Occupation: Mendicant Ponderer?

There are a good many high quality blogs that focus on life as a PhD student and what might come after it. Career options are a big focus, and while I understand why, I think it is also important not to forget that the value of a PhD goes beyond its economic worth. This is especially important in the current Australian political climate where the conservative government has a hard time understanding that anything can have a value beyond one measurable in dollars and cents.

I thought I might share a (lightly edited) comment I posted recently on thethesiswhisperer.com to a post that focused on career opportunities for PhD graduates:

I have to say that the subject matter of your piece often comes up in conversations I have with non-scholars and family. If I could choose any job on graduation, I would go with one in academia – I enjoy my research and I already teach and I love it. In fact I love it so much that I would do it (and have done it some of the time) for free. This being said, I entered into a PhD with virtually no expectations with regard to career prospects.

As a biological anthropologist, my field is about as unmarketable as you can get (obscure bit of knowledge about bonobo sexual practices anyone? Or perhaps a rant on cognitive sophistication of Neanderthals?). Okay, well perhaps I am going too far with that – I was a medical scientist first and foremost and have some marketable skills there.

So why did I pursue biological anthropology then?

The questions that the field deals with are, at least to me, among some of the most interesting to be asked. The field is also inherently multidisciplinary, which appeals to someone as eclectic-to-the-bone as I am. I have a desk in a human genome biology department, regularly attend discussion groups in the philosophy school, I spent most of today reading economic papers on game theory, and tomorrow will teach an Associate Degree sociology class. Boredom is unknown to me.

What I am getting at I suppose, is that I find it acceptable to view taking a PhD as a purely philosophical exercise in truth-seeking. Improved job prospects, should they exist, are a mere welcome bonus. Where things get irksome is when I give this answer to the inevitable barrage of ‘so what job does that get you?’ that a PhD student receives at dinners, and other social gatherings. It is usually met with either confusion, accusations of being an obtuse hipster, or chortled remarks of the ‘oh well you’ll change your mind about that one day’ sort.

I should mention here that I am 30 years old and have had a few ‘conventional careers’ already, ranging from low-paid bookstore manager to quite-well-paid-indeed teacher of English as a second language (something I still moonlight as). I have lived miserly and rather comfortably at different times – so I do know what I potentially am giving up in the long run by pursuing research for purely personal reasons. I should also add that when I speak of research for personal reasons one shouldn’t interpret it as me wishing to be a societal parasite – I still do conventional work (a heck of a lot more than most pursing a PhD) in other areas and contribute in that way.

Having dwelled upon this for a while now, an interesting question has just wiggled its way up into my consciousness:

What is it about the occupation of ‘mendicant ponderer’ (no religious overtones intended) that everyone seems to find so unnerving?

To borrow from Nietzsche, does choosing a PhD for non-career reasons constitute 'living voluntarily among ice and high mountains'?

To borrow from Nietzsche, does choosing a PhD for non-career reasons constitute ‘living voluntarily among ice and high mountains’?


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