PhDs: Who Hires Them? At What Cost?

Sociologists will tell you that sustained human groups become self-stratified, according to age, sex, income, ethnicity, fashion, nationality, lifestyle, occupation and education. This occurs in neighbourhoods, villages, towns and cities, and the workplace over time.

Irving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life was an early description of the workings of ‘symbolic interactionism’ theory in society, in which the essence of society emerges through social interaction, not conflict or values consensus. Interactionists are concerned with how people give meaning to their feelings, selves, bodies, situations, biographies, and to the “wider social worlds in which their lives exist.” Interactionists assume there is an amorphous character to society, as it is ever-changing, dynamic, shifting, and even dramatic.

The meanings we assign to those persons holding a PhD, within our deference hierarchy of attributions,  tends to place PhDs in similar categories of status as MDs, DEds, DPhils, DScs, and so forth. Yet within these categories there are cultural variances. For example, when I was invited to give a talk at the Centre for Scientific Studies in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 2005, about the “Canadian family structure” to about 60 MDs, I discovered that a PhD in Balkan countries and Eastern Europe is held in much higher esteem than a MD degree. This runs counter to the Western world, certainly in terms of income, if not prestige.

In North America, PhDs currently suffer from the law of ‘supply and demand’ considerably more than elswhere, favouring the ‘practical’ and more ‘needed’ professions, i.e., engineers, computer scientists, surgeons, lawyers and economists. The “taxi driving PhD” syndrome is not simply a rootless euphemism; it does in fact depict the ‘uselessness’ in today’s research and educational economy, of advanced humanities, fine arts and social science degrees. The dwindling number of university staff in these univrsity and college departments over the past 15 years is clear testimony to how society has come to perceive their worth. Many PhDs today are “sessional lecturers” or “adjunct faculty”, not having access to tenure stream employment. They, along with other equivalents, represent a ‘reserve army of labour’ universities tap from, because a) of the scarcity of full-time jobs in those disciplines due to dwindling student interest (because they are mostly extrinsically motivated to find a good-paying job), and because b) universities prefer to covet professional schools, that attract especially, international students.

Many PhDs suffering as a result of this ‘misinterpretation’ of the core and broader role of universities by fiscally paranoid administrators, end up in ancillary or totally unrelated jobs, uually with much less career path potential income. Many insurance sales personnel, project managers, and banking officers, for example, hold advanced irrelevant degrees.

Graduate education is undergoing a ‘revolution’ of sorts, in which utiltarian priorities are replacing socio-psychological and humanities priorities. But at what cost to the well-being of the human condition?

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