We Ignore 'The Economist'

Well now, there's The Economist with this year’s “Doctorates are a Waste of Time” article. This piece falls in line with 2009’s New York Times article about the awful academic job market, helpfully illustrated with photos of glum-looking Ph.D.s who either can’t find a job or settled for an academic job — the horror! — in the Deep South.

January 24, 2011

Well now, there's The Economist with this year’s “Doctorates are a Waste of Time” article. This piece falls in line with 2009’s New York Times article about the awful academic job market, helpfully illustrated with photos of glum-looking Ph.D.s who either can’t find a job or settled for an academic job — the horror! — in the Deep South. All this is hard upon 2008’s Associated Press story about too many doctorates chasing too few jobs. We’ve barely recovered from the New Yorker cover and now this.

ECON 101 tells us that supply and demand are related, but nobody has offered a compelling reason why America continues to overproduce doctorates in the face of a market that screams "stop!" We don’t overproduce phrenologists or leech-gatherers, so why do we crank out Ph.D.s, watching them march directly from the hooding ceremonies to the bread lines? Why isn’t each potential consumer of doctoral education making the more rational choice to apprentice with a repo man?

Once we acknowledge that income is a poor metric for explaining the popularity of the doctorate at this historically un-propitious time in American economic history, we cast about for softer reasons like "quality of life." But I’ve yet to see a survey that measures "smugness," and until we wrestle the Smugness Angel to the ground we won’t get a handle on the doctoral overproduction problem (if there is one). It isn't the hope of some future job satisfaction that pushes folks to burn a near-decade of life on a piece of paper, it is self-satisfaction. We live to do that which we ought not do, and when we do that forbidden thing despite all the good reasons not to, smugness descends upon us like a tongue of fire.

To get at the smugness factor we have to reframe the income question. It is true, as the Economist clucks, that people who earn doctorates rarely see their earnings potential increase enough to offset the cost of the degree. But no research has as yet adjusted the data on non-doctorate earnings to account for the amount of income people without doctorates ("nondocs") devote to generating the same level of self-satisfaction that the Ph.D.-holder comes by as a matter of course. She who holds a doctorate might look with envy upon her nondoc neighbor with the car that has working power windows. After all, the doctorate’s car has plastic sheeting duct-taped to the door frame (thanks, $24,000-per-year postdoc!). But that nondoc neighbor has spent some incomprehensible sum — perhaps as much as $20,000 — to buy a car in search of self-approbation. His vehicle is an artificial attempt to show he deserves a full life. So is his seasonally appropriate coat and balanced diet.

Meanwhile, the person with a doctorate need not build such psychological campfires against the cold darkness of the universe — we are self-warming, self-justifying creatures. Nondocs see burning in us what they will forever struggle and fail to purchase — the blaze of smugness. One may be poor (or at best shabby-genteel middle class), but there is a P-h-bleepin’-D after the name, a distinction that owning a home espresso machine can’t touch. The way to get at this issue, data-wise, is to consider all the things a Ph.D. will never have in relation to the reasons nondocs get those very items (and it is mostly items, like beds that aren’t futons and those flat TVs I keep seeing on "The Big Bang Theory"). The consensus seems to be that the master's degree is worth something, but that the doctorate is not a reasonable investment. That consensus counts the wrong beans.

I don’t spend much time on The Outside, but I meet nondocs in the grocery, and at church, and at unavoidable family gatherings, and I see them struggle to achieve the smug. So much alcohol, so much philandering, so much striving for promotion to V.P., attachment to sports teams and political parties, time lavished on soup kitchens and animal shelters, on raising kids and caring for the aged, so much windsurfing and cross-training … so many airy castles designed to prove that there are good lives to be lived without that ne plus ultra of credentials. We were acquainted with those people before we went to graduate school. As Bob Dylan (honorary doctorate, Princeton) put it, "All those people we used to know /they’re an illusion to me now." The nondoc trades thousands of dollars and hours for an uncertain shot at self-satisfaction. The person with a Ph.D. has a lifetime supply.

We ought not confuse the smugness of a fully-formed Ph.D. with the "satisfaction" of those in graduate school. Cary Nelson and Barbara E. Lovitts, in a report outlining "promising practices" for graduate programs, say that graduate directors should pay heed to “student satisfaction.” But tracking student satisfaction during the doctoral process is akin to asking a sled dog how he likes his working conditions. Panting and whimpering do not make for data, and those are the only modes of communication (plus blogging) most graduate students have mastered. No, it is after the completion of the degree that the smugness takes hold.

While there is nothing more miserable and annoying than a doctorate-in-training, once that little sucker breaks out of the cocoon she can beat her wings like the butterfly she was meant to be. In mixed company (i.e. groups of doctorates and nondocs) she can let slip "when I was working on my doctorate" and the room becomes hers. In mixed marriages (distasteful, perhaps, but sometimes useful to pay for life’s little necessities, like health insurance), the Ph.D. can be the ultimate weapon in a decades-long struggle for emotional dominance. Nobody argued with The Professor (Ph.D., Botany, UCLA) on Gilligan’s Island. All those marooned nondocs depended on his serene intelligence when the chips were down.

