I’ve mentioned before that one of my favorite quotes is a chinese proverb. It goes:
“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
I think my tree died.
There is a balance in my incentive to work. I tend to feel great about getting to work when my ‘Doo Do’ list is very long, not when i’m caught up. The only caveat is when their is something on that list that I don’t have an answer too, or that I think I may feel the anxiety of things that can blow up. I just had one of those moments.
My Microsoft Office 365 expiration notice just came in. I had purchased it four years ago for $100. I got it right when I started a four year PhD program that I left after a semester. Part of the reason for not continuing with the program was cost, part was that my heart wasn’t in it. I had just finished my masters and I thought I should keep going, but apparently I needed a break. Part was that I couldn’t do it on my terms. There was, and remains, intense pressure to keep up with a cohort in most doctoral programs, even those designed around working professionals. This means you have to maintain a pace of two classes a semester. Regardless of why I left the program, the email was a reminder that if I stuck with it, i’d be Doctor Peluso now. That is a title I still aspire to. A doctorate is the pinnacle of education, the top spot in any chosen area of study. That alone makes it a seductive goal. Who doesn’t want to climb their own version of everest? Technically, it’s also one that I need if i’m to ascend to the position I wish to attain in my organization.
Education and the world of Private vs. Public.
I work in government, or a type of government anyway. I have already experienced a couple of job opportunities have come and gone that require either a doctorate, or at the very least, being engaged in a doctoral program. With government everything has to be easily quantifiable and justifiable. Not so with the private sector where the focus is on flexibility and value. These two perspectives are very different and consequently complicate making a decision on what type, or even if, a doctoral program is best to pursue.
The public sector is highly focused on validating specific educational achievements. It’s why every job has a license or a degree attached to it. How many amazing K-12 teachers have we lost because they didn’t have the teaching license and just needed to work? We constantly hear about teachers shortages but that’s only because those that hire teachers are required by law to get the ones with the license. Technically there exists a program where you can get your license while you are teaching but the restrictions are so comprehensive it makes the program little more than lip service. That’s the case here in North Carolina, I can’t imagine that other states are very different. It’s the same thing at the higher education levels. It doesn’t matter if you have worked in a field for your entire career, in many cases if you don’t have a masters degree in the field, forget about teaching that subject. So much for our ability to use the best and brightest to teach the next generation. I use teaching as an example because it’s something easily understood but the requirement for a credential is not just limited to education. Ultimately in any government or government related job you tend to have an credential requirement that is closely aligned to the work area. It may be aligned, but in most cases it’s not necessarily needed to be excellent at the job. I can go into the logic and rationale behind the existence of this reality, but that would be a huge dialog in and of itself.
Private sector employers are more focused on proven skills and value. Does it mean that they don’t like advanced degrees? Nope, they love them. It’s just that the thinking when reviewing candidates with advanced degrees is completely 180 degrees out of phase with the public sector. The private sector, assuming a degree is not required by law, looks at a degree In the same way people look at features on a car. They need the base, and anything extra is a bonus. Imagine two cars on the lot at the same price. If one of them has the new butt cheek warmers, well that one is going to get picked, even if the driver lives in Sunny South Florida where everyone’s derriere is always toasty. Advanced degrees like MBA’s used to make you more competitive, but now they have become the power windows of the business world. Everyone has them as a virtual necessity just to be in the market. Heck they are even being given away if you are willing to work at it. This being said when combining a specialized degree in something like engineering with the generic advanced degree makes you super competitive. Being a former finance director (Base) with an MBA (power windows) plus a masters in electrical engineering (seat warmers) will nail you a job as a CFO at an electronic auto parts manufacturer faster than a BA in Accounting and Finance. This is the case even though the bachelors is technically a better fit for that job. The thought process in the private sector is the MBA supersedes the accounting and finance degree and the MSEE means that the person in consideration probably knows something about the business. The business appreciates the flexibility of not being so specific so they can move the CFO to any senior position as needed. The business also doesn’t want someone with a doctorate for the many reasons that all coalesce to a variant of ‘over qualified for too narrow of an area’. Compare this with the public sector where the job description is written to include something like Doctorate in Public Sector Finance and Accounting, literally nothing else will be allowed to be considered without jumping through tremendous organizational hoops. Another reason why when you get a public sector job you tend to stick. It’s harder to find someone with the specific required credential. There aren’t many CFO level positions in the public sector, so getting that degree really pigeon holes you to limited opportunities.
