Mailvox: better sooner than later

JB wonders what to do next:

I’ve been reading your blog ever since I finished The Irrational Atheist and I am currently participating in your Voxiversity III study. I have a question for you concerning college education.

I earned my B.S. degree in Molecular biology and worked some at a local community college teaching some basic math courses. I then applied to a PhD program in Biomedical Science and was accepted. I’ve been in this graduate program for a year now, but I have realized that I am not cut out for research and the whole degree just seems like a waste of 5-6 years (the official time for completion). I have read your statements in the past concerning the “paper-selling institutions” and the problems with college educations, and I am inclined to agree with you at this point. My problem is that I am now about to be leaving a program (which is essentially my job) and beginning a job search during a rather poor economic state (I have three weeks to find full-time work) and having very few marketable skills. Since you have investigated this more than I have, what can a guy like me do to find work? It has become clear that my B.S. degree is really quite meaningless, so I feel as though my job options are very limited. I am married and I need to maintain a certain level of income, so my situation needs resolution quickly. At this point, I’ve asked everybody I know for advice and all that they have come up with is simply “stay in the PhD program”, even though I would like to hear some alternatives.

First, I should like to commend JB on at least attempting to think for himself in the face of what is likely significant social pressure. Second, I would urge him to keep in mind that a pursuing an education is not “essentially a job”, it is not a job of any kind except to the extent that one is financially compensated for pursuing it. Given the many complaints I’ve read about the sweatshop income provided to graudate students, it seems hard to imagine that one could not do better working in consumer retail, if nothing else.

The three-week time frame complicates things, of course, but the first thing that I would do is find some sort of income-producing job no matter what it is. I have seen lawyers take jobs selling computers at big box retail outlets and MBAs take jobs at department stores; at least in the case of the former it worked out extraordinarily well, so JB should not be too proud to work low-status labor. That’s just to generate a positive income flow and send a signal to the next employer that one is willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

The second step is to identify the employment areas that are undermanned in JB’s area. I would look at technical service areas like plumbing and automotive mechanics that see constant demand regardless of the economic situation. Talk to people, find out where the shortages are, then go speak with the owners of those firms. Employers like smart worker with personal initiative, so that fact that he doesn’t know anything but is willing to learn will be a bonus. He might consider looking to see if he can combine work as a trainee and office assistant; every business needs someone to handle the paperwork and that’s something that even a molecular biologist should be able to handle.

The most important thing to understand is that “staying in the PhD program” is not working. Unless he’s got an unusually sweet deal, it’s cost compounded by debt, not income. Nor is it an “investment”, investments have expected ROI which there’s virtually no chance that anyone has actually bothered to compute in this case. And, because of the oversupply of PhDs, JB doesn’t have any guarantee of a job at the end of the process anyhow. It’s a gamble, and an expensive one with low odds at that.

I don’t know if JB’s wife is likely to pose an additional complication or not. Is social status more important than financial stability to her? On the one hand, it might be a perceived come-down to be married to an assistant pig-keeper rather than Dr. Molecular Biologist. On the other, she might prefer not to live her life trying to claw her way out of debt during a major debt-deflation cycle. So, that may be a consideration too, since divorce imposes more financial costs than a sub-optimal career.