Monday, June 14, 2010

Why yes, I DO have a Master's Degree!

So, again today there was a version of this conversational exchange:

"So, what do you do?"

"I'm a history professor."

"Ohhhh…" (pause, then in tones of admiration:) "So you have a masters' degree?"

The simplest answer here would be, "Yes." Because, in fact, I do have a masters' degree. Worked hard for it. Cost me a lot in terms of both work and emotional strain. Wrote a thesis that I'm reasonably proud of. But that M.A. represents only one-fourth of the time I spent in graduate school. And the Ph.D. is something that took even more effort to attain. More importantly, it represents one of my most important lifetime accomplishments.

Now, these are complete strangers.** I am not applying for a job with them; they do not really need my full CV. More than that, they are already plenty impressed with an M.A., so I can't really take offense. Yet somehow, it always gets my back up, and I usually say something like, "Yes! And a doctorate, too!" I usually say it in my perkiest not-being-an-elitist-bitch voice. Likely because I feel like I am being an elitist bitch, especially in the face of people who are already impressed. But dammit, I worked for that Ph.D.! And if it's not gonna bring me fame and fortune (and oh, boy is it not), I'd at least like it to be acknowledged, when the subject comes up.***

::sigh:: Like getting rankled at my students addressing me as "Mrs. Notorious" (in their best effort to show respect – I get it, believe it or not), this is one of the many places where my social-egalitarian ideals and my background come into conflict with my vanity and my aspirations.

So, please somebody: tell me how to either a) just let it go, or b) have a good answer prepped that won't make this class-conscious woman feel like an ass.

Or maybe I should just smile, let it pass, and blog about it.

fig. 1: my various degrees, in their natural habitat;
note the symbiotic relationship with the yet-to-be-hung
office poster (far left)

**Before you ask: they tend to be men, but not always, and this most recent encounter was with a woman, about twelve years younger than me. In either case, there may be gender dynamics at play. Age may also be a factor – in a particularly perky mood, and barring fluorescent lighting or close inspection of my neck, I might present as mid-30s. And as we know, all Ph.D.s are sixty-something tweed-clad bearded men. But I think a greater proportion of the reaction comes from simply not knowing that most professors have Ph.D.s as a basic qualification. And face it: that's not really a fact that most people will ever need to know.

***I never bring it up myself. Proud and ashamed at the same time: How fucked up is that?


Karen E. said...

Once my office phone rang and a woman said, "is this Dr. [insert my name here]'s office?" I said, yes. She said, "Can I speak to him?" Apparently some people don't realize that women can now get PhDs.

dance said...

I feel like I would say "Master's and PhD, yes", the same way I say the name of my highly ranked liberal arts college, like I don't expect anyone to have heard of it (my elitism tends to come out in the form of extreme condescension, I guess).

Anyhow, I tend to think educating people on the weird world of academia is a *good* thing rather than info no one needs. I also talk about doing research in the summer in my gym locker room, to work against that whole "summers off" thing. And I'm very loud about how profs don't get paid during the summer.

And I think universities have a lot of mindshare--they are public institutions (even the private ones, really), and people should know how they work, if they are going to cheer for the sports teams, etc.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

How about, "I have a PhD, as is required for virtually all faculty at universities"? It is factually correct, and answers the question that should have been posed.

And speaking of master's degrees, I've got TWO FUCKING MASTER'S DEGREES!!!111!!! My PhD institution gave me the MA when I passed my qualifying exam and the MPhil when I was admitted to candidacy (or whatever the fuck that thing is called where you are authorized to write your thesis). I don't list them on my CV.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure one can claim two masters', can one? At least not outside the German tradition where you list everything. This may just be my awarding institution, though.

My students had a hell of a time this year getting my title right. I got all of Mr, [first-name] and Professor but very few hit on Dr. The US ones were the most confused because to them all university teachers are professors but in the UK Professor is a title and most university teachers don't own it. And of course they can hardly tell I have a doctorate just by looking at me (I hope) and apparently don't expect that of someone lecturing them. But really, either I should tell them at the beginning of the year, "call me Dr Jarrett", which sounds elitist, or learn to roll with it.

I've never met what Doc. N. is describing here, however, and as so often before it gives me to muse on the difference between UK and US ideas of a master's degree. It's been a long time since the title of 'magister' meant anything but sometimes we still seem to need it...

