Unemployed PhD grads and college football players are the same

Prompted by this blog: “No, You Cannot be a Professor.” Thanks, katiestockdale

The thing about grad school is that everyone else is at least as special as you, and most of them are more so. They all had 4.0 GPAs, they all have gone through life in the same insulating cocoon of praise, they all really, really love history. Hell, some of them shoot rainbows out of their butts and smell like a pine forest after a spring rain–and they mostly aren’t going to get jobs either.

The blog post links to an article on The Economist site about why, exactly, doing a PhD is a terrible idea: there’s a huge oversupply of new PhDs and a declining number of tenure track jobs. The major problem with this picture? It’s not just that you can’t get a job with a PhD: it’s that the smartest people in any given country are wasting their time being unsatisfied with their life as an un- or under-employed person with an advanced degree. And what about re-tooling for another job? “Workers with “surplus schooling”—more education than a job requires—are likely to be less satisfied, less productive and more likely to say they are going to leave their jobs” (ibid).

Think about it in more football-y terms: not everyone makes it to the show. After all those years and years of practice, with all the glorious praise of your football-crazy parents and coaches and friends, you might never make it to the grand stadiums that you’ve been promised. According to the NCAA, eight in 10,000 high school football players will eventually be drafted by the NFL. Wouldn’t it be neat if people put the sort of energy they have towards something that could at least give you a chance at employment?

Getting a job with a PhD isn’t quite that hard, but if there’s a problem in the ivory towers, it probably has to do with the same things that drive a person to try to get into the NFL: culture. To see how similar the scholarly life’s proponents are to the NFL boosters, imagine Timmy(1) and Timmy (2). Timmy(1) is raised in a family of people who inculcate an appreciation of academia: he cares about books because he’s raised amongst books and their fans. He sees the distant goal of college, and then more college, as a mark that affirms his own worth in his community. If he works hard, he can become what his family values; along the way, he’ll find a society pleasingly arranged to treat his goal of pursuing an advanced degree as a very important one.

Ditto for Timmy(2), but he’s playing football, which might also get him laid, so society is really rooting for him.

Anyway, this is all a very roundabout way of saying that the light at the end of the tunnel – the possibility of snagging that tenure-track job, or that spot in the draft – is so blindingly important to a whole society that the well-being of the people who actually pursue that end is dismissed as irrelevant. They’ll be rewarded along the way, sure. But the happiness of these seriously driven academics and athletes depends on us, as a society, giving them aspirations that will reward them (and our society) indefinitely. Nothing could be worse than to rob them of their drive and then leave them unemployed too.

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