Are PhDs Undervalued?

In February 2022, I asked a simple question on LinkedIn, “Are PhDs undervalued?” Out of the 90 responses, 48% of the people indicated that they were undervalued (33% said no, and 19% said maybe). 48% ain’t great.

What could be going on here? Why do PhDs feel so undervalued?

This is a complicated question. Market valuation for specialists is not easy, and prone to error. Information about an iliquid market is scant and evaluation of uncertain candidates is a challenge.

You cannot asset quality based on external metrics, like publications. My favorite illustration of social comparison academia: A Beautiful Mind.

A lot of people focused on the Schizophrenia in the movie. I focused on the social comparison. John Nash walks into the Department Chair’s office. And I am paraphrasing from memory, The Department Chair says your colleague has already published X articles, what are you doing with your time?

Of course, you know.

The question then comes down to: Is 1000 articles really better than 1 article? You think it is a stupid question. I don’t.

John Nash changed the world. But, I guess his “28-page” dissertation was unimportant because it did not meet the X publications requirement.

But, from my perspective, it really comes down to how candidates view themselves.

I Struggle With Academia

So I struggle with academia. Always have. The constant social comparisons and competitive positioning often gets to me. I am getting crabbier with it as I get older. Am I a cranky, or just see through the noise?

I care about my work. A lot. I cross the ‘t’s and dot the ‘i’s. Of course, I work hard. The “idea’ matters to me. I know how long things take, but others don’t recognize that.

Yes, I put my money where my mouth is. I have spent close to a hundred thousand dollars of my own money – no research funds – to build the R3ciprocity Project to help academics do research.

Do you think anyone cares? It’s not an ‘article.’

They reward articles, and nothing else.

I work a lot, ask my wife, but I still feel behind everyday.

For those of you who are not in academia, think the worst traits of Facebook but then your career, identity, and your life depends on it.

Yes, it does.

I struggle because I think “just put in the work and be nice, and the rewards will come,” but it does not work like that. You might think, “well, you just have to wait longer.” But, the “Matthew Effect” of academia ensures the rich get rich and the poor get poorer. (This is well researched, by the way)

Is this a lament? Partly. Am I overconfident and delusional about my own importance? Absolutely. Just like everyone else.

But, it has real consequences. How many people have given up on academia because of these effects? What are the rates of depression in higher education? How much better off would we be if we actively thought about these effects and interventions to minimize their effects? As someone who studies failure, I know that these negative consequences are magnitudes larger than the positive outcomes. And, the stigma associated with them is even larger.

The Only Solution That Works

When I was in my PhD program, I really lost faith in myself and what I was about.

Here is the crazy thing. Most PhDs, at least the ones that I have met, are beyond talented. I personally have an Engineering degree from one of the World’s best engineering schools (Waterloo), a Master’s degree, and a bunch of work experience. Plus, 7 years of advanced courses in Strategy, Finance, Econometrics, and data analysis. Yet, I still felt like, and to this day, that “I suck.”

See our article on Impostor Syndrome In Academia.

Unfortunately, this is true of many people that go into graduate school. I am not the only one. Many of us doubt ourselves and believe that we are not good enough. What do you do when you believe you are not good enough? You act in desperation. You project that you can’t do it.

The only thing, at least for me, is for me to dissociate my identity from my work. I find myself increasing disregarding academic antics of social comparison, and see them for what they really are. Competitive positioning is about creating a win-lose scenario.

“I win those resources because I am better than you.” Just like in an Arm’s Race, my nukes are bigger than your nukes. But, we know, nukes are never good for us. We teeter around mutual destruction. Anyone sneezes, and it all implodes.

I Am Just The Tip Of The Iceberg

When I started the R3ciprocity Project, I began to put out content about my experiences as an academic. After a while, I realized a lot of people knew what I was talking about. Even those famous people with lots of publications don’t feel good. Trust me. They don’t.

Now, I can’t change the academic system. It’s F’ed up. To be honest, I have little faith that it will change. It’s a political system, not a meritocracy. If you believe it is a meritocracy, you kid yourself as much as those that believe that democratic systems are … democratic.

Screw ‘em.

A Positive Change In Life

The only thing that I can do is try to be the one person that tries to spread random encouragement. If I can just help one person believe in themselves, and give them encouragement, I think this Project will be worthwhile. I want to let them know that they are truly talented, and that they have the ability to do well, think I’ll be happy with the R3ciprocity Project.

You are good enough. Quit with the social comparisons.

You matter.

Love yourself. Remember, it’s never about having some major impact.

Remember, you are a good person. Enough said. You are good enough, regardless of the list of publications behind your name.

You simply just have to do it to your best of your ability within the constraints that you have.

You know what the right things are to do in your life, but you simply have to have the courage to do it.

Don’t forget that.

Appreciate Yourself, Not Academia

If you have warm food on the table and fresh water, remember to appreciate just how amazing your life is in this world. Most people still do not have access to clean water and an easy source of food. If you can read this, you are one of the fortunate few.

Most importantly, don’t ever give up on yourself.

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