Monday, December 10, 2007

Surrounded By PhD's

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.


Anonymous said...

FSP, Your excellent (as always) post reminds me of some of the issues I've been facing as a single fsp trying to date outside the academic scene. I always find that nonacademic nonscientists find it difficult to understand why I love what I do and why I spend so much of my time doing it. Academic nonscientists understand and nonacademic scientists generally do too. Although by no stretch of the imagination do I require a b/f to be a PhD or be a scientist, trying to explain to somebody in corporate finance (no offense intended towards those in that field) why I spend 1.5 months every year in the field looking at rocks seems nearly impossible...

Jamy said...

Not sure why this reminded me of my mother's stories about being the only woman at a party where the other women were shocked that she even had a job--much less that she was a professor.

Carrie said...

When I was in grad school, a friend of one of my fellow students, [who had a business degree and went straight into a career from undergrad], said something that really shocked me. "You guys have such an INTEREST in your work, as opposed to me who basically likes what I do, but my passions lie outside of work". I've taken that to heart often when things (often the male-ness of my environment) get me down. 90% of the time working here isn't just a job, but something I find fulfillment and enjoyment in.

Anonymous said...

I think successful academic get a pretty good deal (though getting a Ph.D. doesn't make you a successful academic). Academics is also enhanced by the relative lack of short term deadlines.

But, I know lots of folks in other fields who love their jobs, too. Including even the ones people don't think about, like law and programming and even retail. I think it's the autonomy & variety that people like.

Anonymous said...

A lot of people just do work because they have to do work. When I was younger, someone I worked with said something interesting to me about what we did: you can work for less pay and usually longer hours because you love what you do, or you can work shorter hours doing something you don't like to have more money that lets you do what you love outside of your job. At the time, we were far on the end of the first scale. However, I think misery may lie in the middle--doing the rote work because it has to be done to get by, not loving it, not getting paid that much for it (which doesn't allow you to do that much of what you might want to do) and then, starting to just really hate the boring routine of it. I can't imagine being stuck there--but everyone can get out.

Ms.PhD said...

When I was growing up, I don't think I had enough exposure to adult conversations about careers in general.

I think the attitude at school was that we should be sheltered from the ugliness of work as long as possible, and I think this was really unhealthy.

There was this idealistic optimism that if you just found something you loved, you'd be good at it- and vice versa, if you were good enough at something, you'd inevitably be happy doing it.

Really flawed logic.

Anyway I think it's great that you even think about these things and that your daughter is getting a broader exposure.

My family is very odd that way. They have a very narrow view of what jobs are acceptable, respectable, and worth doing. Much of this relates to salary!

Liking it was sort of a separate issue- if you got lucky, you liked doing what you were good at and got paid for, but most people aren't that lucky.

Drugmonkey said...

"but I don't want my daughter to be an outlier if she doesn't acquire one."

And think of times and/or socioeconomic strata where one could apply your same angst to the Bachelor's degree. Look, you've apparently started her down the right path with respect to your non-Bachelor's holding neighbors. Established the basic principle that people shouldn't be judged on credentials. So why obsess any more? If you would really rather she get a PhD or other advanced degree, go ahead and make your preferences known. You can do this without being some sort of weird controlling parent you know.

Female Science Professor said...

I am far from obsessing (about this).

Anisa said...

I remember my father pressuring me to enter computer science, something I had struggled with in high school. From his perspective, anything non-science related was a waste of time. I failed miserably and struggled the first two years of university, taking mainly computer science and mathmatics course, just to please him. I basically wasted two years of my life, my confidence went down, and I was aimless afterwords. Finally I returned to school and dedicated myself to a subject that I actually liked, and was extremly successful academically.

So good on you for not pressuring your daughter to do something other than was she determines is best for her.