Susan said...

A follow up to Karen E.'s story: My husband's first wife had a Ph.D, but he -- although a university professor, did not (a British B Litt instead). When people called asking for Dr. X, he would sometimes say, "She's doing X".

I've never had the question about a masters, though...

Anonymous said...

as a librarian (with an MLS) who constantly gets asked what I am studying at the undergraduate institution I work at (even when I tell people I work there, they assume I am working there while going to school there) - my normal response is to make a joke out of it - "oh no! one bachelor's degree and a masters is plenty for me at this point!" - but that could be seen as elitist too - I don't think there's a good solution (I do however leave out the part where I intend to go back for my subject masters at some point in the semi-near future - it just works too well to act shocked and horrified at the thought of going back to school to ruin it with that)

medieval woman said...

I think I would have said, "Yes, I do - but that was only one step on the way to becoming a history prof." and then let them pursue it if they wanted.

It is annoying - the Mrs. MW annoys me more, though...but I get this more from freshman just out of highschool where their teachers are indeed Mr. and Ms. X

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Having entered a whole other world now (law), it's funny, because like you, I never bring up having a Ph.D. (I do NOT want to be That Student who wanders around bleating about all the wonderful things she did in her previous career, as if that has any relevance in the new one). When people ask what I did before law school, I say that I taught. If I'm feeling especially direct, I say I taught college. But even people who know I taught college are usually quite surprised to subsequently find out that I have a Ph.D. Now, obviously not everyone teaching college does have a Ph.D., but it's interesting to me how "teaching college" really doesn't trigger "has a Ph.D." for, well, almost anyone. (Some of the faculty, maybe, but not even all of them, I think.)

Belle said...

One of the things that continues to rankle me: when my 'new' neighbor (a recent med school grad) moved in, her mother came over and introduced her in a bright, cheery and thrilled voice: 'This is DR Susie!' Since Mom and I had met and talked before, I responded 'Oh! Congratulations Dr Susie! I'm Dr Belle!
And this (a visiting friend, English Lit prof) is Dr Jane!'

It's the only time I felt any satisfaction when responding to such comments.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Sounds like I'm not the only one in this quandary.

Belle, I love your comment, because you've been on the other side of the "pretentious ass" equation. But the involvement of the mother (rather than the doctor herself) highlights the conflict between pride and self-effacement.

So far, I think a version of MW's response is the one I could see coming out of my mouth.

New Kid brings up an interesting point. I'm sure that sometimes I say "I'm a history professor," and others I say, "I teach history at Urban U." I haven't paid attention as to whether one or the other leads to a particular apprehension.

TenthMedieval, I have seen two MAs (even in the same discipline) claimed on a CV, but usually only where the first was a terminal MA earned at institution A, the other an MA that was part of the PhD program at institution B. So:

Jane Doe

Ph.D., Fancy Research University, 2003

M.A., Fancy Research University, 1999

M.A., Urban University, 1997

B.A., College on a Hill, 1994

Janice said...

"Yes, and a Ph.D., too!" If said brightly, it makes it clear that you're happy to answer the question and flattered by the admiration.

I've had first-year students ask about my job and the discussion has made it clear that they assume you can get to be a professor with just a B.A. Gently educating people about how much time and effort goes into qualifying for this job is a good thing.

the rebel lettriste said...

I have two master's degrees, and I list them on my CV. But that's because the first one is an MFA, from a fancyass highly ranked place. Yo, it's a terminal degree, and it cost me a pretty fucking penny, so I list it.

The second one was en route to the PhD, and whatevs.

But I feel you on the awkwardness of these exchanges.

FrauTech said...

I get where you're coming from. At work sometimes I'll get introduced to people as going to school locally (which I am) but I'm always worried this will lead to the misunderstanding that I'm an intern. So whenever anyone asks I'm usually thinking how to squeeze in the "yes, I work full time here" like it's something I really have to get off my chest. I agree with Janice, I'd answer "well a PhD actually" or "masters and PhD, yeah" as if it's the most casual thing in the world. Like if you asked a lawyer "oh you have a bachelor's degree?" "bachelor's and JD yeah" keeping your voice even, emphasizing nothing.

Anonymous said...

