The Irony of Overqualification

As a creative writing MFA student, hearing the debate over artists’ place in academia is no novel point of discussion. Some pursue the degree for networking, some do it for the patronage of paid writing time and some are in school because they actually believe writing can be taught.

Now, I’m not trying to get into a discussion of whether or not we believe artists need to justify their place in the academy, or whether or not artistic talent can/cannot be taught and only fostered (that debate grew a bit exhausted in my creative writing practicum last week, and the general consensus is that there’s, well, no general consensus); rather, what I guess I’m trying to get to is that perhaps, similar to other fields outside of the arts, sometimes academia isn’t always the “right” answer to what everyone should be doing vocationally—both as a student and beyond that point. Or, perhaps it could be…if only our world had enough opportunities to snatch. 

Usually, I wouldn’t believe that that’s me writing the lines I just typed. I love school. I don’t believe I’m done with it after these three years as an MFA students; so, next step is the PhD, right?

Maybe.

Similar to those pursuing science degrees, as discussed in one of this week’s readings, “The PhD Factory,” the market is becoming oversaturated with PhD students—many of whom, like me, believe they’re preparing themselves for a career in academia. This belief is troubling, though, as statistics are showing that the numbers simply aren’t there to support all of us in academia. For writers, an MFA is a terminal degree—one that, with published books, can get you a job at any university in the country. In my field, having four published books as an MFA makes you a far superior candidate to a person who’s been drowning in teaching and research during their years as a PhD student and who thus has perhaps one published book (if that) to show for it.

And even if a writer were to overcome these hurdles—publish those books, maybe even get a PhD, even—doing so is no guarantee of job placement.

Just like the boom in creative writing MFA- and Phd-degree recipients, as cited in “The PhD Factory,” science doctorates grew by nearly 40% between 1998 and 2008 in countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (Yes, the U.S. is a part of this statistic; other member countries of the OECD can be found here.) Similar to the problem with writers (and, I would imagine, those in the humanities, in general), many science PhD graduates around the world cannot take full advantage of their qualifications. While I understand that many PhD students enter programs for general curiosity, sure, I also know that, for others, the drive to advance in their fields is an especially attractive element. I wonder, then, why more PhD students aren’t being better-prepared to work outside of academia. Do they try to stay for the comfort of an academic environment? Or is it something beyond that?

How do we solve the issue of the oversupply of PhD graduates? A better question may be, how do we better support our PhD graduates? I don’t necessarily believe (or, better, I don’t believe at all) that an “overeducated” country is a poison to economic health—quite the opposite, actually. However, when we’re not getting creative enough with finding positions that support and set up these graduates to prosper, we’re wasting money, we’re wasting time, and, of course, we’re wasting a precious resource of a human whom the world believes to be overqualified in, well, everything.