Caveat Emptor

When you work in academic publishing, various higher education news sources find you.  Not able to distinguish faculty from industry professionals that rely on them for their by-products, these sites often offer friendly advice on how to succeed in academia.  Having had not a little experience in that venue (if you’ll pardon my litotes), I noted a recent headline before clicking the delete button.  I can’t reconstruct it word-for-word, but the gist of it was that if you wanted to earn more as an academic, you should study overseas.  Your salary, the article implied, would be higher if you did.  Now I recognize that things constantly change, but in my field of study if you want to get any job at all, let alone a good paying one, you study domestically.  Specifically at Harvard.  Academics, just like publishers, rest on their laurels.

The funny thing about this headline is that it contained the same advice that I received all the way back in the 1980s.  I followed up on it, choosing Edinburgh after having been accepted at Oxford, Cambridge, Aberdeen, and St. Andrews.  Only later did I learn that of those schools only Oxford opened the door to positions in my native United States, being, as it is, the Harvard of the United Kingdom.  Defying the odds, I did get a job that, when I became Academic Dean with access to industry stats, I discovered was among the lowest paying of its peers.  Studying overseas, in other words, had the exact opposite effect than the headline promises.  Perhaps things have changed in the intervening years.  Even today I have to remind people that Edinburgh is a world-class research university, one of the four ancient schools in the kingdom of the Scots.  Some of the most famous minds in human history studied there.  Ach, well, a job by any other name would smell of sweat.

Xenophobia isn’t unique to the GOP.  It exists in higher education too.  Academics are extremely tribal, and if you try to break in from the outside—no matter where you study—you’ll learn that your money might be spent more wisely learning a trade.  As a homeowner, I’ve discovered that just about any practical job that doesn’t require college pays better than what you can get with the detritus of a doctorate on your résumé.  In fact, during times when work was scarce I tried to hide it.  One of the skills I picked up in my educational journey was not to believe everything you read.  Problem is, you only pick that up after you’ve already paid that tuition bill.  The delete button is right there; don’t be afraid to use it.

3 thoughts on “Caveat Emptor

  1. Jeremiah Andrews

    Hi Steve,

    It was my experience, with “higher education” was that, in order to prosper in the Masters Department of Theology, you had to have an ego, and become “like the others” in order, just to breathe the same air as your peers. I was sober at the time, many years when I hit this point.

    Unlike my peers, I did not get the “ego” memo. But I watched friends I had been educated among, the previous ten years in the department of Religion. The very first day, I walked into my first class of my Masters Degree, I knew, from the first breath I took in that lecture hall, all was not well.

    My friends had become strangers, who did not deign to acknowledge me as one of them. Their heads had swollen, and they had become Masters of the Universe. Whatever universe it was they were Masters of? I watched them slap each other on the back, and commune with each other, and congratulate each other at “Gaining the Universe!”

    It was obvious, nobody bothered to tell me the rules of engagement in the field of Masters in Theology. But I was not one of them, and eventually I dropped out, having broken the “Two C Rule!” I warn my friends attempting to reach the Heights of Masters Degree Study … Be wary of your peers, and the Ego growth and the Inhumanity of mere Mortals who think themselves Gods!

    In the end degrees in Religion and Theology were, a waste of time, talent, and effort. I should have taken up a trade in something or other, like you said above.



    • Hi Jeremy.

      Academic snobbishness is unfortunate and inexcusable. I’m sorry you’ve had a near brush with it. Many academics are fine people eager to encourage others, but there are those who feel that a mere degree makes them better than others. There’s no reason for that attitude.

      Growing up the smartest people I knew were laborers. One of the brightest people I knew as a doctoral student in Edinburgh failed out of the program because he didn’t fit the traditional mold. (There were some who failed out for good reason, but not all.) Academia is filled with fallible humans, to be sure. I still hold out hope for those in it for pure motives.


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