What does all this mean in my decision making process, and for yours if you are considering an advanced degree? The answer is this, if I go specific with my advanced degree, I’ll only be able to do the public sector stuff directly related to that degree. The way I see it, there are so many variables in life, not just internal, but also external that it’s arguably a huge gamble. I would wind up throwing all that time and money at something I may or may not benefit from depending on what happens in my life. Yet, the bug continues. Why not just bite the bullet and do it? There are several reasons, let’s start with money.
One of my biggest challenges results from one of my biggest assets. I’ve chosen to live a no-debt lifestyle. This means instead of credit cards, I have to maintain cash accounts. If the transmission goes out in my car (it has) I better have the savings (I did) or I would be walking (something I didn’t have to do). This also means that I don’t ‘do’ student loan debts. Think about that for a second. Imagine telling the world if you don’t have the money you shouldn’t buy the product, even if the product is school. In some circles that’s heresy. We live in an age where financial aid is mostly guaranteed student loans. When you say you don’t know the future and the educational institutions faculty and staff are all on annual contracts and you very well could lose your job, you’ll be hit with the counter argument ‘but you can claim hardship deferral’. You will be told it’s an investment. These are true, but it doesn’t change the fact that I don’t do debt. I won’t allow my kids to take out student loans either. The one that started college and dropped out isn’t mature enough to thank me for that foresight, but maybe one day she’ll realize that she missed out on the five to ten years worth of interest payments for a degree she never finished because her horribly unreasonable father said no to loans. I currently have one big non debt monthly payment in my life that will end in a couple of years. Maybe I can use that money to pay for my advanced degree, but that’s in two years, not today.
There is also work / life balance to consider, even for someone who likes to be productive 24/7. Being honest, I don’t have balance now. I certainly won’t have one if I take on a doctoral program. I work a full time job, I teach after hours, I have a family, and I blog and podcast. One or multiple of these has to go to actually fit in the two days a week it’ll take to do the work of a doctoral program. It seems to me that the older people get the more they value the ability to do what they want and eschew the things they don’t want in their life. In a perfect world, my employer would say: “We understand that there is huge value in you having a doctorate for our organization, so we are not only going to help pay for it in a substantial way, we are also going to give you the time you need to complete the degree yet, you’ll still get your full pay and benefits.” In effect it would be a PhD apprenticeship. Ideal for the worker, ideal for the workforce, but someone has to take it on the chin, and that’s the organization. That is not our reality. Like the 401K for retirement, the organization has shifted the risk and management of nearly all workforce development from the organization directly to the individual. Did I mention I don’t do risk? So i’m stuck with no work life balance and all the risk.
The perfect world for me, the rainbow unicorn, is a doctoral program that’s 100% online, that is also mostly classes and doesn’t include a multi-year research project. I don’t mind putting together a portfolio I can use in other areas of my life, but a cumulative test or a dissertation is just a waste of time for the direction i’m going in. It would be one that I can take at any speed I want even if it takes me twenty years to accomplish. It’s one that is affordable to the tune of just a few hundred dollars per class, and one that ends in both a doctorate and an MBA. In this way I have the valued credential to move back into the private sector if I need to, and I have the one I need to move up in the public sector. I call it a rainbow unicorn because this doesn’t exist, not that I have found yet. If there is anything I have learned is that the education system is a business, they want to get you signed up, get all the money they can as quick as they can, provide the product and get you out quickly. They do want to provide a quality product, but they want to turn the students as quickly as a waitress would like to turn her tables. The only way to do that is is to push. They push the student loans, they push the cohorts, they push the argument that the investment and payout is worth the risk.
I planted a tree four years ago and I was reminded recently that it died. The good thing about trees is you can always plant another one. I’m just not so sure this is the right season for me to do it. Who knows, maybe next time the weather will be just right, and it’ll grow. At that point I may even see a little more green.
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