Has My Ph.D. Paid Off?
I was going to subtitle this piece: Is a Ph.D. Worth the Time & Money? Then I realized how personal and subjective this question is for each individual who has one; therefore, this piece is about my degree.
When people learn that I have a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration, they are often surprised; that should bother me a bit, but it doesn’t. When my self-esteem was at an all time low a few years ago, the one thing I did not doubt was the significance education has had in my life. I am not a scholar, I will never be a scholar, and I never wanted to be a scholar. What I am is curious and ambitious. If I must put myself in a box, these are two boxes I don’t mind being in.
My ambition, from as far back as I can remember, was to make a difference in the world and be better than what my birthright dictated. My mother was a barmaid and my father was an immigrant who worked in a restaurant. As a result of our socio-economic situation, the messages that were relayed to me as a child, were clear: you will never amount to anything. I should be clear that those messages did not come from my parents. I was fat, closeted and of average intelligence; therefore, my existence was discounted. I did not come from parents who valued education; not because they looked down on it, but as a result of their own upbringings. They didn’t understand it, but I like to think that by the time they passed, they got it.
One of my favorite stories about my dad says it all. My father retired to Florida and lived in a very modest condominium complex with mostly former blue collar North Easterners. They were good, hard working people, proud of their heritage and happy with what they were able to carve out for the later part of their lives. I would visit my father as often as possible. I enjoyed the weather, the environment, and I loved seeing my father relaxed and happy. One morning I was doing laps in the condo swimming pool and my father was sitting near the edge of the pool with his friend Charlie. This was a community of like-minded people who enjoyed meeting the friends and family of their neighbors.
I wasn’t paying much attention to the two men as I concentrated on my laps. Over the sound of my arms slamming the water, I hear my name called out; first softly and then louder and more startling. I raise my head out of the water and see my father motioning me to swim to the far edge of the pool where he and Charlie were sitting. I swim over somewhat frustrated, however, always obedient.
My dad bellows, “I was telling Charlie here about your P.h.C.”
“I don’t have a Ph.C. dad, I have a Ph.D.”
“Oh,” he says, “Is that better than a Ph.D?”
I’m not sure my father ever realized how much his boasting meant to me. The fact that my father didn’t truly understand what my degree meant, did not matter in the least. You might wonder if perhaps he was joking. Although not formally educated, he was not a stupid man. The reason I am fairly certain that he did not really understand my degree, is that he gave me a pretty hard time about continuing to go to college after I completed my bachelor’s. Even though I worked throughout my education, my father thought that I was missing opportunities to make “real money.” My explanations about wanting to specialize in a specific discipline were, for him, an excuse for staying in school. I believe at one point, he thought that I was avoiding “real work.”
When I finished my Ph.D., he watched me graduate on stage at Carnegie Hall with all of my doctoral regalia; I am fairly certain, it was one of the proudest moments of his life. He might not have understood the educational system and how it worked, but he did know, that his son achieved something worthy of pomp and circumstance. Having both my parents cheering for me that day, made it all worthwhile; I had always sought their approval and in many ways, I still do.
My mother often embarrassed me by telling my story to anyone who’d listen. I resented her boasting because each time she told the story, I had either acquired awards I had never been awarded or job titles I had never achieved — she embellished without apology. I realize now that for my mother, it was all about living through me. Any success I ever achieved should have been her own success; the only reason it turned out to be me, is that she had many children and that had gotten in her way. My mother thought she was smarter than anyone else and that anything I achieved came from her gene pool. We argued about this a lot. I wonder if she might have ever imagined that it was my own intelligence and ambition that might have gotten me there.
How My Degree Changed Me
Well into my five or sixth year of working on my terminal degree, I went into a deep funk. My dissertation advisor was concerned about me and asked me what was troubling me. I told Dr. Smith that I felt as if I was doing hours and hours of research for nought. His response has remained with me throughout my entire adult life. He told me that in truth, he would probably be the only person who would read every word of my four hundred page dissertation. Actually, he also said that my mother would read it, but he was very wrong about that. He said, “You’re not writing so that you’ll be published or so that you prove your hypothesis, you are writing to document what you have learned and that acquired knowledge will always remain with you. The purpose of this requirement, is to teach you how to think critically. You need to question everything you believe and prove yourself right or wrong.” His words apply to so many things in my life: my politics, religious beliefs, relationships, values, to name a few.
