What raised this issue for me was a question in “The Ethicist” column of last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. The query, posed by someone whose name was withheld, was this: “A Pilates-certification-program teacher uses the credentials ‘Ph.D.’ after her name in connection with the course description on the studio’s website. However, her degree is in finance, which is never mentioned on the site. Is this acceptable?” The core of the answer from columnist Chuck Klosterman was, “Anyone who includes an academic designation alongside the description of a class she’s teaching is implying that these things have a material connection. She is actively trying to make people misinterpret what she has to offer.”
I admire Chuck Klosterman for his often subtle parsings of ethical issues, and I believe he was correct in making this judgment. So after reading this column, I had to ask myself whether I am using my PhD credential ethically. And as I thought about how to answer this question, I realized that many people deal with a similar issue. Because of my interest in careers, I often ask people how they got into the line of work they presently are doing, and a great many of them describe a crooked career path that did not include the “appropriate” academic training.
As for me, it’s true that I am not teaching Pilates or any other course, but it could still be argued that my use of “PhD” on my books implies what Klosterman calls “a material connection” between my education and the contents of my books. And the fact is that although my books are about careers, none of my degrees is in economics, counseling, psychology, or education. My degrees are all in English literature. (In case you’re curious, my specialization was pre-Shakespearean drama, and my dissertation was about morality plays.) But the particular focus of my academic work, literature, doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that in preparing for and writing my dissertation, I learned how to do research and write about it, and these skills do have a material connection to the work I do now.
You might argue that research and writing skills are necessary but not sufficient qualifications to write about careers; the writer should also be well-informed about career development issues. I often joke that getting a degree in English guarantees that you’ll become informed about career development issues, and in my case there was some truth to this statement. Not long after I got my degree, it became obvious that I was not going to find a permanent job teaching at a university, so I had to decide what else I was going to do with my life. I read What Color Is Your Parachute? and did all the exercises. From my self-assessment, I realized that teaching was not what I liked or was especially good at; instead it was researching and writing, as I had done for my dissertation. The first opportunity that came my way for a job involving these tasks was developing career information for Educational Testing Service. This job led to a 19-year stint. During that time, I engaged in what amounted to an apprenticeship in career development theory, with Martin R. Katz as my mentor. In that setting, the world’s biggest testing organization, it was also inevitable that I would learn a lot about assessment. At Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey), I took three graduate courses from the counseling master’s program: an introduction to counseling and two educational statistics courses.
Therefore, the credentials I bring to my work are a combination of formal education (mostly the PhD) and on-the-job training (my apprenticeship at ETS), and I try to mention both of these elements on my book covers: The “PhD” appears on the front cover after my name, and on the back cover is a statement that I have been working in the field of career information for more than 30 years.
Many people, like me, are working in fields where their credentials consist, at least in part, of informal on-the-job learning. But most people present their credentials to the world mostly through a business card, which does not accommodate as much text as the back cover of a book. People who work in fields where certification is available as a credential have the chance to put certain relevant initials after their name on the card, but this is not an option in most fields.
If you are working in a field where you do not have formal credentials—perhaps because they do not exist—I would advise you to be hesitant about putting a degree after your name. But I would give you a lot of leeway for arguing (as I do here) that your degree really is relevant to your qualifications.