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The Benefits of Age, Professorships, and PhDs

I used to think that showing deference to someone simply because they were older than me was illogical and irrational. Not surprisingly, I thought this when I was young. Now I’m in my late fifties. The people at my university who held the power when I first entered twenty years back have moved on to gateball and gardening while we young ragamuffin whippersnapper academics have taken their place. And the damned students are hanging out on our campus lawn!

 

Some of the new or current wave of powers-that-be are my peers. We entered the university at around the same, made the necessary sacrifices and built up the required resumes and relationships to gain the equivalent of tenure. Somehow, along with them, I became a grizzled veteran, even though there’s a part of me that always thinks of myself as being one of the young turks. I suppose I’ll be thinking I’m still a sprightly young buck on my deathbed.

 

…my opinions on institutional matters get valued more

 

There are workplace benefits that come with age. For example, I can sit cross-legged at departmental meetings without it being seen as cavalier to my Japanese counterparts. I can take a seat in the meeting room without worrying too much about the pecking order of placement. Underlings use polite language forms with me. They clear space for me in the professor’s Jacuzzi, usually after offering me a sponge bath. Most of all, I find that my opinions on institutional matters get valued more. I’m asked for my two cents earlier and listened to more thoroughly than previously. I get complete, rational explanations for my queries, not a fobbing off. Age has allowed me to store up credit — there’s an assumption from others that I must know what the hell I’m talking about because, well, because I’m a survivor. 

 

Interestingly, I’ve managed to survive without a PhD. Go figure. This is the one academic decoration that occasionally comes back to bite me in the ass and puts a crimp on the (richly deserved) respect I get with advancing age. How so? I get invited to do a lot of workshops, presentations, and adjunct roles in my field and in almost all cases I have to submit my credentials. People will often correspond with me initially by calling me ‘Dr. Guest’ (although I am immediately suspicious of people who constantly and ubiquitously append this award to their own names) and are a bit surprised when I don’t bring forward the expected titles.

 

There’s a story behind this — bear with me for a moment…

 

…if I wanted that full-time position, I had to concentrate on teaching

 

About 15 years back, I was hoping to move from a limited-term position to a full-time university position and I decided that getting a PhD in Applied Linguistics would increase my chances at getting the position. Logical, right? Wrong. Why?  The Faculty of Medicine English Professor at that time was old school — he did not have a PhD either (that was not so unusual previously at Japanese universities — the last few remnants of such folks are disappearing as I write). I had applied for entry into the PhD program at Macquarie U. (Australia), did all the requisite paperwork, got accepted, and even provided an outline of my research intentions, when my then-department Prof told me that if I wanted that full-time position, I had to concentrate on teaching and involvement in university societies and activities rather than study. So, at the last possible moment, I decided to not enter the PhD program (I dropped it with just minutes remaining before a huge tuition fee would have been deducted).

 

Why would I be discouraged from furthering my own academic education, you ask? Good question. One was likely that it would be unsettling for a full Professor to have a more highly educated colleague in a junior position (I became Assistant Prof and, subsequently, Associate Prof). Another was the fact that I would next-in-line to take the full Professor’s seat — and I’m not Japanese. That has a side story too.  

 

In Japanese national universities there is only one professorial chair per department. As long as there is an incumbent, no one else can aspire to professorship (which is very distinct from private universities at which, I believe, even parking attendants can be named professors). Moreover, National University professorships in Japan differ from associate/assistant prof roles largely in the amount/degree of administrative functions they are required to carry out. This is performed, naturally, in Japanese. This involves never ending committee meetings, consultations, report writing (that no one will read), and myriad other duties that often have little or nothing to do with research, academia, or teaching.

 

…the university did not want a not-wholly-Japanese-fluent person to take the job

 

Foreigners are not prohibited from such positions, but their Japanese reading and writing skills should be at the level of a well-educated native (we do have a few current foreign professors with Korean and Chinese nationality) to be considered. We did have a native-English speaking Professor in the past who was well-qualified academically but he had almost no functional capability in Japanese. That meant that the bulk of his job had to be divvied among his Japanese juniors and office staff — which, you might well imagine, did not endear him to the faculty and staff. And, while I am able and confident in Japanese in general, I do not have the ability to immediately and fully comprehend those 20-page abstract outlines regarding policy that are dropped into my lap nor write intricate, exacting reports, written in a fully appropriate style to the Ministry of Education.

 

In short, the university did not want a not-wholly-Japanese-fluent person to take the job — nor did I actually want it. The associated prestige, benefits, and salary increase are more than offset by the sheer drudgery of the job. As an Associate Prof. I could continue my research unabated and continue teaching a full load of courses (which I generally enjoy). As a result, a (qualified) Japanese who entered the university after me put in his name for the soon-to-be vacant position, and eventually got the seat. I did not even bother to toss my name into the hat. (Although, as a result, sometimes chairpersons at academic conferences explicitly refer to me as ‘Ass. Professor Guest’ which, for some reason, I do not find entirely ingratiating.)

 

…there is always a curious awkwardness when my presumed PhD info is not forthcoming

 

As I mentioned earlier, another of the few setbacks I regularly encounter as a result of my non PhD status is when I run workshops or carry out invited lectures in SouthEast Asia (which I often do). This region is very big on reading out a Dead-Sea-Scroll sized list of the speaker’s academic standing and achievements before presentations and workshops (including major publications, roles in learned societies, lifetime baseball batting averages etc.) and there is always a curious awkwardness when my presumed PhD info is not forthcoming. After all, those pursuing long-term or tenured academic university positions in the region will almost certainly have completed their own PhDs.

 

With all this in mind however, I would never discourage anyone who wants to gain a long-term university position in applied linguistics/second-language teaching from getting a PhD, in fact it’s pretty much essential in the current age. But let’s be careful not overstate what it implies. Below is a list of what a PhD realistically bestows or doesn’t bestow upon the holder.

 

Having a PhD means:

— You are one of the most knowledgeable people in your country, or even, on earth, regarding a very, very narrow field of academic endeavour.

— You have completed the rigors of carrying out detailed, valid research (one assumes) and have displayed the ability to write and defend it in a manner expected of an academic.

 

Having a PhD doesn’t mean:

— You are smart. Or that you’ve somehow become ‘smarter’ as a result of attaining the degree. We all know of PhD holders who make us think wtf, while having met outstandingly insightful and intellectually talented people with much less formal education.

— You are a good, and certainly not ‘better,’ teacher. Teaching is a skill that lies largely outside the research minutiae presupposed by PhD study. PhD studies rarely serve to hone intuitions.

 

Nor, when you reach your fifties, will that PhD mean that you don’t fret about those DAMNED STUDENTS HANGING OUT ON THE CAMPUS LAWN!

 

 

Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

3 Responses to The Benefits of Age, Professorships, and PhDs

  1. Raquel Taniguchi

    Hello Mike and everyone.

    Thank you so much for the enlightening messages.

    Raquel Taniguchi

  2. Everyone thoughts is very informative.

    Thank you.

    Raquel

  3. Hello Everyone,

    Thank you for

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