Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Get on with life 

I always surprise my conservative and libertarian friends when I say I like Robert Reich. At a lake resort one summer I read a copy of The Work of Nations, expecting not to like it but found it was well-reasoned; if you read it now, there are some things that end up looking sage, if not prophetic. So when friend and occasional blogreader Burt Dubow sent me this Reich article from the NYTimes (registration required), I expected a good article. And it is:
the market value of advanced degrees is unlikely to rise enough to make the investments worth it, especially after the supply of people with such degrees expands. Even before the economy foundered, the median take-home pay of lawyers and doctors was dropping, and many newly minted Ph.D.'s couldn't find university appointments.

Many college graduates would do better to lower their sights in the short term and take a "go-for" job (as in "go for coffee") in an industry or profession that interests them. Even if the job doesn't pay much, it can provide a window on to that particular world of work. Alternatively, with few responsibilities anchoring them to one place, they can pick a city with relatively low unemployment (say, Portland, Me., or Lincoln, Neb.), get a job with better pay and more responsibility, and see a part of the country they might otherwise miss.

If they can afford to go without a paycheck for six months or a year, they might consider taking an internship or volunteering � thereby gaining some useful experience while doing some good. Teaching in a poor rural or inner-city school, for example, offers more hard-won lessons about planning, leadership and marketing (persuading students to give their attention, or administrators to give more books) than any business school. ...

In all these respects, the major benefit is not academic or professional knowledge so much as self-knowledge. Do you thrive in a hard-charging atmosphere or need quiet and stability? How important is it for you to believe passionately in a cause? Or to have a lot of authority over what you do?

I think this is a different view than he had in Work of Nations, wherein he argued that traditional work was being competed to Malthusian wages and that "symbol analysts" would be those who succeeded in 21st Century capitalism. Yet I find there's much to like in this article too. Graduate school is for some just a way to delay life. And as pointed out in this NBER article from 1997, during recessions there tends to be a flood of new PhDs which depresses wages (and could lead to the type of bifurcated academic labor market that the Invisible Adjunct and I have been discussing.) Most admissions offices and graduate schools know that their industry is countercyclical.