Brazen Life-ist

I have had more free time on my hands than usual lately, and for some strange reason I have been spending a considerable amount of time reading Penelope Trunk’s blog.

Penelope Trunk has written a book called “Brazen Careerist” and her blog is a mixture of intimate personal stories (many of a sexual nature) and career advice.  I read it with a combination of horror and fascination; like watching a car accident.  Some of what she writes about is useful, like “How to do a phone interview“.  Other blog entries are just annoying, like why you should get married and have kids before thinking about a career, and yet others are just her shamelessly exploiting her personal life.  

What really has interested me about this lady is her ideas about careers and education.  She goes into quite a bit of detail about what a waste of time and money a post-graduate education is.  This may be because she started a Master’s degree and wrote half a thesis but never actually finished or got the degree.  So, perhaps she is just venting her anger at failing in academic pursuits, or maybe regretting having given up so close to finishing.  I probably would feel the same way.  However, I think most of what she writes comes from what I can only interpret as being a very materialistic perspective.

Her most salient argument against pursing a university degree beyond a BA or BSc is that it’s not worth the expense.  She argues that Masters degrees don’t guarantee you a higher income, and she actually says that PhD’s are a pyramid scheme.  Her reasoning behind this is that something like 8 in 9 individuals with PhD’s don’t end up in tenure track positions.  I’m not arguing with the validity of these statistics.  I think most people are always aware of these statistics when entering a PhD programme.  if not, you find out pretty quickly after starting (4 months in for me).  If you are obsessed with money and buying things, you will probably share her perspective.

However, not everybody gets advanced degrees simply because they want to make more money.  In fact, I would argue that amongst all of my colleagues, that is not the reasoning behind one single choice to start a PhD programme.  While “I didn’t know what else to do with my life” or “I didn’t have a job” are probably not better reasons, at least we are not getting into the game thinking spending 3 years (or more) writing a thesis is the ticket to big bucks.  In fact, most of us are aware of the fact we could certainly be making more money doing something else, and in addition, many of my colleagues have left very high paying, even prestigious positions (such as with Iran’s state controlled oil company) to pursue a doctorate.

It’s not easy do a PhD.  It’s a fucking huge amount of work and one of the most difficult things I have ever attempted to do.   I think most of my colleagues would agree with me.  In fact, just the other day one of my fellow PhD students said that he used to be a professional chef, and left it to do a Masters degree, and now a PhD degree, and “the PhD is the most challenging thing” he had done in his life.   In order to attempt something so immense and challenging, you better be doing it for the right reasons.  Not because you want to be wealthy.  You never will be.  You might get famous, like Dr. Timothy Leary, or be admired, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, but you won’t get rich! Not that I intend to get famous or be particularly admired.  I just enjoy doing research, and want to do something meaningful with my life.   My career plan has been modeled on Lloyd Dobler:

I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don’t want to do that.

So, essentially, I don’t want to be a brazen careerist.  I don’t want to spend 50 hours a week working and then another 10 networking with a bunch of materialistic “businessmen” so that stuff can be bought and sold and processed.  Why would anybody?  What’s the point of being a brazen careerist?  So you have no time to enjoy spending with your family or contributing to your community?  I don’t agree with the self-centered money-worshiping ideology that goes along with the 21st century mainstream’s idea of “success”.  There are much more important things in life.   Also I don’t really know what a “start-up” is or what they do.

I was particularly reminded of this today, as I was filling out the NZ Post’s “Household survey”.  Questions 5 asked “How many motor vehicles do you have in your household?”, which was then followed by about 7 questions regarding the kinds and sizes of cars you owned.   The questions about cars, and many others, did not pertain to me.  I can only imagine when they go to do the data analysis how my responses will seem like some kind of statical anomaly, so far off the charts SPSS will start flashing a “CANNOT COMPUTE” error message.

However, I do appreciate what Penelope Trunk has to say about how talking about things like date rape, antenatal depression, and miscarriage empower women as it gives us “ways to talk about issues that were hidden when we did not have the language to express them”.  I agree with her one that one.  Which is why I don’t feel ashamed blogging about being diagnosed with HPV, even though I have just discovered that, when I submit abstracts for conferences, the conference organisers Google me and of course, come across this blog.  According to the American Social Health Association more than 75% of women will contract HPV in their life, and my doctor told me that even nuns who have never been sexually active have been diagnosed with HPV.  So, I salute Penelope Trunk for talking about women’s health issues in a frank, unapologetic manner.  Neglecting to do so only makes it harder for women to be taken seriously.

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