Titles, Jobs, and Self-Identity

Today is my third day back at ICON Clinical Research. If you have followed this blog for any length of time (or if you know me in the flesh-and-blood world), you probably know that I worked at ICON for eight years while in seminary and graduate school before finally jumping into life as a full-time assistant professor at LCC International University last year. My father-in-law’s health has taken a dramatic turn for the worse, however, and my wife and I have returned from Lithuania to Pennsylvania to live near my in-laws and help with his care and their move to a different home. I am officially on medical leave from the university for the fall term, but the possibility that we will return for the spring term seems more remote each day as he declines and as we get a fuller picture of their finances.

When we knew in March that we’d be taking leave from LCC, I contacted my former manager at ICON and asked if there were some role that I could jump into as a contractor or a temp for six months or so. He eagerly said, “Give me three weeks, and let me see what I can do,” and sure enough, a few weeks later he had a contract for me: my old pay rate, with benefits, for six months with the possibility of renewal.

I have no doubt in my mind and heart that this is God’s provision for us during this time. It is a blessing to be able to pick up meaningful, interesting work that pays quite well, rather than having to work at Starbucks for insurance. I liked my ICON coworkers, and most of them are still here (some did a double-take when they saw me in the hall).

But I can’t deny that it is very difficult to set aside the professorial life for now. I had prepared for so long and worked so hard in graduate school while working full time (not to mention all the sacrifices my wife made), and God opened all the doors and smoothed the way for us to get to LCC–and now, apparently, is taking it all back. I admit that I’m angry sometimes. It’s hard enough to see a loved one suffer and decline, but then to have to move again and change careers again while that is happening–everything is compounded. This is probably a post for another time, but God has taught me a lot over the last few months about his sovereignty and his plans for us (or, you can listen to my recent sermon). My anger is selfish, and the Holy Spirit is working to rid me of it.


I’d say that academia is particularly difficult to transition in and out of as a career, for a few reasons. First, research and teaching momentum matters. Second, CV and continuous employment matters. But momentum and continuity also matter in other fields.

Academia–more than other fields–cultivates in its trainees (graduate students) the notion that self-identity is wrapped up in one’s area of study. In order to complete a dissertation, it is almost necessary to enter a state of temporary narcissistic insanity, with the student believing that his/her topic is the most important thing in all the world. I’m only slightly exaggerating, and if you think I’m wrong, talk to some professors in the humanities at a research institution.

When you finally achieve that prize, the “PhD,” academia changes your name–not your legal name, but your form of address: you are now “Doctor ____.” No other profession does that except the church or certain government positions. It’s like you’ve been “ordained,” “installed,” “confirmed,” or “sworn-in” as a member of an eternal order: The Order Of Those Who Know More About One Thing Than Anyone Else In The World.

Of course, being called “Doctor” doesn’t make you one. Even having a doctorate doesn’t make you a “doctor” in a meaningful sense. I can’t help you with that sore on the base of your spine! For a while last year, I used “PhD” in my ICON email signature because I felt that it would make some colleagues take my department seriously (a perennial problem). I eventually took it out because it was disingenuous: my doctorate has nothing to do with my work at ICON. My five-year-old son doesn’t care that I have a doctorate; neither do my dentist (though I care that he has a doctorate!), the cashier at the store, or most of my friends. It’s just not relevant to most of life; to those people, I’m not “Doctor Giffone,” I’m “Benj” (“Daddy” to two little people).

Graduate school also breeds in students the sense that failure to complete the degree and attain a tenure-track position is failure at life.[1] The reality, as we all know, is that a small fraction of doctoral students in the humanities will ever have a full-time tenure-track position. (I’m one of the lucky ones who did, but I had to go to Eastern Europe and raise 65% of my own salary.) As is well documented, graduate programs do a good job of teaching adults to think critically, but a poor job of pointing them to ways that they can use those critical skills outside of academia.

I’m one of the lucky ones, I think. I worked in a professional “real-world” job for eight years (and counting), and I have the specialized academic research training. Even though the fields were totally unrelated, the skills I learned in one world helped me in the other (mostly verbal skills and people skills). In retrospect, I’m glad that I didn’t get into one of the stipended PhD programs I applied to in 2009, because six years later I might have a PhD but also more debt and very little in the way of job prospects. My wife wouldn’t be home with the kids; she’d have to work full-time. As it is now, I can feed my family in pharma if teaching doesn’t work out. For me, “PHD” doesn’t stand for “Pizza Hut Driver,” “Pile it Higher and Deeper,” or “Pretty Huge”–well, you know.

I’m glad God gave me at least a year of full-time teaching, because it was so much fun and so meaningful, and because it will (I hope) help me set aside that achievement that I idolized. I do hope that I get back to teaching and research someday (and sooner rather than later), because that’s where my comparative advantage is, I believe. But I don’t need to prove it to myself anymore. And that leaves me more open and (increasingly) willing to use whatever skills and opportunities I have to glorify God–by providing for my family, first and foremost.

[1] Inklings: The “Follow Your Passion” TrapNon-Academic Career Options for PhDs in the Humanities and Social Sciences | Center for Career Education.

In an article, “What Can You Do With a Humanities Ph.D., Anyway?”, Elizabeth Segran writes: “So why are humanities Ph.D.s outside academia so invisible? One reason is that within academic departments there is a culture of stigmatizing doctoral candidates who take non-academic posts, making them less inclined to stick around and contribute to debates about the future of the field. When I spoke to Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA, she said, ‘There is a discourse of failure and shame that intimidates Ph.D.s and makes them feel not good enough if they don’t get an academic job.’ This dynamic is a byproduct of a value system that prizes intellectual pursuits over business and industry. ‘Some dissertation advisors are prejudiced against many jobs outside academia that Ph.D.s pursue and find highly satisfying: They cannot imagine a “life of the mind” unless you become a scholar,’ Feal explained.”

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, transplanted to Pennsylvania...lived and taught in Eastern Europe for six years…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
This entry was posted in Culture-Economics-Society, Giffones in Lithuania. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Titles, Jobs, and Self-Identity

  1. Pingback: Best of 2015 | think hard, think well

  2. Pingback: Not Just Treading Water | think hard, think well

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s