More reasons not to do a PhD

The Big Lie about the “Life of the Mind” (Chronicle of Higher Education)

…The ranks of new Ph.D.’s and adjuncts these days are mainly composed of people from below the upper-middle class: people who believe from infancy that more education equals more opportunity. They see the professions as a path to security and status…

…The myth of the academic meritocracy powerfully affects students from families that believe in education, that may or may not have attained a few undergraduate degrees, but do not have a lot of experience with how access to the professions is controlled. Their daughter goes to graduate school, earns a doctorate in comparative literature from an Ivy League university, everyone is proud of her, and then they are shocked when she struggles for years to earn more than the minimumwage. (Meanwhile, her brother—who was never very good at school—makes a decent living fixing HVAC systems with a six-month certificate from a for-profit school near the Interstate.)…

William Pannapacker (“Thomas Benton”), associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich.

The Big Lie about the “Life of the Mind” (Chronicle of Higher Education).

See also: “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go,” and the follow-up essay. HT: Storied Theology

BTW, I came very close to pursuing my own HVAC certificate the year after I graduated with my Masters of Divinity.

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6 thoughts on “More reasons not to do a PhD

  1. Simon says:

    From the comments section of the artice:

    “I suspect we’re past the point where many people are reading the posts, but I feel compelled to offer one anecdote. Though I’m fully aware of the risk of generalizing from anecdotes, I think this one is revealing. I’m a provost at a very good liberal arts college, and formerly was a full-time faculty member (at two other schools) in political science. My daughter graduated from a good university and, after a few years working abroad and in the U.S., told me she was interested in going to graduate school with the aim of getting a Ph.D. and becoming a college professor. Had I been Prof. Benton — this is my daughter, remember — I would have urged her to do something else. The last thing her mother and I wanted was for our first-born to get on the endless treadmill Benton and many of the posters describe. But I simply encouraged her to do her homework — about graduate programs and the job market, in particular — and made sure she understood what she was getting into. As someone who hires faculty, in all fields, I certainly understand the realities of the job market, the growing reliance on adjuncts, the possibility that getting the Ph.D. would take a long time, etc. But I knew this was something my daughter wanted and needed to do. Long story short, she got into an excellent graduate program with adequate funding, stayed focused on completing the dissertation, and this year — the first year out of grad school — has begun a tenure-track position at a solid research university. She’s in political science, not the humanities, so I don’t claim her experience applies equally well across all fields, but if one were to read the posts one might conclude that encouraging folks to go to grad school in ANY discipline is to tragically misguide them. Well, I did encourage someone — a person whose welfare is more important to me than my own — to do so, and the outcome has been very good. And, I’ll add, her desire to do so was fueled by her embrace of the BIG LIE so blithely dismissed here — i.e., the life of the mind.”

  2. David Ker says:

    Glad to see you blogging a little more often now. As for higher degrees I’m heading for a Master’s Program next year but hoping to avoid a doctorate (Dr.=administrator in our organization).

    • Ben says:

      What do you mean, David? I have a two day spurt of parasitic posts every month ;-). I had a good, but grueling trip to the US in Dec/Jan, and then packing up my parents in Malawi, so I have had to be a bit more attentive to the tangible present–people I was seeing for the first time in five years or longer.

      There may be a post peculating that pulls back the curtain a bit on some of my inner turmoil about becoming a missionary, having to raise support, and a particular emotional problem related to feelings of inadequacy that I’m having to be “delivered” from. We’ll see.

      Simon, I can understand that comment, but biblical studies is definitely not one of those fields (except maybe if you want to go into pastoring, but there are career issues there as well).

      I hear David on PhDs meaning “administration.” I went in with my eyes wide open. Before I started my masters degree, I had guys with PhDs doing administration just one rung above me, and I decided then that it wasn’t worth 5 years of pain and sacrifice. I love what I do, and I think I will be able to use it positively, but I don’t have any illusions of tenure-track teaching positions out there waiting for me.

  3. brad wright says:

    As a two-PhD family, I can resonate with this article. We would have made more going into other professions, let alone the opportunity cost of a collective 16 years in graduate school.

    What’s missing, here, is quality of life and work. I enjoy my work so much, its autonomy and intellectual challenge, that the PhD is money well spent. (Of course, I may be in denial).

  4. Ben says:

    It’s definitely not all about money. Even among those who don’t make it to jobs like you have, Brad, I do wonder how many people who get their PhDs regret it? My guess is I’d rather have had a chance at the living the lie of the “Life of the Mind” and be doing HVAC (or administration as the case may be) than to have never…something like it’s better to have loved and lost than…

  5. Lauren says:

    This deliberate deferring to those who are “properly educated” mean we don’t seek answers for ourselves — how to sell a property (rely on the real estate “experts”), teach our children (send them to school to be taught by “real” teachers) or understand the Bible (submit to those in “spiritual authority”).

    Instead of pursuing wisdom and knowledge, we lean on the shoulders of others — those who may or may not have the information we need.

    “I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down,” declares the Sovereign Lord. Ezekiel 34:15

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