I recently got an email about a webinar being put on by a large statewide organization. In today’s day and age that’s not especially an interesting happenstance. What made this one catch my eye was that two former colleagues of mine were putting it on. I immediately clicked on the button to register myself. A week later, the day I’m writing this actually, I got the little reminder on my calendar. I dutifully logged in to show some support for my old team members. One of the former colleagues, his name was Gem, was the keynote speaker. I found this surprising. To the best of my knowledge this person never really achieved anything of note. This was, as I said, a presentation put on by a very notable statewide organization and typically the keynote in these sessions is by someone who’s well known, respected in their field, and highly accomplished. It had been a few years since I talked to Gem, and so I wondered if he had gone on to do some really interesting things. They were interesting, very interesting, but not in the way that I thought they would be.
So the presentation started. Now if you know how these things are set up, the speaker provides their own bio. It’s read by someone whose job it is to introduce the keynote speaker to make it seem like they aren’t tooting their own horn about how great they are, which, in fact, is exactly what they are doing. As the introduction started for Gem I listened and realized it was the same old guy. Lots of stories about great accomplishments yet I knew it was complete BS. The introduction included this big accomplishment, and that big accomplishment, and it all sounded great, but I was there during those years. I knew it wasn’t real. For example one of the big programmes that Gem created which they touted in the introduction was pretty much just a brochure that got distributed around some of our local communities. To be fair I think the program got one participant, but he had spent months working in partnership with one of the big local government agencies to get that particular initiative off the ground. I am pretty sure they, the big government agency, was hoping for dozens or even hundreds of participants. Gem got one. Just. One. I got to hand it to Gem. The guy really knew how to take crap and make it sound craptacular. The way the introduction told the story, it was a litany of innovative and highly successful programs that all built upon each other and led into the current initiative. Then the introduction started to wind down and it went into the traditional listing of educational credentials and they listed all the degrees including, a new to me, PhD. Finally they concluded the introduction by referring to my old friend as “Dr. Gem.”
This got me upset, I can’t deny it. I know Gem. He is far from an intellectual. I’m not saying he’s an idiot. He’s one of those folks in life who’s not very effective at most things, but in his wheelhouse, he’s very effective. He’s not, as I said, someone who excels at scholastic pursuits. There was even one point where he was so overwhelmed by an assignment in his masters program, that he got desperate and copied some info he found online and submitted it as his own. Of course, he immediately got dinged for plagiarism and should have been thrown out of the program. He was given the opportunity to rewrite the paper and I wound up helping him do it. Now he supposedly had a PhD. He had acquired the PhD from the same for-profit online university he got his Masters from. The very same for-profit online university that has a strong, and well deserved reputation, for conferring degrees on those who are willing to pay the exorbitant tuition. I took a moment to look up the tuition for the PhD programs. Low and behold it was approximately $75,000. That’s when it clicked. I know Gem, and I am positive that through a combination of doing some work on his own, some work he had his friends do, and some work they just let him slide by on, he was able go through the motions, and get a doctorate in the same way he got the Masters. When you put the Masters and the Doctorate together, you are looking at nearly $100,000 in student loans. The question whenever you spend that much money on an education is: Will you get back what you put into it? In the case of Dr. Gem, the answer is a clear and immutable “NO”. Currently Dr. Gem is in the process of applying to grant programs to get his nascent non-profit off the ground. This, if you aren’t aware of it, is how people with advanced degrees in the public sector find a place for themselves if they can’t find a job with their credential. I could write a huge article or series of articles on this unique sub-industry. I’ll try and simplify it greatly by saying these nonprofits are the public sectors version of human services sub-contractors. The successful model is to go out, build a self-sustaining organization based around an acute public need, without public dollars. Then, as a well regarded and stable local non-profit, you go after the public dollars earmarked for that particular need to build out your organization and make it more stable with regular full time employees and larger service areas. To do this, the person has to not only build an independent non-profit, they have to be highly effective at whatever the non-profit’s job is. It can’t just sound great, there has to be some good outcomes. In effect the organization has to be real and accomplishing something in the community. The story can’t be “We are going to do this”, it has to be something along the lines of “we have X people doing Y services, and have had Z outcomes over the last 123 years and we can accelerate that ten fold if we got this grant! Once there is a strong track record, the organizations who oversee federal / state / local granting programs have the justification they need to cut the big check to the local non-profit to allow them to achieve the goals of the grant. Technically you don’t need an advanced degree to play in this arena, but it helps. Normally grantor and grantee boards and executive director positions are sprinkled with “Dr. this” and “Dr. That”. Having the title makes you sound like your in the club. I also think the false sense of accomplishment of the degree is why so many people I know who get one attempt this route before they decide to go get a job somewhere else.