I'm with FrauTech; in such situations I say as modestly as possible, "yeah, I actually have a doctorate as well ..." Maybe it's petty, but getting a Ph.D. was a rather difficult journey for me, so I feel entitled, even compelled to claim it.

Also, I have two master's degrees, obtained just as Dr. N suggests: one from a terminal program, another as part of my Ph.D. program. But once I received the doctorate, it seemed cluttering, redundant and unnecessary to include on my CV.

A final thing I've noticed about myself is that I refer to my job as "professor" when dealing with certain people (professionals) and as "teacher" when dealing with others (like my barber, contractors, the cable guy, etc.). Maybe that's some kind of reverse-elitism on my part ...

Anonymous said...

I have a similar issue when someone asks about my time in graduate school and I sometimes get a low whistle and a "gee, that must have been a lot of loans!" Now, like most academics, I haven't paid for a day of learning since my BA.

Again, without wanting to seem elitist or like a braggart, how do you explain fellowships?

Anonymous said...

My pet peeve is when I email a group of students about an administrative matter and sign the email as Dr. Lastname and they write back to Ms. Lastname.

Anonymous said...

Hey, when I was an (very feminist, very academically-oriented) undergrad, I had no idea that all my profs had PhDs! And I come from a ridiculously over-educated family . . . just not a family of academics. I think it's a completely honest mistake. Believe me, I have no idea what kind of training my electrician has, just that she presumably has *some.*

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Great comments, everyone. But I think my favorite suggestion from a random university student (seriously -- that's his/her screen name) that was mistakenly posted on another thread. I'm posting it here, because I like the idea:

As an undergrad, I can say that there is often intimidation when talking to profs. Regardless of how approachable the prof is. So, it may not be at all that they don't realize you need a PhD to be a prof....they may just be nervous and awkward undergrads intimidated by authority and intellectual status and hence say rather stupid things without thinking, even though they know better. But, in those cases I would try to make light of it ie. (With a smirk)"Yes I do, but the rest of my sanity was taken by my PhD."

Good answer, no?

Jordan Kerr said...

Ooops! Sorry for the mis-post!

Historiann said...

Sorry to be late to the party. I like Dance's suggestion that a brief mention of the Ph.D. is appropriate because you're educating people in what it takes to become a college or university faculty member. It all depends on context, though. Your interlocutor was impressed by the concept of a Master's degree--not trying to insult you by implying that that's all you've done.

I usually just say "I teach history at Baa Ram U.," and then let the curious pursue it from there. Talk of degrees just usually doesn't come up.

The History Enthusiast said...

Interesting discussion. I don't see any problem with telling this inquiring individual the truth; you have a doctorate, so say so!

I wonder if male professors have to worry about this? I know they don't get called "Mr." more than they get called "Dr.," but I can't imagine sitting down with male academics and having them wonder if they are being too bold by telling the truth. It's yet another way that the world privileges male accomplishment and makes women feel like we have to be shy about our successes. As long as we are honest, there's no shame in letting the world know you've got several degrees under your belt.

Terminal Degree said...

This is such an interesting topic. At my university, a lot of women didn't have doctorates until the last 15 years or so, which adds to students' confusion. I have a doctorate, but my husband doesn't (he has a terminal MFA), and yet our students often call him "Dr." and me "Mrs." (He's always quick to correct them.)

I do correct my students, by the way. I'm less sure what to do with community members, however. I just wrote a blog post on this subject:

Anonymous said...

This whole conversation reminds me of JDs who insist on being referred to as Dr.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Anonymous (immediately above): I think you've missed the point of the post. I'm not saying that people should address us by our titles at all times in all situations. In fact, I only want to be addressed as such in professional context.

The question here is whether or not its appropriate to correct a misapprehension about my professional qualifications when someone else opens the subject and, if so, how best to do it.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

This whole conversation reminds me of JDs who insist on being referred to as Dr.

I know fuckjillions of JDs, and I have never heard any of them insist on being referred to as Dr., nor have I ever heard any JD actually be referred to as Dr. Are you sure you're not full of shit?

jo(e) said...

You could just say, "Yes, and I got my PhD from X University -- I was studying Y and Z." That way, you are treating the listener as someone who is interested in hearing about your education, and if the listener *is* interested, he or she can follow up by asking something about the university or what you studied. That way, the PhD just becomes part of the conversation.

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