A conversation in the comments with The Frog Princess on the post below brought up the issue of upward mobility and the Ph.D. (or rather, the potentially false lure of upward mobility and the Ph.D., at least in the humanities). It became clear after a couple of comments that the upward mobility narrative had never even been present for me but had loomed large (and still does, perhaps) for Frog Princess. But I also think it would be safe to say that Frog Princess and I would define “better off” differently. (Frog Princess, disagree in the comments if that’s not a fair assessment.)
So I just thought, out of idle curiosity, I’d ask if you thought you were better off than your parent(s) at the present moment (recognizing that quality of life is a mutable thing). I put the -s in parentheses not only because some people come from single-parent households, but also because some people might choose to define themselves against one parent and not the other. And though I have “Ph.D.s” in the post title, I’m not cutting graduate students out of the conversation — I really was just aiming for good Google search terms. One of the things Frog Princess brought up — and with which I agree to some extent — is that there’s a lot of misinformation out there about the economic status of Ph.D.s (whether salary of tenure-track professors or the existence of such a large body of adjuncts), and so I thought maybe this blog post might come up if someone Googled “Ph.D.s and upward mobility” or some such. [ETA: Oh, and hey, Nicole and Maggie also asked this same question (though not limited to Ph.D.s) a month ago — which somehow I missed or else it slipped my mind — and they got 42 comments (!), so go check it out!]
Anyway, feel free to answer the question and define “better off” in whatever way you see fit. I’m not seeking a one-size-fits all answer here, nor am I trying to put to rest, once and for all, whether or not a Ph.D. provides upward mobility for some or all people. I’m not seeking to do a real study here — there’s nothing scientific here; the plural of anecdote is not data. I just want a conversation. And you don’t have to give you salary to answer the question, either. Tenured Radical once had a post that asked purely about salary, and I think that was enormously useful (and also probably accessible on Google), but my question could be answered qualitatively as well quantitatively.
One thing that might be helpful for context, though, is to state where you are in terms of degree and/or employment status. Are you an early-stage Ph.D. student? ABD? An adjunct, lecturer, or VAP? A tenure-track faculty or tenured? A Ph.D. with an alternative career inside or outside higher ed? An administrator? You might want to define your institution, too. Oh, and MAs in higher ed and MFAs and other terminal degrees should chime in, too, but you might have to redefine the question a little bit.
And like I said, define “better off” any way you want. Also, there’s no judgment here, just idle, conversational curiosity.
I’ll start. Your answer does not need to be as long as mine, of course.
I’m a tenured associate professor with a Ph.D. employed by a regional public university, and I would say that at the present moment I’m better off than my parents ever were, and I’m especially better off than my mother, both financially and in terms of the less tangible aspects of quality of life. My parents were, for the most part, a single-income household. (My mom worked in retail at a hourly rate for some years when I was in junior high and high school, starting during a time of unemployment for my father. But that’s the only paid worked she had.) When I got my first raise in my first job out of college (this was before the Ph.D.), my mom told me that I was making more than my father ever made. (Though, adjusted for inflation, I was not.) That means even as a part-time lecturer my first year after the Ph.D., I was also making more than my dad did. And believe it or not, my dad had a white collar job. It was just the most “petit” of the “petit bourgeois” jobs around, apparently. And now, I make roughly 3 1/2 times (in raw terms, not adjusting for inflation) what his highest salary was, judging from what Mom told me. Anyway, when I was about 12, my paternal grandmother died — my grandfather had pre-deceased her — and Dad and his only sibling each inherited some decent assets, mostly in the form of older blue chip investments — enough that Dad took ‘early retirement.’ (Really, he just stopped looking for work, having lost his previous job.) I have less of a handle on how much that actually paid out annually, but I have a hunch I’m still better off income-wise now than my parents were then, and that *is* adjusting for inflation.
Now add the fact that I live with Bullock, who makes about the same salary as I do, and even adjusted for inflation, our household income is much higher than what my parents’ was. Plus, they had four kids and we have none, so our expenses are lower.
And that brings me to what I think the biggest, qualitative difference is between my life and my parents’, but especially my mother’s. All I have to do is look at my life with a feminist lens and I’m a heckuva lot better off than my mom — and she wanted it that way, I should say. I’m financially independent (and was so even at the poverty levels of graduate school) and I’ve chosen a career path and a family life that works for me (including the choice not to have kids) — mom didn’t have nearly as much control over those aspects of her own life. (Dr. Crazy has a comment here about her own mom that echoes a little bit of what my mom did for me, too, so that my life didn’t replicate hers.) I have a committed relationship with a man who is himself a feminist and a real life *partner*, rather than a patriarch like my father, and I had the freedom to be picky enough to wait and wait and wait until I found such a rare creature. (I joked to Bullock the other day that I was pretty damn sure he was the only man in America who had taken feminism to heart and not simply used it to get into women’s pants.) And I’m still financially independent. Even now, Bullock and I keep our finances mostly separate. We share expenses, but not bank accounts. If we were to split up, we’d have to figure out who’d take what big-ticket items we purchased jointly — and/or who’d pay whom for their share — but otherwise it would be much simpler on the financial level than it might for others. (The biggest problem would be who gets Pippi. But we’re not planning on splitting up, so I’m not going to think about that now.) And it would *certainly* be simpler than it would’ve been for my mother to leave my dad. My dad was (still is) kind of an asshole, and when I was younger I’d try to urge Mom to leave him, but she always told me she couldn’t afford to. I am *definitely* better off on that score, all around.
And I think my life is qualitatively better than my dad’s, too. As you can probably judge from the bit about the inheritance, above, Dad’s parents had money, and so I think Dad was always unhappy about not having money and the things it buys (mostly for him — he’s extraordinarily cheap where everyone else is concerned). And his dad (Papa), I think, reinforced my dad’s feeling of failure — in part because Papa didn’t bequeath the family business to Dad and because I get the impression that Papa lorded over Dad all his life. I, on the other hand, was much more influenced by my mother, who had a bit of a bohemian streak, treating money as a necessary evil up to a point and not that important after that point, except insofar as it allows you to see the world and continue life-long learning. And so, because of that influence and that attitude, I’m not motivated by money, per se.
I also like my job and my profession more than my dad ever did. Yeah, sure, morale is pretty freakin’ low all over public higher ed right now, and the way the general public sees us *sucks*. Though my dad never had to put up with such public vitriol in his piddly little job, there are things about my job that make up for that. But if and when the crap outweighs what I don’t like, I believe I’ll have the wherewithal to reinvent myself (I’ll also have a good buffer of savings to do so).
I realize how lucky I am to have won the job market crap shoot, not to mention all the other privilege crap shoots before that — being middle class, white, and born after my mother read Betty Friedan. And I’m lucky to be better off than my parents since these days that seems to be a rarer thing. But I’m a medievalist, so I know a little about a thing called Fortune, and Fortune is a very fickle mistress. Things may change, and, as always Your Mileage May Vary.
So, what about you? Better off or not? And how would you define “better off”?