The thing is Gem is simply not an effective individual. What’s he good at? Spinning up activity, getting people to meetings, talking, and getting in the limelight. He’s great at being a champion for the aspirational. He’s got a rags to, well, I can’t say rags to riches story because he’s still dirt poor. His life is completely subsidized by his wife. His story is more of a rags to respectable tale. He’s the person who has the emotional story, one that’s in-demand from organizations that exist to tell stories. I’m talking about the few remaining local newspapers and broadcast television and radio stations. Local community organizations that like to promote him. He wins awards like “Town member of the year”. It’s not because he’s achieved anything great or that fundamentally changed his community. It’s that he’s tried, and got some sort of traction from real community stakeholders. He’s always got something in the works that’s going to be great for the community, that’s going to change lives for the better. What respectable producer, or reporter won’t jump on that kind of story to fill column inches or a segment on the local news? The doctorate is just part of that narrative. From homeless to PhD. It doesn’t matter that the PhD was from a diploma mill and paid for through student loans. The fact that he’s not especially effective at getting anything to stick reinforces this. The stakeholders eventually move on or the project dissolves when time goes by and there’s no traction. Eventually the community effort goes away and another one takes its place.
This brings me back to the advanced degree. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am. When you get an advanced degree, or even a certificate, there are really two purposes. The first is to learn something new, some new skill set. It is, in effect, to change yourself. The second reason you get one is to codify what you already know. In the case of Gem, neither happened. I could tell by watching the webinar that he learned no new skills. He literally said that he wasn’t good at all the things that are needed to make them nonprofit work. He said it within the context of talking about his team, but he’s had many teams over the years he’s pulled together for different initiatives. Managing a team, one who isn’t getting paid, so that it actually gets the work done is a highly unique skill that he just doesn’t have. He didn’t have it before and he admitted he didn’t have it after the PhD.
I thought to myself, what’s the purpose? In one respect, it’s always fun to say that you have a PhD and use the term doctor if you aspire to those types of titles. This is true because so many different people don’t really understand the difference between a diploma mill degree or credential granting organization and a rigorous and exclusionary program. Admittedly with the diploma mill organizations you can get a good education, but like everything in life in that it’s more about what you put into it. If you hold yourself to an extremely high standard while going through the program, odds are that it will have the intended effect of providing an additional skill set and changing you as an individual. If you go through like the typical student trying to do the minimum possible to get the credential at the end, you’ll just spend a lot of money for a few letters that can be added to your name.
An argument could be made that there are jobs where you will see the term “XYZ credential highly preferred” and that the credential holder will be put at the top of the list. That only works when the credential is a checklist item for your existing qualifications. Gem will never be a great leader of a large team or a fantastic executive director of a large comprehensive nonprofit because he has the PhD. He has to have the temperament, skills and background to do all of those things and have the PhD to be considered for, and be successful at, a job with those requirements. Even if he did weasel his way into the job, he’d probably move on very quickly like he has his other paid gigs because he convinced somebody that he had skills that are beyond him. So yes, if you are already highly qualified, then yes there is some value to the BS degree. Even then you would still aspire to a respected program versus one that’s looked at askew by members of that particular community or organization. This is especially true when you consider that respected organizations usually charge less than for profit credential granting institutions.
Another thing to keep in mind, especially with doctoral degrees, is that the value proposition goes in the toilet when you’re discussing a for-profit institution which most of the diploma mills are. In the private sector, outcomes, specifically profits, are usually the primary driving factor. This means they are expensive. In the public sector, reputation and adhering to and promoting defined standards are the primary justifications for existence. This is probably why higher education really is mostly run by state governments. There are flaws to this system, but it definitely does a good job at maintaining scholastic credibility. Much better I think than the private sector for-profit organizations.
So it comes down to worth. Are you getting value for your time, effort, and money? If you’re looking for a guarantee of a job, especially a high paid job, the odds are the diploma mill isn’t going to get it for you. If you’re looking for changing who you are and you know it’s easier to get into a diploma mill than a restrictive traditional program, then yes, but you have to be a very special type of individual who can extract the value out of the BS credentialing program. Are you looking to boost your self esteem? You have to ask yourself: Is it worth many tens of thousands of dollars and potentially decades of student loan payments to get the emotional self worth boost of a title? Will that self worth last as long as the payments? The answer to this is an obvious “probably not”.
I guess, if you’re a BS artist, Even one who is truly altruistic as Gem is, the spurious advanced degree or credential will help you BS better. Aside from special cases, that’s about all the real value it can offer. It doesn’t make your life better. It really doesn’t get you better jobs, at least not for the long term. It simply helps you be more of who you are. Who knows, maybe one day lightning will strike and one of Gem’s “save the world” efforts will pay off and turn into something that actually is both effective for a population and a community in need and is well funded. Then that PhD attached to its leader will help make potential supporters of his organization that much more comfortable with helping it grow. I really hope that happens, because then maybe he can justify a high paid executive director roll. He’s going to need it, or he’ll be paying off that PhD until the day he dies.