The story goes something like this: I was at my college choir rehearsal. I must have been a Sophomore or Junior. For some reason we were all talking about education and what a BA is worth (this is circa 1990, the first of the more memorable recent recessions) and the choir director exclaimed, "Any idiot can get a Ph.D."
Well, you could have heard a pin drop. It was not the good news we hoped he would offer.
The good professor then spoke of the G.I. Bill and the boom in the college "marketplace." He spoke of how if one program turns you down, there's likely another somewhere which will help you get a PhD in something.
He benefitted from the Bill. His PhD was from Harvard. He listed all the good that had been done, but he cautioned us. "There might be too many colleges, too many PhD's. I know I sound like a terrible person, but that's the truth of it. There may be no more value to the PhD."
Here I am twenty-five years later and his soothsaying echoes through my mind and this recent article has me thinking about why one would get a PhD these days. Ryan Anderson writes:
When are we going to wake up and realize that it’s 2014 and our academic paradise is a smoldering ash heap, a sad leftover from thirty something years of complete and utter demolition? We no longer have a booming economy and tons of federal money going into the university system. The days of cheap, accessible higher ed are done and gone. And yet, we keep churning out graduate students as if they, too, are going to end up as university professors. As if each and every one of them will soon have their own hip little office full of books, dedicated students, and bright, starry-eyed careers ahead of them. It’s not happening. Paradise. In. Ashes.
The glut has devalued the ultimate product. What was a rarely seen honorific (if one believes the Golden Era hype) has been replaced with just another line on a resume.
"Any idiot," indeed. So, why do it? I cannot answer that question for you. Instead, let me offer a few idiotic reasons to do it.
1. You have no choice. I'm serious. Everytime I try to do something else I flounder because I keep trying to turn my other places of work into a college, university, or more specifically, a seminary. I'm hardwired for this thing. I cannot help myself. (Note: I also try to turn these same places into concert halls. It's a complicated problem.)
2. The PhD is still a credential you need to do some things. Though the institutional administrators are moving toward hiring faculty (mostly adjunct) who are seasoned practitioners, the truth is that a PhD is still considered a reasonable metric for knowledge. If you want to teach in a college, you may very well still need the terminal degree in your chosen field.
3. Making time to dive deeply into ways of knowing and thinking still matters. There are, of course, lots of ways to do this. But there are, at least at this writing, very few places, communities if you will, where one can gather with others to think, to ponder, postulate, wonder, and experiment. The academy is still such a place. The challenge is that it is one of many places for this work now. The academy does not hold a monopoly on the practice. I think this is also a good thing. It is imperative that the academy seek out partnerships.
4. Knowledge and wisdom are more important than money or fame. Yes, I said it. You will die poor. You will have to seek other means of earning income. Adjuncts are unionizing, but that's no guarantee of an improvement. No. You must hold the value of knowledge and/or wisdom above many other things. I encourage you to work out those details. Make your priorities. Think through the issue of justice and pay equity, but also remember that this is no way to get rich and, for the present, is not even a way to be comfortable. You must love knowledge for knowledge's sake.
Now, I am an idiot. I am seeking a PhD in a theological discipline. I may well be a special breed of idiot. And I am acutely aware of the ethical quandary of encouraging people to amass incredible debt by attending school. Please know that I am actively try to to help change this in my present position as Director of Admissions. My idocy multiplies by a magnitude...of something (h/t: Aaron Sorkin).
And, yet, I am still here. Why are you? What are your reasons for getting a PhD?