How important is a PhD title?

Coping with the loss of a very close person who used to be the true pillar of your family can have very unusual implications. I have heard about these things before of course, but it’s only when it hits you personally that you get to know the strangest depths of human nature.

I’m living in a country that has been trying so hard lately to fit into the most advanced values of the contemporary planetary human society, yet it’s still centuries if not millenniums far away from paying true respect to female abilities to do the great majority of things just as well as any man could do. Women still earn up to 30% less than men for performing exactly the same job and are still highly encouraged to think that their only true life purpose is to find a good “opportunity” to marry well, which in turn usually means to stay at home, cook, clean and raise kids, which are all tasks Serbian men in vast majority of cases wouldn’t tackle even if their dear life depended on it.

In the spirit of these cultural values and taking into consideration the fact that my little family consisted of my dad, my mom and me, the attitudes of people who know us changed dramatically after my dad passed away. Life is now about two women only, and the consequences can already be felt. There is that lost sense of security and protection, as though we’re suddenly living life in a house without a roof above our heads. Everybody thinks it’s their duty to give us advice, to remind us of our vulnerability, of our incapability to perform men’s muscle related tasks, and some people are surely trying to take advantage of the situation. One day not so long ago, I was warmly advised to hurry and marry as fast as I can, because I can’t go on without masculine support in my life – basically according to this person I had just about enough of “fooling around” till now, I could have done so as I had the support of both of my parents but as this support is reduced by 50% now, I should urgently do something about it. Besides, your clock is ticking you know, this person added among other things, obviously forgetting that my biological clock is my own business and nobody else’s, but never mind anyway. I’m not really sure how somebody’s father can be replaced by hurrying to marry the first guy that comes along and how this can erase the images of the last month of his life that will haunt me as long as I live (not to mention my ongoing PD issues which are a “wonderful” recommendation for any possible groom-to-be of mine), but from this particular person I wouldn’t expect anything different, so I managed to accept the words and dismiss them as fast as I could.

But hey, these things are like weed, no matter how often you pull it out of the ground, they still grow back. It happened again. This time it came from a person I considered a friend, in the sense that I thought I could lean on her at least to the extent of the fraction of how much she had leaned on me for many long years. She had met a wife of an important person and it turned out that the couple has two sons, both single. Considering both the fact that this woman is not of an advanced age and also the fact that her sons are single in this country, I told her well in advance that it would most probably mean that they are too young for me, and that anyhow I’m clearly not interested in anything arranged in a similar way, now in my situation or never in general. She went on a relatively long trip with this woman and insisted on mentioning this crazy idea to me again on several occasions, even though as it turned out she never ever mentioned to her friend that I existed in the first place. She had to “secure her position” in this important family first, so she had to make sure that I don’t jeopardize it in any possible way. Then all of a sudden she calls me last night to tell me that I shouldn’t have hopes, that she apologizes if she kept me falsely hoping that I would marry soon????!… because you know… both her sons have a… PhD title! Yep, you heard well, a PhD title. OK, just like many other people in this world, and with that?? (much more important would be the fact that they are some 10 years younger than me, but she doesn’t care about the age difference at all). Well you know Tanja, you don’t have a PhD. You’re not at their “level”. Differently speaking, I have nothing to look for in those circles. Besides, they’re very well off as well and travel around the world all the time, they wear just famous brands, they have perfect complexions and great looks… WOW WOW WOW wait a minute, hooold on…. I had to pinch myself to verify if that was just another of my usual nightmares or some badly twisted reality, but very sadly enough it was more real than these words I’m typing right now. Later I was lying in my bed in darkness, staring in emptiness and trying to count how many times exactly she offended me in those descriptions. And what’s even more weird, I still can’t get why. I didn’t ask to marry anybody. I didn’t ask to meat anybody’s friends, no matter if they’re good, bad, handsome, ugly, educated or illiterate. I didn’t ask for anything AT ALL. I don’t give a damn. The only thing I do give a damn about is that I don’t have a father anymore and that I miss him more and more with each day that passes without his return. I didn’t ask for anything, I didn’t express any opinions, I didn’t explain the hardships I found myself in since the dad passed away… and most importantly, I never offended her in any possible way. So what on Earth was all this about??

