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How Advanced Degrees Can Close Doors

A friend of the blog emailed this NPR sob story about indebted graduates from elite grad-programs who can't land a job. Have a listen:

Around the 1:15 point in the story, there's a comment about how the woman being interviewed isn't getting any calls or interviews, even for waitressing jobs. To the audience, this is supposed to evoke feelings of recession anxiety, as even the most highly educated individuals from the most elite schools are struggling to land jobs for which virtually no education is required. But this is a flawed understanding of the labor market and it leads to miscalculations about how education and opportunities interact.

When you're a teenager, there are only a limited number of opportunities available. You can scoop ice cream at Cold Stone or make sandwiches at Subway or run the cash register at a McDonalds. When you graduate from high school, you can do that stuff plus more. Maybe you can become assistant manager at a Best Buy or do blue-collar work (where it's available). The logic continues that once you have a bachelor's degree you can do all that stuff plus work that requires an education; and once you have a master's degree you can do all that stuff plus you can potentially find work in a highly specialized field that requires very specific academic training.

The assumption, which is often incorrect, is that the doors that were open in the past will remain open forever. After all, if you were capable of scooping ice cream as a 16 year-old or waiting tables as a 20 year-old, you can certainly still do that as a 23 or a 26 year-old, right?

(from Flickr user I like)

It's not necessarily a question of qualification; it's a question of mutual fit. A restaurant manager knows that a person with a master's degree is applying to be a server as a temporary gig and will jump ship as soon as the first job-offer hits the table. The manager knows that he can hire a 'lifer' who will work just as hard and be loyal to the restaurant for a longer period of time. In fact, someone can easily be more qualified for the serving job, but still a worse mutual fit for the role.

As people move up the ladder, new doors open - few will deny that; but doors further down the ladder begin to close - an idea which many resist. True, they are the doors that people got a higher degree to avoid ever walking through again. But at the same time, they hoped that, in a jam, those doors would be open. Unfortunately, when they need them the most, they aren't.

I think the problem is that too many people think about their future in reverse. They find something that they want to do, then they ask what they need to do to achieve it. They don't necessarily ask how many of those opportunities are available and who else is trying to achieve them. Consider a college senior who wants to be an English professor. She does some research and determines that in order to become an English professor, she needs a PhD in the field. So she goes and spends a ton of money and gets one. What she didn't consider was that there were many other aspiring students who also wanted to be English professors, and now there are more PhD holders chasing a limited number of opportunities. So while getting an English PhD opened the door to becoming a professor, it didn't necessarily guarantee the ability to become one.

In a way, the newly minted PhD will have a hard time getting jobs they might have been able to land without the degree. The reason people aren't getting jobs that are obviously beneath them is because employers are being smart about who they're hiring. I think it's as simple as that.


erik.vebah said…
You make some good points, Rob. But then there's the phenomenon recounted in this recent NYT article: As many professionals take jobs for which they are mildly overqualified, the effect longer term is that everyone gets bumped down the ladder a couple rungs. Since companies are able to get better talent for cheaper you end up with a chain of events that goes something like this: corporate exec/manager gets laid off, takes pay cut to be hired as a franchise manager. Now the former franchise manager has to settle for department manager, the department manager gets bumped down to shift manager, the shift manager becomes a salesperson and suddenly the high school grad can't find a job.

I agree that there are doors which close to you after a certain period of time -- no shift manager in his or her right mind would hire a former exec to be a salesperson -- but there are always several doors in your near past that remain open, and in the current economy it ends up having a domino effect.
I don't know much about English PhDs, but most major programs in almost every PhD granting discipline don't charge. PhDs are awarded at a loss to the University. So not only do I not pay tuition and get healthcare, but I get paid on top of all of that. A meager wage to be sure, but more than enough to live and save a little if I tried.
Rob Pitingolo said…
@erik.vebah - thanks for the link. I think your points are completely reasonable.

@Jeremy - I think you're right about about most PhDs, although admittedly I don't know the path that leads to one? Do most PhD candidates apply only after they have a master's degree? or is it all rolled into one program? I've heard some stories of people going into incredible debt during the masters degree portion of their education.

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