Getting a PhD was the best decision I ever made. And the worst.
American businesses are anti-intellectual. American universities are anti-relevance. The gods help the overeducated schmuck stuck in the middle.
Hi. I’m Sam, and I’m a PhD.
For those of you who don’t know me, I have a doctorate. Communication, University of Colorado, 1999. Some days it’s the thing I have done in life that I’m most proud of. Other days I think it’s the worst mistake I ever made in my life. There are days where I think both things more or less at the same time.
A couple of recent articles address my frustration and ambivalence. Let’s start with “Professors, We Need You,” today’s Nick Kristof column in the Times. Boy, does he nail a big chunk of what’s wrong with academia or what?
A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.
“Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”
A related problem is that academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.
Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian who writes for The New Yorker and is an exception to everything said here, noted the result: “a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose.”
As experiments, scholars have periodically submitted meaningless gibberish to scholarly journals — only to have the nonsense respectfully published.
My doc program colleagues can testify that I was bitching about these very issues – relentlessly – back in the mid-1990s. I had no interest in the aggressively policed irrelevance of the Research 1 university, an environment that quickly dismissed anyone who was even vaguely “popular.” The standard employed treated the likes of Marshall McLuhan and Neal Postman – whom at least several dozen people have heard of – as if they were Justin Bieber, shameless gloryhounds whose oeuvre lacked rigor and who were not worthy of consideration by serious thinkers.
That sounds like rhetorical flair and hyperbole, I know. But it isn’t. One time a colleague found an article by Postman that was undeniably relevant to a class discussion and when she introduced it she was positively flushed with embarrassment. It was like she was admitting that she owned a Journey album to a bar full of Motorhead fans.
As for the “turgid prose” thing, Kristof doesn’t come anywhere close to fully expressing the incomprehensibility of much of what appears in social and humanities journals. Look, I’m a smart guy. I have an MA in English and a PhD in Comm. I have taught all kinds of communication and writing courses at the graduate level. I do not exaggerate when I say that I have no fucking idea what some of these folks are talking about. I vividly recall sitting in on some English lit panels at a conference some years back and hearing two or three grad students presenting their papers. One of them – the reason I was in this particular session, in fact – was on Blade Runner, a subject I know a bit about. I think, by the end of the session, that I was actually less smart that I had been before it started. I knew most of the words being employed, but they were arranged in a way that might as well have been random. Actually, random would have been better. At least that way your brain wouldn’t be tricked into trying to understand what was allegedly an attempt to communicate.
Don’t believe me? Sneak into MLA sometime and report back with your findings.
I argued then, and vehemently so, that this was an abject waste of some of our society’s finest minds. When you skim a big percentage of your best and brightest and put them to work in a community whose disdain for engaging the lives of actual people is surpassed only by its hatred for clear communication, you’re not only missing an opportunity to make the world a little better place, you’re fueling a process that the earnest working class boy in me can’t help regarding as vaguely immoral.
No, not all academics are like this, of course. My friend Lynn Schofield Clark, for instance, is conducting a research program that can actually help parents understand what’s going on with their social media-wired kids, with the potential for forging stronger family bonds. Michael Tracey, one of my mentors, developed a public interest theory of broadcasting that served as the foundation for a major cable company offering in the UK, and he later became the first guy to explain, in detail, why JonBenet Ramsey’s parents were innocent – a view ultimately vindicated by investigators. So please, don’t take this as a comment on all academics.
That said, the point Kristof is making is more than valid in the aggregate, and it’s also part and parcel of why I never pursued a Research 1 career. I wanted to do things that might be useful and relevant for the society at large. I guess I liked the idea of the “public intellectual,” but I was perceptive enough to see how the idea was received by the serious scholars in my field. No one ever actually patted me on the head and called me cute, but that’s certainly how it all felt. A smart doctoral candidate can’t help but consider how his eventual encounters with the Tenure & Promotion Committee might shake out.
The second article is Sarah Kendzior’s piece at al Jazeera on the plight of the PhD in the business world. Imagine that you’re applying for a job, and there is something about you that makes you uniquely qualified to do it not only well, but better than just about anyone else. This thing makes you special, and if you can somehow help the company understand its value, they’re going to hire you yesterday and pay you whatever you’re asking.
Got it? Okay, now, delete anything related to this capability from your résumé.
That’s how my current job search (and every other job search I’ve conducted in the past 15 years) has felt.