I don’t have a PhD, that’s a pure fact. I “only” have double Bachelor of Arts degree which I earned after being a student of generation in both my primary and special secondary school for very talented kids. God wasn’t very generous with me in this life and I don’t have much extra special qualities and abilities apart from a few talents, but the only thing I’ve always had in spite of everything were “brains”. Or simply speaking, I’ve had that IQ somewhat above the average and it helped me stand out and recompense for all the other things I lacked and all the health problems I had to face. That head is one pretty big reason why I’m still alive, in spite of the episodes of truly total occasional disability due to a really hard case of PD. And now this woman calls and tells me that I’m not smart and educated enough to be introduced to some people, that I’m simply not at their level. When agoraphobia wasn’t limiting me, I was attending conferences with really important people and translated complicated things in real time. I think I knew really well how to act and talk in front of even famous people in my country and abroad. And now, all of a sudden, I’m unfit for a conversation with her friends because they have a PhD? What kind of friends do they have, just those with the same title? Speaking of that, I failed to inform her that there are postdoctoral studies nowadays as well, so I’m wondering if these guys would be fit for talking with those people who took their education even further…

To sum up… I’m a woman without male protection any more, which is bad by itself. People pity me and take me much less seriously. I’m not educated enough, I’m not rich, I don’t have expensive branded clothes, I don’t travel the world in the first class and visit 7 star hotels, and I don’t have perfect complexion nor I can boast of some drop dead beauty (by the way, I’ve never heard that grief made anybody look particularly nice, shiny and beautiful). All in all, I’m a total loser, unfit for either scientific or rich circles. I don’t belong anywhere. Maybe I’m not even fit to write these lines, as I don’t have a PhD. I’m just curious, if anyone with PhD is reading this, how important is that title to you when it comes to human relationships? And do you occasionally just speak with common mortals like me?

I forgot to mention, the woman who attributed all these “wonderful” qualities to me doesn’t have a PhD herself, which makes me wonder how well fit is she then for making friends with this family. And she can only dream of speaking English the way I do. But that doesn’t matter I suppose, she must be much better person than me for some reason which I’m obviously unable to grasp. Intellectual flaw of mine, I’m afraid.

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11 thoughts on “How important is a PhD title?

  1. I am sorry that people speak to you in this way. In my country too, many women still get paid less than men and do not get the respect they deserve. Take care my friend.

    1. Thank you dear Judy – it’s definitely very hard to live with all these incredible things a loss implies. People can be very harsh, but I’m used to it due to panic disorder – that nasty thing made me realize and learn things I would never imagine I could deal with. And it’s all much harder for a woman to battle alone in life – I can only wish for things to change for better both here and over there. Take great care, all the best, Tanja

  2. On the matter if sexism in Serbia, I can only say that the sooner they get over that the better for everyone involved, men included. That said, major cultural changes can be slow to take root.
    On the matter of titles and position, I often think that many (maybe most) people whi have put in extra effort to achieve a certain title or position are desirous of justifying their own self perceived exalted position by simply perceiving it as exalted and hoping others do too. The problem is that each exalted group percieves another exalted group as lacking. What do the executives think of the artists – what do the artists think of the professors – what do the professors think of the politicians? And so on. I guess the PhD crowd should appreciate the lady in your story for perceiving them as being fine and lofty.

    1. Yes indeed, such cultural habits take centuries to form, so in my opinion it wouldn’t be exaggeration to think that it would take more centuries to change things for the better.

      As for the titles, I’m well aware of the effort, time and intellectual capacity required to earn in this case a PhD title and I would never underestimate it (I attended two universities and I know very well what hard work is when studying is involved), I just couldn’t believe that the woman thinks that if I “just” finished university and didn’t pursue postgraduate studies, I’m not qualified enough to MEET or simply SPEAK with a person who has a PhD title, which I didn’t even ask for in the first place. I’m also well aware of the distinctions among the exalted groups as you call them and I know well that at least over here many people who finished university consider themselves more important than those with lower levels of education, but I never behaved in this way. My father had several different titles as he wrote some scientific papers, but he never divided people in those qualified to speak with him and those who are not. I’ve always enjoyed speaking with people from all sorts of backgrounds and this helped me learn so many precious things in life. I was a teacher, both in private schools and at a university and I encountered people from all sorts of social groups, some of them were even both important and famous – the point is that none of them ever complained of either my work or my communication abilities, I think I can say that people in general liked both my classes and my approach to them as they usually asked if they could continue classes with me when a semester or a school year ended. As for my degrees it’s stated that I’m a professor, but I also attended an art college which formally makes me an artist as well. On the top of all that I’ve always loved science, medicine especially – the only reason why I didn’t follow my dad’s path is that I’m really not able to handle pathology or surgeries which is inevitable if you want to become a doctor. I used to read almost everything that would come into my hands, in several different languages. I don’t mean to boast at all, but I do know many things, at least I think I do. So it was quite incredible to find out that I wasn’t worthy of simply exchanging a few words with people who have a PhD title. But let’s leave it that way, maybe she is right, maybe they would be just wasting their precious time with somebody like me. I’m sure however that there are still either simple or exalted people out there who would find interesting some of the things I have to say, and that’s enough for me.

