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Being Elite Without Becoming Elitist

Advice for staying grounded once you receive your Ph.D.

January 21, 2016

DeWitt Scott is a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership at Chicago State University.  You can follow him on Twitter at @dscotthighered


You are almost there!  Finally, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  The qualifying exam was brutal, but you made it.  Defending your proposal was an anxiety-filled hour-plus, replete with restlessness and worry, and you have the sweat stains on your shirt to prove it.  It took longer than it should have but your institution’s IRB finally decided to quit nitpicking at your study and grant you the green light to move on.  Your committee is pleased with your progress and you have now set a date for your final defense.  The excitement is overwhelming as you push through the final stages.


As you begin to think about what you are accomplishing and where you are going, you realize that you are about to join an exclusive group.  Less than 2% of the people in America hold Ph.Ds.  Those with doctorates are regularly asked their opinion on societal issues.  When Ph.Ds. speak, people listen.  Regardless of what discipline your degree is in, people believe that you should know the answer to everything, no matter how absurd that may sound.  You have forfeited your right to say “I don’t know.”  Once you graduate you will be looked upon by many people as a member of society’s elite.


As great as this distinction may sound, there are some things of which you must be aware.  Striving to become elite is fine.  Everyone wants to be associated with the best of the best and to be seen as successful and extraordinary.  The problem is when one becomes elitist.  An academic institution conferring a degree upon you for excellent work is flattering, but it does not make you superior to anyone else.  The following are basic tips Ph.D. graduates should consider to avoid becoming pompous individuals who believe that they are the universe’s gift to society.


1. Have an attitude of gratitude.  Yes, you have worked extremely hard to accomplish this feat.  You stayed up writing for hours at a time, spent months, or even years, conducting research, and worked through summer months while your friends lounged on the beach.  There is no doubt that you deserve the success you have earned.  But remember that nobody owes you anything.  That goes for the job market, your graduate institution, or your discipline overall.  The worst thing you can do upon graduation is to enter the professional world with a sense of entitlement.  Instead, try being thankful for all that you have been able to experience and accomplish.  Be thankful for your advisor and all of the help she has provided over the years (unless she was just an evil person who unnecessarily made your journey more difficult).  Acknowledge the high school, junior high, and elementary school teachers who played a part in developing you into the person you are today.  Reflect on the mentors who gave you powerful advice and encouraged you to keep going.  Nobody in this world succeeds alone.  We all have help to some degree from people who have crossed our paths (parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, faith leaders, friends, etc).  Upon final defense and graduation, be grateful for where you are in your life and all of the good things that have transpired.


2. Acknowledge that many smart people do not have Ph.Ds.  As those of us who have worked in academia know, just because one has a Ph.D. does not make him/her a genius.  Some higher education faculty and administrators do and say the most foolish things.  On that same note, there are a number of extremely intelligent people who do not have a terminal degree.  Just because one does not have a Ph.D. does not mean she is not a brilliant, astute intellectual.  Ph.D. recipients do not have a monopoly on knowledge and they need not act like it.  Respect the opinions and writings of smart people who may have not attended or finished graduate school.  Do not look down your nose at someone because they do not have three letters behind their names.  You will only appear closed-minded and irrational and alienate yourself from people who could possibly become quality colleagues, friends, business partners, or significant others.


3.  Spend some time with people outside of academia.  Adopting a humble demeanor has much to do with perspective.  It is important that you take time to converse and congregate with people from walks of life other than academia.  The ivory tower can be isolating and keep its members in the clouds.  There are people “on the ground” who may respect a budding academic, but who also are dealing with issues that are a bit more urgent than honoring you for your academic accomplishments.  Allow yourself to be in surroundings with people who see the world differently.  You may realize that although what you have accomplished is incredible, there are still other parts of this world that need attention.


4. Find ways to use your Ph.D. to help someone less fortunate.  Personal accomplishments are great, but at the end of the day if our work and achievements are not being used to create a better world then we fall short.  The Ph.D. should be used to help someone, not to be framed and mounted to remind everyone who walks in your office that you are smart.  We must use this knowledge and expertise we’ve gained to help people who may not have had the same access to resources, support, and mentoring that we have had.  Create outlets for your work that impact people and inspires them to be better.  Whether we do this by using our research to inform policy, taking time to groom someone who may be a future Ph.D. recipient, or using our credentials to help change the institutions in which we work, we need to make use of our Ph.Ds. in ways that are philanthropic as opposed to narcissistic.


No matter what we may accomplish in our academic or professional careers, we must remember that those accomplishments do not make us better than anyone else.  A Ph.D. should not change who you are for the worse.  It should help you discover talents within yourself and encourage you to pursue excellence in moral and ethical ways.  The moment we forget our responsibility to make this world a better place and begin to focus strictly on ourselves is the moment that we become elitist.  Beware of this tendency once you receive your degree, and resist it all cost.


What are some of your thoughts about elitism in the academy?  Is elitism an inevitable byproduct of acquiring a terminal degree?  How do you handle elitist individuals in your own institution?

[Image by Pixbay user Steve Buissinne and used under Creative Commons license]


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