Sunday, April 28, 2013

Lifestyles of the Over-Educated and Under-Paid

The following was originally written in 2004, although unfortunately still feels relevant 9 years later.

“Had a PhD, an MBA, but now he's waitin' tables 'cause there's rent to pay.” – Everlast.

That is taken from the song “Ends” on the album Whitey Ford Sings The Blues. I’ve been a fan of Everlast for years and as I sit here organizing my thoughts that song seems to be playing on repeat in my internal soundtrack.

I know lots of people with PhDs and MBAs and many of them are underemployed. I don’t think any of them wait tables for a living, but I bet a few wish they earned as much as a waiter in a busy restaurant.

I will admit that some of them, despite their educational achievements, are not very talented or knowledgeable. A few others may have gotten degrees from second-rate or non-accredited universities and some received their degrees in relatively easy subjects. Finally, a tiny few pursued such obscure and highly specialized areas of study that they have developed skills for which there simply is no market. Whatever the reason, I know far too many people holding advanced degrees and struggling to make ends meet.

And that just ain’t right.

I love living in, and being a citizen of, the United States. I would rather be poor in the U.S. than middle-class in most other countries. Even our lowest demographics have access to luxuries and a standard of living that surpasses of most other societies. This is a point that simply cannot be argued with.

Sure, there is room for improvement and there may be a few places that do certain things better, but not many. The vast majority of American citizens have all of their needs met in abundance. We have so much food that we are becoming a nation of lard-asses, we live safely in huge homes, and enjoy the best entertainment while amassing such vast wardrobes that we can afford to let our clothing go out of style. In the Third World, there is no such thing as “out of style.” If you are lucky enough to own a shirt then you wear that shirt as long as it covers you. Only the privileged can afford to shop for goods they do not need.

One negative side effect to our privileged society is that our personal needs are met so well that we have to create artificial needs to keep the majority of us from being completely useless.

All a society really requires are people to produce and distribute food, build shelter, make clothes, treat illnesses, and protect the society at large. Society doesn’t need artists, musicians, actors, and the like. We enjoy them and are often willing to pay them to be entertained by their talents, but we don’t need them. Similarly, we don’t need philosophers, theologians, economists, and other abstract thinkers. We don’t need astronomers, paleontologists, botanists, zoologists, neuroscientists, physicists, biologists, or other scientists. I will not deny that members of these professions have contributed a great deal to our understanding of the world and our collective intellectual growth, but I will argue that society needs ditch diggers far more than it needs esoteric theories of ditch digging.

I personally hold a doctorate in one of the most useless sciences ever created by man: psychology. I love psychology and I have the highest level of respect for my field of study but I will be the first person to point out that almost no one truly needs a psychologist. Many can and have benefited from psychology but only an extremely minute portion of society has a real need for our services. Unfortunately for these people, psychology often falls short.

Only a fool would get a degree in psychology in the Third World, if such a doctoral program could be found. Psychology and psychologists are a luxury only privileged societies can afford.

Unfortunately for many new college students in the U.S., these “useless” occupations can seem just as valid and appealing as more practical ones, sometimes even more so. For instance, early in my college career a friend asked for my advice on whether he should enroll in a two-year program to be trained as an X-ray technician or pursue a four-year degree at a college.

At the time I suggested that, although the X-ray training would be shorter, in the end the only skills he would have acquired would pertain to taking X-rays. On the other hand, the general knowledge and skills he would acquire by immersing himself in a more traditional academic setting could translate to a variety of topics. He saw my point and went to college and finished four years later with a degree in anthropology and no job.

Educated, but with no marketable skills, he worked various low-paying positions for a year (ironically including several months serving coffee in a hospital café) until deciding to do what a lot of us useless degree holders typically do: he went back to school.

I had a very similar experience in college with my psychology major. Although I knew I wasn’t going to get rich with a degree in psychology, I still anticipated being able to find a decent job after so many years of study.

I had no idea.

During my senior year I became aware that no doors were to be opening for someone with a four-year degree in psychology. This realization, along with the impending end of my time as a student, led me to write a novel called Frozen Coffee Melting about a student facing similar circumstances. The novel was not autobiographical but it did contain a lot of the frustration I was feeling with having a useless college education. However, unlike the character Vince in my book, at least one door opened for me after my undergrad years: graduate school. I continued my education and ultimately received my PhD in psychology.

However, graduate school was less opportunity and more a repeat of the previous college dilemma. Most scientists work as university professors and this was the path that my new colleagues and I were preparing to take.

We devoted long and painful hours to our studies, lived in poverty-stricken conditions, and dealt with unimaginable stress. This was all done while gaining an increasing awareness that the ultimate prize we sought, a professorship, would only be obtained after we first graduated and then worked a few years as a post-doctoral researcher or associate professor making about the same salary as a fast-food manager. Then, after close to twelve years of hard work we’d finally be making the salaries that friends with degrees in business and finance were making after only four years in college. There is a classic irony in the fact that some of the positions in a society that require the most training are among the least valued.

But it’s not to say that jobs that require little or no training are always well paid, either. I assume that ditch diggers don’t earn a lot and given a choice I’d rather be an underemployed scientist than a manual laborer. Seeing that I haven’t spotted any of my friends by the side of the road with a shovel in hand, they probably share this preference, too.

In the end, I gave up the world of academia for a corporate consultant position that has given me the chance to make a decent living in a difficult economy. With some luck and a little ladder climbing, I may someday find myself making the same salary of someone with a more useful education.

Or I could be waiting tables.