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Is a GED More Valuable Than a PhD?

In an economy where so many people are overqualified, having an advanced degree is virtually worthless.

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“I have dissertation friends with kids who just wind up being stay-at-home moms,” says a humanities PhD student and mother of two. “You wind up doing Plan B, whatever that is.” She’s applied for roughly 25 tenure-track positions, only to hear back that many of the searches have been canceled. One rejection notice said the position drew 700 applications.

“Every single academic, especially in the humanities, has a tinge of buyer’s remorse” about their PhD, she says. “You see your peers in law or business school make down payments on homes and buy cars and go on vacation. But as a PhD student, you’re in your 30s, still renting an apartment and driving a ’84 Corolla. It’s not cute.”

According to former George Washington University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the downward spiral began when Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, announced that the troubled economy had forced the university to take “a hard look at hiring.”

“That was a catalyst,” says Trachtenberg, author of The Art of Hiring in America's Colleges & Universities. “Harvard is the North Star, and considered the richest institution in the country. So every other college president in America could then say, ‘If this is going on at Harvard, you can understand that we, too, need to be more cautious.’ It’s a trickle that has turned into a drought…In terms of the hiring freezes, I haven't seen this in a long time. And absolutely, it's related to the recession and the loss of endowment income.”

State schools with smaller budgets have always been a tougher nut for PhDs to crack. “But what’s unusual is how private schools are saying the same thing,” says Robert Townsend, assistant director for research and publications at the American Historical Association. “They’re pinching pennies on pencils -- small stuff. Candidates have plenty of reason to be upset and concerned.”

Those not giving up entirely are taking whatever they can get. Liz, like many PhDs, says she feels like she’s taking a step back by working as a teacher’s assistant, a position typically held by students who just got their bachelor's degrees. But she swallowed her pride and took the job anyway. She starts this month.

“I’m considering leaving academia,” she says, rattling off the other odd jobs she’s taken on: tutor for high-school students, a grader for the Educational Testing Service. “I never romanticized the profession. I never imagined myself at some top research institution, with assistants scurrying around doing work for me. But I did imagine that I would have a job. Sure, I haven’t bused tables yet. But I might.”

This article was reprinted with permission from the author.

Kai Ma is a writer and columnist whose work has appeared in New York magazine, Newsday, Nerve, and Time Out New York.

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