decaying buildings as education continues to be outsourced and undervalued?

Education is about the heart, the soul, the body, and the spirit as well as the mind. Over the last few decades, this country has focused on turning every aspect of our lives, including education, into a “business” based on the erroneous idea that everything can be measured and quantified and be made to toe the bottom line. What I see is that by focusing on the bottom line, we are rapidly heading toward the bottom: we don’t manufacture anything, and now we don’t want to know anything. What I see is that we are losing sight of what makes us human as well as what makes a culture and a country viable and valuable.

 

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