Re: Value of a Ph.Ds.

Subject: Re: Value of a Ph.Ds.
From: Brad Mehlenbacher <brad_m -at- UNITY -dot- NCSU -dot- EDU>
Date: Mon, 1 Nov 1993 02:24:28 -0500

Saul--> Happy Halloween!

Booh, et tu!

> I was out of town during the discussion about the value of Ph.D.s in
> technical communication. A professor of mine proposed a structure for
> explaining the value of various academic degrees:

> o A bachelor's degree prepares you to practice in the field
> o A master's degree prepares you to manage
> o A Ph.D. prepares you to consult

With one proviso: I'm not certain that, these days, I buy into bullet
number two. Here at NCSU, we've been trying to figure out what exactly the
master's degree buys you, given the fact that many of our quite bright
students still appear to be getting entry-level jobs, with the added
insult that what they've been up to for two years is "too" theoretical.
Hmmm. My gut hunch is that they're being interviewed by BA's from 5-10
years ago (when entry-level led reasonably to management level), and who are
cynical about the relative benefits of two more years of school. Really,
just a hunch.

> What can a Ph.D. buy you? Many larger corporations hire Ph.Ds. to handle
> consulting-types of jobs, whether they be advising internal groups about
> strategies towards documentation or consulting with external clients on
> similar issues. To succeed in this type of situation, the Ph.D. needs a
> strong sense of business, because recommendations must be sound ones for the
> business organization being advised. In these roles, Ph.D.s generally
> can earn more than people without them. In many instances, the Ph.D. is
> a necessary credential to be accepted in a consulting role.

> Many Ph.D.s work in industry in other types of roles. Some managers are
> reluctant to hire Ph.D.s because the managers fear that the Ph.D.s might
> not be challenged by the work and various types of problems would ensue.
> Other business people perceive people Ph.D.s to be "ivory tower" and any
> recommendation they make--no matter how sound--to be unrealistic. A
> proven track record of success is one of the few ways around this barrier.
> Ph.D.s in these situations generally do not have an earnings advantage.

Two very honest stories that speak to the above: (1) when I first moved to
Raleigh, NC, after completing a PhD in Rhetoric and Document Design at
Carnegie Mellon, I sent out 10 letters inquiring about documentation
creation type jobs (hoping to pick up some temporary work while starting
up at NCSU--mostly 'cause of debts I'd built up during the job search).
Three of the 10 responded with photocopied forms asking me for details
about my computing experience. The moral isn't that I was felt superior to
the jobs or to the folks that I very seriously hoped would hire me but,
rather, that I realized I'd over-educated myself for such positions--as a
graduate student, those were exactly the jobs that had helped pay my way!

> A Ph.D. also prepares you for an academic position. Despite the claims of
> the 20-hour work week, most academics have challenging jobs. The first
> few years are the toughest because the academics are trying to earn
> tenure. This means the new person needs to establish a research agenda,
> complete some studies, publish and develop a reputation that enhances the
> reputation of the school--all the while succeeding at teaching students.
> Tenure isn't an easy thing to get. Salaries are generally lower in academia
> than in industry. But many salaries are based on a 9- or 10-month contract
> and the professor can choose to augment the salary with consulting and
> contract work. The need to publish, however, limits professor's availability
> to handle contracting work because time spent on consulting jobs is time
> that is not available to research and publish.

Story number: (2) Since that time (2 years as an Assistant Professor), I've
learned some valuable lessons, and many of them are captured by your very well
articulated message (hey, where the hell was it 2 years ago!?): the academy
and corporate America are operating under different, but equally intense,
deadlines, for limited resources. We're all, sorry Michael, being asked
for more involvement than a typical work week can ever begin to cover. I
recently paid over $300 dollars, out of my own pocket (since my travel
budget of under $500 for the semester/year ? has been spent on other
conferences) to deliver an hour-long talk at an international conference
(I drove 15 hours to save flight money). And I can't complain about it,
really, 'cause the constraints of my _first_ obligation--getting
tenure--have been met by the experience. But, hey, gawd bless SAS Institute
for picking up the banquet dinner for me ($40). I honestly wouldn't
have gone, and I'd have missed some pretty damned interesting
conversations in the process. Surely something's not exactly right about this

Saul, my second hunch of the day/night is that finding ways to bring academic
researchers out of the academy and into the albeit compelling mess that
represents the real world, is to somehow marry consulting with research
and theory-building, while simultaneously expecting "realistic/pragmatic"
accountability on the part of academic consultants. Is this possible? Is
it even desirable? I can't stand the idea of academics lording over
practitioners, given our often embarrassing resources and isolated conditions;
yet I must also admit that academics have built into their system values for
"researching" issues that need immediate "addressing" at the recently
downsized GE, Xerox, IBM, Wang, need I go on.... Is there a conference
that addresses these issues? Anybody want to set up one?

> About the 20-hour work week: Michael Gos, you should be embarrassed to
> be making such statements publicly. Many of your students and
> former students are working in companies where they are working
> well over 40 hours a week to make ends meet in these days of downsizing.
> Many of your colleagues are working long hours--sometimes being
> during evenings and weekends to help students. Your defense of your
> limited workload is, at the least, insensitive to these people.

> If your real meaning is that you only have 20 hours of formal
> responsibility and that the rest of the time, you have the freedom
> to explore knowledge that you love--something you love so much that
> it doesn't seem like work--then please say it that way. Otherwise,
> most of us seem to assume you spend the rest of the week on the beach.
> In that case, you have a part-time job and it's no wonder you make a
> part-time salary.

On a final note: My hypothesis is Gos is just Goshing.... Sorry, but Canadians
(who've only this weekend received "Resident Alien"
Status--whatever-the-hell-that-means) love word-play ;)

Cheers, Brad.

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