When visiting grandma, nothing annoys your lawyer cousin (with his mere J.D.) like a real doctorate and the obscure dissertation topic that granny can’t even pronounce, much less comprehend. Just try to explain research to nondocs — how deep into the night you studied, how tiny the particles are, how universal the forces proved to be. You have to replace your technical argot with layman’s terms, pull from your store of go-to analogies, give your listener just a hint of the terrifying complexity of it all. It never gets old. In the nondoc world, nobody knows your thesis was always bankrupt or irrelevant. They only know that you wrote a thesis they could never write.

Take two reasonably intelligent 25-year-olds, both with undergraduate degrees. One, Aphron, goes the way of Mammon, getting a job and spending the next decade as a salaryman — first at a low level, but by year 10 well-advanced in the hierarchy, doing pretty well. The other seeks a Ph.D. — call him Metis — and spends eight years lurking outside his dissertation director’s office followed by two years actually writing. The Economist would tell you that the Aphron is in materially better shape.

But what about spiritually? Ego-wise? Qua a fully-formed human being? There’s where the Metis, Ph.D., holds all the cards. Aphron spent 10 years getting and spending so as to fill the hole in his center. A decade out of school he careens from one excellent meal to the next, from one satisfying Caribbean vacation to another, from a well-heated home in January to a well-cooled one in July, no closer to fulfillment than when he started. Metis, however, has done something less than 1 percent of Americans have done — climbed the mountain of the academy and planted his flag. In conversations with Aphron he can parry chatter about the trouble with tax shelters with something high-minded about myxobacteria or heteroglossia or dark matter. Dark matter!

Those who talk of the "Ph.D. Crisis" cite job numbers, but if you want to be all mathematically rigorous about it, it is the number going in, not coming out, that matters. Why would thousands of smart people choose to enter doctoral programs each year when just one Google search can cough up dozens of articles about what a bad idea it is to get a doctorate? People of a certain age will recall that a quarter-century ago Nancy Reagan and Clint Eastwood (along with Mr. T, Pee Wee Herman, et al.) took to the airwaves to convince kids to "Just Say No." That flood of 1980s Public Service Announcements convinced many of us who had no idea what drugs were, much less how to get them, that we were missing out on something powerful and profound. Drugs seemed to entail an enlightenment so dangerous that Robin Williams himself stopped being Mork for a minute and started "getting real" about the dealers at the playground. "Just Say No" makes certain people burn to say "Yes." Every news article about the inadvisability of pursuing a Ph.D. stokes a few secret hearts. The signs telling young people to stay out of the abandoned mine only serve to mark the entrance to the labyrinth where there be treasure.

Academics holding the doctorate face the same paradox. Students come by the office and say they want to go on to grad school — go all the way, academically speaking, and get the doctorate. We tell them no — too dangerous, it doesn’t pay, look at the overworked and underpaid wreck in front of you if you doubt it! Monica J. Harris has written about this "Full Disclosure Strategy," and she thinks we owe it to our charges to give them the bad news. The dull student slinks out of the room, perhaps to settle for an M.B.A., but the sharper knife glimpses something in our mien, a hint of counterargument embedded in our wisdom and gravitas. We might as well enumerate for a kid swinging a bat his minuscule chances of making the big leagues, tell a teenager with a guitar that a record deal is a million-to-one shot. Kids still swing bats and whale on guitars.

When undergraduates today read about the baleful doctorate, the truly clever and intrepid ones seek out doctoral study all the same. If they survive the training (and only half of them do) they come out insufferably triumphant in a way that is hard to explain to nondocs. People spend their whole lives looking for the thing that makes them feel alive. The dissertation defense is elevated to the sublime — this is your brain on doctorate.

And really, what do nondocs do with all that extra disposable income? They pump it into the failing heart of American commerce. They finance surfing in Thailand, shiny powerboats, and luxury orthodontia.

But what do we do with our doctorates? We feed on them, even as we frame them and place them on the wall (or, false-modest, put them in a drawer to be peeked at when spirits are low). We wrap our hearts in their warmth. The doctorate means that for one moment you knew all there was to know about some tiny slice of the universe. You won that knowledge in defiance of the conventional wisdom, you Faust, you! The New York Times, the Economist, heck, even even many of the advice columnists on this website — they said you were crazy, that the numbers don’t add up.

Pity Aphron. He spent years gathering enough cash to die in a golf community. Admire Metis. He touched the face of God.


Daniel J. Ennis, a professor of English at Coastal Carolina University, holds a doctorate -- a sweet, precious doctorate.


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