Scholars leaving academia in the hopes of other lines of work agonize over how to sell themselves in a market that finds them somehow both overqualified and undervalued. Media outlets proclaim that the national employment crisis is caused not by a lack of jobs, but lack of candidates with the skills to fill them. According to NBC, “employers are complaining about job candidates’ inability to speak and to write clearly.” According to Time, employers cannot find candidates who are “problem solvers and can plan, organize, and prioritize their work.”
If that is truly the cause of the unemployment crisis, one would think that Ph.D.’s would be in a position to solve it. After all, clear communication, independent problem-solving, and strong organizational skills are necessary to finish the degree. Yet Ph.D.’s are frequently cautioned to leave their doctoral degree off their résumé. The struggle with the transition to nonacademic work is so fraught with anxiety that there are multiple consulting groups dedicated to helping scholars through it.
Yes, the last line of that first graf – “problem solvers and can plan, organize, and prioritize their work” – is at odds with my characterization of many academics above. And that’s what this missive is about: wherefore the PhD who’s not into the arcane irrelevance of hardcore academia but is more suited to the “real world”? We don’t seem to have a place in either domain. The research university has no room for us if we insist on engaging a “popular” audience. And if we give up and leave, our credentials are held against us by the “real world.”
The question of how to present myself when seeking a job is one that has vexed me for years. I can’t tell you how many versions my résumé has been through in the last decade. Easily more than a hundred. Some of this owes to the real and important task of tailoring your story to the potential employer’s requirements, but a lot of it results from trying to find a way to make my academic experiences sound like they’re good things in a society that casts a suspicious eye on those with too much fondness for book learnin’.
The Internet being what it is, there are versions of my rez floating around out there that show the full academic record, so stripping the PhD completely out of the current iteration isn’t an option. Further, there’s a need to account for where I was during those years I spent getting the degree and a year spent as a prof. My current résumé tells the whole story, but it is structured so as to minimize my academic background as much as I can without being misleading.
Ironically, the experiences of my doc program make me a great guy for corporate work. Of course, this isn’t true in a way that is quickly obvious to an HR hack. I didn’t spend six years researching business applications of anything – that they could understand – and the honest answer about why it makes me a great candidate is potentially confusing for the aforementioned staffing drone (as well as a lot of hiring managers).
The result is a résumé/coverletter/screening call (on the off chance that I somehow make it past the structures most companies have built to keep people like me out) that’s pure kabuki. I have to somehow lead you to the correct conclusion without reference to the actual mechanisms that effected it. I can show you case studies and success stories and maybe even the endorsements of those who have worked with me, but I then have to hope you can read between the lines. I have to structure the rez so that hopefully you’re intrigued by what appear to be purely business-driven results before you get to the part where it becomes clear that I spent too many years in school. At that point, the recruiter’s brow furrows in confusion. And you don’t want to confuse a recruiter.
I can’t say that I’m smarter than most of your other applicants. I can’t tell you that you should care about my PhD because it taught me to think. I absolutely can’t risk being perceived as insecure, so I can’t explain that no, I’m not one of those eggheads without enough sense to come in out of the rain.
So, now it’s your turn – rip your best argument out of the résumé and go apply for a job in a hyper-competitive environment.
I know, I know. This is all a self-serving whine. I clearly think too highly of myself. I’m blaming others for my own failures.
Maybe. But I’m living with the decisions I made. It isn’t like I’m just now discovering that I live in a country with an anti-intellectual streak. I was stubborn. I made some wrong guesses. Guilty on all counts.
Yes, if I had it all to do over again…
I value education. I came from a family that valued education. Had my grandmother lived long enough to see me walking across the stage to be hooded that wonderful May day in Boulder her heart would have popped out of her chest with pride. I carried this knowledge with me every day from orientation to graduation, and it was the single biggest reason I didn’t quit when the going got tough. And it got very tough – that doc was the hardest thing I ever did in my life. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the most daunting challenges I encounter in my business life are laughably simple compared to what was required of me in every class I took at CU.
I’m a better person for this experience in every imaginable way. And every day, it makes my life more difficult.
What if you had a time machine? Imagine going back and changing the most valuable thing you ever did. Imagine having a magic wand and using it to expunge the proudest moment of your life.
Thanks to Kristof and Kendzior for reminding me of the implications associated with the decision I made back in 1991 to go get the doctorate. Bastards.
I guess I’m going to go revise my résumé now.