With this entry we begin a series of occasional posts on the organizing fictions of academic life. Today let’s take a look at the connotations of “newly-minted Ph.D.”
In ancient times precious metals were originally valued by weight. Adulterated shekels or talents might look and feel the same as the real thing while actually containing less silver or gold, the rest being copper, tin, lead, or other “base” metals. For this reason, mints were established to produce coins whose consistent content was verified by the image of the ruler stamped indelibly upon them. This image was inseparable from their very substance as money.
To be minted, therefore, is to be verified as true, worthy, and authentic; your value is approved and advertised by having the image of authority — in this case, your doctoral institution — stamped indelibly upon you. Without it, you are not bonafide; you’re worthless.
But that’s only half the story. A newly-minted coin looks bright and shiny. It hasn’t been tarnished by the handling of sweaty fingers or greasy palms, or by traveling from pocket to pocket (some deep, some not). It hasn’t been worn down or worn smooth: all that will happen in due course. Perhaps the coin won’t lose its intrinsic value, its inner worth, but it won’t look bright and shiny any more; it won’t catch anyone’s eye. So there’s a cruel judgment hidden in this metaphor. We’d all rather pocket a bright, shiny coin than a dull, well-worn one, despite the fact that both should be legal tender. A dollar from Harvard or a dollar from Podunk U. should both buy the same amount of beer.
On a deeper level, the metaphor construes the whole situation under the aspect of economics. What is your degree worth? It depends on whose image you bear. Are you hard currency or soft? Would you rather be dollars or rubles? If there was any idealism for teaching or the life of the mind, this dismal metaphor crushes it out, as if academia were not about life, growth, or unfolding, but merely a matter of desire (that shine!) or exchange.
I know that some will say this is too dark a view. Surely a school’s reputation must count for something. Thousands of grad students make the investment every year; surely they can’t all be wrong. Even the most jaded of our colleagues will agree that some schools are better than others, with more demanding programs, more accomplished faculty, better labs, bigger libraries, and brighter students. Surely not all PhDs are created equal, and what’s more, the job market demands it. Judgments, after all, must be made, responsible judgments by knowledgeable people. Rank matters.
Indeed, we all know how exquisitely sensitive academic people are to matters of reputation and prestige. A covert but meticulously calibrated pecking order can be observed at any conference or search committee meeting: people want to know where you studied or teach, and the same for your references. If you land a position at a reputable school, it can feel almost as good as an above-average salary. Prestige is a kind of emotional currency, like Jerry Brown’s “psychic dollars.” It provides a warm glow of satisfaction that you have done better than your peers. Of course, that won’t pay the bills, and you may be tempted to identify too closely with the institution. But at the beginning of a career, this can feel pretty good. It’s almost as if you were made of money.