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Beyond the academic pale

One of the U of C's finest and most exciting characteristics is that, as President Randel writes in the June/01 issue of the Magazine, "As a university we are committed to research and to the teaching, in the broadest sense, of the fruits of that research. We pursue learning for its own sake in whatever discipline." A wonderful desideratum and one that certainly inspired my studying philosophy there.

In the same issue, I also read with interest "Life Begins at 33.8," which forms a kind of counterpoint to such an ideal. I don't remember a similar article on such a vital and important topic in the recent past.

When a student enters the U of C, or any other institution for that matter, in his or her late teens or early 20s and begins studies in a discipline, he or she often lacks the "real world" experience of life outside the university. That can present problems when the time comes to earn a living of some sort, whether inside or outside academia. The problems usually involve money. This is a major point not mentioned in "Life Begins at 33.8": the reality of student debt that often supports "learning for its own sake."

With some undergraduate students amassing school debts of $100,000 and hoping, indeed planning, a career in academia, it seems to me that there should be the duty of all faculty to sit down and discuss such things as tenure-track opportunities. The obligation becomes even more pressing at the graduate level.

I can remember reading, as a philosophy student back in 1976 or so, a publication called Jobs for Philosophers, a classified ads of sorts put out by the American Philosophical Association. Quarter after quarter there would be listings for perhaps 40 to 50 career opportunities nationwide in philosophy. Of those perhaps five would be tenure track, the rest one-year appointments and other temporary employments.

"Covert" informal meetings in Ida Noyes, like those described in the June article, to discuss things like this just don't make sense. So vital a topic should be discussed early on, together with current statistics on the availability of tenure-track positions, among those students even thinking about committing to a Ph.D. program and before amassing debt.

I'm certainly glad that some discussion of the practical side of obtaining a Ph.D. is going on.

Let the hope be expressed that there will be more such discussions and perhaps even a required seminar dedicated to this topic for students thinking about committing a major portion of their early adult years to a Ph.D. program in hopes of ultimately teaching to others the fruits of their studies and research.

A. Thomas Johnson, AM'77
Louisville, Kentucky

Student debt is indeed an important topic, but in researching the article we found that it played a very small role in individuals' decisions to pursue an academic or nonacademic career. According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, the most comprehensive source on the subject, half of the nation's Ph.D. recipients graduate with no student debt, and another quarter graduate with a cumulative debt of $15,000 or less. The role of student debt in an undergrad's decision to pursue graduate work was beyond the scope of the story, but at Chicago, 53 percent of College students graduate with debt, with the average debt load around $15,800.-Ed.

I found the article, "Life Begins at 33.8" by Chris Smith, fascinating. The notion presented there, that people with a Ph.D. belong in academe, hasn't changed over many decades. It's refreshing to learn of the efforts of Career and Placement Services to help Ph.D.s and doctoral candidates realize that there are whole other worlds open to them.

With my S.B. degree in chemistry and a few graduate courses, I was fortunate to land in a superb industrial-research department from which I was retired in 1984 with the terminal title of research consultant, the company's highest technical-job classification. I remember vividly, back in 1947, when a co-worker with an S.M. in physics from Chicago inquired about taking some advanced courses at the University and was told in no uncertain terms that, by working in industry, she was prostituting herself and her education. On another occasion, a friend who was a chemistry professor at Notre Dame phoned me to recommend one of his Ph.D. candidates, whom he deemed to be better suited for industry than for academe. I got the distinct impression that he considered the student not good enough for the academic world; we interviewed the student, liked him, and hired him, and he developed into a fine researcher.

Seymour Meyerson, SB'38
Asheville, North Carolina

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  AUGUST 2001

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