My family would argue that my education made me part of the liberal elite. Of course I can’t be certain about what they think since they don’t really share their thoughts with me. I get an occasional compliment; usually passive aggressive and back handed. You know the saying, “That which doesn’t kill you . . .”
The biggest part of doctoral work is research: considering a hypothesis, completing required studies, investigating and reviewing the academic and scholarly perspective, reading and embracing the literary canon. You learn patience and perseverance, you learn laser focus, you learn to trust yourself, you learn how to listen, you learn that small rewards keep you motivated; I had a carrot that dangled in front of me throughout my studies. I wanted to be Dean of Students at a major university and I know that without that degree, it would never happen. After awhile, it wasn’t just a goal, it became an obsession. I imagine in many ways, it was an obsession that might have been applied to something a lot less positive and for that I am grateful.
It didn’t hurt that I was studying at a prestigious university in the middle of New York City. At the time, New York University was highly regarded in the field of higher education administration and I have always felt fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. Had I not been employed at Hofstra University, just outside the city, I may never have learned about a position at NYU which eventually led to my acceptance in the doctoral program.
Time is life’s most precious commodity and I’ve often wondered if the time I spent working on my doctorate was time well spent. I have to remind myself that during that time in my life I had a devastating breakup; it was my studies that saved me from going down a deep, dark hole. By keeping my eyes on the prize, I was able to endure a great deal of emotional pain — running helped too. The answer is: yes, I believe it was worth my time.
I am certain that had I not acquired a doctorate, I would have never been hired by the French Culinary Institute; a position that married food and education and turned out to be an opportunity of a lifetime. I was able to practice my craft, work with tremendously talented people, travel extensively, and live in New York City. Opportunities come your way when you make the effort and prove your worth. In our society, a terminal degree opens doors.
This is a difficult one to quantify. Clearly, I made more money in my life as a direct result of my doctorate. Would I have been as successful is something I will never know. While I pursued my Ph.D., I had about nine years where I did not earn to my fullest potential –because I was at University. You cannot put a monetary value on education. The time I spend studying may not have been profitable in terms of financial gain; however, all of the less tangible gains add up to something far more valuable than money.
My tuition at NYU was waived because I was employed by the University. If I would have had to pay for my doctorate, the total would have been close to $160,000. If you look at it that way (and I do), I came out on top.
Would I Change Anything?
I would have studied less and partied more. I don’t think it would have hurt to get a few more Bs and a few less As. I put way too much pressure on myself and I continue to do so.
“The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
“It is not the years in your life but the life in your years that counts.”
Why I am Telling My Story
I’ve been thinking a lot about education lately: why it is so undervalued, who controls who gets to be educated, what one does with knowledge, why we repeat history, etc. I am concerned about the powerful elite who are doing everything possible to prevent a certain sector of society from being educated. Without going into theories which can be debated and debunked, I believe that education is being used as a tool to keep the white elite in power. Power means control and wealth and those who have both, will never freely give it up.
I was born during a time when education was valued by change makers. I was provided with opportunities which no longer exist due to economics and the people in power (i.e., full tuition remission, federal grants, low interest loans). However, knowing what education can do to open your mind and broaden your perspective, makes me sad for those who are no longer provided with these opportunities.
Education should be right up there with healthcare and climate change, as a top priority. Denying basic rights to humankind will be our undoing. If we keep this up, in the end, nobody will win.
I am getting a bit of grief for speaking out about what I believe are political crimes. Admittedly, I don’t like that kind of attention; however, I am exercising my free speech rights and hoping to provide some of the facts for those who are willing to listen.
A shout out to Mitt Romney for being true to his faith and to the American people. I disagree with him about most political issues, but in the end what matters is truth. Thank you Mitt; you’ll be remembered for this.