One of the things I like most about my neighborhood is that even though it is located close to a university, it is a very diverse neighborhood, populated both by people affiliated with the university as well as many who have no connection to the university at all. It is quite possible, in this neighborhood, to be aware that not everyone in the world has a Ph.D., and that is a good thing. And our academic neighbors are not just professors, but also postdocs, grads, undergrads, and university staff members. It is also somewhat diverse in more typical meanings of the word; i.e., in terms of race, culture, religion, and economic class. It is perhaps least diverse in terms of the political views of the inhabitants.
Some years, one or more of my grad students lives nearby. There have been times when living in the same neighborhood has been stressful for both my students and me. The most troubled grad student I have ever advised lived on the same street as my family. He used to go inside his house rather than encounter me walking (or even, his housemates told me, driving) past his house. I am sure that living near me was not a good thing for his mental health, and I found it difficult as well.
Some of our closest friends in the neighborhood live next door. These neighbors have no connection whatsoever with the university. We trade cat care favors, enjoy chatting while we’re working in our gardens, and have dinner together every few months. When my family was on sabbatical in Europe, our neighbors visited us and we toured around together. We always seem have a lot to talk about, but the one thing we never talk about is our work, mostly because our neighbors dislike their jobs so much.
This weekend we went to a party next door. We don’t know our neighbors' other friends well but have encountered many of them enough times at other social events to be familiar with them. This time, I found myself in a circle of 6-7 people who were all talking about how much they hate their jobs. This wasn't just routine job annoyance. These people all really hate their jobs, and they are all counting the years until they can retire. A few of them have college degrees, but most do not, and all are in low-skill jobs that are wearing them down, year by year.
It’s hard to know what to say in a conversation like that. I don’t hate my job (despite the jerks) -- it’s an important and interesting part of my life -- but I wasn’t about to chime in with a perky “I love my job!” comment. When asked, I just said something vague about retirement still being a ways off for me.
My daughter was at the party. Mostly she played with the cats, but she overheard this conversation and asked me about it later. She remarked “All those people hate their jobs, but you and daddy love your jobs.” It had never occurred to her before that people could hate their jobs so much. Most of the people we socialize with are professors or proto-professors, and she hasn't encountered any Really Angry Professors yet and she doesn't remember the depressed grad student who lived down the street.
In addition, we have a close friend who went to grad school to get a Ph.D. (long after she had graduated from college) because her husband is a professor and all their friends have Ph.D.'s. She was uncomfortable about being the only one without a Ph.D., not because it made her feel less smart, but because she was the only one in our social circle who hated her job. At the time, I wasn't sure that was the best reason to get a Ph.D., but she did it, got a tenure-track position, and is excelling at teaching and research. I think she's amazing. She did something really hard but that eventually led to a career she loves. She's stressed out, of course, but so far it seems to be a good kind of stress.
I certainly don’t want my daughter to think that a Ph.D. is the only route to happiness and being a professor is the only wonderful job in the world (well, OK, maybe sometimes I want her to think that). However, I am pleased that, however much she hears us ranting about certain annoying aspects of our academic careers, her major impression is that we love our work, and that among most of our friends, we aren't unusual in this respect.
I also want my daughter to see the value (and fun) of a college degree, but I don’t want her to look down on people without college degrees, not to mention Ph.D.'s. So far that isn’t an issue – she loves our next-door neighbors unreservedly because they are interesting, friendly people. Of course it never occurred to her that they didn’t graduate from college, and she thinks no less of them now that she knows they didn’t.
This weekend's events reminded me of how different my daughter's childhood is from mine. I grew up in a place and family with no Ph.D.'s in sight, but she is growing up mostly surrounded by Ph.D.'s. I am an eccentric outlier in that part of my family because I have a Ph.D., but I don't want my daughter to be an outlier if she doesn't acquire one.
6 months ago