  3. Your “friend” hardly sounds like one at all. But, then again, she is probably entrenched in conservative cultural values which you do not share. Good for you.

    By your “friend’s” estimate, then, I married “beneath” myself, for I had a Master of Arts degree and my husband only a Bachelor’s. Actually, it’s an ongoing joke between us that he married above himself.

    Degrees do not measure one’s worth. Material achievements, likewise, do not measure one’s worth. One’s worth is an intrinsic quality. Each and every one of us has intrinsic worth. Metaphorically, or literally if you believe in such things, angels have greater worth than demons. But, humans are all a mix of good and bad, some better and more loving than others. I finally wrote what that intrinsic quality is: LOVE.

    1. My “friend” resulted to be exactly what you said, because she vanished from my life in the meantime. There are some better people to hang out with, it seems that titles matter for her very much. I am totally lost in this life without my dad, so I didn’t give her the attention she needed over the holidays, presents included… in moments like this you find out who your real friends are.

      I just want to underline again, I have nothing against people with PhDs, MAs or any other post doctoral study titles, nor it was my intention to say that efforts to gain these titles weren’t big or important (there are some private universities in Serbia though where you just have to pay fine money and get those titles easily, but let’s leave those exceptions out of this story). I was just astonished by her opinion that I am not WORTHY of having a polite conversation with a person holding a PhD title. A conversation. My mother tongue is Serbian and believe me that I speak it way better than I speak English, I’ve studied all my life, I have an academic background, my dad was a medical doctor with 4 titles… so basically, I felt pretty much offended. Ok fine, I’m JUST a Bachelor of Arts… but unfit for talking with someone with a higher title? Spooky. Life is indeed too short to spend it chasing things that will anyhow stay behind you once you’re gone. All that truly matters is love and care, and enough good health so that we endure minimal suffering while we’re still here. I would exchange that moment when that scared man held my hand with the expression of such a strong emotional gratitude for all the titles in this world. I don’t think we can bring them with us wherever it is that we go after we die anyhow. 🙂 And a little bit of irony for the end… I don’t have a PhD, but I do have PD – one little h can make such a huge difference, right?

      1. PD is indeed at some points extremely disabling, limiting and even expensive, yet not apparently very visible disability. When you think about it, it creates so many problems in every sphere of one’s life, while it can happen that those without it don’t even believe you, as you don’t appear “crazy” to them. You deeply suffer, but you’re accused of pretending at the same time – very hard combination of unfortunate aspects. It’s hard even in this internet era, I don’t even dare to imagine how hard it used to be, because without at least virtual connections you’re doomed to isolation. Thank you very much for being there!

      2. You are welcome. My mother has my father do their grocery shopping and errands for her while she waits in the car, for she gets panic attacks while shopping and fears getting sick (her immune system is weak due to cancer treatment).

      3. I am really sorry that your mother has to go through all that, I understand perfectly how it feels. I’ve gone through so many different phases in this two decades long battle, sometimes I could do everything, sometimes I couldn’t even just leave my room, some days were better, others much worse – some 4-5 years ago shopping was a total nightmare, stores would definitely sent me right to the attack and I would run out of them if I managed to reach them in the first place. I’ve had my mother help out with these and many other things all this time, otherwise I don’t know if I would be still here in the first place. However, it took my mom so much time to understand that these are legitimate issues, we used to have very bad fights over it. She sort of refused to have a child with such issues on one hand, on the other hand on the contrary she attributed it all to laziness and was convinced that she just had to push me hard enough to get my mind “fall into place”. I was treated with many different meds, I know how everybody speaks badly of benzodiazepines in terms of addiction, but I owe them my life. If it weren’t for them, I would hardly accomplish anything. This way for example when sedated well enough I could endure shopping, going not so far away, being driven somewhere, all without attacks. And as I was reconquering some space, I could later easily reduce the dose and repeat the same thing with less stress. It’s one hell of a battle, but there is no other way, no one can fight for your own life other than you in person. I wish your mom all the best and I’m glad she has the help she needs!

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